Mirage M-1si loudspeaker Page 2
The lateral imaging of the Mirages was very good, if less pinpointed and holographic than I have experienced with the best minimonitors. I seldom heard imaging extending to outside the loudspeaker positions, but this is a rare occurrence in my listening room in any circumstances (footnote 1). Within the space between the loudspeakers, the left-to-right image precision was good rather than outstanding, though the central image was solid. But no qualifier need be applied to the Mirages' ability to convey a secure, at times striking, feeling of depth and overall dimensionality. This certainly applies to the Mirages' reproduction of the Chieftains' The Celtic Harp (RCA Victor 09026-61490-2). An early candidate for my next year's "Records to Die For" selections, this exceptional recording (don't be put off by the "Dolby Surround" logo on the front, suggesting perhaps a gimmicky showpiece) played over the M-1sis is big, generous in scope, and yet intimate. The Mirages slightly favor the ensemble over detailed separation of each musical thread, but detailing is more than convincing, the soundstage precision not obviously lacking in any way.
Fans of choral music should be especially ecstatic over the performance of the Mirages. Listen for the lifelike sense of depth and well-developed ambience in the reproduction of the excerpt from An English Ladymass from the same Harmonia Mundi sampler described above (the full recording is HMU 907080). Or listen to the nearly ideal balance, both spectral and spatial, from Testament, Reference Recordings' first HDCD release (RR-49CD). I commented in my listening notes, "balance of strengths just about ideal for choral recordings. Fine depth and spread, sense of size just right. The sound is detailed yet at the same time silky-smooth and full. Choral-music fans simply must hear these. The depth is superb, the sense of height fine."
I should note here, following that inviting segue, that most loudspeakers don't seem to do much with the height dimension. I have long been a skeptic of so-called image height. It is difficult to fathom how two-channel stereo, defined by the lateral placement of loudspeakers, can create any sort of vertical image. And I have never, to date, heard such a consistent convincing vertical image from loudspeakers in my listening room (footnote 2), even from the Mirages. But what I did get from the latter was a realistic sensation of vertical spread and space, and proper image elevation. The former may have been a function of the bipolar radiation, the latter simply the fact that the Mirage's drivers are mounted quite high in what is, after all, a very tall loudspeaker. Another irresistible transition cue: my listening height was just about level with the top of the woofer. Raising myself by several inches, however, did not significantly change the overall balance. Listening to the LEDR test on the Jazz Sampler and Audiophile Test Compact Disc (Volume 1) (Chesky JD37) on the Mirages produced a convincing illusion of vertical positioning on the "Up" and "Over" tests, certainly more precisely than with any musical material I tried.
The electrostatic or ribbon tweeter has long been held up as the paradigm of high-frequency reproduction. But Mirage argues, as I have already noted, that the new tweeter in the M-1si is superior to electrostatic (and ribbon) designs. This is actually not as rash a statement as it seems. It is true that a properly designed electrostatic or ribbon loudspeaker can achieve very high levels of performance, but in my opinion the best conventional designs are highly competitive and even, in some respects, superior. It is true that there is sometimes a magic to the midrange of electrostatics and ribbons (the latter generally being planar magnetics rather than true ribbons) which the best conventional radiators cannot yet achieve. But in the highs (and also, perhaps even more so, in the bass) the point is highly arguable. In any event, the high-frequency performance of the Mirage M-1si was absolutely first-rate. Early in the evaluation period—even after extended break-in with moderate-level pink noise—I did sense a slight graininess to the very top end. But as time went on, it became more and more elusive on good program material. Was I becoming accustomed to it? Were the Mirages becoming smoother the more they were broken-in? Whatever the reason, I grew continually more impressed with the quality of the Mirages' top end.
If I could choose three words to describe the M-1si, they would be "sweet," "silky," and "detailed." There is no contradiction in this. The detail seemed to be all there, but was unforced and never intruded unnaturally. Chieftain Matt Molloy's flute solo on "The Parting of Friends/Kerry Fling" from The Celtic Harp demonstrated the sweetness and silkiness, along with clearly delineated breath sounds which did not detract or dominate, but merely contributed to the realism of the whole in a natural, believable way. Vocal sibilants did not spit, sizzle, or smear—unless the recording forced the issue. The same was true for any other sort of edge or irritating quality.
