Review: Reference 3A MM de Capo BE monitors

Al M.

Sep 10, 2013
Greater Boston
P1010437_cr.jpg MM de Capo BE monitors_jpeg.jpg

Speaker website:

Reference 3A MM de Capo BE


For a long time I had been reluctant to buy new speakers because I loved my old ones, Ensemble Reference mini-monitors, and their performance had grown effortlessly with improvements of my system. At the time I bought the speakers, 25 years ago, they had been described in the enthusiastic Stereophile review as possibly the best mini-monitors up till then. Obviously, time has not stood still and monitors from Magico, Raidho and others now offer a much higher level of performance.

In an, albeit limited, comparison 3 years ago I lost hope that I could get good replacements for a reasonable price. I listened to well-regarded 2-way floorstanders from a currently ‘hot’ company priced at $ 12K, and they were a big disappointment. Perhaps it was just a bad speaker/room interaction at the dealer – a possibility I cannot exclude to this day –, but in the same room Magico Q1 monitors sounded sensational at a later audition. I also listened to monitors priced at $ 4.5 K in my system at home, and my own were far superior to these as well. My own speakers did everything that these new monitors did, but without that dreadful wooden coloration that accompanied most of the sound from these speakers.

I was resigning myself to hoping that my speakers would not fail for a while. Their mid-woofers had already been refoamed in 2005, and the tweeters replaced with newer models. At the time they also had undergone other modifications, like larger and better caps (Mundorf silver-in-oil) in their crossover. Yet I had the lingering thought that sooner rather than later another refoaming of drivers would have to take place, especially since I listen at rather loud volume.

Then I heard the Magico M Project speakers in WBF member Madfloyd’s system, and I was in for a shock when it came to the difference in timbral believability of especially orchestral strings, a believability that I had never heard before from any speaker. Certainly, the system overall was much better, but what struck me was how important the lack of cabinet resonances appeared to be in order to produce accurate timbre. My own speakers had no cabinet colorations that were audible as such – unlike with the newer monitors that I had heard at home – but that does not mean that cabinet resonances would not adversely modify the sound. And resonances there were, as touching the speaker cabinets during loud rock music quickly revealed.

So the idea of changing speakers at some point took hold again in my mind. Yet I had limited speaker options if I wanted to keep my low-wattage (15 W/ch) push-pull triode amplifiers. They had undergone an impressive performance upgrade with the addition of external power supplies, see my review:

Replacing them with other amps just to be able to drive a wider range of speakers could be a costly undertaking if I wanted similar sound quality. Then I read the suggestion somewhere that Reference 3A speakers were tube friendly. I was researching the speakers and became intrigued. The cabinets of the newest generation are coated with Nextel, a material which is said to suppress sound and thus cabinet vibrations. Could their MM de Capo BE monitors be what I was looking for? All the reviews were positive, including from actual owners, but I could not believe that all this good sound could be obtained for this little money. Could speakers costing just $ 3K be better than the $ 4.5 K monitors and the $ 12 K floorstanders that I had heard and which had fared badly compared with my own speakers? Liveliness and dynamics (macro and micro) were consistently praised, key areas that I was very sensitive to. After all, they were a main reason why I bought my amp/speaker combo in the first place! Rhythm was supposed to be good as well, something essential to me too. Importantly, they had high sensitivity, 92 instead of 90 dB/1W/1m. It seemed that nominally my amps should be able to drive them at least as easily as my old ones despite the larger mid-woofer; a main reason for the high sensitivity seems to be the crossover-less design. The amps drive the mid-woofer directly, and there is only a capacitor between amp and tweeter to protect the latter. A slight lack of effortlessness of sound was an issue that I heard with my speakers, and I thought perhaps the larger mid-woofer paired with greater sensitivity might help.

All the technical features of the speakers are discussed on the Reference 3A website:

Reference 3A features

Finally, after some consideration of all the issues I decided to buy the Reference 3A MM de Capo BE monitors. I thought, for that price I cannot go wrong, and even if I do not like the speakers as much as my old ones, I could still return them within an evaluation period (there was no dealer for them in my area, it was a direct sale from Canada). Or I thought I might then just keep them to be able to play music once my old speakers were up for repair. But I already had a hunch that I would not be disappointed.

