Reference 3A Reflector monitors in my system
The flagship monitor from Reference 3A
The Reflector monitor is considered by Reference 3A as their pinnacle of technological achievement. A main reason for this, next to a new custom driver for this model, is the extremely rigid cabinet, which aims to compete with designs such as those by Magico and TAD. Having heard what rigidity of cabinet can do to timbral fidelity and believability from the Magico M Project speakers in the system of Ian (WBF member Madfloyd), I was very interested in these Reference 3A monitors since quite some time.
I was already familiar with the sound philosophy of the company and its designer Tash Goka through my Reference 3A MM DeCapo BE monitors that I loved. These monitors have an incredible performance/price ratio at $ 3K. I expected similar value from the Reflector monitors, which at $ 12K have a significantly lower price than flagship monitor designs from other companies. Therefore, the decision to buy them once I had sufficient funds was a no-brainer for me. So eventually I bought a pair.
This review may also be interesting for those readers who already have MM DeCapo BE monitors and love them, and are wondering how much of a difference an upgrade would make. I will compare here my 2016 version of the MM DeCapo BE monitors with the Reflector monitors; the newer version, MM DeCapo BE-RD, has a rear damper panel similar to the Reflector monitors that adds stiffness to the cabinet and helps suppress vibrations. Obviously the expectation would be that the new version will sound better, coming closer to the Reflector in sound than my 2016 MM DeCapo BE monitors, while there will remain a substantial gap.
Reference 3A speakers generally are known for their tone, dynamics and overall vividness, also facilitated by the crossover-less design. The flagship model Reflector follows this tradition, and adds advantages that arise from the rigid, structurally inert cabinet. This design also allows it to extend further on the basic qualities of the Reference 3A family just mentioned.
Let me state upfront: While the Reflector, combined with great subwoofers, falls short in several areas compared to the best speakers I have heard – logical, given the physical limits of its size and two-way design –, in some also important ones it compares well. This is a remarkable achievement.
Reviewing the speakers
As for equipment supporting this review, obviously source and amp must be of sufficient quality to allow uncovering the capabilities of the speakers. My source is CD replay from a quality transport through the highly regarded and highly resolving Schiit Yggdrasil DAC. Do not get fooled by its rather low price, it is the flagship design of Mike Moffat, a digital pioneer of Theta Digital fame. I have heard the Yggdrasil DAC in a number of direct comparisons with a multiple times more expensive, quite famous DAC in a superb system. In these contests it fared exceptionally well. Several reviews have also found that the quality of the Yggdrasil DAC compares favorably with DACs costing multiple times as much. I use an Octave RE 320 tube amplifier (with Super Black Box) that delivers an astonishing performance. The cabling by ZenWave Audio (owned by WBF member DaveC) is excellent. My full list of equipment can be viewed on my system thread, first post.
Getting the best out of the speakers also required rethinking and readjusting the acoustics of my room; some efforts in regard to that can be read on page 8 of my system thread. The transparent and emphatically ‘outspoken’ quality of the Reflector monitors brought to my attention acoustic problems of the room that were not as evident with the MM DeCapo BE monitors, which in comparison are more ‘forgiving’.
The Reflector speakers have played for half a year in my system, thus they are fully broken in. I had not listened to the MM DeCapo BE during this time. Just to make sure that these monitors would be at their best for the comparison, I performed a new ‘mini break in’, consisting of letting them play for two full days before serious evaluation. During the comparisons, the MM DeCapo BE clocked another substantial round of hours.
As for speaker set-up, the Reflector manual reads:
"An equilateral triangular positioning is recommended setting up Reflectors. Distance between the speakers, measured from the main driver's center, should be equal to the distance where the listening area is. Toeing them in until the inside front and rear edges of each speaker appear to be lined up is recommended if the space allows. If the room is narrow and long the speakers may be positioned closer together with slightly more toe-in angle (on axis). Reflectors' high frequency wave guide allows higher velocity wave propagation and the performance will still be very good on longer distance listening positions."
I took the above instructions on equilateral triangular positioning to mean equal distances between the centers of the main drivers (or between the centers of the tweeters, which is the same in this case), and ear to tweeter. The latter is a common way of measuring speaker distances; also, the tweeter is at ear height and measuring distance from the ear to the center of the main driver would mean measuring at a downward angle, thus a slightly longer distance. All the distances in the equilateral triangle are 8.4 feet in my room. Distances were measured with a laser measure (Bosch).
I made a drawing to reflect the speaker set-up as seen from above. The speakers are shown with tweeter embedded in its wave guide (c.f. image of speaker above):
From the listener's view, front and rear edges of the speakers line up. Until I had made the drawing I had not realized that, while the centers of the speakers are slightly off-axis when judged by the listener's eyes, they are more on-axis with the ears. The triangle in the drawing is measured to actually be equilateral on all sides according to the criteria described. When you sit in front of the system, however, the speakers seem much closer to you than they are apart from one another, which of course is an optical illusion.
