Reference 3a Royal Master Control loudspeaker
After more discussion it became evident that the best speakers to use were the very ones Gordon employed in his own reference systemthe Swiss-made Reference 3A Royal Master Control loudspeakers (footnote 1). (A Royal with cheese? Pulp Fiction alert! I'd heard these speakers in the systems of importer Victor Goldstein (of Fanfare International) and recording engineer Bob Katz (of Digital Domain), and at various shows both with and without the add-on column, whose double 8" woofers turn the speakers into the so-called Suprema. (No cheese...)
The subs, however, are too demanding a load for single-ended amps, and dip to something on the order of 4 ohms, so it was with the Royal Masters alone that we'd listen. The speakers are rated at 8 ohms (dipping to 6) and 92dB sensitivity.
The Royal Master Control
The chunky, solid, wedge-shaped cabinets are built up with ¾" MDF, then an additional 1" double front panel of the same material is attached to the cabinet front with a rubber suspension. They weigh nearly 60 lbs each. The Royals feature a ferrofluid-cooled soft-dome tweeter with "a large back chamber" (per the literature), with a resonant frequency at 700Hz. The crossover to the tweeter is listed as "Impedance Compensated Slow Rate Type" (3dB down at 3kHz). The cone of the single 8" woofer/midrange unit is made of woven carbon fiber in a "Hyper-Exponential design exclusive to 3A Designs." (Exclusive? I'll betwho else would name things this way?!) This driver has an integrated phase plug in its acoustic center that looks like a miniature '59 Cadillac bumper. The magnet weighs a full 30 oz and is rated at 1.4 Tesla, the voice-coil is ¾" (17mm) in diameter, and the drive-unit is housed in a die-cast aluminum basket.
Interestingly (if you're an audiophile) the speakers are almost a crossoverless design. The midbass driver rolls off naturally beginning at a upper-midrangey 3kHz and continues its swan dive up through 10kHz at 6dB/octave. Importer Goldstein gleefully described a minimalist single capacitor and three resistors that make up the crossover for the tweeter. Unsurprisingly, each speaker (and subwoofer) is factory-wired with Siltech. (Goldstein also imports this fraught-with-silver-and-gold Dutch cable as well.)
"For optimum bass performance, this unit must be used on our 40kg spiked sand-filled stands," which place them at an optimized height of 26". The factory stands will set you back a Royal $790, but Goldstein has sourced a cost-effective replacement from Sound Anchors, retailing for $400. A 6mm steel mounting plate is bolted to the bottom of each speaker, and this assemblage is set atop the stands, compressing a supplied "squishy, Sorbothane-type material," as described by Goldstein.
The review pair were finished in an attractive Royal Master Black at $4500, but can be had in American Walnut for $4200. (There's a new-for-'95 Grand Master for $3300.) Fanfare's Scot L. Markwell stripped the grille covers off immediately after he installed them. I left them uncovered, but this exposed the four Velcro mounting tabsnone too tidy-looking for such an expensive speaker.
After initial setup in the same location as my Avalons, followed by some heaving and schlepping, we wound up with the speakers halfway out in the room on the leading edge of our 10' by 4' MDF platform with a slight toe-in to sharpen up focusin other words, right back where they'd started. This familiar speaker positioning gave us the width, depth, and transparency we're accustomed to with the Avalons, and seemed to work well for the bass. (And the Royals do make bass, if of a different sort that we're used to. But we'll come to that.)
Spec Sheet: "The phase is almost constant and flat (±5°) from 45Hz to 20kHz. This new woofer greatly reduces distortion between 1500Hz and 5000Hz due to phase correction..." (the Caddy bumpers), "as well as ensuring better dispersion of this range and improving integration with the tweeter." Well, that may be so, but Kathleen didn't care for their sound off-axis right from the start. She does almost all her listening moving about the loft, where these speakers sounded fairly dreadful. Other than when I was planted in the Ribbon Chair, they were bright and chaffy on top, discontinuous and muddy below, only cohering (superbly, it must be said) when seated in the sweet spot. I'm just mentioning it; the Royal Master Control is not a background music speaker.
The "official" listening began almost by accident. Late one night I found myself sitting in the dark grooving to Portishead's Dummy on vinyl (Go Beat 828 522-1), a laid-back UK Trance/Rave/Ambient album that we enjoy. I found myself suddenly really involved. I was listening to the lyrics with more than usual attention, and seemed to actually understand them betterboth cognitively and emotionally. I still perceived this recording's digitally mastered naturea good sign, I thought to myself at the time. In spite of that, the highs sounded liquid, open, and extended, and very natural: scads of musical information, no etch.
