February 2000Mirage MRM-1 Loudspeakers
by Doug Schneider
The speaker I couldn't see
It was at Montreals annual audio show in the spring of 1999 when a friend came up to me and said, "Did you see Mirages new loudspeaker? I think you would really like it."
"No, I didnt!" I replied, somewhat startled because I had been through every room of the show.
He described the floor and exact location of the room to me. I shrugged my shoulders and said back to him, "I was in that room and didnt see it. They must have switched the speakers they were using or something."
"Thats weird," he replied. "It was playing every time I was there!"
We left the conversation at that, albeit a tad confused. It wasnt until I had driven halfway back home to Ottawa when it dawned on me that I may have had blinders on when I visited the Mirage room. After all, my friend had said that I would really like the speakers, and he knows I like bookshelf-type monitors. There was, in fact, a gorgeous-looking set of small speakers playing in that room, but I had simply assumed, with their diminutive size and elegant cabinetwork, that they were a European speaker that Id never seen before. Since I was not reporting on that floor, I just listened and didnt get the details. A quick phone call confirmed that, indeed, Mirage had displayed their new minimonitor, called the MRM-1, and I had simply missed seeing it -- even though I was looking right at it!
A Mirage unlike youve seen before
Mirage is one of the brands part of Audio Products International (API), one of the larger speaker manufacturers in the world. API is a Canadian-based company, and Ive followed their product line for many years. Besides Mirage, API also produces the Energy, Sound Dynamics and newly formed Athena brands. Each brand uses different technologies in their designs and, as a result, often appeals to different listeners.
Someone familiar with Mirage is not likely to think of tiny, bookshelf-sized speakers like the MRM-1. I certainly dont. Instead, you are likely going to picture very large black monolith-like loudspeakers that fill a room, both physically and sonically. Mirage is famous for the groundbreaking M-series speakers that included the M1 and my favorite, the M3, among others. The M-series speakers were later upgraded to "si" status and then replaced with the current lineup of "ominpolar" speakers called the OM series. The newest versions of these were just shown at CES 2000. From M to OM series, the Mirage speakers are all bipolar designs using dynamic drivers that fire out the front and back of the cabinet, which is unique in loudspeaker design.
The bipolar concept has been championed at Mirage for years, largely due to the companys lead designer, Ian Paisley. The question that obviously comes to mind is why send sound both ways when you sit in front of the speakers? Because wide and even sound dispersion at all frequencies is viewed at Mirage as a key performance criterion for good in-room sound -- but more on that in a bit. As to why they made the MRM-1, a minuscule speaker by comparison to the others, it is simple -- they realize that not everyone can accommodate large loudspeakers.
The design team in charge of the MRM-1 included Ian Paisley and relative newcomer to API, Andrew Welker. Their goal was to produce an all-out bookshelf monitor that would compete with the worlds finest -- quite simply, a small speaker without compromise. I discussed the MRM-1 at length with Welker. He said that no expense was spared in the creation of this speaker and every part they wanted included in the final design was included. As one manufacturer I know likes to say, "the accountants didnt get inside."
Welker holds the unique distinction of having a degree in electrical engineering, which gives him insight into the latest technologies, but he is a serious audiophile who still prefers his turntable to a CD player. As a result, his education gives him rock-solid technical footing, yet he doesnt necessarily close his eyes, or ears, to what some will call the tweaky element of high-end design. Welker not only expounds on the difference cables, capacitors, connectors and the like can make, hell give you a technical reason as to why. As a result, the MRM-1 features such high-end niceties as Cardas internal wiring and binding posts, unique materials in the drivers, and top-notch components in the crossover.
The cabinet construction is exemplary. This is one sturdy speaker that measures about 13" by 8" by 11" and weighs in at a hefty 35 pounds. The box itself is manufactured from 1" MDF, and inside it is lined with 1/4" steel. The steel helps give the cabinet exceptional rigidity without the need for bracing, which can reduce internal cabinet volume. The front panel includes the MDF with a 1" sculpted Corian baffle attached to it. The sculpted Corian looks fabulous, but was not used just for appearance. It provides sonic benefits by increasing baffle rigidity and reducing diffraction effects. Given the three materials that go into its construction, the MRM-1 is small, solid and incredibly inert. There is one elegant touch that was not likely included for sonic performance but does indicate the pride API has in this design -- there is a brass plate on the back panel with both designers names engraved on it.
