Reference MM de Capo i loudspeaker Page 2

Sound
But if you demand the same sorts of things from a hi-fi system as I do, a pair of MM de Capo i's won't see a lot of down time in your house. But be aware that these did take a while to run in. At first they sounded grainy—very grainy, in fact—as well as hooty and a bit shut in. Over time, presumably as that tweeter loosened up, these speakers sounded considerably more open and airy.

This speaker never lost every iota of that hooty coloration, though, leaving me to think of its response as very slightly lumpier than the ideal, with here a midrange boost that made violins sound a little thicker than they are, and there a notch that robbed voices of a bit of texture—that which gives keening voices their keen. Likewise, Peter Wispelwey's cello in Saint-Saëns' Concerto 1 (Channel Classics CCS SA 16501) always sounded a small shade thicker than I think it should. These worries were slight: You'll hear them if you compare the Reference 3As with something more unambiguously flat, like classic Spendors, but I doubt you'll be troubled.

And whatever the flaws, they were dwarfed by this speaker's tremendous expressiveness. It was impossible to hear Bill Monroe's "Lonesome Moonlight Waltz" (from MCA's fine four-CD retrospective, MCAD4 11048) without picturing those big, old gnarly hands of his coaxing—sometimes inelegantly—from his mandolin that beautiful combination of wood tone and barnyard cluck of which only he seemed capable. All the subtleties of Melora Creager's cello playing, as well as her well-used singing vibrato, were brought to the front on Rasputina's Thanks for the Ether (Sony CK 67504), an album that's held up brilliantly well over the eight years since its release. Likewise the one-handed rolls that punctuate so many of drummer B.J. Wilson's lines on Procol Harum's debut LP, recently reissued by Classic Records (LRZ 1001).

More so than most speakers its size, the de Capo i had a wide enough frequency range to sound convincing on orchestral music. The Bernstein recording of the Barber Adagio (from the recently released The Essential Bernstein set, Sony Classical SK 90581) mesmerized me from beginning to end, thanks not only to the speaker's tight grip on sustained pitches but its good orchestral weight and presence as well. And while the de Capo's bass response was not as deep as that of, say, my Quad ESL-989s, it left no doubt when the deeper instruments were played near the bottoms of their ranges. It's not that I simply heard them, or anything so coarse as saying I felt them—but I simply became aware of their importance the way I do in real life. That's part of what I regard as musically natural or organic presentation, and that's what the de Capo had in spades.

But more than anything, I kept coming back to piano music with these speakers. For one thing, the de Capo was free of the gross colorations that can make piano music fatiguing to listen to in more than small doses: Even my Lowthers, God bless their presence and immediacy, are too bumpy in the upper mids to prevent certain notes from standing out or ringing, and that, too, makes my brain tired after a while. Of course, my Quad ESL-989s, which I also love, are free from such nastiness, and for that reason as well as their own successful-if-different way with scale, they too have increased my enjoyment of piano music at home—albeit at close to four times the de Capos' price, and requiring several times as much amplifier power.

The two-disc edition of Josef Hoffman's Casimir Hall recital—Vol.6 in Marston Records' complete and irreplaceable Hoffman series (Marston 52014-2)—drove the Reference 3As to great emotional peaks several evenings in a row at my house. While the Canadian speakers were ruthless in exposing the flaws in the original 1938 recording (hiss, weird resonances, etc.), they more than made up for it by telegraphing Hoffman's wild and sometimes outrageous performances of the standard repertoire—especially Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata, which hadn't sounded this exciting to me since I'd last heard the great Jerome Rose play it in concert (quite differently, of course).

Spatially, these speakers pulled off the very neat trick of combining precise image placement—the woodwinds on the Pierre Monteux recording of Brahms' Symphony 2 (LP, Philips 835 167 AY) were right there—with the ability to convey both the size of an orchestra and the distance between the listener and such things as the horns in the back row. Usually, when describing small speakers that sound big, reviewers talk about space and air and other things that don't really have anything to do with music (except maybe Cage's). What the Reference 3As did was not that sort of phasey, reverberant bigness; rather, they made the music itself big and substantial when called for. Incidentally, these speakers sounded best when heard at close range, I thought. Suits me.

Of the three amps I own, my favorite with the de Capos was the Audio Note Kit One, which uses a single 300B tube per side for a Schwarzeneggerish 7W or so. My second favorite was the Fi 2A3 Stereo, a 3Wpc amp that actually controlled the bass better—but only at volume levels much lower than the realistic. My 35Wpc Naim NAP110 drove the de Capos all right, but the presentation was somewhat poorer than with the two aforementioned tube amps, with less of a sense of flow and a more mechanical and less organic presentation overall. Is that a large enough sampling to suggest that these speakers preferred tube amps to transistors? I don't know.

Perhaps neatest of all, when I tried to push the de Capos beyond their apparent dynamic limits, they didn't sound strained: The very loudest bits just didn't get louder. So while it's fair to say these speakers compressed the music when pushed too far, I think I'd rather have that than egregious distortion: mushiness, fuzziness, other "uh" words.

You might be interested to know how the de Capo fared when measured in my listening room with the AudioControl spectrum analyzer: From their best overall positions, which were well away from the wall behind them, they were flat down to 80Hz and approximately 4dB down at 63Hz, with useful if attenuated output all the way down to 31.5Hz. (I say "approximately" because bass performance below 80Hz was affected by small shifts in microphone/listener position relative to the wall behind it—a normal effect in a room of this size, and one that could probably be made slightly less severe by devoting even more time and work to placement.)

The spectrum analyzer also confirmed that toeing-in the de Capos was a bad idea. Aimed straight ahead—ie, with the tweeters heard somewhat off-axis—the performance was flat, apart from a 4dB bump at 630Hz that I could never get rid of. With the speakers toed-in and the tweeters heard on-axis, although the top-end response was now only 2dB down at 20kHz, there was also a nasty 4dB bump at 12.5kHz, the likes of which would tend to exaggerate hiss on older recordings and other amusical artifacts.

Conclusion
In short: The Reference 3A MM de Capo i is a nice-looking small speaker with much higher sensitivity than average for the breed. Goes loud and big easily, and has decent if not earth-shattering bass. Some superfluous darkness in the mids, but everything's balanced nicely overall, and it communicates sonic textures brilliantly. Rhythmically fine, with good pitch definition and an utterly superb sense of flow and human feel. Can be driven by some SETs in a small to moderate room, although very-low-power amps (2A3s, 45s, etc.) are doubtful. Decent value, high recommendation.

Nothing—nothing—about the Reference 3A MM de Capo i could prepare you for how good it is: not its name, or its appearance, or any description of what's gone into it. I wish this review could do the job, but that may fail as well, leaving you no choice but to hear it. Do it: This speaker is utterly worth whatever time you spend with it, and every penny of the asking price.

COMPANY INFO
Reference 3A
342 Frederick Street
Kitchener, Ontario N2H 4L8
Canada
(519) 749-1565
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