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.