January 2004StudioLAB Reference One Loudspeakers
by Doug Schneider
StudioLAB has been in business since 1972, which makes it one of the oldest Canadian loudspeaker makers. But where you live will determine your familiarity with the StudioLAB brand name. If youre an audiophile in the Toronto area -- and there are a lot of them -- youll more than likely know about StudioLAB and possibly have owned one of their speakers -- or know someone who owns or has owned them. But if you live anywhere else, theres a good chance that this old name will be new to you.
StudioLABs history involves factory-direct sales of their own loudspeaker designs out of their Toronto-based location -- hence the parent-company name, SpeakerDirect. And the company has obviously done quite well. Today they offer four series of speakers, with the Reference series at the top. In the Reference series are the One, Two, and Three, priced per pair at $875 USD, $1750, and $2800. Most recently, StudioLAB capped off this series with the $10,000-per-pair Revelation.
The designer behind StudioLAB is Mike Vince, son of company owners Bob and Linda Vince. All of the Reference-series speakers share common design principles, and they all grew out of the Reference One, the subject of this review, because it was the first model in the series to appear, in 2001.
Given the price of the Reference Ones, I found it surprising when I slipped the speakers from their packaging and discovered very tall and slender cabinets -- 37"H x 6 1/2"W and 9"D. The Reference One weighs far more than I ever expected it to -- 65 pounds! The next surprise was the real-wood veneer -- you usually dont get wood at the sub-$1000 price point. The Reference One also has the smallest woofer Ive seen used on a floorstanding speaker. All of this added up to one peculiar loudspeaker.
However, the cabinet shape and driver choice all make sense once you listen to the Ones and realize the designers sonic priorities. The drivers are mounted woofer over tweeter in a mirror-imaged configuration (i.e., the tweeter is offset to one side of the woofer). I used the speakers with the tweeters to the inside, which is the way I suspect most listeners will. There are no grilles.
Part of what makes up the Reference Ones 65 pounds is the 1" MDF that StudioLAB has used for the cabinet, along with the bracing inside. The other part has to do with the sand/lead-shot mixture thats used in cavities inside the speaker. It makes the One heavy (mainly toward the bottom) and exceptionally dead-feeling. Rap on the Ones sides and you hear a solid thock, thock sound. In fact, Ive never encountered a speaker near the One's price that was as solid.
Then theres the veneer work, which is good regardless of price, let alone for speakers priced below $1000 per pair. All four sides along with the top and bottom are finished, and stock veneers include natural cherry, walnut, red mahogany, and black mahogany. "Exotic" veneers are available at a premium price.
The Reference One's tweeter is a 3/4" SEAS silk-dome model, nothing too strange, but the single woofer measures a scant 4 1/2" across -- absolutely teensy -- and is a sign that the StudioLAB folks havent built the One to be a full-range loudspeaker, or anything close. The crossover is said to be a first-order design implemented at 2.8kHz, and the impedance is said to be a nominal 8 ohms. According to designer Mike Vince, the elements for the tweeter and the woofer have been mounted internally a fair distance apart to avoid any interaction. A port fires out the rear of the cabinet. Dual binding posts also flank the back, meaning biwiring and biamping are options.
All in all, the Reference One is the most impressively built sub-$1000 floorstanding speaker Ive encountered -- its cabinetwork borders on heroic. Budget-speaker shoppers no longer need to feel shortchanged.
There is, however, one thing missing from the Reference Ones -- threaded inserts and spikes, or some other kind of footer, on the speakers bottom. Spikes can help to give a speaker a more solid footing on the floor, which has two benefits: (1) the speaker cabinet is less prone to resonate, and (2) in the case of a tall, slender speaker like the Reference One, the increased solidity makes the speaker less prone to tip over if someone accidentally bumps it. On the other hand, the One is weighted more to the bottom and you have to give it a bit of a shove for it to topple, but the absence of footers does seem like a strange oversight in an otherwise splendidly built loudspeaker.
StudioLAB states a lowish sensitivity for the One -- 85dB/W/m -- but an average impedance of 8 ohms and modest power handling of 80 watts. In other words, the One will need some power to get to half-decent volume levels, but it wont be too tough a load on any reasonably powerful amplifier. However, you must be careful not to overdrive the One anyway.
I used the 30Wpc Zanden Model 600 integrated amplifier, which proved more than sufficient in my smallish 12' x 14' room -- most likely the size of room for which this speaker was built. Most users will probably have larger rooms. My advice would be to pair the Reference Ones with a great-sounding modestly powered amplifier (anywhere from 25-100 watts, say) over an average-sounding higher-power amplifier. The extra power would just be wasted gas, and the Ones are refined enough sonically that youll want to use them with good electronics. Think quality over quantity.
Along with the Zanden, I used the Simaudios Nova CD player as a source, and for cabling -- between the CD player and amp as well as amp to speakers -- I used Nordosts splendid Valkyrja. AC power to the electronics was provided by ExactPowers EP15A power regenerator.
