March 2000Waveform Mach MC Loudspeakers
by Doug Schneider
Without a doubt, the Waveform Mach MC is the most unique speaker that has ever entered my room. There is really no better way to describe it other than to say that it looks just like an egg. Flip it up, look under, look on the back, and then look from the side -- anyway you look at it, its the shape of an egg. The only thing different is the flattened front face that allows for the mounting of the drivers. Hit it hard, though, and it wont crack. This is one solid loudspeaker.
Founded some 15 years ago by John Ötvös, Waveform has pursued the state of the art by its own rules. Ötvös is still the sole owner of Waveform and is a master woodworker. The current lineup of speakers the company offers is the brainchild of Ötvös and Dr. Claude Fortier, who has been commissioned to design Waveforms speakers since 1994. The result is some unusual but carefully thought-out loudspeakers.
All Waveform products are available factory-direct only, and Waveform has special policies to help accommodate this type of selling. The Mach MC is priced at $2170 per pair without grilles or stands, but comes with a "dish" so the speaker can sit properly atop a flat surface (the bottom side of the speaker is rounded too). Custom stands are available from Waveform for $495 per pair to hold the Mach MC at the optimal height. There is also a built-in upgrade feature for the Mach MC -- the separate MC.1 subwoofer that reportedly extends the bass to below 30Hz. I hope to explore the $2470-per-pair MC.1s in the months to come. For this review, though, only the Mach MCs were evaluated.
The shape of things to come?
The Mach MC is Waveform's first bookshelf-sized speaker and is derived from the companys flagship Mach 17, which also employs the "egg" for its midrange/tweeter enclosure. The Mach 17 is a full-range floorstanding loudspeaker replete with active external crossover and wooden bass cabinet. In the case of the Mach MC, the same egg shape has been used with a passive crossover in order to make the speaker a self-sufficient minimonitor. It can be used for two-channel home audio and, because it is magnetically shielded, as part of a multichannel speaker system near a video display. Special mounting brackets are also available for those who wish to hang it on a wall or from the ceiling.
The construction of this egg so intrigued me that I immediately quizzed John Ötvös about it. The egg is actually made of high-tensile aluminum and finished with a powder coating. Without a doubt its unusual look will find admirers and detractors, as well as those in between. I quite like it. Close inspection reveals the enclosure to be beautifully made, with a unique black scale-like finish. Right up there with the Merlin TSM-SE and Mirage MRM-1, this is one of the best-finished minimonitors Ive had here.
The choice of the egg shape is not just for looks. It is the performance characteristics of the cabinet shape that the company extols. Waveform products are designed for wide and even dispersion, meaning excellent off-axis performance. The egg shape helps the speakers achieve this through minimizing cabinet diffraction. Also inherent in the design is exceptional rigidity and freedom from resonance, which can be tested with some hard knuckle raps. Even when playing music at high volume, the speakers have hardly any vibration on the outside of their cabinets. This undoubtedly accounts for at least some the speakers outstanding neutrality, which Ill expand on in a bit.
Although it may appear fairly small in pictures, the Mach MC is rather large and quite heavy. It measures almost 12" in diameter and is more than 15" tall with a weight of 27 pounds. The bass/midrange driver is a 5" polypropylene unit that sits directly below a 1" soft-dome tweeter. Although this woofer may look identical to the driver used in the companys floorstanding loudspeakers, the Mach 17 and the Mach Solo, it is different. The floorstanders are three-way designs and have separate larger woofers for bass frequencies. The five-inch driver used in those speakers is one that is optimized for midrange frequencies and not meant to woof like this one.
The company rates the frequency response of the Mach MC as 85Hz to 20kHz +/- 1dB (measured anechoically). In-room response is rated down to 70Hz, and by 60Hz the March MC is reportedly down 10dB. The crossover is a fourth-order design (24dB per octave), the efficiency is rated at 84.5dB (again under anechoic conditions), and the impedance is quoted at a nominal 8 ohms. Good-quality binding posts are mounted on the back and are a little tricky to get at due to the rounded nature of the cabinet. The speaker is not necessarily hard to drive, but you should use a high-quality amplifier with respectable power. Anything from 50Wpc to 100Wpc should suffice.
I evaluated the Mach MC in my reference system: Theta Data transport, Bel Canto DAC1, Blue Circle Audio BC3 Galatea preamplifier and BC22 stereo amplifier. All interconnects were by Nirvana Audio. For speaker cabling, I used Nirvanas S-L series and also tried a new wire design from newcomer Analysis Plus, the Silver Oval. For stands I used the ones for the Mirage MRM-1 since these put the Mach MCs at the right ear height. However, despite the excellent quality of these stands, they are not going to likely be the choice for prospective buyers since they are specifically designed to match the MRM-1 sonically and aesthetically. Visually they are an oddball combination with the Mach MC. Consumers will likely want to either talk to the people at Waveform about their stands (which look quite nice in the pictures Ive seen) or look for other high-quality units.