Set-up and first impressions

Set-up was easy. I put the speakers on the same spot as my old ones, with the same stand as well. Reference 3A suggests that the speakers, with their tweeters on the outside, are to point straight forward when the listener is seated at a relative distance they suggest (ca. 1.2 times from the distance between the speakers). Yet the speaker manual also states:

In rooms where the speakers can only be placed on a long wall and if the listening position is shorter than the suggested ratio, the speakers may be toed-in towards the listening position, a few degrees at a time, until the center images are well focused.

Since I listen very close-up, with centers of speakers about 10 feet apart but me sitting at about 8 feet from the mid point between the speakers (ca. 9 feet from each speaker), I opted for some slight toe-in.

Connect to my amps via bi-wiring, check if all was functional by playing a bit of music at low volume, let amps warm up for 15 minutes as usual, and play a CD, at loud volume.

After 5 minutes I knew that the Reference 3A MM de Capo BE monitors might be better than my old Ensemble Reference speakers (modified from the original as described), and after an hour, playing various critical CDs, I knew that they were better or equal in every respect. And that was obviously before break-in.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Quite quickly I also followed my curiosity and checked for speaker vibrations by holding my hands on the cabinet (top and sides) during loud rock music. There was much less vibration than with my old speakers, and very little vibration in an absolute sense. Quite a performance for the low price. And certainly there was far less vibration than from some very expensive floorstanders where I had performed the same test.

What I did notice though standing behind the speakers while performing the test was a weird flow of air. Then I realized that, of course, this was air puffing out of the bass reflex port! Some people argue that bass reflex systems have a slower, sloppier sound, but this is certainly not the case here, as will be discussed below. In fact, lately the idea that bass reflex systems must be avoided has become somewhat of a dogma in some audio circles. Yet when it comes to human endeavors, including engineering choices, dogmas are best not taken as absolutes, and these speakers prove once again that it is not about the particular technology chosen, but its optimal implementation (by the way, my REL subwoofers are ported too, and they have been praised for fast bass, see my system thread). Having said all that, I will freely concede that I did have hesitations about the speakers given their bass reflex design, but these worries were unfounded, as I will later outline.

Liveliness and dynamics

Despite my worry about the much larger mid-woofer, 7 inches in diameter rather than the 5 inches of my old speakers, it was clear from the first few minutes that the amps had no problem driving the speakers, and liveliness was just as great as with the old speakers. First important hurdle cleared.

Dynamics, obviously directly coupled to the issue of liveliness, are great, both macro- and micro-dynamics, just as with my old speakers which had been part of the system when it was praised by others for its dynamics, see my system thread. Importantly, in addition the speakers sound much more effortless than the old ones when it comes to their expression of dynamics.

In some cases dynamics are actually better than with my old speakers. On the track “3 in 1” of the CD The Fifth Power by jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie (CD link) there is vigorous plucking of the stand-up bass a few times from 6:40 onward, with a ‘transient snap’ that is just startling with the new speakers. When I played the track to Madfloyd, who is a bass player himself, he independently commented on the same thing as standing out on the new speakers vs. the old ones.

Soundstage and presence

Another area of my system’s performance that had gained appreciation by others was soundstage and presence (see my system thread and this one:

Our systems, Scale and the Sound of Music

The imaging capabilities of the Ensemble Reference speakers were also highlighted in the original Stereophile review.

Presence, the sensation that performers are right there in a palpable manner, such that you can reach out and touch them or go to them as it were, wherever they may be located in the soundstage, is just as good as with my old speakers. It is a sensation caused by holographically defined image outlines within the soundstage.

The soundstage is even better than with my old speakers. While the soundstage had been quite wide and deep with these, now the width at the back of the soundstage is greater, making the overall soundstage bigger. For example, in the final section of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring there is a brief passage for just three muted trombones by themselves, playing a descending line. On my edition of Stravinsky conducts Stravinsky (Sony remastering from 2001, not available anymore) the trombones sounded way in the back of the soundstage, a third between hard right and center. Now they are located just as far back, but hard right.

