Once I had the opportunity to explore the Great Organ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. This Aeolian- Skinner's 8000 or so pipes live in two huge "attics" above the choir lofts on both sides of the main apse. I was taken up among them by the organ tuner, climbing through dusty spaces and across beams. His assistant played a note, and the tuner tapped at each pipe in turn. The experience was magical from start to finish, but two particular events stand out in my memory. After the tuning was done, the assistant organist came in to play and I stood high over the ground floor, in the forest of treble and midrange pipes, from a tiny two or three inches to several feet in height, hearing truly organic sound for the only time in my life. At such close range, organ music gets through your skin and into your body, and moves around in there. You can barely make out a melody and really you don't care, any more than you care what's on your car radio when you go into a skid—the fact that sound accompanies your physical experience will be with you forever, but the actual music is unimportant. (I started to say "incidental" till I recollected the musical connotation of that word.) The second event was when I stood in front of the 32' pedal pipe—a great wooden box, tall and broad, with a maw of an opening. The organist called out: "Now!" And I heard—nothing. But my skirt blew in the wind from that opening. Then, long seconds later and a hundred feet behind me, came the note. Not the fundamental, but a harmonic, booming and shaking. And then, in a few moments, the organist filled the entire cathedral with glorious layers of the sound of Clarke's Trumpet Voluntary.
I recount this because it is the kind of sonic experience you won't get from even the largest, finest audio system in the world. It serves as a reminder that the real musical event, no matter how grand or modest, to this day escapes exact reproduction. Twenty years ago, when I first got interested in audio, you could hardly even remind yourself of these events via a recording. But the recreation of musical memory is something we can obtain today. And done well, it carries with it the spirit, the feel, of the musical moment itself. Re-creating Musical Memory The surprise is that it doesn't take a fortune to do this. As I write, I am listening to John Balka play the Great Organ at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco on a Reference Recordings CD—through a fine, not terribly expensive system that includes the Spendor S8e speakers. This listening is what called up my memory of St. John the Divine and my experiences there among the pipes.
At the opening of the disc, there is first an organ-engine rumble as the instrument is fired up, and Clarke's Trumpet Voluntary rolls out, closely miked and loudly played. It fills my room. It fills my memory. The Spendors' specifications say the speakers go down to at least 44Hz, but my guess is that that number is conservative. I didn't have a subwoofer in the system when I first listened, and a few moments later when I put in the REL Q-108E powered subwoofer, the difference was not night and day. The basis of every sound was clearly present without the sub. A few of the lowest growls took on melodic sense with the REL, but so satisfying is the S8e on its own, I did most of my listening without it. To my ear, these speakers are so good and so clear, they do not call for "support." When you need 30-20Hz, well, plug in the sub. But otherwise, don't bother. Don't own a sub? Never mind. You'll hardly miss it.
Spendor speakers, among the heirs to the BBC true monitors of yore, have long been known for their gorgeous midrange and treble. The S8e has in addition a clean, clear, dramatic bass, even low bass. I played everything I could lay my hands on and loved every minute. For highs, there is the organ recording, of course (indeed, in a good organ recital, you should get the entire musical-frequency spectrum, since a large organ has a broader range than any other instrument); the highest treble notes are silvery and pure and send chills down your spine, against the background thunder, light and strong, of the rest of the organ. And then there's Joanna Newsome's harp [DC2C3CD], along with her imperfect but moving high voice. Odetta, in a recent recording put out by BeOne Loudspeakers in China and not available in this country, is now, in her late middle age, a powerful contralto. She can create thumps and overloads in a shy system when she really lets go. She didn't faze the Spendors. And all the musical layers in Leonard Cohen's reissue The Essential Leonard Cohen [Columbia] were present, clear and lovely. The high shaken instrument in "The Sisters of Mercy" that so easily loses its emotional and musical definition added the eerie sweetness that reminds you that this song is only half satirical. Oh yes, the Earth drum on Mickey Hart's Planet Drum [Ryko], a test for lowbass capacity, made the floor and walls tremble most satisfyingly.
The Spendors also create, or recreate, a wide, deep soundstage, and one whose height is satisfying with singers, who do not seem to be performing from a cue box on stage as with so many smallish speakers. The stage is at its best when the listener is in the sweet spot, but you can really be anywhere in the room and get a sense of being surrounded and enveloped in the music. Oh, and incidentally, the transition from driver to driver is beautifully inaudible. This is something I often hear, a small bump in the road, as it were, even in expensive systems, particularly, for some reason, when I'm listening off-axis. The Spendors, however, are seamless. So much so I almost forgot to think about it. I haven't much more to say, really. The Spendors may have shortcomings, but I did not find them. Clean, clear, transparent, detailed, allowing the flow of music to dance its continuous way through valleys, down thundering waterfalls, to sparkle on the grass, to pool in sweet melodies, these speakers seem complete and entirely wonderful to me.
I played the Spendors with the hefty and extraordinarily clear and balanced Musical Fidelity kW500 hybrid integrated amp, the MF X-150 integrated amp, the Myryad 140 integrated, and finally with the Myryad 140 plus an additional Myryad 160 amp, in biamp mode. The speakers did wonderfully with all. With more wattage, they are at their richest and most electrifying, in the musical sense. And play loud, I mean loud, without strain. The Musical Fidelity units were both a little cleaner and leaner than the Myryad, which made the music seem warmer and sweeter and presented all but the very harshest of recordings as pleasantly listenable. Both sounds, the lean and the plump, are lovely. I've no idea which is more "accurate." On recordings whose sessions I attended, I find the leaner more natural, but musical memory is, as I have indicated, a funny thing. The kW500 and the Myryad duo gave a greater sense of ease and air than the Myryad 140 alone or the X-150, but then most speakers, most systems, I dare say most recordings and most listeners, like a few extra watts.
The S8e's are easy to set up (I tried and then, against instructions, didn't use their floor spikes) and to place, following excellent guidance from the manual. They seem, in my room, to sound good without much fiddling. They did not need much, or really any, break in. I did not remove the grille cloths.
Lately, at the end of the day, as the sun is slipping into the pine shadows behind my house, I have been playing an old CD, unmarked and of unknown provenance, of temple bells. This music of breath, of blowing winds, wakes the dog, makes the cat growl, sets the falcon to shaking his own little silver bell as if in answer. The sounds move with air, with breath, they shake my house. Finally, they set my feverish human brain at rest.
So. At the risk of sounding naïve and overblown, I'm going to give you my true thoughts on the Spendor S8e: Buy it. For $3000 you are, I swear it, getting as close as a whisker to $30,000 in sound. Glorious, house-filling sound.