Ref­er­ence 3A Ne­fes Loud­speak­ers

NOVO - - PRODUCTREVIEW - Mal­colm J. Gomes

There is lit­tle doubt that most au­dio­philes re­gard crossover net­works in loud­speak­ers as a nec­es­sary evil. A few hate them with such a vengeance that they opt for panel or sin­gle driver speak­ers just to avoid the down­sides of crossovers. Ad­vances in crossover de­signs over the past decade have min­i­mized and in some cases elim­i­nated many of their in­her­ent ill ef­fects but I do not know of any­one who has yet come up with a crossover net­work that does not in some way dis­tort the sig­nal be­ing de­liv­ered to the driver units. Bad as it is with two-way speak­ers, it tends to get sig­nif­i­cantly worse with three-way and four-way speak­ers.

Some speaker de­sign­ers have opted to tran­scend the dis­ad­van­tages of a crossover by do­ing away with them com­pletely and in­stead, uti­liz­ing full range driver units. How­ever, here again, there are un­avoid­able com­pro­mises like ane­mic re­pro­duc­tion or to­tal ab­sence of the bot­tom oc­tave of the au­di­ble fre­quency spec­trum.

Ev­ery once in a while, we find a speaker de­signer that de­cides to take up the chal­lenge of de­sign­ing a multi-way dy­namic loud­speaker sys­tem with no crossover. I have au­di­tioned a few of th­ese valiant ef­forts but hith­erto, al­though I have found them to have ben­e­fited in some re­spects from elim­i­nat­ing the crossover, there were far too many trade­offs in terms of sonic per­for­mance to tip the over­all bal­ance in their favour.

This be­ing the case, when Suave Ka­jko, the publisher of CANADA HiFi re­quested me to re­view another loud­speaker sys­tem with no crossover, I was a bit skep­ti­cal. How­ever when he men­tioned that this model, un­der the Ref­er­ence 3A moniker, has been de­signed by Tash Goka of Di­ver­gent Tech­nolo­gies, it perked up my in­ter­est. I have a lot of re­spect for Tash and I thought that if any­one could suc­cess­fully pull off a loud­speaker de­sign with­out a crossover, Tash could. This loud­speaker re­tails for $9,950/pair and an­swers to the name of ‘Ne­fes’, which means ‘breath’ as in the “the life giver” to the wind in­stru­ments used in Sufi mu­sic. I won­dered if the Ne­fes would be the first loud­speaker sys­tem with­out a crossover that would take my ‘breath’ away.

The Ref­er­ence 3A brand has its roots in France where in 1959 it was set up by Daniel De­hay un­der the name 3A, which stood

for Ap­plied Acous­tic Arts. The com­pany was then re­lo­cated to Switzer­land in the late 1980s where the name was changed to Ref­er­ence 3A. Af­ter chang­ing own­er­ship a few times, De­hay once again ac­quired the com­pany in 1992. The com­pany is cur­rently lo­cated in Kitch­ener, Water­loo in the Cana­dian Prov­ince of On­tario and is man­aged by Tash Goka.

de­sign | fea­tures

Tash and a col­league de­liv­ered the Ne­fes to my au­di­tion­ing fa­cil­ity, which is just as well be­cause al­though they are not ex­tremely heavy (130 pounds), they are a bit too large (10 X 16 X 45 inches) for a sin­gle per­son to carry alone. The set-up was quite straight­for­ward and the heigh­tad­justable feet made it quick and easy to achieve per­fect align­ment.

This speaker is equipped with two 8-inch, full-range, hy­per ex­po­nen­tial woven carbon fiber driv­ers that have been de­vel­oped specif­i­cally for the Ne­fes and which are di­rectly cou­pled to the am­pli­fier. Th­ese are com­ple­mented with a pure Beryl­lium tweeter as­sem­bly in a ‘D’Ap­polito’ ar­ray. The cab­i­net is re­as­sur­ingly rigid and in­ert. The over­all de­sign goal was to elim­i­nate the crossover net­work al­to­gether in or­der to avoid pos­si­ble sig­nal in­ter­rup­tions and phase er­rors for a more co­her­ent sonic per­for­mance.

