Spendor A1 Standmount Speaker Review
Sometimes the only way to move forwards is to go back
What is the Spendor A1?The Spendor A1 is a two-way standmount loudspeaker, the smallest member of the new A line of speakers from the company. Those of you with good memories might be a little confused by just how ‘new’ the A1 actually is. You see, while the A1 is different to its direct predecessor the SA1, and the superior and current D1, it is rather more similar to the only other Spendor speaker we have reviewed on AVForums. This was the S3/5R2 which has also been recently updated. The result is an unusual situation where two nearly identical speakers are members of two different ranges. The A1 as noted heads up the A line while the retitled Classic 3/5 starts the – you’ve guessed it – Classic line.
The decision to use S3/5 ‘DNA’ in the A1 is interesting. This is one of two speakers we’re looking at in short order (the other being the Tannoy Legacy Eaton) that make use of design thinking that dates back decades. With the Tannoy, the asking price and traditions of what the company does as a speaker manufacturer go some way to explaining the rationale behind its reappearance in 2016 but the Spendor is a more interesting case. This is a speaker contesting a very hard fought part of the market and while the Classic variant belongs to a range of products that can pull at the nostalgia angle, this one can’t. As such, can this unassuming little speaker cut it as a serious competitor for your money at the £1,000+ point?
SpecificationsThe Spendor is a two-way compact cabinet speaker. Viewed as a bill of materials, very little leaps out of the page as being spectacular or unique to the A1. However this basic specification doesn’t tell the whole story of the composition of the A1 or its origin point. I have covered much of the origin of the basic design in the review of the S3/5R2 so would urge you to revisit that to save unnecessary repetition. The gist of it though is that the A1 is a developed S3/5R2 and that is itself an ongoing evolution of the BBC LS3/5a which is the genesis point of the whole compact broadcast monitor concept (although for those of a more European persuasion, Elipson can – by fulfilling a similar contract for French media – also stake a claim in this regard).
This means that at the route of the A1’s design philosophy is the ability to reproduce the critical mid-range of content – historically about 400Hz to 11kHz – with a complete lack of colouration or other interference. Over time, Spendor has extended this frequency response to one more in keeping with a conventional small standmount speaker. Key to their ability to do this is that all of Spendor’s drivers are built in house to their own design. When dealing with a speaker of this nature, using ‘off the peg’ drivers from the major suppliers – which are rarely designed with this sort of cabinet and performance criteria in mind – the results will, at best, be varied.
As such, the main driver is a 150mm unit made from EP77 polymer – something of a Spendor speciality. This is mated to a new surround and suspension system to allow for greater extension while retaining controlled movement. This is mated to a 22mm soft dome tweeter that uses a wide surround – something we have seen appear on a few different brands in recent years. The idea is that the radiating area stays small enough to ensure that the tweeter behaves itself when reproducing high frequencies but increases the overall area at the same time.
Tying these two drivers together is a crossover that has also been built and designed from scratch to achieve best results in the A1. This is important because as well as the stated aims of the LS3/5a, the A1 also conforms to Spendor’s ideal of a sensitive speaker. The sensitivity measurement of 84dB/w is nothing to get hugely excited about – although it is in itself not unimpressive for a speaker of this size – but tellingly, it is achieved on an impedance that spends as much time as possible near the 8 ohm mark and never dips below 6.2 Ohms. This means that the A1 is not a demanding speaker for an amplifier and depending on the sort of space you are looking to fill, could be driven by an amp of no more than ten watts and won’t be a challenge for most partners at or around this price point. The crossover connects to the outside world via a single set of speaker terminals.
The cabinet that it's placed in is also Spendor’s own work and is an intriguing combination of old and new thinking. The A1 gives a nod to its classic ancestry by using a comparatively thin walled cabinet. This runs counter to more recent practise where a thicker cabinet is used to reduce the effects of resonance and vibration. Spendor feels that this approach tends to store energy which is then dissipated in an uncontrolled and unwanted fashion and as such the A1 uses a different approach. The cabinet is relatively thin but the panels are bonded to a visco-elastic damping pad which converts this energy into heat. With the relatively small internal volume this additionally frees up more space.
Spendor is an interesting company because they outwardly convey a sense of being gloriously disinterested in the business of design and styling but in fact there is more going on in terms of their aesthetic than might at first be apparent. The A1 takes the basic form of the S3/5R2 and increases the depth slightly – although at just 19cm deep, the Spendor still seems extremely shallow compared to more conventional rivals. The details have then been freshened up. There is no grill (it is retained on the Classic 3/5 variant) and as such a tweeter guard is fitted to keep it safe – Spendor is fairly confident that nothing short of malicious intent will damage the main driver. The resulting speaker is something that manages to look traditional and – in its lighter finishes especially – quite contemporary at the same time.
There’s a method in the madness too. The sealed cabinet means that the A1 is pretty much unflappable in terms of placement and can easily be wall mounted – in fact a version sold as the A1W can be used in this manner directly. It might seem incongruous that a speaker costing over £1,000 is as happy as it is being used in such a manner but it’s the LS3/5 DNA – a speaker that also wasn’t terribly fussy about positioning – shining through. Spendor has also (correctly as far as my own experiences note) identified that many would-be customers are happy with the idea of spending this much money on a speaker but still don’t necessarily want to devote speaker stand space to it. This is a speaker that can stand up to that sort of thinking and come out the other side unaffected.
It is also extremely well finished. The cabinet veneering is lovely and there is a sense of careful engineering having been applied to every aspect of the design. I would fully understand why you might want something with a bit more visual drama than the A1 but equally, there aren’t many situations where this little speaker isn’t going to look entirely at home. Of course, a small sealed box design is going to give ground in terms of impact and scale to larger rivals but Spendor is sticking to its guns on this and clearly feels that this is the standmount configuration that gives the best results.
