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- Written by Philip Beaudette Philip Beaudette
- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created: 01 April 2014 01 April 2014
Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
Reference 3A was founded by Daniel Dehay, in France, in the 1960s. Back then, though, its name was simply 3A (for Applied Acoustic Art). In the ’80s the name was changed to Reference 3A, and between then and 1998 -- when Tash Goka, who owns Divergent Technologies, bought the company and moved it to Canada -- the company changed hands and countries one or more times. Since moving to its current factory, in Waterloo, Ontario, Reference 3A has been stable, producing a steady stream of loudspeakers while doing a good job of respecting Dehay’s original vision, and even some of his original designs.
Of all the early 3A designs, probably the most popular was the MM, often noted for its clarity and its bass, which went surprisingly deep for a stand-mounted minimonitor. It was also noteworthy for having no crossover applied to its midrange-woofer -- the driver’s natural upper-frequency rolloff was used to integrate its output with that of the 1” tweeter, which had a simple high-pass filter to roll off its low end. Though regarded by some as a classic speaker design, the MM has gone through various stages of improvement over the years, and today lives on as the MM de Capo. The subject of this review is the latest version, the MM de Capo BE, which sells for $3290 USD per pair.
The MM de Capo BE looks similar to earlier versions of the MM, including the very first -- the cabinet still measures 15”H x 11”W x 13”D, and still has a sloped front baffle on which the tweeter is offset to one side above the midrange-woofer, which is said to be about 8.25” across. The speaker is sold in mirror-imaged pairs, with each tweeter closer to its speaker’s outer side panel.
But similar doesn’t mean the same. The original MM was painted black; later versions, such as the MM de Capo i, had real-wood veneers. The current cabinet, made in Canada, has a finish of dark-gray Nextel that looks attractively hi-tech and feels like suede. According to Reference 3A, the Nextel isn’t only for appearance -- it absorbs light and sound, which makes for a cabinet both less shiny and more “quiet.” The only thing I didn’t like about the cabinet was the pin-attached grille -- these days, most speaker grilles are secured with magnets, which makes these look a little old-school.
Both drivers are made by hand in Reference 3A’s factory, which surprised me -- the tweeter’s dome is made of beryllium (hence the BE), a material that is notorious for being toxic and difficult to work with. Most companies buy their beryllium tweeters whole from Scan-Speak. The dome itself is a Truextent type, which comes from VUE Audiotechnik, in California.
As I recall, the original MM had a carbon-fiber midrange-woofer, as does the new one, but this model’s cone looks a little different: at its center, in lieu of a dustcap, is an oddly shaped white object called a Surreal Acoustic Driver Lens. According to 3A, this “is used to prevent formation of air vortex’s generated by condensed air particles and turbulence in the deep center of loudspeaker driver cones. Inherent noise caused by this vortex is drastically reduced and is effectively diffused by the lens.” Interesting -- I’d never seen such a thing before. As always, no crossover is applied to the midrange-woofer, and only a single capacitor is used to roll off the tweeter’s low end.
A port to augment the bass exits near the top of the rear panel. Also on the rear are two sets of binding posts, to permit biwiring or biamping; jumpers are for single wiring, which is how I hooked up the MMs.
Reference 3A offsets the tweeters to align the acoustic centers of the tweeter and midrange-woofer at the listening position. To accomplish this, the speakers should face pretty much straight into the room (i.e., with little to no toe-in), with the tweeters closer to the outer side panels. Ref3A recommends that the listening distance be 1 to 1.2 times the distance between the speakers: if the speakers are 10’ apart, the listening distance should be 10’ to 12’. Giving the MMs only the smallest degree of toe-in, I placed them about 5’ apart, which made the optimal listening distance 5-6’. My chair was 6’ away, so I was on the money.
New with the MM de Capo BE is Ref3A’s cryogenic treatment of the speaker’s wiring (all high-purity copper, with differing thicknesses of wire to the two drivers), connectors, and metal driver parts. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of this being done -- the Tannoy DC10A, which Doug Schneider reviewed for this site, had cryogenically treated crossovers. Perhaps there’s something to it.