To com­pen­sate for the lack of a crossover net­work, the Beryl­lium tweeter is pro­tected by a high qual­ity non-in­duc­tive sil­ver-in-oil ca­pac­i­tor that acts as a high­pass fil­ter. The tweeter is mounted be­hind an ex­po­nen­tial acous­tic wave-guide to achieve bet­ter time align­ment and more uni­form dis­per­sion.

The core center of the woofers is equipped with a patented sur­real acous­tic lens which is de­signed to dis­si­pate any vor­tex that could form as a re­sult of air tur­bu­lence, thus min­i­miz­ing any re­lated noise that could be gen­er­ated by the cone shaped driv­ers. Ac­cord­ing to Tash, elim­i­nat­ing this vor­tex al­lows the driver units to per­form with en­hanced clar­ity, nat­u­ral tonal bal­ance and wider dis­per­sion.

The in­side of the Ne­fes bind­ing post con­nec­tors have a patented mag­netic conduction sig­nal wave-guide. This is a first in Ref­er­ence 3A speak­ers. The strong mag­netism of this wave-guide keeps the elec­tri­cal sig­nal flow aligned. It also mini- mizes the ran­dom path­ways for elec­trons within and along the con­duc­tor and pro­motes sig­nal trans­fer where re­sis­tance to the sig­nal is high­est and where the great­est losses can oc­cur. Ac­cord­ing to Tash, this has been done to de­liver a more dy­namic, open and spa­cious sound with greater de­tail re­trieval.

The in­ter­nal wiring com­prises spe­cially se­lected, cryo­geni­cally treated, OCC sin­gle crys­tal pure cop­per con­duc­tors with Te­flon di­elec­tric. Th­ese wires have been pre­cisely cal­i­brated to op­ti­mize sig­nal trans­fer to the driv­ers.

The Ne­fes cab­i­net is fin­ished in a durable an­thracite coloured, suede tex­tured Nex­tel coat­ing, which ab­sorbs not just sound but also light, ren­der­ing the cab­i­net acous­ti­cally and op­ti­cally quiet. This cab­i­net fin­ish is very work­man­like and will not ap­peal to every­body. It is also likely to have a lower wife ac­cep­tance fac­tor. Both my wife and daugh­ter felt that it looked like an un­fin­ished sur­face.

The in­side of the cab­i­net com­prises of very dense pan­els and sev­eral per­fo­rated braces at crit­i­cal points on both the hor­i­zon­tal and ver­ti­cal planes. The ver­ti­cal spine brace is off cen­tered to can­cel out po­ten­tial res­o­nance noise. The driv­ers are an­chored to this ver­ti­cal spine with large brass bolts, which me­chan­i­cally ground them. The ver­ti­cal braces are per­fo­rated to avoid con­tact with the cross braces and also to in­crease the sur­face ar­eas that dis­si­pate vi­bra­tional en­ergy. The cross braces are also per­fo­rated with dif­fer­ent size open­ings and are ar­ranged so that they are not par­al­lel to the side pan­els. This min­i­mizes un­wanted sound wave de­flec­tions. To avoid cor­ner nodes as well as to im­prove rigid­ity, solid planks of tri­an­gu­lar gus­sets have been placed on all the in­side cor­ners of the cab­i­net. To spread out any po­ten­tial thick­ness re­lated res­o­nances, board ma­te­ri­als of dif­fer­ent thick­nesses have been em­ployed.

All this ex­tra at­ten­tion to the in­ter­nals of the cab­i­net is meant to re­duce su­per­flu­ous vi­bra­tion en­ergy in­side the en­clo­sure so as to al­low the speaker to de­liver bet­ter clar­ity. To free the main driv­ers from sym­pa­thetic frame vi­bra­tions, the me­chan­i­cal ground­ing sys­tem has been con­fig­ured to drain me­chan­i­cal vi­bra­tions from the driv­ers thus al­low­ing them to per­form at their op­ti­mum level.

