July 2003Mirage OMNI 260 Loudspeakers
by Jason Thorpe
Racing improves the breed. The furious level of competition on the motorcycle track, for example, forces engineers to think outside the box when trying to devise new ways to decrease weight, increase power, and maximize traction. The innovations that are developed in this fertile evolutionary soup often find their way into production vehicles just a few years down the road.
High-end audio is no different. Its not uncommon to see technology that was previously reserved for a companys top-of-the-line products appear in lower-cost alternatives. The OMNI 260 speaker from Mirage, the subject of this review, is a case in point. Mirages Omnipolar technology, which uses arrays of speaker drivers facing front and rear in order to produce a spacious, enveloping sound, is an expensive technology to implement, as it requires twice the number of drivers compared to a conventional speaker of similar dimensions. So when Mirage decided to implement the Omnipolar concept in the less-expensive OMNI line, designer Andrew Welker felt that an important first step was to replace the dual-driver configuration with a single driver for each frequency range. The OMNI concept, which first made its appearance last year with the OMNISAT, purports to do just this.
Mirage has now expanded the OMNI range to a full line of bookshelf and floorstanding speakers, and the $1000 USD-per-pair OMNI 260 is the top model in this line.
The OMNI 260 is a fairly svelte floorstanding speaker. At 42"H x 9"W x 15"D the '260 is quite low in profile and doesnt visually overpower the room. The black vinyl finish (cherry is also available) is flawless -- without even a single join, crease, or wrinkle. The various accents on the speaker, such as the trim ring around the woofer, are made of a matte plastic that looks like, well, what it is. This material is also used as edging on the top surface of the cabinet and for the feet that extend out to the sides as stabilizers on the bottom. The feet, which hold spikes, didnt look like theyd be very rigid, but ended up being surprisingly so. Mirage deserves bonus points for the quality of their binding posts. These single-wired terminals accept spades, bananas and bare wire, and are of superb quality. Overall, the OMNI 260 looks smart for the asking price, although some of the styling accents are rather busy in appearance and have a bit of a plasticky feel for my tastes.
Internally, theres a lot going on with this speaker. The OMNI 260 is a two-and-a-half way design, with the front-radiating 6 1/2" woofer crossed over at 700Hz, while the upward-facing 6 1/2" driver (theyre both identical units) is run up to 2kHz. At this point, it hands off to the (again) PTH (Pure Titanium Hybrid) dome tweeter. The OMNI 260 is rated as an 8-ohm load, with a minimum of 4 ohms, and its stated efficiency is 93dB.
The most obvious departure from the design of a standard front-firing dynamic loudspeaker is the OMNI 260's upward-firing bass/midrange driver and the flying-saucer-like OmniGuide above it. The tweeter is mounted on the top of the midranges OmniGuide, and theres another spoon-shaped OmniGuide above the tweeter.
Both OmniGuides serve the same purpose: They reflect sound outward in an essentially omnidirectional pattern. Whats not immediately obvious is that the OmniGuides arent completely centered above their respective drivers. Instead, theyre canted upward and backward a few degrees, which results in more sound being dispersed to the front of the speaker than to the sides and rear. The bias is specified as 70% reflected sound and 30% direct, which, Mirage claims, simulates the radiation pattern of live music in an acoustic environment.
While the tweeter points pretty much vertically, the midrange is angled toward the listener. The exact angle of the midranges tilt was carefully chosen by Mirage in order to best reconcile imaging with soundstaging. According to Welker, when the midrange pointed vertically, the soundstage was huge, but the imaging was diffuse. "A ten-foot wide guitar just isnt realistic," said Welker.
The final angle chosen for the OMNI midrange/tweeter array is optimized so that the omnidirectional dispersion results in a large soundstage while the forward bias ensures that images retain their solidity.
Although Mirage makes some fairly heady claims with regard to the ease of positioning of the OMNI-series speakers, I did find the OMNI 260s to be rather placement sensitive. This should really come as no surprise, as their radiation pattern involves the side and rear walls to a much greater extent than with a direct-radiating speaker.
The OMNI-series speakers were designed with a reflective rear wall in mind. Sure enough, I found that the best balance was with the video screen retracted, exposing the window and metallic blinds behind the speakers, which made the sound much more open and involving. In fact, I was able to tune the mids and highs by altering the angle of the horizontal blinds, somewhat like a semaphore in ship-to-ship communication. I was further able to dial in the midrange and high frequencies by tilting the speakers toward me. This served to raise the reflection point higher on the wall behind each speaker, which essentially reduced the amount of midrange and high frequencies that end up being reflected back to the listening position. Changing the vertical axis of the speaker in this manner enabled me to counter some of the increase in the mids and highs that resulted from moving the speaker closer to the rear wall, which was necessary in order to reinforce the bass.
