October 2004Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab OML-2 Loudspeakers
by Jason Thorpe
Its a great time to be an audiophile. For better or for worse, free trade, the increasing globalization of the economy and the awakening of the slumbering Chinese giant have opened up the North American market to fierce price-cutting accompanied by sharply rising quality standards.
Not too long ago "made in China" generally meant cheap and cheaply made, but not anymore. There are a significant number of companies with Chinese origins producing a wide range of products. Shanling, Jolida and Cayin, for example, are producing high-quality, beautifully finished tube gear, while companies such as Athena have been producing speakers in China for years.
Now you can add Mobile Fidelity to the list.
Yes, that Mobile Fidelity -- the company that made its name by releasing audiophile CD, LP, and now SACD reissues of both obscure hits and popular chestnuts. MoFi, as theyre popularly known, became frustrated with the quality of speakers that they were using for evaluating their recordings, so they decided to design their own monitors. Since they lack manufacturing facilities, MoFi commissioned to have their speakers built in China. Thus was born the Original Master Loudspeaker-2, OML-2 for short, which, joined by the smaller, bookshelf OML-1, comprises the first two models in Mobile Fidelitys new line of speakers. The OML-2 and its little brother are available exclusively via mail order from retailer Music Direct, which owns Mobile Fidelity. Both are sold with a 60-day money-back guarantee, making in-home audition mandatory. No self-respecting audiophile will complain about that!
The $1999 USD OML-2 looks stunning. Not stunning for the money or stunning given its origins. No sir, its simply a beautifully finished speaker. The review sample came in the upgraded sycamore wood veneer, which adds $200 to the price, and the grain was pretty much book-matched between the two speakers. The standard finish is black ash, with rosewood sharing the same additional cost as sycamore. A high-gloss walnut finish is also available for an $800 upcharge. Add on top of the veneer a very high-quality semi-gloss-but-leaning-towards-gloss lacquer and superbly finished edges -- with nary a flaw to be found -- and youve got a near-as-damnit furniture-grade piece of audio equipment.
The good news continues around back. The binding posts are high-quality, oversized, biwired jobbies, and they appear to be rhodium-plated. Upon assembly (youll need to attach the speakers to the plinth with the supplied bolts), you will see a hole in the bottom of the speaker that allows sand-filling for increased low-end solidity. The front baffle angles backwards at 5 degrees, which no doubt helps the OML-2 achieve various sonic goals.
The speakers weigh in at a claimed 60 pounds each and are quite stout, with dual asymmetrical braces running both horizontally and vertically, so even without sand theyre reasonably inert, although rapping on them didnt hurt my knuckles as it does to those of so many other reviewers. At 38"H x 8"W x 18 1/2"D, the cabinets are tall, narrow and deep.
The supplied grilles are token at best. While they look fantastic when attached -- they significantly reduce the physical presence of the speaker, making it look even more elegant -- they dont do it sonic justice, dulling down the treble and interfering with the imaging. I left them off all the time even though -- and this is unusual for me -- I much preferred the look with them on.
Within its elegant shell the OML-2 houses two 6 1/2" poly-cone midrange/woofers, one running full-range and the other acting as a dedicated woofer. The 1 1/4" tweeter has a silk dome. The OML-2 is front-ported and employs a thin layer of soft foam inside the port, presumably to reduce chuffing. Frequency response is claimed as 35Hz-22kHz, +/- 3dB. Sensitivity is given as 86dB, with an impedance of 6 ohms. The bass driver crosses over at 300Hz, while the midrange hands off to the tweeter at 3kHz, with 12dB/octave slopes. The drivers are shielded for use near a video monitor.
The OML-2s spent their time on the second floor of my house. This large room is fairly narrow at 13', but it is a very long 34'. Ive had excellent luck here with a number of speakers, from the bookshelf Energy C-3s to the floorstanding Tannoy TD10s. Its proved to be a great-sounding room, and the OML-2s continued the tradition. Placement-wise, the OML-2s werent fussy. They ended up with their backs 30" from the front wall, and about 22" from the side walls, with just a hint of toe-in.
Although placement was easy, amplifier choice turned out to be critical. I started off with a Musical Fidelity A3cr power amplifier, which sent the system too far to the bright side. Swapping over to a Threshold SA/5000e didnt change matters for the better until I changed to balanced connections running directly from my Museatex Bidat DAC, which was fed by a Toshiba SD-3750 DVD player. I also had good luck with a set of Song Audio SA-300MB triode amplifiers, but more about that later. Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval interconnects and Acoustic Zen Satori speaker cables rounded out the review system.
