It’s got to be the best gig in the world, or the worst.
In my 15 years of reviewing I’ve dealt with companies large and small. The big guys -- Audio Research, MartinLogan, Monitor Audio -- can afford a significant level of detachment from their products. They have marketing guys, shipping guys, and manufacturing departments. Each step in the production of one of their products is insulated from the next, and by the time a component arrives in my listening room it’s been manhandled by a dozen people -- maybe more.
In stark contrast, the smaller, more cottage-like industries I’ve dealt with are often, literally, one-man shows. While there’s likely some hired help behind the scenes, at shows and in my other dealings with these companies, usually it’s just one person running the business.
Be your own boss! Set your own work hours! You’ve no doubt heard the pitch for owning your own company. But you’ve probably never seen Tash Goka, of Reference 3A, lug a pair of 6’-tall, 220-pound speakers out of a minivan. Goka is the principal owner of Reference 3A, which is based in Waterloo, Ontario, fairly close to where I live, in Toronto, and he’s at every show, manning his room -- a consummate gentleman, an all-around good guy, and much stronger than he looks. Goka has been the president of Reference 3A since 1995, and he’s still boundlessly enthusiastic about his products, and about audio in general. Maybe because he’s his own boss and sets his own hours . . . ?
A short while ago, Goka, Jeff Fritz, and I agreed that I would review the top model in Reference 3A’s speaker line, the Sema Zen ($25,000 USD per pair). I’m a top-of-the-line sort of guy, so the choice seemed reasonable at the time.
Goka arrived to install the Sema Zens, and when I saw their footprints I stopped in my own. My room has supported all sorts of full-range speakers over the years, but the Sema Zens consumed a disproportionate part of its volume. It didn’t take long to realize that these monstrous, ambitious speakers totally overloaded my room. I’m familiar with the Reference 3A sound, and the Sema Zens didn’t remotely sound like it. Goka left me to my own devices, and for the next week I tried to figure out a plan of action. I couldn’t experiment with their positions -- there were literally only two spots they could go, they were already in them, and I still had to crab-walk past them to get to my turntable.
I called Tash Goka. “This isn’t going to work. The speakers are too big and don’t sound right.” Goka was his usual, upbeat self. “No problem! How about we swap them out for the Nefes, the next model down? I’ll be over to do the switch later this week.”
What an anticlimax. Goka sounded as if I’d asked him to send me a postcard, not maneuver nearly a quarter-ton of speakers for the second time.
The Nefes speakers ($9990/pair) were a far better fit for my room, in both size and sound. Still, the Nefes is not small. At 50”H x 13”W x 17”D, it’s a fairly large tower that will dominate most rooms. That appearance is made especially dominating by the speaker’s gray-blue matte finish of Nextel, a suede-like material. But Nextel is a practical choice -- during their trips into and out of my basement, the Sema Zens experienced a number of bumps and scrapes but emerged none the worse for wear. Try that with piano-black lacquer. But the combination of Nextel finish and the Nefes’s blocky shape results in a speaker that is in no way décor friendly. I’m forgiving of a component’s appearance, but I can’t imagine many rooms with which a pair of Nefeses will blend.
But consider the cause of the Nefes’s 120-pound weight. I’d asked for some technical information, and Reference 3A sent me a schematic of the cabinet construction, whose complexity of bracing looks absolutely heroic. The enclosure is a double shell of MDF, with 11 braces on one axis, and another running the speaker’s full height on another axis. The drivers are anchored to both the cabinet and the braces, further ensuring rigidity and the damping of resonances.
The core of Reference 3A’s speaker-design philosophy is the elimination, as much as possible, of crossovers. The Nefes’s two 8” midrange-woofers are run full range up to their mechanical cutoff of around 5kHz. This means that the Nefes’s midrange-woofers reproduce sounds significantly higher in frequency than might be considered optimal for even off-axis response. As a result, the Nefes’s sound will depend more on the room in which it’s placed than would the sound of an otherwise similar speaker that uses a crossover to roll off the midrange-woofer’s upper frequencies. But Reference 3A feels that getting the crossover out of that critical upper-midrange region of the audioband results in something far more important: coherence.