Upon com­ple­tion of the pro­duc­tion of each Ne­fes speaker sys­tem, they are placed on a break-in rack and fed high­level test tones for a min­i­mum of sev­enty-two hours. This is fol­lowed by sev­eral tests dur­ing which the two speak­ers are matched to tight tol­er­ances to try and squeeze out the most re­al­is­tic ren­di­tions of har­mon­ics and spatial sonic im­ages.

per­for­mance

I au­di­tioned the Ne­fes con­nected to my ref­er­ence sys­tem which con­sists of the Brys­ton BP26 preamp, the Ayre V3 (SS) power amp as well as the Ars Sonum Fil­har­mo­nia in­te­grated tube amp. My sources in­cluded the NAD C565BEE (SS) CD player and the Brys­ton BDP-1 dig­i­tal player, con­nected through one of my DACs which in­clude the Ca­lyx Femto, the Mytek Stereo 192-DSD and the Resonessence Labs Con­cero.

All this at­ten­tion to de­tail en­ables the Ne­fes to sound sur­pris­ingly good right out of the box but I fol­lowed Tash’s sug­ges­tion that the speak­ers be bro­ken in for another 200 hours to help them reach their peak per­for­mance level.

The Ne­fes is ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing a fre­quency re­sponse of 28 Hz to 40 kHz plus or mi­nus 3 dB. It has above av­er­age ef­fi­ciency of 92 dB. It also presents am­pli­fiers with an easy im­ped­ance load of 8 ohms with very lit­tle de­vi­a­tion ir­re­spec­tive of the fre­quen­cies it is fed. It can han­dle up to 150 watts RMS per chan­nel. Th­ese speak­ers come with a five-year parts and labour war­ranty against man­u­fac­tur­ing de­fects.

Based on guide­lines from Tash, I po­si­tioned the Ne­fes well away from the back and side walls of the lis­ten­ing room and at a dis­tance of around three me­ters from the sweet spot, with the lis­ten­ing po­si­tion and the two speak­ers form­ing an equi­lat­eral tri­an­gle. The speak­ers were toed-in to have the tweet­ers point­ing at the sweet spot. The metal sta­bi­liz­ers and the height ad­justable brass floor spikes with a lock­ing ring make it easy to per­fectly level and align the speak­ers. The speak­ers are sup­plied with a pro­tec­tive grill, which I chose not to use dur­ing the au­di­tion as they did ad­versely af­fect the trans­parency and def­i­ni­tion of the sound.

Be­fore I get into de­tails of the Ne­fes sonic per­for­mance, I need to dis­close that I

have a pref­er­ence for soft (prefer­ably silk) dome tweet­ers to metal dome tweet­ers be­cause, to my ears, they tend to in­te­grate bet­ter and sound more nat­u­ral. In con­trast, metal dome tweet­ers be they alu­minum, ti­ta­nium or beryl­lium, tend to sound harsh if not im­ple­mented well.

Of the three, beryl­lium gen­er­ally sounds smoother be­cause this metal al­lows for domes that are lighter while still of­fer­ing su­pe­rior rigid­ity and damp­ing. They also break up much higher in the au­dio band. Beryl­lium is around seven times more rigid and prop­a­gates sound waves around three times faster than ti­ta­nium or alu­minum. Beryl­lium tweet­ers are also quite ex­pen­sive and usu­ally found in higher priced speak­ers. Dur­ing the re­cent past, I am glad to see many of the bet­ter known speaker brands switch from alu­minum and ti­ta­nium tweet­ers to silk or beryl­lium dome tweet­ers.

I must say that the tweeter in the Ne­fes is one of the best im­ple­men­ta­tions of a beryl­lium tran­sducer that I have heard. It re­in­forces my view that a huge part of a beryl­lium dome tweeter’s per­for­mance is in its im­ple­men­ta­tion. Ku­dos to Tash for de­liv­er­ing the smoothest, most pre­cise and co­her­ent per­for­mance that I have hith­erto heard from a beryl­lium tweeter.

My first im­pres­sions of the Ne­fes per­for­mance is their sound stage, which is wider than any other speaker that I have au­di­tioned in this price range. What is also re­mark­able is their abil­ity to son­i­cally dis­ap­pear, de­spite their large cab­i­net size. The tone and tim­bre is very nat­u­ral and will ap­peal to those who are look­ing for a neu­tral speaker but may be less ap­peal­ing to those look­ing for a more euphonic sound or bass that is ex­ag­ger­ated.