I may be getting ahead of myself here, but if you want big sound from a relatively inexpensive speaker, you really should listen to the MoFi OML-2s.
The OML-2s sound big in every way. I would hesitate to call these speakers neutral, but they definitely are larger than life, and their bass is nothing short of fabulous for $2000. Heck, its great for pretty much any amount of money. Check out the bottom end on Cassandra Wilson -- more precisely on Blue Light til Dawn [Blue Note CDP 581357], her laid-back, emotion-filled reinterpretation of traditional blues songs. "Come On In My Kitchen" opens with a sliding bass note that filled the room with tactile, dynamic thrumming that was far beyond what I expected from these slim, elegant towers. Good stuff indeed.
While I estimate that the MoFi speakers roll off in the mid-30Hz range in my room, thats more than enough low-end for me. The desire for 20Hz bass in a music system is more about one-upmanship than it is about music. Other than pipe organ and synthesized low notes, theres not much happening in most music below 30Hz, and I never feel that Im missing anything when I listen to speakers that wont dig into the 20Hz range. And so it was with the MoFi OML-2s. Their big, ballsy bass sounded essentially bottomless with every acoustic instrument, along with electric bass and kickdrum slamming forth into the room with seemingly limitless energy.
At times, and with certain music, the OML-2s sound a touch loose in the nether regions. The bass can lag behind the ranges above, and theres a lack of attack and transient snap that can become a little bit bothersome. This could very well point to the need for a room thats larger than mine, although I was generally quite enamored with the OML-2s' slightly billowy bass. On anything that wasnt overcooked down low, such as acoustic jazz or even most rock, the OML-2s sounded reasonably accurate and trouble-free. And did I mention big? The MoFi speakers dont look imposing from the front, as theyre svelte and elegant, but once you hear a low note slam out with authority, theres no mistaking these speakers for middleweights.
At the other end of the spectrum, the OML-2s were again extroverts. The treble proved to be somewhat problematic for me at first, as I personally like a speaker thats reticent in this area, much preferring to be underwhelmed rather than sizzled to death. During initial setup of the OML-2s, I fussed around with cables and toe-in, trying to reduce the level of the high frequencies, but I was largely unsuccessful. It wasnt the mid-treble that was annoying me; rather it was overtones on cymbals and the upper registers of the piano, as if the tweeter were just a tiny bit too hot. This was evident on "Dat Dere" from Ricky-Lee Jones Pop Pop [Geffen GEFD 24426], where the very top end of the childrens squeaking at the beginning of the track seemed elevated in level.
But my potchkering around came to fruition when I swapped the Musical Fidelity A3cr amplifier out of the system and replaced it with the Threshold SA/5000e. When run balanced, this is a very sweet-sounding amplifier, and it perfectly complemented the OML-2s. Rather than dulling them down in any way, the Threshold amp simply made the speakers sound more refined, more civilized. All the top-end extension was there, but with none of the toothache that the OML-2s initially elicited. Previously the highest overtones on Bill Frisells guitar were a little too incisive, but after the swap to the Threshold amp, things calmed down sufficiently so that I could thoroughly enjoy his searing lead on Gone, Just Like A Train [Nonesuch 79479-2] when played at elevated levels. Via the Threshold amp, The OML-2s exhibited crisp detail, which had a most charming vitality to it, but without any strain or fatigue.
To be fair, I have to report that several other people who also listened to the OML-2s werent the slightest bit bothered by the treble, even with the Musical Fidelity amp. As Ive mentioned in other reviews, Im happier with a flat or even slightly depressed top-end, so please keep my preferences in mind.
These arent boom-sizzle speakers by any means although my talk of a rich, slamming bass and somewhat precise top-end might lead you to think otherwise. Their midrange is slightly recessed in comparison to the frequency extremities, but its incredibly articulate, rendering detail with a slightly soft but well-focused character. Images have a wonderful solidity through the midrange, with instruments beautifully placed in space. John Zorn has been writing and performing scores for obscure, artsy movies for years now, and Im starting to get a bit of a collection, thanks to recommendations from my buddy Andy Frost. At his suggestion I recently purchased Filmworks XIII, 2002 Volume Three -- Invitation to a Suicide [Tzadik T27341], which is the score for a movie about a man who attempts to earn money to save his father from death at the hands of gangsters by selling tickets to his own voluntary hanging. The soundtrack continues the tradition of atmospheric, laid-back melodies, and the first tracks vamp, overlaid by an accordion, beautifully illustrates the realism with which the OML-2s can sculpt a musical landscape. The interplay between the guitar and accordion was well separated in the lateral plane and with excellent depth delineation. Theres no edge or grain in the midrange, and this hear-through clarity, when combined with the slightly recessed soundstage, served to draw me in and highlight the musical message.
