Experienced audiophiles know this dictum well: When it comes to the design and pricing of high-end equipment, there’s a point of diminishing returns. Exactly where that point is depends upon multiple factors, including the goals of the manufacturer and, especially, the sonic priorities of the purchaser. Many of us are willing to pay dearly to move the dial only a little bit—or at least what seems like “a little bit” to someone else. But identifying products that live right at that inflection point of the cost-to-perceived-value ratio is immensely satisfying—not to mention an important mission of this magazine. Reference 3A’s latest loudspeaker model, the Taksim, priced at $6990, is such a product. I used Taksim as my one and only speaker for a solid month, and felt no small amount of regret when it was loaded onto the FedEx truck for its return trip to Waterloo, Ontario.
Awaiting their return north of the border was Tash Goka who, in one way or another, has had connections to Reference 3A going back decades. As a student, his first speakers were 3As, and when he was employed as a part-time retail audio salesman, the stores he worked in always seemed to carry the brand. After Goka moved from England to Canada, he became the 3A’s North American distributor and finally purchased the company from its founder, Daniel Dehay, and moved production from Europe to Ontario.
Dehay, a Frenchman, established 3A, which stands for “Applied Acoustic Arts.” The “Reference” name came later—in the late 1950s. He was an innovative engineer who developed (among other things) the concept of loudspeaker driver time-alignment. Reference 3A manufactures all its drivers in-house, and Dehay was responsible for the most consistent design feature of the marque’s speakers over the years, namely the full-range driver used in the company’s products and the manner in which it’s implemented—that is, with no intervening crossover between an amplifier and the sound-producing parts of the transducer. The driver is unusual in its “hyperexponential” shape. Goka explained that “what makes it full-range without any nasty dips, peaks, and resonances is the transfer function of the voice coil.” Unlike other cone designs, there’s no break point where the voice coil meets the cone. Instead, there’s a smooth coupling of the motor to the cone that goes a long way towards eliminating upper-frequency resonances in the driver. In addition, instead of a typical stationary phase plug, Reference 3A builds an “acoustic lens” into the middle of the driver. This device is licensed from Surreal Acoustic, a Texas-based company; it moves with the driver to change the aerodynamic function of the cone, which otherwise can create a high-frequency, noise-generating “vortex.” The dispersion characteristics and linearity of the driver are also improved.
The new Taksim model—the term “Taksim” refers to a form of musical improvisation heard in Middle Eastern classical music, as well as a major square in Istanbul with recent political connotations—employs one of these drivers in an enclosure measuring 10" x 46" x 17" and weighing 88 pounds. It’s a two-way loudspeaker system with a beryllium tweeter mounted immediately above the main driver. As noted previously, there is no crossover, just a single non-inductive capacitor to protect the tweeter from low frequencies and high power. (Earlier Reference 3A speakers utilized a Murata supertweeter, but that manufacturer left the audio business. Goka says he’s much happier with the performance parameters of the new tweeter.) The main driver has an “upper-frequency shelf” that effectively begins roll-off in the neighborhood of 1.8 to 2kHz, the same range where the low-frequency filtering for the beryllium tweeter occurs. Inside the enclosure, which is fabricated from HDF, is a spine brace that extends from top to bottom to provide mechanical grounding of the main driver. Eleven perforated horizontal crossbraces further stiffen the enclosure. The speaker’s exterior panels vary slightly in thickness to improve resonant behavior. There’s only minimal filling material in the box, though a “quasi-compression chamber” is created for the main driver. The backwave is effectively blocked and very little in the way of high-frequency information is audible from the rear-firing port. All the internal wiring in the speaker, as well as the jumper connecting the two sets of binding posts, is made of single-crystal (OCC), highly purified copper. All these wires, as well as a number of parts used in the drivers, have been cryogenically treated.
The entire cabinet is covered with grey suede Nextel. Although this finish does reduce enclosure vibration, it’s largely a choice made for the sake of appearance. Nextel is not reflective (it’s used to reduce glare on the dashboards of fighter jets), and Goka feels, with some justification, that this makes a largish speaker less visually imposing. In looks, the Taksims are not going to win any beauty contests, and their appeal to a non-audiophile domestic partner will likely be further diminished by the recommendation that they be played without their grilles in place. That’s OK. After 35 years of marital bliss, the number of loudspeakers that my wife felt actually improved our home décor remains zero.
A three-page owner’s guide provides useful instructions for setup. Reference 3A recommends, ideally, a minimum distance of three meters from each speaker to the listener and at least 20" from the rear wall, and somewhat further from the sidewall. In my smallish, 15' x 15' room, the Taksims were no closer than 26" from the wall behind them, and I sat 9' 3" from the front plane of the speakers. The Taksims were 9' apart, acoustic center to acoustic center, so an equilateral triangle was approximated by the location of the speakers and the sweet spot. Unlike earlier Reference 3A products, the Taksims are designed to be toed in toward the listening position. The tweeter resides in a recess carved into the front baffle that ensures time alignment with the main driver and also controls dispersion. The Taksims have metal stabilizers attached to each corner that expand the speaker’s footprint slightly. Four adjustable brass spikes screw into the stabilizers. For setup relatively close to the listening position, Reference 3A suggests adjusting the spikes so that the rear of the speaker is a few degrees higher than the front, which I did.
The Taksims have a measured sensitivity of 92dB; they are an exceptionally easy load, which makes Reference 3A products a popular choice with the single-ended-triode crowd. Mostly, I used my usual Pass 60.8 monoblocks, 60 Class A watts per channel, which was plenty. I also drove the speakers with a 225Wpc Parasound HCA-2200 II. (This was beyond the recommended maximum input power specification of 150Wpc, but as Goka had mentioned specifically using this amp in testing, I felt safe in trying it out. Nothing untoward occurred.) As for cabling, the manufacturer suggests bi-wiring, while noting, sensibly, that “better-quality single wire is always better than mediocre bi-wire cables.” It should be reported, in case you are considering this speaker and get wind of it, that Reference 3A has a historical bias against networked cables. Tash Goka admits, however, that he hasn’t heard a networked cable used with one of his speakers in years and encouraged me to try. Although I got good results with a bi-wire pair of the ridiculously overachieving AntiCable Performance Series wires (which cost less than $200 per pair), they were no match for my usual Generation 5 Transparent Ultra speaker cables that are, of course, a networked design. (I really don’t think owners of MIT and Transparent products need lose any sleep over the Taksim.)