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.
The A4s are small floorstanding two-ways, with a 7″ mid/bass driver that extends right out to the edge of the speaker, a small tweeter, and a port in the back. Rather surprisingly, they have quite a lot of bass extension. Properly placed, which in practice I found to be fairly close to a corner, they offer convincing low end down to the bottom of the orchestral or rock music range (40Hz). No one is going to buy a speaker of this size to reproduce pipe organ music without a subwoofer, I suppose, but the bass is surprisingly good and extended given the size. The tweeter is well behaved but devoid of the top end rise that is sometimes a feature of high-end speakers. Instruments such as high percussion are well reproduced. For example, “I’m Ready” on Wilson Audio’s Cruising with the Desotos was just right in this regard, making the delicate high percussion frequencies definitely there, precise without being overly etched.
Imaging was excellent, and pair-matching very good. Center image focus was fine, and the contrast between in-polarity mono and out-of-polarity mono on test recordings was extremely strong. One is going to hear stereo in the conventional sense pretty much exactly right here. And the speakers vanished nicely as apparent sources. Moreover, the use of a single driver over so much of the frequency range—the crossover to the tweeter is at 3.7kHz—means that the phase behavior will be good over most of the range of ordinary instruments. (Higher-order crossovers down in the 300–600Hz range in three-way speakers make audible changes in timbre in principle, though how troublesome this is depends on the music and, no doubt, the listener. This is typically secondary to frequency response matters but, in any case, it is absent here with the A4s.)
The high crossover point means that there is going to be—and is—something of a dip in the off-axis response at the top of the mid/bass driver’s range, but this proved not terribly troublesome in practice, though variations of the sound with changes in horizontal listener position were evident. Also one needs to be in the right spot vertically—which means one needs either to tilt the speakers up some or to sit quite low.
So overall, the A4s seem to be shaping up as a good “all-arounders,” as the British like to say. They are also an easy amplifier load, though low-ish in sensitivity, and they are surely domestically compatible, being truly inconspicuous in the room until they start to play. But, of course, I was looking for more. I was looking for Truth.
The Balance Question and How Other People Reacted
Truth is a rare commodity in loudspeakers. Indeed, it is a rather difficult thing to say exactly what it means. But it is pretty clear that it does not involve having a couple of octaves from 1kHz on up elevated above the two octaves below. So the first stage with the A4s was to pull that elevated region down to the right level. Perhaps this seems like cheating, like redesigning the speaker as a do-it-yourself project. But in any case, it worked very well once done properly. It seemed to me that the 1kHz and above region of the A4 was so smooth that fixing it up should concentrate on raising the weakened parts below 1kHz, even though it is usually recommended to do EQ more by cut than lift. It took a lot of experimenting to make this work out well. But in the end it did. And this elevated the status of the A4 from being a somewhat oddly balanced smallish speaker into something that with suitable recordings could produce a remarkable window onto the sound that one might have actually heard at the live event.
The whole thing of flat response from the mids on up thus obtained, and the proper interaction of bass with the room around obtained by placing the speakers quite close to the corners, the A4s came together in my room to generate one of those rather rare moments where one felt one was hearing something akin to concert reality, albeit out in front of one, rather than being immersed in it as one is in a real concert.
This latter matter of the sound being all in front is not so crucial as it might appear at first sight from the fact that the ambient sound in a concert environment is such a large fraction of the sound heard. (Bose was right about that part!) The situation is, in fact, saved by the “precedence effect” or what is sometimes called the law of the first wavefront, which says that sound seems to come from the direction of its first arrival at the listener position. So concerts have the sense of coming from the sources on stage even though the actual physical sound is very largely dominated by reflected sound and even sound which has been reflected often enough that it has become diffuse field in effect. But as long as the balance is correct, the replacement of the actual soundfield by a frontal arrival does not change things that much, as long as the frontal arrival is correctly balanced. As it happens, the A4s have a dip at almost exactly the right place to compensate for the frontal arrival versus diffuse field response, namely a dip in the 3–4 kHz region. So one ends up with something like what one should have for typical recordings.
The results of all this can be quite startling. A well-done Telarc can sound surprisingly much like a real orchestra in concert, for example. I would not go so far as to say that the bounds between the reproduced and the real were obliterated. Reproducing an orchestra in a room of domestic size always involves some loss of scale and spatial impression. But the overall character of the sound was preserved well, indeed. And one surely got the idea that the speaker was telling a good deal of the sonic truth of what was recorded. This impression was aided by the sense of resolution. The Spendor people have, according to their own description, worked hard to damp down the otherwise conventional-looking cabinet. What they have done is all inside. But it seems to work. Inner details—harpsichord parts in Baroque ensembles, for instance—come out cleanly without any sense of being overemphasized. One can tell a lot about what is going on. And sound bouncing off the walls of the hall are clearly represented (in recordings where this is relevant). This is a well-behaved speaker, outside the tonal balance questions.
But the balance question is quite real, and I became curious how other people had reacted to it. The A4 and the rather similar A7 have been reviewed widely, so I decided to take a look. This is something I do not usually do much of. I calls them as I sees them, and that is that. But in this case I became curious. And I was duly amazed. Reviewers liked the speaker. Often they liked it a lot, as did I after I EQ’d the balance to be right. But outside one mention that the A4 was a little forward, almost no one saw fit to discuss the projection of the region above 1kHz relative to the region below. And, apparently, no one experimented with correcting the balance, so the opportunity to hear what this speaker is actually capable of was lost. I am still wondering how this distinctive aspect of the speaker was utterly missed in almost all cases, since a broadband 2dB shift in tonal balance is 20 times the threshold for the audibility of such shifts. Moreover, in general terms, as far as room sound is concerned, there is consensus that the response should slope down a bit with rising frequency, not jump up, though the nature and extent of such a diminishing response with rising frequency is debatable—and debated.
The Overall Picture
The Spendor A4s have a lot of positive aspects. They do not overtly attempt to redefine basic concepts of speaker design, the way the Gradient 1.4s do, for example. But they are small and elegant looking; they will play quite loudly with surprisingly good bass extension; they are easy to drive with no impedance glitches, although they are only medium in sensitivity; and they have a smooth and natural-sounding top end. Above 1kHz there is little to object to about them although there is a bit of excess energy around 7kHz and there is a (harmless and perhaps even advantageous) dip at 3kHz. But they have an unusual overall balance that is not really correct, and not really consistent with the sound of live music, unless the balance is corrected somehow. However, their smoothness makes such correction easy, and, fixed up properly, the A4s sound very good indeed, and very true to the source material. Smoothness counts, if it is balanced right.
Specs & Pricing
Driver complement: 180mm polymer cone mid/bass driver, 22mm soft dome tweeter
Frequency response: 34Hz–22kHz (LF -6dB, HF -3dB)
Impedance: 8 ohms nominal, min. 5.7 ohms
Dimensions: 165 x 831 x 275mm
Weight: 35 lbs. each
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