The Spatial Audio X3s arrived here at the end of November 2021, replacements for my long-standing reference loudspeaker, the Dunlavy SC-III. I’ve been trying to update the review system here with a more modern speaker than the classic SC-III, but it hasn’t been easy to find something that’s a clear improvement. That may sound odd to those of you who’ve never heard Dunlavy speakers, given their 20+ year vintage and their moderate MSRP of around $4K in the day, but to those who’ve heard Dunlavy’s in a good system, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Simply put, the Dunlavy SC-III is a tough act to follow. They’re an incredibly fast, open, dynamic, and transparent speaker that can image well when properly installed and throw a wide and deep soundstage. Many speakers have come and gone over the past couple of years but none have really come close to replacing the Dunlavy’s. These include Sonus Faber Cremona Auditor M, NHT Reference, Castle Acoustics Harlech, Tyler Acoustics D20, Merlin Audio VSM BME, Klipsch Heresy, AK3 Khorns, Dali Mentor 6, Quad ESL57, and a few more.
Each speaker mentioned above would bring its own set of qualities, its own set of strengths and weaknesses, but in no case could I justify switching away from the SC-III for the long term.
So how did the Spatial Audio X3 come to replace the Dunlavy SC-III?
I’ve always been a fan of boxless speakers. I owned the Quad ESL 57 in the early ’90s (and again in 2021) and its openness and transparency through the midrange have always mesmerized me. The first speakers I bought when moving here to the USA in around 1997 was a set of Apogee Caliper Signatures IIs, they were in and out of various systems for over a decade, and I was sad when they finally imploded. Then came Magnepan MG 3.6R, a pig of a speaker to get to sound right, but with many endearing qualities. Carver Amazing Platinum gave me my first taste of what open baffle bass from a dynamic driver could do, tremendous bass dynamics coupled with a problematic 60″ ribbon transducer – a good sound in the right-sized room so long as you have a welding set on hand to drive them.
Of course, on top of the speakers I’ve owned, there have been many others that I’ve heard and enjoyed – Martin Logans, Eminent Technology, Soundlabs, and then, at Capital Audiofest 2019, the Spatial Audio speakers from designer Clayton Shaw.
Spatial Audio X3
These are Spatial Audio’s top-of-the-line speakers and cost a whopping $9,000. [Spatial Audio Website] All of Spatial’s current models appear to hold their value pretty well on the used markets, so it was a big outlay and an even bigger gamble – there was no guarantee that they’d work well in my difficult listening space. On my way to collecting the X3s I also delivered my Dunlavy SC-III’s to their new owner, so there was no easy way back to the Dunlavy if things didn’t work out.
Spatial Audio X3 Specs (From manufacturer’s website):
- Type – Active-Passive Hybrid 3-way, Dynamic dipolar radiator
- HF Driver – Studio-grade Air Motion Transformer, 80-degree front pattern, Cardioid rear pattern
- Mid Driver – Spatial M50, 12″ paper composite midrange, Neo motor
- LF Driver – Spatial ST15, 15″ paper composite midrange, Neo motor
- Frequency Range – 25hz-20khz (Typical in-room bandwidth)
- Impedance – 8Ω Nominal
- Sensitivity – 97dB
- Amplifier Use – Compatible with solid-state and tube amplifiers 8 Watts up to 200 Watts
- Weight – 90lbs. Width 18inches Height 52inches Length 10inches
Set Up and Positioning
The boxing and packaging materials supplied with the X3s are first-rate. They come in sturdy shipping cartons with adequate internal foam bracing and generally ship strapped to a pallet, though I was able to collect mine in person. Getting them out of the box is a simple matter of standing the boxes on end and walking the speakers out of the box a couple of inches at a time. The X3 ship with the stands installed and all that’s needed is to attach the cone/spiked feet to each corner of the four stands.
The Spatial X3 deserves quality wire, so I used my set of Cardas Golden Cross speaker cables and dug out a pair of ESP The Essence power cords from the closet, needed for the powered subs.
In under an hour, I had the first sounds coming through the speakers, mostly in the form of a loud hum from the left side channel. I’d cut corners by plugging the bass amp into an outlet convenient to the speaker on the left side of the room and I was hearing a ground loop/hum. So I found a longer PC and plugged it into the same circuit as the rest of the gear and the hum disappeared.
