I listened to these speakers with both tube and solid-state amplifiers. I've listened to them in two different rooms and two different systems. I've listened to every genre of music that I like, including solo instruments, large orchestras, bombastic rock ‘n' roll, and music with vocals and instrumental music. I won't pretend that these speakers are inexpensive. They are not. Nor will I pretend that the Reflectors are perfect. No speakers are. But Reference 3A has taken what is an imperfect design, that is, a speaker that is too small to reproduce the lowest bass, and instead concentrated on what it can do, that is, reproduce the midrange and treble, and they ended up with a speaker that has a degree of both transparency and excitement that is very rare in a stand-mounted speaker, and certainly rare in any dynamic speaker I've heard.
Reference 3A has produced a speaker that just about any audiophile with ears will be able to live with for what I assume will be a lifetime. It may sound as if I'm painting myself into a corner, so from now on will not be able to review, let alone recommend any other stand-mounted speaker. That's not so. Audiophiles have different requirements that must be met before they're going to lay down twelve-grand for a pair of speakers. Besides not reproducing the low bass I'll also admit that the Reflector might not meet some of other requirements that an audiophile might have, but since I can't get inside the heads of these audiophiles I don't know what these requirements might be. But – in my listening rooms, with my associated gear, playing the music that I like, the Reflector is a speaker I'd buy for myself if I was looking for a stand-mounted model anywhere near its price.
With that out of the way, I'll discuss the details of this speaker in more detail.
Reference 3A claims that removing the crossover components from the signal path allows the musical signal to arrive uninterrupted and intact. The speaker's Truextent beryllium dome tweeter uses very thin sheet material, which measures about 25 to 50 microns, and the high frequency bandwidth is controlled by a single, in-house customized capacitor. Reference 3A's "Surreal Acoustic Lens" is used in the driver's cones to prevent formation of air vortexes that can be generated by condensed air particles and turbulence in the deep center of the cones. This vortex can cause noise, and it is said to be drastically reduced by their lens.
Reference 3A cryogenically treats all their connectors, internal wiring, and metal driver parts. Many, including yours truly will attest to the positive effects of cryogenically treating audio component parts. I've heard these effects when treating everything from vacuum tubes to cables, and many hobbyists will back me up on this claim. These days, it is hardly the most expensive process, and it is a wonder why more manufacturers don't take advantage of this. The extra refinement and transparency that it adds to sound reproduction is quite remarkable. The Reflector's cryogenically treated internal wiring are Teflon insulated, high purity OCC conductors.
The speaker's driver frames are fastened with softer metal brass screws to avoid resonance noise potentially generated by similarly hard metals. AVM vibration control fluid is used to coat voice coils and critical areas of the cone to also reduce resonance induced noises. I was very impressed with the Reflector before I even started playing music through them. They are also very good looking. The cabinets are coated with a patented material they call Nextel. It's a matte textured coating that is said to absorb light and sound, and claimed to reduce cabinet diffraction effects and absorbs surface vibrations for an even more silent cabinet. As a bonus, the Reflector is a very, very good-looking speaker, with or without its grilles in place. I thought they look better with their grilles removed, and even might have sounded a bit better. Others might wish to leave the grilles in place. The difference is sound quality was very, very small.
The Reflector pair were already broken in before I received delivery of them, and so I started my serious listening sessions as soon as they were set-up. I first used them, and where they spent most of their time, was in my second system, which is in a common area of our home. My reference speakers in this room are the EgglestonWorks Isabel Signature two-way floor standing speakers. The pair of Reference 3A speakers didn't seem too fussy about positioning, yet their 24" stands still ended up practically in the same space as my reference. Even though there is a fireplace on that wall, it is still a bit reflective (pun no intended), as is the rest of the room. To minimize the liveliness of this medium-sized room, I keep the blinds closed during serious listening sessions, and with that simple change the room becomes an excellent place to listen to speakers, or any other component that I'm reviewing.