Yet the Mirages were definitely not dull. The percussive riffs in Mokave, Volume 1 (AudioQuest AQ-CD1006) were neither subdued nor edgy; not in any way analytic, but not in any way veiled, either. While not as subjectively "fast" as some of the high-end competitors I've heard in my listening room (most recently the much more expensive Wilson WATTs/Puppies), nothing seemed to be missing.
Switching over from the Bryston 7Bs to the Krell KSA-250 turned the subjective speed of the Mirages up a notch or two, revealing a quicker sound, but one with a bit less richness and finely graduated subtlety. At least some of the sweetness in the M-1sis' top end should, therefore, be credited to the Brystons. The Krell also tightened up the image somewhat—probably due to this same enhanced sensation of speed. The Krell was also tighter through the bass and midbass—but more about that shortly. I definitely preferred the Brystons over the Krell in driving the Mirages through the midrange. And the performance of the Mirages in this region was first-class. No, not as palpable—especially on solo vocalists—as, say, Apogees, and not as precisely focused as, say, WATTs/Puppies.
But the M-1sis took a back seat to no loudspeaker I have had in my listening room when it came to a clean, low-coloration midband. The individual voices of the King's Singers on Good Vibrations (RCA Victor 09026-60938) were neutral (though with perhaps just a slight excess warmth); the vocal blend of their combined singing voices was luscious. Chieftain Kevin Conneff, singing "The Green Fields of America" a cappella on The Celtic Harp, was there in the room.
If I have any criticism of the Mirage's midrange, it would be its slightly laid-back quality. This undoubtedly contributed to its lack of irritation and its superb rendition of depth, but it also tended to keep things just a bit at arm's length. Don't get me wrong—the last thing I want is an aggressive sound. But there are times when the music literally calls for an in-your-face quality, and while the M-1sis will make a satisfying stab at it, there remains something unerringly refined about their sound. Of course you can always push them harder and louder—and the M-1si will respond willingly (within reason, of course)—but that's cheating, and doesn't actually accomplish the same thing.
I did have some initial reservations about the M-1si's bottom end—reservations more than likely due to my recent experiences with the Entec and Muse subwoofers. And also, perhaps, to my hearing the Mirage M-1sis, at the recent Stereophile High-End Hi-Fi Show in San Francisco, supplemented by a pair of Mirage's own BPSS-210 servo subwoofers. It was hard to shake either one of those experiences in listening to the M-1sis sans outboard bottom-end enhancement. Nevertheless, as I put the Mirages through their paces, I sought to discover their bass response on its own terms.
It was certainly very extended, and definitely tighter and quicker-sounding than that from the last Mirage bipole loudspeakers I had in my listening room—the original M-3s. It didn't plumb the depths like the sound from the Entec and Muse subwoofers, but it is probably unreasonable to expect this from a pair of 8" drivers per side. It may not be as tight or as well-controlled as the bottom end from Mirage's own subwoofers (which impressed me greatly at the Hi-Fi Show, though due to the differences in room, system, and program material, this must be taken as a very tentative and preliminary observation), but it is not lacking in detail.
Pulling out my bass compilation CD-R (used extensively in my subwoofer review), I found little in the M-1sis' bottom-end performance to complain about. The bass impact on Däfos (Reference RR-12CD) was all there, if a bit less savage and startling than I have heard it before. The drum whacks were powerful, and although I would have preferred just a bit more snap to them, the falling drumset nevertheless shook the room convincingly. The large, dramatic soundstage of the Mirages continued to impress here, as did their clean, precise, detailed, yet relaxed top end. Yanking my attention back to the bass, the soundtrack from The Abyss (Varèse Sarabande VSD-5235) shook the room in the appropriate ways. The double bass on track 1, "Blues in the Basement," from Staccato (German Audio CD 101033) was just slightly rich but not over-large or unnatural, and the slapback transients of the strings were very crisp and clean. The organ on Pictures at an Exhibition (Dorian DOR-90117) was realistically deep and full.