Most recently though I modified the listening position somewhat, moving the listening chair back 6 inches. Even though I like to have a direct, immersive sound, I now prefer the slightly more distant perspective, which is still quite upfront (but also features great spatial depth where required, as did the configuration of equilateral triangle). In that listening position I continue to follow the manufacturer’s suggestion of toe-in so that inside front and rear edges of each speaker appear to be lined up. As a consequence this leads to a slight toe-out compared to the scenario with equilateral triangle, where like in that case the speakers are almost on-axis (the panoramic image of the current set-up of the whole system above, as captured by the camera, does not adequately portray the toe-in).
The MM DeCapo speakers were toed out to a greater extent, according to the manufacturer’s instructions. The distance of drivers to the listener’s ears was identical to that of the Reflector speakers.
Tonal balance and bass performance
The sound of the Reflector monitors has natural body, without being overly warm. There is an overall richness to the midrange that emulates quite well the sound of real instruments in unamplified live music. Male bass voices sound full and saturated. Female soprano voices range from somewhat dark with a rich, saturated tone to bright and light, true to the variation of real voices. Piano tone can be weighty and wonderfully saturated with rich harmonics, such as in Alfred Brendel’s fabulous and witty interpretation of Beethoven’s Diabelli variations (Philips, 1988), or it can be leaner and brighter. The timbral palette is neutral in the sense that it allows for great variations of tone color between different recordings; there is no obvious tonal signature that, in a monochrome manner, pervades everything.
The Reflector speakers project a good amount of treble energy, which on the vast majority of recordings sounds very natural, also given the great body of the sound and the excellent integration with the midrange. The treble is smooth; to my ears there are no evident adverse effects like those frequently ascribed to beryllium tweeters. On good recordings there is no excessive sibilance on voices, but a natural presentation of ‘s’-type sounds. On the other hand, the treble can be quite vocal when the musical material demands it, and it is open and clear. Integration with the midrange appears seamless. Jazz cymbals can have a lot of ‘meat on the bone’, the large cymbal crashes on the last part of Rihm’s Tutuguri for six percussionists and choir have a weighty tone, and the sizzles from rubbing cymbals together towards the end of that same piece sound with a ‘golden’ shimmer.
Some recordings that are problematic in the treble become less so, not necessarily because the speakers make them sound more ‘beautiful’, but because they are properly resolved. For example, on the 1989 recording of ‘Chick Corea Akoustic Band’ the cymbals can sound painfully 'white' and 'splashy' on some speakers. Yet on the Reflector speakers the cymbals, while still rather white, also have a finely resolved, ‘buttery’ sound, which allows for enjoyment of the record at loud level without any fatigue.
Interestingly, the MM DeCapo BE speakers project significantly less treble energy. According to Tash Goka, the designer of both speakers, the Reflector monitors have higher levels of treble energy mainly due to the wave guide for the tweeter. In order to allow for a reasonable comparison that would not be too affected by differences in treble balance, I decided to adjust my room acoustics somewhat for the MM DeCapo BE monitors, turning the corner tube traps from the absorptive to the diffusive side, and removing an absorptive panel from the room.
The bass of the Reflector speakers has been described in other reviews as being weighty and extended enough not to require a subwoofer. While I have no reason to doubt the findings in those reviews, in my own room this is not the case, except on some recordings with prominent bass, but my set-up and room situation may not be typical. The drivers are at 7 feet distance from the front wall, and the house is from wood with drywall inside, thus overall lending little support to the bass reflex port. In my room the Reflector monitors also do not sound significantly extended over the smaller MM DeCapo BE monitors.
Yet in general I prefer to run monitors with subwoofers anyway, and in fact, I also prefer the coupling of nominally full range speakers with subwoofers. In connection with my high quality subwoofers (a pair of JL Audio Fathom 112v2) bass is powerful and dynamic through the entire range, and also the midbass is often weighty and rich. Only on some material the midbass weight is not quite as satisfying as from a multi-driver floorstander. Rock and jazz are usually served very well by the monitor/subwoofer combo. A lack of the last bit of midbass richness on a minority of recordings is rather well compensated for by the sheer precision and dynamic punch of the bass. One thing I simply cannot stand is any bass overhang, and this ruinous sonic disease is well avoided on virtually any material by the monitor/subwoofer combo, with additional adjustment of subwoofer bass on some recorded material that is prone to overhang on other speaker systems.
The left hand of the piano is typically portrayed well by the monitors alone, and only in a few cases really requires subwoofer support. Depending on the recording, cello sometimes is portrayed very satisfyingly by the monitors on their own, but at other times benefits substantially from the combination with subwoofer.