The original MM was known for its surprisingly big bass, so I wasn’t surprised to see a claimed low-frequency limit of 42Hz for the MM de Capo BE; if accurate, that’s pretty low for a stand-mounted design. The MM’s upper limit is said to be 40kHz, which is high but plausible, given that a beryllium dome, if well designed, can have its first breakup mode an octave above the audioband. The MM de Capo BE’s impedance is said to be 8 ohms, which makes it an easy load for an amplifier, while its sensitivity is rated at a fairly high 92dB/W/m, which indicates that not many watts will be needed to play music pretty loudly.
I connected the MM de Capo BEs to a Bryston B135 SST2 integrated amplifier with AudioQuest Type 4 cables. An NAD C 565BEE CD player served as a transport for a Bryston BDA-2 DAC linked through an i2Digital X-60 digital coaxial interconnect, while a MacBook computer running Audirvana software provided the DAC with digital content via an AudioQuest Forest USB cable. The Bryston DAC and amp were linked with Kimber Kable Tonik interconnects. All electronics were plugged into an ExactPower EP15A power conditioner/regenerator.
I put on Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra’s recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances (CD, Reference RR-96CD). I wasn’t disappointed. The MM de Capo BEs had no problem keeping pace with the short, dynamic, percussive bursts that occur in the opening of the first dance, Non allegro. While they might be bookshelf speakers, the MMs’ significant output throughout the audioband was noteworthy, and put them more in line with floorstanding speakers. I wouldn’t recommend them for a large room if you listen to music at raucous levels, but their ability to energize my mid-size listening room was commendable.
While “keeping pace” is one way to explain the MM’s dynamic capabilities, it also describes another aspect of its character: its speed. In that first Symphonic Dance, the leading edges of notes were carved out with precision as the speakers produced a tight, focused sound that drew sharply outlined images. And the 3As’ superb reproduction of depth placed the Minnesotans well behind the plane of the speakers, creating a coherent presentation that made it easy to close my eyes and see the performance.
I then cued up Björk’s Biophilia (16-bit/44.1kHz AIFF, Nonesuch). The first track, “Moon,” features four harps, whose strings were rendered with pristine clarity and superb detail through the 3As. The MMs had a crisp sound whose top end was lively and extended, never harsh or grating. The soundstage was as lucid as the strings themselves, and the positions of the musicians and the spaces between them were clearly audible -- the de Capos proved useful tools for appreciating the excellent quality of this recording. In the Rachmaninoff, the orchestra sounds as if it’s behind the speakers; Biophilia is a more upfront and present recording. With both, the Ref3As proved themselves faithful conduits of the source signal. This was something I consistently noticed during my time with them: rather than imbue the music with much of their own personality, the MM de Capo BEs got out of its way.
Due in no small part to its speed, the MM produced a taut, controlled sound that made it easy to sort out denser musical passages, such as the machine-gun-like assault of synthesized beats at the climax of “Crystalline,” from Biophilia. The 3As’ ability to handle power meant that I could enjoy this track with a volume that matched the song’s intensity. In a large space, I’d still opt for floorstanding speakers for when I wanted to play especially loud, but even in a good-size room, anyone hearing the MMs should appreciate their ability to remain composed when pushed. This little speaker seems built to take some abuse.
Speaking of which, I spent a significant part of my time with the MM de Capo BEs playing hip-hop, which usually means heavy bass. For this I turned to a number of artists, not least among them Killer Mike. The beat in the title track of his R.A.P. Music (CD, Williams Street 384-460-018-2) was punchy and potent through the 3As, with the same cleanness I heard higher in the audioband. Although it mightn’t venture deep into the bottommost octave, the 3A could play pretty low before finally rolling off, and might easily be mistaken for a tower speaker in a blind listening test. The pair of them had no problem doing justice to this album while filling my room with sound.
