We were eagerly awaiting the release of this speaker, because we have followed its evolution so closely. For years in fact.
We first heard this model's ancestor, the 3a MM, in 1989 at CES in Las Vegas, where French designer Daniel Dehay was drawing (and keeping) large crowds with his new line of speakers. We would eventually adopt one of them, the MS5, for our Alpha reference system, but it was the MM that triggered the incredulous stares. One skeptical visitor accused Dehay of having hidden a subwoofer among the speakers. Without a word, Dehay picked up one of the MM's, still playing, and dropped it onto the visitor's lap.
It wasn't just the MM's explosive dynamics that retained attention either. The price was astonishing, at a mere C$1200 (US$1100). Naturally, the importer sold as many speakers as could be made, and Dehay had to pick up an investor so he could expand. But the bean counters took over, and moved production to Spain, to be done by workers who seemed to believe wires were made in two colors for purely decorative reasons. The company soon collapsed.
Dehay eventually turned up in Switzerland, where he set up Reference 3a. He had long complained that his distributors concentrated on selling his low-cost speakers because that was easier. He found a solution: he would make only high end speakers. His new line began at a pricey C$6500, soaring to more than C$16,000. The latter price was for the Suprema, the speaker we wound up adding to our new Omega reference system (see UHF No. 47), and one of the very best known to us.
Less well-off audiophiles were of course left out, and they were many asking whether the wonderful MM might eventually come back. Indeed, we suggested to Reference 3a's North American distributors, Divergent Technologies, that they purchase the drivers from Dehay and get a new version of the MM assembled in Canada. That, finally, is what this speaker is...almost.
We emphasize "almost," because otherwise you risk sticker shock. The price has doubled--and in Canada more than doubled--for a couple of reasons. The first is that everything has increased in price over a decade, and if the same speaker were made today it would cost considerably more. The other reason is that, name and shape notwithstanding, this is not really the same speaker.
First, the name. "De capo!" is what they shout in Italian opera houses instead of "encore!" But this is no mere repeat performance. Indeed, in some ways this new MM is closer to the C$6500 Royal Master. It uses the same drivers: a 20 cm woofer with a woven carbon fibre cone and a central phase plug, and a soft dome tweeter. The cabinet is considerably heftier too, lacking only the Royal Master's Corian sides. The crossover is still simple, doing no more than keeping low frequencies from frying the tweeter, but now using a pair of audiophile quality capacitors. Internal cabling is done with Van den Hul silver wire. And the two sets of gold-plated binding posts are leagues better than the mediocre single pair of plastic-capped posts on the original. So you can think of them as either expensive MM's or bargain Royal Masters. The listening sessions would reveal their true identity.
Published sensitivity of the original MM was 91 dB, thanks to the minimalist crossover, and this one is 1 dB better, in tune with the current trend to high efficiency speakers.
We had thought of placing the De Capos on our Target HJ-24 stands, but then we had a better idea. Since they are nearly the size and shape of the top sections of our Suprema speakers, we simply substituted them for the Suprema tops, leaving the subwoofers in the bases not connected.
We opened with A Chorus Line from Beachcomber (Reference Recordings RR-62CD), a selection filled with the complex sound of brass, woodwinds and brawny percussion. The De Capos took it on without breathing hard. There was lots to hear. Rhythm was strong, communicating a good sense of the rhythmic shifts used by Frederick Fennell in this arrangement. The brass was powerful, with the dynamics we had always admired in the speaker's ancestor. There was an admirable warmth to the overall sound, without the gap between midrange and bass from which some speakers suffer. There was plenty of punch, but not at the expense of the melody. A great start!
Admittedly, the top end, though smooth, lacked the ultimate refinement of our Supremas. That might seem surprising, since the tweeter used appears identical, but in fact the Suprema's tweeters are specially selected from the production run for optimum characteristics. The two tweeters, then, have the same character, but one of them has gone to finishing school.
We had heard enough to expect these speakers to do well even with the difficult Firebird (RR-70CD). Even in the magical soft passages they yielded up all the magic that we hear with the best speakers. There was no mist to hide the fine details--such as the growl of the double basses, the voluptuous French horn and the harp--nor were the low frequencies compromised. The brass and the full violin section were slightly harder than with the Supremas (the tweeter difference again) but barely so, and we didn't much feel like getting picky.