All of the previous speakers used in my room, with the exception of the Quad ESL 57, had worked well within an envelope between 70″ and 80″ from the front wall, and 24″ to 36″ from the side walls. Placing the X3s roughly where the Dunlavy’s had sat, at around 76″ from the front wall, I sat down for a quick listen while the tube gear was warming up. (System listed at the end of this page).
My early impressions were not positive. I won’t wind through the whole litany of problems encountered during that first listening session, as most were down to simple placement issues and easily resolved. As it turned out, the Spatial Audio X3s do not work so well standing way out into the room, as other speakers had, so they ended up after the first session around 60″ from the front wall and 29″ from the sides, with my chair hard against the back wall, where it always lives in my 16′ x 18′ x 9.5′ room.
I generally prefer smaller stand-mounted speakers to fire straight ahead in my room, but the X3s seemed to work best with around 15 degrees of toe-in, with the drivers firing to a point a few inches to the outside of my shoulders. Increasing the toe-in strengthened the center image slightly but I could hear a little beaminess from the X3’s “Studio-grade Air Motion Transformer” high-frequency drivers, so 15 degrees worked best in my space. I should back up here and mention that Spatial Audio does have a manufacturer’s ‘Circle’ on the audiophile forum/website at audiocircle.com. In that Spatial Audio circle, a number of people have commented on the X3’s and how to get the best from them. Various threads are active at the Circle and they include tips on partnering equipment, positioning, room treatments, etc. I’ve read all of these threads and participated in several, so I have a good understanding of what others are doing to get the most from these speakers, and I’ve tried, wherever practical, to implement other folks’ suggestions and tips. I’ve interjected this comment here as when it comes to the subject of ‘toe-in’, there’s a vocal mass suggesting that running the speakers firing straight ahead is optimal. So just to point out that yes, I’ve tried the speakers without toe-in, of course, but they didn’t perform at their best in my setup without at least a few degrees of toe-in toward the listener.
First Listening Impressions – Spatial Audio X3
The bass response was quite good – deep, and powerful but not what I would describe as being particularly tuneful, and certainly not producing accurate tone and timbre when it came to acoustic bass instruments. I was both hearing and feeling the low frequencies, which is always a good sign as my room doesn’t do low bass very well without a little help from a Distributed Bass Array, or ‘Swarm’ subwoofer system. (basically, 4 subs EQ’d via a miniDSP 2x4HD and set to smooth out the bass response in what is an almost square room). I was able to turn off the Swarm sub arrangement without feeling that I was missing much low extension and impact, and it remained off during all of my early listening tests.
The HF driver has good energy, clarity, and presence, not quite up there with the ribbon of the Magnepan MG 3.6R, but more transparent and detailed than I remember from the old pair of Carver Amazing I spent a lot of time with and from my old Apogee Caliper Sigs. But there’s a hardness to the AMT driver that’s hard to handle during longer listening sessions. I worked at trying to remove this bug but to no avail. Sure, changing the toe-in, moving back from the speakers, adjusting seat height, and playing with room treatment positioning, all produced some effect in taming the hardness, but it was ever-present to some degree.
Transitioning from the HF through the midrange is quite seamless until you get close to the crossover point where the AMT hands off to the 12″ driver, at around 1000hz. Whilst it isn’t as if I can hear the crossover point, I do hear the change in the type of transducer at work, particularly as you drop into the sub 1000hz region and you’re down around 400-500hz. In fact, there’s something amiss with how this speaker produces the midbass regions, and it’s something that isn’t easy to articulate. While the treble is full of air and energy, the lower midrange into the midbass is dynamically flat and lacks presence. There’s a lack of transparency too, and a little veiling of detail in the upper bass region as you drop down the frequency scale, which I noticed more when listening to how these speakers present acoustic bass and the lower octaves of a cello, for example. While the upper midrange works well with good clarity, focus, instrument separation, and plenty of inner detail, as soon as you get to where the 12″ cone driver takes over, there’s a slight problem.