Yet again, in other listening rooms and set-ups the weight and extension of bass from the monitors on their own may be much stronger.
In any case, the speakers can be seamlessly integrated with subwoofers. The combination of the Reflector with the high quality subwoofers that I have sounds on most music as an authoritative full range speaker system – not a monitor with attached bass. As mentioned, only on a minority of material there are shortcomings in the midbass.
The bass accuracy of the Reflector speakers is even greater than with the MM DeCapo BE monitors. For example, some beats of the somewhat ‘resonant’ drum intro on ‘Are We the Waiting’ from Green Day’s American Idiot (2004) have a slight overhang on those monitors, one of the rare occasions of obvious fault in this area. On the Reflector monitors the passage is tight and clean.
Yet it is not just about an occasional bass overhang. On much material drums sound similar between the two pairs of speakers, with quite a bit of upper/midbass weight. Yet on some recordings the drums sound drier, on the Reflector speakers, with less weight (except kick drum) and more audible skin – they also hit harder. At the same time, however, the bass guitar has a very similar amount of midbass, indicating no deficiency of reproduction on the Reflector. My conclusion is that in those cases the slight addition of ‘bass weight’ on the drums, as reproduced by the MM DeCapo BE speakers, is a coloration. The Reflector monitors seem just more accurate. Bass guitar in general also sounds more precise and articulate on the Reflector, yet the difference is not large given the already very good quality on the MM DeCapo BE.
Purity of tone and timbral resolution
Stockhausen’s piano pieces, played by Ellen Corver and available on Stockhausen-Verlag in a brilliant recording that the composer himself directed, are a sonic acid test for me when it comes to unveiling system performance. The relatively soft, lighting fast flurries (only playable by the best pianists) at the beginning of piano piece X are cleanly resolved on the Reflector, yet sound a bit blurred on the MM DeCapo BE monitors, and also acquire a certain hardness that should not be there. Following a sudden fortissimo outbreak shortly after the fast flurries in the beginning of the piano piece, there are multiple staccato repeats of a high note that sound clean and fast on the Reflector, as they do on other very high-quality speakers on which I heard the recording. On the MM DeCapo BE monitors they sound less clean, and the transient attack is softened. The cleanness of tone of the Reflector is also evident in a complex cluster of chords on the high notes towards the beginning of piano piece V, which in comparison sounds a bit dirty, ‘slow’ and unresolved on the MM DeCapo. Apparently the superior, inert cabinet of the Reflector monitors eliminates all the slight overhang and softening of transients that is heard on the MM DeCapo BE, and leads to a vast improvement of sound. In fact, the authoritative cleanness, coherence and ‘speed’ of sound on piano music, combined with great impact, is quite comparable to what I have heard from any speaker thus far.
Not just on piano, also on other music the MM DeCapo BE show colorations in comparison with the Reflector monitors. This became particularly obvious to me after having become accustomed to the high standard of sound set by the Reflector monitors for several months, and then going back to their smaller siblings. Colorations that I had not distinctly heard before on saxophone, trombones, cello now became easily evident, and their presence had diminished the believability of music in a way that only now became clear to me. I already mentioned bass; also orchestral contrabasses showed a coloration on the MM DeCapo BE that made them sound considerably less convincing than on the Reflector, even though the same dual JL Audio subwoofers served as support in the comparison. It was quite astonishing to suddenly perceive all these slight to moderate colorations clearly by direct comparison in the same system, given that the MM DeCapo BE does not have an obvious wooden or box coloration from cabinet vibrations when listened to on its own, unlike many speakers in that price range and even beyond.
When it comes to resolution of micro-detail in instruments’ timbres, the performance of the Reflector speakers is also among the best I have heard. The great transient speed plays an important role, but the fine resolution extends to micro-oscillations on sustained violin tones, for example.
Finely resolved timbral texture on the debut recording of the Janaki string trio (Yarlung Records) is as good as I have heard anywhere, significantly better than on the MM DeCapo monitors, which are already quite good on this recording. The same holds for the micro-detail of saxophone tone, including the signature breathiness of some of the playing on the instrument, for example on the excellent recordings ‘Dibrujo, Dibrujo, Dibrujo…’ by Positive Catastrophe or ‘Stop and Start’ by Charles Kohlhase and David Langley (featuring saxophone duets). Here the difference in timbral resolution with the MM DeCapo monitors is quite stark.
The guitar on Pepe Romero’s 1988 flamenco album (Philips Classics) is rendered with precise distinction between the notes played in rapid flurries, adding considerably more ‘speed’ to the presentation than on the MM DeCapo monitors. At the same time, transients are not over-accentuated, and the tonal character of the nylon-stringed guitar is portrayed very well, with a slightly ‘dull’ tone as it is also frequently heard from the actual instrument and which distinguishes it from steel-stringed guitar. Yet the sound also carries a lot of the micro-detail that is heard from live acoustic guitar.