In stark contrast to my Hales Transcendence Fives and the Ascendo System Z-f3 speakers that Ive been listening to lately, the OML-2s were just fantastic for late-night listening at low volume levels. Even songs as delicate as "Summertime" from Herbie Hancocks Gershwins World [Verve 314 557 797-2] lost none of their immediacy or detail when played back at low levels through the OML-2s. At low volumes the frequency extremes become less prominent and that crystalline midrange projects forward, infusing the music with an increased sense of intimacy.
Late in the review period I received the Song Audio MB-300 single-ended tube amplifiers. While I wasnt expecting these high-strung low-powered amplifiers to work well with the OML-2s, I did give them a what-the-hell try. Color me startled! Although theyre not that sensitive, at a claimed 86dB/W/m, the OML-2s must have an incredibly even -- and relatively high -- impedance curve, as I was able to get ample volume out of the 7 watts (downhill, with a tailwind) that the Song Audio amps can provide. Both the bass and the treble rolled off a very small amount, and the midrange took on that tactile, vibrant quality which is immediately associated with triode tubes. This combination of amplifier and speaker was very musically satisfying. Thus paired off, the system dissected recordings and highlighted inner detail with spooky realism.
The high volume levels that the Song Audio amplifiers were able to eke out of the OML-2s suggest that these speakers may be a standout choice for low-powered tube amps of all persuasions. Given that the speakers originate from the orient, perhaps there might be some synergy to be had by pairing them with a tubed integrated or preamp/power-amp combo from the same region.
The OML-2s warm, rich, precise sound is dramatically different from that of my Hales Transcendence Fives. The Hales speakers retailed for almost $7000 when they were in production, so youd expect that they would be the better speaker, and in some ways they are. The frequency extremes of the Hales speakers are certainly more in line with the midrange, although the Transcendence Fives could be considered a little dry in the bass. The tight bottom end of the Hales speakers versus the slightly loose fullness of the OML-2s is a perfect, if extreme, example of sealed versus ported bass alignment.
What surprised me most when I compared these two speakers was the nature of the highs and how they differed. The output level of the OML-2s treble is a bit higher than I would strictly call neutral, and this became evident when compared to the treble of the Transcendence Fives. However theres an almost complete lack of harshness and grain to the OML-2s presentation, and this highlights a very fine layer of abrasiveness in the Hales high frequencies.
The OML-2s midrange is more recessed than that of the Hales Transcendence Fives, which means that theres a bit less musical information transmitted via the MoFi speakers. Nothings simple though. More information is good, no doubt, but the OML-2s presentation is more relaxed and easier to listen to through the midrange. Theres still plenty of detail, but its not thrust at you. Wind and reed instruments are set back slightly in space, and theres no abrasive edge, nor is there any sense of stridency. Is it possible to be a peaceful introvert and a raging extrovert at the same time? The OML-2s pull this trick off.
Although the Hales speakers are more accurate, they face stiff competition from the musicality and imaging prowess of the MoFi OML-2s. And thats in absolute terms. Once you factor in value, which includes the concept that its possible to swing three pairs of OML-2s (exactly the number youd need for a surround system) for what one pair of the Hales Transcendence Fives once retailed for, the OML-2s start to look very appealing.
The global picture
The mail-order-only availability of these speakers could be a bit problematic given that they seem to be somewhat picky about the amplifier that theyre paired with, but Music Direct lets you try them out without worry. And lets face it -- your own room is where you should be auditioning speakers anyway.
However, Mobile Fidelitys OML-2 is worth the hazards that come with buying sight-unseen. Its drop-dead gorgeous, with gut-busting bass, a delicate, expressive midrange, and a grain-free -- if somewhat elevated -- treble. Its not often that I come across what is essentially a budget speaker that combines these attributes. The small sonic oversights that come with its slightly loose bottom end and over-eager top end can be largely ameliorated by the right choice of ancillary equipment and careful placement.
Work smarter not harder! By taking advantage of an existing speaker-building infrastructure, Mobile Fidelity has managed to produce a great-sounding, beautiful-looking floorstanding speaker for $2000 per pair. If this is the result of globalization, I say bring it on!
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