More important though is the new and greater solidity of image projection. My speakers are quite wide apart (with ca. 10 feet between the centers of the speakers, see above), which I crave for orchestral recordings, but with the old speakers that set-up apparently caused issues on other music. Especially on pop/rock, the center image of singers was often portrayed farther back than perhaps you would expect it to be. Only when the voice recording was dry, the vocal sounded upfront. With the new speakers, center vocals are now mostly portrayed in a more forward manner, at times even dramatically so. Yet with orchestral music the soundstage is, when asked for by the recording, just as deep as with my old speakers. This suggests that what I heard with my old speakers was an artifact stemming from an inability to properly project center vocals according to their recorded acoustic environment under conditions of considerable distance between the speakers. The imaging solidity of the new speakers removes this artifact.

It also seems that, where pronounced hall decay is heard on recordings, the decay is better developed, fading away more linearly.

Tonal balance and richness

Belying their size, my old speakers had an impressively gutsy tonal balance in the lower midrange which, as the Stereophile review put it at the time, is the power range of the orchestra (think of trombones or celli, for example). Also, in conjunction with the subwoofer, the bass was full, from the low bass all through the mid-bass to the upper bass. There seemed to be no obvious deficiency in the mid-bass, and stand-up bass, which obviously requires that frequency range as well, was reproduced quite impressively, as two bass players who heard the system found to be the case. There was nothing lean about the general tonal balance, even though on some recordings with thinner timbres the thinness was perhaps a bit more accentuated than ideal.

Yet the Reference 3A monitors, while having the same general tonal balance and a similar, quite neutral degree of warmth of sound, in many instances sound fuller, more like the sound of live instruments in a range of common acoustic settings. How can this be? After wondering for a while I discovered that the difference in perceived fullness of sound often affects complex timbres the most, such as that of tenor and baritone saxophone, of French horn, of solo trumpet or of solo violin. There is just more harmonic richness to these sounds, and these complex timbres sound, well, more complex. Given the similar overall tonal balance to the older speakers, for a large part the greater fullness is thus probably the result of better preservation of the harmonic integrity of sounds. The greater fullness does not sound like a coloration, given that the general sound is not considerably 'warmer', except perhaps in some instances. Also, thin timbres on some recordings still sound thin, even though less so than with the old speakers. The Reference 3A monitors clearly do not pretty up the sound, they are just more truthful to timbres from real instruments which are naturally richer.

Technical explanations for the better preservation of the harmonic integrity of sounds may be a lower amount of cabinet resonances, a lesser amount of distortion from the drivers, and for this particular design, the avoidance of a crossover or the 'surreal acoustic lens' that avoids air vortices that distort the sound. Perhaps all of the above and more.

You might wonder if my tube amps add some color to make the sound richer. That is unlikely. I have heard the Spectral DMC-15/DMA-260 combo in my system, and the tonal balance and richness on my previous speakers were very similar (Spectral amps are usually viewed as a benchmark for neutrality). I would not expect the difference to be larger on these newer speakers, especially given the fact that they are even easier to drive than my previous ones (I have to consistently lower the output setting on my DAC on its scale of 60 units by about 2 units on each recording compared to my previous speakers, which is a substantial amount in loudness). The amps would be more likely to introduce colorations once the speaker load were to become heavier on them.

The speakers also have even more body in the lower midrange than my old ones. Bass tuba, for example, sounds more powerful without subwoofer, and adding the subwoofer does not add the slight artifacts that I heard before.

