A Supermonitor from Canada’s Heartland
World Premiere Review, by Noam Bronstein
Tash Goka, Reference 3A’s chief, tells me modestly that in some ways he views the all-new Reflector as a sort of grown-up DeCapo. Tash took over a speaker company with a long, rich history, and he’s never forgotten its past accomplishments. But while it may share some basic DNA with 3A’s venerable ‘Micro Master’/MM DeCapo, the Reflector’s weight – nearly triple the DeCapo – gives you some idea about the path of its trajectory. And about the loftiness of its ambitions. Clad in glass and steel, this is clearly much more than a progressive model evolution. The Reflector’s design brief goes something like this: in much of the world, living spaces tend to be small – even in many of the world’s wealth centers, many people live in condo apartments…and some time back, Reference 3A’s UK distributor asked Tash to come up with something to rival the likes of the Magico, Raidho and TAD monitors. In short, design and build a supermonitor.
Not a small speaker, mind you, nor one for small rooms, or small sound. Nope. What was requested was a full-range, full-blooded transducer – a speaker that plays with the big boys and represents, but still has a reasonably manageable footprint. Not as easy as it sounds! And I think Reference 3A have succeeded in a way that may surprise many.
But let’s rewind a little. At the last TAVES show, I wandered in to the Reference 3A room at an opportune moment. It was quiet, and though I wasn’t aware of it, this brand-new model that I was drawn to, was being prepped for its first public audition. Something about these large standmounts compelled me – they have a presence that photos don’t fully express. Hmm, the word “substantial” came to mind. Still unheard, I was intrigued and felt a strange sense of excitement. These speakers didn’t even have an official name yet – for the moment they were dubbed the ‘Special Edition’. Once in place, the wait continued, while ‘the emcee’ behind the controls rebooted his music server. Which seemed to take forever. For some reason I waited patiently, enjoying the break and quiet atmosphere, even though my time was limited. Am I ever glad I did. When music began to play, I heard sounds incongruous with the rectangular boxes they were emanating from. Powered by a Copland integrated amp, the monitors filled the room with sound effortlessly, and painted a soundstage so well-defined, that, had my eyes been closed, I would have sworn came from dipole planars.
That memory recorded, I didn’t waste time after the show, contacting Tash to ask for a review. After spending two months with the Reflector, plus some time for, uh, reflection, I’m ready to share my thoughts.
First of all, these are truly full-range speakers. The extend fully in both directions, while delivering a beautiful, coherent midrange presence. I never once thought about a subwoofer with the Reflector. They don’t need it. Their deep bass and upper bass performance was excellent, with all the amps I used and serving all types of music. Not only did I never think about a sub, I never really thought of the Reflector as a “monitor” while it was playing music. It seems to move more air than would seem possible for the surface area of its drivers. It loads a good sized room beautifully, and projects, almost like a point source. Everything about this speaker is big, and weighty.
Weighty? These are extremely heavy, rigid enclosures. While they don’t use an aluminum structure, they do incorporate a thick steel bottom plate, and thick glass sides and tops. The glass (which gives the speaker its name) is laminated in a constrained mode with absorbine material. The cabinets are heavily reinforced, and internally braced in both the lateral and vertical planes. Both the horizontal planes utilize brass tension rods to prevent unwanted movement. I’ve lifted all kinds of heavy speakers, and generally find it easier to do myself than with help. Not so with the Reflector. This is a standmount speaker that can and will strain the solo lifter. Ask me how I know.
I primarily used the Reflector with four excellent tube amps: Finale Audio’s 829B Special, Copland’s CTA-506, Antique Sound Lab’s AQ1005DT 300B SET integrated, and my Triode Lab 2A3M SET amps. These amps range from 3.5wpc to 90wpc, and are priced from under $2000 up to over $8000. Remarkably, all of them drove the Reflector very well. Yes, even the 2A3 SET. Tash recommends at least a 300B (7-8 watts), but if you happen to have a single-ended 2A3, EL84, 6L6, etc., I wouldn’t hesitate to try it. As expected, the beefier amps got ‘more’ from the 3A’s. More detail, more woofer control – most of all, a better sense of effortless ease. But no one should mistake this for a hard-to-drive speaker – it’s anything but. As with all Reference 3A speakers, there is essentially no crossover, just a cap to protect the tweeter. For me this might be the single biggest philosophical difference between speaker companies. Companies like Reference 3A and Gallo Acoustics have been building superb speakers without crossover networks for decades. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but still, it surprises that so few others have adopted the approach.
So, while I didn’t find the Reflector to be overly fussy about partnering amplifiers, I did find it to be more critical about placement. In my room I like to give speakers breathing room. Two feet from the side walls, three or even four feet from the front wall. Tash provided a pair of his height-adjustable stands. I tried them at 28″, 21″ (tilted up), and finally settled on just under 24″ as the best height, for my room and slouchy listening position. They’re very good in the higher position – in rooms with higher ceilings than mine. I didn’t like what I heard in the low position, though your mileage may vary. Plan on doing some experimenting to get the best out of them.
