RA Labs Black Gold Mini Reference loudspeaker Page 2

Another shortcoming (blessing?) is that the Mini References cannot play loud—if you set the volume too high, the sound congests, then distorts, during loud orchestral passages (footnote 4). There's also no fuse to protect the speakers. So these speakers are probably not right for headbangers—Corey Greenberg would probably never recommend them.

The Mini References' inability to rock is one way in which they differ from the more expensive ProAc Response 2s. While they have a similar tonal balance, the ProAcs can be driven hard. The $3000/pair ProAcs excel in soundstaging, the retrieval of detail, a sense of air, and in speed—the Mini References tended to sound a wee bit sluggish on rock.

When I used the Mini References on sturdy stands, such as the Merrill A19 M-1s, I heard virtually no problem with cabinet resonances—at least not until I tried to push the speakers past their loudness comfort level. Then the sound got muddy and fuzzy, distortion set in, and soundstaging collapsed.

The Mini Reference speaker's sensitivity is specified as being a high 90dB/W/m, probably due, in part, to a simple crossover: Roy Allison can't afford to put in too many parts! (Footnote 5.) With an impedance that doesn't drop below 4 ohms, these speakers should be a fairly easy load for almost any amp.

Jazz, show music, folk, and pop (Sinatra, Ella, Louis, and the like) were quite good on the Mini References, with this caveat: They could have sounded quicker, crisper, and a wee bit cleaner. And these speakers could cost $3000/pair. But for me, classical music was where these speakers really shone—with their rich, luscious upper bass/lower midrange, the Mini References loved cellos and pianos. Maybe there's nothing better than a simple, well-made, doped paper-cone woofer, after all. Roy Allison is particularly pleased with the woofer, which, as I said, he manufactures in-house; he's especially happy with the "spider" material surrounding the voice-coil, because he thinks it has just the right amount of flex.

These speakers could not be better for the money. Most speakers ain't got truth of timbre, but the Mini References do. They're as good as anything that Edgar Villchur or Roy Allison ever designed, considering the performance you get for the price. Similar to such products as the AR turntable (another product from the same Edgar Villchur), the Rega RB-300 tonearm, or the Supraphon Revelation Basic preamp, the Mini Reference represents one of those rare, almost miraculous occasions in budget hi-fi: Everything that could have gone right did. I don't think you can get a better deal—not for anything close to $173/pair.

Selling direct—especially at this price point—makes a lot of sense for everyone. I'm not sure what high-end dealer would want to sell a pair of $173/pair speakers—not with his overhead. On the other hand, if these speakers were sold by your average electronics superstore—where they'd sit side by side with the junk you'd expect for this price—who would know that the Mini References were any good? (In most of these stores, the worst speaker may very well sound the "best," simply by crying louder, in the form of added boom or tizz.)

So rather than participating in an A/B test in an impossible listening environment, the customer gets to try these Mini References in his or her home and his or her own system for 30 days—no sales or time pressure. What do you have to lose? Return shipping?

John Atkinson once suggested at a Stereophile Show panel that you could sometimes get very good results using a high-quality amp on modestly priced speakers. I agree—the Mini References are a case in point (footnote 6). With a good amp (or amps) driving these speakers, you can produce sound that questions not the need to spend, say, $4000 on a pair of Audion Silver Nights (which are obviously worth the money), but rather the need to spend more than $173 for a suitable pair of speakers.

I couldn't send these speakers back—I'm buying them and will continue to use them with the Audion Silver Nights in my living room. (The speakers also sound splendid with the 9Wpc Cary 300B SEI integrated amp, though RDL Labs recommends at least 15W.)

Compared with some much-more-expensive speakers, all I'm giving up with the Mini References is deep bass, a bit of extension in the treble, a small amount of detail and clarity, the ultimate in overall resolution, and the ability to play super-loud. But look at what I've gained: the ability to use low-powered 300B triode tube amps; 90dB sensitivity; truth of timbre; and ravishing sound, particularly in the upper bass and lower midrange.

I told Lars about these speakers, but do you think he was interested? For Lars, retrieval of information is top priority. (To be fair, Lars has, for a long time, also insisted on the importance of what he calls "tonality.") But in the concert hall, do you worry about retrieval of information? The thing I look for in speakers, aside from tonal balance, is their ability to draw me in, to keep me wanting to listen. I think this is linked to tonal balance, because correct tonal balance always means an absence of listening fatigue.

I strongly urge you to buy a pair of these speakers now, before the price goes up, the quality comes down, or RA Labs introduces a Mk.II version that doesn't sound half as good. The Mini References are produced by people in Boston (footnote 7). who know the meaning of the word thrift. They're designed, built, and sold by "Old Goats" for "Old Goats"—like me. They're also for any Younger Goats who happen to know what music actually sounds like.

I took the Mini References over to Lew's house one Saturday afternoon. Lew has a pair of Croft OTL mono tube amps. Did the speakers need to be used with the Silver Nights to produce that rich, harmonically accurate sound? How would they sound on another system? How would they compare to a pair of well-regarded, much-more-expensive speakers?

It's not fair to reveal the speakers Lew just bought—they're breaking-in, Lew is still working with setup, and besides, the speaker system has subwoofers, which we left in for convenience's sake when we switched his satellites with the RA Labs Mini References. Mario was present, too, so we had an extra pair of ears.

(As I entered Lew's living room, I heard Dean Martin singing "Volare." That was Mario, all right. "What is this, Italian-American day?" I asked. "Siddown. Shaddap," Mario smiled.)

Yes, the other speaker system sounded superior to the Mini References—at about 50 times the price, one might expect that. The other speakers had greater resolution, more retrieval of ambient information, and the top end sounded sweeter and more refined. But—and this is a big but (like mine)—the Mini References did not sound bad. I heard all the same qualities that I heard in my own system with the Silver Nights, especially the musically satisfying tonal balance. (The Mini References' tweeters emphasized tape hiss and record-surface noise a bit more than the tweeters on Lew's new reference speakers did.)

Mario stroked his chin. "Yeah, Edgar Villchur. Roy Allison. Sure, remind me of a pair of AR 3as. Those were the good ol' days," he reminisced wistfully.

Footnote 4: This was not the Silver Nights running out of power—I heard the same thing with the B&K ST-1400 amp. And it's also not the Marantz CD-63 running out of steam—I substituted the Adcom GDA-600 DAC. You can definitely drive these speakers into overload.

Footnote 5: If you pay too much for any component, you're likely to get too many parts.

Footnote 6: Problem is, most cheap speakers sound awful with any amp—good cheap speakers may be easier to find in the UK than in the US.

Footnote 7: I'm from Boston. So are Larry Archibald and Peter Mitchell—greater Boston, that is.