Bass also does have now more impact through the standalone speakers, without subwoofer, which may be no surprise given the larger driver. Bass drum in orchestral music can sound with quite a substantial 'whack', but for the body of sound from the bass drum the sub is still required. Timpani can sound quite fine without subwoofer, but rock music does not. I have the speakers 6 feet from the front wall (measured from the back of the speakers) for soundstage depth and imaging, and I tested if there is more bass output when the speakers are closer to the front wall as might be the situation for other listeners. I moved them to a distance of 3 feet from there, but not much changed in terms of bass. There are reviews that report good bass output with bass-heavy pop, but perhaps this was with concrete or brick walls (I have drywall in a wood house). Yet I do not consider this an issue. In my opinion monitors should always be paired with a subwoofer anyway, unless there are rare circumstances where this is not feasible. With the help of the subwoofer the speakers sound like full-range loudspeakers, and the transition between main speakers and sub is seamless (reports that subs do not integrate well are foreign to my own experience in any of the rooms I had). It would be hard to identify any gap in the entire frequency range, down to the low bass; the sound is very coherent throughout. Mid-bass of the speaker/sub combo may be even more powerful than with the old speakers, and currently I have the roll-off point of the sub set at 38 Hz (from there the sub fades out towards higher frequencies with a gentle slope), a bit lower than the 41 Hz I used with the old speakers.

As with my old speakers, at no point there is a cabinet coloration that is audible as such and intrudes into the music, unlike with the $ 4.5K monitors that I had heard in my system some time ago with their prominent wooden coloration of sound.


Al M.

Sep 10, 2013
Greater Boston

Rhythm & timing

I have always been a fan of great rhythm and timing, but the last few years I have become again especially interested in the issue. For quite some time digital has been deficient when it comes to rhythmic performance; a quality of reproduction that makes your foot tap seemed to come much more naturally to analog. While this has been discussed more in Europe than in the U.S., there also have been articles about that in Stereophile:

Pace, Rhythm, & Dynamics

One listener’s lament
(both links are recommended reading)

I have had four CD players or playback combos before I purchased my current Berkeley DAC. While at least the Wadia 12 DAC was good on jazz, none of the digital playback could really rock, something I could live with since my main musical interest was classical and contemporary ‘classical’ avantgarde. But then I got the Berkeley Alpha DAC 2, and at some point I discovered, while playing Deep Purple’s Live in Japan (1972) that it was a fantastic rhythmic performer, a veritable rock & roll beast. I think it can easily compete with great turntables in that respect (while it falls short in other areas). Since then, three years ago, I have listened quite a bit to rock on my system, much more than before. My speakers obviously also had to excel on rhythm & timing (in combination with my subwoofer), and I heard other speakers that fell flat. I was especially afraid that in this area the bass reflex design of the new speakers might show some flaws. Yet it does not. Rhythmic pulse is just as excellent as it was with my old speakers. I can confidently rock on.

In fact, bass definition is better than before, and some bass guitar lines are much easier to follow. For example, the bass line from 4:25 onward in Led Zeppelin’s In the Light from Physical Graffiti was hard to distinguish, in part blending with the drums, but now it is clear what John Paul Jones is playing. This further enhances the sense of rhythm.

Separation of instruments

Separation of instruments is a crucial aspect of a system’s performance when it comes to musical intelligibility, especially when the listener wants to follow the intricacies of complex polyphonic music. It appears to be linked to firm and consistent distinction of diverse timbral colors, a low noise floor that allows for clarity of musical detail and palpable spatial separation of instruments. While my system is easily bettered by others in several respects, I think it scores quite highly in that area. A jump in performance with respect to separation of instruments happened unexpectedly when I obtained from ASC the first set of two corner tube traps, as well as an array of sound panels. I noticed that next to better spatial separation, the individual timbres of instruments were fleshed out better. While for example flute and orchestral violins sounded sweeter, brass sounded sharper in many instances. It appears that unwanted room reflections are an equalizer of timbre, and removing them allows for much greater distinction. With further room treatment things became even better.

Obviously, separation of instruments is also linked to equipment performance. Upgrades of DAC (from Wadia 12 to Berkeley Alpha 2) and of power supplies to the amps (external BorderPatrol MB power supplies) each brought their own improvements.

