Mirage M-3 loudspeaker Page 3

While I didn't notice it immediately, it didn't take long to notice a rather laid-back perspective to the M-3s' sound. They never seem to reach out and take charge in a gutsy, palpable fashion, which can be a liability for some types of music. But neither do they ever seem to reach out and grab you by the throat. Recordings that seem to jump forward and glare at you (more common with CDs) on other reproducers retain their composure. I've commented before on what is, to my mind, an excess of vocal energy in the London original cast recording of Miss Saigon (Geffen 24271-2). While this recording was by no means totally transformed through the Mirages, the vocal pyrotechnics were less apt to project into your lap over the M-3s. The soundstage began, for most reasonably neutral recordings, just behind the plane of the loudspeakers. But apart from this overall perspective, the M-3's midrange is strikingly open and "boxless"—a characteristic in which it resembles, to a surprising degree, a good dipole panel loudspeaker.

There's a school of thought which argues that the box-free character of panel loudspeakers is due not to their lack of an enclosure, but to their radiation pattern. Although the M-3 differs from panel dipoles in the phase of its rear radiation and in its greater output to the sides, its radiation pattern is closer to that of a dipole than to a conventional front-firing system. Then again, the low midband coloration of the M-3 may be due to something more mundane—like the proper use of quality midrange drivers.

The M-3's low-frequency response proved something of a mixed bag. On the negative side, I couldn't get rid of a certain euphonically lush quality to the sound on program material with a strong output in the mid- to upper bass—estimated to be in the 50–100Hz region. The practical result of this was an enhancement of the majestic quality of the sound on instruments with significant fundamentals and harmonics in this range. Nojima Plays Liszt (Reference Recordings RR-25CD) definitely had a ripe quality which reduced the openness of the instrument—not a characteristic that lovers of piano are likely to warm up to. With full symphony orchestra and organ, however, the situation was less clear. Provided the recording itself was not overly full in the mid- to upper bass, the rise simply produced a not unpleasant sense of added body and weight to the sound.

There are two things which this midbass warmth does not do. It does not cause coloration in the lower vocal region; both female and male singing voices were free of unnatural fatness. And it does not obscure the M-3's low-bass capabilities.

And what low-bass capabilities! Lovers of organ music will be particularly delighted by the Mirage. Not only is its open, spacious quality ideally suited to reproduction of this instrument, but the heft and "count-the-cycles" quality of its low bass is superb. The Great Organ of Saint Eustache Paris (Dorian DOR-90134) was an ear-opener, particularly the marvelously Lisztian piece of bombast "Fantasy and Fugue on the name B.A.C.H." on the final band. The M-3 could not quite shake the room in the same way as a serious subwoofer, but most listeners will not worry much about the loss—especially since any subwoofer capable of extending deeper will likely cost nearly as much as a pair of M-3s. Most neighbors, certainly, will hardly be able to tell the difference, and will be just as ready to have you committed.

The M-3 is rated to be down only 2dB at 30Hz, with usable response to 24Hz (–10dB)—and sounds as if it easily lives up to those specs. The low bass drum on the soundtrack from Glory (Virgin Records 91329-2) was dramatic, and the same instrument on Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (Reference Recordings RR-11CD) practically knocked me out of my listening chair with its impact. In both of the latter examples I sensed some softness to the extreme low end, a downward extension of the same quality heard in the mid- and upper bass, but I never found it disturbing. Some will. I confess to a weakness for taut, audiophile-grade bass. But too often this type of bass is merely a disguise for no low bass. The M-3 does not suffer from that limitation.

I did find one incontrovertible problem with the M-3's low end, and it should be solvable. Playing material with very-low-frequency bass at substantial levels, a loud fluttering sound (reminiscent of, yet not quite identical to, cone breakup) could be heard. There was no sign of an accompanying bottoming of the voice-coil, so the woofer did not appear to be reaching its excursion limits. Nor was the problem evident on the above-mentioned material. It did show up on at least two CDs from Reference Recordings: Tropic Affair and Dafos. What was it? It turned out to be the furiously pumping woofer surround banging against the inside of the grille cloth. It was relatively harmless, but rather alarming until I figured out what it was.