On great orchestral recordings, massed strings in all registers (violins, violas, celli, double basses) sound finely resolved on the Reflector, with beautiful tone. Body of tone on massed violins extends into the very high register, e.g., in the slow movement of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony (Leningrad Philharmonic/Janssons, EMI, 1988).
The fine, delicate resolution and exquisite tone of the Reflector speakers allows string quartet timbres to develop in an unexpectedly realistic manner. The DGG recording of Beethoven's early string quartet op. 18/2 with the Emerson Quartet (produced in 1997) is a prime example. Specific to string quartet sound in some live settings compared to, let's say, just a solo violin which is usually played differently, I perceive on this recording a realistic softness, tenderness of timbre and an often generated slightly 'bouncy', 'light touch' sound of bowing transients (most prominent in the 3rd mvmt., the minuet), both of which I had not thought possible, and certainly not possible from digital. Not only that, there is a warm woodenness combined with a certain luminosity of sound, a glow within, and wooden resonances of the body of the string instruments are finely resolved.
I have heard that wooden, resonant, luminous sound, combined with the softness of timbre and 'light touch' transients, on a few live occasions, but string quartet playing often also sounds different in various ways. Perhaps my most vivid memory of this specific kind of sound was during a string quartet recital in the large living room of a country house in Austria in the summer of 1990, where I fell in love with the rarely played, highly romantic 2nd string quartet by Franz Schmidt. I never thought that this kind of sound was even possible from a system, but here it is. Certainly, if I heard that live sound again, I would still immediately perceive a large difference with the reproduced sound, but that the sound from my system with the Reflector monitors can trigger in my mind strong memories of the live sound is quite remarkable.
Convincing reproduction of string quartet from a system was always a dream of mine, a dream that now has become true to an extent that I had not thought possible. Even though obviously there is still a significant gap to the sound of an actual string quartet ensemble, I am ecstatic about the result, which strongly contributes to endearing the Reflector speakers to me.
In comparison, the MM DeCapo BE only hint at all this. The transients are just not as refined, the wooden and string resonances of the instruments not as resolved, and there are colorations that prevent a portrayal of tone that is as convincing. All this makes for a considerably less believable experience. In fact, as much as I liked the performance before, I always had thought that this recording had some sonic problems, before I heard it on the Reflector speakers. And while I did not share that opinion, I could also understand claims that the performance by the Emerson Quartet is a bit bland and too polished. Yet listening to the performance on the Reflector speakers suggests that such perceptions are based on hearing a sub-optimal rendition of both the subtlety and energy of the playing of this famous string quartet ensemble, by which some of the passion of this performance is suppressed. Compared to other performances like those of the Quartetto Italiano it is more “matter of fact” and lets the music more speak for itself without overlaying interpretative emotionality. The merits of the latter approach, when done as tastefully as by the Quartetto Italiano, have a better chance to be appreciated even when reproduced with less optimal sonics.
On other recordings the perceived difference in resolution between the two speakers seems to matter less for the musical presentation since detail lies more on the surface and thus is uncovered more easily by the MM DeCapo speakers to a sufficient extent. An example would be the aforementioned recording of music for string trio played by the Janaki Trio (Yarlung Records). Yet the amount of detail portrayed by the Reflector speaker is still superior also on this recording.
The greater timbral expression and resolution on the Reflector appears not just to hold for the sound of unamplified instruments. After the heavy bells that introduce the song ‘Hells Bells’ by AC/DC, electric guitar sets in, repeating a memorable riff. On the MM DeCapo speakers the electric guitar sounds heavy and menacing, but on the Reflector it acquires in addition a ‘mean’ tone, sounding much more articulate, more ‘electric’ as it were.
Rhythm and timing
In my view, this is an important part of the sonics of a system, leaning on the old adage “It don't mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”. The Schiit Yggdrasil DAC (driven by high-quality CD transport), is an excellent sound source for the evaluation, since it is no less than a rhythmic animal, with rhythm & timing that in my experience can easily compete with great turntables – a far cry from the dark days of digital’s beginnings. The Reference 3A Reflector excel in rhythm, they never “miss a beat” as it were. ‘Smoke on the Water’, ‘Lazy’ and ‘Space Truckin’’ from Deep Purple’s Made in Japan album (1972) are all positively cooking with rhythmic drive and excitement.