I ended up with two very different positions for the speakers. The first position, which worked well for pretty much all forms of music, was with the speakers 30" out from the back wall and 52" in from the side walls, and 9' away from my listening position. With classical and choral works, I sometimes moved the speakers into the nearfield, which placed them 5' away from me and about 8' out from the back wall. Their compact size and relatively light weight made this easy to do and was most worthwhile for the scary-real soundstage that ensued.
Before I go any further I want to stress that the placing the '260s randomly in my room never resulted in a bad-sounding speaker. Wherever I placed them or however I moved them around, they still sounded reasonably good. But I was conscious that they could sound better, hence all of the aforementioned maneuvering.
I initially powered the OMNI 260s with my EAR 509 tube amplifiers, but this proved to be an unsatisfactory match. With these amps, the bass and lower midrange were way too low in level, which resulted in a thin, washed-out sound. The EAR amps have a fairly high output impedance, and, judging by their dual woofers, the '260s impedance most likely drops down somewhat in the bass relative to the midrange and treble. This was also the case with the Orpheus Labs Model Three amplifier, which has a high output impedance in a manner similar to a tube amp.
So for the duration of the review, I alternated between the Musical Fidelity A3cr power and A300 integrated amplifiers. Keep in mind that the Orpheus Labs and EAR amplifiers are both special-case units, and I strongly doubt that any decent integrated amplifier would have difficulties with the OMNI 260s.
Sources were my Roksan Xerxes/Artemiz 'table/'arm with my Roksan Shiraz and the Linn Adikt cartridges. For preamplifiers, I used my Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 and an FT Audio LW1. The CD player was a Musical Fidelity A3.
Cables were Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval exclusively.
Ive found that certain pieces of equipment Im reviewing earn a signature recording -- one that comes to epitomize the best traits of that component. With the OMNI 260s, I kept returning to Classic Records reissues of RCA Living Stereo LPs, most notably Rimsky-Korsakoffs Scheherazade, performed by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony [Classic/RCA LSC 2446]. The breadth and depth of the soundstage created by the OMNI 260s approximated that of a concert hall better than any speaker that Ive had in my listening room since the Magnepan 1.5/QRs. The aural size of the room went back way beyond the actual position of the speakers, but not in the classic minimonitor spot image sense. Rather than having to close my eyes and trick myself into believing that the music was really contained in the small space between and behind the speakers, the OMNI 260s created an enveloping acoustic that filled the room with sound. The result was an eerily real perspective of the first row of the balcony.
Within this soundstage, the '260s presented solo instruments with precise and solid images. The acoustic of the hall was consistently real, and solo instruments were arrayed in their proper locations in space. I noticed the same soundstage depth, albeit on an appropriately smaller scale, on jazz recordings. The opening bars of Herbie Hancocks Maiden Voyage [Blue Note ST 46339] had a larger sense of the acoustic in which they were recorded than Im used to, and I felt that I could describe the instruments positions in space on a horizontal plane in a defined and physically real sense. It got to the point that with certain recordings I could almost see where the musicians were located. It was sort of like looking at an edge-on photographic representation of the solar system, with the musicians placed somewhat like the planets.
Throughout the midrange, the '260s were clear, articulate and uncolored, with a good sense of dynamics and snap. Los Lobos La Pistola Y El Corazon [Slash/Warner 92 57901] is a superb recording that showed off the midrange talents of the OMNI 260s. Although its obviously recorded in a studio, this intimate, emotional, and playful album lends itself to flights of Mexican fancy. Whenever I listen to this recording, I imagine myself driving through the desert in a dusty red convertible shooting at cactuses with a pearl-handled .44. This is difficult, busy music, and the '260s tracked it with ease, providing a layered, realistic presentation without any sense of congestion. The male voices on "Las Amarillas" had a natural, open sound, and the strummed and picked guitars had superb attack and layered decay. The midrange on this track was agile and fluid, and it served the male voices especially well. The rapid-fire vocals seemed like they were coming directly from a real pair of lips suspended in space. The image size was correct, and this album in particular reinforced what the '260s do best -- present real musicians in a simulation of the environment in which they originally recorded.
On Rimsky-Korsakovs Capriccio Espagnol from the Chicago Pro Musicas LHistoire Du Soldat [Reference Recordings RR-17], once again Im plunged into the hall where the music was recorded. This piece has some extremely extended highs, including flute and triangle, which helped highlight the smooth transition between the clear, articulate midrange and the detailed treble. These high-treble instruments are balanced a bit on the hot side on this recording, and the '260s presented them as such, with only the very slightest bit of euphonic sweetening. At times the highs exhibited some glare, which manifested itself as a hardening of cymbals and other percussive instruments such as triangle, but only when held to a very high standard. In the price range where the OMNI 260 is competing, the treble stands out for its ability to extend with clarity and without any significant sense of strain.
