Reference 3A De Capo BE Review

Reference 3A De Capo BE Review
Back in July 2012, I posted a very enthusiastic review of the Reference 3A Dulcet speaker. You can find it here.
Reference 3A has a generous program whereby customers who don't have a local Reference 3A dealership and thus must buy direct from the manufacturer are given a six-month trade up period. During that time, the purchaser will receive full price credit toward any more expensive Reference 3A model. You are only on the hook for the return shipping costs.
In speaking with a dealer in California toward the end of my first 6 months with the Dulcets, trying to decide whether to upgrade, his comment that “The Dulcet is terrific, but the De Capo is in another league altogether” pushed me over the edge. After about five months of ownership, I sent my Dulcets back to Reference 3A in Canada and eagerly awaited their replacement.
Unfortunately, the shipping company completely mangled the first set that I received, but Reference 3A was able to get a pair that had been shipped to another Texas city diverted to me. No harm done – the new pair was flawless. I got a pair of De Capo i/A’s (the “A” indicating the presence of the Surreal Acoustic Lens in the center of the main driver) in the beautiful, matte red-cherry veneer finish.
In common with the Dulcet, the De Capo is a rear ported design with a raked front baffle for better time alignment between the two drivers and a “crossover-less” design in which the house-built, woven carbon-fiber mid-woofer is run flat-out with nothing between it and the amplifier. A single capacitor in the signal path protects the tweeter. Also in common with the Dulcet, the De Capo’s are sold in mirror imaged pairs, meant to be positioned with the tweeters on the outside edge and the speakers firing straight ahead into the room with no to-in. The biggest difference is the much larger main driver (8 inches as opposed to 4) and the more voluminous cabinet. As you’d expect, these factors result in a more authoritative bottom end (although, especially considering its diminutive size, the Dulcet is no slouch in the bass department, either). The De Capo will also move more air and energize the room more readily than the Dulcet. And it will play louder without signs of strain, enabling you to be drawn fully into a large, symphonic piece without being reminded that you’re listening to smallish, monitor speakers. Finally, it’s more sensitive, rated at 92 db compared to 88 db for the Dulcet.
So then, how do they sound?
The De Capo’s are just sublimely musical, projecting not only the emotional core of the performance, but rendering it coherently as well. Coherence is a difficult thing to express in words, but you know it when you hear it.
For example, Paul Simon’s 2006 “Surprise” album is a collaboration between the singer-songwriter and electronica pioneer Brian Eno. Simon’s erudite lyrics and meandering melodies are embedded in Eno’s complex, layered and often dissonant electronic “soundscapes.” This album is a great torture test for a speaker. Lesser transducers will render many of the tracks on “Surprise” a noisy mess. But the De Capo has the ability to present the complex rhythms and sonic textures in these songs as, for lack of a better word, integrated performances that make musical sense.
Another aspect of this coherence is the uncanny ability of the De Capo’s to present precisely localized images.
Now I know that some of our fellow audiophiles deride imaging as smoke-and-mirrors artifact of the recording process. “You don ’t hear imaging at a live concert,” they say, which is largely true. But in my opinion, imaging can be one of the great pleasures of recorded music, and if the recording engineer went out of his or her way to provide imaging effects, then I want to experience them to their fullest.
Case in point: near the beginning of “Night Train,” the third track on Rikki Lee Jones’ musically sublime and beautifully recorded self-titled debut album [Warner BSK3296 on LP] a plucked electric guitar enters after a few measures. It is panned toward the right of the soundstage: not all the way to the right, but distinctly right of center. And on the De Capo’s, the firm plucking of that string is so palpable, and the guitar itself so precisely located, hanging in the air just to the right of center, that the effect is simply startling. The background vocals on this cut are also rendered beautifully, choral in nature, yet the individual lines are not obscured or blurred.
This seems like a good point to mention that not long into my ownership of the De Capo's, Reference 3A announced that their entire line was being upgraded by the substitution of a new, beryllium dome tweeter as a replacement for the fabric dome previously utilized. I was hesitant to do the upgrade because of the bad reputation that metallic tweeters have for harshness. I got on the phone with Tash Goka, Director of Reference 3A (and very nice guy to talk to on the phone). He said something to the effect that "the metallurgy of beryllium is much different than that of the materials used in other metallic tweeters such as titanium and aluminum. You're not going to hear the kind of harshness associated with metallic drivers."
