It is several decades since I used a Proac loudspeaker; in fact, it would have been around 1997 when I began freelance work at a radio station which used the highly-respected Proac Studio to make promotions and commercials. Having lived only with BBC designs until then, I recall being hugely impressed by the sound quality.
Then, at last year’s UK Audio Show, I saw that Proac were making a big splash and was very interested to listen to one of the brand’s latest models. The Response DB3 duly arrived, a compact two-way stand-mount design of wholly-British origins.
Proac loudspeakers are manufactured by Celef which was a brand in its own right when founder Stewart Tyler had the notion to create a compact loudspeaker with decent bass extension and extended treble but also the all-important uncoloured midrange. Noting that three-way designs at the time suffered from phase and drive unit integration issues, he focussed on a two-way creation featuring an 8-inch plastic coned mid/bass driver combined with a 1.25-inch Melinex dome tweeter with added phase correction.
While he relied on his ears for amplitude measurement, Stewart did avail himself the luxury of an anechoic chamber as he developed the nine-element crossover network to reduce the break-up mode which so blighted the plastic cone. That desired bass extension, free of overhang, was achieved by loading a reflex port with small tubes which added friction at high-levels without unduly affecting the output at low volume. A change of tweeter to a 1-inch soft fabric dome (for improved HF response) and at last Stewart was satisfied.
The speaker went on demonstration at the hi-fi shop where he bought his own equipment. The staff were so impressed that they commissioned him to make units for sale and they sold like hot cakes (any idea where I can get a hot cake? Ed). Celef Audio was born, the name derived from the drive units used at the time: a Celestion tweeter and KEF bass unit.
Celef soon became a highly-respected manufacturer, gaining media attention and a loyal customer following via an expanding dealer network. New models followed and his parents joined the family business. In 1979 Proac (an abbreviation of professional audio) was launched as a sister brand and one which aimed at a new, more upmarket audience of studios and high-end audiophiles. Today, all the company’s products are sold under the Proac banner. Sadly, Stewart passed away in July 2021 but the company remains in family hands with ranges of studio and domestic loudspeakers sold around the globe.
The Response range comprises some mighty floorstanders down to the compact DB3 reviewed here. It has a similar cabinet size to the DB1 but with both structural and visual differences. The DB3 also employs a different bass driver with a special surround, dust cap and crossover to achieve the lower price-point.
To the cabinet’s rear, a single reflex port aids the bass response from the proprietary 127mm long-throw Pagina Mica (reed leaves mixed with mica and coated with an acoustic dope) mid/bass cone which has a transparent dust cap. Above this, offset on the front baffle, is Proac’s own 1-inch soft dome tweeter, as found in other Response Range designs. Offsetting this driver breaks up the diffraction effect because the path lengths to the edge of the cabinet are different. It is advised to have the tweeter on the ‘inside’ nearest the other speaker to give a more focused stereo image.
The drive units are integrated using a high-quality crossover network featuring board-mounted audiophile-grade components and multistrand oxygen-free copper cabling. The British-made cabinet is of high-density fibreboard with internal bitumen damping and foam inlay, finished in a choice of real veneer finishes from cherry to ebony. Externally the design is, shall we say, ‘classic’ in its boxy appearance and does not sport any curves or blingy embellishments; yet, clearly, the cabinet is well-made and the overall engineering standard high. Acoustically transparent crimplene grilles are supplied and the rear connection panel caters for bi-wiring or bi-amping as required.
I had the new Lindemann Musicbook Combo streamer/DAC and integrated amplifier to hand, so hooked up the Response DB3s and left them running for several days as they appeared to be fresh from the Northamptonshire production line.
Even during the run-in period, I have to admit to having a few sneaky listens to the DB3s and, on each occasion, was both surprised and delighted by the sound produced – it was clean, uncoloured and yet extended, way beyond what seemed possible from such compact enclosures and modest drive units.
Finally, the weekend arrived and I was ready to audition in earnest. My daily speakers are BBC-style monitors and I have become used to that type of balance where the transducers try not to add to the mix while putting a well-detailed yet even midrange balance to the fore. I need not have worried, the DB3s are clearly highly accomplished transducers of supreme quality. The soundstage is detailed, and imaging above that expected in this class as are their dynamic abilities to handle large-scale material with such accomplishment.