When I listen from a good seat in the concert hall, be it to performances of chamber, ensemble or orchestral, the perceived ease of separation of instruments and of diverse simultaneous musical lines is impressive. Eventually, with all acoustic and equipment upgrades, something that I never thought was possible happened: It seemed that with a number of good recordings the perceived ease of separation of instruments and distinction of musical lines in home reproduction was quite similar to the live concert situation. Yet what I had thought was already a very good performance in this respect has been improved even further with the Reference 3A MM de Capo BE monitors.

Wolfgang Rihm’s Jagden und Formen (Hunts and Forms) for an ensemble of 23 players (CD link) has been one of the benchmark recordings for me when it comes to perceived ease of separation of instruments. Frequently the polyphony in this work is of staggering complexity, and many of the 23 instruments play as soloists. I was amazed how the separation of musical lines and distinction of individual instruments by their timbre seemed to be even better than before with the new speakers. While a lot of the greater information about the music fell into my lap as it were, the newfound transparency of the soundscape also encouraged me to actively go ‘on the hunt’ for new connections and musical lines that I had not been aware of before, leading to even greater musical involvement.

In a similar manner, I have been routinely surprised in all kinds of music about new things that I had not previously heard. Just to name one example: I must have listened countless times to Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony played by the Vienna Philharmonic with Giulini conducting (CD link). During the powerful tutti in the 2nd movement, Scherzo, it was a stunning experience to suddenly hear individual lines in the trombone section of the orchestra that never had sounded separate before.

Timbral resolution

Returning to a track that I already mentioned, “3 in 1” of the album The Fifth Power by jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie, the higher performance level of the new speakers is immediately evident. On another, highly resolving system I could easily distinguish between the tone of the muted trumpet that begins the music, and the flow of air from blowing through the instrument as a separate layer within the overall sound. At home that was never the case with my old speakers; to my disappointment the sound mostly blended into one. Yet the Reference 3A monitors in my system project some of that distinction that I heard on that other system of great resolution, even though perhaps not quite to the same extent.

On “Count On Me”, track 3 from the Lester Bowie CD When the Spirit Returns (CD link) there is a passage in the middle where a trombone humorously shreds and tears through what originally was an easy-listening ballad (comp. BabyFace/Whitney Houston/Michael Houston). The vehemence of playing is much more evident with the new speakers due to the greater resolution of all the complex transients and timbral shadings.

The last section of Wolfgang Rihm’s two-hour work Tutuguri for orchestra and choir (CD link) features six percussionists and choir. When I heard the music on a system with multi-driver floorstanders and subwoofer I marveled at how well and often I could hear the transient from the stick hitting the membranes of the heavy drums used in that music. While I had loved the sound and impact of the music on my system as well, this type of transient information was lost with my old speakers. Yet with the Reference 3A monitors the resolution that I had heard on the large speakers is all there and, in conjunction with the subwoofer, with the same impact and explosive dynamics. Also for this music large speakers are not required in my room, the monitor/sub combo will do.

On the other end of the frequency spectrum it is clear just how clean and fast the beryllium tweeter sounds, highly resolving with no sharpness. At the beginning of the Stockhausen work Rechter Augenbrauentanz (Right Eye-Brow Dance, Stockhausen-Verlag CD 59) the music is accompanied by a long-stretched tremolo on a small (high-pitched) triangle. Even though the tremolo is fast, each one of the beats on the instrument can be distinguished clearly, with a well-defined attack transient; on my previous speakers it was more of a haze.

The fast and resolving treble in conjunction with better midrange resolution by the mid-woofer also contributes to greater resolution of bowing transients on solo strings. This leads to more realism and listener engagement on string quartets and string trios, among others.

As for some benchmarks for the finest timbral resolution, the full breathy richness of saxophone timbre, or the micro-vibrations on the strings during smooth playing of solo violin, I am unable at this time to report on the capabilities of the Reference 3A monitors. The reason is that my digital playback probably cannot provide such resolution. I conclude this because I have heard several DACs of similar caliber in a system that is highly resolving on top vinyl playback, and the resolution on the digital just was not there. At some point I would like to acquire the outstanding dCS Rossini Player which in a stunning audition,

A remarkable Redbook CD afternoon at Goodwin's High End

proved to be capable of timbral resolution quite comparable to great analog (even from plain Redbook CD!), and then I may know (if the amps are not also limiting in resolution themselves). Having said that, the new speakers overall have given me a refreshed appreciation for the impressive capabilities of my current Berkeley Alpha DAC 2, some shortcomings aside.

