This is not my first rodeo. I've reviewed the MM de Capo before, back in January 2011. But the team at Reference 3A make it their business to improve their various lines of speakers whenever they learn something new, or whenever better quality components become available. And they do this assiduously. The MM de Capo BE is the latest iteration in a journey that began in the 1980s with the MM (Midi Master) speaker from Europe's 3A. Since 1998 development of the MM has been in the safe hands of Reference 3A's Tash Goka in Kitchener/Waterloo less than a hundred miles from where I live in Toronto. Tash is a keen music lover, and very familiar with the sound of live orchestral music, the ultimate reference.
This speaker has been a long term favorite here at Enjoy The Music.com, and may be the only component whose performance, longevity and continuous improvement has warranted no less than four reviews in these pages. What Alex Baldwin is to Saturday Night Live, the MM de Capo BE Monitor is to Enjoy the Music.com! (Creative Director Steven's Note: Owned the original first version about 22 years ago with a pair of Wavelength Audio Cardinal X-1 tube monoblocks, loved 'em!)
Reference 3A specialize in speakers where the main drivers are directly coupled to the amplifier, with the simplest of crossover to level match the tweeter to the main driver. Further distinguishing the MM de Capo and the smaller Dulcet BE and floorstanding Episode BE is the angled baffle which serves to time align the drivers at the listening position. To pair a tweeter with a directly driven bass/midrange, you can't use off the shelf drivers. They are simply not designed with this configuration in mind. What other manufacturers achieve through the complex circuitry in their crossovers, Reference 3A achieve using mostly mechanical means, letting the suspension and housing achieve the required roll off to achieve a smooth transition. They make all their own drivers, and they take advantage of some rather exotic material, carbon fiber for the cones in the main drivers and beryllium (hence BE) for the dome tweeters. I'm not sure how they do this, because beryllium is notoriously dangerous to work with, but Tash seems to be in good health so they must be doing it right!
I don't want to regurgitate the full history of the speaker, because we've visited it before in these reviews:
Today we'd like to update you on the last seven years of progress, and then concentrate on the listening experience.
So let's look at the updates since our last visit.
2014 brought seven running changes
Internal Wiring: High purity (6N) OCC copper conductors with Teflon dielectric (continuous cast, single crystal, cryogenically treated). Appropriate thickness of wires are used for each driver.
Mechanical Grounding and additional internal work to further reduce cabinet noise: Drains spurious vibration energy from the driver's frame and the motor to the cabinet for a well controlled, 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.
Soft brass screws used to fasten drivers: Reduces the resonant noises generated by the driver/frame and commonly used steel screw interaction.
New, gold plated real copper five way binding posts with gold plated conductors: Better conductivity than the commonly used brass types for better input signal transmission.
New high purity (6N) OCC copper bi-wire jumpers: Clearly better than the jumpers previously used.
Cryogenic treatment: Connectors, internal wiring, and metal driver parts are now cryogenically treated.
In 2015 the fabric dome tweeter made way for the new Beryllium dome tweeter.
In 2016 the Surreal Acoustic lens was installed at the center of the main driver.
In 2017 the Rear damper panel was installed, bringing us up to date, for now.
These last three changes are the most significant so let's take a closer look at these in turn.
The Beryllium Dome Tweeter
The Surreal Acoustic Lens
The Rear Damper Panel
These modestly priced speakers have high end aspirations and deserve a place in a no-compromise system in a small to medium sized room. If your room is larger, remember this is the second smallest in a range of seven Reference 3A speakers based on similar technology. Bigger means louder with greater bass extension, but sound quality is designed to be consistent throughout the range.
To run in the speakers for a few hundred hours, I placed them on Target stands and partnered them with a Naim UnitiQute amp and a Meridian G08 CD player. I didn't do any critical listening there, but they were clearly a good match for the low powered (30 Wpc) Naim. They represent an easy amplifier load and are remarkably efficient at 92dB/W/m sensitivity. They are also a good match for low powered tube amplification. This is largely due to the direct connection to the main driver, eliminating the losses that a conventional crossover would introduce.
Once fully run in, I moved them into my reference system, replacing the YG Acoustics Carmel 2s. The digital source is the new EMM Labs XDS1 V3, astonishingly transparent and arguably the best single box player on the market. A newly updated EMM Labs Pre2 feeds a powerhouse ModWright KWA 150 SE amplifier, all components connected and powered by Nordost Valhalla 2 cables fed from a QBASE QB8 distribution system. Could the MM de Capo BE hold up its head in such lofty company?
This has been one of my most enjoyable listening experiences. I am always looking for the component that can give me a thrilling musical experience, but when I find such an animal that can do so at an affordable cost, well... bingo!
What was the price tag again? Only $3290!
