A little history, before we discuss the Spatial Audio Lab M3 Sapphire loudspeaker.
About fifteen years ago, I was auditioning loudspeakers one after the other, like somebody trying on an armload of pants in a department store fitting room. I auditioned speakers from Ohm (multiple models), Totem, Reference 3A (multiple models), PSB, Silverline, Merlin, LSA, Ascend and Omega. Some (Ohm, Merlin, Reference 3A) took up residence in my listening room for months or longer. Others entered and exited in a matter of weeks.
Ultimately, I found all of them not quite the right fit, and sold them online or sent them back to the manufacturer. My wife and daughter would tease me — “New speakers again?” — as I wrestled yet another bulky shipping carton across the threshold.
You know all those audiophile forum threads with subject lines that begin, “Looking to get off the speaker merry-go-round”? I was one of those guys and I participated in a lot of those threads, weary of all the tweaking, buying and selling and buying again, and the financial drain of losing a few hundred dollars (at least!) with each trade. Being an audiophile was getting to be a joyless chore.
What had originally piqued my interest in the Spatial Audio Lab M3 line was actually rather silly: I have long been an imaging and soundstage addict, and any speaker brazenly named “Hologram” was something I had to hear. I was also intrigued by the whole open baffle thing. I dithered for a few months, but when the budget-priced, “standard” version of the original Hologram M4 was introduced, I took the plunge.
Shortly after they’d arrived and started to break in, I was enthralled by the M4s. I’d never heard a loudspeaker so wide open, dynamic, and tonally true. Electric guitars sounded like the real thing, rather than a miniature approximation of that instrument. A well-recorded singing voice could give me the chills. Additionally, the “Hologram,” moniker proved to be more than marketing hype. Given the right source material, the M4’s could project a large, enveloping sound stage that extended well beyond the physical boundaries of the speakers, combined with the pinpoint placement of instruments and voices within that field of sound. I was so smitten with the Hologram M4 that I thought, “I might be tempted down the road to upgrade to a new phono cartridge, or a more up-to-date DAC, or even a better amp, but as for speakers… I’m done.”
Okay, full disclosure: it’s not the case that the M4s got me off the speaker merry-go-round completely because around a year later, I succumbed to my own curiosity and traded up to Spatial Audio Lab’s substantially larger sibling, the Hologram M3. It proved to embody all of the virtues of the Spatial Audio Lab M4, but in greater quantity and with greater openness and extension, especially in the bass region. (You can find my original reviews of both the M4 and the M3 here and here .)
When I noticed last year that the Hologram line had been superseded by a new “Sapphire” model, featuring new drivers and other enhancements, I was eager to hear what they could do. Happily, Spatial Audio’s owner and designer, Clayton Shaw, was kind enough to ship me a couple of hulking cartons containing the demo pair of the Spatial Audio Lab M3 Sapphire open-baffle loudspeakers from last year’s Florida Audio Show. More on that in a moment.
Who Do You Trust?
Although Clayton Shaw and I have never met, in the years that I’ve owned my M4s and M3s everything Clayton has ever told me about audio equipment has turned out to be spot on. From the amount of break-in time required to optimize my M3 Turbo S loudspeakers to suggestions about speaker placement, to the lecture Clayton once delivered to me (to be clear, I had requested it) about the electromechanical interactions between single ended, vacuum tube amplifiers and loudspeaker impedance curves, Clayton has never steered me wrong.
Soft-spoken, whip-smart, and simultaneously passionate and pragmatic about what he does, Shaw is a music-loving engineer with great ears and an alchemist’s gift for making those disparate drivers-on-a-baffle sing like a bird. This means that you can read the descriptions of the various products on the Spatial Audio Lab website, and feel confident that even the verbiage that sounds like “marketing hype” will turn out to be factual, without a whiff of BS.
For example, the claim on the Spatial Audio Lab web site that the M3’s new, synthetic-sapphire dome driver “ushers in a new level of insight into the music signal,” might make your jaded audiophile eyes roll. But when you sit yourself down in front of a pair of M3 Sapphires and find yourself deeply drawn into the beauty of a favorite track, blissed out in a musical “flow state,” you realize that “[deeper] insight into the music signal” is more than marketing speak. It is an apt way of describing your own experience.
