Now here’s a speaker whose origins date back to the 1980s but which benefits from dozens of design improvements over the years to keep it at the leading edge of bookshelf designs. That type of longevity is given to very few audio components so there must be something special going on here, right? French designer Daniel Dehay built the original model on these simple design precepts: custom designed wide bandwidth drivers, a direct connection between the bass/midrange driver and the amplifier, time alignment of the drivers and phase coherence throughout the frequency range.
Time alignment is achieved by a backward slanting front baffle, giving this speaker and also the bigger Veena, Episode and Grand Veena speakers a distinctive profile, now widely copied in the industry (but you heard it here first). A moving coil speaker with a directly driven bass/midrange is still a rarity since most drivers do not have the right mechanical qualities to perform across a wide range of frequencies without breaking up at the upper frequencies. You usually need a crossover to cut back the signal to the driver at the frequency extremes and gently cross over to the tweeter. The trick here is to design a drive unit that achieves the same effect mechanically so that no electrical attenuation is needed. This allows the driver to be connected directly to the amplifier, removing a whole layer of complexity and inefficiency.
The MM de Capo i come with removable black mesh grills, and I like the look of them better with the grills off so you can see the gorgeous woodwork and lustrous finish. The sound is very slightly cleaner this way too. When I say this is a bookshelf speaker, I suspect most users will use them stand mounted. I put them up on sturdy 24 inch Target metal stands, but you might prefer the good looking adjustable wooden stands the manufacturer offers ($395). You can choose from a variety of finishes for the speakers themselves, the top of the line (a $400 premium) featuring 11 thick layers in a high gloss epoxy finish applied over Natural American Maple or Red Cherry for additional cabinet stiffness and a more refined sound. My test sample was Natural Maple in a Satin finish which would set you back $2,995.
What you’d hope to get with a speaker designed along these lines is something quite efficient, an easy match for any high quality amplifier, capable of throwing a very stable three dimensional image and offering high levels of detail and low distortion. That was the aim of the original design and by the standards of the day, those objectives were met, resulting in a strong reputation amongst reviewers and audiophiles alike. The passage of time has seen elevated levels of competition. There are many fine bookshelf speakers form the likes of Proac, Spendor, Rogers, KEF, B&W, to name a few well respected British imports, and this country has seen some very fine local designs, particularly from Montreal-based Totem Acoustic.
Many reviewers worry most about tonality, detail, transient response and distortion but to me these fade into insignificance next to the key attributes of image stability and dynamics, which make music sound like the real thing. It’s not that you don’t need all those other qualities, but the fact is that most speakers in this price range do well in those areas today, while far fewer offer realistic imaging and dynamics. Imaging, the portrayal of musical instruments and voices in three dimensional space, comes from very careful attention to the smallest of details and sound fundamental design. Phase coherence is one of the key factors, and another is the physical placement of the drivers. Ideally you would use one single driver across all frequencies, and some have tried this approach but very few succeeded. Certainly if you are going to use moving coil drivers, like most speakers do, finding a design that optimizes the all-important midrange inevitably leads to compromise at the frequency extremes. The next most promising approach is the concentric driver, where the tweeter sits in the centre of the midrange/woofer. Concentric drivers are again very difficult and very expensive to design properly, but are almost always imaging champs. All other designs separate the tweeter physically from the other drivers, and the larger the separation and the greater the number of drivers, the harder it is to create realistic imaging. If you are sitting at a distance from the speakers in a big room, this problem is reduced and some large speakers can image very well in those conditions, but for the rest of us compact speakers usually image better. In the case of the MM de Capo i, the distance between the tweeter and the woofer could not be closer, and the front baffle is no bigger than necessary to accommodate the two drivers selected.
So smaller is better for imaging, but with a smaller internal volume and just two drivers, the maximum volume level and the bass extension must also be limited. This generally works against excellent dynamics, which give scale and presence to the music. By dynamics I mean the ability of the speaker to increase the sound pressure linearly with the input level, without noticeable peak compression. Big speakers with three or more drivers have the advantage here, an advantage that every designer of smaller speakers is trying to claw back. In this case the designers have chosen a very lightweight but stiff cone material and a big diameter (8-¼ inch) bass/midrange driver, at the same time removing any electrical impediment between amplifier and driver to get as big a kick as possible, coupled with very fast reflexes.
So much for theory. Let’s look at the details. Like all the speakers in the range, a great deal of TLC has been lavished on the MM de Capo i over the years and those who have owned or heard an earlier version might like to know what the designers have done over the years to keep it at the head of the pack. Let’s run through the changes since the introduction of the i version in 2003 before I tell you what I heard in my listening room:
• Edge-hole-treatment (unique to Reference 3A drivers): Filling in the joint where the soft surround meets the hard cone edge with a new type of epoxy to avoid cancellations
• New custom made multiple flat plate paper-in-oil capacitors
• New low resonant frequency tweeter
• Improved cabinet construction using perforated braces and a vertical spine piece
The very latest iteration (June 2009) now adds the following improvements:
• New CCSC (continuous cast, single crystal high purity OFC) internal wiring with PTFE (Teflon) dielectric
• Mechanical grounding of the drivers draining spurious vibration energy from the driver’s frame and the motor to the cabinet for a more open, detailed and dynamic sound
• Copper Shorting Ring (Faraday Ring) improves linearity in driver’s voice coil magnetic field gap to reduce dynamic compression and better tracking of signal
• New Mundorf Supreme Silver Oil capacitors used as the tweeter high-pass filter for extended, more dynamic and faster high frequencies
• Soft brass screws used to fasten drivers reduce the resonant noises generated by the driver/frame
• New, five way binding posts with gold plated tellurium copper conductors provide better conductivity than the commonly used brass types for better input signal transmission
• New CCC (Continuous Cast Copper) bi-wire jumpers
• All connectors, internal wiring, and metal driver parts are now cryogenically treated
So while not deviating from the original design principles, you can see how every aspect of the implementation has been examined and where possible, improved with the higher quality parts now available.