First let me tell you how it sounds on an absolute basis. The first observation is that this is a speaker for all occasions – jazz, classical, rock, the human voice – it plays no favorites. Secondly, it images like a champion. With the tweeter set close to the single main driver and time coherence a stated objective, you would expect a small stand mounted speaker to do well here. It succeeds both in the width and the depth of the image. On top quality recordings it is damn near perfect in this regard. I am also impressed by the wide bandwidth. The bass is well controlled when correctly positioned in the room, at least two foot from room boundaries and facing straight forward. I did not detect any treble peak or bass hump, and the transition between the drivers appears seamless. The speaker sounds really open at the top, something that adds life to most recordings, but I never found it strident or metallic, qualities that might prove tiring for extended listening. Too many metallic tweeters have let me down in the past, but when well implemented as here, the harmonics that characterize the sound of all strings, wind and percussion emerge freely, revealing realistic instrumental tone. Silk or fabric domed tweeters rarely exhibit that annoying ringing, but are often less extended into the higher frequencies than metal domes. In truth it's not the material alone which determines the sound, but the particular implementation, and we must let our ears be the judges. This is a well implemented tweeter, and it extends past 40kHz, which should please any pet dog we may own.
Of course small speaker will not produce the deepest bass. This is a rear-ported design to make the most of its modest dimensions. Reference 3A have achieved a very good result here, with a tuneful bass which is faster than many other ported designs. The driver at 8.25" is large for the size of the speaker and this helps to move the large amounts of air required.
Paul Simon's "Wristband" from his last album Stranger to Stranger is a track that can easily sound muffled and confused, heavily laden as it is with power and detail. The MM de Capo BE brings it out with clarity and impact, making sense of all the strands and making this listener want to get up and move around to the beat. The vocal line emerges naturally and distinctly despite the heavy deep bass support. This is where the tunefulness, speed and pitch definition of that woofer really shine, and we see perhaps the biggest advantage of the direct connection between amplifier and driver.
The Pavel Haas Quartet's performance of the Dvorak String Quartets (Supraphon SU 4038-2) brings out a completely different side to the speaker's personality. The sound is sweet, the image realistic, the level of detail high. Remarkable for a disc whose dynamic extremes tend to overwhelm most speakers. Moving to Dvorak's 8th Symphony (Reference Recordings FR-710SACD) I enjoyed the spaciousness of the recording and the strong dynamics which allowed high volumes at the big crescendos without noticeable compression or thickening of sound.
Best of all in terms of realism is a disc I rarely turn to – Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch (Blue Note 84163).I played this when I first bought it around 15 years ago, and I thought then that this was not for me. Too angular, strident, too much like hard work. Well this is a tribute to the improvements across the board in hi-fi over that time period. Now there is presence, power, color and aggression that enables the music to capture my imagination. I no longer have to strain to enjoy the very advanced music making. Free jazz at its best. The MM de Capo BE won me over completely here. Equally impressive is the Art Farmer album Blame it on my Youth (Contemporary Records CCD14042-2) where I experienced a tremendous full image with strong bass drive and a very quick attack.
I should mention being blown once away by Diana Krall ‘s Impulse album All for You (Impulse! IMPD-182).The voice here is fabulous, the piano strong, rich and relaxed while the exceptional imaging draws you into the music.
I have to stretch to find limitations with this speaker. I did detect some minor cup-hand distortion on track 5 of Mozart Piano Sonatas Volume 1 from Christian Blackshaw (Chandos WH 0061), a track that plays flawlessly through the YG Acoustics Carmel 2. Even so my notes say "very clear, open, well imaged". The same applies to "Northwest Passage" from the late Stan Rogers. On the soundtrack of "Tous Les Matins du Monde" the sound is a little astringent on track 1, although elsewhere on the album it is colorful and present in a beautiful acoustic space. On a few occasions, such as Sudbin's Scarlatti Sonatas the Reference 3A didn't really involve me, and I'll put that down to the lowest registers of the piano not generating the full power I heard through the reference speakers.
So yes it's a fine speaker. How does it compare with the similarly priced and highly acclaimed Totem The One?
The Totem is 4dB less efficient and presents a tougher load to an amplifier. It's considerably smaller than the Reference 3A and it also images like a champ, providing an amazing amount of punch for such a small speaker. But it has met its match here. The Reference 3A offers better depth, a wider bandwidth and is more open and relaxed in Mozart's Grand Partita. Tom Paxton's "If the Poor Don't Matter" shows Tom in very strong voice on the Totem with great imaging, a strong beat and lots of detail. But the Reference 3A has better bass, more weight and color and reveals more detail, more like the Tom I was lucky enough to hear in a charity gig a couple of months back in Toronto. Paul McCartney's "When I'm 64" always plays well and the Reference 3A just sounds more Paul-like. On Vengerov's Prokofiev Violin Concerto the violin tone is more colorful and the soundstage is bigger through the Reference 3A, which is also less in your face than through the Totem. I won't go on because the story is consistent across the dozes of recordings I used.
Comparison With Reference YG Carmel 2
So I am very happy to give my full endorsement to the MM de Capo BE – a musician's delight, an updated classic and a bargain to boot.