What’s the hardest thing to reproduce? Lot’s of reviewers pick the female voice, which some speakers mess up because their crossover is imperfect and such imperfections are highlighted by the high female voice, whose tones and overtones can easily occur around the crossover point. But any competent speaker today should not show such a weakness and most serious contenders do a good job with all voices. The real game changer is the concert grand piano. Very few speakers have the full measure of a grand piano. Too many make extensive use of port tuning to artificially boost the bass. This leads to an extended low frequency response but also one which is lumpy, slow and interacts badly with rear walls or corners. Spendor’s SP3/1R² uses port tuning, but very gently, to extend the response somewhat over a sealed box. So the Spendor’s deep bass is tuneful and fast but not as full bodied as others. I’ll buy that any day – it’s an error of omission not an error of commission.
So I looked for some spectacularly good piano recordings and I came up with Canada’s own Marc-André Hamelin playing Shchedrin’s 2nd Piano Concerto [Hyperion SACDA67425]. Compared with my reference YG Carmel and Totem’s The One, the former much more expensive, the latter comparable in price but even smaller, the Spendor is certainly less dynamic and shaded down in the treble. But the piano has size and grandeur, excellent colouring, and strong articulation. The Totem is more forward and open while the YG ($18k) reproduces all the extreme passion and scale the others cannot match. That’s why you pay the big bucks. The Spendor is also more muted on the wind and brass instruments that knock you off your feet with the Totem and Carmel. But the Spendor excels with string tone and in presenting a cohesive image across the stage and in three dimensions. It has no issue with the cellos or even the double bass. The top-end reticence is revealed when the finale switches from classical idiom to modern jazz and the brushes lack the shimmer the other speakers reveal.
For solo piano I chose a very unusual recording – Art Tatum Piano Starts Here [Sony Zenph SACD 88697-22218-2].
This Zenph SACD recording quickly reveals the nature of the speakers. The shy treble is again noticeable next to the Totem and YG Carmel, and the dynamics are lower too. But you can easily tell it’s a Yamaha piano, and once you get used to the presentation you can relax and enjoy it. The speaker does not overload on transient peaks, and the sonorities are clear and lifelike. The image is well projected too.
But let’s get away from a machine playing the piano and move on to one of my favourite jazz pianists of the modern era, Benny Green, an inspiration for Diana Krall and others. On his 1991 recording Greens [Blue Note CDP 7964852] Benny plays with Christian McBride on bass and Carl Allen on drums. “Bish Bash” will tell you in seconds why you want these particular speakers. The piano is in the room, and the musicians play together with massive coherency and intimacy. It’s a joy to hear McBride bowing his bass. Benny Green is funky and tight, and Allen provides supple and restrained support. The speakers sound very comfortable working at realistic levels here.
Let’s try the female vocalist test anyways. Spendor is kind to Joan Baez on “Diamonds & Rust” [Vanguard VCD3-125/7] giving each instrument a precise location and timbre, while capturing the warmth of her voice that can often sound shrill. Norah Jones “Don’t Know Why” from Come Away With Me [Blue Note 724354174728] shows just how far recording has come since the seventies. It is sensational through the Spendors. Her voice is more centred and less fragile than I remember, and the sound of the piano is amazingly clear and colourful. Even the percussion sounds just right.
Now we should check out some classical chamber music, which should be playing to the Spendor’s strengths. The Spendors did not sound as I had expected them to sound. No. They were even better. So alive! No trace of any limitations at frequency extremes here, and no diminution of dynamics either. When you play the type of music for which they are optimized they are ruthless, precise, tonally rich and very detailed. They throw a totally believable image into the room. The Jerusalem Quartet’s Shostakovich [Harmonia Mundi HMG 508392.93] is savage, rhythmic, astringent and lyrical by turn, and the Spendors follow all of these turns.
Equally impressive on Mozart Piano Concertos [EMI 724355780324] the Spendors will stand up to any other speaker here. The perfection of piano and string tone, the speed of transients and the ability to sustain the pedal notes, the absolute fidelity of tone colour – all add up to a complete performance. Sensational realism.
So if this is the music they were born to play, what should I throw at them to trip them up? Jimi Hendricks of course [Experience 0881129842]. All that heavy distortion-filled guitar work from Hendricks himself, and Noel Redding’s powerful bass should have the Spendors running for cover. It was music like this that blew the woofers off my old BC1s. “Purple Haze” has admirable power in the midrange, but a deep flood of bass power was only hinted at, missing the drive and energy this music needs. The song simply sounded too clean for my taste. However things improved on the gentler track “The Wind Cries Mary” with “Hey Joe” falling somewhere in between. But the speakers seemed to be saying “Why are you playing this – give me something I can understand”.
What about the Beatles? Dylan? You need have few worries there. The folk singing Dylan could not meet a better match. Just a few Beatles tracks (“Something”, “I Want You (She’s So heavy)” or “Helter Skelter”) might enjoy a bit more bass power but the voices come through clear, warm and rich. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Blackbird” and “Lady Madonna” really respond to the accuracy, pace and imaging the Spendors provide.
If you can live within its limitations, the Spendor SP3/1R² is a very special speaker. It makes beautiful music and it has one of the best midranges known to man. Music just flows from it, colourful and rich as you will find. It isn’t just a throwback to the old BC1. It improves on it by the use of improved driver geometry and materials and the refinements made by a vigilant manufacturer over the last 45 years. It’s also amplifier friendly, happily partnering with amps both tube and silicon based. England isn’t finished yet.
Sidebar – Reperformances by Zenph
This is a Zenph Reperformance of original recordings made by Art Tatum, the pianist to end all pianists, in 1933 and 1949.
The blurb reads: Zenph takes audio performances and turns them back into live performances, precisely replicating what was originally recorded. The Zenph software-based process extracts every musical nuance of a recorded performance and stores the data in a high-resolution digital file. These re-performance files contain every detail of how every note was played, including pedal actions, volume and articulation – all with micro-second timings. The re-performance files are played back on a real acoustic piano fitted with sophisticated computers and hardware, letting the listener “sit in the room” as if he or she were there when the original recording was made. The re-performance is then recorded afresh, using the latest microphones and recording techniques, to modernize monophonic or poor-quality recordings of great performances.
Sadly, the process was not perfect, and the Yamaha piano is quite different from (and warmer than) the one Art Tatum would have played. Other Zenph reperformances involve Glenn Gould, Rachmaninoff and Oscar Peterson. Zenph went belly up in 2012, but these recordings are all interesting in their own right, if not fully capturing the original fire and artistry.
Distributed in Canada by Bluebird Music
Spendor Audio Classic SP3/1R² Speakers
Price: $3,695 CAD