Mirage M-1 loudspeaker Page 3
Readers may be getting used to the lack of difficulty I experience setting up speakers in my listening room; I certainly am. The M-1s were positioned with their backs 7' from the rear wall (though there is an 8'-wide archway in the middle of that wall leading to a hallway an additional 5' from the back of the speakers), their centers 5½' from the side walls, and 8' apart. I sit 10' from the centerline between the speakers, this giving me a favorably high percentage of direct sound, mediating the tendency of my room to echo a bit. (The overall room size is 20' by 35', with 11½' ceilings, and it has a generous opening, behind my listening seat, into a 300ft2 dining room.) Seating positions further back in the room worked well with the M-1s, but image specificity was lessened, along with overall intimacy. This setup does not vary in any dimension by more than 6" for each speaker from the optimum setups used for the Thiel and Altec reviews I've done recently.
I experimented with toe-in according to Mirage's instruction manual, and found a moderate (20–25°) toe-in to yield the best soundstage coherence and firmness of center image. Sound sources would appear exterior to the outside edge of the speakers upon occasion, but this characteristic is not as important to me as it seems to be to others. What really matters is that the apparent sidewall of the recording site is a believable distance from the sound source, wherever that may be located. (Believe it or not, some instrumentalists play near the center of the recording site.)
Lack of a believable side wall, plus restricted apparent depth, is what seemed to inhibit the Altec 550s—not the refusal of sound sources to laterally escape the speaker boundaries. Setting the Mirages parallel to the back wall yielded greater image width, but at the expense of believable depth and soundstage coherence. I suspect the optimum position will vary notably from location to location.
That said, you will now see that the preceding exists only to protect me from the embarrassment I would have experienced had I to started out the review just shouting from the rooftops—the way I wanted to—that I'm completely bonkers over this product.
Let's not put too fine a point on it: the Mirage M-1 has allowed me to listen to more music, of greater variety, with more involvement, fewer headaches, and more outrageous pleasure than any speaker I've ever had in any house I've ever lived in! It is a great product that should be auditioned by every person who likes listening to music because of the pleasure, fun, and excitement it gives them.
Now to the details (true believers in what I write—if there are any—can drop the magazine and just run to your nearest Mirage dealer). More than anything, the Mirage does everything at least very well; nothing stands out to remind you, increasingly as time goes on, that this is a loudspeaker rather than music. Its consistency is amazing; the only products I've heard that are as consistent are the Quad ESL-63, which costs about the same and has a whole different panoply of virtues, and the Thiel CS1.2 (just reviewed by me in Vol.12 No.1), which costs much less and whose achievement is at an overall lower level.
Mirage's commitment to flat frequency response works. Try as I may, the only frequency-response anomaly I can pick out is a tendency for extra "bloom" at the low end. This is not nearly as pronounced as one-note bass; rather, it's like a bass fiddle in a somewhat too-large, or too-resonant, room. Moreover, this characteristic only rarely intrudes. Some rooms will no doubt accentuate this possible problem, but I equally suspect that it will disappear in others.
The authenticity and integrity of instrumental timbres, to my ears, stands as a testimony to this evenness of frequency response. Voices simply sound like themselves, with particular authority and presence. Yet I detect no presence-region exaggeration. Truly, I am at a loss to find fault.
Imaging is quite specific and, even more important, realistic. The individual ambiences of each instrument are correctly attached in space to the actual instrument. Rather than a creative act on the part of the speaker, it seems to me that the M-1 is simply letting you hear things that are more disguised with other speakers. If the Mirage euphonically adds a bit of soundstage, I am unfortunately not the Stereophile reviewer best equipped to pick up this characteristic; those like JGH and JA, who can review with recordings they themselves have made, are. I can only say I hear nothing phony.
Overall, I'm tempted to describe the M-1 as forgiving, but a more accurate term would be "accepting." As described in my "Final Word" column in the May issue, I've been on a used-record–buying binge lately. With no other speaker I've lived with could I have done it as easily or with as much fun. The first Odetta record I ever owned—long since departed, woe is me—showed up in shameful condition stacked with finny-dozen other tattered demalions in a used furniture store, of all places. I mean, with this record you get demonstration-quality surface noise! But on the M-1s, this presented no problem; sure, you hear all the grundge, but it's just there, at the speakers—Odetta is wailing away in some other place, transporting me there, carrying me away. And her voice is full and powerful, the kind of voice that could pick you up, even cradle you.
Or a virgin copy of Sound of Music—please excuse JA, as he barfs quietly in the background. I can't say as I'm a huge fan of this film—though my girlfriend Laura Chancellor sure is—but on this record I swear Julie Andrews is right in my living room through the M-1s. Her voice is not only present, but live. The brightness is the brightness you hear when someone actually sings in your presence (of course, the record has lots of gratuitous brightness, but not enough to drive you out of the room).
