Product Review

Onix Reference 3 Floor-Standing Loudspeakers

November, 2004

Kris Deering



● MFR (-3 dB): 28 Hz - 50 kHz

System: 4-Way Rear-Ported

Drivers: (2) Atohm 7", (1) Vifa XT
    Concentric Ring Radiator, (1)
    Magnetostat Super Tweeter

● Phase Response: Minimum
± 100
● Sensitivity: 90 dB @ 1 watt/1
● Impedance: 4 Ohms
● Dimensions: 8.6" W x 12.6" D x 45"
● Weight: 105 Pounds Each
● MSRP: $4,500/Pair USA




An unfortunate reality has been driven home to me over the past few years. While price tends to dictate popularity, myth, and overall build and design, it does not always dictate the performance. This is readily apparent in the DVD player market, and I think our benchmark has proven that time and time again.

The speaker market has also shown to follow this example. There have been far too many high end speakers that just haven't brought the level of performance that their price point suggests. Too many times have I had the opportunity to sit in and listen to price-no-object offerings in controlled environments only to walk away wondering where all that money went.

To me, this isn't what I should be experiencing. When you drive a $10,000 automobile and then have the opportunity to go drive or ride in a $100,000 automobile, I assure you the experience will be significantly different. But with speakers, I have found that the experience is only partially different. While there are always exceptions to the rule, the most obvious difference I find is the design and build. Occasionally the price dictates the setting and the speaker will be more at home in larger venues. But most of the time you just have too much flash and not enough performance.

So far the Onix line has been the antithesis to this trend. AV123 has marketed speakers that have not only the fit and finish you'd normally expect from a high priced speaker, but the performance as well. And this isn't just in the Onix Reference line; I have found it to be the case all the way down to their entry ELT offerings. On top of that, they couple this complete package with the best customer service and owner loyalty that I have ever seen. Mark Schifter (President of AV123) and company seem to go out of their way for their customers making them feel more like family than just consumers. If you think I am blowing hot air here go check out their forum. I haven't seen that much infectious happiness in all other forums combined, and it seems everyday Mark or someone else on the team just ups the ante even more.

Recently, I had the opportunity to review the Onix Reference 2s. This speaker impressed me but it wasn't a revelation. I had a pre-conceived notion of what type of performance I would get and it was fairly close. I had been using speakers from PSB before their arrival, which are excellent in their own right, and expected the Reference 2s to be about the same or slightly better. They did outperform the PSBs in many areas, most notably imaging and focus in the midrange. The PSBs did a better job in the lower octaves which I expected due to their driver compliment. But the Reference 2s were keepers. Their fit and finish were leagues ahead of the speakers I had seen and heard at this price point, and their musical nature really clicked with me. After my review was done, I spoke with Mark Schifter, the owner of AV123 and co-creator of the Onix Reference Line, about following up the review with a review of the Reference 3s. He was delighted to oblige, and a few weeks later, I had no less then five Reference 3s in my home theater room.

The Design

Before the Reference 3s made it here, I had quite a few conversations with Paul Taatjes about them. Paul is one of our writers here at Secrets and is a local friend of mine. He had been over a lot while I had the Ref 2s, and we started making guesses on what the Ref 3s would be like in comparison. We thought about what could be improved with the Ref 2s and concluded that the Ref 3s would probably just offer some needed extension in the lower end and maybe a bit more air and detail in the upper end. Looking at the description of the Reference 3 on the AV123 website reinforced our views. Instead of two 5 1/2” drivers, the Ref 3 uses two 7” drivers. They have also added a Magnetostat tweeter on top to extend the frequency response all the way up to 50 kHz. Just looking at that and not knowing anything else about them pretty much left me with the impression that our thoughts were probably going to be dead on. Boy were we naïve.

Mark Shifter and his partner, Mr. Pu, are both responsible for the Reference Line. Mr. Pu works in the Onix factory located in the People's Republic of China. This is where the speakers are assembled and voiced. The Ref 3 is similar to the Ref 2 cosmetically when you have the grille on (photo below shows a Ref 2 on the left and a Ref 3 on the right). Obviously it stands quite a bit taller and weighs almost twice as much, but the overall appearance is the same. However, the similarities pretty much end there.

With spikes in place these speakers approach four feet in height, so they aren't just going to disappear into the background, at least not visually. The height lends itself directly to the performance though. Most floor-standing speakers are too short in my opinion. The low profile tends to put the tweeter too far down and not in the same plane as the listener's ear. Not the case here. With the Reference 3s spiked down, my ears were exactly in line with the Vifa tweeter and slightly below the Magnetostat. No longer did I feel like I was looking down on the soundstage, a problem all too common with most speakers I have tried out. While this isn't the biggest speaker out there, planning is definitely called for.