The greatly increased clarity and effortlessness of presentation with the Reference 3A monitors as compared to my old speakers is in large part probably also due to a great reduction of distortion. Often you become aware of distortion, within the system or by room acoustics, only once it is removed.

Softness/hardness of timbre

Listening to very good recordings of solo strings another thing becomes apparent, apart from higher resolution of timbral detail compared to my old speakers. Recently I was listening again to Wolfgang Rihm's Musik für Drei Streicher (Music for Three Strings; violin, viola, cello) (CD link). The music is violent, harsh and strident, an exciting genius work of a young man (at the time 25 years old) who lays bare what must have been a soul in inner turmoil. Yet despite all these attributes of the music, the sound does not harden up like it used to before, showing better resolution of timbre by less introduction of artifice. It sounds almost entirely effortless, even though I listen very loudly, as it would sound up close in a small venue, with peaks up to 90 dBa. This corresponds to a large extent to what I experience live: while solo strings can sound harsh and strident, their sound is never hard like timbres from other instruments are.

Yet the speakers do not soften the music. To obtain the right impression of the actual sound of instruments in live concerts I typically close my eyes. Not distracted by the golden shimmer of the instruments, I am often amazed how plain hard live brass can sound (mainly trumpets, trombones). Obviously this is dependent on acoustics – some venues do sound smooth, even with brass – and on the distance from the instruments.

Jagden und Formen (Hunts and Forms) by Wolfgang Rihm for an ensemble of 23 players, which I mentioned before, was completed almost 25 years after Music for Three Strings and seems much more 'objective' music than that early work by the composer. The brutal staccato brass attacks here seem not to be an expression of anger or anguish, but simply a logical, powerful translation of certain basic and recurrent rhythmic aspects of the music into brass tutti. These tutti still sound very hard and biting also on the new speakers, apparently a faithful reproduction of their inherent sound character on the recording (they sound just as hard when the volume is significantly lowered from a realistically loud one, suggesting that this is not a matter of distortion by the system and speakers). Yet not all brass sounds hard, as it does not in all live situations either; there is no uniform coloration into sameness.

As others at WBF also have noted, there seems to be an unfortunate culture in high-end audio, also apparently among some manufacturers, which equates clean reproduction with an overly polite, inoffensive sound. Fitting into this culture is the tendency to play inoffensive, bland, boring and less challenging musical material at audio shows (yet this does not work; if you want to please everyone you end up pleasing no one, as is evident from the many complaints about this). While it is true that live acoustic music can sound very smooth and ‘clean’, often its timbres are, as mentioned, raw, rough and plain hard. Ignoring and smoothing over this in audio reproduction goes against the stated goal of high fidelity. It is something I personally am very sensitive to.

To their great merit, when it comes to navigating the scale of softness/hardness of timbre, the Reference 3A MM de Capo BE monitors deliver a great deal of truth of timbre, neither a sugar-coated version of it (by diluting the bite of brass, for example) nor an unnaturally spiced-up one – as mentioned, the sound of solo strings on very good recordings is not hardened like with lesser playback, including the one on my old speakers. The sound may still not be quite up to the standard of the best playback in this regard, but it comes much closer to the ideal than with my old speakers.