One of the most impressive examples of forward driving musical pulse and rhythm that I know of is the 1979 live performance in Cuba of the jazz rock super group Trio of Doom (John McLaughlin, Jaco Pastorius, Tony Williams). When I first heard track 5 ("Are You the One? Are You the One?") on my system with the Reflector monitors, I was literally laughing (no kidding) from both disbelief and joy about the infectious, relentlessly forward driving rhythmic tapestry that I experienced. Of course, not just the speakers and the DAC, but also the Octave RE 320 amplifier is a rhythmic badass; the whole system needs to work together to pump out such a performance. The tone of drums and bass guitar is exceptional and tight, and somewhere in the middle there are breathtaking, lightning fast attacks on lighter drums.
After experiencing this intoxicating rhythmic performance on the Reflector speakers, playing the same track on the MM DeCapo BE speakers, or ‘Dark Prince’ also from this live concert, still gives superb rhythm by any normal measure. Yet in direct comparison it is a bit of a letdown. Drums and electric bass are just a tad slower and less accurate. The lightning fast attacks on lighter drums are a bit less fast and exciting.
Musical energy and dynamics
Striking about the rendition of the live recording by the Trio of Doom, and essential to the expression of rhythmic drive, is also the sheer urgent musical energy portrayed (helped by the fact that the speakers can throw a rather large sound, see below). On the track ‘Dark Prince’ from the album the high-pressure energy becomes downright frantic, delivered in a direct, immediate manner.
Another example of great musical energy comes from a more recent recording with John McLaughlin, ‘Meeting of the Spirits’ on his 2017 live recording with the 4th Dimension at Ronnie Scott’s (a track originally on the Birds of Fire album from 1971 by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, featuring the same guitarist). The drum attacks, the cutting electric guitar, the pumping bass, the inspired keyboard playing, all rendered cleanly and with great, incisive precision, together make for an overwhelming experience of a band on fire, delivered by the system in an ‘in your face’ manner of “you are there”, directly in front of the band.
Of course, you cannot have incisive musical energy without great dynamics. These draw particular attention from the listener in the track “You Know You Know” from another John McLaughlin live recording, the 2013 ‘Boston Record’. In this electrifying rendition of the music, which I greatly prefer to the in itself impressive studio original on the legendary Birds of Fire album, there are sudden, explosive drum attacks out of nowhere, sneak attacks as it were, and also very dynamic strikes on high-pitched china cymbals.
The famous 7-minute drum solo “Freedom Rider” by Art Blakey (1960) also sounds explosively dynamic, with hard hits on the drum. The prominent cymbals sound clean and clear, with bite. The rendition of the solo has led Alan, a drummer himself, to say on my system thread that this was the best he has ever heard it (there he also posted an iconic image as a response to the impression the system gave him).
Piano can sound highly dynamic as well. On the aforementioned recording of Stockhausen’s piano piece X, there is a sudden fortissimo outbreak after about 30 seconds, and the suddenness is accentuated by the excellent transient speed underlying the dynamic outburst. On all the piano music on this CD it becomes clear how great the dynamics of the Reflector monitors are throughout the frequency range.
Also in the Kairos recording (Rihm – Trios 1969-1994) of Rihm’s string trio, an early work from 1969, the sheer suddenness of the dynamic attacks by the string instruments is striking. Playing this music on the MM DeCapo BE still delivers a dynamic sound, but the startling dynamic suddenness is diminished, leaving some of the excitement of music and performance on the table. The aforementioned Beethoven recording by the Emerson Quartet also brings out differences in dynamic behavior between the speakers. At the beginning of the opening movement of Beethoven’s string quartet op. 18/1 the theme is first played softly, and then repeated in forte. On the MM DeCapo BE this change in dynamics sounds matter of fact, but on the Reflector it sounds with expressive energy. The onset of the development section in the same mvmt., which consists of a fortissimo repeat of the elaborate descending figure with which the twice played thematic exposition closes (at a bit over 4 minutes into the music), sounds very dynamic on the MM DeCapo BE monitors. Yet on the Reflector monitors the dynamics are still considerably more startling.
Apparently the launching of dynamic attacks by the MM DeCapo BE is somewhat attenuated by cabinet resonances that counteract driver energy. On the Reflector monitors the lack of such resonances due to the inert cabinet seems to allow the initial burst, crucial to dynamics, to unfold more freely. The optimized drivers themselves of these speakers may also play a part in this.
In general, the incisiveness of transient energy and transient dynamics, potentially helped by the combination of lack of cabinet resonances with the crossover-less design of the Reflector speakers, is remarkable. I have not heard anywhere else such passionate violence of emphatic scratching on the unison chord repeat played by the three instruments at the beginning of the Penderecki string trio played by the Janaki Trio (Yarlung Records). As on other transducers, on the MM DeCapo the scratching of the chord is ‘rounded off’, in this case apparently due to cabinet resonances.
