Spatial Audio's M3 Sapphire
Spatial Audio M3 Sapphire’s get….
June 7, 2020
I have always loved OB (open back) speakers. They are less dependent on the room and they just sound more natural to me. My systems have included electrostatic and planner speakers that radiate equally front and back. The sound is just effortless, never hearing anything that sounds like it is working hard.
Spatial Audio Lab has gone the carefully chose conventional driver route to their OB speaker, this gives plenty of impact and liveliness to the music they produce. It is forceful and never holding anything back.
I first met Clayton Shaw, chief of everything at Axpona 2019 doing a piece for PTA. He was on hand to chat a bit about his product. He was very open and forthcoming when talking about his speakers. Clayton has a long history with OB speakers. Before Spatial Audio he had started Emerald Physics in 1978, which he sold in 2010. He took that experience and put it into Spatial Audio. I liked what I heard and Spatial Audio was always on my list to check out at the audio shows.
I chose to purchase the M3 Sapphire’s to be the endpoint of my reference system. You can read more about these choices in my description of my reference system on its web page.
The speakers were delivered in April. Two coffin size boxes with the baffles and a third smaller box with the bases. Clayton sent me an email with the user set-up guide attached. I found detailed instructions for unpacking and set up. It was suggested that this was a two-person job. I could see this could be necessary for the larger Spatial’s but I thought I could manage it on my own by taking my time and being careful. Packing protection was extreme and welcomed.
The setup was relatively simple. Just set the speaker on its face on the rigid foam shipping end caps and bolt on the base with two half-inch bolts and washers, tighten with a large included Allen wrench. This is where you have to be careful. The manual says “Tighten both bolts to achieve rigid mating- do not over tighten”. The wrench is long enough that you could over tighten and do damage. I tightened until they were snug, set up the speaker on its stand, and found a bit too much wiggle of the baffle so I set it down again and tightened further. I wish there was a better way.
The crossover and a single pair of high-quality WBT binding posts are on the base bolted onto the speaker. There is a single multipole Neutrik Speakon plug from the speaker that has to be attached to the base. Then place your speakers and hook up to your amp and your set.
I like the look of the Spatial’s, very clean and modern, not trying to be fine furniture. Just there to do the job, and they do it very well. The drivers look substantial and are exposed to the rear. This is an open baffle design with two 15-inch dipole woofers. There is a single closed-back tweeter. This is a 1 ¼ inch Corundum dome from Peerless with a large rear chamber for a low resonant frequency and a ferrite motor with a heat sink. This tweeter is extremely flat through its audio range up to about 25k. This is the smoothest pink noise trace of any speaker I have had in my listening room. Bass is strong, impactful, and very fast. Mids are smooth, glowing, and real. Build quality, fit-and-finish are superb.
The interesting thing is that the two woofers have different low pass slopes. I had to take a look at the crossover. On the woofers, there are 2nd order crossovers, . The top woofer has a pretty sharp roll of above 600hz. The bottom woofer’s roll-off starts lower at 200hz. The Tweeter’s hi-pass is a single metalized polypropylene foil cap that passes all frequencies above 575hz. This about the same as the tweeter’s native response.
The break-in period according to the user manual is “50 to 100 hours with diminishing improvements up to 400 hours”. Out of the box, things were a bit tight and rough around the edges. It did take more than 100 hours to get where I wanted to start my listening for the review. Music was a bit smoother and relaxed, but I was not hearing what I experienced in Florida. I expressed my concerns to Clayton and he responded quickly and told me the pro-style woofers need longer to relax and give it more time. This improved daily for the next week. Now I am hearing a very musical presentation. I’m sure these changes will go on for a while. I am hearing deeper into the music each day I play the system. It has been a couple of weeks since I started writing the review and during this time the magic I heard in Florida slowly started to appear. This speaker does take an extensive break-in period. Just set the speakers up and play and play get through the break-in period and you will be happy, I am. Be patient and you will be rewarded.
Speaker placement is always full of many compromises. If the room is a shared room then there are many more compromises. I do consider myself very lucky to have a dedicated room where there are very few placement issues to deal with. You have to start somewhere. Clayton suggests starting with the speakers 2 feet from side walls and 3 feet from the front walls. Since these are dipole speakers they need to be off the front walls, you run into all sorts of problems with early reflections off the front wall if the speakers are too close. Toe-in is the other parameter that needs addressing. This can have a profound effect on imaging. Again, Clayton suggests starting with tweeters aimed directly at the center of your head to 1 foot outside your ears. Right now, I am a little further out than that, and this may change with time. On-axis this tweeter is dead flat to 25kHz. This is a bit much for me. I like my highs a bit rolled off in a gentle slope above 10kHz so I have set the speakers aiming somewhere around 20 degrees, off-axis is good for me. Clayton also suggests listening distance is the same as the distance between tweeters. This is 70 inches for my room and still up for more adjustment. Ear height is just below the tweeter’s center. I like this intimacy with the music. The sound stage is deep. Tilt-back adjustment, you have three choices with different length tips to add to the front feet.