I ordered my replacement drivers, got out my soldering iron and giddily installed them when they arrived from Canada. I can confirm what Tash Goka said: there is absolutely nothing harsh about these tweeters. The sound is smooth, full of air and extension and very resolving, but not sibilant or harsh. I'm mentioning the tweeter upgrade here because to the extent that spatial cues are dependent upon high-frequency information, a perception that I felt not long after installing the new tweeters makes sense: the De Capo's ability to retrieve ambient information like recording space or auditorium echo and to place images in three-dimensional space is even more impressive with the new tweeter. At this point, you could say that I own a pair of "almost" De Capo BE’s, as the latest model is called. The only thing lacking is the slate gray, Nextel finish on the latest cabinets (which is said to further reduce the transmission of unwanted cabinet resonances).
Let me also say something about the low-end of these speakers (they are rated down to 42 kHz). In my medium small (and quite acoustically compromised) listening room, the De Capo's provide what I’ll confidently call a satisfying and convincing bottom end. No, they don't plumb the depths of the lowest octave (I suppose that pipe organ music aficionados need not apply without a subwoofer) but I have yet to play a genre of music through the De Capo’s that they haven’t rendered with conviction.
Allow me to share two very different examples:
I was 14 years old in 1972 when the album "Chicago V" [Columbia LP KC 31102] was released – I raced down to my local Sam Goody on my bike to buy it (on sale for $2.99…) It’s probably my favorite album by that band and I can't even begin to imagine how many times I've listened to it and how intimately familiar I thought I was with every lyric, note and horn riff. But in playing the track "A Hit by Varese" that opens Side 2, I heard something I had never noticed before. In the closing bars of that song (with the horn section playing triplet figures over the rhythm section playing four beats to the bar) I noticed that Pete Cetera – an underappreciated bass player if there ever was one – is playing a very deep bass note on the third and fourth beat of each measure. To be surprised with low-frequency information on a track that I thought I knew inside and out is a testimony to how well these modestly sized speakers "do" bass.
One other example: I was fortunate enough to be in the San Francisco Bay area recently while the California Audio Show was taking place and I managed to get to the show for a few hours. I picked up a couple of anthology CDs at the Reference Recordings table. It goes without saying that they are immaculately recorded! I was pleased to see that the classical sampler “Tutti!” [RR-906CD] concluded with the last couple of sections of the Maurice Ravel orchestration of "Pictures at an Exhibition." (Okay, maybe it is an overplayed "war horse" of the orchestral repertoire, but I love it anyway.) The orchestra really pulls out the stops during the final section of the piece, “The Great Gate Of Kiev.” To their credit, the De Capo's never lose their composure throughout the mounting volume and thunder of this climactic section of the work. But, getting back to the low-end, I was startled by how thrillingly the De Capo's managed to pull off the pounding and crashing of the timpani in those final measures of the piece. The big drums are somewhat "miniaturized," of course (insert audio review cliché about not being able to circumvent the laws of physics here…) But you get enough of those big guns to feel satisfied.
So, what's wrong with these speakers? Frankly, not a lot that I can put my finger on. Like their younger sibling, the Dulcet, I am regularly struck not only by how good they are, but also by how they keep getting better with time and break in. Of course, there is a lot of competition for your audio dollar at the roughly $3000 price point and only you can decide whether the De Capo is ultimately for you. But I will go out on a limb and say that this design, which has been refined fairly constantly for decades, is considered by some to be a classic and a reference with good reason. They are really quite something.
Great review. Thank you for posting. I would love to hear these things someday.
An excellent review to which I say AMEN. I've owned the first generation De Capo which has the crossover-less design and the same woven carbon fiber mid-woofer. I'd never heard such bass out of any speaker even near that size, not only deep but natural. It was less impressive in the higher frequencies and in its overall transparency, but so good that even that first generation model became an audio classic.

