|Reference 3A Dulcet Review|
Not that long ago (and I wish I could remember where) I read a speaker review in which the author made a great point. To paraphrase: No loudspeaker is perfect. None the less, if you have very deep pockets, and can lay out, say, multiple tens of thousands of US dollars (or more) for a pair of loudspeakers, you can just about have "it" all: airy highs, viscerally powerful bass, gorgeous midrange, room-obliterating soundstage, precise, "holographic" imaging, coherence, tonal neutrality, and all the other coveted goodies on the audiophile laundry list. But if, like most of us (myself included) your budget is limited by income and family responsibilities, then you are going to be making some trade-offs as you shop for your less than bleeding-edge, less than multi-kilobuck loudspeakers.
Knowing that, said the reviewer, it's good to be aware of which loudspeaker qualities are and aren't negotiable for you. Some listeners demand a substantial low end and will sacrifice amplifier-friendly efficiency and impedance curves to get it. Others are willing to compromise on dynamics and low-end "slam" to get a pristine midrange. Those whose tastes run toward small ensemble jazz or folk music may be willing to sacrifice macro-dynamics to get stellar resolving power and tonal richness. And so on.
I've owned an embarrassing number of different speakers over the years in my quest for pleasing sound. And in that time I've (finally) found my two loudspeaker non-negotiables. The first is imaging and (where applicable to the recording) the retrieval of a sense of ambient space: no matter how tonally gorgeous a speaker may be, if it doesn't paint a clear, nearly visual sense of instruments and singers spread out in physical space, I find myself pretty quickly frustrated and fatigued. My brain has to work too hard to make sense of what I'm hearing. I'm not saying that I'm completely interested in tonality. An overly bright speaker, for example, will flush me out of the room fairly quickly. One author of a book on hi-fi dismisses imaging and sound staging as "audiophile special effects." If it's a crime to enjoy those aspects of sound reproduction, then I'm guilty as charged!
Second, while I'm not a "bass junkie," I do need some sort of decent bottom end to give the music its foundation. A friend of mine likes to call this "meat on the bones."
As mentioned, I've seen a parade of well-regarded and enthusiastically reviewed speakers march through my listening room over the years. These have included: Totem Arro, Ohm Micro Walsh Tall and S100, Silverline Prelude, Ascend Sierra 1, PSB Synchrony 1B, Green Mountain Audio Rio, LSA 1 Statement and Merlin TSM-mmi. All had their strengths, but I continued the search for a speaker that would give me the kind of emotional connection to my music that would allow me to sit and listen for hours on end, relaxing and enjoying the experience.
Enter the Dulcet mini monitors by Reference 3A. I'd first had the opportunity to listen to them several years ago when I snuck away to a high-end dealer showroom while on vacation in California. I didn't really get a clear sense of what the Dulcet could do. The dealer was demonstrating them in a rather small, lively room and he was playing them much louder than I normally listen to music. I also had a chance during that visit to listen to the larger sibling of the Dulcet, the MM De Capo i. Fast-forward to several months ago, when I saw a pair of Dulcets for sale on Audiogon. I called Reference 3A and spoke to Tash Goka, the head of the company, himself. He told me that the speakers I had seen on Audiogon were not the latest version, and encouraged me to think about buying a new pair. Fortunately, Reference 3A will sell their products direct to customers who have no access to a local dealer, and speakers sold in this way come with free shipping and a 3 week, risk-free, home audition. After a few days of dithering, I took the plunge.
A word, by the way, about the latest upgrades to the Reference 3A line. The previously used Cardas copper jumpers on the 2 pairs of binding posts have been replaced by short, curved lengths of continuously cast oxygen free copper wire. The other upgrades include using soft brass screws to attach the drivers to the cabinet, cryogenically treating all metal parts, the addition of a “Faraday ring” to the drivers, as well as other modifications you can read about on the Reference 3A website. The most recent upgrade, which Tash told me about, is the replacement of the distinctive, fat phase plug in the center of Reference 3A's proprietary mid-bass drivers with an “acoustic lens.” I found a picture of this device in a show report on the Stereophile website and it looks like a series of discs of decreasing size stacked one on top of the other–kind of like those weird hats that Devo used to perform in. Its official name is the Surreal Acoustic Lens and it is said to increase driver dispersion. This modification has not yet been made to the Dulcet because, according to Tash, the current version of the Lens is too tall for the little Dulcet main driver, and would prevent attaching the grill to the speaker. Hopefully, Reference 3A will remedy this issue soon, because I'd love to hear what this modification would do for the Dulcet!