Also, in Kremer’s incisive interpretation of the famous Passacaglia of Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin, some of the strong transitions of bowing arising from the vigorous playing are reproduced with a cutting dynamic energy that I have not quite heard elsewhere.
Microdynamics are also portrayed with great nuance. Just listen to the microdynamic fireworks in the fast middle part of the slow movement in the early Beethoven string quartet op. 18/2 (mentioned earlier), or in the scherzo of the middle period string quartet op. 59/1 (both Emerson String Quartet, DGG, 1997). In the latter piece the sheer energy and emphasis on all the small dynamic gradations draws attention, and sudden attacks once more greatly add to the excitement.
Big brass dynamics are also rendered very well, either by a few instruments like on ‘For Your Eyes Only’ by the Proteus 7 ensemble, or on the very large orchestral scale. The big, often sudden dynamic swings on ‘For Your Eyes Only’ were already impressive in the MM DeCapo BE speakers. Yet on the Reflector monitors the brass outbursts have a confident, free-flowing dynamic swoop (for example on the ‘Pink Panther Theme’) that is not quite heard to the same degree on the smaller speakers.
The long-stretched, massive climax in the slow movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 is a torture test for a system, especially when played loudly. Yet on my recording with the Vienna Philharmonic under Giulini (DGG, 1989) the Reflectors speakers competently delineate the dynamics of the climactic build-up, when the music goes from very loud to even louder, and louder yet. Even the brass blast of the last highly dissonant chord that caps off the climax is confidently pushed out with still yet another emphasis.
In summary, the speaker is capable of excellent dynamics, which significantly exceed those of the MM DeCapo monitor, a speaker that had already been repeatedly admired by audiophile friends for its prowess in this area. In combination with a great subwoofer the dynamics extend deep into the bass.
While incisive vividness is portrayed very well by the Reflector speakers, they do not unnaturally accentuate it with an ‘edge’. Relaxed music is portrayed as such. For example, on Late Night Brubeck, the mood and intent of the music comes through splendidly, not the least because of the great sophistication of tone and of portrayal of fine detail.
While they cannot play to realistic concert hall levels, the monitors allow orchestral music to be played rather loudly in a medium-sized room. I listen at rare maximum peaks of 97 dBa, > 100 dB, and more routine ones at 93-95 dBa, well aware of NIOSH guidelines for sound exposure (levels are measured with real SPL meters, not iPhone). The clarity is very good and dynamics are great as described above, but the sound is not quite as effortless as on a high-quality multi-driver floorstander. This will not come as a surprise. The mid-woofer of the monitor needs to process both midrange and lower frequencies, and especially on complex music like orchestra some strain is unavoidable. As excellent as these monitors are, physics remains physics, and here a multi-driver speaker has an advantage, where the lower frequencies are processed by woofers, leaving the midrange driver handling a narrower frequency band without stress, at least if the speaker is of high enough quality (not every multi-way floorstander plays effortlessly). It is also possible that, on complex music like orchestra at high playback levels, there is audible upper frequency break-up at the mid-woofer due to the crossover-less design – every design has its own set of both advantages and disadvantages.
While there is some perceived strain on loudly played and complex orchestral music, it is well within limits, also due to the relatively large size of the mid-woofer of 8 and a quarter inches (this is, for example, larger than any single driver in the Magico M3 or Q3 speakers, even though these obviously are multi-driver units with the advantages that such a design entails). It also depends on the material. For example the scherzo in the aforementioned recording of the Bruckner symphony, which peaks at just slightly less loud levels than the other two movements, is reproduced in a rather effortless and distortion-free manner, despite the brutal, relentless and massive brass attacks. Also the demanding textures of Shostavokich’s Symphony No. 12 (Janssons, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, EMI, 2004) are handled in a remarkably effortless manner, at peaks of 96 dBa (> 100 dB).
On the other hand, on most music other than large-scale orchestral, there is no or hardly any perceived extra strain from the monitors compared to larger speakers (again, in a medium-sized or small room, not a large one). Also complex pieces for smaller ensemble, like Wolfgang Rihm’s Jagden und Formen for 23 players, are presented with ease at loud playback level. The Reflector speakers, in combination with the subwoofers, also reproduce rock quite loudly in my room (average levels around 88 to 90 dBa, with some peaks beyond that) in an effortless and authoritative manner. Due to the incisive vividness, energy, clarity, resolution, rhythm and drive, as well as accuracy and impact in the bass, this music will sound better and more engaging than on many floorstanders other than the best.
