The SA1’s exterior finish is as meticulous as its internal parts. Spendor offers book-matched real-wood veneers in either gloss zebrano, piano black, or satin wenge. My review samples were gloss zebrano. This finish is not for those whose interior decorating schemes favor conservative-looking speakers. The gloss finish is thick and shiny and the wood is flamboyantly grained, not unlike the wood equivalent of a corduroy jacket. The speaker grilles utilize a magnetic attachment system with magnets that stick to the metal screws securing the drivers, so when the grilles are removed no attachment hardware is visible.
I listened to the Spendor SA1 speakers in two radically different environments. The first system was in my computer desktop, which puts the speakers in the near-field, only two feet from my ears. The second system was room-based where the speakers were seven-and-a-half feet from my primary listening position. In both systems I used subwoofers to augment the SA1’s bass response. (Other details of my review systems are listed in the associated equipment section.)
When I first began listening to the Spendor SA1’s I thought they sounded slightly tight and lean. Since I had been told that they would need some serious break-in time to sound optimal I was not overly concerned about their lack of immediate star power. According to Philip Swift, “The actual break-in period for the SA1 depends to a large extent on how loud and long you play the speakers. If you have the opportunity to let loose for many hours with a sensibly powerful amplifier and a broad selection of dynamic, wide-frequency-range program the speakers can be sounding good within a day or two. But if you play more modestly and less frequently it can take as long as 2-3 weeks for the loudspeakers to reach optimum performance. Another factor is temperature, if your loudspeakers have been recently been shipped or stored in low temperatures they may sound a bit ‘flat’ for the first few playing hours.” After approximately 100 hours of break-in I began listening in earnest.
The first thing that impressed me about the Spendor SA1s was their musically personable nature. By this I mean that these speakers have a low fatigue factor similar to the Harbeth PSE-2E speakers. This non-fatiguing character makes it easy to listen at higher volumes in a nearfield environment for long periods of time. But unlike the Harbeths, which sound as if they have a built-in soft-compression circuit that reduces the differences between double and triple fortissimo passages, the Spendors show no signs of compression. They are more akin to the Paradigm S1 and ATC SCM7 speakers, which both preserve high-level dynamic differences. Compared with the Paradigm S1 speakers the Spendors do not have quite as much headroom before they begin to sound stressed, but the Paradigms have a greater ability to play at high volumes without signs of stress than any small monitor I’ve encountered.
This is as good a place as any to state the obvious—small speakers are designed for small rooms. The Spendor SA1 is no exception. The smaller your listening room, the more likely you will find the SA1 to your liking. Personally I preferred the SA1’s in my nearfield desktop system as opposed to my mid-sized room system.
Part of that preference stems from the Spendor’s relatively low 85dB sensitivity. If your music demands 90dB peaks at listening position, a nearfield placement is far more likely to deliver these SPLs without stressing the speakers or the power amplifier driving them. Also the proximity effect of nearfield placement reduces lower midrange and upper-bass deficiencies that are almost inevitable when you ask a small box speaker with small-diameter drivers to reproduce music with a wide dynamic range. Sir Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s recording of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti [Telarc] is about as dynamic a commercial recording as you’ll find. On my desktop the SA1’s had no trouble conquering this recording’s dynamic demands, but in a mid-field situation the orchestra’s fortissimos and the soprano duets don’t have quite the same dynamic authority, due in large part to the speakers’ limited air-moving capabilities in the lower midrange and upper bass.
Another readily apparent fact is that small box speakers image well. But not all small-footprint speakers image equally well. The Spendor SA1’s are among the best at disappearing completely. Even on my desktop they do a surprising complete vanishing act that outpoints comparably sized speakers such as the ATC SCM7s. Compared to the ATCs the front of the Spendors soundstage begins farther back behind the speakers’ front grilles. Also the Spendors are slightly more three-dimensional with phase-coherent recordings. Coupled with my highly modified Dyna Stereo 70 the SA1s created an eerily fleshed out three-dimensional picture of an entire soundstage. On my own live concert recordings each row of musicians could be easily located and even the back wall occupied a firm and exact location in the soundstage.