My Dulcets arrived direct from Canada in fairly short order. I paid $100 extra to get the “piano black” finish, which I thought would have a higher “spousal acceptance factor” in my listening room than either of the woodgrain finishes. The speakers came packed securely but also rather snugly in their carton, so it took a bit of anxious fiddling to work them out of the box. They come packed with an instruction manual and a bright green microfiber cleaning cloth. The speakers themselves, with their protective grills attached, are shipped inside soft, cotton bags. Reference 3A recommends listening without the grilles, using them only to keep dust out of the drivers. Since the grilles attach pretty firmly with tight fitting pegs which I've been worried about snapping off, I use the cotton bags for dust protection when I'm not listening.
The Dulcets are quite pleasing to look at. I can't vouch for the woodgrain finishes, but the piano black finish, combined with the raked front baffle and chamfered edges of the design, give the speaker a “jewel like” appearance - very attractive and, I dare say, even cute! The cabinet is beautifully constructed and although each speaker “only” weighs 15 pounds, given their small size, when handled they give a definite impression of quality and density.
Two drivers are mounted on the raked front baffle of each Dulcet: a 1 inch, silk dome tweeter and a roughly 4 inch diameter mid-bass driver. This driver is hand-built, in-house, by Reference 3A. You can read a lot more about the technical details of this little marvel on the Reference 3A website. I'll understand if the idea of a 4 inch diameter driver producing meaningful bass information seems ludicrous, but read on for more on the character of this speaker. I should also mention that the speakers come in mirror imaged pairs, and are designed to be placed with the offset tweeters on the outside. This, along with the sloped front baffle of the speaker, is said to maximize time alignment of the 2 drivers. The Dulcets are a rear ported design. Unusually, the port tube angles down, vertically, into the speaker. The entire Reference 3A line is also distinguished by the lack of a conventional crossover. The mid-bass driver is coupled directly to the output of the amplifier, and the tweeter is protected by a single capacitor. Thus, the handoff from woofer to tweeter is accomplished almost entirely mechanically, without passive electronic components splitting the incoming signal.
I perched my new speakers atop 24 inch Osiris stands – sadly, no longer made, but with a top plate which is a perfect size match for the bottom of the Dulcet. Actually, the manufacturer recommends a slightly taller stand, but Tash reassured me that this mainly has to do with minimizing the dreaded lower frequency “floor bounce” effect and that since I have an area rug on the floor in front of the speakers, this shouldn't be much of a problem. Reference 3A recommends coupling the speakers to the stands with pea sized wads of Blue Tack. Once I was sure that I was going to keep the speakers, I did this. Reference 3A also recommends the classic “equilateral triangle” set up. This worked quite well for me. Somewhat unusually, Reference 3A also suggests that the speakers not be toed in at all, but should fire straight ahead, with the interior side panels of the speakers exactly parallel to each other. They have been positioned this way from the very beginning and, achieving excellent results this way, I haven't felt much of a desire to experiment with speaker toe in. (I find it a relief to have a pair of speakers that eliminates at least one opportunity for obsessive tweaking!) My pair sits about 2.25 feet in front of the wall behind them. My listening room, which doubles as a guest bedroom, measures about 13 x 16 feet, with an 8 foot ceiling.