It was not hard to hear upon first listen what the speakers strongest attributes are. Played within its limits, the Mach MC is a very neutral, natural and open-sounding loudspeaker with a high level of transparency, detail and resolution of space. High frequencies sparkle with excellent extension and are never edgy or bright. Midrange and upper-bass performance is neither prominent nor recessed, but perfectly balanced in between. Most importantly, within its frequency range, the Mach MC sounds wholly natural. Speakers that exhibit this type of neutrality tend not to be ones that jump out at you. Instead, their honest portrayal tends to grow on you, and thats what happened here. Bass performance seemed a tad lighter than that of other similar speakers, but the speaker did not sound thin or light. Given its modest size, the Mach MC fleshes out quite nicely in a small to medium-sized room.
Its been a while since Ive listened to Bob Dylans Oh Mercy [Columbia CK 45281], which is a good recording to judge the merits of loudspeakers. Ive used it off and on for many years. This Daniel Lanois-produced disc is not as liquid as some of the best-sounding discs today, and some hardness does come through the midrange at times, but it does have a very robust and gutsy sound, as well as a highly detailed soundscape. Through the Mach MCs, Dylans closely miked voice has all the presence and detail as ever but not the chesty or bloated character that Ive heard through lesser speakers. Ive heard these same tracks sound overly warm and unclear on speakers that have resonance problems at certain frequencies. There was absolutely no problem here.
I also found that the Mach MC doesnt thrust vocals (or other dominant instruments for that matter) into your lap as with some speakers that sound too forward in the mids. Instead, vocals are portrayed as extremely balanced-sounding -- this means neutral and natural with outstanding tonal qualities and low coloration. Its neither laid back nor forward, but ideally in the middle. Detail and resolution are high and very similar in this regard to the excellent Merlin TSM-SE's performance. Both would be outstanding recording monitors because of their detail, transparency and neutrality. But the easy-going character the Mach MC exhibits is also reminiscent of the Cliffhanger CHS-2, Mirage MRM-1 and Shamrock Eire. All these speakers, incidentally, are some of my favorite monitors due to their collection of attributes, which combine good real-room performance with outstanding retrieval of detail and correct tonal accuracy.
The Mach MC sounded so good on the Dylan album I cranked track five, "Man in the Long Black Coat," up far beyond what I would call my normal listening level to see just how hard and loud I could push the Mach MC. This cut, in particular, has Dylans voice very closely miked and with a potent amount of midrange energy. On poor systems, this can exacerbate various problems in midrange region, usually through severe cabinet resonance or driver distortion. At very loud levels the voice and harmonica became just a tad edgy as the MCs drivers were pushed closer to their limits, but the speaker still sounded very good. I learned that the Mach MC can play very loud, but like almost all small monitors, beyond 95dB or so some trouble sets in. Still, even at these unrealistic levels, there was an absence of chestiness and wooliness that plague lesser speakers and far less distortion than through most speakers of this size. Easing off the volume just a bit to what was still much louder than I normally listen eliminated the problems and resulted in clean, effortless and very detailed sound.
A wide variety of music
Some audiophiles thumb their noses at the notion of playing hard-rock recordings on high-end systems, particularly when evaluating the systems. Although I could go on a long diatribe about this, in a nutshell, I dont agree. Just like Ive heard speakers that can play rock and pop recordings and not be able to do acoustics instruments properly, Ive found the opposite to be true too. Truth be told, hard-rock recordings, replete with screaming electric guitars and butt-kicking drums, can reveal if a speaker can really boogie. More importantly, many people like to listen to this type of music at home, and prospective buyers should know if a speaker can actually reproduce it well. After all, a speaker that cant play all types of music has some serious flaws. And most certainly, if a speaker is touted as neutral, as the Mach MC is, it should play anything.
I like to use three tracks on The Tragically Hips Day for Night [MCA MCASD11140]. "Fire in the Hole" screams with relentless guitars and singer Gordon Downeys vocal rage. The Mach MCs conveyed it all very well at some pretty decent volume levels, but on the down side did not have the bottom-end kick of the drums or the large-scale dynamics like Ive heard with some speakers. This is not surprising, though, as the Mach MC is still a small speaker. "So Hard Done By" has an infectious bass-guitar line that the Mach MCs traced nicely, albeit not as low and deep as some speakers, but tight and in control. As well, on this track the drums were recorded with a reverberant, almost rubbery quality, and the Mach MCs brought out that detail nicely. "Nautical Disaster" was much like "Fire in the Hole." Guitars had the edge and clarity that made them sound realistic, and the voice was distinct and believable, but again, a little bit of bottom-end slam was absent.