The designers priorities come to light the first time you hear the Reference Ones. Its obvious from the get-go that the One is not a high-volume, deep-bass, "I party" kind of speaker. Instead, it is surprisingly clear and wonderfully refined with an overall balance that comes across as a little light on the bottom, tipped up a tad on top, and very precise almost everywhere in between. The Reference Ones also sound quite good from almost any point in the room, and dont turn all wonky the moment youre out of the sweet spot -- indicating good dispersion characteristics.
There are two sides to the bass story, so well start there. The extension the Ones achieve with just a 4 1/2" woofer is impressive. Before listening, based on just looking at the speaker, I had expected thin, anemic, and sickly sound, the audio equivalent of those anorexic 80s supermodels before Cindy Crawford changed all that. In contrast, the Ones bass is tight and controlled, and it seems to trail off so smoothly that it was easy to overlook the fact that by 60 cycles or so, at least in my room, not much is happening.
But thats not to say the Ones have strong bass -- they dont. Cindy might not have been a rake, but nobody would have mistaken her for big-bottomed Anna Nicole Smith, even 11 years ago when Anna was just a full-figured GUESS girl. And so it is with the Reference Ones. Theyre surprisingly fleshed out given their very small woofer -- but that doesnt mean they have thunder down low. What it does mean is that the Ones sound surprisingly fleshed out for speakers with 4 1/2" woofers. Theyre Cindy Crawford lean, just not Kate Moss skinny, and certainly not Anna Nicole Smith full. So when the drums kick in on the Barenaked Ladies "What a Good Boy" (Gordon [Reprise 26956]), you can hear that there are drums, and the taut, visceral nature is intact, but the real grunt and heft are gone compared to what you hear from a bigger speaker with a larger woofer.
Bass extension, then, isnt this speakers strength, but based on what I see in the design -- a tiny woofer married to a 3/4" tweeter in a slender, ultra-rigid enclosure -- designer Mike Vince wasnt really going for that. Where the Reference Ones shine is from the upper bass to the top end.
The midrange, for example, is wonderfully clear and, providing the One isnt pushed to play louder than it should, congestion-free. I was never a fan of Willie Nelson until I heard his 1978 recording Stardust [Columbia 65946]. The 1999 CD release has been subjected to a 20-bit remastering job, and it sounds quite good. Its not as liquid, warm, and robust as an original LP I heard some time ago at a fellow philes place, but it is crisp, detailed, and immediate. Its with these qualities of the recording that the Ones show their stuff. Oftentimes male vocals like Willies can exacerbate resonance problems in lower-priced speakers (and sometimes higher-priced ones, too!), resulting in a chesty and wooden quality that lacks clarity. The fact that the Ones didnt even hint at any such problems impressed me. When the Reference Ones did get congested, it was when I drove them too hard -- I learned that although they can play loud enough for my tastes, they dont play extremely loud. The Ones also lacked the heft in the bottom end that can help give a voice like Willies more presence and thereness.
The top end of the Ones is clear and clean, but it will sound tipped-up slightly if you have the speakers severely toed in and you sit directly on-axis. You can adjust placement to ameliorate this, however. For example, if you use just a modest bit of toe-in and ensure youre a little off-axis with the tweeter, the balance is nearly ideal. The result is a smooth, clean, and uncolored top end that floats away from the cabinets freely. In fact, once the speakers were set up properly, I found the non-fatiguing nature of the top end so impressive that I forgot I was listening to a pair of speakers that cost less than $1000. Ive heard far harsher treble from much more expensive speakers. I even cued up Cat Stevens The Very Best of Cat Stevens [A&M 541387], an exceptionally nasty-sounding recording with such a hot top end that guitar strings and cymbals sound like they have bacon frying on them. Obviously, the Reference Ones wont hide all the sizzle thats inherent in a recording like this -- no good speaker should mask whats there -- but neither did they exacerbate the problem once they were set up correctly.
The clear midrange and the tidy top end mean the Reference Ones have quite a way with guitar. I played "Tis of Thee" from Ani DiFrancos Up Up Up Up Up Up [Righteous Babe RBR013-D]. Some speakers can make the guitar on this track sound a tad steely and hard, but not the Ones. Their sweetness and delicacy was reminiscent of the $2600-per-pair Focus Audio FS-688s' sound.
With piano, though, the Reference Ones had a more difficult time. On the one hand, the speakers could handle the highs and middle ranges with precision and refinement -- no real surprise given what I mention about voices and guitars. I liked how clean and refined the Ones were with Glenn Goulds A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations (1955 & 1981) [Sony Classical 87703]. On the other hand, when the low notes were struck, the Ones couldnt produce weight in the room the way some larger speakers can -- and this comes down to the bass again. The StudioLAB One is definitely not a bass-lover's speaker.