This speaker is very adept at re­triev­ing mi­cro de­tails in the record­ing with­out sound­ing overly an­a­lyt­i­cal. They can also play sur­pris­ingly loud be­fore I could de­tect any hint of com­pres­sion or dis­tor­tion. They have one of the best mid-range re­pro­duc­tions of any speaker in the very crowded $10,000 price point, al­though I have heard a few sim­i­larly priced speak­ers with more sat­u­rated and fuller mid and up­per bass.

The Ne­fes de­liv­ers a very good ren­di­tion of the pi­ano, which is one of the most dif­fi­cult in­stru­ments for a speaker to get right. I played the pi­ano for a rock band for many years and so I have a very good men­tal ref­er­ence of what a pi­ano should sound like and who­ever voiced the Ne­fes prob­a­bly tick­led the ivories as well, to have got­ten it so right.

This speaker is very ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing male vo­cals, which it does with amaz­ing pal­pa­bil­ity. Fe­male vo­cals are also ren­dered with a good deal of fi­nesse. Acous­tic in­stru­ments sound taut and crisp while string and wind in­stru­ments come through with a de­gree of pres­ence that is, at times, quite star­tling. Though not con­gested by any stretch of the imag­i­na­tion, I would have liked a lit­tle more air be­tween and around the in­stru­ments and voices.

The Ne­fes is par­tic­u­larly adept at con­nect­ing you emo­tion­ally with the artiste. When lis­ten­ing to Aus Misa Criolla Kyrie by Jose Car­reras, I could eas­ily feel the in­cred­i­ble emo­tion in his voice as he belted out this well recorded track. When I played Die Tanz­erin (The Dancer) by Ulla Mei­necke, al­though the song is in Ger­man, which I can­not un­der­stand, I to­tally en­joyed the ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause the emo­tions of the lyrics came through in spades. Track af­ter track, the Ne­fes de­liv­ered rich har­mon­ics, ac­cu­rate tonal­ity, pre­cise imaging, well fleshed out tim­bre and soul sat­is­fy­ing mu­si­cal­ity.

The clean and rel­a­tively ar­ti­fact free sound that you hear from the Ne­fes makes it the ‘I told you so” speaker for the au­dio­phile seg­ment that is not par­tial to crossover net­works. The ease and ef­fort­less­ness of de­liv­ery gives this speaker a very low fa­tigue fac­tor and I was able to lis­ten to it for hours with­out feel­ing I have had enough.

The lead­ing edges of mu­sic notes might be a tad too prom­i­nent for some, while the pre­sen­ta­tion is a smidgen on the for­ward side though never in your face. Dy­namic con­trast is well above av­er­age com­pared to other sim­i­larly priced speak­ers.

The Ne­fes needs a good-sized room to re­al­ize its full po­ten­tial. A room that is less than 4,000 cu­bic feet will cramp its style. It also de­serves very high qual­ity and very neu­tral front-end com­po­nents and good speaker ca­bles and in­ter­con­nects. Tash pro­vided me with Ref­er­ence 3A speaker ca­bles and in­ter­con­nects and al­though they worked well with the Ne­fes, I heard dis­tinctly smoother, more co­her­ent and bet­ter-de­fined sound when us­ing the Tel­lurium Q Black In­ter­con­nects and Ul­tra Black Speaker Ca­bles.

The Ne­fes bass re­pro­duc­tion would sat­isfy the vast ma­jor­ity of au­dio­philes but for those who find mu­sic in­com­plete with­out the bot­tom oc­tave, a su­pe­rior sub­woofer would be a good part­ner for this speaker. I tried mat­ing the Ne­fes with a pair of JL Au­dio Fathom f112 subs and the re­sults were most sat­is­fy­ing, pro­vid­ing a great foun­da­tion to the over­all sonic im­age, im­prov­ing def­i­ni­tion and au­thor­ity in the bass while adding ex­po­nen­tially more depth to the sound stage.

If you are look­ing for a pair of speak­ers in the $10,000 range and have neu­tral up­stream com­po­nents and a good sized lis­ten­ing room, don’t pull the trig­ger till you have heard the Ne­fes. As its name sug­gests, it just might take your breath away.

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