It took a few tracks to notice it, but once noticed it can’t be unnoticed. At this point, I decided that the stock feet were not helping any so I set about adapting 8 sets of Nobsound spring footers to work with the X3s. The Nobsound springs are excellent in a variety of situations in my system, providing a noticeable sonic benefit when used under digital gear, subwoofers, and speakers. I was once married to the idea that brass cones were the ultimate in component isolation, but recently I’ve become a hardcore devotee of the spring. Modifying these to work as a speaker footer is simple. One simply drills through the center holes to open them up to accept a 6mm machine screw (or similar imperial, if that’s your thing), then counter-sink the underside to accept the screw head, and voila.
The collective opinion of various forum posters seems to steer one towards the use of the IsoAcoustics Gaia II as worthy replacements for the stock feet that Spatial Audio sends along, but my ‘ho-made’ design runs around $60 compared to $600 and the results were excellent. (Later I purchased two sets of Gaia IIs to try, but ultimately felt that the springs worked a little better.)
With the new feet installed, clarity, focus, detail, and transparency all moved to a higher level and that last little niggle of the sound locking to the speaker was almost gone – yes, they disappear quite well, but not as convincingly as the Dunlavy SC-III had in my room. There are a few tracks I use frequently when setting up speakers, to make sure they don’t suffer from instrument localization. For those new to some of this audiophile jargon, basically, instrument localization is where your speakers throw a soundstage that is clearly detached from the speaker, as it should be, but some instruments on certain tracks seem to be locked to the speaker and unable to detach. It can quickly ruin the illusion of speakers standing in free space without being readily recognizable as the source of the sound. One of these test tracks I use for dialing-in speakers is Olu Daru’s ‘Okra’, the first track from his excellent recording “In the World: From Natchez to New York”. Another, which I’ll talk about here is Dire Strait’s ‘Love Over Gold’, taken from the album by the same name. As with much of Knopfler’s work, there’s an acoustic guitar in the mix which features prominently. In this case, the guitar is mixed to the right side of the stage and is pushed back from the front plane of the speaker. As the track progresses to the instrumental section, you hear the guitar even further back and a little more stage-right. What you don’t want to hear is the guitar locked to the speaker, and until you get your speakers dialed in properly, that’s generally where it will be. At least that’s been the case with the many speaker systems I’ve set up in this room, and certain others. Over the course of around 6 weeks or so, I played that track perhaps 50 times, but could never quite get it to sound how I know from experience that it should. I’m not saying this is necessarily a flaw of the speaker, but it was certainly a flaw of this particular speaker+room coupling.
Getting back to the topic of installing new footers on the X3s, though small improvements were heard in the midbass region too, I still wasn’t happy with the detail and transparency below 1000hz. And, I would say that the hardness from the AMT became even more noticeable.
A week or so into my time with the X3s I dug out a few Rush albums on vinyl. Geddy Lee’s Rickenbacker 4001 features heavily on the studio albums ‘A Farewell To Kings’, ‘Hemispheres’, and ‘Permanent Waves’, and I really focused on the bass performance as I played select tracks from each of these albums. The X3s throw a nice big soundstage with good depth and layering. Lee’s voice pops nicely in the mix and doesn’t sound too strident via the X3’s HF transducer, which is a blessing! Peart’s (RIP) kit has excellent dynamics and there’s enough LF output from the X3’s subs to underpin the music and give it a solid foundation, a good ‘live’ vibe, and plenty of energy. And while I’d no problem following Geddy’s bass lines, there it was again – something missing in terms of clarity and instrument tonality. His bass and playing style has a very distinctive sound and I’ve always preferred the sound of his Rickenbacker 4001 to the Jazz he uses on later albums and tours. The 4001 has a very warm tone creating a sound that positively growls when he digs in, it sounds meaty, forceful, and has great tonality and timbre. It just isn’t there with the Spatial Audio X3. This issue has followed the speaker around through different room placements, toe-ins, room treatments, and isolation, and while I want to believe it’s a function of the speaker+room interface, I’m not sure that I do.
Other bass-oriented recordings and tracks, such as ‘Jersey Girl’, track #3 from Holly Cole’s “Temptation” album, and ‘Indigo’, track #1 from Al Di Meola, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Stanley Clarke’s album “The Rite of Strings” (the latter two recordings were on my digital front-end) each presented well generally, but both were lacking clarity in the same way.