Switching again from the Bryston 7B amplifiers to the Krell KSA-250, the bass became a bit leaner and tighter, a little less full-bodied. I definitely found the bass balance from the Krell to be more neutral coming over the Mirages than from the Brystons. Though I generally preferred the rather more immediate and rich midrange and sweeter highs of the Brystons on the Mirages, the tighter, leaner bass of the Krell did bring the overall sound of the Mirages into somewhat sharper focus.
Toward the end of the evaluation period I briefly drove the Mirages with the Hafler 9500 and the Arcam Delta 290, the latter an integrated amplifier rated at 75W into 8 ohms (both channels driven) and 140W into 4 ohms (one channel driven).
The Hafler was an excellent match for the Mirages. Its slight upper-midrange/lower-treble forwardness was evident, but this was not a problem on well-recorded material. It also opened up the Mirages to a welcome degree—more so than did the sweeter-sounding Bryston or the more laid-back Krell. It had a tauter bass than the Brystons (and, arguably, even the Krell) over the M-1sis.
Some of my reservations about the Mirages' bottom-end crispness were put aside as they had been with the Krell; the sound became decidedly more punchy and well-defined. I still found the bass very good rather than astounding—a subwoofer (or two) would not be out of place with the M-1sis for real bass freaks, but anything less than a first-rate one would be a waste. With the Hafler in place, rock bass lines tightened up, organ took on a more textured quality. The Brystons still won out overall with their sweetness, natural midrange warmth, and easy detail, but the Hafler brought its own sort of fun to the party, its price making it an attractive partner for the Mirages.
The Arcam leaned a bit in the direction of the Bryston at the top end—unassuming but naturally detailed—and though it lacked the punch of the larger amplifiers overall, it was not at all wimpy-sounding. Though certainly not a price-sensible combination (I probably would not have tried it had not the Arcam arrived for a preliminary audition at the same time the Mirages were set up), it was by no means a strained one. The M-1sis, even with the modestly powered and priced Arcam, remained relaxed yet finely detailed, involving, and a genuine pleasure.
When I reviewed the Mirage M-3, I had the opportunity to compare it with the original M-1. I found them to have a very strong sonic family resemblance (their physical similarities were self-evident), and in some ways I found that I actually preferred the M-3s. Unfortunately, I did not get the chance to make a similar comparison this time around; the M-3sis currently in use by GL are in San Diego—hardly a short drive from Santa Fe. But I did hear the M-3sis in GL's system while he was in the midst of his review. I found them to be very much as he described them, but making comparative comments about the two models under these conditions, given the very different rooms, systems, etc., in which they were auditioned, would be a pointless exercise. As I re-read his review, however, it is interesting to see where our opinions of these two similar (but not identical) systems coincide and diverge.
We definitely agree more than we disagree. In the latter category, GL found that the M-3sis kicked some serious butt. I found that the M-1sis, while certainly not lacking in output capability, were a bit restrained in boogie-power, a bit hesitant to "get down." I also felt that the M-1sis were not quite as "fast" as he found the M-3sis to be—though my impressions here depended very much on the driving amplifier—or as precise in their lateral imaging. Both of these differences could be due as much to room and placement as to the loudspeakers themselves. (It is interesting that we both wound up with very similar relative positioning, however—roughly a third of the way out into the room from the short wall.)
But we definitely agree on the strengths of our respective models: superior depth, listening ease, a lack of aggressive tendencies, and the ability to reproduce the appropriate scale of the performance and recording. The point of this "indirect" comparison is merely to emphasize that, based on my direct experience with both the M-1 and M-3, and indirect experience with the M-3sis, I have a strong inclination to recommend that a potential purchaser audition both models. If you can't quite swing the M-1sis, you may find the M-3sis, possessing many of the same qualities, an irresistible buy. But if you can swing the M-1sis, then by all means give them a serious listen. If you find yourself fighting an uncontrollable urge to jump up and down and maybe even toss a thigh-bone into the air, don't say you weren't warned.
Footnote 1: This phenomenon is sometimes inherent in the recording. Just as often, however, it is likely due to playback anomalies—room, loudspeaker positioning, system, or any combination of the three. In the latter case, of course, it is simply a distortion.
Footnote 2: I still distinctly remember the experience of hearing music and sound effects coming from directly overhead while viewing a 70mm, six-track presentation of Blade Runner at a theater in downtown Frankfurt, Germany, however. But that's another story.