Monitor/sub combinations vs. full-range speakers

Finally, let me add a few remarks on this topic. There seems to be little doubt that when it comes to ultimate performance in the best, large rooms, full-range speakers are required, possibly augmented by subwoofers. Yet I have a room of 24 x 12 x 8.5 feet, with a small additional window bay. For medium-sized rooms like mine, which may be more typical for what most audiophiles have as listening rooms, the answer to what is the best choice becomes less clear-cut. I am afraid a good number of audiophiles may be too quick to dismiss monitor/sub combinations. They do have some distinct advantages, with the most important one perhaps being that the placement of the speakers for best soundstage and tonality is independent of the placement of the source for deep bass, in this case just the subwoofer(s). Placement of subwoofers in turn can be optimized for smoothest in-room response (there is no reason to have deep bass in stereo, since for human hearing all stereo clues about instrument placement come from higher frequencies). It is a rather fortunate circumstance when optimal placement of speakers for soundstage and tonality coincides with optimal bass response; the two are not interrelated. Therefore, the chances are high that a compromise must be made with full-range floorstanders when it comes to balancing tonality, soundstage and bass. This is a particularly critical issue for large floorstanders in not so large rooms since they have a harder time than monitors performing the ‘disappearing act’, where the sound does not seem to come out of the loudspeakers anymore but they throw a 3-D soundstage which organically fills the room and in which they do not draw attention to their own location. Therefore, their placement opportunities to ‘lock into’ a disappearing act may be limited, and once they do the bass output at that speaker placement in the room just is what it is.

As for the size of soundstage in a medium sized room, monitors can throw one as large as it gets in such a room, with images of generally believable size. In fact, in such rooms you can have a subjectively wider soundstage with monitors since you can sit much closer to them than with full-range speakers, where you have to sit at a distance for blending of the sound from the diverse drivers. The one problematic issue with monitors is height portrayal of some close-up instruments, like saxophone in a jazz quartet. For this you may need floorstanders, yet only the best ones, on the best recordings, will render a believable presentation of this aspect. On the other hand, most floorstanders tend to compromise on the size and width of small-scale images, e.g., the individual instruments in a string quartet, which I personally find far more detrimental to believability. Only the very best large speakers, with careful set-up, do not exaggerate the size of these images (the Magico M Project speakers, for example, are impressive in their ability to project string quartets as well as monitors do).

Certainly, often the coherence issue is brought up, alleged difficulties of integrating subwoofers with monitors. Yet I have never had such difficulties, and while coherence did not seem to be an issue with the combo of my old speakers with subs, the combo of the Reference 3A MM de Capo BE monitors with my REL Storm III sub is perhaps even more coherent sounding. There just is no telling where the sound from the monitors ends and the one from the sub begins, it is one whole from top to bottom without gap.

The debate of course will continue forever. Regardless, the sonic outcome is all that matters. I would bet a good amount of money that under blind conditions I could fool any number of audiophiles into thinking that they are listening in my system to decent-sized full-range floorstanders rather than to a monitor/sub combo. And that on almost any musical material, orchestra, chamber, jazz, rock, heavy metal, you name it.


It is incredible what kind of sound quality from a speaker you can get for an, in today’s audiophile terms, measly amount of money. Once you hear Reference 3A MM de Capo BE monitors with the signal fed by a good system in a room with good acoustics they may make you rethink value in high-end audio.

I wonder, if you can get this kind of sound quality for just $ 3K from Reference 3A, how good then must their new $ 12K flagship monitors, the Reflector, sound? Could they be stiff competition of much more expensive monitors?

Ron Resnick

Site Co-Owner, Administrator
Jan 25, 2015
Beverly Hills, CA
That is a fantastic review, Al! You made it easy to understand what you listen for, and how you evaluate those attributes from these speakers.


Well-Known Member
Dec 7, 2011
North Shore of Boston
Nice review, Al. Could you expand a bit on the differences between your speakers when it comes to integration with your sub? Are the sub settings different with each pair of monitors and is one easier to blend with the sub? Also, do you think your new speakers are finished breaking in at this point?


May 7, 2010
Marina del Rey, CA
great review Al, thanks.

when you mention the Ref 3As having a more forward center fill, that probably is due to the lack of a typical crossover. I found that the case with my Zus - and its jarring for many people at first.

Al M.

Sep 10, 2013
Greater Boston
Thank you, Steve, Ron, Peter, Lee and Keith!

Al M.