The listening system consists of the sublime LTA MicroZotl Preamplifier, Elekit TU-8600 300b single-ended tube amp (reviews coming up soon). To keep things simple all my listening for this review was done in the digital domain.
The 300b SET amp only puts out 9.2 watts and in my room (12X18 feet with a 7-foot ceiling), there was never a problem with the amp struggling with this very efficient speaker. The M3’s sensitivity is at 92db for a frequency range of 32Hz to 40kHz according to the supplied spec sheet. I never felt the need to turn on the subwoofers (they are for the Qual ELS”s). Under all but at extreme volume levels bass was slamming, strong, powerful, never flabby, or mushy. This surprised me. This is a borrowed this amp and I may not want to give it back.
So my notes start with…..Very alive…upfront…puts you there. A bit forward. This is a speaker for the younger audiophile. The M3’s are fast and open. Nothing is holding these speakers back, allowing the cones to move unencumbered and follow the signal easily.
I have 12 TB of music on the network collected from many sources, too many to chose from. First up is Bill Evans Trio Live, “On a Monday Evening”. This is a PCM 16bit 44.1k rip from a CD. There is lots of depth with the piano upfront and centered, percussion back left, everything where it should be, close my eyes and I am transported to some small club somewhere in the musical universe. I got so pulled in that I listened to the whole album, tough job, I know.
Staying in the Jazz domain I next picked Charlie Rouse, Unsung Hero “When Sunny Gets Blue”. The smokey sax is just perfect in my mind’s ear. Incredible presence of the sax, rock-solid image, with believable image size. Piano to the left, drums back right, upright bass over the sax’s right shoulder. This is just a wonderful track, my definition of Jazz.
Some more noodling around in this immense database of music (233k tracks) I landed on Baroque Duet. Kathleen Battle and Wynton Marsalis, how could one go wrong with this. “Delightful” does not even come close to describing this recording. The M3’s are superb picking out the low-level detail that gives you the sense of the room. Ms. Battle is just amazing on every track. Her voice is liquid and golden, with no glassy shrills, just beautiful music. Same for Wynton’s trumpet. No cracked crystal here. This also a red book rip and surprisingly sounding very laid back. Again, a solid image of Ms. Battle back a few feet to the left and Wynton to the right with the orchestra way back beyond my from wall. The depth of the image on this recording is just out there.
I next threw the imaginary dart at the database and hit on Classic Yo-Yo. Yo-Yo Ma playing “Tango Sensations: Fear”. What a fun piece, beautifully complex. Speakers just disappear while getting involved with the music. Another track on this Redbook rip is “American Collection-Theme”. Just beautifully recorded, music that just takes you out of your chair and has you walking among the notes on the score.
I did bring in a different amp. A pair of Cary SL-100 monoblocs. With brute force of four KT120’s (boiling a bunch of electrons for their ride across the great expanse, through three grids, and slamming into highly charged plates). Things were quite different as you would expect. First, I lost the magical air and space around the notes but gained weight in the bass. The M’3’s handled 100 watts a channel with ease. I could play Radiohead’s “Climbing Up The Walls”, from Ok Computer approaching, 100db’s, and it was clean, loud but clean. These speakers could easily fill a very large room with this combination.
I think one could place these speakers into practically any system in any room and you would be pleased. They handled everything from a solo violin to full orchestra. Small jazz combo (the best, for me) to full blast hard rock with aplomb. I think the M3’s can more than satisfy. They get you what you need!
My appreciation for the Spatial Audio M3 Sapphires has grown over the past five weeks. It took time for them to loosen up and now they are quite musical. I think this is a very good speaker sounding far beyond its price point. It will be loved by many people. I do feel this speaker is for the younger crowd that likes an upfront presentation. My previous speakers were just the opposite. The Magnepan’s and Quads are very laid-back speakers and over time I am sure I will get used to the M3’s. The Sapphires have a lot of good things going for it, I highly recommend for anyone in the market to find a way to take a listen. You will be excited as I was at the Florida show when I sat down for a listen. I did not want to leave the room. I cannot give this speaker higher praise, after all, I bought them for my reference system and plan to keep them for a long time. I give the Spatial Audio M3 Sapphire’s four and a half out of five Ears.