Philosophy and Lineage
Clayton has been exploring the possibilities of open-baffle speaker design for many years. His previous enterprise, Emerald Physics, got the ball rolling with models that employed active crossovers and Digital Signal Processing and sometimes required bi-amplification. With Spatial Audio Lab, the goal was to produce a less complex, mass-production (by high-end audio standards) open-baffle design.
Another early goal was for these speakers to be more financially accessible to audiophiles with family obligations and mortgages than much of what was already out there. As Clayton put it in an early interview, “I don’t just want to make toys for rich guys.”
Out With The Old, In With the New
The original Spatial Audio Lab Hologram series sported a couple of large, low-frequency drivers (12-inch or 15-inch, depending upon the model) made by Kentucky-based Eminence. The drivers had a pro audio lineage (earlier in his career, Shaw cut his teeth at a pro audio company) but were modified to Spatial’s specifications. Handling the frequencies from around 800 Hz and up, the Holograms also featured a compression driver, coaxially mounted at the center of the large, upper driver.
Between the unusually wide frequency range of the compression driver and the concentric mounting of that driver and the larger unit, the Holograms spoke with a very coherent voice, especially in the crucial midrange. Placing the older, Hologram M3 Turbo S next to the current
Spatial Sapphire M3, the shared Spatial design DNA is readily apparent in both models, yet visual cues to the major design upgrades in the Sapphires are abundant. The rear edges of the baffles in the older speakers were squared off. They are elegantly rounded in the Sapphire line. The older model was only available in several painted finishes, while the Sapphire models come standard in one of several beautiful wood veneers. (Custom painted finishes are also available.)
The stamped metal baskets of the large drivers have been replaced by new, custom drivers (also from Eminence) with far more substantial cast metal baskets. The base of the newer model is far more aesthetically and mechanically integrated into the overall design, including three spiked cone feet to make it easy to couple the speakers to the floor. The speakers are also raked back 6 degrees from the vertical, which not only gives them a handsome profile but also improves time alignment and driver integration.
Most striking, the compression driver of the old Hologram models has been replaced by the M100 Uniwave ® synthetic-sapphire dome driver, mounted above the woofers. The driver is sourced from Peerless in Denmark but sports several of Clayton’s design modifications. These include a high-extension suspension, ferrofluid cooling, and the a very large heatsink! All this attention to flexibility, durability and heat dissipation makes sense given that this petite electromechanical device is tasked with reproducing frequencies from 40,000 Hz all the
way down to an extraordinarily low 576 Hz (which is approximately D above middle C on a piano keyboard). Keeping any disruptive crossover networks away from so big a chunk of the critical midrange should result in an extraordinarily coherent presentation and – spoiler alert – it does.
In this very informative talk (available on YouTube) that Clayton gave to the San Francisco Audio Society, Shaw lists the five design principles that inform Spatial Audio Lab products. The end goal of these five design principles is a speaker that completely gets out of the way so that all you perceive is the music itself.
Linear response: not “flat,” on-axis response, but a frequency response without distracting peaks and dips, one that is similar in shape whether coming directly from the speaker or reflected off room boundaries. This mitigates the “listener fatigue” that results when you can’t fully relax because your brain is working to make sense of a jumble of dissimilar, direct, and reflected versions of the same sounds.
Controlled directivity: i.e, narrowing the dispersion angle of the speaker, where possible, to further “eliminate the room.” This narrow horizontal dispersion angle (combined with the elimination of floor, sidewall, and ceiling reflections of bass energy resulting that emanate from a box cabinet) minimizes room boundary reflections that cause a host of problems, including unpredictable frequency irregularities and muddled imaging. As you’ll see if you take the time to read my original M4 review, taking the room out of the equation was a large part
of the reason, the M4’s functioned so beautifully in my oddball, largely untreated listening room.
Low crossover point: pushing the crossover point down to the 500-600 Hz range eliminates the dreaded, off-axis “midrange suck out” (a frequency dip, essentially) that plagues so many speakers with much higher crossover points in the 1000 Hz and up the range, where our hearing is particularly sensitive to frequency anomalies. Additionally, the new driver produces the crucial midrange via an extremely fast and light sapphire diaphragm, rather than the typical slower, heavier and more resonant cone driver. This results in oodles of speed and
resolution, especially in the treble but in the midrange, as well.
High-Efficiency: resulting in a wide-open sense of dynamic range, is a large part of the “secret sauce” that gives Spatial Audio Lab products that “you are there” realism.
