Newport 2016: Music Reference aims for the sweet spot



In these times of $150,000 speakers, $60,000 amps and cable that can approach those two numbers combined, it always warms my heart to see a company set its sights on a more affordable niche in the industry.

Notice I didn’t say “cheap.” There’s more and more great gear available in the under-$1,000-per-component category today, but reality dictates that — no matter how resourceful the designer — compromises have to be made at that level and parts quality always is going to be lacking.

But a few rungs up the price ladder, a smart manufacturer can pack a product with some great technology, do some careful R&D, and — if they are not in too much of hurry to get that yacht — price it within reach of the average working enthusiast.


Such a sweet spot appears to be the goal of California-based Music Reference. The company was showing an intriguing line of products at T.H.E. Show in Newport. The system was centered around its new ESL-1 electrostatic speakers ($11,440 with two passive subs, crossovers and sub amp). While eleven grand is not a giveaway, that package is a lot of gear for the price and, as we will see, the quality level.


MR says the goal of the ESL-1 was to create a reliable electrostat that could compete with much more expensive rivals. To that end, designer Roger Medjeski eliminated capacitors and conductors in the signal path, and chose a relatively low polarizing voltage of 1,800 volts to reduce distortion and increase sensitivity. The result is a transducer that can produce 100 db of sound pressure in an average room. In other words, with the two 8-inch woofers, the ESL-1 can rock your world when called upon.

In my demo using a Lyle Lovett track, the ESL-1 offered a good electrostatic’s trademark midrange magic, accurately conveying the singer’s parched drawl. In addition, the subwoofers mated well with the panels, not creeping up too far into the lower midrange.

Overall, in show conditions the presentation was slightly dark, even though the high frequencies were not noticeably rolled off. If anything, this lent a sense of ease and polish to the panels. The other notable attribute of the ESL-1 was its dispersion, which seemed wider than some of its competitors. Leaning left or right a foot or so didn’t appreciably change the soundstage, which is not an easy feat to pull off with ‘stats.

MR offers a lot of choices on associated equipment. Amps range from the 2.5-watt EM7 SE triode unit ($1,450) all the way up to the RM-300 Mk. II 300-watt push-pull monoblocks ($12,450 a pair). Line stages run from the minimalist Active Pot in a Box ($650) to the RM-7 remote-control preamp with external power supply ($6,500) and the RM-8, which adds a phono section ($8,950).

Overall, for the serious hobbyist who’s so far avoided falling victim to the vagaries of the current economy, Music Reference creates gear within reach that wouldn’t bring on immediate audio nervosa. Indeed, this is an investment that could keep you musically satisfied while your friends stay on the upgrade merry-go-round.

About John Stancavage 196 Articles
Contributing Editor for Part-Time Audiophile


  1. It exists like a dying lamb upon the rocks of the dried creek bed that once was the middle class, bitten weeks prior with needle toothed phalanxes arranged through rancid rotting flesh caught in the gums of a monitor. Yet here it lies, the poor animal which was trailed until it dropped. Who is the lamb, and who is the monitor? I’m not sure, but please turn up the volume.. however poor or rich that pot may be.

  2. Do not confuse less expensive with affordable. In like fashion do not mock necessity by calling it “cheap”. People that want to hear music will do so and within their means however frugal they may be. For the vast majority of young folks, even those not saddled with ridiculous debt from college, the items mentioned above are far beyond their means to acquire. Music may well be the “food of love” but it will not sustain the body. Feed, clothe and shelter oneself and family. Pay the bills and if you can, take in a movie or buy an album, etc.

    The point of diminishing returns is aft and we have long been running into headwinds of diminishing sales. All parties are sailing on a red sea and the manufacturers and shops that cater to the high end are taking on ink.

    Audiophiles should try listening to music and not equipment. They constantly strain at a bit only to swallow a lie and hurl it forth repeatedly until it becomes rote with near religious zealotry that does little to encourage converts.

    Do not care for the truth of this? Ask yourself this: How long can this industry tread red ink?

    • In general, I support the notions you bring out. But. A couple of points.

      Diminishing sales are hardly red ink. Yes, there are companies that tread water. Some thrive. Others drown. That’s not “the industry” — that’s Capitalism.

      FWIW, “the industry” is at least a couple of hundred million in sales per year. At least. I’ve heard it as low as 200M, and as high as $600M, but I don’t think that range includes personal audio. I do know that companies like the McIntosh Group have sales figures in the “many millions”. Audio Technica, Sennheiser, AudioQuest and many many more also have sales that clock in at “millions per year”. Are they all poised on the brink of a billion dollar acquisition? Who’s to say. B&W was probably acquired for several hundred millions — not nothing, for sure. There are other acquisitions, too, and some of them also went for a quite a lot. The point — there’s still money in high-end audio. But much like there used to be a whole lot of profit in personal computers, or how there used to be zero profit in automatic watches, things change.

      As for affordability and cost and all that — yeah, I think we can and should take it as read that “things have costs”. See that note about Capitalism, above. The complaint that things cost “too much”, not that you’re saying that explicitly but I’m hearing overtones in that direction, is equivalent to saying “artists don’t deserve to make a living”. As you can guess, I’m not sympathetic with this line of argument.

      Lastly, audiophiles listen to music with gear. The two are intertwined — that’s why they’re “audiophiles” and not just “musicophiles”. Complaining that they do what they do is like telling a leather fetishist to just get over it and try PVC — it kinda misses the point.

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