Reviewer: Paul Candy
Source: Rotel RCD-971 CD player modified with IEC jack to replace captive AC cord; Hit Audio/Cayin CD-22 CD player [in for review]

Preamp/Integrated: Audio Zone AMP-1, Manley Labs Stingray, Houston Mini-2
Amp: n/a
Speakers: Meadowlark Kestrel 2, Reference 3A Dulcet [in for review]
Cables: DH Labs Q10 loudspeaker cables, DH Labs Revelation and Air Matrix interconnects, DH Labs Power Plus power cables, WireWorld Aurora III+ power cables, Audience Maestro interconnects and loudspeaker cables, Audience powerChord AC cables [in for review], GutWire C Clef & Power Clef SE power cables [in for review]
Stands: Premier three-tier, filled with sand.
Powerline conditioning: Blue Circle BC86 MkII Power Line Pillow, GutWire MaxCon Line Conditioner [in for review]
Sundry accessories: Grand Prix Audio APEX footers [in for review], Walker Audio SST contact enhancer, Walker Audio Vivid CD treatment, Audience Auric Illuminator, GutWire Notepads, AudioPrism Isobearings, Vibrapods, dedicated AC line with Hubbell outlets, homebrew acoustic treatments, Creemore Springs Premium Lager and one 140lb pure breed Newfoundland affectionately known as 'Fat Bastard'
Room size: 13' x 17' x 8', long-wall setup.
Review Component Retail: US $1,695/pr

Reference 3A, a division of Kitchener/Ontario-based Divergent Technologies, has garnered considerable praise in the audio press for their minimalist crossover mini-monitors, particularly the highly acclaimed da Capo for its immediacy and musical directness. The subject of today's review, the Dulcet, is clearly an attempt to offer most of the characteristics of its larger stable mates in a smaller, less expensive package. As the popular axiom states, "Good things come in small packages". Many audiophiles swear by mini-monitors for their expansive, 3D holographic soundstaging, pinpoint imaging and relative freedom from boxy resonances. A smaller enclosure should offer a superior point source for stronger imaging and a less colored sonic performance. However, nothing in life is free and there always are inevitable trade-offs with whatever design strategy one hangs his or her hat on. With mini-monitors, that concession is invariably in bass extension, dynamics and loudness ability. Plus, they can sound a little small especially on large-scale orchestral works. After all, there is only so much one can extract from a small driver in a little box. Or is there? Let's find out.

Tash Goka of Divergent Technologies informed me that considerable time and effort was expended to reduce those aforementioned mini-monitor limitations for the Dulcet. According to Reference 3A's product literature, "a radically new approached needed to be adopted to design our new compact monitor Dulcet. Our objective was to create a mini monitor that would have astonishingly deep and resolute bass, seamlessly integrate to a pristine treble range and deliver an engaging musicality."

The Dulcet is an attractive stand-mounted loudspeaker similar in appearance to any number of small two- way transducers but with several differences. Like all Reference 3A loudspeakers, the Dulcet has a sloped front baffles to time align the drivers and chamfered edges to minimize tweeter reflections that can adversely affect imaging. These speakers are also unique in their lack of a conventional crossover. The midrange/woofer is driven directly by the partnering amplifier while the tweeter sports but a single oil-filled capacitor in its signal path. With such a minimalist circuit, the resulting sonics should be remarkably transparent, with little attenuation of dynamics and a more musically coherent performance with greater immediacy. Of course, the downside of this approach is invariably a less-than-flat frequency response since the handoff between drivers is accomplished purely mechanically.

But then, I am not completely convinced by nice, neat and tidy-looking graphs. I want to be moved when I listen to music. I crave an emotional connection with the performers and artists. How does one measure that? This speaker design minimalism is a strategy I am growing fonder. Virtually every loudspeaker with a like-minded approach I've heard to date has impressed me with its immediacy and musical communication ability. Many other so-called high-end designs have become so expensive and complex in the pursuit of HiFi perfection, they have lost the ability to do something as simple and basic as play a tune. I have heard loudspeakers supported by reams of glossy product literature boasting of new technological breakthroughs and housing the latest in state-of-the-art trademarked high tech goodies that are as musically involving as a sack of wet mice.

