by Anthony Kershaw
Ron Harper is like many ingenue speaker designers. As much as he tried, the task of finding a speaker at the right price point that satisfied his personal predilections for sound was well nigh impossible. So, he designed his own.
I’ve talked to many start up designers at shows, not only speaker designers, but electronics, too. Their successes, at least to my ears, have been 50/50 at best. At least they tried. But, when a design does work, this happenstance can be a thing of beauty — not only the product, but the inspiration and philosophy on which it was built. Remember the EgglestonWorks Andra loudspeaker? But, even with that incredible success, there can be an indeterminate ending.
Harper seems to have his feet on the ground and his ear to the music. He has produced two speakers for his fledgling company RJH Audio — The Songbird, and the subject of this review, The Reference One.
Like many wonderful discoveries, reviews, too, can begin under the pleasant guise of serendipity. I walked into a local store and my eye immediately fell on interesting looking speakers with the most gorgeous finish. Before I could ask about the name, company, topology, etc, I was clicking away with my iPhone 5 to report the beauties to our readers in an Audiophilia Eye Candy post. A review pair was arranged.
Before we get into The Reference One’s sound, let’s discuss its design and materials. Harper is as much a carpenter as music lover/designer, and it shows in the construction. As I mentioned, The Reference One is a looker. More Rachel Weisz than Kim Kardashian, if you know what I mean? Beautiful, classy, talented and Cambridge educated rather than a blousy, no talent. As such, The Reference Ones will sit proudly in your listening room. They won’t dominate the space or blow you down with torrents of overloud sound. Visually, they add design beauty in our audiophile world that needs as much as it can get.
According to Harper, ‘cabinet pieces are CNC machined using extremely dense MDF then assembled by hand. Once assembled, two ply, real wood veneer is applied using the finest adhesives available. Solid walnut is used on the bases as well as the bass reflex ports and solid maple on the baffles.’ Harper offers purchasers a myriad of finishes to personalize your speakers. Mine were finished in exquisite Bubinga wood. The cabinet work is of artisan, heirloom quality. Electronically, Harper uses a single 12″ Alnico driver, silver wire, anodized aluminum backing plates, and five way, gold plated connectors.
The circular baffle design (with a beautiful burled walnut inlay) allows the use of the single 12″ Alnico driver in a much smaller than usual cabinet. Alnico magnets have become the stuff of legend (and ridicule) among passionate audiophiles. You hear these speakers, and you’ll be adding fuel to the legend.
This particular full range driver allows for ‘pinpoint’ accuracy (now, there’s some food for discussion) from a single voice coil. No crossover, no separate drivers. Many audiophiles advance the notion that separate drivers and their crossovers can create phase problems. To alleviate this colouration, the designers need to over complicate the electronics. Harper suggests his design makes these difficulties moot.
Harper makes much of ‘Tube Lovers Rejoice’ in his marketing. At 94dB, The Reference Ones can be driven by the lowest power SET amplifiers with ease. Yet, let’s not drive the solid state crowd out of the building just yet. These speakers will work with design topologies various. If you have a low powered SET and love the sound they produce, this speaker is a well nigh perfect partner. But, the special qualities of The Reference One may be heard very successfully under many tents.
Much of my listening was done with the speakers separated by the new Quad II Classic Mono Power Amplifiers, the Quad QC-twentyfour Pre Amplifier, and the bel canto CD2 CD transport/DAC, and a gorgeous combination it was. This setup was at the suggestion of the designer and distributor. They were spot on. A more musical combination would be hard to find. Yet, I would love to hear the speakers ‘powered’ by a one watt wonder.
I began the serious listening with a bang. Literally. Mars from Holst’s The Planets on a new Chandos recording. There are not many recordings that match the seminal Montreal/Dutoit/Decca, but this new CD comes close, both musically and sonically. The RJH driver(s) managed the complex, thorny orchestration easily. When the full orchestra was playing fff, the Reference One deciphered the sound into its tessituras and instrumental sections. The brass were clear and powerful, the woodwinds ringing and the basses very solid. Even the low organ/bass drum in Uranus sounded full and replete. At 37 Hz, the bass response is missing the very bottom information, but you’re getting a lot more than just mid bass.
So, you want to rock out? Sure, you can, but these speakers really come into their own when playing acoustic music. I listened to a few of my own recordings, not because of narcissism — I like to play along and test the realism. I play in thirds to test the tricky harmonics of two flutes. The Reference Ones passed this test with ease. A very lifelike presentation. I think the ultimate test would be with two horns. Maybe, the beginnings of Sibelius 5 and Lennox Berkeley’s Guitar Concerto. The test of all tests. Conical bores at 100 paces! Not sure any speaker could handle that test at realistic volumes.
I used the speakers for CD reviews of Schubert. String quartets and his sublime String Quintet in C. Wow! The sounds of strings with the tube equipment was spectacular. So defined and refined. When the music calls for intimacy, these speakers really deliver. And when incision is required, no problem. Sparks flew in the youthful Schubert’s early quartets. It was during these particular CDs early in the review process where the magical midrange and sparkling treble was heard in evidence.
The Reference Ones will work in a large room, but it’s not a space I would choose. Your acoustically treated basement will be fine, but where they truly shine is in a dedicated, medium sized listening room. They will even work well in my personal audiophile hell — a cramped, very small room with near field listening. As they embrace all electronic topologies and media, they are not room bigots. Many single point speakers are.
RJH Audio is just beginning the journey. And like Siegfried, Ron Harper expects to slay the audiophile dragons. But, with a much happier ending for the hero. With a five year warranty and a real desire for his customers to be happy, audiophiles can purchase with confidence. Musically, The Reference One is a very special product. That the speakers look gorgeous is a lovely by product. Highly recommended.
[We are proud to award the RJH Audio The Reference One Loudspeaker an Audiophilia Star Component Award. Congratulations! - Ed]
The RJH Audio The Reference One Loudspeaker
Manufactured by RJH Audio
Source: Distributor loan