RA Labs Black Gold Mini Reference loudspeaker Robert J. Reina September 1997
The Allison name is one every audiophile should recognize. For me it brings back pangs of nostalgia for the '70s, when many of my audiophile friends owned Allison Ones. That triangular, floorstanding dynamic loudspeaker was unusual for its day, in that its widest face was intended to be placed flat against the wall. At the time, this excellent-sounding speaker was much more spouse-friendly than most of the competition.
Following more than a decade of acclaimed design work for Acoustic Research, Roy Allison founded Allison Acoustics in 1974. He manufactured a wide range of speakers under that name for the next 19 years. I met Roy Allison for the first time at the 1985 Winter CES, where he launched the Allison IC-20, a loudspeaker featuring perpendicularly aligned, user-adjustable inner and outer drivers. With a handheld control, the listener could direct the output to the inner drivers for sharper image focus, or to the outer drivers for increased excitation of the room reverberation.
In 1992 Allison sold Allison Acoustics to the Korean conglomerate SAMMI, and formed RDL acoustics with Edgar Villchur for the purpose of designing and marketing factory-direct, low-cost speaker designs. When RDL was dissolved in 1995, Allison formed RA Labs, a loudspeaker-design consulting firm. RA Labs currently designs speakers for Allison Acoustics Ltd., a British firm owned by Roy Allison and Steven Ward.
The loudspeaker at hand, however, is the RA Labs BG Mini-Reference, a two-way minimonitor designed by Roy Allison, manufactured by Allison Acoustics Ltd. in Italy, and sold factory-direct in the US for just $224/pair (footnote 1). The Mini-Reference is a very simple, traditional minimonitor/bookshelf/satellite design sporting a 6" plain paper-cone woofer and 0.5" copolymer tweeter in a small, sealed cabinet filled with fiber. The crossover appears to be first-order, with a series resistor to lower the tweeter level; the three components (inductor, capacitor, resistor) are glued to the inside of the terminal panel. Sam Tellig enthused about an earlier version of the loudspeaker back in May 1994 (Vol.17 No.5), and it was also a favorite of Kristen Weitz when she contributed her "Getting Real" column to Stereophile a couple of years ago.
RA Labs speakers are sold only factory-direct. Allison realizes that the cost savings involved in factory-direct distribution necessitate a more difficult marketing job, as prospective purchasers can't hear these speakers in a dealer's showroom. That's why the company allows a full refund after a 30-day evaluation period. If not satisfied, all the customer pays is shipping both ways. As these babies weigh in at only nine pounds each, there's not much financial risk.
It's got its good points...and bad points
One expects performance tradeoffs with inexpensive gear, especially at this price point. But the tradeoffs with the RA Labs BG Mini-Reference were such that I found this a very frustrating review to write. At first listen I was immediately struck by the speaker's strengths, but over time I became more and more aware of a severe shortcoming. My reaction to this flaw varied with the type of source material, as well as with the associated equipment. Ultimately, the listening biases of the prospective purchaser will determine the acceptability of this flaw.
But let's put this caveat aside for a moment to consider the speaker's unequivocal strengths. Price notwithstanding, the Mini-Reference is a soundstaging wonder. With well-recorded classical music, such as Stereophile's Festival CD (STPH007-2) or Dorati's rendition of Stravinsky's The Firebird (Mercury Living Presence 432 012-2), the perfectly placed images in the wide and deep soundstage were captivating. This speaker revealed an extraordinary amount of detail, particularly in the midrange, each instrument and vocalist floating on a three-dimensional bed of air. The rendition of the hall acoustic was spectacular, and unheard-of at this price.
The Mini-Reference's dynamic performance was quite acceptable—and, for its size and price, quite exemplary. It's not headbanger heaven, but full orchestral fortissimos were quite realistic.
The midrange reproduction was natural, seductive, and involving. On Charlie Haden's Quartet West (Verve 837 031-1), the reproduction of the piano and brushes was quite natural, although the horns did sound a bit dry. The upper-bass articulations from Haden's string bass were enticing but a bit hollow-sounding.
The reproduction of the subtleties of Mighty Sam McClain's voice on Joe Harley's stunning JVC XRCD remastering of Give It Up to Love (JVCXR-0012-2, footnote 2), was so natural that I had to do a quick comparison with the same CD and the Alón Petites, my reference minimonitor for natural vocal reproduction. Although the Petite's presentation of Mighty Sam's voice was a tad richer, the two speakers were damn close in this area.