The M-3 appeared to be an easy load, and none of the amplifiers I used had any difficulty at all driving it. But the amplifier which was used the most during the listening was the Levinson No.23. It was somewhat sweeter through the high end than the Class;ae—though I sometimes missed the latter's more open, spacious character, the 23 sounding just a bit closed-in in comparison. But the Levinson had more guts and sheer oomph, with a bit better control of the M-3's low end (though the difference here was not dramatic) lending its performance a more solid, sculpted quality compared with that of the more "ethereal" Classé DR-8. Both characteristics were, of course, far more subtle than that description makes them sound, but I nonetheless settled on the Levinson for most of my auditioning. As to power output, the Levinson's 200Wpc was more than sufficient in my medium-sized room; a good amplifier of half that power would have sufficed for 90% of my listening. But you may spend more of your time listening at higher levels in a larger room.

Many loudspeakers favor one type of music over others. The M-3 appears equally at home with small-scale material—where it relates instruments and voices in their proper size—and large-scale, dramatic works. From the delicate rendering of solo voice and guitar to the challenges of grand opera, it rarely gets flustered or comes apart at the (sonic) seams. It will play as loud as this music-lover would ever care to listen (footnote 7), but you don't have to play it loud to get it to come to life. There aren't many speakers of which I could say the same.

In the last issue I raved unreservedly (well, with some reservations) about the Signet SL280, a far less expensive loudspeaker than the Mirage M-3. My enthusiasm for the Signet was at least partially engendered by finding a modestly priced loudspeaker which did so many things so well in my listening rooms, despite having a few limitations which were not unexpected at the price. It will give even the Mirage a run for its money with respect to a tightly defined soundstage (it's a forward radiator, remember) (footnote 8), and a clean, detailed, yet unexaggerated top end. And it provides a tight, defined bass to the bottom of its effective range. But it's no match for the Mirage in midrange transparency, openness of sound, or, especially, powerful, extended bass. None of this was a surprise. The Mirage is a solid Class B contender and priced accordingly.

Crossing the I's, dotting the T's
I finished my evaluation of the M-3s by comparing them closely with a pair of M-1s we had on hand. Our samples of M-1s did not provide for bi-wiring—now standard on that model—so I hooked them each up to the Levinson No.23 with a single run of AudioQuest Clear.

I was anticipating, based on my previous limited experience with this loudspeaker, to find it to have more high-frequency energy than the M-3. Surprise! It didn't. In fact, the family resemblance was remarkable—both sonic and physical. (The M-1 was far more physically intimidating in my listening room than it had been in LA's, was certainly more imposing and, let's face it, would appear to be a harder domestic "sell" than the M-3.) I was as impressed (well, perhaps nearly as impressed) by its performance as LA had been. But a strange thing happened as I listened to it: I found myself itching to return to the M-3s. The larger Mirage had perhaps the more uniform response, sounding like it had, if anything, a bit less HF energy than the M-3. And it was a bit less laid-back through the midrange, plus a shade less full (and cleaner) in the mid- and upper bass. But its low-end extension was not clearly better than that of its baby brother. In fact, I felt that the M-3 was, if anything, a little more powerful in the extreme lows—at least in my room.

Midrange coloration was equally low in both designs. And I could not honestly say that I felt the M-1's high end to be either better or worse than that of the M-3. Also, the M-3 struck me as being, by a whisker, the more open- and spacious-sounding. Possibly a psychoacoustic result of its more laid-back midband, possibly of its slightly lower soundstage (the "stage" of the M-1 is very high, conspicuously above ear level). Or just possibly the larger cabinet of the M-1 got in its own way a bit more.

Granted that I spent far more time listening to the M-3s than to the M-1s. And granted that the M-1s will very likely play louder and better fill a larger-than-average listening space with full-bodied, undistorted sound. I can strongly recommend a careful audition of both models. But if your listening room is of average dimensions, you may well find, as I did, that the M-3 is every bit as satisfying as the M-1. Perhaps more so, especially considering the music library you can buy with the $2500 price difference.

Footnote 7: Though I know better than to make any such generality for all audiophiles.

Footnote 8: Guy Lemcoe has subsequently tried the Signets in his considerably smaller listening space and was unable to get them to image well there (his Acoustats do, in the same room). An effective reminder, if one is needed, of the importance of loudspeaker/room matching—a consideration which seems to assume increasing importance as the size of the room decreases.

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