The resulting speaker is something that manages to look traditional and – in its lighter finishes especially – quite contemporary at the same time
How was the A1 tested?The A1 moved into the space vacated by another pair of speakers and were placed on a pair of Soundstyle Z60 speaker stands. As a result they have been tested with almost my complete standard equipment. This has meant a Naim Supernait 2 integrated amp with Naim ND5XS network streamer and XP5 XS power supply. Some vinyl testing has been carried out via a Rega Planar 6 using a Dynavector DV20X cartridge running into a Cyrus Phono Signature phono stage. All electronics have been connected to an IsoTek Evo 3 Sigmas Mains conditioner and material has included lossless and high res FLAC and AIFF as well as DSD with some Tidal, Spotify and vinyl use thrown in too.
Sound QualityWhen you wire up the A1, the physics of the speaker seem fairly self-explanatory. A 30cm tall sealed box simply isn’t ever going to deliver a particularly seismic experience… except that nobody seems to have adequately explained this to the A1. Listening to Fever Ray’s If I Had a Heart, the performance of the A1 is entirely at odds with the appearance. It sounds improbably large and has a low-end extension that goes far beyond what a speaker of this configuration ‘should’ be able to do. Of course, there are £1,000 speakers that will dismantle the A1 in terms of bass extension but this is the area where Spendor has always acknowledged its weakness. In the A1, it now has something where it doesn’t need to make excuses any more. If you live to have your Dubstep collection rattle your chest cavity, this still isn’t the speaker for you but its progression is still noteworthy.
This means that when you start to move into the areas where the A1’s ancestry is rather stronger, the news gets better. Where the Spendor gets a hook in you that is extremely hard to dislodge is the sheer order and coherence with which they handle the critical body of a musical performance. Without any fuss or struggle, they arrange performances in such a natural and unforced way that you cease to concentrate on them and instead focus on the music. This means that fine details are effortlessly worked into the bigger picture – there for you to pick up on but not to obsess over.
The real trump card is the tonality though. As I noted with the S3/5R2, the sheer realism that the Spendor brings to voices and instruments is utterly uncanny – something which isn’t simply good for around £1,000 but genuinely outstanding full stop. The slow building Standing at the Sky’s Edge by Richard Hawley is delivered with the sort of immediacy and tonal accuracy that has you idly wondering if somewhere in that compact cabinet is a pair of lungs. When the jagged guitar solo kicks in, there is a real sense of it being pulled out of the instrument rather than simply appearing on the mix. Hawley’s gravelly vocals are weighty, textured and fundamentally ‘right’ in a way that can elude even very capable rivals.
No less important is that this extra low end heft doesn’t get in the way of the Spendor’s exceptional speed with transients and timelines. Listening to my vinyl copy of the Cinematic Orchestra’s Ode to the Big Sea, the way the A1 handles this odd time signature is captivating. The concept of ‘timing’ is so hopelessly subjective and hard to pin down that I hesitate to discuss it at times but if you listen to this track back to back on the Spendor and the pair of KEF Q350s that passed through for review, it would hopefully make sense. The Q350 is a great speaker and it sounds composed and controlled with no sluggishness to the presentation. The Spendor feels like it’s already getting ready for the next beat as it delivers the current one. Even with more relaxed music, it feels wonderfully immediate. Of course, the A1 is almost exactly twice the price of the KEF but the difference is still illuminating.
After some time listening to the A1 across a variety of material, it has become clear that it undoubtedly does its best work with good recordings. Less well recorded material can sound slightly thin compared to better mastered music and there is also a sense that while your partnering equipment doesn’t need to be terribly powerful, it will need to be capable of producing a sound you are already happy with as the A1 is not going to embellish or alter its basic characteristics. At its heart this is still a monitor speaker but one that politely points out what is the matter with source and signal rather than shouting the issues at you. It’s worth pointing out that the Spendor still sounds excellent with Tidal and even Spotify and some internet radio material – BBC stations perhaps unsurprisingly – still manages to sound excellent on it.
The sheer realism that the Spendor brings to voices and instruments is utterly uncanny – something which isn’t simply good for around £1,000 but genuinely outstanding full stop
- Outstanding imaging and coherence
- Superb tonal accuracy
- Well built and easy to place
- Comparatively limited bass response
- Very revealing
- Fairly expensive
Spendor A1 Standmount Speaker ReviewFor a few of you reading this who have made it to this point and are still trying to reconcile paying over £1,000 for a teeny two-way standmount that extends down to a mighty 55Hz, I’m not sure anything I can say about the A1 will ever truly make sense. There are bigger, more visually impressive, more notionally advanced speakers than this for less money. If you need monster bass and huge scale, this still isn’t the speaker for you.
What the bald numbers can’t convey is just how good the A1 is to listen to. HiFi speakers at almost any price – certainly many multiples of this one – are a compromise of maximising the qualities you want and minimising the attendant deficits and for me, this is speaker where the positives far outweigh the deficits. On a personal level, if I was filling a smaller UK lounge and looking for something to partner a device like the Naim Uniti Atom, this would be where my money would go. The A1 is simply enormous fun to listen to in a way that many other speakers can only dream of. That it achieves this enjoyment through a design approach that ensures that its performance is also fundamentally accurate is even more appealing. When I reviewed the S3/5R2, I felt it was a great if slightly leftfield choice. The improvements to the A1 reduce those caveats further without impinging on its star qualities and ensure that this latest iteration earns our hearty recommendation.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £1,095.00
Ease of Use9
Value for Money8
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