Somewhere, we have lost our way. At some point in the 80s I suspect, audiophiles and reviewers became obsessed with sound rather than music and difficult-to-define terms like musicality, coherence and emotional involvement went right out the window. However, all is not lost as there are several manufacturers and audiophiles attempting to get back on track. But enough ranting already. Back to the task at hand: The gorgeous Reference 3A Dulcet.

My samples were finished in lovely stained Maple wood veneer coated with no less than three layers of clear polyester. Rather than being outfitted with the ubiquitous recessed plastic terminal cups, the Dulcet is blessed with flush-mounted biwire terminals mounted to a metal plate on the rear baffle. Instead of the dreaded gold-plated brass straps that are the bane of nearly all multi-way loudspeakers, Reference 3A provides Cardas solid copper jumpers. On the rear is an angled reflex port that curves downward into the interior of the speaker. The cloth grills certainly look attractive against the maple finish but you will want to remove them for serious listening. Build quality and appearance were superb as was the packaging and the informative manual. The Dulcet simply exudes quality. The MDF cabinets are solid and suitably dead to the touch. Internally, the sole component in the signal path is a single green and large oil-can-style cap that looks not unlike something I'd find behind the nose cone of a MiG 29.

Drivers consist of an offset 25mm soft dome tweeter and a new four-inch midrange/woofer developed by Reference 3A specifically for the Dulcet. With its big odd-shaped phase plug, it looks similar to the carbon fiber hyper-exponential driver used in Reference 3A's more upscale loudspeakers. According to Tash, "both drivers use the same motor (magnetic structure). Suspension parts and cone body materials are different however and specifically developed for the Dulcet."

"The cone is made of layers of varying-density materials - polypropylene and light layers of epoxies to damp and densify the cone without adding excessive weight. The phase plug is precisely shaped to allow for a more even, coherent dispersion pattern and frequency balance. The voice coil gap is very narrow for increased control and sensitivity but is also very long to avoid dynamic compression and bottoming out. All our drivers are designed, developed and hand-built by us in our own facilities here in Canada. The Dulcet's driver has been in development for almost three years. Its design criteria were higher efficiency, better speed and control, low distortion, good bass extension even in a small enclosure and higher power handling without dynamic compression and phase errors. Most importantly of course, all this without any crossover. A uniquely folded and tuned port dramatically reduces high frequency leakage and allows for close-to-wall placements."

Specs are as follows:
  • Frequency response: 48Hz to 20KHz
  • Sensitivity: 88dB
  • Impedance: 6 Ohms
  • Power handling: 80 Watts rms
  • Dimensions: 7 1/2 " W x 12" H x 9.5" D
  • Weight: 15lbs/ea.

Tash also provided a pair of solid Corian stands that retail for US$750/pr. They were quite sturdy and heavy, requiring a bit of muscle to move into place. These were definitely not like any mini monitor pedestals I have seen. As per the setup manual, I used Blu-Tack to couple the Dulcets to their mounts. Unlike other Reference 3A loudspeakers, which I find to be aesthetically challenged, the wee Dulcets perched on their stands made for a room-friendly and downright attractive music-making package.

I set up the Dulcet as per the manual, with the listening position at the apex of an equilateral triangle and the tweeters on the outside of the speakers. I experimented with toe-in long enough to verify that Ref 3A's recommendation to face them straight ahead was indeed correct. Just to be completely thorough (or anal, you decide), I tried the Dulcets in three different rooms and in short-wall, long-wall and even diagonal setups. It took several weeks for the Dulcets to settle in and shake off a rather aggressive and hooty quality. I auditioned these cute little mini-monitors with the Manley Labs Stingray and Audio Zone AMP-1. I also borrowed my dad's Houston Mini-2 integrated, which I consider a terrific bargain for those who want to dabble in tubes without blowing the kids' college fund.