Mirage M-3 loudspeaker Page 2
Mirage makes a point in their retail sales guide (I managed to obtain a copy)—though not in their sales literature—of the desirability of side- and rear-wall reflections in widening the soundstage and improving imaging, reflections which are enhanced (dependent upon wall treatment) in multi-directional loudspeakers such as the M-1 and the M-3. They argue further that the wide dispersion characteristics of the M-1 and M-3 produce a spectral balance in the first reflection which matches that of the on-axis response. While I don't particularly agree with the contention that strong side- and rear-wall reflections are a good thing for imaging (regardless of their spectral balance), there's something to be said for an even off-axis response (footnote 6).
I therefore began my audition of the M-3s with some mixed feelings about the design principles involved. What, specifically, would reflections from the walls in the vicinity of the loudspeakers do to (or for) the M-3s' image and overall soundstage capabilities? My listening room, as described in my review of the Signet SL280 loudspeaker last month, does have some sound damping on the side walls; this was left in position. The rear wall behind the loudspeakers, which had been fairly live (there is a central multi-paned window on that wall which is reflective, though also reasonably dispersive), was recently modified by the addition of full-length draw-drapes. Opening them uncovers the entire window area, but does leave the damping effect of stacked drapes on either side of the window. Still, some flexibility in room acoustics is now possible by selection of open or closed drapes (or something in-between).
The M-3s were set up well away from rear and side walls, toed-in toward the listener. Some experimenting with positioning was attempted. The best sound in my room was finally obtained with the Mirages in nearly the same position I have found to be optimum with other loudspeakers, firing down the long dimension of the room, about 7'—a third of the way down the room—from the rear wall. The listening seat was about 9' from the plane of the loudspeakers, and the listening height of 38" was about midway between the axes of the woofer and midrange—the locations of which were determined by carefully feeling for the driver openings through the nonremovable grille cloth.
Since Mirage recommends a reflective rear wall behind the M-3s, I began with the curtains on that wall opened—though the stacked, open drapes still produced a significant amount of absorption when added to the other absorption present in the rear corners behind the loudspeakers (Tube Traps and two small damping panels in each corner).
Because I had heard the M-1s, though not optimally, on several occasions, I had a few prior impressions of that loudspeaker, the main one being a rather crisp dryness to its balance in the venues in which I had auditioned it. I had always respected the sound of the big Mirage without ever really warming up to it. Would the M-3s also exhibit that quality in a more familiar listening room? As the first few recordings were played out, it became obvious that the answer was no. My general impression was of an open, spacious sound, with a slight warmth. The high end was definitely not reticent, but neither was it prominent or pushy. And the midrange was practically devoid of readily identifiable colorations.
Any detailed discussion of the M-3s' sound must start with its spatial characteristics, which are very different from those of a conventional, forward-radiating loudspeaker. My immediate first impression of the M-3s, after spending most of my reviewing time over the past several months listening to conventional forward radiators, was of a definite, but not exaggerated, sense of opening up of the acoustic space. It is a disarming quality—quite unlike that obtained with a "normal" loudspeaker. It comes at a price, however. That price is a slight loosening of image specificity. I was tempted to call this a "slight diffusion," but that would create an exaggerated impression of what I mean. There is very definitely still a well-defined image present—along with a sometimes striking sense of depth. But lateral placement is not quite as solidly sculpted as it is from a good forward radiator.
Initially, with the draw drapes open, I also noticed a certain excess of what I can only call a "room sound." It was evident on a wide spectrum of material, and resembled in character, though not in degree, flutter echo—the slight zinginess of an overly lively room. Closing the curtains brought it under control; a pleasing spaciousness remained, the excess "zip" disappeared. The overall sound also became more coherent, the image tighter—though still not as cohesive as that from good forward radiators. The remainder of the auditions were conducted with fully curtained windows.
The more I listened to the M-3s, and the more I became accustomed to their radiating characteristics, the more impressed I was with their sound. I have to admit that I initially missed the more precise, riveting soundstage available from the more conventional direct-radiating loudspeakers in my experience. But it has also been argued, with some justification, that such a soundstage is more "real" than real—a pleasing artifact of the stereo experience which does not parallel that found in real life, particularly in the concert hall. Perhaps. All I can say is that the imaging available from the M-3s was certainly satisfying and convincing.
In their reproduction of depth, the M-3s were genuinely strikingly. There was a real sense of "place" evident in Michael Hedges's Live On the Double Planet (Windham Hill WD-1066). And the space and depth evident in the first few minutes of the soundtrack from Enemy Mine (Varese Sarabande VCD47249) were even more mind-boggling than they usually are—though the "place" evident here never existed anywhere outside of a recording studio.
One surprising, and useful, side effect of the M-3s' radiating characteristics is their ability to provide a useful image across a wide area. Unlike most audiophile loudspeakers, this is not just a "sweet-spot" reproducer. While its imaging may not be quite as precise from this "sweet spot" as I have heard from other loudspeakers, that image holds up better than most as the listener moves off-axis—even to the outside of the area bounded by the left and right loudspeakers. Though you'll hardly get a tightly defined image from that location, at least the sound doesn't collapse into the closer loudspeaker. And although I was almost never conscious of images outside the boundaries of the loudspeakers, within that area the loudspeakers did not call particular attention to their precise locations—they convincingly "disappeared" into the sonic fabric. The height of the image was also a plus; no Munchkin-esque orchestras masquerading as the Chicago Symphony here.
I found that the top end of the M-3 belied the fact that it uses two soft-dome tweeters. Lately I've been listening to more and more systems incorporating metal domes, and have come to appreciate the best qualities of that type of design. But I have never been inclined to believe that there is only one "right" way to do something. Mirage's tweeter for the M-3 is about as good a soft-dome as I've heard—totally lacking in the grain or spit characteristic of run-of-the-mill soft-dome designs. Fine transient details are rendered naturally, without undue prominence. Strings are silky-sweet, yet gutsy when called for. Guitar had detail and warmth. Sibilants were clear yet controlled.
Footnote 6: This is not the same thing as saying that the even off-axis response will provide a first reflection with a spectral balance the same as the on-axis response. There are a bunch of other variables involved when you start reflecting things off the walls.