Orchestral music also shows another relative weakness of the Reflector/subwoofer combo. While on most music midbass is more than sufficient or even generous, at least in my particular set-up the combo does not portray the foundation of orchestral sound from low strings consistently as well as a great floorstander. In some instances the reproduction is very good (e.g. Holst Planets, LA Phil./Mehta), in others it is lacking weight and power (e.g., Shostakovich Symphony 7, Leningrad Philharmonic/Janssons, or some passages in the above Bruckner recording). Yet here my reference are the Magico M Project speakers, a very high standard indeed, and I definitely prefer the accuracy and tone of the bass which is heard from the monitor/sub combo (contrabasses have very good timbre) to the bloated mess on orchestra produced on some lesser fullrange floorstanders.
Regardless, the incisive vividness of the speakers, also on display in this kind of music, allows for the drama to shine through, making listening to orchestral music a thrilling and enjoyable experience even with the limitations described.
While I usually listen at rather loud levels, not everyone will do the same. The question is, do the Reflector monitors also perform well at lower playback levels? After all, some speakers apparently need to play at a certain minimum level in order to “wake up”. I tested this at an extreme. I did some "late night listening", simulating the scenario of another person in the same house sleeping, so at really low levels. There was still lots of timbral detail and dynamics, and depth of tone was well preserved. Also complex orchestral polyphony remained very well audible. I considered the speakers to pass the test with flying colors (by the way, the subwoofers performed just the same, making the entire sound enjoyable at low levels).
Soundstage and imaging
The speakers are able to portray a ‘big sound’, disproving the myth that monitors sound small. The soundstage can be rather wide and deep, depending on the music and recording. Orchestral music in particular often has a recorded spatial depth that is pronounced, with for example trombones and percussion located at the rear of the stage, and the Reflector speakers portray that spatial depth convincingly. Having the drivers of my speakers 7 feet out from the front wall certainly helps with this. Positioning within the soundstage is precise and well layered front to back, with images that in general are neither diffuse nor over-sharpened. Hall ambience is portrayed well.
Images often are palpable in a three-dimensional manner as if you could reach out and touch the performers. This is something that good monitors, supported by capable electronics, are famous for, and the Reflector speakers do not disappoint. The speakers also can disappear entirely from the soundstage, so that, if you would close your eyes or listen in the dark, you would just hear a stage in front of you with the performers in it, without any spatial cue at all as to where the sound comes from in terms of speaker position. This also requires strong center images, which the speakers are capable of. Their default imaging is not a concave shape with the middle image more recessed than the side images, even though of course this scenario can also be heard depending on the recording.
On good recordings the size portrayal of instruments and singers is convincing, not too large and not too small. Yet the speakers image so well that they will also ruthlessly portray exaggerated pinpoint imaging stemming from recording artifacts. A few examples are the presentation of the lone guitar riff that opens the song and album American Idiot by Green Day (2004), and some of the processed voices on the album, a few of which start a song. When the actual voice of the singer comes in, the vocal image immediately pops into more natural size and focus, an exciting contrast.
The soundstage presented by the MM DeCapo BE speakers had already been admired by my audiophile friends, and it shares many of the traits described for the Reflector. Yet the image outlines are somewhat less defined, more diffuse.
Separation of instruments
Wolfgang Rihm’s Jagden und Formen (Hunts and Forms), complex avantgarde music for an ensemble of 23 players, is one of my favorite recordings (DGG, 2000), and a great test piece for evaluating separation of instruments. At the beginning of track 7, muted trumpets play a fabric of staccato figures. When I played this track on the Reflector monitors I was astonished that I distinctly heard drawn-out wind chords in the background, playing simultaneously with the trumpets. I had never paid attention to them before. Going back to the MM DeCapo BE monitors I now heard them there also, of course, but they were just not obvious.
Throughout the piece, the distinction of instruments is significantly better on the Reflector monitors. This starts at the opening of the piece, where the dueling polyphony of the two violins is much better discernible. The playing of the violins remains clearly audible when woodwinds play their patterns on top of it, while it becomes a bit submerged on the MM DeCapo BE speakers.
As the complexity of the music increases, the Reflector speakers remain more transparent to it. This is mostly due to the enhanced timbral clarity, but in part also facilitated by the more distinct image outlines in the presentation of each instrument.
Similar improvements in clarity are heard in the presentation of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire d’un Soldat, with the composer conducting. In ‘Danse du Diable’ the unison playing of diverse wind instruments is transparent to the listener, and in the following ‘Grand Choral’ the contributions of each instrument to the harmony unfolding during the quasi unison playing is clearer than on the smaller monitors, where individual timbres form more of a blend.
All in all, the greater separation of instruments on the Reflector makes it much easier to listen deep into the fabric of the music. It allows for more of the emotional involvement that comes from musical intelligibility.