The MRM-1 is only available with real-wood veneers. For $2200 per pair you get the standard Black Ash. Cherrywood is priced at $2300, and tigerwood at $2500 per pair. Mirage has also created exceptional matching stands, almost 28" tall, that I consider mandatory because they blend so well sonically and visually. Manufactured from MDF, steel, Corian and the same matching wood veneers, the stands are priced from $600 per pair, in accordance with the finish. The pursuit of cost-no-object performance and styling, unfortunately, brings along a bit of a price tag that many wont be able to afford. But for those who can pony up the cash, you certainly cant argue with the finish of these goods.
Drivers and dispersion
Getting more to the nitty-gritty of the speaker, the woofer is a 5.5" unit with a carbon-, graphite- and mica-injected polypropylene cone. Bass is augmented by a rear-firing port. The tweeter has its origins dating back to the M1si, where it was first used. Mirage calls it a Pure Titanium Hybrid (PTH), and it features a cloth suspension and ferrofluid in the gap to keep it running cool and to help give it high power handling. API makes both drivers.
The MRM-1 doesnt have drivers firing out the back, but the attempt with this design is to have it sound close to such a speaker. The reason for the importance placed on dispersion is due to the listener not just hearing the on-axis response of a loudspeaker (i.e., the sound directly radiating from the front of the speakers); he also hears whats coming off it at "angles" -- that is to say, hitting the walls and bouncing back toward the listener. Things like acoustical treatment and nearfield listening certainly help to reduce or control room reflections, but the effects of the room are never eliminated. Therefore, in a real-room setting, the listener hears direct and reflected sound creating a summed response at the listening position. Its quite easy to hear how well a speaker performs on- and off-axis. Simply begin listening directly on-axis, then move to the side and eventually all around and take note of any tonal changes. By taking this room effect into account, Mirage tries to deliver a smooth in-room frequency response and not one that looks like a comb. (The MRM-1's wide and even dispersion pattern can be seen in the striking similarities of the on-axis frequency response with those done 15 and 30 degree off-axis. The curves are almost identical at lower frequencies, and even at the highest frequencies, where they would normally vary more drastically, they are very close.)
While the drivers themselves are crucial, whats also critical in any speaker design is the crossover that sonically melds the drivers together. It is here that the MRM-1 has the most in common with its bipolar brethren. With the MRM-1, the designers are trying to give as wide off-axis dispersion, for both the woofer and the tweeter, as possible (giving the practical consideration of only having forward-firing drivers). According to Welker, the tweeter is brought down to a very low 1800Hz before it is crossed over to the woofer. This is much lower than with other two-way designs where a crossover point of 2500Hz-3000Hz or so is commonplace. The reason for the low crossover point is to ensure matching of dispersion characteristics for both the tweeter and the woofer. Welker said that technically the tweeter could have been crossed over even lower, perhaps 1200Hz, with a steeper crossover slope, but there was no need. Instead, at the 1800Hz point, the tweeter is still performing optimally, and it is sufficiently low that the woofer has not started "beaming" (i.e., getting highly directional, which is what woofers do when used to provide too high a frequency). You should take note, though, that there is no magic number to cross over the drivers, so this shouldnt be seen as some sort of recipe. Different crossover points are used based on the exact driver combination, so they will vary from speaker to speaker.
A final look at the specifications supplied by API reveal an impedance of about 8 ohms that drops to about 5 ohms at certain frequencies. API rates in-room response as down 3dB at 40Hz. This obviously isnt subterranean bass, but it will be wholly sufficient for many music listeners. The efficiency is rated at 85dB/W/m in-room (which translates to about 82-83dB measured anechoically). This is a lowish figure, but not at all out of line among the small-speaker set. Ive had a few speakers in here rated about the same, and it is not a reason to shy away from a speaker, but it is an indicator that a little bit more consideration must be given to amplifier matching to get proper performance. I found this out personally with the MRM-1.
