June 2003Mirage OMNI 60 Loudspeakers
by Doug Schneider
If youre well versed in the history of Canadian speaker manufacturer Mirage, you cant help but remember the M1 loudspeaker of the late 80s. The M1 was a point of departure -- for Mirage and for loudspeakers in general. The front- and rear-mounted driver array of the M1 -- an effective doubling up of drivers, all operating in phase -- flat out changed the way we thought about loudspeakers. The M1 did cause a bit of head-scratching. Many audiophiles wondered aloud, "How can a speaker radiate toward and away from the listener and still sound good? With all that sound going every which way, shouldnt the M1 sound slow, blurry, and indistinct -- or at the very least, odd?" The Mirage M1 most certainly didnt sound odd; in fact, it sounded quite miraculous.
But there is a reason for this. Whether its in a concert hall or in our listening room, the sound we hear at the listening position is a combination of direct and reflected sound, all arriving in a short-enough timeframe that we hear it as a single event. And even forward-firing loudspeakers, which generate sound mostly in front of them, do radiate to their sides and rear as well. Regardless of the loudspeaker technology, the combined radiation of sound from the front, side, rear or where have you is heard at the listening position. When creating the M1, Mirage used that knowledge, in turn creating a loudspeaker that worked with the room like few others before it.
But building a speaker like the M1 isnt cheap; just look at the more expensive Mirage OM series even today -- these speakers still use front- and rear-firing drivers and complex cabinets to create the dispersion of sound that is Mirage's goal. All those parts add to the cost, and thats what has kept Mirages Omnipolar technology out of reach for budget-conscious audiophiles -- until now.
Fifteen years after the birth of the M1, obviously inspiration struck at Mirage headquarters in the form of technology that squeezes a 360-degree radiation pattern from a single two-driver array. The first design using this technology was the groundbreaking OMNISAT, which I reviewed as part of the OMNISAT 6 home-theater speaker system at SoundStage! Network sister site Home Theater & Sound. This design was such a success that Mirage saw value in extending the concept beyond that initial small speaker. The $600 USD OMNI 60s are second up in the new OMNI series speakers and should be considered by anyone intrigued by Omnipolar sound but previously unable to afford it.
Achieving 360-degree dispersion from a two-driver system certainly isnt easy, but when you look at the ingenious way Mirage went about doing it -- by constructing a sloping baffle to angle the 6 1/2" Pure Titanium Deposit Hybrid woofer back just right, and then firing the woofer and the 1" Pure Titanium Hybrid tweeter upward into what they call an OmniGuide -- it almost forces you to say, "Why didnt I think of that?" I can only say that even if you had thought of it, you would have only been at step one. Step two would have been as much, if not more, work.
Take a close look at the OmniGuide from the side and youll see that the drivers are not centered perfectly under it -- the midpoint of the Guide is back a touch from the middle of each driver. Thats deliberate, not a manufacturing mistake. Then theres the precise angle at which the OmniGuide is set, not to mention the shape of the Guide itself. Deliberate again, and Im willing to bet that a bunch of guys with pocket protectors burned the midnight oil getting it to work as desired. But they pulled it off -- remarkably well, in fact.
What Mirage has created is a 360-degree-dispersion speaker with a bias toward the front. In other words, the OMNI 60 doesnt disperse its sound evenly around the cabinet -- thats why the drivers are slanted and the OmniGuide is positioned the way it is. The goal is to get a smooth dispersion pattern over 360 degrees with somewhat more energy to the front of the speaker. This, Mirage says, sounds more natural than the dispersion of other omnidirectional speakers that fire sound evenly in all directions.
Certainly, the unique technology takes a bit to wrap your head around, but there are more conventional aspects to the OMNI 60s design. As with all other speakers, the OMNI 60 has a traditional crossover, with the tweeter handing off to the woofer at about 2kHz. The nominal impedance is 8 ohms, and theres a 4-ohm dip in the bass. On the back of the speaker there is a single set of high-quality five-way binding posts. On the front there is a large port that helps increase bass response.