And of course, boxless, Open-Baffle Design.
Why Open Baffle?
Here’s a summary from my 2016 review of the Hologram M4:
How many speaker reviews have you read in which the reviewer either raves about “a total lack of boxy colorations” or complains of “a hint of boxy resonances?” What this boils down to is that conventional speaker boxes vibrate to some degree, so that the listener is hearing the cabinet as well as the driver –generally thought to be A Bad Thing. In fact, the “back wave” of the speaker driver goes crashing all over the inside of that box and even pushes back against the driver itself, unless the designer finds some way of taming it…
The [most] common approach is to make the box as acoustically dead as possible… The other approach, taken most famously by some British brands like Audio Note and Harbeth, is to deliberately create a “lossy,” thin walled cabinet, designed in such a way that the vibrating frequencies of the cabinet walls are kept out of the crucial midband. Thus, says the theory, the part of the audio band where most of the music lives is kept pristine.
But what if you could get rid of the boxy resonances by…well…getting rid of the box itself? That’s the reasoning behind open baffle speakers. No box, no boxy colorations. In addition, open baffle designs are prized for having a wide open, spacious, dynamically uncompressed way with music that makes them sound more like the real thing.
[Finally]… [open baffle] bass is immune from the muddy, boomy quality that too often afflicts box speakers, especially ported cabinet designs placed in smaller rooms. [This is partly because open baffle, dipole bass…] only radiates bass to the front and rear of the baffle [avoiding] uneven bass response as bass frequencies are unpredictably reinforced and cancelled by [wall, floor and ceiling] reflections…
Unboxing and setting up the production model Spatial Audio Lab M3 Sapphire should be a piece of cake. Once you get the speakers out of their cartons, you just bolt on the speaker bases, plug a cable into the crossover housing in the speaker bases, and you’re good to go. My pre-production review pair, which came from the Florida Audio Show, had some external cabling in the back that needed to be hooked up by hand. In the final production model, all wiring is internal, contained within the baffle itself.
I did all my listening with my reference Vinnie Rossi LIO integrated amp driving the M3s. Sources included a Musical Fidelity M1CD transport connected to the LIO’s internal DAC (version 1.0) via coaxial cable; a MacBook Pro connected to the LIO DAC’s USB input, using Audirvana Plus 3.0 to play high-res files purchased from HD Tracks; and a SOTA Sapphire turntable for the vinyl side of things, via the LIO’s excellent
My (Not) Great Listening Room
In the San Francisco Audio Society interview noted earlier, Clayton Shaw addresses the necessity of creating a speaker that will sound good in the typical, smaller room available to the home listener. He gives the example of someone whose kids have moved out of the house, who convinces their significant other to allow them to commandeer a child’s bedroom as a listening room.
That’s essentially my situation. My listening room is actually a guest bedroom. There are no dedicated acoustic treatments, although there is some soft furniture to the left and right of the speakers to soak up some reflections, in addition to fabric window shades covering the windows. The room is roughly 16 feet by 13 feet but has somewhat of an “L” shape due to a niche on one end. On paper, then, it’s vastly inferior to a well treated, purpose-built listening room.
I initially positioned the Spatial Audio Lab Sapphire M3s in the same spot that the old Hologram M3s had stood, making minor adjustments from there, but in time I wasn’t satisfied that they were singing as they should. They were sounding somewhat lean and two-dimensional, and from my experience with the tonally well-balanced, richly three-dimensional character of my Hologram M3s, I felt certain that something in my set up was off. I then remembered that the Sapphire M3s are supposed to sound their best a minimum of three feet away from the wall behind them. This was a good foot or more further into the room than I had placed my old Holograms.
I pulled the Sapphires another foot out away from the wall and, voilà, something magical happened: tonal balance evened out, a rock-solid and articulate low-end seemingly emerged out of nowhere and a cavernous and finely layered soundstage dissolved the front wall. “Now we’re cooking,” I said, smiling.
A subsequent conversation with Clayton convinced me that there are two reasons that my revised positioning brought the speakers into their own. First, put the Spatial Audio Lab M3s too close to the wall, and the bass energy coming out of the rear of the M3 Sapphire may create out-of-phase bass reflections off the wall that cancel out bass response, resulting in the kind of “leanness” I had experienced. In other words, unlike most box speakers, placing an open baffle speaker too close to the front wall behind them tends to diminish rather than reinforce bass response.
