The StudioLAB Reference One
Demonstrate hardheaded thrift to the family.
Demonstrate a no-holds-barred audiophile speaker to your friends.
Review By Neil Walker
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Bob Vince sold me a pair of M600 speakers about 12 years ago. I was thrilled with these $1,000 speakers. They weighed about 60 pounds each, and had a real wood, light oak veneer. The M600 loudspeaker had an impressive array of drivers: two eight inch woofers, a six inch mid range, a one and a half inch
aluminum dome tweeter.
Subsequently, I bought their M200 speakers, their M60 sub-woofer and a middle-channel speaker.
At the time, there were other Vinces in evidence in the store - Bob's spouse, Linda, was visible behind a lot of paper on a desk in the office. There was a male teen-age person in the shop on Saturdays who helped out with any number of chores. And there was the speaker designer who worked in the factory behind the office and listening room.
Ten years later, I began to write about audiophile gear and, in my first review, made an invidious comparison between the M200 speaker and the speaker under review. This time, the teenage kid behind the counter let me know that time had not left behind the company, the speakers or him. The TK was now about 25, was the chief speaker engineer and went by the name of Mike. The company had revised their entire line-up under Mike's direction and had recently developed the Reference line.
Perhaps I would like to review some of the newer equipment? Two years later, perhaps I would. In fact, I took delivery of a pair of new Reference One speakers about two months ago for review. I broke them in for about 100 hours and have been listening to them since.
First, let me make a distinction between these speakers and the ones I had purchased in 1991. The Reference Ones are half the size and twice the weight. Mike has loaded the bottom ends of the enclosures with sand and lead shot, just to steady them up. He also has decided on using a two-driver set-up: a tweeter and a good woofer and mid-range speaker. This multi-purpose little demon takes the bass response down to about 40 Hz.
The Reference One loudspeaker is relatively small for a floor stander, measuring six and a half inches wide by nine inches deep and 37 inches in height. StudioLAB rates it at 85dB sensitivity although personal experience suggests that it behave more like an 88 or 89 dB loudspeaker. Its rated impedance is an easy-to-handle eight ohms. StudioLAB wraps their cabinet in a beautiful cherry veneer that, like everything else in the StudioLAB tradition, is also over-engineered and is thicker than most real wood veneers used on speakers. The cabinet itself, made of one-inch medium density fiberboard, seems to radiate very little sound other than what you want.
I Could Not Believe My Eyes...
Yes, you read it right. You put in a CD and then look again at the speaker, wondering if you somehow missed a side or floor-radiating woofer. What you see has little relationship to what you are hearing - except that you notice the little woofer-midrange leaping about a good bit. No wonder Mike puts an extra fifty pounds in the base - this speaker is one heck of a push-pull motor and its 70 pounds is necessary to anchor it.
The other part I could not believe was my ears. The first CD I played was Duo, Charlie Hunter and Leon Parker [Blue Note 7243 4 99187 2 6]. I had heard this duo at the Toronto Jazz Festival a few years earlier and had loved their concert. They are an exciting combination as both are iconoclasts with an ability to get inside their instruments and the music. Hunter's custom guitar can produce theremin-like singing tones or a rich snappy growl from the extra bass strings he adds to his instrument. The opening notes of the album startled me - and then I saw the valiant mid-woofer leaping backwards and forwards in its mount. Parker's minimal kit, which still startles me for the huge variety of sounds he elicits, was crisp and true. The rest of the CD lived up to its initial impression on the Reference Ones.
However, one cannot judge a speaker only by a well-recorded guitar and accompanying drum kit. To make sure that I had not over-estimated the speaker's abilities, I introduced one of the more difficult CDs for speakers to master, the Beethoven violin concerto played by Hilary Hahn with the Baltimore Symphony orchestra under David Zinman (Sony Classical, SK 60584). On this CD, the orchestra, in the tutti passages, often emerges as a wall of undifferentiated sound on inferior speakers. Out of the box, the Reference Ones seemed somewhat prey to this problem, but after breaking in for about a hundred hours, they showed almost none of this problem, a genuine feat in a speaker in this price range.
During the time I had these loudspeakers, I tried all sorts of music and discovered that they became a very comfortable, everyday part of my system. When Mike, the designer, drove his truck over to pick them up, I tried hiding on the roof, where I threatened to live on chocolate bars and tap water unless he left the premises immediately without the speakers. Neither Mike nor, when she returned from work, Linda, resident love-goddess, were very impressed with my efforts, so I climbed down the nice ladder the Toronto Fire Department brought, went inside, unhooked them from the Audiomat, and moved into the basement for a month.
...Or My Ears
Here is what I found during that pleasant time I had with the Reference Ones. First of all, they were not only good loudspeakers for listening to Charlie Hunter and Leon Parker, they were good loudspeakers for other jazz albums as well as rock, although they do have limits. As good as the bass is, it is not going to disintegrate your cranial bone structure, as you may wish. The Reference One will, however, give you a musical, well-defined bass at just about any level below lease breaking.
More importantly, it will produce a tight, realistic and musical mid-range so that my music (classical, jazz, some rock and opera) invited me anew to enjoy it. An example is soprano Sumi Jo's album of Mozart, with the English Chamber Orchestra under Kenneth Montgomery [Erato 0630-14637-2]. This loudspeaker expresses her voice's crystalline clarity and the depth of its passion in, for example, "Martern aller Arten," (Torments of every kind may await me...) or "Deh, vieni, non tardar," (At last the moment has come when, without anxiety, I shall take pleasure in the arms of my beloved.).
I also discovered that the One expresses the subtleties to be found on a good vinyl, such as the 45-rpm
Tiger Sushi featuring Joakim Lone Octet [Future Talk FUTLP001]. The sampled voices emerge unhurt, able to be understood, not always the case.
I also discovered that the speaker does not require being played at high volume before you are aware of its merits. It is an efficient speaker, so that it will not strain your amplifier.
The Reference One loudspeaker combines mid-range refinement, good bass extension and musicality. And you do not even have to replace admiration for real veneer with comments about how good vinyl veneer replica is these days since the Reference One arrives with beautifully applied real wood veneer. I recommend this speaker highly for the simple reason that it is a well-executed, attractively finished, excellent performer at a very reasonable price.