RA Labs Black Gold Mini Reference loudspeaker

"Sam, HELP!!!! Wife wants stereo out of the living room, converting spare bedroom for my stuff."

It was a frantic fax from Houston.

Sorry to say, I'm unable to answer most letters or faxes because I don't have the time. But this one intrigued me.

"My current speakers," the fax continued, "appear to be too large for the bedroom. Any ideas on what to audition?"

I shot back—

"This is great news, Houston! With a smaller room, you can go for quality instead of quantity. Think small!!! Smaller speakers, smaller amplifier. Aside from the bass, you may get better sound than you were getting in the living room.

"Moreover, if your wife is like wives I've had, she'll probably stay out of your new listening room. You won't have a crisis if you spill coffee, wine, or beer on the carpet. You can buy yourself a comfortable chair and not have to worry about what it looks like.

"You may need sound treatment for your new room," I advised. "Try building bookshelves or installing book or record cases, if you haven't done so already. Books and LPs make the best sound treatment.

"Now for the equipment. Why not call Maury Corb (footnote 1), since he's your neighbor in Houston? Maury was the first dealer in the US to sell the Audion Silver Night tube amps.

"I recommend the Marantz CD-63 CD player. You can run it straight into the Silver Nights, which have high sensitivity and their own volume pots. Use the Silver Nights to adjust maximum volume and channel balance. Then use the Marantz's remote control to trim the volume as you listen.

"The amps will set you back about $4000. Here's the fun part: You can pair them with a couple of Black Gold Mini Reference speakers. Vecteur CV20 solid-core (imported by Polydax), or Kimber 4TC or 8TC, are good speaker cables. Try using Kimber silver KCAG interconnects from the Marantz to the Silver Nights, or use TDK 'Super Accurate Cable.'

"For stands, you can get 20"-high Sanus Reference Foundations from RA Labs at $159/pair. Or call George Merrill's Underground Sound in Hendersonville, TN (footnote 2) to find out if there's a dealer in your area. If not, you can get a pair of A19 M-1 stands direct from the factory for $249. Sorry—the stands are more expensive than the speakers, but you have to pay some penalty for being an audiophile.

"That's it, Houston. No turntable, tonearm, cartridge, step-up, preamp, line stage, processor, tuner, tape. Eliminate everything you can, including the wife. Remove the grilles from the speakers. Enjoy."

On paper, it sounds ridiculous—a $4000 pair of exotic triode tube amps driving a pair of $173 speakers. But it sure doesn't sound ridiculous.

After I discovered that the Audion Silver Nights are not the ideal choice for driving my Quad ESL-63s (see "Sam's Space" in February, p.45), I moved the amps into my living room, which was actually my intention all along. The Silver Nights, with their gleaming brass-plate finish, are drop-dead gorgeous, the beautiful Shuguang 300B output tubes reflecting in a shimmering mirror of polished brass.

I used the Silver Nights with several so-so speakers, and then I got a call from Bob Barr at RA Labs' RDL Acoustics. The "RA" does not stand for Return Authorization—it stands for Roy Allison, the one-time technical editor of High Fidelity magazine, then Chief Designer at Acoustic Research, and later founder of Allison Acoustics, with which he is no longer affiliated. RDL Acoustics, interestingly, was founded by a number of ex-AR people, including the legendary Edgar Villchur, Roy Allison, and several others. RDL Acoustics may be new, but its people didn't come from nowhere. They sell direct to customers in the US, and they also have, literally, a factory outlet, at 26 Pearl St., Bellingham, MA—about a half-hour from Boston.

"We have a good pair of budget speakers we'd like you to take a listen to," said Bob, the former Customer Service manager at AR.

"Yeah, well, hmmmm. Everybody assumes I'm still the Cheapskate. How much are they? I don't listen to anything under ten grand these days."

I was kidding, of course.

There was some confusion, probably caused by my clowning around: I thought Bob said he was sending me a $500 pair of speakers, so when the RA Labs Black Gold Mini References arrived, I assumed they cost five hundred smackers. The speakers are 14" H by 8.5" W by 8.5" D and are best used on 20" stands. You can get them in any color you like, so long as it's black.

There's absolutely nothing exotic about the speaker: The acoustic-suspension, 6.5" paper-cone woofer is manufactured in-house, and the 1" copolymer (ie, plastic) tweeter (footnote 3) is "sourced offshore" and may come from various sources, depending on the production run. I questioned whether or not this might result in a change of sound, but I was assured that Roy Allison personally selects and approves the tweeters, and they all closely match. The tweeters in my pair were made in Italy. The particleboard is covered with a serviceable black, wood-grain vinyl. It could look worse.

Not bad for a $500 pair of plain-looking speakers, I thought. They were a bit rolled off on top and not the most detailed I've ever heard. But five hundred bucks... The bass sounded very natural, if not particularly extended. Moreover, they sounded sweet and had a smoothness, a refinement, not usually found in inexpensive speakers. For $500/pair, I was favorably impressed and was prepared to pronounce them fully competitive with the likes of the esteemed Spica TC-50.