During the Reflector's review, I used a variety of power and sources but most of the time I powered them with a pair of PrimaLuna Dialogue Six monoblocks that put out a healthy 70 Watts per channel when in ultralinear mode (40 Watts in triode mode, but I rarely use them this way). With a sensitivity of 92dB/W/m and an amiable impedance of 8 Ohms, the speakers hardly need more power that the 70 Wpc amps I used for most of the review. Still, it didn't seem at all like overkill when I used higher-Wattage solid-state power amps to drive these speakers. Using different amplifiers also gave me a greater sense of what the characteristics of the speakers were, rather than the other way around. Often, I used no preamplifier, instead relying on the volume control of the DAC. This was true when using my now vintage but still relevant Benchmark DAC1USBPre (as the Pre in its name suggests, it has no problem handling preamplifier duties, but it has only one analog input).
I also used the AURALiC VEGA DAC (it has no analog inputs). But not having any analog inputs bothered me not one iota since I didn't use any analog sources in this system, other than when using a laptop or portable devices analog output. To play silver discs I used OPPO's BDP-83 Special Edition universal disc player, which is no slouch when it comes to playing SACDs, as I have compared it to units costing many times its price. Lastly, I sometimes used my ancient and (and now discontinued) Logitech Squeezebox Touch for playing low-rez Internet radio when listening off-axis. Later on in the review I connected the Merrill Audio Christine Reference preamplifier I reviewed in May. Not only did the Merrill Audio unit improved the sound coming forth from the speakers considerably, it also has a remote control, which made life much easier when it was presiding over the system.
Before I finished the review, I took the time to lug the speakers and stands to my dedicated listening room, which not only has a much better front-end, including my turntable set-up, but is acoustically treated. My comments regarding the sound quality of the Reference 3A Reflector is based on hearing the speakers in both listening rooms with a wide variety of associated gear.
First, they only have two drivers, and in the Reflectors case, they don't have a crossover to muck things up. They also don't have a large woofer in a large cabinet that might cause resonances that have to be dealt with. Besides that, a stand-mounted speaker allows the designer to focus on the mids and the treble without having to worry about the integration of these large drivers that are responsible for the lowest frequencies. As soon as I started my listening sessions it was made clear that these speakers were indeed designed to take advantage of their stand-mounted status and all the advantages that come with it. Surprisingly, the bass is more than simply adequate, it has usable bass down to about 40Hz, and maybe a bit lower. I listened to many genres of music that one would assume would need a subwoofer to fully enjoy, but didn't feel I needed it as long as I didn't push the volume up too high.
But that's not what blew me over when I first started playing music through the Reflector, and even when I became accustomed to their sound. These speakers have the ability to keep pace with the music, and I mean all types of music, not just small-scale stuff like chamber music and jazz ensembles. Their dynamic range is incredible, and can reproduce large scale music as expertly as many floor-standers I've heard, and even better than some. This is due to the huge soundstage that they project to the sides of the speakers, behind the speakers, between the two speakers, and in some cases in-front of the speakers. In fact, the center image that the Reflector's possess is amazing. With the right recording it sounded as if there was a center speaker positioned between the two Reflectors.
Of course, my attention is drawn to this center-image when there is a vocalist featured on the recording that is panned to the center. To me, this is one of the miracles of high-end audio -- to project a sonic hologram of vocalist that has been recorded either recently or long ago, making these singers eternal, as they will live forever on my stereo system, never aging past the recording date. Depending on the recording, when reproduced by the Reflector the human voice sounds extremely lifelike, with details such as being to be able to tell whether the vocalist was recorded in an isolation booth or in a larger room, to hear their mouth sounds as they are forming the words, the contribution of chest sounds in more passionate singers.
These are not the sounds of speaker that is overly detailed, but the sound of a speaker that is honestly recreating what the microphone hears. His or her voice enters my room, and performs for me and me only (unless I have the occasional guest) to perform the same number again and again, each time allowing me notice something different about the performance. Or perhaps not, as I can simply bask in the sound, with the knowledge that I can recall this performance any time I wish. I'm sure these thoughts occurred in those listening to the first recordings ever made. But they never imagined it would sound like this -- to hear it through the Reference 3A Reflector, with this type of detail and quality, with the living, breathing life-like quality of a human being with talents that make them worthy of having their recording played again and again.