My first try setting up the MRM-1 wasnt 100% successful, and I feel, in general, that this speaker is better suited to solid-state amplification than tubes. I found that although my single-ended Blue Circle BC2 amps, with their solid-state output, drove the MRM-1s reasonably well, they were struggling a bit. I replaced those amps with the 100Wpc solid-state push-pull Blue Circle BC22 and heard greatly improved control of the speakers and could subsequently turn the volume up much higher. Dont think you have to go overboard on the power, though. Any well-designed amplifier rated from, say, 50Wpc to 150Wpc that can hold its own into 4 ohms should suffice. There are some low-priced amps that can do the MRM-1 justice too. Welker indicated that SimAudios $1295 I-5080 integrated amplifier does a wonderful job, and I would imagine that the $1295 Belles 150A would be splendid to try. Keep in mind, though, the speakers are of high enough quality to be matched with the best electronics your budget will allow.
Other equipment used during the review period included my Theta Data Basic transport and Prime II DAC, as well as an Audio Aero Prima CD player that I had in for review. My trusty Blue Circle BC3 Galatea served as preamplifier, and all source components were plugged into an API Power Wedge. The power amplifier was plugged in a Brick Wall Series Mode Surge Suppressor specifically designed for high-power amps. All cabling was by Nirvana Audio and included S-L series speaker wire and interconnects, as well as the new S-X Ltd. interconnect.
Ive been playing Bruce Cockburns Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu [Ryko RCD 10407] on almost all the speakers Ive received of late. Its one of Cockburns finest releases in years, and the recording, although not quite the best it could be, is still very good. The MRM-1s presented Cockburns closely miked voice with the warm, fleshed-out character Im accustomed to with plenty of detail and great soundstage focus. The soundfield is vast and room-filling. I found that in my mid-sized room the speakers sounded much bigger than they are, and I didnt have to lock my head in a vice to get a good stereo image. The speakers do present a wide stage with even tonal balance throughout the room. Moving on- and off-axis, vertically and horizontally, produces nary a difference in their sound. Some small speakers, due to their size and limited bass output capabilities, can sound thin and lightweight -- theMRM-1s dont fall into that camp. Rich and surprisingly robust was my first impression.
Despite the very large and full soundfield the MRM-1 projects, this is not what I would call a vivid or incisive speaker, which is a little different than I expected. For example, on recordings with a dominant center-placed vocal, the MRM-1 does not place the singer as forward as, say, the Merlin TSM-SE or the Cliffhanger CHS-2 (two excellent speakers I own and use for evaluation). Instead, the MRM-1 presents the voice a little further back in the stage -- not much, but just a little to make me categorize it having a slightly laid-back character. Both of the other speakers are not necessarily up-front; they are about average I would say, but they are more up-front in their presentations than the MRM-1. If those two speakers are five rows back from the performers, then MRM-1 is in row six, perhaps seven. The TSM-SE is the most incisive and immediate-sounding with scads of detail; the CHS-2 has a silky, relaxed quality that is somewhat tube-like in its liquidity; the MRM-1 is the most laid-back, rich and warm-sounding.
Concentrating more on instruments, I found guitar, piano, and cymbals to be rendered with excellent clarity and a wealth of detail. Like the vocals, the instruments sounded natural, properly fleshed out and, again, somewhat laid-back compared to the sound of my other speakers. However, unlike some speakers that are laid-back but also sound dull, the MRM-1 is not anemic. There is excellent extension and detail that bring a sheen and brilliance to music without ever being harsh. As well, the MRM-1s have a full-bodied, rich sound that gives piano, drums and bass guitar impressive weight and dimensionality. They are full-sounding yet laid-back, highly detailed but never harsh or bright, robust and at the same time tight and focused. Perhaps all of this seems like a contradiction, but its the list of attributes that makes this a unique and pleasing loudspeaker. In some ways, the MRM-1 is unlike any small speaker Ive had in for review.
I moved to Ani DiFrancos fine Up Up Up Up Up Up [Righteous Babe Music/BMI RBR-013D]. The performance on this album was similar to that of the Cockburn disc. Voice was tightly focused with excellent presence, and again slightly back of the speaker plane. Guitars and cymbals have excellent clarity without any edginess, hashiness or other such nasties that sometimes come through with some tweeters. Like the midrange performance, the high frequencies dont leap out and attack you. Instead, they are clean and clear with excellent detail and good extension.
