Vintage Whine

Spica

There are some brands that linger in the memory with a special fondness: I’ve previously said that of Weathers, and it certainly applies to Spica as well. Unbelievably enough, Spica closed up shop over twenty years ago, in 1995. Why are Spica’s products still sought-after, preserved, restored, and not just appreciated but appreciating, according to eBay?

I would say that Spica speakers (say that ten times fast!) offered more of the sense and shape of live music than anything remotely close to their price or size, combining cutting-edge acoustical and electrical design with an aesthetic unlike anyone else’s. Spica’s founder and designer John Bau often used the term “two-channel holography” to describe the goal of his designs. Today, he whimsically explains the resurgence in brand interest: “[given] the former company’s association with the star in the constellation Virgo, it is not just coincidence that this little ‘surge of interest’ is happening just now… Jupiter is exactly conjunct Spica, and will remain so for another couple months…

“Spica is the star in the hand of the Virgin, associated historically with harvest time in the autumn. In mythology and star lore, some say she is holding shafts of wheat in her hand, the fruition of past labors. And some say she is holding a sickle or sword in her hand, to separate the wheat from the chaff. These images are what moved me to choose Spica as the name of the company.” [The photo atop this page shows the double star Spica below the Moon.–-Ed.]

Bau discussed the beginnings and aspirations of Spica in a lengthy 1988 Stereophile interview with John Atkinson. For me, the most striking aspect of the company’s origin and growth, as detailed in the interview, was the almost-offhand nature of it all. A musician, Bau became involved in recording at a number of studios around the country. In order to have a familiar monitor available to him at all times, Bau developed a neutral, portable speaker—the speaker that became the company’s first product, the squashed-cylinder SC-50.

Spica tc crop

The first Spica product, the SC-50. The round section of the enclosure was formed by a chunk of Sonotube, the fibrous concrete form.

If you think that story sounds familiar, you’re right: it’s the same path that recordist David Wilson followed in developing his WATT speaker as a portable monitor for recording. Continuing along the casual path, Bau played the speakers outside his home near Santa Fe, and began selling them to passers-by. Following a departure from the music world, Bau considered selling the speakers in larger numbers—but had little idea how to go about doing it.

For some reason, a friend told Bau, “you should talk to PS Audio.” Paul McGowan and Stan Warren suggested to Bau that he needed to show his speakers at CES—which Bau had never heard of. Long story short, he appeared at the summer CES in Chicago, 1979, and went home with 30 dealers signed up. It’s hard to imagine such a casual path to success taking place today.

A few years later, the wedgy TC-50 appeared, and was destined to become Spica’s best-selling product. Meticulously designed to make the most of good but relatively mundane drivers, the ’50’s soundstaging and imaging outclassed anything near its size or price. Along with the evergreen LS3/5A, the ’50 became the go-to speaker for serious music listeners with limited space. The ’50 continued in revised TC-50i form until the early ’90’s, with around 18,000 pair sold, according to Bau. Rave reviews from IAR and Audio, amongst others, kept the little speaker that could, popular. In Stereophile‘s 40th Anniversary selection of 100 Hot Products, the TC-50 is #75. A Servo Subwoofer was offered to flesh out the ’50’s low end, complete with an amplifier designed by the rascals at PS Audio.

spica-tc50i-speakers

The second and best-known Spica product, the TC-50. Far more sophisticated than its predecessor, often thought of as the “poor man’s Quad” for its holographic imaging. (Photo: Canuck Audio Mart)

Spica’s most elaborate and unusual product, the Angelus, was launched in 1988. Asymmetric and unlike anything else, the Angelus were the result of Bau’s extensive research into making the best $1000 speaker in the world. In his 1988 review of the Angelus, John Atkinson wrote, “…the Angelus is not only the best speaker John Bau could design to sell for $1000, it is one of the best speakers I have heard…” The Angelus took the holographic sound of the TC-50 and did everything possible to improve imaging, linearity, bass…everything. The Angelus are still highly sought-after, and prices are climbing in the used market

Angelus single

The Spica Angelus could perhaps be seen as looking like angels. Asymmetric and unique, they were a shot at the state of the art for ~ $1000 in 1988. Can you imagine such a thing in 2017?

.The least-angular Spica ever—aside from the boxy servo sub—was released in 1988. The SC-30 was “normal” looking, and was designed to play louder, lower, and higher than previous Spicas: a “party Spica”. In spite of that product definition, it was named Stereophile‘s Budget Product of the Year in 1992., and was good value at $399/pair.

sc30-pair

The SC-30 was a comparatively-conventional bookshelf speaker, with more bass and top than was typical of the brand: a Spica for parties. FWIW, I’ve never seen a pair. (Photo: The Spica Speaker Enthusiast)

 

tc-60-pair

The TC-60 was the last product, sort of a TC-50 on steroids: wedgier than ever, with more bass, more treble, more punch. (Photo: The Spica Speaker Enthusiast)

Entering the ’90’s, the two-channel audio market diminished, and that for home theater grew. Spica’s last product was the TC-60, clearly kin to the TC-50 but even taller and wedgier, and designed to be more dynamic. Bau sold Spica to Richard Schram’s Parasound, and for a number of reasons, Spica was shut down in 1995. For 22 years now, Bau has worked in technical fields, but stayed away from audio.

Might he ever return? We’ll explore that and a million other topics in Copper #27, as I interview John Bau.