Sadly I don’t have a vintage MM de Capo i on hand to do an A/B comparison, but this review is not for current owners considering an upgrade. It’s for those of you in the market for very high quality stand mounted speakers that won’t break the bank. What you need to know from me is how they sound today. And that’s an easy call. Like all top flight components, they are consistent across a wide range of music, whether you love opera or rap, Count Basie or Keb Mo. Just be sure to pair them with high quality components capable of showing them at their best.
These speakers represent an easy drive for most amplifiers since they are quite efficient and have a smooth impedance curve, but they are quite sensitive to location. They have little need for reinforcement from room boundaries to produce a solid bass, so bring them well away from the walls. Ideally the listener and the two speakers form an equilateral triangle, and very little or no toe-in is required. Mount them on rigid stands with blue-tac and then make small adjustments to the toe-in to optimize the imaging in your favourite chair and you’re done. I found I could then get up and walk around and the image was stable and enjoyable over a wide range. This large sweet spot is especially important if there will be more than one listener at a time.
Imaging is in fact this speaker’s forte. Correctly set up, the performers can be easily located in space, and this contributes enormously to the impression of reality. Thanks to that big main driver, the MM de Capo i puts up very strong numbers in the dynamics category, easily impressing throughout Ivan Fischer’s superb SACD performance of Brahms First Symphony. If it can keep its head here it should have no trouble holding its own in less demanding types of music. Actually solo piano can be even more demanding than a full orchestra so I gave it a workout there too, and found a rich, deep musical range which preserves the full gamut of such complex recordings as Zimmerman’s Liszt Sonata. From here to jazz and folk gave no surprises, so let’s see how it fares with pop, rock and outstanding female vocalists like Jennifer Warnes.
The MM de Capo i produces prodigious bass – it’s flat down to 42 Hz – and this helps it sail through these tests with aplomb. Bass guitar comes through pitch perfect and without strain, giving a strong underpinning to rock. The superb integration between the drivers, a miracle given the simple tweeter network, makes Warnes’ The Well a delight, while the Beatles’ Love album is fresh, punchy and detailed. Across the board, detail and transient response are both strong, though not outstanding, while distortion is commendably low and tonality is spot on.
So is this the perfect speaker? Of course not. The first thing I would change is the name. Reference 3A MM de Capo i is just too much of a handful. It is also a relatively small speaker, and lacks the maximum output and spectacular dynamics of its own big brothers, the Episode and Grand Veena. The tweeter is excellent for a speaker in this price range but does not compare in resolution or extension to the much more expensive diamond or beryllium designs found on some exotic speakers. Bass is strong down to 42 Hz but there is some music that extends down further than that, and if you love the organ you will prefer a much bigger box. It is also out of place in a large room because its ability to move air is limited. Finally, you may love the looks or hate them – aesthetics are personal, and there are no graceful curves here like in a Wilson Benesch or Sonus Faber. You’re paying for the sound quality. The MM de Capo i is certainly worth an audition if you can pony up the asking price.
Reference 3A – A Family Resemblance
3A (Applied Acoustic Arts) was originally set up in France in 1959 by French designer Daniel Dehay and relocated to Switzerland in the late eighties under the name Reference 3A. The company passed into other hands before being repurchased by Mr. Dehay around 1992 and most of the features of all current models owe their heritage to his design precepts. Today the company is located in Waterloo, Ontario under the direction of Tash Goka of Divergent Technology, who has a special love for the MM de Capo i above all the others in the Reference 3A stable.
Having spent considerable time with three Reference 3A models, the MM de Capo i, The Episode and the Grand Veena, in ascending order of size and price, I am struck by how much there is in common between them in their acoustic signature. These are not speakers you buy to impress your friends. You buy them because you love music, you know what live musicians sounds like, and you want the best speakers you can get for the money. The two bigger brothers share an exotic driver above the tweeter, the Murata Exciter. This gives them a rather more open top end which I found intoxicating, and they are both floorstanding designs, meant for progressively larger spaces and greater listening distances. While lacking the Murata Exciter, the MM de Capo i is by no means shy in the high frequencies and will suit most normal size listening spaces better than either floorstander. They are all cut from a very similar cloth both audibly and cosmetically. I’m delighted to be able to recommend these Canadian components which stand up well against speakers from a variety of specialist manufacturers around the world. Canada rules OK.
Reference 3A MM de Capo i
Price: $2,995 (as tested)