I know, the last section my description might seem a little weird. So, an objective description of some of the traits of the Reflector is necessary. I've stated that the Reflector is a soundstage champ, and can project a lifelike image between the two speakers. These speakers also revealed themselves to be very sensitive to the quality of the recording, that is, there are big sonic dividends when playing back a recording that has been recorded well. When I played a complex orchestral piece, such as Bruckner's Fifth Symphony performed by the Vienna Phil conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt on an RCA SACD, the soundstage rarely was produced in front of the speakers, as much of it was when I played the raucous rock ‘n' roll metal and well-recorded album of Motörhead's brilliant 1982 classic Ace Of Spades. A different type of recording, so a different type of soundstage.
With the Bruckner SACD, the soundstage was larger, as this huge soundstage occupied an area way behind and to the sides of the speakers, giving the impression that I was listening to this piece from the perspective of standing next to Harnoncourt on the podium. That was quite thrilling, actually, as I could see with my ears the different instruments during solo passages, and entire sections of the orchestra, albeit in miniature, in their proper places. Bruckner symphonies are what I consider "power orchestral" music, not only due to his renowned use of horns playing in closely clustered chords and in unison, but there is little use of percussion in his pieces other than the occasional tympani. And yet the definition that the Reflectors exhibited during this piece was magnificent, as the leading edge of the transients were clearly outlined. But let me make this clear: the definition that these speakers exhibit isn't any greater than the definition we hear in real-life when listening to the instruments of an orchestra. Plus, Brucker might have used a large orchestra, with legions of strings, woodwinds and horns, but without the use of a battery of percussion to shake things up.
At the same time, the Reflectors somehow could "know" which instruments they were reproducing, and rendered them in one of the most lifelike ways that I've ever heard from a pair of two-way stand-mounted dynamic speakers. I've already illustrated how the designers set about doing this with the Reflector. But in practice, to hear the oboe play a solo in Adagio which opens the piece, and not to say to oneself "that sounds like an oboe", but rather, "that is an oboe playing" is one of the reasons I became an audiophile in the first place. And the Reflector is one of the tools we can use to enjoy our lifestyle-choice.
The type of tweeter used by a speaker's designer is critical. Of course, there isn't one type of tweeter that is inherently better than the other, there have been excellent designs over the years using every type of tweeter imaginable. These days there have been many excellent results using Beryllium tweeters, and the one used in the Reflector is put to very good use, to say the least. Beryllium is a very lightweight and very rigid metal, so it is an excellent material for use in tweeters (but it is also expensive, and thus it adds to the cost of a speaker).
Since this speaker does not use a crossover between its two drivers, only one capacitor limits the unusable lower frequencies that arrive at its terminals, I assume I was hearing the beryllium tweeter without much added to it that might color its sound. The resulting sound is a tweeter that is so fast that while the music was playing, in my mind I could imagine this tweeter anticipating the signal fed to it. Obviously, it couldn't do that, but tweeter's ability to aid in the reproduction of a very life-like sound through the speakers is no secret, even though the tweeter hardly acted alone in reproducing the sound of any instrument, even those we think of having a very high-frequency response. Even a piccolo's lowest notes reach down to about 500Hz, a flute even lower, at around 250Hz. That the two drivers of this speaker were working together to reproduce the music coming forth was a given, but when I'd hear a cymbal crash, or even the lip sounds of a singer during a quiet passage, it was obvious that the tweeter of the Reflector could not only reproduce sounds with an extremely flat sounding frequency response, but a very realistic sounding one, too. It was the latter that impressed me the most, as I'd sometimes marvel at how realistic the sounds of instruments and voices sounded through the Reflector.
