Autonomic Controls Mirage MMS-5A media server Page 2
The MMS-5A comes with a small remote control that can used to choose content when the server is hooked up to a monitor via HDMI or DVI. The Display Settings tab on the Config page is used to set the onscreen display resolution (720p minimum) as well as the screensaver, and to display any photos on the network. I checked that it worked as it was supposed to, but, not being a videophile, disconnected the monitor and used the Web browser interface for all my auditioning.
It was time to listen to music. I loaded the address http://mirage-1.local into the Mac mini's browser, enabled screen sharing on the MacBook Pro that sits by my listening chair and was communicating with the mini via WiFi (footnote 2) pulled up the Content page, selected Albums, added to the Mirage's playback queue the Apple Lossless files for Mosaic, my 1999 recording of the Brahms and Mozart clarinet quintets with clarinetist Antony Michaelson (CD, Stereophile STPH015-2), and pressed Play.
All sounded as it should. The sound was smooth, with no interruptions between tracks. I was transported back to the acoustic of Chad Kassem's Blue Heaven Studios, where I had made the recording, though if I had to swear to it, that acoustic sounded a little smaller than I'm used to. At the end of the album, I noticed that the 192kHz sample-rate LED on the Arcam's front panel was illuminated, even though the files were sampled at 44.1kHz.
Ah. I am somewhat obsessive about the bits sent to the DAC being the same bits as in the file. I use Pure Music as the iTunes front end on my Mac mini to ensure that that is the case. But the MMS-5A thwarts that goal by converting the sample rate of the file's data to whatever rate has been set in the Config Source tab. I manually reset the digital output to 16-bit/44.1kHz and played Mosaic again. Though now no sample-rate conversion was being applied, the sound quality was diminished, taking on a slightly astringent quality. This was not what I had expected.
I reset the digital output to 24/192 and again played Mosaic. Back came the smoothness of sound, as well as the slightly reduced sense of hall ambience. These impressions were consistent with all kinds of music at all sample rates. The Mirage MMS-5A may sample-rateconvert the data it is sending out of its S/PDIF port, but the best sound quality does appear to be obtained when the digital output is set to its highest resolution and sample rate.
However, with native 24/192 files the Mirage was outclassed by my regular setup. Comparing the sound of the Mirage's digital output feeding the data to a coaxial input on the Arcam D/A processor with the same data being sent from the Mac mini to the Arcam via USB, the USB connection sounded cleaner and clearer, though with a little less bass weight.
I began to suspect that the Mirage was doing something untoward when set to output 16-bit data when I played Joni Mitchell's Shadows and Light (AIFF files ripped from CD, Asylum 704-2). This album is HDCD encoded, and when I send the data from my Ayre transport or Mac mini to the Mark Levinson No.30.6 processor, "HDCD" illuminates on the latter's display. When I sent the same data to the Levinson from the Mirage set to output a 16/44.1 datastream, the No.30.6's display showed "44.1kHz," meaning that the HDCD flag and metadata, which are embedded in the 16th bit, were being obscured. I reset the MMS-5A to output 24/44.1 data, but the Levinson still displayed "44.1kHz." Even when set, in theory, to do nothing, the Mirage doesn't output bit-accurate 16-bit data via S/PDIF.
I'll get the ugly stuff out of the way first. First, at $4250, the Autonomic Controls Mirage MMS-5A is expensive. Second, although its S/PDIF output is described as "audiophile grade," the MMS-5A doesn't output bit-accurate data. This is a major strike against it for critical listeners. There is also the fact that it relies on its embedded PC's onboard audio processor to handle the data, when a product like Bryston's half-the-price BDP-1 uses a true audiophile-quality soundcard. And something like a modern Mac mini running Amarra, Audirvana, Decibel, or Pure Music guarantees bit-accurate audio-data transmission at one-quarter the Mirage's price, if you take into account the cost of an external hard drive, keyboard, mouse, and something like a Mimo USB monitor.
But to put these criticisms in perspective: As with the more expensive Sooloos system, what someone buying a Mirage MMS-5A is paying for is not only the hardware but the user interface, which is of prime importance. The Mirage's Web controller is intuitive to use, and while not as complete as the Sooloos's in terms of metadata, it gets the job done. And, of course, there is the fact that the Mirage is compatible with all the common custom-install controller systems, is an effective gateway to on-line streamed content, and, like the Sooloos, grants access to the user's music library from multiple locations.
Finally, there is the matter of bit accuracy. For me, this makes the Mirage a nonstarter. But even I have to admit that I enjoyed using the MMS-5A. The sound it wrought from the Arcam and Mark Levinson D/A processors was always smooth, always musically satisfying. While I don't believe the Mirage MMS-5A is a contender in the purist audiophile arena, its fit'n'forget nature, its easy-on-the-ear sound quality, and, I suspect from my experience, its reliability, all justify its position in the custom-install space.
Footnote 1: I didn't realize at the time of this review that the USB offers an asynchronous data output. I will cover this in a Follow-Up.
Footnote 2: Even though my MacBook Pro was accessing via WiFi the network to which the MMS-5A was connected, the browser on my laptop couldn't find it, even when I manually entered the server's IP address. I had the same problem with the free Mirage app running on my iPad. I put this down to my usual bad network karmaor the fact that I was using an Apple Airport Express WiFi router with a Netgear switch.