Down in the basement the OMNI 260s proved to be chameleons. When bass was required for pretty much any acoustic music, the bass appeared. In these instances it was well defined and extended. On Miles Davis Filles De Kilimanjaro [Columbia PC 9750], the bass had a rich, purring quality that was satisfying and appropriate for the music. Without some reach in the bass, this album loses much of its drive and meaning, and the '260s produced the goods here. The same goes for the loping bass line in Simple Minds "Colours Fly and Catherine Wheel" from New Gold Dream [A&M SP-64928]. The bass on this track came through just about right, and in some ways it makes me appreciate that some full-sized speakers can be a bit slow on their feet. Its leanness lends delicacy to the midbass and lower midrange, which highlights the attack of instruments such as the kickdrum rather than the bloom and overhang.
And these modest boxes can also put out low bass with reasonable authority, as I found out when I spun up "Nocturne" from DJ Foods Kaleidoscope [Ninja Tune, Zen 47]. This track has some low synthesizer pulses that the '260s reproduced with a room-energizing hum. While this low bass was never in danger of fooling me into thinking that I was listening to a subwoofer, it was certainly sufficient to get the musical message across, and was totally appropriate considering the promise made by the OMNI 260s full-size, floorstanding cabinets.
The flip side of this extended but rather lean bass is that the '260s lack somewhat in the areas of impact and slam. When I put on "Closing Time" from More Best of Leonard Cohen [Columbia CK 68636], the kickdrum and electric bass lacked weight and body, which served to diminish some of the drive and impact that underlies this tune. Cohens rich baritone also sounded a touch thin, which leads me to believe that, in my room at least, theres a bit of a dip in the upper bass where both his voice and much of the power in studio-recorded rock music lies. Remember, though, that this is a double-edged sword in a speaker of the '260s price -- if slamming rock is portrayed with ample Sturm und Drang, then delicate music such as the symphonic pieces I raved about earlier can be thickened to the point where they clog up and lose their musical meaning. Its a fine line, and the OMNI 260s walk it quite well, even if they do stray a little to the lean side.
One aspect of the OMNI 260s sound that will mean little to couch-bound audiophiles but may be of importance to more mobile significant others is this speakers ability to fill the entire room with music. In their advertising, Mirage makes much of the placement options of the OMNI speakers, but more important to me is the ability to place the listener anywhere in the room. I didnt notice this at first, as I usually just lower the tonearm and quickly scamper back to the middle of the couch. My wife, however, commented to me about how she loved being able to walk around the room and still hear a convincing stereo presentation. In addition to the stable imaging, the omnidirectional nature of the '260s means that sound actually does infuse the room in a way that is markedly different from that produced by a direct radiator.
Youd be hard-pressed to find two speakers that sound more different than the OMNI 260s and my Hales Transcendence Fives, even though theyre both dynamic floorstanders. The most significant area in which the Hales and Mirage speakers diverge is in their presentation of space. Good as they are, theres no way the six-times-the-price Hales can match the way the '260s craft a soundstage. With classical music in particular, the soundstage depth on the OMNI 260s was far more real and much easier to discern than via the Hales. On the Scheherazade, for instance, the position and size of instruments such as the horns were much more clearly delineated and required less of a suspension of disbelief in order to place them in real space.
The open, crisp quality of the '260s midrange was similar in tonal balance to that of the Hales. The '260s were a touch leaner through this area, which lent a nice snap to the sound, emphasizing the attack of instruments such as guitar and snare drum. This leanness occasionally added a bit of stridency to the '260s, especially up near the top of the midrange, which manifested itself as a slight hardening of instruments such as trumpets in comparison to the totally composed presentation of the Hales. Up through the treble, the '260s did well, but understandably they couldnt match the refinement of the ultra-smooth and detailed Hales speakers. The OMNI 260s dont reveal the utmost upper-frequency detail, but they do refrain from sounding coarse in the treble, which is an achievement for a speaker of their price.
The OMNI 260s are significantly smaller than my Hales Transcendence Fives, and their bass output isn't as great, as youd well imagine. There was still enough bass from the '260s, however, to get the musical message across. Art Davis fast, driving bass on "Birdlike" from Freddy Hubbards Ready For Freddy [Blue Note B1 7243 8 320904 1 5] was present, tight, and accurate through the '260s, with more of a diffuse sound than that presented by the Hales. The Mirages had less impact on this track than would be ideal, as evidenced by the more correct balance on the Hales speakers, but the bass solo did have a proper sense of size. The OMNI 260s slightly lean bass doesnt lack any drive though, as theres a distinctly rhythmic quality to it that serves jazz quite well.
The OMNI 260s have a lot to offer. Their ability to re-create the size and scale of a real acoustic event makes them an absolute bargain in this regard -- especially when you consider the clear, uncolored midrange and treble, which seem custom-made for strings and horns. And while the '260s are a touch lean in the bass, the fact that theyre fast, tuneful and accurate -- in a price bracket thats plagued by boom and slop -- shouldnt be overlooked.
Take a listen to the Mirage OMNI 260s, as their small footprint combined with their big sound makes them an achievement at a very reasonable price.
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