Reference 3A MM De Capo
by Steven R. Rochlin
Here we have a modern day minimonitor classic. An eye opener to those who feel that minimonitors have no bass. While the 3A might not be a classic in the sense that it has been around for decades, it has been around for many years ever evolving and changed for the better. My first exposure to the 3A series was their almost $5,000 Royal Reference 3A minimonitor (hence forth called the Royal version). It featured the same basic driver configuration yet was wrapped in gorgeous real wood as today's Sonus Faber loudspeakers. While the then crossover used a good signal capacitor, upgrading it to the high quality Hovland brought about more transparency and better harmonics. Please keep in mind that, to this day, there is no crossover for the woofer and only a part or two for the tweeter's crossover. The Royal was (and still is) a great loudspeaker, yet here we have their new model that retails for about half the price!
Today the folks at Reference 3A have refined the design with tighter quality controls with a cabinet much more solid than the wood wrapped Royal Reference 3A of years past. The problem with the old wood models was that the wood would warp and form gaps between it and the inner wood cabinet. Not a good thing. The new, and did i mention half-priced MM De Capo on review comes in a gloss black extremely solid cabinet. Much like what Wilson does with their mega thousands dollar Watt minimonitor. Maybe not as inert as the Wilson, it is much improved over the wood wrapped model of days gone by. Of course not all the improvement are in the cabinet.
The high-tech 8" hyper exponentially shaped carbon fiber cone has been refined while the frame is treated with Vibra-Puck (a resonance reducing substance). Centrally mounted on the 8" driver is a phase plug to keep the phase response in proper order. The 26mm soft-dome tweeter is latex coated while the voice coil is ferrofluid damped. The double rear chamber, chamber inside center of voice coil and magnet structure, is acoustically dampened to reduce nonlinear movements of the cone (read: distortion). While the resonant frequency of the tweeter is 700 Hz, the crossover's 6dB/octave slope is 3000 Hz at 3 dB and continues from there. So how does this new and relatively cost effective (under half price of the older model) reproduce music?
The guys at Reference 3A already had a winner on their hands with the old Royal version years ago. Setup was easy as i still had the specially made 26" high stands. These are sand filled with adjustable spike bottoms and very inert. These minimonitors like to be about one third the way into the room and setup seemed best when they were at a 60 degree angle. i also used some imitation Blu-Tac substance on the bottom of the MM De Capo seems to get the most from these little jewels. A slight toe-in seemed to deliver the best in imaging and holographic soundscaping. As for loudspeaker cables, the Nirvana S-L proved to be best.
Let's Hear it!
After 200 hours of general break-in Chesky Records' The Agnostic (compact disc CD202) went into my beloved digital front end (custom transport and Audio Note DAC 5 Special Edition). Please see my previous review of this recording. Full orchestra and choir has a wonderfully full and dynamic impact. While not as dynamic as my reference Avantgarde Acoustic Duo (or previous Unos), for minimonitors the MM De Capo is very sensitive and dynamic. The crucial midrange is where these babies shine. There is a good amount of inner resolution within the impressive imagine capability as most properly designed minimonitors offer. Harmonics is where this unit really shines. While the highs seem slightly rolled off in the uppermost extremes, there is a great deal of rightness to the sound of instruments. The ultra light 8" woven carbon fibre midrange/woofer driver delivers great speed and definition. In fact what might be mistaken as smoothness is actually great resolving ability. It is like that where low resolution digital photography where the edges are easily apparent whereas great film, especially medium and large format film, renders smoothness with the greater ability for inner details.
While the lowest few octaves of many loudspeakers this size have little to offer, the bass was deeper than one would expect! Not subwoofer territory mind you, but quite full. It seems the MM De Capo's speed and volume output in the lower regions is more than adequate for virtually all music lovers. You virtually never miss those last few octaves... unless you love pipe organ and modern electronica. For 95% of the acoustic music i enjoy, those last few octaves were not missed.
After a few more days and many albums on vinyl, compact disc and DVD passed through the same feelings as above apply. As for imaging, minimonitors are known for their "disappearing act". Once properly setup and integrated into the room, a holographic 3-D projection seems easier with minimonitors than with large floorstanding behemoths. Side to side and behind the loudspeakers was rendered well, but not ultra-precise. Stage depth was very good on many recordings with such information, but not on the scale of my super expensive Avantgarde Duos, previous Unos or Wilsons i have heard over the years. While the MM De Capo are slouch, they seem to be a bit foreshortened in achieving the ultimate imaging or super spacious depth. Also, they seem to not be able to throw a good amount of the hall acoustics' into the room in front of them. As these are the least expensive loudspeakers Reference 3A offers, i am sure that some compromises were made as compared to their new, top line version of the Royal Reference 3A (at $5,000/pr).
Part of the reason for this foreshortening may be that the older Royals had their front panel covered in acoustic foam. This foam was glued to the front baffle with circular cutouts only big enough to allow the drivers to not be obstructed. Why acoustic foam? The foam helps to reduce the front cabinet reflections from interfering with the direct signal produced by the drivers. Alas, the correct foam needed is not at hand and therefore i could not try placing it on the front baffle to prove my intuitions. Could be the ultimate $10 tweak and give the MM De Capo higher imaging capabilities.
Cheaper is Better!
The MM De Capo offers a huge glimpse into audio nirvana. Maybe not the most extended highs for cymbals and triangle and not super deep bass for electronica, yet the crucial middle frequencies are well provided for. Lovers of acoustic jazz and orchestra will be presently surprised! For "only" $2,500/pr these piano black minimonitors are the best value in their category in my opinion. Nothing i have heard over the past years comes close to being so harmonically right and offer great speed and detail. Their imaging ability is very holographic but a bit foreshortened. Adding acoustic foam to the front baffle could correct this and make these minimonitors a steal of a deal! While i have had a few unimpressive minimonitors here, some of which never made it to review as they were truly horrendous, the MM De Capo is possibly the best value i know of for those looking for a pair of great minimonitor. An audition is highly recommended.
PS: For those looking for more, the Royal Reference has been redesigned and priced at $5,000. While i can not say if they offer twice the performance or as high a value for the dollar, those looking for more refinement with suitable finances may want to check them out. Furthermore, if you want to do away with the minimonitor and go with a floorstanding design, Reference 3A offers the La Veritas for $3000/pair.
Maximum input power: 120 watts RMS
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