October 2000Reference 3A MM De Capo Loudspeakers
by Neil Walker
When Tash Goka, Reference 3As North American distributor, showed up one Friday night with these speakers, he walked into an instant evaluation crowd. Larry, Nicole, and my wife Linda watched as Goka and a friend lifted and lugged the stands (heavy, steel, two-pipe, black crackle finish) and the speakers into place. Comments started to fly.
"Are you going to keep (ugh) those?"
"Actually, theyre meant to be retro."
"Well, they look like Darth Vader to me."
Tash, ever charming, considerate and very proud of the speakers, actually let his face fall just a little. But soon, the arbiters of taste and all things aesthetic left and so did Tash and his assistant. Now I could start to play. And, for the last month, I have not stopped playing -- all kinds of music through these efficient, pleasant-sounding speakers.
The first look at these speakers can inspire several invidious comparisons. Despite my friends and spouses initial response, I personally find the speakers to be very attractive. The sloping front, the sharp edges, the brilliant gloss-black vinyl finish are in fact the essence of clean, functional design. The only change I would wish to see is an actual mirror finish; it's high gloss, like that of many other speakers, and not perfectly flat -- that is, it shows a little bit of a ripple. However, here I am really splitting hairs: This characteristic is unnoticeable to all but the most neurotic of human beings. (Yes, yes, I know -- the term neurotic encompasses 93.74 per cent of audiophiles.)
However, the De Capos are unique, and not just because they inspire a Darth Vader comparison. First of all, because the tweeter is offset, you receive different left right channel speakers. Proper setup dictates that you position the speakers with no toe-in and with the tweeters to the outside; that is, when you face the speakers, the left channel tweeter is to the left of the woofer and similarly for the right channel. According to Tash, this will ensure optimal phase coherency. Most other speakers with offset tweeters require inside placement. Hmmm.
These two-way speakers, made of differing-thickness MDF and with a tuned bass port, claim to reproduce notes as low as 36Hz at -5dB. The audio axiom "heavy is good" is at work with these speakers; at 44 pounds for a monitor-style speaker, the De Capos are getting into floorstanding weight range.
But it is the drivers that really make this speaker stand out. The 26mm latex-coated, fabric-dome tweeter by itself is enough of a high-tech wonder for you to make your company glassy-eyed in minutes. The 8" woofer is made of woven carbon fibers into an exponentially shaped cone that moves independently of the centerpiece. Perhaps the most noteworthy feature, however, is the lack of a crossover; there are only two capacitors mounted across the tweeter to keep it from death by low-frequency electrocution. Thus, the bass driver is run wide open and mechanically crosses over to the tweeter as its range naturally dissipates. This happens at 3kHz.
One more thing to mention: Originally the De Capo (called the Studio Master) was made entirely in Europe and cost $3800 per pair. With local production and assembly of cabinets, Tash Gokas company, Divergent Technologies, has lowered the price to $2500. These most recent incarnations of Daniel Dehays (the designer of the speakers) design work are now a reasonable buy in their price range.
The De Capos came across at first as somewhat lifeless, and I feared that this was the result of the designer's desire for a neutral speaker. But two things changed this impression: break-in and a solid mounting system. Although the stands the distributor supplied with the speakers are heavy steel with long spikes, my broadloom defeated them. Once I cut through the floor covering, these speakers really began to sing (as did I, with the castrati in the Vatican choir -- you have to be careful with how you modify the family room for a peak listening experience!).
Many seem to feel that musicality is a term that disallows precision and detail. The De Capos are a great example of how to meet both criteria. Listen to the vinyl of Gary Peacocks December Poems [ECM-1-1119]. His bass viol is clear and forceful, and the De Capos allow you to lose yourself in the music. Additionally, the bass extension, to a quoted 44Hz, is not very low for someone who loves pipe-organ music and the deep bass that rap and electronica deliver. But these speakers have such clean definition that their bass, as far as it goes, is excellent, well balanced and without noticeable and nasty little peaks or valleys in the important upper- and midbass ranges. The string section of the Chicago Symphony in Johann Strauss Jr.s Vienna Blood (Strauss Waltzes, Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Orchestra [RCA Victor Red Seal LSC-2500]) is full and warm. On the other hand, the Thunder and Lightning Polka is fully musical and engaging, although without the degree of slam from the bass drum that I like.