Further into the bass region, the speaker continued to impress. Although there was a bit of ripeness in the midbass region—particularly noticeable with rock recordings in which the bass guitar was very prominent in the mix—overall the bass performance was natural and extended to 55Hz, with reduced output at 50Hz in my "bass-difficult" room. The speakers were quite realistic with orchestral works with prominent bass-drum action.
It was in the high frequencies that the Mini-Reference ran into trouble. I found the lower high frequencies to have an unnaturally tense quality that could be quite off-putting. With many recordings there was a fatiguing quality in this frequency region that, over time, made me want to listen to music less. This character was most noticeable on those recordings with a significant amount of high-frequency energy and dense orchestration. The effect was quite frustrating: With a sparsely orchestrated recording that highlighted the speaker's strengths, I was frequently in love—but when the music got busier and brighter, at times I wanted to stop listening altogether. It was most disconcerting when I experienced both effects in the same recording.
Iannis Xenakis' Oreste;dia (Musical Heritage Society MHS 1200) is scored for 12 woodwinds, percussion, and chorus. I was touched by the lyrical interplay of solo voice and bassoon in the piece's quieter passages. But in the denser passages, with the chorus and percussion battery in full cry...well, the word in my listening notes is "clatter."
If they can find it, I urge all aficionados of jazz orchestral music to pick up Anthony Braxton's long-deleted Creative Orchestra Music (1976, Arista AL 4080). Not only is it the best-sounding Arista recording I've ever heard, but it departs from the classic Braxton formula of free improvisational blowing. He approaches each work in this recording from a different compositional framework, and each work highlights differently the strengths and weaknesses of the RA Labs speaker. Braxton remains in his strict free-improvisational format on track 2 (I'll spare our typographer the task of trying to re-create Braxton's symbolic nomenclature), but relaxes his dense orchestral persona a bit to focus on silence and delicate solo instrumental textures. The communicative solo contrabass clarinet, trumpet, and barely audible percussion came through the Mini-References with a delicacy and immediacy that I normally associate with much pricier gear.
On track 1, Braxton improvises some dense "harmolodic" post-bop blowing that, while intellectually interesting, did not involve me as much as the more delicate track 2. Finally, track 3 is Braxton's (successful) attempt at writing traditional marching-band music. The piece is wonderful, but the orchestration itself is somewhat glary, with emphasis on high-register brass and lots of piccolo. This piece became fatiguing very quickly with the RA Labs.
I gave the speakers a whirl with some home-theater programming using a JVC HRD 470U VCR driving a Sony 25XBR monitor. Unfortunately, the less-than-pristine quality of the high-frequency reproduction of the VHS medium made this a quickly fatiguing home-theater ride with rental videos—I found myself reaching to turn down the volume several times. I finally gave up and switched to the on-board Sony speakers.
Perhaps I'm not really being fair
All of the preceding comments reflect the results of listening sessions using much more revealing (and expensive) gear than the RA Labs was designed to be paired with. I wondered if the speaker's shortcomings would be less noticeable on a more forgiving entry-level system.
Driven by an NAD amplifier in my entry-level system, the speakers' strengths from the midrange downward, as well as their soundstaging capabilities, were pretty much preserved—although, of course, there was a significant decrease in detail resolution and transparency. However, the NAD's forgiving, slightly rolled, and sweetened high frequencies tamed some of the RA Lab's problem treble. On Cassandra Wilson's stunning "Strange Fruit" from New Moon Daughter (Blue Note CDP 8 32861 2), the realism of the vocals and instruments gave me the same chills as on my ARC/Alón reference system.
Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match
I admire Roy Allison for producing a speaker that does so much for so little green. Equipment matching is the key to successfully integrating the RA Labs BG Mini-Reference into an entry-level high-end system: The BG Mini-Reference needs a system with a somewhat forgiving or sweetened high-frequency presentation. The NAD electronics work splendidly in this respect, without detracting from the Mini-Reference's strengths. I caution readers against pairing this speaker with any associated gear that sports a "ruthlessly revealing" or analytical high-frequency presentation.
Most of all, even though these speakers are so affordable, don't get any ideas about getting a pair for Dad for Christmas to hook up to his 20-year-old department-store receiver—not if you want to be invited back for Christmas next year.
Footnote 1: The Mini-Reference isn't the most affordable in the RA Labs line. That honor belongs to the $144/pair BG Micro-Monitor.
Footnote 2: Keep it up, Joe! Can I send you my reissue wish list?