But then we arrived at the finale, and we recalled that this was, after all, a fairly small speaker. It didn't sound much like one, however. The orchestral sound built and built, not merely getting louder but filling the space. The bass drum was just exactly the way we had hoped. There was no trace of ringing, and no sign that the speakers were finding the task difficult. There was no hint of boxy sound either. "I could easily live with this," said Reine.
The next recording was easily livable with as well. It's Papa John from Doug MacLeod's You Can't Take My Blues (Audioquest AQHD1041), and it can be a handful. It includes a bass, a host of percussion, including a kick drum and what is rumored to have been a phone book, plus MacLeod's guitar and expressive voice. Oh...and a violin that soars and flies through space as though possessed.
The De Capo's score? Not very far from whatever the maximum should be set at. There was a solid bottom end foundation, but without heaviness that could have spoiled this blues song's astonishing rhythm. The kick drum had a lifelike impact. The guitar and voice were at once clear and warm. There was magic at work.
And the violin was especially magnificent. Fiddler Heather Hardy makes her instrument laugh, cry and fly, and through the De Capos it was perfect. It was smooth, as we had hoped, but with no watering down of the energy level. We were feeling good after that piece, and that's the effect it should have.
We moved on to Patricia Barber's live disc, Companion. She doesn't sing in our selection (titled Like J.T., for jazz pianist Jacky Terrasson), but she has a wonderful piano solo that shows off both her classical training and--as she says--her years of inhaling cigarette smoke in bars. She and her musicians are magnificent, and their excellence came through. The timbre of her piano was gorgeous, the bass fascinating as it moved up the scale. Albert noted how well we could follow the decay of each piano note. The rhythm was beyond reproach, as were the timbres of the numerous and varied percussion instruments. "You'd have to be tied to your chair not to react to this," said Reine.
As with the previous recordings, we had the impression, as the music built in intensity, that it could keep building indefinitely without breaking anything. This is without a doubt not literally true, but the illusion is accompanied by a feeling of ease and relaxation.
We then listened to Margie Gibson's Irving Berlin recording, Say It With Music on Sheffield (CD-36). We often use this disc for several reasons. First, female voices are a hurdle for many components, including CD players and of course speakers. The esses in particular, because in this case they are recorded quite close, are prominent, and with many systems they are distorted. Second, the three accompanying instruments--Lincoln Mayorga's piano, a cello and a string bass--are difficult to reproduce so that they have both body and accurate timbre. Third, this recording, properly reproduced, has astonishing presence. And finally, the song we like to use, I Got Lost in His Arms, is an emotional powerhouse. Strange how some gear can filter out emotion, leaving only its raw materials.
Well, after our experiences so far we didn't expect these speakers to do that, and we got no surprises. The opening notes of the piano were delightful, a reminder of the sheer beauty of a good acoustic piano. The other two instruments sounded superb too, and Gibson was definitely present in the room. Though this is a soft ballad, it ends with a crescendo which is all too easy to lose with a speaker that is not at ease dynamically. These speakers handled it as they had everything else...with ease. Gerard wondered whether any other speaker could possibly do it better.
We ended the test as we had begun it, with a brutal challenge to the speakers' ability to pass on plenty of energy, especially in the lower frequencies: Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man (Reference Recordings RR-93CD). It passed the test, and then some. The percussion (which appears to be augmented with a drum which must be the size of a beer truck) borders on the scary. Once again, Reference 3a's unflappable woofer handled even the loudest passages with ease...and we were not exactly rationing the horsepower! The MM De Capos also handled the strings and the brass very well. Even during louder passages, it was evident that we were not anywhere close to the speakers' limits. For the second recording in a row, Reine put aside her notebook and simply listened.
We should, however, caution you that, although we favor extended listening sessions rather than misleading A-B or A-B-X tests, these too can be misleading. As you listen, your ear compensates for certain errors, and finally you can convince yourself that you are hearing perfection. Because we know this can happen, we often return to our reference system to rebalance our point of view. We reconnected our Supremas and listened to the Fanfare again. Sure enough, there's a lot of sound in the two extra octaves supplied by the Supremas' massive subwoofers. Does that matter? If you don't do a side-by-side comparison, as we did, it probably doesn't. Truth to tell, not all recordings, even those on audiophile labels, have significant material outside the range that the MM De Capos master.