The timbral scale from softness to hardness
During the discussion of string quartet reproduction I already mentioned the ability of the Reflector speakers to properly portray the softness, even tenderness of timbre that is often heard live from such music. The MM DeCapo BE do not quite manage to do this to the same extent, apparently because they do not have the capability to convey the necessary subtlety of tone that comes with superior resolution. On the other hand, violin can also shred on the Reflector speakers, even more so than on the MM De Capo BE, since transients are more energetic and accurate. A good example for such shredding is the entrance of the solo violin following the solos of viola and cello at the beginning of Penderecki’s string trio played by the Janaki Trio (Yarlung Records). The tutti brass attacks on Rihm’s Jadgen und Formen sound very hard, as I would expect them to sound from my live experiences. Solo trumpet can sound piercing with hard blasts, and with tremendous bite when appropriate, more so than on the MM DeCapo BE, again probably because of better and more energetic transients.
Overall, in my opinion the Reflector speakers manage to be exceptionally true to the timbres of unamplified live music when it comes to the aspect of correctly portraying sound along the scale from soft, tender to hard, even biting. Possibly the Reflector is the one speaker that I have heard thus far with the greatest and most believable range along this scale, even though it is not free of inaccuracies either.
Many times when I visit an orchestral concert I am taken aback by the hardness of sound during loud playing, especially from brass but often also on fortissimo passages of massed strings. My perception is also shaped by my preference of sitting close to the orchestra, which tends to reinforce such sonic traits; of course the hardness or smoothness of sound also depends on the hall acoustics. It is possible that partially – yet not entirely – the perceived lack of effortlessness and of ‘polished’ sound on loudly played orchestral music on the Reflector compared to other loudspeakers is due to the ruthless, and in my view realistic, portrayal of the natural hardness of instrumental timbres. I have to confess that I have not yet been able to clearly make up my mind about this.
Summary of the differences between the Reflector and MM DeCapo BE monitors
Spread throughout this review, I have already mentioned the differences in sound quality between these two monitors from Reference 3A. Yet let me give brief summary:
The MM DeCapo BE, when listened to on its own, does not have immediately obvious wooden or box colorations from cabinet vibrations. Yet in direct comparison with the Reflector moderate colorations are easily evident, especially in the midrange and bass. Even though still excellent by most standards, rhythm & timing of the MM DeCapo BE is slightly diminished compared to the Reflector. The smaller monitor has comparatively somewhat rounded-off transients, affecting dynamics, energy and incisiveness, even though all these still are very good when the speaker is judged on its own. There is considerably less refinement of tone and timbral resolution, and less overall transparency. Due to the lack of refinement and subtlety, there is a less convincing portrayal of softness and tenderness of timbre when asked for. Yet at the same time the slightly softened transients also blunt some of the natural hardness of, e.g, attacks on the trumpet.
The MM DeCapo BE is a very good speaker, with a performance that is just astonishing at its modest price. In general terms I still stand by my positive review, even though in the meantime my thinking has evolved on some issues.
Yet the Reflector is just better. Not incrementally better, but an entirely different ballgame. However, hearing this difference in full will require an energetic, dynamic and finely resolving source, and an amplifier with equal qualities. It really makes no sense going to the expense of purchasing these speakers and saving on the amplifier. I have heard less expensive amps in my system on the Reflector speakers, and while these amps are really good and highly enjoyable, they just did not bring out the sheer refinement and resolution of the Reflector speakers as the Octave RE 320 amp does.
Likewise, it makes little sense to pair the Reflector speakers with a cheap run-of-the-mill sub. The resolution of the subwoofer(s) needs to match the one of the monitors. There is a crucial difference between just ‘tight’ bass on one hand, and accurate and finely resolved bass on the other. I knew once I decided to buy the Reflector, I had to bring my subwoofer situation up to par, so I did.
The MM DeCapo BE also sounds better with the Octave amp (which in this case is about four times the price of the speaker). The speaker is good enough to properly have made me decide on the purchase of the Octave RE 320 amp as an amp with superior resolution; even though it does not play on the level of the Reflector it was still able to show the difference with less resolving amps.
The MM DeCapo BE speakers sound exciting, but the excitement of music on the Reflector speakers is greater still. Compared to the Reflector speakers, the MM DeCapo BE sounds somewhat veiled. The Reflector brings you even closer to the music, both on the level of visceral emotion and in terms of intelligibility of simultaneous musical strands.
If you want the most effortless presentation of complex, large-scale orchestral music at a loud level, or you need to fill a large room with music, then this speaker will not be what you are looking for. It may also not be for you if you want a more relaxed, mellow sound. Yet if you have a medium-sized or small listening room and for a (in high end terms) comparatively low price want a combination of great dynamics, incisive vividness and immersive portrayal of raw musical energy with utmost finesse and nuance of tone and timbral resolution, then this speaker may just be the right thing for you. It certainly is for me. I am thrilled owning this speaker and listening to music through it.