This is probably a good time to talk about my associated equipment, before getting into the sound of the Dulcet itself. My digital front end includes a Music Hall CD 25.2 CD player, hooked up to a Musical Fidelity M1 DAC. My analog rig consists of a SOTA Sapphire turntable with an old Linn Basik arm and an Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge, running through a home-built Bottlehead Seduction phono section with their upgrade kit installed. Amplification is all Manley tube gear: a pair of their little Mahi mono-blocks and a Shrimp preamp. I typically run the Mahi's in "triode" mode, where they put out 20 watts into an 8 ohm load. Speaker cabling is Supra Classic 6.0, and interconnects are a sad mishmash of Audioquest and Kimber. ;-)
If I had any doubt that speaker break-in is more than just a psychological artifact, it's been squashed by my experience with the Dulcets. More than any speakers I have owned before, they have continued to open up and sound better and better with continued play. Not that they've ever sounded bad to my ears, but having recently hit (I'd estimate) the 100-hour mark, they continue to sound more relaxed, open and coherent with each extended listening session. And this points to another delight of Dulcet ownership: I am regularly surprised and pleased by how unexpectedly fine they really are. Some specifics:
Coherence: by this I mean the sense that the music is all of a piece and that there is no discontinuity between the two drivers. The little Dulcet has this in spades!
Top end: open, airy and refined; resolving without being fatiguing. The rough, jangly guitar strumming panned hard right near the opening of Bonnie Raitt's "Thing Called Love" (from the LP "Nick Of Time") is startling in its realism. The plucked guitars on Dire Straits' "Why Worry" (from "Brothers In Arms") sparkle and shimmer with delicacy. To resort to audiophile-speak, the little Dulcets are very "fast."
Midrange: natural and yet immediate, with a great sense of presence. Voices on well recorded pop albums are palpable and human. And, the Dulcets are capable of conveying the emotion of a performance with spooky, expressive power. I've listened to Stevie Wonder's "Living For The City" more times than I can count. But the first time I played the cut on the Dulcets, I was shocked: "He sounds angry!" I'd never heard that emotional power before. For another example (and I know that Norah Jones' singing and the sonics of her albums are topics of debate among audiophiles) every nuance and inflection that she imparts to "Cold Cold Heart" or the title tune of her debut CD, "Come Away With Me," pours out of the Dulcets with luscious, smoky expressiveness.
Bass: I have a few reference tracks for bass performance, and the Dulcets, while not plumbing the lowest depths, provide enough of a firm foundation to give music its proper dramatic force when needed. James Taylor's gorgeous rendition of "Oh What A Beautiful Morning (from the CD "Other Covers") begins with an acoustic guitar intro and, on the chorus, a bass guitar, very prominent in the mix, enters. It's one of those "where's the subwoofer" moments you get regularly with the Dulcets - that's how much tuneful authority the tiny Dulcets bring to the moment. Also from JT, there's a beautiful version of "My Romance" on the CD version of "That's Why I'm Here." It starts out with James accompanied simply by what sounds like a Fender Rhodes keyboard. And less than a minute into the song, he sings the line, "No month of May," and right on the downbeat with the word "May," there's a low synth note that takes you by surprise. Drama. Gorgeousness. And the Dulcets nail it. Likewise, the fat, juicy synth bass notes that begin "Legend In My Living Room" from Annie Lennox's "Diva" sound, well, very fat, juicy and startlingly room-energizing on the Dulcets. Similarly, on Peter Gabriel's wonderful "Don't Give Up" (from "So") the thrumming of Tony Levin's bass guitar has not only depth and power, but great texture. A further example: a favorite orchestral CD of mine is the soundtrack to the animated film "Princess Mononoke." The first track begins with two sharp thwacks on some sort of Japanese drum, hanging in acoustic space. While the mid-woofer of the Dulcet isn't going to pin you to your chair with a blast of moving air, it will, to a nearly miraculous degree, startle you out of that chair with the impact of a real, percussive event. Same for the big drums in Jennifer Warnes' rendition of "Bird On A Wire" (from the "Famous Blue Raincoat" CD). Again, gobs of unexpected "slam."
