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Positive Feedback ISSUE 45
september/october 2009


Sonic Satori - Getting Closer to the Music: the Reference3A Dulcets Inject Wonderment Back into the Listening Experience
by Michael Mercer


Remaining objective is the ultimate goal for any journalist striving for excellence. We are however, human beings and so we naturally develop certain biases over time. Those biases come to color and shape our outlook, especially when we're talking about something that holds our passion. I would never attempt to claim complete objectivity when it comes to Hi-fi gear, especially loudspeakers. I also found, while working in Hi-fi retail for Soundscape up in Santa Rosa, that speakers are very much a personal preference type of product. There were speakers in the store that I loved, and would always try, at the very least, to share my feelings about them with customers. Many of them however, came in with their own idea of what "good" sound was, and ultimately it was about making them happy. I would occasionally end up in a listening session with a speaker that I felt did not adequately produce a musical experience, while the person spending the money was satisfied, and that was my job.

This was an enlightening time for me. I discovered that, despite my own impressions and experience level, we are certainly all individuals, and therefore I stopped making blanket statements regarding which loudspeakers were the "best" in my opinion, and even which speaker was better during comparisons. Of course I would render my thoughts when asked, but I began to step back from making hard-nosed, seemingly fact-based statements with regard to the musicality of loudspeakers in the store. I later chose to feel out the customer, get to know their musical tastes, and then navigate towards a speaker I thought would give them what they want. My personal tastes did not come into play after a while. The great thing about reviewing equipment at home is I have my own impressions and tastes! Yes, I do have certain preferences when it comes to loudspeakers; first and foremost being my love for two-way monitors.

My fondness for two-ways developed long before I ended up at Atlantic Records, planted behind a console, listening to monitors placed on the meter bridge in recording studios (though these experiences definitely helped to further my love for the design concept). I came to love the two-way when Hp received a pair of System Audio 1005 speakers back in 1996 (reviewed in TAS, not certain which issue number). They were a compact speaker to say the least; not much bigger than a small shoebox, containing a 5 inch (I think) main driver and 1-inch silk dome tweeter. The driver was actually positioned above the tweeter (a design I have rarely seen since, but it worked). There was a disappearing quality to these speakers that I had never experienced before, and it was almost as if there were no speakers in the room at all! Which brings me to another one of my preferences: That the loudspeaker gets the hell out of the way and lets the music come through without my brain being pre-occupied with the fact that I am listening to a box, and not the real thing. My reference has been the System Audio SA2K loudspeakers for the last eight years or so. They do just about everything I could want (especially when coupled to the Nola Thunderbolt subwoofer). I had not found anything to compete with their sense of realness (or reality for that matter), and their ability to fade into the room.

Floor standing speakers certainly have the dynamic advantage. Their larger drivers can move more air, providing deeper bass, and their size helps to (sometimes) more closely approximate the visceral feeling of live music. Over the years I have come across a few larger designs that captured my imagination; the Nola Viper II, Reference 3A Veenas, and Mike Johnson's soon-to-be released New Era loudspeakers to name a few. For the most part though, bigger speakers with more complex, multiple-driver arrangements tend to remind me of the fact that I'm listening to Hi-fi, not music.

After hearing the Reference 3A Grand Veenas at this years CES (in Elite Audio/Video's suite, set-up by the always entertaining Scot Markwell) and reading about them in HPs Workshop in TAS I set out to find if the company built a two-way monitor. The liquid-like sound of the Grand Veenas drew me deep into the music, an experience that I rarely get outside of my own living room. I was psyched to discover the Dulcets on their website. After a few emails to Tash Goka at Divergent Technologies (a man also on the hunt for great sound) I managed to secure a pair. They have been in our listening space burning in for a few weeks now, and I am simply stunned by their performance. I do not say this lightly, as I was sure we would go another decade before we found a speaker that would transport us elsewhere, as the System Audios often do. The Dulcets however, have already far exceeded my expectations, and I have found myself spending so much time listening that I have not wanted to stop and write. This could very well be the best compliment I can bestow upon these little gems (well, wait and see).