The OMNI 60s frequency response is said to be 45Hz to 20kHz +/- 3dB. Sensitivity is said to be 91dB "in-room." However, in terms of the measurements, things get a little wonky again, mostly because of the way the speaker distributes its sound.
Quite literally capping off the OMNI 60s is a nifty two-piece grille that is again a little unconventional, but only unconventional to make the speaker look more conventional. In fact, its not so much a grille as it is a hood that you first snap on the top and then snap on the front. Once installed, it makes the rather space-age-looking OMNI 60s into a sleeker and more normal-looking design. In fact, all decked out with their grilles and in either the black or cherry vinyl veneer with gray trim that they come in, the 16"H x 9"W x 12"D OMNI 60s are one of the sharper-looking speakers Ive seen at their price.
I first used the OMNI 60s with Simaudios 100Wpc i-3 integrated amplifier. The amply powered i-3 charged the speakers up with ease. Although I never planned to use the OMNI 60s with tube-based electronics, when I finished my auditioning of the Von Schweikert VR-1 loudspeakers one day and found myself with speaker wires dangling from Zanden Audios 30Wpc Model 600 amplifier, I couldnt resist connecting the OMNI 60s. Despite the modest power rating of the Zanden Model 600, it worked just fine, indicating to me that the OMNI 60s are reasonably sensitive and not all that difficult a load. Would I go for an ultra-low-powered amp of, say, 20Wpc or less? Likely not -- the OMNI 60 isnt a high-efficiency design. But as I said, 30 watts did seem adequate in my modestly sized room. Other equipment included the Simaudio Nova CD player along with a mish-mash of Nirvana Audio and Maple Audio Works cables.
You have to take some care setting up the OMNI 60 speakers, but this differs somewhat from setting up a conventional loudspeaker. You do want to get these speakers fairly close to boundaries to help reinforce the bass -- they are pretty small and have limited output down low -- but you dont want to get them too close and "suffocate" them because they need to breathe a bit. And you dont want to get them too far from the walls because they need those walls to reflect the sound. Remember, these speakers need to use the room. When placing the speakers, I left about two feet to each side, about three feet behind, and raised the OMNI 60s onto a pair of 24"-high stands, which were ideal for my room and listening position. I used some Blu-Tack to couple the OMNI 60s to the stands, as I do for most speakers I review.
Sound: part one
The OMNI 60s are a radical design, so its not surprising, then, that they sound quite a bit different from other speakers, regardless of price. Suffice it to say, they are distinct -- and heres how.
Frankly, at first its hard to get a grip on the OMNI 60s tonal balance and other attributes until you get over what they do with space. By that I mean how they fill the confines of your room with sound. Ive heard many speakers "disappear" and provide a collage of sound -- most notably the other Mirage speakers Ive reviewed in the past, such as the OM-7s and the OMNISATs, along with just a handful of others like Von Schweikerts new VR-1 that I just reviewed. But even those speakers dont do space as successfully as the OMNI 60s do.
I put Glenn Goulds A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1981 [Sony Classical 87703] in the Simaudio player and let 'er rip. Other than the visual clues of the speakers themselves -- along with the obvious fact that with a stereo recording the sound is emanating from a source ahead of your listening position -- this is not some surround-sound miracle from just two speakers. The OMNI 60s effectively vanished without any of that "the sound is coming from here and there" that plagues most conventional speakers. On went the soundtrack to the movie The Mission [Virgin 90567-2] and out came a chorus with dimensions that far outsized my room. The OMNI 60 isnt as hyper-precise in terms of floating its images as something like the Focus Audio Signature FS-688 (which, by the way, are $2600 per pair) or even the VR-1 (closer priced at $995 per pair), so I couldnt necessarily pick out each singer with a laser pointer, but the OMNI 60s are not loose or obscure in any way. The images are reasonably specific and easy to discern, but its the size of the stage that is so inspiring.
