Almost everyone has had the experience of taking a recording around to various rooms at an audio show and noticing how different it sounds in different places Some might say this makes audio interesting, these various different sounds. But from the viewpoint of someone making a recording it is very disconcerting. When I was working years ago with Kavi Alexander of Water Lily Acoustics on his recording of the Philadelphia Orchestra, it was really important to me to know as nearly as possible what listeners would hear. And the variability among systems was, indeed, disconcerting. A recording is ultimately a communication. The people making the recording have an idea of what you are intended to hear. Some consistency is needed. (Eventually anxiety was abated when I heard the recording, with gratifying results, on what I considered the best audio system I had encountered, the RFZ [reflection free zone] room at Focus Recordings in Copenhagen.)
One of the features of the audio show experience is that more often than not the sound that seems most consistent and accurate is not from behemoth speakers with large numbers of drivers, but from small simple speakers. And surprisingly often, these speakers that are maximally truthful come from Great Britain.
The whole idea of the super-truthful small monitor almost inarguably begins with the Spendor BC-1 back in 1969. But the idea spread over British speaker design as a whole. I have an anthology of recommendations from What HiFi from the mid-1980s, which contains this memorable description of a certain speaker-designer’s work (not as it happens from Spendor): ”XXX improves his mastery of the response curve year by year.” One surely would not have expected just that description in a U.S. magazine at that time, nor indeed often since. Of course, there is more to the sound of a speaker than “the response curve,” but the message is clear that there is an explicit goal of true neutrality. And that same anthology praises the Spendor BC-1 for its success in sounding like live music in direct comparison tests. People were on the lookout for sonic truth.
This all came to mind when I encountered the Spendor A4. Of course, Spendor is a different company than the Spendor of BC-1 days. The company is no longer associated with the founding Hughes family (Spencer and Dorothy Hughes founded Spendor originally, and their son Derek Hughes became Spendor’s designer later). The present Spendor A4 design differs from the typical Spendor designs of long ago in ways I shall explain later. But the idea of making a speaker that is tonally truthful apparently lives on. And certainly, as in the phrase quoted, mastery of the response curve is in evidence.
In fact, truth to tell, my attention was attracted to this particular Spendor model specifically by the flatness of its measured response. I seldom choose what I would like to review by reading other magazines, preferring to rely on my own listening impressions from shows and private reports from other listeners, whose judgment I trust. But when I read Keith Howard’s technical description in Hi Fi News, where he described the A4 as having the “flattest response of any loudspeaker we have measured in recent years, whether active or passive,” I simply could not resist. I was hoping that perhaps here was something like an answer to what recordings actually sound like.
What Really Happened, and the General Nature of the Speakers
First of all, my measurements of the A4s were consistent with Keith Howard’s. Measurements, for whatever they are worth in terms of predicting audible behavior, are predictable and reproducible: Done correctly, they come out the same way. But something turned up that was a cautionary tale. The A4s are smooth and unusually flat in the ±dB sense. But, as one could see, and I had seen in Keith Howard’s measurements, the minus part is the region below 1kHz and the plus part is the region above 1kHz (except for a narrow-band dip around 3kHz). So I expected that some smooth EQ would be needed to get the balance to my liking—and to being correct as I see/hear “correct.” But I figured that the smoothness of the speakers would make this practical. I shall come back to that in a little while, but first let me tell you about the general nature of the speakers.