Are there limits to the Dulcets' bass extension? Sure. Take my favorite tune from Steely Dan's wonderful "Two Against Nature" CD. The opening dozen or so bars of the track "Negative Girl" feature some very tasty electric bass work, including some very, very low notes on the instrument. On the very lowest of those notes, the Dulcets suggest their presence, that is to say, they're not totally absent, but the are down enough db's that you have to strain a bit to hear them. There's only so much even a very cleverly engineered 4 inch driver can do.
They've Got Rhythm.
I must mention that I finally think I understand what British audiophiles are talking about when they go on about "pace, rhythm and timing." The Dulcets really nail the rhythmic drive of music. Drum kits sound like real drum kits, not just banging noises. Well recorded cymbals and maracas splash and rattle like the real thing. The bongo drums on "Hearts and Bones" from Paul Simon's under appreciated album of the same name sound like hands slapping skins, as they should. And Simon's "Rhythm Of The Saints" album is a revelation, with the snaking polyrhythms revealed in all their propulsive complexity.
As I confessed early on in this review, I am an imaging and soundstage freak. I love hearing sonic "images" of singers and instruments anchored in space, and if a recording was engineered to envelop me in ambient space, either the natural-acoustic space of a concert hall or the synthetic, phase manipulations of a recording studio, I also want to experience that in all its (contrived) glory.
For instance: the swirling electric keyboards of Steely Dan's "True Companion" (from "Steely Dan Gold, Expanded Edition") swim all around the room, with no clue that they are emanating from the speakers. The synth chords that open Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street" (from "So") are also breathtaking in their spaciousness. And for imaging, when the members of Tower Of Power sing "You're still a young man, baaaaaay-be" on the live, "Soul Vaccination" CD, you can hear them spread out across the center of the stage and follow every note of the harmonies. Amazing.
Back to Steely Dan: "Alive In America" had never particularly impressed me with its sonics, but the spatial presentation of the Dulcets transformed this CD into a concert experience. You are sitting midway back in an outdoor concert space. Sound splashes across the back of the stage as it would in such a venue. It's thrilling.
Okay, then: what's not to like?
The Dulcets perform admirably, very admirably, in small to medium sized rooms, played at low to moderate volumes. Of course, what constitutes "moderate" is subjective, but I have on occasion heard the Dulcets lose their finesse or "composure," that is, to begin to sound harsh and confused, if driven way too hard. (Perhaps this is also a function in some measure of my choice to run my Dulcets in 20-watt triode mode, as opposed to the 40-watt "ultra linear" mode of my Manley Mahi amps.) Since I do have a fairly small room (and since I also value my middle-aged hearing acuity) I don't tend to listen to music - even rock and roll - at concert-level volumes. But if you like your music really loud, you'd want to move up the Reference 3A line.
My only other caveat with the little Dulcets is that bright green, microfiber cleaning cloth that came with them. Early on in my ownership, I put a very fine scratch in the gloss finish of the top of one speaker (arrrrrrgh!) when I attempted to use said cloth to wipe an oily fingerprint from the speaker. A call to Reference 3A provided the advice the cleaning cloth needed to be rinsed in hot water and rung out to soften it up before use. It would have been nice to have that information in the owner's manual, but it's not there. Perhaps the piano black finish is more delicate than the woodgrain finishes…
Are the Reference 3A Dulcets my "forever" speakers? I don't know. From time to time in the past I've gotten restless and wanted to try something new. But I suspect that if I do move on from the Dulcets, in the near term, it'll be a move to the Reference 3A MM De Capo-i. What I can say at this point is that the Dulcets are bringing me a lot of musical pleasure. And isn't that what this hobby is all about?
If you're looking for a pair of mini-monitors, the Reference 3A Dulcets deserve an audition. At well under $2000, they're an outstanding value.
Product Weakness: Not the last word in bass depth. Not for huge rooms or very high volume listening. Binding posts rather "fat" and may not accommodate typical spade connectors.
Product Strengths: Crazy good imaging and sound staging. Sound way larger than their physical size would suggest. Fast, immediate, expressive sound. Rhythmically incisive and compelling.