The Nefes’s tweeter is a beryllium dome at the base of a shallow horn. Given that the midrange-woofers play up to their mechanical cutoff, the tweeter doesn’t need to go very low in frequency. Crossovers may be anathema to Reference 3A, but a modern-day dome tweeter requires for its very survival an electrical high-pass filter of some sort. Reference 3A uses a single high-quality capacitor that’s bypassed by a smaller, even higher-quality capacitor; the result is a truly minimalist, shallow, first-order crossover.
Reference 3A says that they make their own drivers, and it’s apparent that much care and thought has gone into the process.
It seemed to me that the Nefes had been designed by people whose most important consideration is quality of sound. In discussing the speaker with Tash Goka, I was struck by the care and thought that had evidently gone into every facet of the speaker’s design and construction, right down to the phase plug at the center of each midrange-woofer, which Reference 3A calls its Surreal Acoustic Lens, said to prevent the formation of air vortices and turbulence at the deep center of the cone.
After getting the Sema Zens installed, living with them for a week, and then having them removed, the arrival and installation of the Nefeses was smooth sailing. Goka and I plunked them down in the spots where, I’ve found, speakers tend to produce the best sound, and hooked them up. Presenting an easy load to an amplifier is a hallmark of Reference 3A speakers, and the Nefes proved no exception: It’s specified as having a sensitivity of 92dB (2.83V/m) and an easy impedance: 8 ohms. The claimed frequency range is 26Hz-40kHz. Accordingly, there’s no need for an arc-welder amp -- Reference 3A recommends 150W RMS -- which meant that, to this tube-head, tubes would be the order of the day.
Since Reference 3A falls under the same corporate umbrella as Antique Sound Labs, it seemed expedient to ask Goka to match his speakers with one of ASL’s amps. Goka’s choice was the AQ1006 845 DT Mk.II monoblocks ($5500/pair), which use super-bright 845 tubes and output a juicy 22W -- and represent another 140 pounds of audio gear for Goka to schlep in and out of the Thorpe residence.
It took a while for me to switch my listening mindset to fully accept the Reference 3A worldview. Consider for a moment my Focus Audio FP60 BE speakers. This two-way minimonitor is of relatively conventional design -- a small, ported box with a low-pass crossover on the woofer and a high-pass on the tweeter. I don’t know the exact details, but I’m fairly sure the FP60 BE’s crossovers have much steeper slopes than the Nefes’s, and the Focus’s smaller midrange driver is much more likely to offer even off-axis sound. In short, the FP60 BE is a very different speaker from the Nefes. Think sniper rifle vs. a phalanx of howitzers. In absolute terms, the Focus Audio provides a tight, controlled sound with a restrained but extended treble, taut and reasonably full bass, and a silky, lush midrange. I can relax into the FP60 BEs’ sound as if they were a warm, comfortable, cashmere sweater.
This relaxed sort of sound was in sharp contrast to the way the Nefeses grabbed me by the short hairs and led me down a path of musical adventure. With each album I placed on my Pro-Ject RPM 10 turntable I experienced a moment of excited anticipation: What new musical revelation would the Reference 3As unfold with this record? The transition to the Nefeses was somewhat jarring -- no longer could I just sit there, a passive spectator. Now I was a part of the performance.
Transient snap, that’s what filled my senses. The first album up was Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth (LP, Impulse! UCJU930). I’ve listened to this 1961 recording for decades now, and still it gives me goose bumps. There’s something about the crisp delineation of the sonorous reeds and the crackling trumpet. That it’s Freddie Hubbard front and center on trumpet there is no doubt. “Stolen Moments” is restrained but tonally complex music, and the Nefeses slammed it out. Hubbard’s trumpet solo just scorched, with far more feeling of the instrument’s bell and brass, of the incisive leading edges of the notes, than I’m used to. Underneath his solo was Paul Chambers’ double bass, confidently striding along, and farther forward in the mix than the bass lines of most jazz recordings of the early 1960s.
Transient snap. Roy Haynes’s crisp snare drum inherited the hard left, with precise positioning of the matching hi-hat cymbal. I didn’t consciously recall Reference 3A’s mantra of Death Before Crossovers, but I was acutely aware that it was two 8” drivers that were reproducing nearly all of this track’s music.