You might wonder, however, whether these speakers would be better yet with a subwoofer added. The answer is...possibly. Check the Mirage subwoofer review in this issue. The MM De Capos play a starring role.
We took the speakers into our lab and ran the usual battery of tests. The frequency response measurements (done, as usual, at high level with third-of-octave warble tones) reserved a few surprises (see the chart on the next page). In the most important part of the audible band, there were two anomalies: a peak around 700 Hz, and a dip centred about 5 kHz. That dip certainly contributes to the speaker's special sound, because in fact most speakers have a peak around there, or slightly higher. On the whole we prefer the dip. Bass response dipped at lower frequencies, but it was clean down to 32 Hz, an impressive figure.
The 100 Hz square wave (shown overleaf) was quite good, with a reasonable shape, and vertical sides that indicate good transient response.
We are aware that some audiophiles who remember the original MM's will be disappointed that this similarly-shaped speaker costs so much. There's no doubt that it is beyond the budget of those who would have lined up at the store to buy the original version. The truth is, however, that the original MM is only one of the genetic parents of this new speaker. The other parent is the very best speaker that Daniel Dehay has ever designed. You can hear that lineage with every note it plays.
Model: Reference 3a MM De Capo
Price: C$2900, US$2200
Warranty: Five years from date of manufacture, transferable
Dimensions: 29 x 38 x 33 cm
Most liked: Comfortable reproduction of the audible range, great dynamics
Least liked: Invites price comparisons with its bargain ancestor
Verdict: A great design reaches maturity
I've long wondered why even some pretty good speakers sound ordinary, while others rivet your attention...not for the wrong reasons, as botched speakers do, but because they sound like live music. The MM De Capos are in the second category, of course, but the original MM was the speaker that originally got me wondering about this.
My enthusiasm--actually our enthusiasm--for Daniel Dehay's speaker designs is pretty well known by now, since we use two of them in our two reference systems. He is one of a small handful of speaker magicians who extend the state of the art, as opposed to simply carrying on product development. The work he does has always been fascinating, and, with each new speaker, he builds on what he knows and what he can do. For the first time in several years, his creation is available to people who have not been lucky in the lottery.
What a superb pair of speakers! I loved them at the Montreal's Festival du Son, and I didn't change my mind after our listening session. I could actually feel my features relax from the very first notes and I enjoyed a wonderful sense of ease through the whole listening session.
No surprises. Just satisfying music. We went from one selection to another, and it all seemed so short. Strings were naturally soft and silky even in dramatic sections. Voices came alive and I could almost see the shape of the lips as they sang expressively. The various instruments timbres were clearly reproduced and appeared in lavish textures on the stage.
Bass was extremely solid and brass instruments glowed. Piano was particularly good, filling the air with its rich harmonies as each note of the left hand fell in front of us with remarkable weight.
Hey, I must have liked these speakers!
What qualities these speakers have, and how much pleasure they gave me! There was magic in the air. I could summarize it in just one word: splendid! These are speakers that love musicians, speakers in the service of music.
The ample and lively image contributes to the remarkably clean reproduction, resulting in an astonishing transparency that lets through a multitude of details. You don't miss a thing, not the slightest inflection, the subtlest effect. But these speakers' talents don't end there. The power of the attacks lend the music a striking impact. Timbres are natural and attractive, rhythms are quick and clean.
They are no match for our reference speakers, with their powerful subwoofers, but these speakers simply astonished me. Their reproduction of both the bass and lower midrange is solid and rich.
In each of the recordings we used in this test series, there are performers who are aces in their genre. Please believe me when I tell you that these musical acrobats are so well served by the MM De Capos that again and again I felt chills down my spine.
PARTIAL TEXT: Reproducing Extreme Lows, Acoustics for Surround Sound, Monitor Audio Silver 9, Klipsch RB-5, Coincident Triumph Signature, Mirage BPS150i, Audiomat Solfège, Gossip
FULL TEXT: The Digital Radio File, Reference 3a MM De Capo, State of the Art
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