The Dulcets are a compact two-way design (big surprise there, after all my rambling). The main driver is a 5 inch and they have a 1 inch silk dome tweeter up top. The front baffle is slanted to aid in time and phase alignment, and the main driver also incorporates a Delrin phase plug as opposed to a standard dome-like dust cap. The plug protrudes from the center of the driver, looking like a short cylinder capped with a flat top and rounded edges. According to Tash Goka at Divergent the plug is installed in order to "disperse the lateral standing waves that inherently occur inside the cone area to reduce the resonance peaks for a more linear mid-band wave propagation." My pair is finished in piano black and the cabinet work is seamless in execution. My compliments to the carpenter! They may not be the most efficient small speakers (87db at 1 watt/1 meter) but what they lack in efficiency they make up for in overall musicality. I happen to think efficiency can be overrated at times anyway. My System Audios are also slightly inefficient, but they make a guitar and bass sound like a guitar and bass (as do the Dulcets). Their load is easy, at 8 ohms nominal, and my Classe Audio DR-9 drove them beautifully. I even pulled out our old Marantz SR225 receiver (currently in our bedroom system, a garage-sale acquisition that I am most proud of actually) to see if it could drive them well enough to live with. No problem there, and so if you have an amplifier that isn't so robust, but has a sound you love, you can probably drive the Dulcets without worry. The maximum input power rating is 100 watts RMS. 

Reference 3A has apparently been hard at work figuring out how to improve upon their already well-known designs. I received notification that they had in fact made a few changes in the Dulcet, and thus far I can say with confidence their choices were right on the money. Here are a couple of things they've done to increase performance (for all Reference 3A products): Their drivers are now mechanically grounded, draining vibration energy from the driver frames. They've incorporated a Faraday Ring (a copper shorting ring, which, according to the company; "improves linearity in the driver voice coil magnetic gap."). I've often heard about the effectiveness of these rings, but admittedly had not heard a speaker with them installed until now. All of the connectors, internal wiring, and metal driver parts are now cryogenically treated. This science and application is gaining in popularity throughout the Hi-fi industry (Cryoparts, for example, Cryos all their cables to great effect). There are a few other changes as well (new brass cones, binding posts and internal wiring). You can contact them for further info at [email protected].

The cabinets are rigid and "critically braced" (their words), and the main driver is direct- coupled to the amplifier, thus bypassing possible negative effects that crossover networks introduce into the signal path (which is true of all Reference 3A speakers). This also means you better love the sound of your amplifier, because the Dulcet is going to tell you straight out the gate what it is doing (or not doing correctly). I believe in this concept, as I have stuck with our Classe amplifier all these years (and there have been many try-outs, believe me) because I love its sound so very much. Would I take a pair of Burmester 909s over it? Yes I would, but I'm not rich and our music sounds just fine.

Luckily (as previously stated) our system is set up for two-ways as the main monitors, so all it took was a quick swap on the speakers stands and we were off and dialing things in. The tweeter on the Dulcets is off center, and the company recommends setting the speakers up with the tweeters on the outside - so the left will have the tweeter on the outer side, and vice-versa for the right. This was an immediate indicator to me of their desire for proper soundstaging and transient response. Many Hi-fi manufacturers (and end users for that matter) believe in placing the tweeters on the inside edge. Now, if the design calls for it, then of course that's what you do. In the studio world however, where most of our recordings are made, most engineers place the tweeters on the outside, so they can be sure the main drivers are aligned correctly. Some audio set-up guys call this "tweetering in the dance floor", and I have come to believe in this philosophy. Reference 3A also recommends no toe-in angle. This results in a wider stage, and lends itself more easily to bigger orchestral music. For my purposes (mostly listening to rock, pop, folk, and electronic music) I ended up with about a 2-5 degree toe-in, in order to center the vocals and get things more focused within and across the soundstage. I did use the speakers fixed straight ahead for classical music however, and the results were spectacular. They threw an image far beyond the width of the actual speaker distance, and this is another thing I look for: Can the loudspeakers create an image that is reaching far behind, and to both the left and right of the cabinets. The Dulcets did this to great effect. I subscribe to one of the great Robert E. Greene feelings here (one of my favorite writers from the golden age of TAS): The impressive stuff in stereo imaging is what happens between the speakers. Getting to hear Joni Mitchell's voice hovering in the middle of the speakers during "Woodstock" (off Blue), and the instruments occupying their own space around her, well, it was nothing short of exceptional.