However, that lack of slam was probably due more to the rooms acoustics than to the speakers themselves. A little tweaking improved it a lot. Then I listened to John Lee Hookers Tupelo from the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival (The Folk Lore of John Lee Hooker [Vee-Jay SR 1033]). Although Hooker speaks much of this piece, it shows the depth of these speakers ability to be musical, detailed and thus moving. You can hear steel in the guitar strings. Hookers voice is in the room with you. The speakers deliver Bill Lees bass viol in full as it underscores Hookers guitar and gives Hooker's narrative its drive.
When I listened to the vinyl of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome [Ninja Tune, Zen 34], Kid Koalas turntable masterpiece, the pleasantly stagy voice announcing Good morning, houseplants is detailed and delivers all the irony you could wish for. Tune in to The Hidden Camera (Photek, aka Richard Parkes, Modus Operandi [Virgin Records QEDLP1 LC3098]) and prepare to be moved. This drum-and-bass electronica really moves with the De Capos. Their laid-back, honest sound was ideal for handling the demands of Parkess programming. The bass was tight, and the De Capos captured the layers of electronic texture very convincingly.
The De Capos present a realistic, wide soundstage, but they do so without making you aware of themselves. They pull the disappearing trick so loved by audiophiles. No matter what the music, they deliver a clean, accurate sound. When I listened to Paul Bleys solo piano on the vinyl version of Open, to Love [ECM 1023 ST] and to Myra Melfords piano on "Like Rain Whispers Mist" (Myra Melfords Crush, Dance Beyond the Color [Arabesque Recordings AJ0147]), the piano was lifelike, and had that rich, plummy sound that I, for one, prize.
Stuart Duncans solo fiddle intro to "Travelin Prayer" (Dolly Parton: The Grass Is Blue [Sugar Hill SUG-CD-3900]) was electrifying for its immediacy. At first, I thought that this happened only because it was a very forward recording of the violin, so I tried some other violin music, both solo and with orchestra and band. Andrew Manzes performance of "The Devils Sonata" by Giuseppe Tartini [Harmonia Mundi HMU 907213] is a gritty solo recording. The violin, very forward and closely recorded, shows off the remarkable musical detail of which the De Capos are capable.
Move forward about a hundred years to Beethovens violin concerto and then throw in another 150 years -- now we are listening to violinist Hilary Hahn with David Zinman conducting the Baltimore Symphony orchestra [Sony Classical SK60584]. The De Capos are a good match for Hahns shimmering, fluid tone. They also succeed in capturing the orchestra during tutti passages in all their musical and tonal complexity. The tympani and bass viols provide a throaty roar underneath the rest of the instruments without blowing you apart. At the same time, you can hear every instrument clearly and distinctly.
Loving music makes reviewing audio equipment difficult. I often find that the music carries me away from the task at hand. I start to like the audio gear I am evaluating just because it contributes to playing beautiful music. At the same time, the issue of a cost-benefit ratio crops up. You know the story: the first $1000 (or $5000 or $10000) is the most important, and after that there is the law of diminishing returns.
The De Capos cost about 14 times as much as the last speaker I reviewed, the Paradigm Atom. The Atom impressed me, and other SoundStage! writers, with its amazing combination of price and quality. Are the De Capos 14 times better than the Atoms? Silly question. It is impossible to measure ones satisfaction with a speaker in those terms. Does the law of diminishing returns apply here? Only if you don't have the $2500 to buy the De Capos.
Compared to the Atoms, the De Capos are more classically musical and detailed across the audio spectrum. The more you listen to the De Capos, the more you hear of your music. For example, the difference in a record such as "The Devils Sonata" is that I hear more of the violins music-making with the De Capos. When I play the Peacock record, the soundstage is larger and better defined. Switch to the Baltimore orchestra playing the Beethoven violin concerto and the same comment applies. The Atoms, while excellent and musical speakers, make this distinction among the instruments sound not as clear.
Who should consider the Reference 3A De Capo speakers? Anyone who loves music, enjoys a reasonably accurate speaker and can manage the $2500 price. These speakers are not shy, but they will not add an aggressive voice to rock or rap. They will not hammer you with symphonic percussion or brass. They will not project the singer halfway into the street outside. They will give you musical and accurate sound with a minimum of fuss and an easy amplifier load. These are genuine high-end speakers at a lower price than you would expect from Reference 3A. Distributor Tash Goka assessed the market correctly; now he will have his work cut out shipping these fast enough as they become better known across North America.
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