I had little difficulty in placement of what are clearly ‘unfussy’ speakers in this regard, sitting them atop my light wooden Tonträger stands. I experimented and discovered that Proac’s studio heritage meant that the DB3s worked extremely well as nearfield monitors, although I placed them in a more normal domestic listening position where I was delighted to discover that they are also happy playing at lower levels. All speakers have an optimum SPL, as defined by the designer, and sometimes this is set too high to use when there are near neighbours who do not share the same musical taste. Another delight was the fact that the Proac’s LF response was deeper than I had expected from both the cabinet volume and that five-inch driver. The quoted response is down to 38Hz, and sub-50Hz output was achieved with ease even in a free-space position without undue rear-wall influence. That’s not to say these are ideal for bass junkies, but I had an M&K V10+ subwoofer to hand so that, at the flick of a switch, the sound was such that headbangers would also be satisfied.
Coupled to the Class-D amplifier, at least for the first few days of auditioning, I was aware of a wonderfully rich and extended bass quality which I have to admit I wasn’t really expecting given the size of the cabinet. With BBC Radio 3 giving us Paganini’s Violin Concerto No 1 (LPO/Dutoit) the strings sounded so natural and believable, the performers could have been at arms’ length. This is, for me, the hallmark of not just a good but a great loudspeaker. Rather than the designer trying to stamp his own mark on the sound the aim is to bring the engineer’s mix to the listener in the most-believable way as possible. Proac’s design managed to convey the artiste’s mix of Italianate warmth and, when demanded, muscle and bite in what is a fine recording by DG.
The neutral-balance quality continued with Chopin’s Etudes by Juána Zayas from a 1982 CD recording on Music and Art. These are compositions requiring attention to every phrase repetition, every nuance, such as to dazzle and delight the listener. Lesser transducers fail miserably with such material, but the DB3s handled them with aplomb to reveal the pianist’s deep and instinctive understanding in her interpretations. The piano sounded natural and lifelike throughout and, rather than being bombarded with sound, the listener is treated to delightful melodic lines to create a captivating sound which kept me hooked until the very last note.
Having to return the Lindemann to Germany, I coupled my faithful Hegel H190 (streamer/DAC and integrated) with its Class A/B output. Perhaps, I thought initially, we have lost a modicum of timing ability although the overall sound became slightly warmer and richer in tone. That one-inch silk dome tweeter sounded sweeter now with almost an electrostatic-style of detail, as was evident on several choral and operatic works, among them Strauss’ comic opera Der Rosenkavalier (1968 Decca recording under Solti). We still had the magnificent dynamics, that taut and tuneful bass, but now an incredibly realistic and delightfully pleasing transparency to the whole soundstage. Proac is apt to use ribbon tweeters in its more expensive designs, but this soft dome works a treat.
On pop music as well, the DB3s delighted with a melodic presentation which was able to keep-up with both rhythm and timing. My test album, Phil Collins’ But Seriously passed with flying colours and revealed a stereo soundstage full of detail and supreme imaging qualities. The frequency response was even and unwanted coloration audibly absent from a thoroughly enjoyable presentation that had my feet-tapping from the off – the hallmark of a well-designed loudspeaker.
Finally, given the success of choral material I turned to the human voice where the DB3 simply excelled. This is something of a bête noire for many loudspeakers which struggle to sound natural with speech material, presenting the listener with any manner of unwanted colorations from sibilance to nasality, chestiness to honky-box sounds. Thankfully, the skilful design of the DB3 avoids all these pitfalls I was able to enjoy drama, current affairs and some of my favourite vocal recordings such as David Suchet narrating the wonderful Poirot stories on CD where the richness and immediacy of his engaging voice was brought home.
With the DB3, Proac has created a small speaker with decent sensitivity and a rich sound that defies its physical size. The designer has managed to create something very special indeed. If it were twice the price it would not be expensive; as it is, it represents one of the audio bargains of the moment. Amplifier choice will have an effect on the sound, and this is of personal taste. But regardless of type the DB3 excels from an unexpected bass response to a gloriously natural midrange which conveys vocal texture superbly well and brings them to life.
Overall, the DB3 possesses a good sense of drive and can handle rhythmic changes well. Timing is good, better even than might be expected at this price point. In fact, it’s hard to find anything negative to say about the speaker and that is probably the highest endorsement a reviewer can pay. I have enjoyed them very much and shall be sad to see them go.