Spendor BC1/SP1: tonality uber alles
The Spendor BC1/SP1 were outgrowths of the BBC’s research to create monitors that could be relied upon to make reasonable judgements on the audio quality of their broadcasts. They were, in fact, pretty much identical to the BBC approved LS 3/6, themselves reissued by Sterling Audio recently with modernized drivers (and reviewed well by REG in The Absolute Sound recently).
The BC-1’s, like the original Quad ESL, were one of those brilliant designs that more or less fulfilled exactly what the designer intended. When they hit the market in the late 1960’s, they were widely considered one of the few “box” speakers able to compete with the original Quad on its own terms, that is tonal refinement and relative lack of coloration. Though like the Quads, the bass and treble were less outstanding than the midrange, while still quite serviceable (this was somewhat improved in the later SP-1).
Even today, listening tests show the BC-1 to be outstanding in the areas of its strengths. They are smooth, free of obvious tonal problems and, yes, beautiful to listen to. And, considering it’s hard to spend over $1000 for a pair on the used market, an outstanding value. So that’s it, game over, right?
Not exactly. In order to enjoy the BC-1’s (easy to do, BTW) you have to forget the literal sound presence of the concert hall. The BC-1’s give you a tonally sophisticated sound but much less of the scale, power and presence of the concert hall experience. To be fair, most relatively small box speakers do this. The scale of a concert hall just cannot be reproduced by a speaker of this type, partly because it is a speaker of this type (with a relatively point source nature) and partly that recordings (which are VERY different from reality) just don’t contain enough of this information. Unfortunately, microphone/recorder does not equal ear/ brain.
In my view, the only way to even try and approximate the scale and power of concert hall sound is to employ speakers that augment the recordings in this aspect, line sources, planars and the like. Now let’s be clear. Speakers like this involve more of the characteristics of the listening room and of their specific radiation patterns which mix with the (limited) spatial cues present in the recording and it’s fair to say that this is not an accurate reproduction of the recording. But it results (at least to me) in a sound more accurate to the gestalt of the concert hall experience, though in a somewhat generalized way due to the leveling effect of the unchanging nature of your room acoustics.
Whether this is for better or not is a subjective decision. Some would say the recording is what it is and all we can do is to try to reproduce that limited reality as well as we can. Others would say the original sound as experienced in the hall is the only arbiter (which is BTW, the original “Absolute Sound” philosophy), whatever gives more of that impression is right even if it somewhat compromises the limited reality present in the recording. Me, I waver. Sometimes I like the let it all hang out concert hall approach and sometimes the limited but tonally truer impression of something like the BC-1. If I had to choose one, I like the idea of the concert hall impression. But I don’t have to choose, so I can have Magnepan 3.7 in one room and KEF LS-50 in the other. Hey, some people like Chocolate AND Vanilla, it’s OK, relax…
There is another issue here. The lively BC-1 speaker cabinets, though their effect is figured in and integral to the final sonic result, still produce their own sound artifacts that cloud and obscure the sound somewhat. Here the heroic efforts of the KEF LS-50 to deaden the cabinets pay dividends in terms of clarity and the concentric drivers more fully approximate a point source type of radiation pattern, resulting in a more accurate to the recording sense of the placement of images in its limited-in-scale soundstage. Though the extra warmth of the BC-1 is certainly welcome.
It must be said that the Magnepan 3.7 (reviewed earlier) planar, while not quite as tonally accurate as the BC-1, do provide a more convincing sense of scale and presence and overall convey a more realistic impression of an orchestra in a concert hall. But if tonality is all to you, the Spendor BC-1’s are hard to beat and are one of the true classics in stereo era audio.