Most unusual are the $845 R3 speakers. Styled like larger columns—from pictures, you would expect them to stand at least four feet tall—they have a 4" paper midrange at the top, with a 1" dome tweeter below it. A side-firing 5" woofer handles the bass, augmented by a 2.5" port in the bottom front of the speaker. (Front ports enable placement of speakers closer to walls.) The back panel has a single pair of 5-way binding posts; the contrasting plinth has threaded recesses for spike feet.
The test drive happened to coincide with a home invasion by a team of plasterers and painters, the outcome of a summit meeting with my mate over living in a perpetual remodel. I’ve had to swallow my perfectionist do-it-yourself pride and admit that even if I can do everything myself—and better than anyone else—I can’t do it within any reasonable time frame. So my main system went into hibernation, draped in plastic sheeting, and the Rega system got set up in the small back bedroom that serves as my office—actually an appropriate space for it, considering the domestic environments likely to house it. Most folks outside North America live in much smaller spaces than we do.
Truthfully, I wasn’t expecting much from the R3s, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that not only do they not have British mini-monitor syndrome (excessively lean bass), they actually have amazingly good bass, with excellent pitch definition. Imaging was also a surprise. With the R3s about six feet apart, and a foot off the wall, I was able to sit ten feet away and get a pretty good sense of dimensionality from a big range of recordings—including a few LPs. I have an old Rega Planar 2 turntable, with a Sumiko Blue Point high-output moving-coil cartridge. My vinyl days are long behind me, but I hooked it up to see how it sounded, and found the results delightful, especially with high-quality recordings like some of Mobile Fidelity’s remasters. The Brio 3 can do justice to vinyl, boding well not only for old-school music fans, but for the new generation just discovering the format.
A tad astringent when first powered up, the Rega system needed a lengthy warm up before it began to really breathe. Strunz & Farah’s Americas [Mesa] didn’t begin to feel articulate and dynamic until about 20 minutes in, but then the system began to open up. Physically modest, the Rega system has a sonic signature that seems bigger, like a shadow cast late in the day. While I couldn’t push it into the “red zone” without needing to dial back the volume, it did well at moderate to moderately loud levels—perfectly adequate for a small room. The dynamic interplay of the two guitarists was fascinating, with plenty of inner detail, and the rhythmic drive of their backing percussionists was compelling.
Junior Brown’s bass-baritone had plenty of heft in “Darlin’ I’ll Do Anything You Say,” from Semi Crazy [MCG/Curb], but I couldn’t crank the volume up loud enough to really meld with “Surf Medley,” his instrumental tour de force. That was also the case with the Dixie Chicks. “Landslide” on Home [Monument] was a vocal delight, the Chicks’ voices a perfect combination of individual differentiation and group harmonizing, but songs that demand to be played really loud, like “Tonight The Heartache’s on Me,” from Dixie Chicks [Monument], got too screechy to be enjoyable. But that may have been expecting too much; hard-driving, bassheavy rock, pop, and country aren’t really suitable for small systems in small rooms.
Other, less dynamically demanding material was totally enjoyable— for example, check out Kitty Margolis’ wry cover of the Pink Floyd classic “Money,” on Left Coast Live [Mad Kat]. Her smoky contralto floated over Scott Steed’s jazzy, urbane bass lines. The ability of these little speakers to articulate and define low-frequency instrumentals was really quite amazing, provided I didn’t try to push them out of their comfort zone.
What was most impressive was the R3’s talent for defining the essential character of singers and instruments. In the operatic aria “Ebben? No andro fontano” from Catalani’s La Wally, from Diva! A Soprano at the Movies [Silva America], Lesley Garrett hits all the right notes but somehow manages to render the piece an academic exercise. By contrast, Renée Fleming’s version on By Request [Decca] infuses it with heartbreaking emotion made all the more potent by her rich honey-toned voice and superior mastery of musical nuance.
The fact that this is evident from a pair of lightweight loudspeakers says much about their potential. The Rega R3 isn’t a loudspeaker for everyone. It certainly won’t perform optimally at filling large rooms with heavy rock or symphonic music. Anyone trying to do that will be disappointed. Those whose tastes run toward chamber music, light jazz, bluegrass, and acoustic country tunes will derive a great deal of enjoyment from the R3, especially if it’s set up in a bedroom or study. It’s a stealthy playback solution for polite recordings in small spaces.