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.