I bought the new De Capo BEs about 9 months ago and without any break-in at all it was clear they were in a different league. The impressive bass is still there (and improves with break-in) and every other aspect of the sound - transparency and inner detail, imaging, high frequency extension, overall balance - is significantly improved. The Beryllium tweeters reach far beyond the range of my aging ears without the slightest harshness. I've owned Focal Utopia speakers with Beryllium tweeters and there's no doubt in my mind that the De Capos are a superior implementation.

One of the most impressive things about the speakers is their overall balance - nothing missing, nothing exaggerated. You can hear it: the result is a live music sound. You can measure it as well. I used a sound level meter mounted on a tripod and a Stereophile test CD, and the sound level across the frequency range is nearly ruler flat except at the high and low extremes.

I believe this is the 4th generation of the De Capo. They keep looking about the same on the outside, but keep improving on the inside. Tash Gorka has taken this speaker from very good to great.
Nice review. Sounds like heaven! "Varese"...great tune, nice recording! I'll have to queue it up and give it another careful listen again soon...
So Rebbi, You can get finishes other than the flat black now?
I don't think so. I just happened to have the cherry veneer cabinets and installed the new BE tweeters in them. But someone who wanted one of the wood veneers could call Reference 3A and see if they have any of the older cabinets around.
Nice review Rebbi. As much as I love my horn based system, I just bought another pair of Grand Veenas. I missed that magic too much, and a great deal came along.

Curious, has anyone heard the Nefes? Looks interesting.
Aha! :-)
Yes, you loved those GV's, I remember. Where DO you get all these great deals, by the way?? ;-)
Sometimes you have to throw your line in and fish, even though you think you don't have enough bait. Sometimes you do.....;-}}

BTW, you were able to switch to the BE tweeter w/o any crossover modification? Seems like that would be necessary?

No, it's plug-and-play. No crossover modification necessary. Capacitor that protects the tweeter works at the same value.
Ok. I have heard mixed reviews about the BE tweeter on the GV. Some say the Murata + soft dome tweeter is better.

I would question that the BE is better than the Murata and soft dome working together. It is my understanding that the BE was developed because the Murata was no longer available or maybe it was already in the works for the Decapo and Dulcet and extended to the Episode and Grand Veena? In any case the Murata extends to 100kh vs 40kh for the BE which seemingly might offer greater air and spacial resolution. I certainly was impressed with the Episodes in this area of performance the several times I've heard them, quite special. The BE is superb, very well implemented without any of the cavaets I normally associate with metal tweeters of any kind but then beryllium is quite different than most metals, excellent ridgidity and low mass.
Rebbi, I think I may following your path looking for monitors/stand mounts.

I'm considering several speakers you listed along the way.

I live alone and own several pairs of floorstanders that I enjoy. I'm interested in a pair of standmounts for a different area. I was considering the lsa signature and ascend acoustics Sierra- but after reading your posts I'm second guessing. I was not planning on spending 2k...

Looking back, which of the ones you demoed would you point me toward?? Or are your current speakers so far above the rest that it is a no brainer??

Sorry for the long email. Thanks in advance.
Hi, Uncledemp,
Your question is not at all a bother and I am happy to try to help.
The first disclaimer, of course, is that there are so very many variables that determine the final outcome, including your own satisfaction or dissatisfaction. These include, but are not limited to: your associated equipment, the size and liveliness (or "deadness") of your listening room, the loudness level at which you typically listen, the kind of music you listen to the most, and on and on… That said, I have owned any number of "low-to-mid-level" (in terms of cost) speakers over the years, and this is what I have figured out.
As I said in my original review of the Reference 3A Dulcet, I need to have great imaging and some kind of satisfying low-end response in order to be happy. Other people may not care about these things as much, or may prioritize them differently, but this may give some context to my recommendations, preferences and experiences.
I have owned several floorstanding loudspeakers over the years. My very first was the original Vandersteen 2C that I purchased with my first "serious" stereo system in the mid-1980s. I liked it a lot, but it was a relatively big, unattractive speaker that needed substantial breathing room to sound good and wasn't going to work in my smaller listing quarters years later.
When I began to get back into high-end audio actively in the mid 2000's, I tried a series of "space-saving" floorstanding models. These included the Totem Arro, Ohm Micro Walsh Tall and Ohm 100, and Silverline Prelude (revised). All of these models have their devotees and great reviews, but for one reason or another I found them lacking.
What set me off in the direction of auditioning monitors (that is, stand mounted speakers) was the experience of borrowing a pair of PSB Synchrony One B’s for a weekend from our local, brick and mortar stereo store and finding that they worked much, much better in my room than any of the floorstanding speakers I had owned up to that point.
From that point onward, the following models marched in and out of my listening room (not in this exact order):
PSB Synchrony One B
LSA 1 Statement
Ascend Sierra One (the original, not the newer model with the improved tweeter)
Merlin TSM-mmi
LSA 1 Statement (again!)
Green Mountain Audio Rio
Again, if you’ve been researching monitor speakers then you know that a number of these are very well regarded in audiophile circles. I’d be glad to answer questions about my impressions of any of the above if you like.
Then, during the time period that I had the Merlin monitors, with which I had a love-frustration relationship for about 18 months, I saw an ad on Audiogon for a pair of used, Reference 3A Dulcet monitors. I called Reference 3A and spoke to the head of the company, Tash Goka, who told me that the pair I had seen was not up to the latest specifications and encouraged me to try a 30 day home edition with the latest model.
Within an hour or two of replacing the Merlin's with the Reference 3A's, I knew I had found something quite special. The Merlin's went up for sale. Six months later, I took advantage of a Reference 3A, direct purchase trade up option that allows you to get the full purchase price of any model to move up the line to something more expensive. So I bought the De Capo's and was thrilled.
Again, I'd be happy to comment further on any of the models listed above. I hasten to add that I'm not saying that any of the other speakers I tried are substandard – lots of people swear by several of them. But in terms of imaging, low-end response, coherence and musicality, the Reference 3A's really do it for me, and they get better and better with time and break in.
I've had my de Capo's for about a year and a half now; installed the BE tweets six months ago or so and can't testify to a startling difference, but a pleasant one nonetheless.