Then two things happened:

First, the speakers started to break-in, getting dramatically better: The top end opened up, the speakers became even smoother and sweeter, and apparent resolution improved dramatically. The speakers came to life—especially after a 24-hour run-in with the Purist Audio Design System Enhancer CD-R. The RA Labs Black Gold Mini References didn't sound at all like a pair of $500 speakers—more like a good pair of small British $1000–$1500 speakers. The tonal quality reminded me of the similarly sized, $3000/pair ProAc Response 2s. Of course, the ProAcs offer much that the Mini References don't, including fine cabinetry, more resolution of fine detail, a greater sense of air, better soundstaging, and the ability to play louder. But the tonal balance was very similar. I'd never heard this kind of natural, musical tonal balance coming from a pair of $500 speakers; in this regard, I thought they were superior to the Spica TC-50s.

Second, I found out that the Mini References only cost $173/pair, freight prepaid in the US (sold only direct).

The longer I played the system, the better these speakers sounded—to the point where I now enjoy listening to the system in the living room almost as much as I do to my "serious" system, which includes the $5000/pair Quad ESL-63s.

No, the RA Labs BG Mini References are no Quad-killers: The Quads have more resolution, more convincingly filling the room with music. The Quads have more depth, air, and are quicker—electrostatics always are. But the Mini References, compared to the Quads, are not at all bad—like the Quads and the ProAc Response 2s, the Mini References have a very accurate tonal balance. Unlike the Quads, they can be driven quite easily by the 20Wpc Audion Silver Nights.

Of course, when I tried more modestly priced amps with the Mini References, the sound also became more modest. But the speakers still sounded quite nice with well-chosen, relatively inexpensive gear—a B&K ST-1400 amp and an old Arcam A60 integrated, for instance.

The virtues of the BG Mini Reference?

Cheap, cheap, cheap—this is the kind of product that such companies as Acoustic Research, KLH, and Advent used to build in and around Boston in the 1960s and early '70s: cheap and good.

But the speaker works because of its tonal balance—something that very few cheap speakers get right. Actually, tonal balance is something that very few speakers at any price get right, including (to my ears) the esteemed (by others) Wilson WATTs. There's no word in the English language that precisely defines anti-clinical; but clinical is something the Mini References are not—they're music makers, not detail-retrieval devices.

While there's no bass to speak of below 50Hz or so, the midbass, upper bass, and lower midrange are all outstanding. I was completely captivated by Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach's Suites for Solo Cello (CBS M2K 37867). The cello's tone had a rightness that I hear only on the very best speakers—it's hard for most speakers to get this sound right. The harmonics of piano recordings also sounded similarly right. (I should know—I play the piano, and I used to have one where the RA Labs Mini References now stand.)

As the speakers broke-in, the midrange, too, became smooth, clear, clean, and very seductive, with none of the rawness that I usually hear with inexpensive speakers. The treble was also very smooth, although it did seem to be slightly rolled off on top—not a bad thing, if these speakers are to be used with most budget equipment.

What do the speakers lack?

Deep bass—that's to be expected. Resolution, while extraordinarily good for the price, stopped short of being phenomenal. The top end after break-in still sounded a wee bit rolled off. (The speaker sounded rather dead out of the box, and needed some run-in before it came to life.) Articulation was not so clean, clear, or quick as it usually is with speakers using a metal-dome tweeter. But there was nothing irritating, either—certainly nothing hard or shrill that might result in a bad case of metal-dome tweeteritis. (By the way, the speakers sound much better with the grilles off.)

Keep in mind that the following comparison is from memory. But if you compared the Mini References with, say, a pair of original Celestion 3s, I think you'd find the Celestions' treble to be quicker, crisper, and cleaner. But the Celestions don't have the rich, warm lower midrange and upper bass of the Mini References. (I'm not disparaging the Celestion 3s—they're excellent speakers which offer a set of virtues different from those of the Mini References.)

Along with the lack of ultimate extension and resolution in the treble, the RA Mini References' soundstaging wasn't the greatest. Unlike, say, the Spica TC-50s, the original Boston Acoustics A40s, or maybe the Celestion 3s, the Mini References are not soundstaging champs. But I'd take the upper midrange and treble of the Mini References any day—there was none of the peakiness or spike I've heard from the Spicas (both the TC-50 and the Angelus can sound somewhat sharp—even strident sometimes—in the treble, particularly with flutes).

Footnote 1: Tel: (713) 728-4343.

Footnote 2: Tel: (615) 824-7700.

Footnote 3: Bob Barr told me that the tweeter is more or less a copy of an old Audax tweeter found in such neat, cheap speakers as the original Boston Acoustics A40. If this is the case, the tweeter sounds much more civilized, less strident, than the original Audax—at least to my recollection.