But it is a speaker that can image like anything. Seated in the sweet spot -- the mandatory position to appreciate fully the sound and imaging of any stereo system -- I found there was good left-to-right spread, a strong illusion of depth, and pinpoint placement of instruments in the stage. This last quality turned my head because not all speakers, even very expensive ones, place images in so exact a manner.
When assessing imaging I always like to hear how different speakers present the choral soundtrack to the movie The Mission [EMI 811267]. The best speakers can create a massive sense of space thats due to the wall-to-wall voices. The Ones dont quite give you that, but they do create a reasonable sense of space (truncated a tad, I suspect, because of the lack of real low-end weight), and theres a wealth of detail makes each voice quite easy to pick out.
In the sub-$1000 speaker market the Reference Ones will almost certainly go head to head with bookshelf-sized speakers -- the bulk of the really good speakers in this price range -- and one of the such speakers on the market right now is Von Schweikert Audios $995-per-pair VR-1s, which I reviewed earlier this year. The VR-1 is a more traditionally equipped two-way in this price range with a 1" tweeter atop a 6 1/2" woofer. Both the VR-1s and Reference Ones are overachievers for their price, and they also have distinct strengths.
First off, it must be said that the Reference Ones and the VR-1s are a little further apart in price than potential buyers might think. The VR-1s need stands, so you really should factor those into the total price of the speakers. That puts their price past $1100 with half-decent stands, and likely closer to $1200 or more with really good ones.
But both speakers do come finished in real-wood veneers, and because I heaped praise on the VR-1s for having this, it only makes sense that the Ones get even more accolades given that their price is lower and their cabinets are significantly larger. Im actually quite amazed that StudioLAB can offer a veneer finish for the Reference One's price.
Sonically, both speakers share a rather neutral overall sound along with a slight emphasis toward the top end. Still, there are some rather substantial differences. The biggest is in the bass. Forget Anna Nicole or Cindy -- the VR-1 is the J.Lo of the bookshelf-speaker set, with a full, weighty, and round bottom end that you just cant miss. No, the VR-1 is still not full-range, but it is surprisingly robust-sounding for such a small speaker. As a result, the VR-1 sounds fuller and can better flesh out instruments like piano, drums, and anything else that needs a substantial foundation. That alone makes the little VR-1s sound quite big.
But dont dismiss the Ones just yet; bass is important, but it isnt everything. Through the upper bass, mids, and highs, the differences between the VR-1s and Ones arent as pronounced. The VR-1 is full in the bass and its full through the mids, too. It presents it all in a rather rich, romantic way, but the speaker still sounds detailed and refined. The Reference Ones, on the other hand, are leaner-sounding through the upper bass and midrange, but they are every bit as detailed, if not more so, and they present voices and instruments in a rather incisive manner. And people who like "look into the microscope" detail will likely enjoy that about the Reference Ones.
Likewise for the way each speaker casts a soundstage. The VR-1s have fullness that makes them room filling -- they can really convey a sense of space and seem to almost envelop the listener. The Ones, on the other hand, keep the stage confined to the area of the speaker, but show a bit more precision in that stage.
The top end of both speakers is quite refined, but when compared to that of ultra-expensive speakers -- Focus Audios $2600-per-pair bookshelf-sized FS-688s come to mind as an exceptionally sweet-sounding, infinitely extended performer -- you find that they are each not quite as pristine as the very best. Still, though, were talking about a fraction of the cash for each of these speakers, so lets not hold too much against them.
Both the VR-1 and Reference One have a lively character, meaning the high frequencies are prominent, but I certainly dont consider either speaker to be bright. The way those upper frequencies sound, though, is a little different through each speaker. I found the Ones to be a touch sweeter, and closer to what I hear from the FS-688s. Its a rather delicate presentation and never metallic or strident. In contrast, the VR-1s tweeter can sound just a touch mechanical, particularly if you play hotly recorded guitar -- the strings can take on a subtle steely quality. The VR-1s do that a touch on the Ani DiFranco track I mentioned.
While StudioLAB hasnt redefined the two-way loudspeaker, they have fashioned a unique alternative to the many two-way bookshelf speakers that we see so often in the sub-$1000 price category. For the Reference Ones' $875 per pair, you get an extremely well-made and attractive floorstanding speaker that doesnt require additional expense for stands and will deliver exquisite detail, precise imaging, and freedom from chestiness or wooliness or other such colorations that plague many similarly priced speakers. I enjoyed what these speakers do in the midrange, particularly with vocals, and in the top end. Overall, these are refined speakers that do many things extremely well -- and in that vein, their asking price is extremely reasonable.
However, despite all the good things about the Reference Ones, I found the speakers to lack real bass extension. But StudioLAB isnt deaf to this, and its obvious that considering the price constraints with which they were working, they chose certain aspects of performance over others -- I suspect that the Ones wouldn't have their midrange magic if they had 40Hz bass, too. Given that, the Ones will perhaps most please those users who plan to use them with a subwoofer or, more likely, someone who values the speakers' other qualities and can live without the weight down low.
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