Like any good speaker, the MM de Capo BE didn’t perform better with one genre of music than others, though I did find myself playing more classical music through them, simply to hear how good it sounded. The St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Yuri Temirkanov, sounded grand in Mahler’s Symphony No.5 (SACD/CD, Water Lily Acoustics WLA-WS-76-SACD), extending behind the speakers and out into the front corners of the room. The orchestra emanated from behind the plane of the speakers, and gave me the impression that I was sitting in the hall and listening to the concert -- a sensation only enhanced by the distracting sounds of coughers in the audience.
Mahler’s Fifth includes some explosive dynamic moments that the MMs handled with ease, again delivering output sizable for a two-way minimonitor. This excellent recording was made using a single pair of microphones and very little editorializing in the studio: no equalization, compression, or noise reduction. One of the better-sounding orchestral recordings in my collection, it doesn’t confuse what’s happening onstage. As Hans Wetzel noted in a recent article on SoundStage! Access about his visit to the Kimmel Centre for the Performing Arts to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra, a home stereo can’t capture the scale, the effect of experiencing something so grand in person, and not even the best setup can trick your ears and brain into thinking they’re hearing the real thing. However, with the Reference 3As I was able to enjoy this live performance in about as convincing a manner as I could hope to achieve in my apartment; their clear, incisive sound did a great job of helping me envision the original event.
I compared Reference 3A’s MM de Capo BEs with my own Amphion Argon3L floorstanders ($3995/pair). Also a two-way, the Argon3L has a 1” titanium-dome tweeter set at the base of a deep waveguide. Unlike the MM, the Amphion has a crossover that has the tweeter handing off at 1.6kHz to a 6.5” midrange-woofer.
Although their designs are quite different, the sounds of the Reference 3A and Amphion speakers had a fair amount in common, namely their excellent clarity and precision. I’ve always enjoyed how clean Amphion speakers sound, and while I’ve preferred other speakers over the Argon3Ls in one way or another, few have been able to match their transparency. The MM de Capo BE is one of those few. Both models were excellent at resolving detail and fostering the impression that I was hearing everything there was to hear from a recording. When I listened again to Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dance I, the orchestra spread from wall to wall with both sets of speakers, each pair creating a cohesive stage populated by pinpoint images. Each speaker sounded exceedingly clean, but in terms of bass, the Reference 3A had the edge.
Both the Reference 3A and Amphion have powerful low ends, which is somewhat surprising given that each achieves this with a single midrange-woofer. Although the Argon3L dug a bit deeper than the MM, its bottom end was slightly fatter than the Ref3A’s, which was tighter. And although the Argon3L can play low, the MM de Capo BE wasn’t far behind -- again, pretty surprising, given the differences in the size and internal volumes of the two speakers. I can imagine someone choosing the Reference 3A over the Amphion based on the former’s bass performance -- and the Ref3A costs $705 less per pair.
With this newest edition of its classic bookshelf design, Reference 3A has built a great-sounding speaker that continues the MM legacy. The earliest iterations of the MM were known for their clarity and solid low end, two traits undeniably present in the MM de Capo BE. I have no way of knowing to what extent this is due to eliminating the crossover and directly coupling the midrange-woofer to an external amplifier, but whatever the reason, this somewhat unconventional approach has produced a minimonitor that sounds ultraclean and powerful, and is suited to any music you might throw at it. If you’re looking for a pair of stand-mounted speakers that can image extremely well but worry that you might not get deep enough bass from anything less than a floorstander, you should audition the MM de Capo BEs. At the very least, you’ll probably be surprised by how big they sound; and you may even find yourself owning the latest and, very possibly, the best iteration yet of a classic design.
. . . Philip Beaudette
- Speakers -- Amphion Argon3L
- Integrated amplifier -- Bryston B135 SST2
- Digital sources -- NAD C 565BEE CD player, Bryston BDA-2 DAC, Apple MacBook computer running Audirvana
- Speaker cables -- AudioQuest Type 4
- Interconnects -- Kimber Kable Tonik
- Digital cables -- i2Digital X-60 coaxial, AudioQuest Forest USB
- Power conditioner -- ExactPower EP15A
Reference 3A MM de Capo BE Loudspeakers
Price: $3290 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
480 Bridge Street West
Waterloo, Ontario N2K 1L4