I obviously enjoyed being immersed by the OMNI 60s spacious sound and this, understandably, is one of the designs strengths. In fact, once you hear the spaciousness you may be so overwhelmed that youll rush out to get the OMNI 60s based on that alone. However, its important to listen to them for a while. Even though I lost my Omnipolar virginity some years ago, it still took me some time to get used to the unique sound of the OMNI 60s, and it was after that point I could make better judgments about the speakers' other characteristics.
Sound: part two
Mirage speakers of the late 80s and early 90s were often characterized as dark -- meaning weighty on the bottom, full through most everywhere, but rather subdued on the top. While the OMNI 60s arent all that weighty -- they are a fairly small two-way design, after all, with reasonable-but-certainly-not-extraordinary bass extension -- their room-filling sound helps them to sound fuller, and the high frequencies are anything but subdued.
When the top end of Goulds piano was struck, the high-frequency extension seemed good without any type of obvious roll-off occurring. The sound was also clear, detailed, and precise without ever being irritating or edgy. Of course, this is quite a pristine-sounding recording -- lots of systems sound good with it -- so I wanted to also try the OMNI 60s with a recording that has a little more edge. The Very Best of Cat Stevens [A&M 541387] is a clear-sounding album, but also one with a digitally top end that can act as razor blades in your ears through cheap-sounding tweeters. The OMNI 60s are smooth, clean, detailed, and certainly not fatiguing even on recordings like this. Certainly, they show the flaws and dont mask them, but they dont exacerbate them at all either, and thats important. Given the reasonable price the OMNI 60s sell for, I was nothing but impressed at how their tweeter behaves.
As I said, the bass of the OMNI 60s isnt all that deep. However, the speakers go much deeper than the lower-priced, smaller-sized OMNISATs, which require a subwoofer to flesh them out and make them usable for music listening and movie watching. What the OMNI 60s lack in bass depth they make up for in strength along with a round and bloomy type of sound that adds fullness to the bottom end. This was apparent on Norah Jones "Come Away with Me" (Come Away with Me [Blue Note 32088]). The OMNI 60s dont have the same kind of depth and rattle-ya detail that larger speakers have, and that extra bit of bloom does obscure low-end detail some, but the roundness down low is also pleasant, and it certainly keeps the speaker from sounding thin and subwoofer-needy.
So unlike the OMNISATs, the OMNI 60s have enough bass to satisfy a good number of music listeners, including myself; but still, I must warn you that if you do have a predilection for truly deep, rumble-your-butt-off bass, look to add a sub -- simple as that. In Mirages world, there is no shortage. I use their $500 LF-150 with the OMNISATs as part of the OMNISAT 6 package, and I find it to give tight, tuneful, butt-rumbling bass suitable for quite a large room. Theres also a less expensive and smaller LF-100.
I was impressed to find the OMNI 60s midrange largely neutral-sounding -- neither laid-back nor forward. This was a pleasant surprise given how vast the stage they set is and how much image depth you can get. Oftentimes when a speaker has exceptional depth, I also find it to be noticeably recessed in the mids. Not so with the OMNI 60s; they can place voices starkly and clearly, neither up front nor recessed. The one caveat, though, is a bit of a hollow sound, particularly on voices, and, for example, the lower end of a guitar. With either Lou Reeds or John Cales voices on Songs for Drella [Warner Brothers 26205] it manifested itself with cuppiness and chestiness that room placement and system fine-tuning couldnt quite cure. With female vocals like Ani DiFranco's on Evolve [Righteous Babe Records RBR030-D] there wasnt the chestiness, but the slight cuppy quality was still apparent.
Is this a fault of Mirages innovative OMNI technology? I dont think so. First, the OMNISATs dont do it. Second, I made a point of feeling the cabinet when the speaker was playing male vocals. The cabinet walls resonate a little bit, unlike the cabinet of the ultra-dense OMNISAT, which does not, and Im thinking that this may be contributing to that slight coloration I hear with the OMNI 60s. It more or less points to that age-old problem of only being able to make a wood-based cabinet so dead when the speaker is priced as reasonably as this one is.