OK, now to expand on more of the important part of this essay: The music! "Adia" on Sarah McLachlan's Surfacing is an immediate gateway to the brilliant beauty of her voice. It's also been awhile since I heard a McLachlan tune on a system at a Hi-fi convention, and so I thought I'd experience a bunch of her albums through the Dulcets and see how I felt about their ability to communicate her voice in a convincing fashion. Now, Sarah McLachlans' vocals project multiple timbres and tones (especially given the occasional reverb/DSP effects her producers choose to seemingly apply deeper emotion through her delivery). I personally believe she doesn't need any signal processing in order to make even the strongest person feel love or pain (they always manage to do so with taste however). The speakers high frequency extension was superb, and so I honestly could not find anything to complain about harmonically with the Dulcets after playing the rest of the Surfacing album. They achieved that same sort of beautifully rounded sound on McLachlan's gorgeous Fumbling Towards Ecstasy record. Their ability to capture the ambient qualities of the music throughout the album made the sound feel dreamy and spacey, as it should (similar to some of Janis Ian's music perhaps, while sounding a bit more modern). Her vocals soared, and I was captivated not only by the magic in her voice, but the systems ability to translate the subtle nuances that make her such an exquisite performer. She's very expressive without trying to be, and that gives her music an authentic stamp. The Dulcets punctuated that stamp wonderfully.

Another acid test for me (no comment), and one that I have mentioned in past reviews is Donny Hathaway's "A Song for You", originally produced by Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin. The version I use is the first track on the A Donny Hathaway Collection CD on Atlantic Records (a re-issue, produced by Sylvia Rhone, Merlin Bobb and Bob Porter). This song can, at times, literally bring me to tears if the system is performing well enough to bring me closer into the somber beauty of Donny Hathaway. Knowing that Mr. Hathaway took his own life, that he was a manic depressive, and hearing the words in this song; I close my eyes and sometimes find myself alone in the studio with the man. Every word sounds as deeply sincere as anything I have ever heard. He means it when he sings "and when my life is over, remember when we were together, we were alone as I was singing this song to you." Getting to feel such power and sadness coming from one of the greatest R&B artists ever, whose life was far too short, is an experience every music lover should have. Speakers without serious resolution capabilities will kill the emotive power behind this music and render it lifeless (I've been there, it's not pretty). The Dulcets delivered every heartbreaking breath with grand detail. Hathaway's anguished tonality was electrifying, and I never had even the slightest urge to pause the tune, despite anything that was happening around me (let the cell phone ring, the wife call, I was basking in this sonic journey and loving it). The dimensionality; the space in and around the cascading piano keys, strings and horns was almost video-like in presentation. You could practically feel the instruments and the air around them, which stretched far beyond the speakers themselves. I was having such a good time listening to Hathaway's music I even pulled some other albums of his that I hadn't listened to in years, and that's another compliment I can pay these loudspeakers. Their low bass extension was also very impressive, considering the fact that they are 5" two-way monitor speakers. I'm referring to the region around 40-50 Hz here, which seemed to be the point of roll off for them (maybe around 45), and that is nothing to complain about considering their physical size.

Their bass was tightly reproduced, and punched into the room like the kind of bass you'd get from small floorstanders. During the introduction to Depeche Mode's atmospheric "Waiting for the Night to Fall" (off their Violator record) there are these wildly triggered and panning low notes sounding like the pounding bassline of a Roland 808 drum machine (think Massive Attack, or Portishead). The effect is hypnotic, and draws you into the dark texture of their music. If a loudspeaker can not handle vivid detailing in the mid-bass and lower mid-bass area the soul of this music would be sucked out. The electronic madness would suddenly seem so linear, so plain; you'd be left wondering why you thought Depeche Mode was such a great band (OK, so it would be me thinking that). I had no such concerns with the Dulcets. At no time did I feel I was really missing anything, well, perhaps the bottom octaves of course. 

You should always consider a fast, and more importantly, musical subwoofer to mate with speakers like these. I am anxious to try them with my Nola Thunderbolt III subwoofer (currently in storage, boo hoo) and would love to report back on their performance in a truly full-range system. The Reference 3A Dulcets did not however, even for a minute, make me think of what I wasn't getting in the music, rather the opposite actually. They allowed me to hear more deeply into the music I love, and therefore acted as a superb conduit between me and the amazing sonic landscape that is my record collection. I wanted to keep digging for stuff to experience again, and isn't that what this game is all about; discovering the magic of music? I haven't said this in eight years or so (since we bought our System Audio SA2K's) but I would happily live with the Dulcets. They have made listening very exciting again for me, and that is vital. There is nothing like the healing power of music during troubled times. 

Reference 3A Dulcet compact monitor: $1695.00 (per pair in glossy red maple, glossy dark maple and satin natural maple. 10 % more in high gloss piano black finish)

Reference 3A