I was struck by the breadth of performance to be heard. This as differentiated from the width, which I'll note here in passing to have been a little less wide than the Avalons manage, and slightly narrowed at the rear. In any case, the Royal Masters threw a fairly enormous acoustic, and disappeared in that special way only small monitors can. The image was set back a third of the way or so to the rear wallnot nearly as deep as with the Symphonic Line 400s. (The German amps were perfectly scary in that way.) The soundstage was a bit smaller in overall proportion than we're accustomed to with the Boulder Bombers, however. Interestingly, the lower the volume level, the more miniaturized the soundstage became. Pump the amps up into the middle of their power band, and they opened right up.
While there was a sense of air to be heard in this well-recorded Trancer, the air there was of a different nature than push-pull, and assumed a different order of importance in the reproduction of sound. And this through the Royal Masters, whose particular top-end qualities have been described as extremely transparent in an almost electrostatic kind of way. (Over time I came to appreciate this quality of openness, speed, and clarity in the treble.) So while the soundstage the Reference 3a Royal Masters and Wavelength Cardinal XS amplifiers threw was exquisitely detailed, it was quite unlike the huge, clear, bell-like transparency generated by the best of push-pull.
Another generality: although the sharp edge-definition we're accustomed to with push-pull was slightly less in evidence, Sara K.'s presence was nevertheless shockingly palpablea well-formed avatar with which to relate to. The sonic representation of her voice was not obscured by this slightly softer imaging. I still became aware of small movements of her head as she swayed to the music she was making. In fact, tracking these slight movements proved a remarkable and participatory element that seemed to help in communicating the emotional content and meaning of the songs.
As some sort of barometer of emotional involvement, the Wavelength amps coupled with the Royal Masters were remarkable. How easy it seemed to reach into, to caress, to feel, to understand the music I heard. It wasn't just Sara K.'s voice that sounded so clear, musical, and pellucid; the guitar, acoustic bass, and drum work were also supreme. "You can get next to them," I wrote in my notes. "You can bond with the music."
After listening to many vocal recordings, another strong impression I had was that with a fine push-pull amp you become aware of details of the body of the performera singer's chestiness, for example, or the sense of a windpipe, or some other aural "physical" clues. But with this setup, the sound existed not so much as a part of some large, ambient acoustic with a more tightly focused "physical" representation of the soundsource, as a complete musical presence.
As we listened to all manner of music, from the grand to the petite, another element of the Cardinal XS/Royal Master's presentation became evident. In describing push-pull amps, I've occasionally resorted to the metaphor of a light shining upon a performer on the stage to illustrate the sense of openness and illumination of the midrange and highs. Some push-pullers get this better than others, the more refined efforts sounding more subtle in their presentation of this effect. But that's what it most seemed likea light shining on the midrange and treble regions. The effect was reflective in nature, so to say.
But with the Cardinal XS (and single-ended in general) the sense of illumination of the midrange and treble region seemed to emanate from within rather than without. It was as if the molecules of sound before me twinkled beautifully with phosphors, gently illuminating and lifting the sound to its natural bloom in the surrounding pad of air.
I came to understand that this warm and welcoming internal fireworkssingle-ended's Unbearable Lightness of Beingbreathed the very life into the sound. Now it's true that speakers that shelve back the bass (I'm coming to that) tend to highlight the midrange and highs. But having listened to push-pull through the Royal Masters, I'll say confidently that this interior luminescence is a part of single-ended's presentation, not an artifact of the speakers.
Although certainly a little woolly and out of control at its edges, the Royal Masters driven by the Cardinal XSes still managed a surprising integrity in the bass, and in fact energized our large listening room to adequate levels. This was just so...unexpected. The bass was of a different quality than push-pull amps typically pump out, yet quite satisfying enough to forge the foundation of many a musical effort.
The Wavelength Cardinal XS amplifiers in conjunction with the Reference 3A Royal Master Controls bring the surprise and joy of music to the listener in an intimate, effortless manner. Just think of the unmitigated selfishness of it allmusic exists but to please you, if sometimes in shocking and mysterious ways. This amp/speaker combo are exquisitely capable of serving you in such a manner. We truly enjoyed our time with them. Most highly recommended for the music-lover in all of you.
Footnote 1: Reference 3a is now based in Canada. Art Dudley reviewed the Reference 3a MM De Capo i in December, 2003.Ed.