In late January of 2014, The High Fidelity Report’s Joey Weiss asked if I would listen to a new model loudspeaker from Reference 3A, a favorite brand of his and Harry Pearson’s. Their experience with Ref3A goes back to HP’s days with TAS, during which he lauded a pair of Grand Veena’s, writing, “this is now and will be in the future considered a classic of its kind. It is, purely and simply, a great loudspeaker.” Knowing that Reference 3A’s Tash Goka has been working on significant revisions to their loudspeakers, Weiss was interested in having one of us at THFR give the new designs a listen. As both Ref3A and I reside north of the 49th, Weiss thought it appropriate that I take on the task. After an April trip to Waterloo, Ontario, Canada to meet with Mr. Goka, a pair of the newly released Reference 3A Episode BE loudspeakers was delivered to my home in Toronto for evaluation. With four months of listening now finished, I am excited to report on both the speakers and on an eye opening and refreshing personal learning experience about expectations, bias and subjectivity.
Ref3A began making significant revisions to their entire loudspeaker line-up in 2013 that included parts modifications and the development of entirely new loudspeaker models. The new models possess the designation BE, referencing (among numerous other modifications) a new beryllium tweeter. These models are built around a revised 8” direct-coupled, full range main driver (which has been refined over the course of the companies 35 year history). The new 8” main driver is hand-built, made of woven carbon, and is custom-made by Ref3A. The new designs also maintain their minimalist design philosophy, with no crossover used with the main driver.NEFES, SEMA ZEN) use multiple drivers to increase power handling and dynamic range. While similar in appearance, the main driver is customized for each speaker model, optimizing its frequency response and overall performance to best suite the technical needs of each size of speaker enclosure.
In the single-driver model Episode BE Loudspeakers that I evaluated, the main driver has a frequency response range of 39 Hz up to 5.2 kHz (+/- 3 dB), covering the majority of the audible spectrum. The SEMA ZEN, both the newest and largest model produced by Ref3a, offers even more low frequency information, reaching down to 27Hz, while the smallest model Dulcet BE reaches 48 Hz. All models are rear-ported.
One of the key new features of the new main driver is an attached Surreal Acoustic Lens, patented by Reference 3A. The company states that this new feature prevents the formation of air vortexes generated by condensed air particles and turbulence in the deep center of loudspeaker driver cones in order to minimize the noise generated by the vortex or turbulence of moving air particles. This low level noise generally occurs in higher frequencies and becomes part of the sound. The Surreal Acoustic Lens diffuses this noise, allowing clearer detail retrieval and sharper focus on images. The point source for higher frequencies is now just the tweeter.
Another new feature is a Truextent beryllium tweeter from Materion. A high-pass filter capacitor is employed with the new tweeter (a protection circuit for filtering low frequencies), and, according to Ref3A, the tweeter extends the frequency range of the loudspeaker up to an astonishing 40 kHz* (up to which I can absolutely hear J).
The new BE models have sensitivity measurements ranging from 88 dB to 93 dB. For those readers who would like to know more about the main driver and other technical facets of Reference 3A’s loudspeakers, additional information can be found on Reference 3A’s website.
My listening room is small. With the Episode BE’s sensitivity rating of 91 dB, I was confident I could pair them with just about any amplifier. I ended up using three: a Bryston 4Bsst2 solid-state power amplifier, an Allnic Audio T1500 SET integrated amplifier, and a T2000 push-pull integrated amplifier, also from Allnic. These three amplifiers represent a cross section of design and power output, a range of different sonic characteristics, and a price range of $5000-$9000 US. I feel each would be a good match for the $6050 (US) Episode BEs.
I started with the Allnic Audio T2000, a medium powered integrated valve amplifier built around the popular Tung-Sol KT120 output tube. The T2000 produces a maximum 70-watts of power in push-pull pentode mode and up to 35-watts in “SET-like” triode mode. In the past I’ve preferred running the T2000 in triode, however with the Episode BE’s I started in pentode, switched to triode, then went back to pentode.
There was warmth to the sound in this combination that I hadn’t anticipated. The sound was engaging, romantic in a way, but with good presence and detail. There was a kind of forwardness in the sound (especially in the mid-to-upper frequencies), but it was never off-putting as it was supported by a combination of musical body and nuanced detail in the low frequency region. It sounded gracious, I suppose.
This is what surprised me. I expected something different. Before I had even set the speakers up I anticipated an aggressive, edgy sound. In fact, while listening to this first configuration I realized that I had come to the project with previously unacknowledged biases about what the speakers were going to sound like. My assumptions were very different from what I was actually hearing.