Referring to the Bruckner SACD again. When this disc was released back in 2004, and one of the last SACDs I bought from the brick & mortar Tower Records, it took the crown as one of my favorite digital versions of this symphony. First, Harnocourt is conducting none other than the Vienna Philharmonic, and even if he didn't have adequate rehearsal time before the performances and recording (although he probably did), most of the orchestra was likely very familiar with this score. And even though Harnocourt puts his personal stamp on the reading, he seems to stick to a recognizable interpretation as some past maestros such as Eugen Jochum did, which I spent what seems like a good portion of my adult life enjoying on EMI LPs. Harnocourt does seem to take this one faster, which I have no problem with. But what makes this disc so great is its sound quality, which blows away any other versions I've ever heard.
The low-end of this disc is just one of the reasons why I turn to this disc when desiring to hear this symphony, the left-hand side of the orchestra's lower strings has a heft to it that is very impressive. Very. On larger speakers (and with an added subwoofer) the fundamental frequencies that are produced by the double basses and tympani seem to go as low as the limits of hearing, and below, as I can also feel these low frequencies. One should not and cannot hear these lowest frequencies through the Reflector. Yet, the Reflector has a more than satisfying bass response. One look at the Reflector's cabinet will tell one why, as it is deeper than it is tall, and is one of the largest stand-mounted speakers that I've ever had in my listening room. Regardless of the heritage of this low-frequency driver, and I peeked at their literature to remind myself that the driver is made in-house, with carbon fiber, and with a proprietary shape, it is indeed endowed with the right stuff, as it were. But there is no substitute for a large cabinet, and how it can provide the driver with the means to reproduce lower frequencies, that is, certainly lower than a woofer hanging in mid-air. The bass of the Reflector had me listening to music, including this Bruckner symphony, without a subwoofer, without even thinking that it might sound better with one in the system.
This is about when I brought the speakers up to my main listening room where I usually use a pair of rather large full-range electrostatic speakers, the Sound Lab Majestic 545. As with my Sound Labs, I paired the Reference 3A speakers with a 15" Velodyne subwoofer. I've read in many audio forums about the difficulty of pairing a subwoofer to a pair of main speakers, stand-mounted or not. I can't relate to that, as I have not had problems when I mate a pair of speaker with a subwoofer, and the Reference 3A Reflectors also seem to have no problem with that. In fact, these speakers matched what I consider "perfectly" with my sub. This may have been because of the very good acoustics of my listening room, as I also have no problem pairing the sub with my electrostatic monoliths – I installed acoustic treatment panels on the walls and slanted ceiling of the dedicated listening room shortly after moving into it – or it may simple be due to not having to set the sub's on-board crossover at a very low frequency when using the Reflectors.
The onboard crossover of the sub was set to a low enough level that the lower bass that emanated from the subwoofer ended up not being very directional, and sounded as if it was only there support the Reflectors in the very low bass. As I mentioned earlier, the Reflector has usable bass down to the low 40s, which meant that the sub's high-pass filter wasn't set much below 50Hz. This was definitely a satellite-sub set-up that I could live with. And although I still didn't, and still don't, think the subwoofer was mandatory when listening to the Reflector, the sub matched very well with these stand-mounted speakers and makes a recommendation of the Reference 3A Reflector even easier. The resulting combination had all the things I like about the Reflector, plus deep bass! It is worth repeating that many listeners will find that the Reflector will not need to be matched with a sub. But if one mates it with a sub, enjoy!
However, the Reflector is still a small enough stand-mounted speaker to reap all the benefits of the design: it has only two drivers, is very efficient, has no crossover network, and its imaging and soundstage is fantastic, so if properly positioned it is possible for the speakers to become sonically invisible. Its tweeter behaves as good as any dynamic tweeter I've ever heard. Best of all, the two drivers work together as a seamless pair, creating a soundstage as large as the recording will allow it to be. The Reflector is an extremely musical speaker, too.
When I was listening to music I felt a direct connection between the musicians, producers, engineers, and whoever else was responsible for making the recording. These speakers are able to handle any genre of music I played through them, from small jazz ensembles, to heavy metal power-trios, to power orchestral, to electronic music, all while serving the music that was on the recording. As a bonus, the Reference 3A Reflector is a great looking speaker. Its gloss black cabinet adding to, not taking away from, the décor of the room. Recommended? You bet!