Sep 10, 2013
Greater Boston
Nice review, Al. Could you expand a bit on the differences between your speakers when it comes to integration with your sub? Are the sub settings different with each pair of monitors and is one easier to blend with the sub? Also, do you think your new speakers are finished breaking in at this point?

the roll-off frequency setting on the sub was 41 Hz with the Ensemble Reference monitors, and is now 38 Hz with the new Reference 3A MM de Capo BE monitors.

For classical I often also use a lesser volume setting on the sub with the new speakers because it feels more right (you nudged me in that direction too ;)), and that lower volume setting I think also helps with the perceived integration of sound. Curiously, for rock I mostly feel compelled to use the same volume settings, with a few exceptions where it is lower. Yet the integration feels better also because the leading edge of bass notes is cleaner, removing some residual 'mud'.

In fact, however, the output volume of the sub is lower at all times with the new speakers even at the same volume knob setting on the sub. The reason is that I run the output volume of the DAC lower (ca. 2 units on a scale of 60) because the main speakers are more efficient, and thus deliver the same volume from the amps with a lower signal from the DAC driving the amps. Yet at the same time, the signal path to the sub has not changed, which is line input from the DAC. At the lower volume of the DAC, needed to get the same output volume from the main speakers, the output to the sub obviously is then relatively lower (sure doesn't feel that way though).


I do think the speakers have mostly broken in. The sound has not changed much the last 10 days or so.

Al M.

Sep 10, 2013
Greater Boston
when you mention the Ref 3As having a more forward center fill, that probably is due to the lack of a typical crossover. I found that the case with my Zus - and its jarring for many people at first.
Keith, I am not sure if I would call the center fill on vocals more forward as to cause a sensation of being jarring. Rather, it seems less recessed, more in line with the other music, and it feels right as it is what I would intuitively assume from a correct soundstage. As I mentioned, the depth of the soundstage with material where you would expect depth, e.g., orchestral, is still the same.

Interesting that you mention a contribution of the crossover-less design to that. I would rather have assumed that the previously recessed image on center vocals was an artifact of the old speakers' geometry.


Member Sponsor
May 31, 2010
Wow, great review, Al!

I was at Al's this past Saturday and it was my 2nd time hearing his new speakers (the first time was just after he purchased them). They have opened up since the last time and I think Al has dialed them in a bit more. It is uncanny the value of these speakers.

Al M.

Sep 10, 2013
Greater Boston
Wow, great review, Al!
Thanks, Ian.

They have opened up since the last time and I think Al has dialed them in a bit more.
Yes on both counts.

It is uncanny the value of these speakers.
You said it!

As I also alluded to in the introductory part of my review, your superb system as a reference has helped guide me in the right direction.

Al M.

Sep 10, 2013
Greater Boston
In my original review above I stated:

"As for some benchmarks for the finest timbral resolution, the full breathy richness of saxophone timbre, or the micro-vibrations on the strings during smooth playing of solo violin, I am unable at this time to report on the capabilities of the Reference 3A monitors. The reason is that my digital playback probably cannot provide such resolution."

Due to improvements of my system that have happened in the meantime, I am now able to report on the finer aspects of timbral resolution that the speakers are capable of. The most important step towards good micro-resolution of timbre consisted, believe it or not, in the cleaning of all my cable connections with DeOxit Gold last year (without at that time changing the digital playback). Further improvements came by switching to ZenWave Audio cables (D4 interconnects and SMSG speaker cables), and by upgrading from the Berkeley Alpha 2 DAC to a Schiit Yggdrasil DAC (for the latest system upgrades, see here).

It turns out that the Reference 3A MM de Capo BE monitors are capable of rather excellent resolution of timbre. With the right recordings, the micro-detail in the sound of solo violin can be quite astounding. Also the breathiness of some saxophone playing is rendered in a realistic manner. Once more, the speakers convince with an amazing performance especially given their, in current high-end terms, very modest price. Yet of course, they still exhibit a number of shortcomings compared to substantially more expensive speakers.


PS: A slight correction of my review: the mid-woofer is 8 inches in diameter, rather than the 7 inches originally specified.

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