I had chosen the T2000 as the first amplifier because I thought it would be the best fit with the speakers. And while it was very good, in the end, of the three amplifiers I used, it was not the best sonic match. However, the breakdown of my own expectations over the course of my time with this combination became a key part of my total Ref3A experience.
For the second amplifier I switched to the 300-watt per channel Bryston 4Bsst2 solid-state amplifier (using the Nagra Jazz I reported on last year for THFR as the preamp). Here was another surprise. I was worried, or had anticipated, that this would be a poor sounding combination. I thought it would feel aggressive in the upper frequencies and would be overly bloated in the bass region, losing coherence. Negative, I know, but I was skeptical. It wasn’t any of those things. The combination sounded great: Dynamic, refined, enveloping.
With the 4Bsst2 the Episode BE speakers played effortlessly. Some of the charm I’d experienced with the Allnic T2000 was gone, however it was replaced by a level of controlled dynamics that was equally appealing. The modest forwardness remained, however I never felt that I was being pushed back or needed to lean away. As with the T2000 valve amplifier, this forwardness was just part of the character of the sound and not at all displeasing. This was the second best combination of the three I tried.
Last up was Allnic Audio’s T1500 singled-ended 300B integrated amplifier. It produces a modest maximum output of 12.5-watts per channel, a respectable output level for a single tube-per-channel 300b SET design, and more than enough juice to drive the Episode BEs in my small room. By the time I got to the T1500 I was fully aware of my mistaken biases and now didn’t know what to expect. The T1500 was also the amplifier with which I was least familiar.
From the start the T1500/Episode BE combination rocked me. It was outstanding; even more so when the supplied Electro Harmonix 300b output valves were replaced by a set of Sophia Electric Princess valves. It wasn’t that the T1500 provided the best of both worlds compared to the two previous amplifiers, as the sound of each combination was quite distinct. The T1500 had an improved level of detail in both the low frequency and midrange regions that was musically magical. The upper midrange and high frequencies also sat back a touch further, and I perceived improved coherence, additional harmonic detail and spatial depth with this combination. To my ears, this was the best of three very good systems.
While I often found myself surprised by the Episode BE loudspeakers, the nicest discovery was their adaptability. They performed well in all three configurations and with each amplifier they produced a unique sound, proving flexible enough to work with a high-powered solid-stage amplifier, a low-wattage S.E.T. amplifier and anything in between. The more powerful amplifier produced more drive, the valve amplifiers more detail and warmth, but there was a consistency in body, depth and musical texture regardless of which amplifier I used.
The Episode BE’s are not a perfect loudspeaker though. To my ears they don’t possess the pure dynamic impact of which the Bryston Middle T loudspeakers are capable, nor are they as accurate as my ATC SCM 40’s. They also require care in set-up in order to secure proper phase alignment between the tweeter and full range main drive. Thorough experimentation with front to back tilt, toe angle, and proximity to barrier walls is essential. When set up correctly, however, they produced a level of immediacy in musical playback that is exceptional. I’ll add also that neither the Bryston Middle T nor the ATC SCM40’s offer the same level of amplifier flexibility that the Ref3A model provides. Neither of those two speakers performs anywhere near as well with the T2000 or T1500 Allnic valve amplifiers.
I’ll admit, I was a first reticent to write about Reference 3A, and since I took the Episode BEs in for audition I’ve been trying to determine why. Prior to Weiss’ January query, my own experience with Reference 3A had been limited primarily to Hi-Fi shows here or there. It’s possible my reluctance was the result of past opportunities that I’ve had to hear Ref3A speakers that left me underwhelmed. I was aware of the company’s strong reputation, of the numerous awards the brand has garnered over the years, and of HP’s own positive commentary. But sometimes you get an impression, either positive or negative, and even if that impression isn’t justified, it carries weight and forms an opinion. The lesson I’ve learned from my time with these speakers is likely obvious. The need to be open minded, fair and diligent when approaching HI-FI writing, as in any journalistic venture, is paramount. Now that my analysis is complete, I’m happy to have discovered something new and to report on that discovery at the same time that I report on the loudspeakers. Whatever prejudice I had going into the project has been proven misplaced.
In my own home, with equipment of which I am familiar, my experience with Reference 3A has been exemplary. The new Episode BE loudspeakers produce the kind of engaging, intimate listening experience one can have with great high-end audio. The kind of listening that pulls you in to the music and keeps you focused on what’s passing by.
*Note regarding my J comment above. For the record, I cannot hear up to 40 kHz!
However, after reading this article, Ref3A’s Tash Goka commented that “we maintain that the sheer existence of very high frequencies inherently present in music allows us to perceive even other parts of the music faster and in more defined manner. This was also clearly evident with the super high frequency exciters we have previously used that were produced by Murata of Japan. As subtle as the effect may be in all our listening tests, they were always missed if removed.