Spendor S-3/5 Speakers Reviewed

Spendor S-3/5 Speakers Reviewed

The S-3/5 "shine in cramped quarters." This model would "hardly be the choice for bass fetishists" but the midband "simply cossets female vocals." Overall, our reviewer found these speakers "beautifully assembled, sensibly priced [and] almost universal in its unfussiness..."

There's nothing to suggest tongue-in-cheekiness at Spendor, no tradition of wry mickey-taking. Spendor is not the sort of company to issue a speaker with '-zilla' as its suffix nor release a system with a grille bearing a reptile print or disguise a speaker as a vase or a table. But clearly there's a mischievous soul within the organisation, a lateral thinker who came up with a new mini-monitor just oozing chutzpah. And it starts with the name. Or maybe the cabinet.

When a model's nomenclature features numbers including a '3' and a '5' separated by a '/', and there's even an 'S' in there for good measure, you have every right to assume that the company wants to put you in mind of the LS3/5a. And while Spendor was hardly its most fervent devotee - that honour will forever remain with Rogers - the company did make LS3/5as for years and can boast as solid and genuine a BBC-linked heritage as any brand in the UK. But the S-3/5 has one other not-too-subtle connection to the greatest mini-monitor of all time: its cabinet is, effectively, an LS3/5a's box

rotated 90 degrees, so it's narrow and deep, instead of wide and shallow. And when you first lift one out of its shipping container, you can't help but think that maybe the clock has been turned back and KEF has seen the error of its ways and the prodigal son has returned.

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Closer examination, though, reveals that this couldn't possibly be an LS3/5a. The grill, for openers, floats away from the baffle instead of fitting flush into a precisely measured recess. Remove it and you will see a Vifa-made 19mm soft dome tweeter, above a Spendor-made 130mm filled homopolymer woofer. Categorically, this is not even the wildest stab at being an LS3/5a surrogate, dimensions, badge and 3/5ths of the name being as far as it goes.

So why am I banging on about this spurious relationship? Because you can't help feeling that, whatever Spendor's sensible and honest protestations to the contrary, this be a replacement for its illustrious predecessor, even if it will never serve, as did the original, as a BBC near-field/on-location monitor. (With Labour-crony Dyke in charge, we can only expect more Birt-like destruction of what was this nation's greatest contribution to global broadcasting, media and communication.) Worse, there'll be a teensy part of every LS3/5a owner, ex-owner and wannabe that needs to see the vacancy filled. Some of us this to be the new LS3/5a.

But dissimilarities continue, despite an equally hungry 84dB/1W sensitivity. For openers, the impedance is 8 ohms, not 15. It's magnetically shielded, making it most definitely a chid of the home theatre era. The S-3/5 can handle 70W and go louder than any LS3/5a I've ever dared to abuse. Bi-wirable through gilded binding posts, it has a crossover operating at 4.5kHz and doesn't use a deceptive hump at around 125Hz to fool you into thinking it has bass. Quite obviously, this speaker has no deep bass at all and makes no attempts to convince you otherwise; Spendor states 70Hz-20kHz (+/-2dB). If ever a speaker screamed for a subwoofer, the S-3/5 is it.

Its 305x165x180mm (HWD) sealed enclosure arrived with a light cherry finish, but you can opt for rosewood, burr walnut or bird's eye maple. It looks too modern to be confused with its 25-year-old sibling (not 30-plus as another magazine would have you believe). Each weighs 4.7kg, and a pair - matched to within 1dB - will set you back an un-LS3/5a-like £499 per pair. The speaker is too unfussy, too easy to match, too easy to site, too easy to to be an LS3/5a. But that didn't stop me from comparing the two.

Having fooled around with the sort of amps to which a speaker in this price category would be mated, I quickly grew bored with the sheer predictability of it all: this speaker loves British solid-state integrateds, 50W/ch push-pull tube amps and 5x50W multi-channel Japanese A/V amps. It is so apt, so 'right' for the majority of amplifiers out there that it was in danger of becoming anonymous. So I shoved the leads into something more telling, more revealing, more challenging...and more likely to highlight the differences (or maybe even similarities): the mighty McIntosh MC2000 limited edition tube behemoth, £15k's worth of valve glory and with a sound so sweet and seductive that you could stay there for weeks at a time, like nestling in-between a pair of Russ Meyer's preferred-calibre breasts.

