The editor, Steven R. Rochlin, loves his MM de Capo i and you can and should read why at this 2003 review and this 2000 review. He has entrusted me now with a update to his glowing reviews. So what have the last seven years brought to this overachieving stand mounting mini monitor and does it still have a place in today's crowded marketplace? In fact the boys from Ontario have been quite busy updating their entire range of speakers to take advantage of new materials and design tweaks to optimize performance and value. Here's the list of changes:
Now that's quite a list, with the last eight improvements coming in 2009. Nothing has changed in the fundamental design, but parts quality has improved, the cabinet stiffened, and every aspect of the design has been put under a microscope to wring out whatever small improvements are possible. The designers have incorporated the things they learned while developing the range topping Grand Veena loudspeakers as reviewed here.
The slanting baffle, straight edges and wide profile of the MM de Capo i make a strong visual statement, enhanced by the superb wood and gloss finishes available. The review pair sports a natural American maple finish, right at home in a contemporary listening room, and ideally you'll set them atop the updated wooden stands Reference 3A offers. I used my black metal Target stands to good audio effect, but they are rather utilitarian in appearance.
The speakers are quite revealing, instantly communicating the differences between the various amps and sources I had lying around. They deserve the best, so for most of my review I listened through my reference components (EMM Labs XDS1 SACD Player, Parasound JC-2 Preamp, Bryston 4B SST² Power Amp). Speaker cables were Atlas Mavros bi-wires, and all the other cables were Nordost Valhalla. Although the Bryston has enough power to drive a battleship, you don't need all those watts here, since the MM de Capo i is quite an efficient speaker with a fairly flat impedance curve, and will be an easy load for most tube amps. This is a function of the direct connection of the main drivers to the output of the amplifier, no crossover intervening. It also managed very well when driven by the inexpensive 30 wpc NAIM UnitiQute, producing a big, bold sound, and this flexibility is certainly one of the chief attractions. What the NAIM lacks is the last word in dynamics, low level resolution and holographic imaging which the reference gear offers in spades.
Remember that Steven R. Rochlin noted that imaging improved significantly with the introduction of the i version: "When all is carefully dialed in for the best results, the imaging is about as wide and deep as my ears have heard", and his conclusion reads "From top to bottom the sound reproduced from the Royal Reference 3A MM De Capo-i is smooth, clean, clear and very fast".
Steven was right in 2003, but standards today are higher than ever, and ultra expensive mini monitors from the likes of Magico and TAD have shown us what is possible, albeit at an impossible price for most of us. Reference 3A does not play in the five figures league, but aims to compete sonically with all comers. So let us turn to the listening tests. I found these speakers quite sensitive to their placement in the room. The bass response needs little by way of wall reinforcement, working best with several feet of air behind them and almost no toe, with an equilateral triangle formed between the two speakers and the listener. On the other hand, the sweet spot itself is remarkably wide. So you sweat the details once and then you're good to go. The reward is a very open sound, a strong image focus and excellent depth behind the pane of the speakers.
splendid Shostakovich Piano Concerto disc [Hyperion SACDA67425] is deeply
immersive and organic. Just when you're thinking it might be a touch bass shy,
along comes a deep bass flourish, clean and tuneful, and you know what's missing
is not so much bass as bloat. Dynamics are very strong for a speaker of this
size, but it is also evident it is working quite hard at the big climaxes. Head
bangers should look elsewhere. The Shchedrin Piano Concerto that follows
features frightening dynamics which the Reference 3A MM de Capo i delivers with
authority, rich color and vanishingly low distortion. This then is a promising
For an even fuller orchestral experience let's move to Ivan Fischer's dramatic new Brahms First Symphony [Channel Classics CCSSA28309]. Portrayal of weight, strength, color and dynamics are severely tested here, and little criticism can be made. The sheer cohesion of the orchestra is magical, extending even to the superb plucked strings. Flutes have a most realistic tone, while horns are not as artificially brilliant as we sometimes hear, speaking to a fine balance between the drivers. Realistic volume levels present no issues until we get to the last few minutes of the finale, where maximum sound pressure levels are approached and compression sets in, limiting both linearity and detail.
What I did find however is that the Ref 3A acts like a magnifying glass. It seems to succeed brilliantly on the best recordings, such as these two SACDs. The agility of the speaker is very evident, there being no discernable overhang. In fact my notes read "floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee." But the converse is also true. It will reveal all the imperfections on less stellar recordings. Some speakers tend to romanticize the sound, adding a patina of warmth to a thin sounding recording, glossing over a slight digital edge, but you won't get that forgiving nature here. So for example, through these speakers you'll really appreciate how much better the remastered Beatles albums are than their older equivalents. If you really want great Beatles sound, you'll want remixing as well as remastering, and the Beatles Love album [Capitol 094637981023] is the one to go for. "Because" throws a very wide image, birds tweeting well to the left of the left speaker. Depth and location are excellent and resolution quite strong, although not in the same league as the reference Wilson Benesch Act 1s. As in the Brahms, the Ref 3As play the music, but they don't have that superb sense of ease and clarity of the very best speakers, the sense that comes from working well within their margin of safety. "Sgt Pepper" is in your face, as it is with the smaller Totem "The One", offering excitement in spades. Once again it pulls off its dynamic magic at a high volume level but it cannot match the effortless explosiveness of the Magico or TAD, and I would have been stunned if it could. The Ref 3A is at its best in smaller scale music, female vocalists perhaps, or late fifties jazz, where the dynamics are not stress testing a small speaker's maximum output level. "Eleanor Rigby" and "Blackbird" show the test speaker's many outstanding qualities, rhythmic assurance, realistic string tone and natural sounding vocals chief amongst them. "Yesterday" sees me scribbling "brilliant, beautiful, warm, as good as it gets."
There is fine layering and imaging that puts everything in its rightful place on the title track of The Well by Jennifer Warnes [CISCO SCD 2034]. The cymbals are not as fine as the bigger Ref 3As but the midrange is superb and the bass is strong. "Too Late Love Comes" wonderfully captures her wide ranging voice over an atmospheric underpinning of pipes, whistles and strings. "Invitation to the Blues" is a knockout track and Warnes is sultry, worldly wise and she delivers perfect phrasing. The deep bass notes are not fully resolved, just hinted at here.
The Beethoven String Quartets on Dr. Ray Kimber's
Iso Mike SACD recording [FSQCD5] puts too much stress on the De Capo in the "Grosse
Fugue". Here the sound is slightly harsh and thin; lacking the richness and
refinement of the reference speakers or of the other tracks on this same disc
played through the test speakers. There again, this movement is always a
challenge to the listeners, whether in the recital hall or in the comfort of
your own home, so I would not make too much of this.
So the Reference 3A MM de Capo i is not a
universal panacea but a superb instrument finely tuned to faithfully reproduce
all but the largest scale music, in small to medium size rooms. By using it
within these parameters at the end of a highly transparent system you will have
access to superbly high quality reproduction that you will be hard pressed to
improve significantly upon at any price. At $2995 this is an unquestionable
bargain. Steve Rochlin went gaga
over these speakers in 2000 and again in 2003. Now it's 2011 and I'm drinking
the same Kool-Aid.
These ratings are on my current scale and not to the same scale as editor Steven R. Rochlin's' 2000 and 2003 ratings.