I mentioned Chambers’ double bass. Looking at each Nefes’s artillery-like array of two 8” woofers, I expected up-front, slammin’ bass. Well, I got deep bass, but not in the way I expected. The Reference 3As didn’t hit me over the head with it -- not in any way inappropriate to the music. If you sit down and expect to hear a ton of low end in every song, you’ll be disappointed. But if you value lithe, quick bass that truly serves the music, then the Nefes might well be your speaker. It produced dangerous, subtle, accurate bass. On the basis of only a quick listen, a prospective buyer might well feel that the Nefes is bass shy. That buyer would be wrong.
In earlier reviews I’ve professed my love for the new vinyl editions of Led Zeppelin’s classic albums, and lavished heartfelt praise on the remixes, which bring John Paul Jones’s bass up in the mix. “Gallows Pole,” from Led Zep’s III (LP, Atlantic R1-535341), builds slowly, the beginning all sparkly 12-string, before Jones’s bass crunches in. Up to that point the Nefeses kept my focus on the upper registers. The quality of that bass as it spools up at first escaped my attention, but as I began to concentrate more on the lower registers, the detail in this range coalesced -- I could feel Jones’s fingers on the frets, each touch and release of plucked string. JPJ is a clever, subtle bassist, and my time with the Nefeses really brought that home.
The bass in Led Zep’s III isn’t about quantity or depth, but when the music called for it, the Nefeses could certainly punch it out -- with one proviso. My go-to for slammin’ bass is “New York,” from Cat Power’s Jukebox (LP, Matador OLE 793-1). This isn’t subsonic pipe-organ stuff, just an honest-to-god kick drum and a Fender P-bass, processed to hell and back -- the kind of rock music I used to love pounding out in my car stereo. Through the Nefeses, “New York” began with a respectable whomp to the gut, but one that -- considering the substantial size of the speakers’ cabinets -- wasn’t quite as visceral as I expected. Each Nefes has a rear-firing port, and moving them closer to the front wall did increase the bass wallop a touch, but I didn’t feel it was worth the attendant decrease in midrange clarity and image specificity.
I pulled out some records I hadn’t heard in years, one of them a half-speed-mastered edition of Supertramp’s Crime of the Century (LP, A&M HSP 3647). I’d forgotten how wonderful this album is, and how good this pressing sounds. The bass is reasonably prominent in the mix, but it’s not overblown, as on Jukebox, and the Nefeses just nailed it. Dougie Thomson is in the same class as Queen’s John Deacon: a tasteful bassist who plays with care, intricacy, and tact, with a nice, round tone that serves the music without drawing unwarranted attention to itself. The Nefes did exactly what it was supposed to do with “School,” keeping Thomson’s bass in the background, where it could best serve as solid underpinning for the sound of the rest of the band. I was easily able to focus on the bass line if I desired, or allow it to blend into a whole with the rest of the band. The Nefes’s bass was nearly perfect -- there when it needed to be, never overblown.
But it was the Nefes’s midrange that stood out. The speaker was a touch forward right through the midrange and up into the lower treble, which presented the music with crisp definition. It’s in this region that most of the musical action is -- guitars, cracks of snares, male and female voices -- all of these facets that combine into music were well served by the Nefes’s two woofers. I’d said earlier that the Nefes excelled at dynamics. Transient snap, I repeated. I wonder if that was in part due to that lack of a low-pass crossover on the woofers helping the Nefes accentuate the midrange action.
I next played Duke Ellington’s Blues in Orbit (LP, Columbia/Classic CS 8241), which I hadn’t listened to in a donkey’s age. The album has some conceptual similarities to The Blues and the Abstract Truth -- both rely heavily on mood and tone to paint their pictures, rather than the jazz fallback of lots of notes. The trombones in “Smada” reach up from a subterranean cavern, building in intensity with each note, in counterpoint with the reeds. It’s a complex and subtle tune once it gets going, and through the Nefes I was served an extra helping of each leading transient, but not at the expense of the rich underlying harmonics. In “Sweet & Pungent,” a fruity muted trumpet is laid over a flouncing reed line. I was acutely aware of the delineation of these instruments, just as I was able to focus on the inner workings of each note. Reference 3A makes much of the term coherence, and now I understood why. Those brasses and reeds felt cut from one cloth, with, yes, a coherence that I found extremely musically satisfying.