SME's sublime SME10 turntable and Series V arm with Lyra cartridge,
the Marantz CD-12 CD player and the Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista pre-amp
completed the system, all hooked up with Kimber select. The Spendors
were mounted on 24in tall Partingtons, spiked below and Blu-tacked
above. And it took about three-second's worth of Willy DeVille's
'Assassin Of Love' to determine (1) that these babies need Sonus Faber
levels of toe-in, the baffles angled so that they face directly at the
listener, and (2) that they work best no more than 3m from the listener.
Oh, and another thing: the lack of bass will drive you up the wall in
any room greater than, say, 3x4m. At the same time, these speakers grow
honky and congested if positioned too close to any walls, quickly making
your mind up for you: DON'T attempt to reinforce the bass with these by
placing them near to the walls unless you want to sacrifice the very
openness which makes them so damned desirable.

Ever since home theatre created the need for five speakers where two
once served, there have been so many terrific small speaker systems
launched to keep the peace that it's almost too confusing to bear:
Tannoy's R-1, ALR's Entry models, the Sonus Faber Concertino, Opera's
Operetta - even Martin-Logan has downsized. This, of course, makes the
demise of the LS3/5a all the more daft, that classic dying just as its
time had come. The S-3/5, though, has an advantage or three over the
LS3/5a, the price, shielding and easier load making a couple of pairs of
these (plus a suitable centre-channel model) both ideal and plausible
for a typical home theatre in cramped quarters. And cramped quarters are
where they shine, whether you're talking two speakers or five. Never
would I have believed that my 12x18ft listening room would be too big.

But too big it was for the S-3/5, which is so bass-light that I had
to try my hardest to resist hooking up the REL Strata III and stick to
the review sans-subwoofer. Maybe it's too many months listening to the
Wilson WATT/Puppy 6 - no, it isn't that at all because the venerable
LS3/5a actually seemed richer and warmer and certainly more convincing
down below, whatever trickery was afoot. And the LS3/5a is no rafter
rattler, either. Anything even approaching 'majestic' proportions - the
soundtrack, for example - made the S-3/5 seem light in comparison,
undernourished and insubstantial when following bigger speakers. Even in
the company of other like-sized, modern designs, the S-3/5 would hardly
be the choice for bass fetishists, no matter how small their digs.

However...after growing accustomed to a bass-shy sound, the ears
start appreciating other things about the S-3/5s that make the
trade-offs acceptable. This will prove problematic if you audition the
speakers in a shop, where you are offered a mere burst. I found that
they started grow on me after a day's worth of intense scrutiny. The
midband, while lacking the warmth of the LS3/5a or the Concertino, is
uncoloured, clear and life-like; this speaker simply cossets female
vocals, be they Alison Krauss' country warbling or Cher's contralto. And
fed a dose of the Judds - whew, these speakers could have been made in
Nashville. Only for fitting in the back of a pick-up truck, not filling
the 'Opry.

For those who adore electrostatics and other disappearing panels, the
S-3/5 does a magnificent job of vanishing, its sound emanating to the
sides and above and below, and there's no hot seat to worry about except
for the ultra-critical listener who find them optimised at the
point of an equilateral triangle. The tight, small enclosure adds no
colorations which I could detect, so maybe a likeness to the LS3/5a
isn't totally farfetched. What it seems to offer above (or in contrast
to) the LS3/5a are sharper, more extended treble and faster transient
recovery. Again, this speaker sounds so far removed from 1975 that the
comparisons have to stop. They are, after all, unlikely to be fair or
untainted by prejudice because this speaker is too new to have a
nostalgia quotient, or the feeling of being an old friend, or the kind
of reputation that transcends price categories and regional tastes.

So maybe Spendor was being a bit sneaky if not self-defeating in
calling this the S-3/5, using a similar box and doing little to
discourage comparisons: it's a great mini-monitor regardless of what
they called it. But an LS3/5a it most certainly is not. And for anyone
who likes their music loud, lives in compact quarters, wants a system to
share A/V duties, needs a speaker that won't hassle the amplifiers nor
blow up with ease, well, I suppose you could call this progress because
it manages things that the BBC monitor simply could not do. Ever. Not
even with a sub-woofer.

And if Spendor called it the S-3/5, this review would have
had a different tone, with less whining, apologising and moaning one's
lost youth. In fact, it would have been an absolute rave. The speaker is
beautifully assembled, sensibly priced, almost universal in its
unfussiness (but valves make it shine...), refined to the point of
gentility and so easy to set up with a subwoofer that Spendor really
ought to produce a dedicated model if it doesn't want to
appear to be subsidising REL. If you can forget that the LS3/5a ever
existed - easy if you're under 25 - then you're gonna think this is the
best compact device since the Canon Ixus camera. Yup, it's that cool.

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