These speakers are a keeper for me for a long time.

Thanks very much for the hospitality, sorry I took so long to respond. I did contact Reference for purchasing info.

I have some Sonus Fabers in my living room that I am pretty happy with. My quest for a standmount/bookshelf is more a want than need. The LSA's were my choice until I saw your post and others. I then began reading and confusing myself! (Doesn't take much) When I start considering $3000 or so- I find myself shopping tower speakers.

If you had it to do over again with a $1500 budget for bookshelf speakers what would you have done? Sorry to put you on the spot, but you spent time with many of the speakers I am considering. (Lsa, Ascend, etc)

I listen to Jazz, Blues, Rock, etc and value detail, soundstage, and bass presence much like yourself. There are several places in my house that they may be used, so that is hard to nail down. They will be powered by Monarchy mono blocks or an Anthem 225 wpc integrated.

Thanks again!

If I really had a rock hard $1500 upper limit, I think I'd go with the LSA 1 Statement (the one with the ribbon tweet). It's a good looking, good sounding speaker. tbg, an Audiogon Speaker Forum regular, swears by his. If I could squeeze another $200 out of my budget, I'd hands down go for the Reference 3A Dulcet. I think they're awesome.

Hope this helps.

Thanks for all the thoughtful information. Your posts and responses have been very helpful. I'm still on the fence, but the De Capo BE is very tempting.

Kind regards,
It's a marvelous speaker, but only you can judge whether it fits your taste, room, equipment, etc. Good luck and let us know what you choose!
I love my De Capo BE so much. Anyone who listened to my place cannot say anything negative about it. It simply allowed them to be drawn to the music not the setup.
How much better r the de capo over dulcets and what r u using to power the de capo's

I had been using a pair of Manley Mahi tube mono blocks, in triode mode, which put out about 20 wpc into 8 ohms. They easily drove the De Capo's to louder levels than I'd ever care to listen. I sold my Manley gear to try a SET amp with the De Capo's: an Audio Note Kit 1, which I'm presently building. I'm blogging the build process here if you're interested.
Oh: as for comparing the De Capo to the Dulcet, they are cut from a similar cloth. Both very coherent and they disappear and image beautifully. But the De Capo's will play louder without any signs of strain beyond what the Dulcets can do - they just play "bigger."
"But the De Capo has the ability to present the complex rhythms and sonic textures in these songs as, for lack of a better word, integrated performances that make musical sense."

So eloquently and clearly communicated Rebbi! Last night I was listening to the Eagles "Hell Freezes Over" CD. "Hotel California". This is just an extremely well recorded live cut. You just close your eyes and when that bass drum comes in you can feel it along with the life like size of Joe Walsh and Don Felder's guitars the texture and richness of the instruments playing off each other, while clearly resolving the space and distance between all the players, it all sounds so REAL.
I've aways wanted to get my hands on that CD. I've heard it's awesome, and I actually like the Eagles, so it would be a double treat. :-)
Has anybody had the chance to demo the De Capo and the Episode side by side. My room is fairly large (21' x 24').
Hi everybody, I have a pair of Reference 3A Royal Master speakers. They sounds wonderful. When I glanced inside, I saw that high frequency speaker is connect through Mundorf Supreme 4,7 uF capacitor, but there is one more , very cheap chinese capacitor 3,3 uF. Does somebody know, why here connect two capacitors? Maybe somebody have these speakers or a scheme how must be connect the high frequency speakers in theese monitors?
And here's another slightly off-topic question. Should I hold onto my old tweeters from my de Capos that I have left over from when I installed the beryllium tweeters? Should I try to sell them?What have others done with them?