I haven’t talked much about the Nefes’s treble, and in some ways this is high praise. I’ve already stated that the Nefes’s tweeter has an easy time of it, what with the woofers running really high in the audioband. But still, it’s a very good tweeter. There was lots of sparkle up top, but again, it served the music, otherwise remaining all but invisible to my conscious awareness. Beth Orton’s Central Reservation (LP, Arista/Classic RTH-2011) has plenty of lush, tasty hi-hat, and Orton’s sibilants seemed to perfectly straddle the hand-off of the woofers’ midrange response to the tweeter. There was no edge or grit up high, the Nefeses’ beryllium tweeters acting more as supertweeters, adding ambiance and spaciousness to the foundation laid down by the woofers.
The six drivers’ outputs coalesced into a single whole that floated a wonderfully juicy three-dimensional image. Right there between the speakers hovered real, convincing, thoroughly fleshed-out instruments and voices. The Tony Bennett and Bill Evans Album (LP, Riverside OJC-439) is a benchmark for imaging. The Nefeses placed Bennett’s head, neck, and chest smack-dab between the speakers, while just barely off to one side sat Evans, playing just slightly behind the singer. These images were rock solid and entirely believable -- as was all of the music I played through the Nefes.
So what did you think, Jason?
Reference 3A’s Nefes represents good value, which often isn’t the case with smaller companies that can’t take advantage of the economies of scale that make it possible to pump out large runs of high-quality products at low prices. At $9990/pair, the Nefes is a lot of speaker for the money. It’s exceedingly well built, with high-quality drivers. Much thought has gone into every facet of its construction, with the obvious exception of its finish. Then again, if Reference 3A veneered or lacquered the Nefes, the price would undoubtedly be significantly higher. And -- rally round me, audiophiles -- it’s the sound that’s important, right? Well, maybe there’s more to it if there’s a significant other involved, or if the speakers are to be placed in a space where décor rules. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the Nefes offers much for, well, not much. In high-end audio, that’s rare.
Is the Nefes a slam-dunk choice for all audiophiles who’ve got $10,000 burning a hole in their pockets? That depends. As I stated earlier, the Nefes has a prominent midrange, and to my ear it’s just a bit too far forward to be truly neutral. Of course, this tonal balance is part of the tactile magic that the Nefes so adroitly delivers. It’s part of why the Nefes produces such a crisp, immediate sound, and also is partly responsible for how the Nefes communicates such an intense musical experience. Those who live and die by tonal neutrality may not cotton to this type of sound.
Then again, before living with the Nefeses, I’d have wagered that that group would have included me. However, when I packed up the speakers, and after Tash Goka had picked them up, I was left in a bit of a funk. I missed their immediacy and musical excitement. At the 2015 TAVES event, I stopped in at Reference 3A’s room and sat down in front of a pair of their Taksim speakers, the Nefes’s little brother, and had a listen. I stayed far longer than I’d planned.
. . . Jason Thorpe
- Analog source -- Pro-Ject RPM 10 turntable, Roksan Shiraz cartridge
- Digital source -- Logitech Squeezebox Touch
- Phono stages -- AQVOX Phono 2 CI, Blue Circle Audio BC703, Moon by Simaudio Evolution 610LP
- Preamplifier -- Sonic Frontiers SFL-2
- Power amplifiers -- Audio Research VT100, Antique Sound Labs AQ1006 845 DT Mk.II monoblocks
- Speakers -- Definitive Technology Mythos ST-L, Focus Audio FP60 BE
- Speaker cables -- Nordost Tyr 2
- Interconnects -- Nordost Tyr 2
- Power cords -- Nordost Vishnu and Tyr 2, Shunyata Research Taipan
- Power conditioners -- Quantum QBase QB8 Mk.II, Shunyata Research Hydra Model-6
Reference 3A Nefes Loudspeakers
Price: $9990 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
480 Bridge Street W.
Waterloo, Ontario N2K 1L4
Phone: (519) 749-1565