You'll find the same Vifa XT Ring Radiator that has become almost the staple of all the Onix lines of speakers. This tweeter is known for its smooth response and very detailed sound. I have become a big fan of this tweeter over the last year. It lacks the coloration I find in aluminum dome tweeters, especially at high listening levels. Metal dome tweeters always sound a bit too bright for my taste and start to wear on me after awhile. The Vifa reminds me more of a silk dome tweeter. It has a slightly warm character but not quite as laid back as one might expect.

Onix has added a completely new tweeter into this design, the Magnetostat (diagram of the construction is shown above). This is a true super tweeter, planar magnetic in design, with a virtually flat frequency response all the way up to 50 kHz. While I make no assumption that anyone can hear anywhere near that range of sound I did notice an appreciable difference between the high end of the Ref 2 with its single Vifa tweeter and the Ref 3 with its combination design. The upper end of the Ref 2 was slightly veiled, even in comparison to my PSB Image 6Ts. This seemed to take the “air” out of the presentation a bit. The Ref 3 brought this back and then some. It afforded the air I was missing in the Ref 2 but left the harshness behind that I found with the PSB Image line at higher volumes.

The layout of the front Ref 3s in my home theater is shown below.

Listening Tests

Before receiving the Ref 3s, I was actually a bit concerned about the combination tweeter design. Having suffered through enough bright speakers in the past, I was hoping not to have a repeat. Coupling two tweeters like this seemed to suggest an over-emphasis of the upper range if not handled carefully. In this configuration the Vifa XTextends up to 30 kHz but the Magnetostat comes in at about 15 kHz and goes all the way up to 50 kHz. Thankfully the voicing was handled brilliantly. The lushness is intact where it needs to be, and nowhere is this more apparent then female vocals. Listening to selections from Diana Krall, Norah Jones, and Sarah McLachlan revealed a liquid quality to the upper end that didn't add any bite or overemphasis. I also checked out some of the edgier male vocals that would usually lend to some discomfort at loud levels with brighter speakers. A personal favorite of mine is Queen's Another One Bites the Dust. Freddie Mercury has some pretty aggressive vocals on this one and some of the shouting can get down right fatiguing with some speakers. Not the case here. While still loud, the voice never had that ouch feeling I was so used to getting.

Some other selections, particularly heavy drum tracks, showed that there was no lack of fantastic detail and presence. Cymbals in particular seem to be in the room, not merely playing through. A couple of times it was scary just how natural the sound came through with startling clarity. Check out the final drum-off in the movie Drumline to see what I am talking about. This scene will truly test the limits of your speakers in both the upper and lower end, and the Ref 3s delivered it brilliantly. The attacks of the snare gave me the sensation of being right there on the field.

Another difference I noticed between the Ref 2 and the Ref 3 was the overall sonic signature shift with time. The Ref 2s seemed to change considerably in the upper end over the first two weeks I had them. While I am not sure if this was the actual speaker or just me, it was definitely noticeable.  With the Reference 3s, this was not the case. These speakers sounded incredible right from the start and over the course of the review I haven't noticed any appreciable change in their sonic signature. But these speakers are in such a different league compared to the Reference 1 and 2 that I am actually surprised that Onix didn't put them into a completely different line.

I did expect the Ref 3s to extend down more then the Ref 2s, and that they did. While not a significant difference, the lower end had more refinement and showed that they don't really need to be coupled with a subwoofer like the Reference 2s did. This was readily apparent with tracks from The Crystal Method and Tweaker. I truly felt that the Reference 2s needed to be mated with a sub to get the full experience. I still think that is the case with the Ref 3s, but I have yet to find any speaker regardless of driver compliment that couldn't benefit from a sub in the mix. However, depending on your listening tastes, the Ref 3s do a fantastic job with lower bass material.

Now what I didn't expect from these speakers was the night and day change in the overall imaging. The Reference 2s have sensational depth of soundstage and sidewall imaging, but the Ref 3s are an order of magnitude better.

If for nothing else than imaging, I would recommend this speaker over almost anything I've heard to date. This speaker is in a class of its own in this respect. The soundstage is nothing short of phenomenal. Imaging extends in every direction with the highlights being sidewall and vertical imaging. Now, you probably know that I am a huge fan of multi-channel music. The sense of immersion and presence that it brings makes for a far more compelling experience in my opinion. But the Reference 3s completely changed my mindset when it comes to two-channel playback. I get the same amount of presence and imaging that I was only getting with multi-channel setups using previous speakers, so much so that I am almost becoming fanatical with my stereo listening. In fact, since putting the Reference 3s in my theater room, I spend an average of 1-2 hours a day just sitting in there listening to stereo music. No speaker has driven me to this level of enjoyment before, period.

While enjoying the Reference 3s, I have made it a point to scour my entire music collection to see how they do with different genres of music. Thankfully, they seem to lend the same beautiful care to each and every one. Country, Rock, Rap, Techno, Industrial, Metal, it doesn't matter.