I could go on and on. During a recent wine evaluation, JA mentioned that Misty (Three Blind Mice TBM-2530), one of my favorite discs for both evaluation and listening, sounded practically live from my adjacent dining room—a comment he's had many other opportunities to make, but managed to avoid! Even Dick Olsher, a relentless critic of the Thiels I have espoused at different times, admitted to hearing a good sound from the Mirages. Needless to say, where the M-1s really excel is not on audiophile demonstration material but on real records—the kind people live and die for; I never even took out those records I normally use to evaluate speakers—you know, Amanda McBroom, The Drum Record, and their ilk. They seemed irrelevant.
Probably the most outstanding area for these speakers is low-level dynamics—the variations from soft to a little loud, or from medium loud to just a bit more. In live music, these are the variations which create almost all of the nuances of dynamic shading—crescendi to fff are rare, and nonexistent in many kinds of music. Reproduced sound, as a general phenomenon, relentlessly loses these fine shadings at almost all stages of the process: recording, storage, retrieval, amplification, final transduction. One of the symptoms of this accumulated deficiency is the audiophile's constant desire to turn up the volume; it compensates for the suppressed internal dynamics of the music itself.
The opposite kept proving true with the M-1s: I kept getting up to turn down the sound level, quiet settings providing plenty of musical involvement, louder levels seeming too much of a good thing. To say this is a rare quality is a gross understatement; not only have I never experienced it (footnote 2) I've only read of it once, in Harry Pearson's review of the original Beveridge speaker.
A corollary attribute was the ability of the M-1s to compel you to listen carefully. With many sound systems, you can listen in two ways: carefully, for enjoyment and analysis, or casually, in the background as you wash dishes or chat with guests. This latter option almost went away with the M-1s: if I put on a record with any musical interest I just about had to sit down and listen—it just drew me in. I found myself listening to whole sides of records where usually only selected tracks are heard—even Side 2s, which on some records had never been auditioned!
Interestingly, and related, I think, almost all of my listening was done with phono as a source—the opposite of my experience with the Altec 550s. It wasn't that CDs sounded bad, only that they failed to draw me in as much. I seemed to think, "If I'm going to spend this time listening to music...well, let's get the most out of it." Long-time readers will not be surprised by this anti-digital bias of mine; it's simply the truth of what I hear and how I behave.
Other speakers achieve more in some aspects of sound reproduction. The large Infinity speakers—Betas and IRS Vs—clearly play louder and achieve a greater sense of the reality of large-scale orchestral dynamics. MartinLogan CLSes provide an almost naked see-through quality, not unlike their physical characteristics: recording techniques are more clearly laid bare, cable characteristics are appallingly clear. I've heard Sound Lab A-3s sounding more startlingly alive than I ever heard the M-1s—in JGH's words, they possess "snap"—though not by a huge margin, and only in just the right circumstances.
Yet these products all have their problems, and require careful system matching for you to be able to enjoy their outstanding virtues without paying more attention to the problems than the music; some never achieve that status. This is where the M-1s most succeed: in specific areas, other speakers do better—and these areas may be crucial to you, in which case you should look elsewhere—but I haven't heard this overall balance of virtues before.
It shouldn't be too hard to figure out how I feel about the M-1s: I love 'em. The crossover slopes and varying driver polarities alert my sensibilities that I should be hearing some lack of coherence—they violate my accepted orthodoxies, if you will—but I don't hear problems in those areas. Nor does the bipolar radiation technique seem to provide anything but a very satisfying in-room spectral balance.
Overall, the Mirage M-1s have done the best job of bringing music into my home of any speaker I've spent time with. They are delicate, intimate, large-scale, and friendly in character; they will accept the music you like and make you want to listen to it. I think that first Kevin Voecks, then Ian Paisley, have done a fine job of engineering, making compromises, and ironing out details so that the problems of these speakers just barely intrude into consciousness.
I have no question that these speakers belong in Stereophile's Class B "Recommended Components" category. Unusually, given our usual level of disagreement, I suspect that many of my fellow critics would agree, even if the M-1s were not their personal favorites. What about Class A? The current denizens, IRS Betas and Apogee Divas, offer a grandness not afforded by the M-1s. Yet, if you quiz our editors individually, you will find a significant number of negative responses to both of those products, and each requires great care if you want to hear them at their best. I feel confident that you, the consumer, can get very good results from the M-1s with only reasonably good system matching; go take a listen.
Footnote 2: The opposite is frequently true, and always a bad sign. My inability to get any kind of musical presence out of the Altec Bias 550s led to just that: I kept turning up the volume, but it didn't work.—Larry Archibald