However, it was on this album that I was floored at how well the MRM-1 could throw a soundstage -- with very good width and outstanding depth. They dont quite "cut out" the images with rock-solid specificity the way some speakers do, but the stage is huge and has outstanding detail that allows you to hear well into a recording venue. Sonically, the MRM-1s disappear, have very good lateral spread that can extend beyond each speaker edge, and show awesome depth that ranks among the best Ive heard. Furthermore their wide dispersion means a reasonable soundstage can be heard outside the dead-center position.
To dig further into that aspect I turned to track two, "Virtue," on the same Ani DiFranco disc. Almost all good speakers can project at least a reasonable amount of the depth thats inherent in this track, but only a very few, like the Merlin TSM-SE and the newly arrived Waveform MC, put the drums that are placed distinctly left and back in the stage -- way, Way, WAY back -- where they belong. With a large-scale choral piece like the soundtrack to The Mission [Virgin CDV2402], the exceedingly well-delineated voices are projected in a vast space far larger than my room. Depending on the track, the choir is positioned very far back and envelopes toward the outer edges of the speakers. Given the right setup in the right room, you dont need big speakers to get a huge soundfield, and the MRM-1s are proof.
Every bit the equal of its outstanding imaging ability is what this speaker does in the bass range. In fact, its an area of performance in the small-speaker genre that I almost consider a revelation for a speaker of this size. But before I tell you exactly what Im talking about, I should clear something up. No, the MRM-1 does not extend as low as some stand-mounted speakers (Speaker Arts Clef, for instance, although the MRM-1 does extend impressively given its sub-6" woofer), nor does it play as loudly or with the impact that some others are capable of (both the CHS-2 and Clef have that on the MRM-1). But what it does do so well is what I am now calling "micro-slam." Given the proper amplifier and cabling match, the woofer renders low frequencies with an ultra-tight and tuneful thwump that shows itself best on bass guitar, drums and other instruments that plumb the bass depths with a visceral wallop. And dont be put off by the word micro; I use it in a relative sense. Whether its the explosive percussion on Carmina Burana [Telarc CD-80056], the bass guitar on Cockburn's Breakfast in New Orleans, or even the relentless dance rhythms on Rob Zombies American Made Music to Strip By [Geffen 069490349 2], within the speakers limits (and this little speaker does have excursion limits), there is an excellent sense of control that gives an outstanding, solid foundation to the music.
However, despite how good the quality of the MRM-1s bass is, there are undoubtedly some listeners who will want deeper and louder bass than the MRM-1 is capable of (the MRM-1 is best played not in excess of about 95dB). There may even be some who try to use these speakers in a home-theater system. In both cases, I say dont do it unless Mirage introduces a subwoofer specifically designed to mate with this speaker (right now they dont have one). The designers have obviously gone to lengths to make the bass that this speaker produces sound right within its limits. I think theyve hit it spot-on, and I dont think you should mess with success.
I visit some listening rooms and I see people trying to cram the largest possible speakers into the most unsuitable of spaces -- I guess its the old thing that bigger is always better. That may be true for some things, but for speakers thats not necessarily the case. As important as it is to match components properly to form a system, you must match that system to the room. The ending component that interfaces with the room is, of course, the loudspeaker. Many times a small bookshelf-sized monitor is the best bet in a smaller room and will give much better performance in that type of space.
Despite its small size, the MRM-1 has big-speaker ambitions and can deliver that type of performance in the right room. It is not a speaker for a large room, but is perfectly suited to small- and medium-sized rooms like mine. It fleshes out very nicely with warm yet exceedingly tight bass presentation and a relaxed and somewhat laid-back character through the midrange and high frequencies. But it is clean and able to reveal a wealth of detail in recordings. Its not the type of speaker that leaps out and grabs you with a Technicolor presentation. Instead, it plays music in an easy-going manner that doesnt necessarily draw attention to any one aspect of its performance but does do justice to the whole frequency spectrum through a wide variety of music that also includes rock and roll and large-scale classical works. Its top-notch appearance and finish result in a price that will undoubtedly restrict its clientele to the more well-heeled crowd, but it is a speaker I encourage audiophiles looking for this type of performance to seek out. Its designed with a purpose -- highly refined sound in smaller-size rooms.
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