Second, with the speakers closer to the listening position (around 8.5 feet from my head) I’m in a quasi-near-field situation, where I’m getting more direct (rather than reflected) midrange and treble energy. In a fairly small, untreated room like mine, that’s a huge plus.
The M3’s are wicked fast, to such a degree that they leave my Hologram M3s in the dust. The leading edges of plucked string instruments have the percussive quality of the physical instrument. I have been repeatedly startled by the sense there’s an actual guitar in the room, and not a speaker playing a recording of an electric or acoustic guitar.
For example, the sheer physicality of the opening ukulele strumming on the title track of Ingrid Michaelson’s Be Okay CD, and the pluck of the electric guitar on the live version of “The Way I Am” from that same album, are (forgive me for repeating myself) startling. Likewise, the ethereal shimmer of the picked guitar strings in the first few bars of Dire Straits’ “Why Worry” is magical.
This quickness also does wonders for percussion. “Dazzling Blue,” from Paul Simon’s glorious So Beautiful Or So What CD, begins with a variety of Indian instrumentation, including some lively hand-played drums, and the slap of palms and fingers on those drum heads sounds very real. Alternatively, find yourself a recording featuring well-captured brushwork on a snare drum (such as in “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” from Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins’ Neck and Neck CD) and marvel at what the Sapphire M3’s can do with the “shhh, shhh” of that
The Spatial Audio Lab M3 Sapphires are also extremely resolving. I’m deliberately avoiding using the word “detailed,” because too often “detail” is associated with a dry or clinical presentation or, worse, with a jacked-up treble region that may be attention-grabbing at first but becomes extremely fatiguing in the long haul.
Here’s an example of what I mean by “resolving.” “Can’t Run But” is one of my favorite tracks from Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints LP. I have listened to it countless times. But the M3s revealed a subtle, ringing, envelope of reverberation around each note of the ostinato marimba arpeggio that is the backbone of the entire arrangement. I literally blurted out “Wow!” the first time I heard it.
This level of fine resolution also contributes to an exceptional ability to retrieve spatial cues in recordings that preserve them. Although I have always cherished my old Hologram M3 Turbo S’s ability to pinpoint voices and instruments in a horizontal soundstage, the Sapphire M3 brings a stunning, finely layered sense of depth to the table. This means that well recorded, live performance albums, such as Paul Simon’s Live in New York City, or the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over, or Steely Dan’s Alive in America will open up with a three-dimensionality that immeasurably enhances that elusive “you are there” experience.
The same sense of depth goes for well-engineered studio recordings, like the far-off tambourine on Sade’s track “Morning Bird” from their Soldier of Love CD, or the raucous jazz tune “Gdansk,” from Cuban saxophone virtuoso Paquito D’Rivera’s debut American LP Why Not, on which you can clearly hear the Fender Rhodes keyboard notes and cowbell whacks echoing off the walls of the studio.
No review of the Spatial Audio Lab Sapphire M3 would be complete without a mention of their low-end prowess. Suffice it to say that you can believe the hype about “open baffle bass.” The low-end of the M3 is thunderous when it needs to be (as in the opening Japanese drum hits of the Princess Mononoke soundtrack CD) and tuneful and when called for (whether it’s the upright bass figure of Norah Jones’ recording of “Cold Cold Heart” from her Come Away with Me album, or the complex electric bass work by Tony Levin that opens Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” from his So CD.
Do I have any criticisms or reservations about the Spatial Audio Lab Sapphire M3? Well, as someone who works for a small nonprofit organization and has a child in college, I’ll grant that –at just a shade under $5000 per pair – they are not an inexpensive proposition. On the other hand, I recently read a Stereophile review of a pair of small, stand-mount speakers that sell for $5000 to $6000 per pair (without the mandatory stands), whose midrange performance was highly room-dependent and whose measurements the venerable John Atkinson found problematic. In that context, it hard to argue that the Sapphire M3’s aren’t more than fairly priced for their exalted level of performance.
Also, although the somewhat fussy setup experience in my subpar listening room may be atypical, optimal placement will yield beautiful results. To sum up, I cannot recommend these loudspeakers highly enough. They make startlingly realistic, soul-stirring music. I am blown away by their finesse, power, and musicality, and I am dreading having to pack them up and ship them back to Utah!