Of course I always have my favorites, which conveniently enough tend to be the hardest for speakers to really get right. Listening to Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile was like hearing it again for the first time. The opening bars of "Into the Void" just drove home the reason that I love high end audio. The track starts with a simple synth chime then expands into a cello playing a solemn note over it. But in comes a nice drum beat and then a grinding synth riff that just sounds so amazing it is hard to describe. While this track sounds great with most speakers, the separation of instruments and depth of soundstage was uncanny with the Reference 3s. The speakers literally just disappear, leaving me with an experience that is nothing short of phenomenal. Another excellent selection on this disc is "The Big Come Down". It has an extremely aggressive bass beat that usually shows the shortcomings of most driver configurations instantly. Towards the end of the track is a short riff that provides a totally immersive sound field that pulsates from the left of the room to the right, something I have never achieved with any other speaker before the Ref 3s.

I also checked out "Gaia", by James Taylor. Taylor's voice has always had such a tender and inviting quality, and the addition of the outstanding soprano sax solo by Branford Marsalis, and power drum, really shows off the dynamic range of a system. The sheer presence displayed by the Reference 3s just locked meyou right in. There is such a profound difference in the experience, and the speakers just seem to disappear completely.

What amazes me about these speakers is that they are just so involving. It isn't like I am listening to a speaker, it is like the front of the room is just alive and the speakers are a piece of the décor. The first time I played them for Paul Taatjes, I used some selections from Annie Lennox and Prince. He was trying to figure out how in the world the speakers were able to image all the way up to the ceiling seamlessly!! I also played the opening track on The Crystal Method's Vegas CD, and he was floored by the sheer sense of envelopment. I have multi-channel tracks that don't even come close to this, and I am only talking about stereo!!

As I mentioned in the beginning, I was actually sent five matched speakers for this review by request. I did this mainly for multi-channel music and it paid off in spades. Having a completely matched and seamless soundstage like this is incredible. For an example of just how good it can sound I turned to The Flaming Lips DVD-A release of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Track 8, "It's Summertime", starts with a echoing bass note that moves from speaker to speaker and then the track opens up all around, giving a sense of being in a completely different environment. While this track works effectively with most multi-channel setups, the effect is startling with five matched speakers, especially ones with such a clean mid-bass response.

Moving on to Big Phat Band's XXL showed how the absolute silence of the front end and transparency of the Ref 3s come together to bring an experience that has to be heard to be believed. The sense of space and sudden attack of each instrument just grabs hold and puts you right into the studio.

For movies I changed the configuration a bit. I had some Paradigm Signature ADP dipole surrounds in and I decided to use those for the surround channels for DVDs. My processor allowed me to set up separate speaker configurations for music and movies. On top of that it also allowed me to copy the surround speaker information to the rear speakers (the Ref 3's) during 5.1 playback. The ADPs blended nicely, so I do hope that Onix will eventually add a dipole (or better yet a quadpole!!) into their Reference Line.

The vertical imaging of the Reference 3s really added to the overall soundstage with movies. My theater room is on the smaller size, so it's hard to get that spacious feeling you get in larger rooms or auditoriums. The Ref 3s closed that gap a bit and created a larger sense of spaciousness without losing the necessary focus when needed.

I did find some minor gripes with these speakers. I didn't care for the machined screws that are used to attach the base to the main speaker. I found that not all of the mating holes were drilled the same which made the base a bit loose in some areas compared to others. Another gripe would have to be the fact that these are only available for sale on the Internet. While I understand the business model, I just feel bad for those who don't have the chance to experience these first hand while they are auditioning speakers locally. I understand that you can get them in home for a trial period, but that isn't very practical with a speaker of this size. This can be a bit frustrating for those looking for this kind of performance and price point. On the other hand, a dealer would have to sell them for $7,500/pair because the $4,500/pair price reflects not having a dealer markup.


Recently Mark announced that he is bringing out a new line of speakers that will be AV123's flagship line: the Stratas. This completely baffled me as I can't imagine improving on this speaker from a performance standpoint. I will admit that the Stratas are a sight to behold, but they will have to prove to me that anything can better the Reference 3s sonically.

The bottom line is this: I have heard a lot of speakers in my time, but few, if any, have had this sort of impact on me. In fact, few products of any category have ever blown me away as much as these have. I would happily pit these against any speaker at any price range. The Reference 3 is an unbelievable speaker that leaves little, or nothing, to be improved upon. It is truly one of those products that once you add to your setup, I think you'll never feel longing in that department again.

- Kris Deering -

Reference Equipment Used For This Review:

Anthem Statement D1 Surround Sound Processor
Anthem Statement A5 and A2 Power Amplifiers
Denon DVD-5900 Universal DVD/CD Player
Paradigm Signature ADP surrounds
SVS PB-2+ and Dual CS 25-31 Subwoofers
Behringer Feedback Destroyer Pro Parametric EQ
Exact Power EP-15A Voltage Regulator
B-P-T 2.5 Balanced Power Transformer
BetterCables, Blue Jeans Cable, and Onix Reference Interconnects
Onix Reference SP-200 Speaker Cable

    Related to the article above, we recommend the following:

Primer - Speakers



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