Reference MM de Capo i loudspeaker
In every other meaningful way, the Reference 3A MM de Capo i is as unforgettable as your favorite song, and some people will consider it just as lovable. Difficult though it is for me to wrap my tired mind around its name, it's also hard for me to think of another $2500/pair speaker that combines this one's superb musical flow and feel with such a very fine sense of scale, acceptably low coloration, and much greater than average electrical sensitivity. This is one hell of a nice thing.
I've just finished listening to Glenn Gould's performance of Brahms' Intermezzo in A, Op.118 No.2, from the new collection ...and Serenity (Sony Classical SK 90538), a beautifully conceived sequel to last year's A State of Wonder, and this speaker was satisfying in virtually every way important to me. Pitch certainty was superb. Timbre was fine. When Gould eased back on his arpeggios and the tempo became almost march-like for eight bars or so (beginning at about 2:45), this speaker signaled the change in flow and feel so effectively that the hairs on my arms stood up. And on the same disc, the de Capo even did a stunning job of reproducing the low B that comes 50 seconds into the Largo of the Sibelius Sonatine in E—and did so without making it sound small or pinched. Good grief—my physically much larger Lowther Medallions can't do that.
What accounts for that sort of performance?
The MM de Capo i
At first glance, this speaker looks like a thousand other stand-mounted two-ways on the market: stubby if nicely made things with sloped front baffles for physical time alignment, as well as chamfered edges, presumably to mitigate the nasty effects of treble splash.
The MM de Capo i, which was designed by company founder Daniel Dehay, is built around a proprietary midrange/bass driver common to all Reference 3A loudspeakers: a 7" cone of woven carbon fiber, executed here with an unusually flexible rubber surround and a blunt, molded phase plug. A multilayered wooden disc called a Vibra-Puck (as distinguished from VibraPod, VibroLux, or WonderPuck), intended to control unmusical resonances, is cemented to the back side of the motor, and in a move reminiscent of the one-piece baffle-frame assembly of the Epos ES11 woofer (and other designs like it), the Vibra-Puck is sturdily bolted to a wooden brace inside the cabinet.
Said cabinet is, in fact, well-braced throughout, and nicely assembled from ¾" MDF. The rear baffle incorporates a reflex port, which measures 2.5" in diameter and bends 90 degrees toward the bottom of the box. My review pair was finished in an attractive maple veneer that contrasted prettily with the black fabric grilles, and which is one of two standard finishes available (the other is the same wood stained red). A little more money can buy a pair of these speakers in black lacquer.
Reference 3A calls their woofer a "hyperexponential" cone, and the company takes obvious pride in its design and manufacture: because it's made to such exacting tolerances, and because its response is tailored so specifically to their own loudspeaker designs, they say, this handmade driver can be run flat-out, driven directly by the user's amplifier, with no filter components of any sort between it and the input terminals. The tweeter, for its part—a 1" fabric dome that the company says is made to their specifications—is saddled with only a single capacitor as a high-pass filter.
That, as much as anything else, is responsible for this speaker's higher-than-average electrical sensitivity. Combine that with an amplifier-friendly impedance curve—8 ohms for the most part, with no unpleasant bending—and you have a distinctly efficient speaker. Consequently, like other Reference 3A designs past and present, the de Capo has garnered lots of attention from enthusiasts of single-ended triode (SET) tube amps.
All the materials used in making the MM de Capo i are first-class. The above-mentioned filter component is a chunky, old-style oil cap, and similarly retro-looking wool felt appears here and there for sound absorption. The connecting wire is halogen-free van den Hul, and the double sets of speaker connectors (for biwiring) are from Cardas, as are the oddly shaped solid-copper links, which resemble the things people throw at each other in the film Zardoz (or was it Planet of the Apes?).
Construction quality is superb—all Reference 3A manufacturing is now done in Canada, having moved there from Switzerland—and it would be a shame not to mention the robust carton and packing materials used to ship these speakers, including individual cotton sacks that I found helpful for keeping the speakers dustless when not playing music.
Using ancient metal stands and adjustable spikes, I raised the de Capos about 29" off the carpeted floor, with little dabs of Blu-Tack between the stands and the bottoms of the cabinets. Coming so soon after my experiences with the Ayre AX-7 amplifier (Stereophile, October 2003), I'd rather not blow a thousand words on another setup saga; suffice it to say, these speakers confounded my early efforts at placement, and it took a lot of waltzing around to get them sounding spacious and unfussy.
Interestingly, although the de Capos are "handed" in the usual way—the tweeter is closer to one edge of the baffle than the other—the manufacturer recommends an unusual approach to room placement, with the tweeters on the outermost rather than the innermost edges. The manual also recommends aiming the speakers straight ahead; thoroughness and an immature desire to be contrary led me to try toeing them in anyway, but the sound that resulted was spatially fussy and tonally relentless. For once, I agree: Straight ahead is the way to go.
Two more placement notes: First, the manual recommends that people with smaller rooms try placing the de Capos along the long wall, firing across the room's short dimension. An earlier experience with one of this speaker's floorstanding predecessors (Listener, Vol.6 No.5) bore that out, but when I tried it with the de Capos in my 228-square-foot, medium-small listening room, I wasn't similarly rewarded. Then again, with a brand-new pair of $2500 speakers and the rest of your life ahead of you, you'd be crazy not to try everything.
Second: Irrespective of how nice that black cloth looks against the pale maple veneer, the best thing you can do with the grilles is to lose them: Having them in place changed the de Capos' sound for the worse. As I hinted a moment ago, those cotton sacks will give you all the protection you need when you're not actually using your hi-fi.