Similar, but different
Playing the Von Schweikert VR-1 and the OMNI 60 side by side is interesting, but shouldnt be considered an apples-to-apples comparison given that the $995 VR-1 costs much more than the OMNI 60s. What this exercise does, though, is effectively demonstrate the differences between two good bookshelf loudspeakers using different technologies -- although it should also be pointed out that even though the VR-1 is a front-firer, the company designs it to be a wide-dispersion speaker, with goals similar to those that Mirage is trying to achieve.
Visually, the two speakers illustrate conventional versus radical design. The OMNI 60 is space-age looking. The wood-clad VR-1, even though it is finished very nicely, looks far less adventurous. Its the OMNI 60s, frankly, that will get people looking. Sonically, though, they have more in common than their appearance would indicate.
Both speakers charge a room with sound evenly. Once properly set up, both speakers sound good from all over the place, not just from the head-in-the-vise center spot. And as you move around the room, the tonal balance stays largely the same, which speaks quite well for the more traditional VR-1, but its the Omnipolar OMNI 60s that stay almost exactly the same wherever you go -- and thats the strength of the Omnipolar technology. Walk to the front, sides, and even behind the OMNI 60s -- its disconcerting how little the sound changes, and no other speakers I know of other than those from Mirage and some 360-degree radiators do that. So while the VR-1s stay impressively similar throughout the room, they just cant match the OMNI 60s, particularly when you get behind the speakers. And like its little brother, the OMNISAT, the OMNI 60 is uncanny in how directionless it sounds even when you get close to it. Theres an eerie non-specificness as it radiates sound, even at close range, and that contributes to the miraculous ability to disappear.
Both the VR-1 and OMNI 60 speakers sound bigger than their dimensions let on. In my review of the VR-1, I applauded the speaker for its room-swelling presentation, but as I said, the OMNI 60 gets the edge in terms of spaciousness. The OMNI 60s put music throughout the room in an amazing way. The VR-1 counters, though, with deeper and punchier bass. That deeper bass means you can get away without using a sub with the VR-1. Remember, though, that the VR-1 costs almost double the price of the OMNI 60s. For more money, Mirage does make the OMNI 250 and OMNI 260 floorstanding speakers, and these would make for a fairer comparison.
The next biggest difference comes in terms of immediacy. The VR-1, like many front-firing speakers, sounds more lively and visceral, particularly in the midrange and top end. The imaging, while not necessarily more spacious, is also more precise. While I dont characterize the OMNI 60 as laid-back, its certainly not as in your face as most traditional front-firing speakers, including the VR-1. As I said earlier, with such a radical design as the OMNI 60, its not surprising to also encounter a sonic signature that is a fair bit different from the competition's.
Mirages 2002 release of the $500/pair OMNISATs marked the debut of 360-radiating-type loudspeakers into the "affordable" speaker arena; however, for all intents and purposes, the OMNISAT needs a subwoofer and cant be called a standalone speaker system. Its the OMNI 60 (and lower-priced, smaller OMNI 50, too), then, that really marks the beginnings of Omnipolar technology at a price where more people can partake of it.
The OMNI 60 has certain things in common with good-quality front-firing speakers, but by virtue of its technology, it has an easily identifiable signature. The strengths of this design are a very spacious sound that can fill a room as few other speakers can, and also a surprisingly neutral presentation given the unique technology. Add to these the refined-sounding top end and the distinctive looks and you have a speaker that grabs attention.
So if you are shopping for two-way bookshelf-type speakers around $600 in price, try to at least hear these or the others in the OMNI lineup before you buy something else. These OMNI speakers may have you rethinking how a loudspeaker should be designed, much like the M1 did back in the late 80s.
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