Musically: the Reflector delivers brilliantly. Tonal colour is spot on, never lean or oversaturated. Frequency balance is also as close to perfect as I could ask for. These are fast, dynamic, honest speakers. They’re so endowed with great qualities, that rather than name them or even listen for them, the listener just gets absorbed into the music. This happened to me over and over again. My favourite intimate jazz recordings were “in the room”. Miles Davis in his modal prime never sounded so real. Well-spotlit instrumental music had a fantastic immediacy. My notes had fewer adjectives and more emotional reactions: “Wow”, “OMG”, and so on. Vocalists, the same: utterly real and present. From Cassandra Wilson to Shirley Horn, from Chet Baker to Enya and beyond, vocals came through with emotion, grace, and downright spooky levels of realism. Every breath, each inflection and nuance. This is “midrange magic” at its finest. (and isn’t that the most important thing!)
And yet. I never felt the Reflector was specifically “voiced”, or designed around a set of compromises. This was reflected in the way the speaker handled complex, large-scale music. Again, it performed so well in terms of range, scale and dynamics, that every kind of orchestral piece I played was superbly well-served. The dynamic swings and orchestral bass rythms in Alexandre Desplat’s wonderful soundtrack for The Grand Budapest Hotel were a case in point. Same for Daft Punk’s brilliant synth-orchestral Tron: Legacy soundtrack. These are about as close as we get to “blockbuster” recordings nowadays, and the Reflector took their wide-range demands in stride. Fortes and crescendos were handled with precision and aplomb. No confusion.
Should we talk about bass response? Yes, because audiophiles love good bass (doesn’t everyone?). My impression was of fluid, exceptional low-frequency energy. Fantastic quality bass, and plenty of it. Flat at 40Hz, and still very decent in the low- to mid-30’s. For nearly all music – that’s full range. House foundations may not shake, but walls will definitely rattle. And if techno or movies are your thing, you likely aren’t reading this review, so I won’t offer any apologies.
As ever, the hardest thing (by far) to convey as audio writers is how we feel about what a component is doing for us, in terms of musical enjoyment and satisfaction. If I had to quantify it, I would rate the Reference 3A Reflector a 9/10 in satisfying my speaker needs/wants. And with a gun to my head, I’d be hard pressed to nitpick the details of the -1 subtraction. It is possible that the Reflector isn’t as hyper-detailed as some speakers, but I’m really stretching my imagination to even suggest that as a possibility. I never sensed any lack.
Alas, nothing is perfect…but the Reflector pushed all my buttons, and then some.
Fit and finish is excellent, as you’d expect from a speaker of this calibre. Looks are always a subjective thing. These are attractive speakers – they do have a somewhat bigger presence in person than what pictures convey, but they aren’t monsters. They do come with black fabric grill covers.
But this is not high-end audio jewellery. Some may not like the Nextel gray baffle finish. All I can say is, it works (and it’s NOT “gray spackle”!). In fact, Tash goes to great lengths to import that stuff in small batches, since the shelf life is short. Whatever. No one is going to look at these speakers and mistake them for lightweights. This is a serious speaker. The drivers are closely-matched and hand crafted. The speaker has even more invested inside the enclosure than what’s visible on the outside. It works. If sonics are your top priority, the Reflector deserves serious auditioning beside all its competitors in the $20000-40000 range. If looks are of top importance, sure, the TAD is gorgeous. At 40 thousand US dollars, it should be. Or maybe an exotic Italian like the Sonus Faber would do the trick.
(By the way, for anyone thinking of spending $25k on speakers, I would highly encourage you to go listen to Reference 3A’s top of the line, the Sema Zen. It’s worth the effort to hear it)
Let’s talk about value. This speaker has moved the bar for me. And no, I won’t pretend that the price tag falls under the “affordable” category – certainly not for me, and many of the folks I know. I’m not used to thinking of a $12,000 speaker as a “bargain”, or awarding one of our Gold Star Awards to a product in this price range. In fact, until I heard this speaker, those notions wouldn’t have entered my mind. But if we’re talking about apples here, the aforementioned supermonitors sell for 2, 3, even 4x the Reflector’s price. Whether the Reference 3A Reflector is fully their equal in music making (or even superior), I can’t say. What I can say is this: the Reflector is loaded with brilliant design; it’s built to meet fanatically high-performance, no compromise parameters; it makes effortless, beautiful music with a few good watts, it’s full-range in every sense of the word. And it costs a lot less than the speakers that it’s likely to be compared against. I’m not proclaiming miracles here, but this speaker very much deserves to be in that conversation. And that’s a pretty good day’s work.
Most highly recommended.
Reference 3A ‘Reflector’
MSRP $12,000 (USD)
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