Moving on to The Whos Whos Next [MCA MCASD-11269] proved much the same as when I played The Hip, so I need not go into the track-by-track detail. What I will say is that regardless of music type that I threw at the Mach MCs, they handled it all admirably, which they should. In short, the Mach MCs on their own (i.e., without the MC.1) may not have the kick and drive and lifelike dynamics of much bigger speakers, but like other good minimonitors, they are neutral enough performers to do more than enough justice to driving rock music, even at quite loud listening levels.
Moving on to something a little more accessible, this time highlighting female vocal, Jewels Joy: A Holiday Collection [Atlantic CD 83250] is a pretty good recording of Christmas tunes and has a wispy but clean capturing of Jewel's voice. The Mach MC did not add any of its own brightness as Ive heard from poor-performing dome tweeters. Instead, it laid out a smooth, easy and expansive presentation. As it does with male voice, the Mach MC portrays female voice with a silky, even quality that comes across as neutral, natural and, most importantly, realistic. I would suspect that due to the very low amount of coloration in its sound, the MC's frequency-response and distortion measurements will reveal that this speaker exhibits an exceptionally flat response with very low distortion.
The Mach MC does not appear to have any deceiving humps or bumps in its bass response that can either excite room boundaries or lend an artificial sense of bass extension. With a wide variety of music I found bass performance to be good, with excellent detail and control, but the actual depth (in terms of frequency response) the speaker reaches is the main limitation in what is otherwise an outstanding monitor. "Falls," from Ennio Morricones orchestral soundtrack to The Mission [Virgin CDV2402 ], does not necessarily have really deep bass, but it does have a very solid and weighty foundation that is only hinted at with the Mach MC. It is not driven home with weight and impact like I hear with other speakers -- even some small speakers. Drums have respectable weight and impact, but again, they dont have slam or real depth that big woofers give. The Mach MC fleshes out decently enough with good weight to its credit. It never sounds thin, but instruments like piano and bass guitar seemed shelved off and somewhat muted in comparison to the sound of bigger speakers.
Criticisms like this one should be considered in light of the fact that what the speaker does here is not surprising since it is only a 5" driver in what is still a relatively small cabinet. You should read this to understand what you gain and give up when dealing with small speakers. As well, there are certain compromises made when designing a speaker like the MC. For example, small speakers such as the Mirage MRM-1 and Speaker Art Clef series all do better in terms of bass depth and weight. However, it should be noted that those speakers are not really meant to mate with a subwoofer. The Mach MC is, and therein lies an enormous difference to consider when shopping for small loudspeakers. If you want a small speaker without ever intending to use a subwoofer, then a speaker optimized for low-end performance is probably the best bet. On the other hand, a speaker like the Mach MC may be a bit bass shy in comparison, but its strength lies in the upgrade path with the MC.1 subwoofer. Any criticisms I have of the bass performance may become a moot point with the MC.1 in the picture. My advice for small-speaker shopping is to plan up front for what you want later.
A huuuuuuuge soundstage
The last area of performance that Ill discuss is one of the strongest for this already capable loudspeaker. The MCs' ability to throw a wide and deep soundstage(!) is simply outstanding. They may look a little odd and stick out visually, but sonically they disappear. Whats left is an expanse of sound that belies their size. In terms of sheer width and depth, theyre among the very best Ive heard.
Various choral tracks on The Mission were portrayed with an enormous presence that spanned wall to wall and with almost endless depth. The opening track, "On Earth as it is in Heaven," is a large-scale choral piece with a huge stage. Although the recording itself is only so-so in terms of sonic quality, the ability to hear into this particular track and dissect the expanse of voices and instruments was excellent.
On "Hour Follows Hour" from Ani DiFrancos Not a Pretty Girl [Righteous Babe Records RBR007-D], the percussion is placed just off to the right but way to the back of the hall. The voice, though, is front and centered. Through the MCs, the voice is firmly placed, perhaps not razor-sharp, but solid and with the drums distinctly far behind. I mean farrrrrrrrr behind. Similar things are heard on "32 Flavors" from the same disc. At the end of this particular track there is some percussion and a tambourine heard at different points in the stage. Through the Mach MCs, the layers of depth are easily discernible, and the image seems to extend beyond each speakers edge. I can go on and on, but suffice it to say that its performance in this area is nothing short of outstanding.
On its own the Mach MC exhibits an exceedingly honest and natural character that I can summarize in one word -- neutral. Is this due to the egg shape that Ötvös claims is the perfect shape for a loudspeaker enclosure? I simply can't say for sure. However, I can say this speaker sounds right, uncolored and, most of all, great on a wide variety of music. It gives an honest presentation that is appreciated over time. If the MC.1 subwoofer integrates ideally with the MC and if it offers the same level of performance quality as the MC alone, I would guess that the combination would make for one of the most formidable full-range loudspeakers you can buy for under $5000. However, these are big "ifs" at the moment, so consider this just my own speculation. But you can be sure its something that Ill be pursuing in the future.
John Ötvös has long trumpeted the virtues of his loudspeakers' measured accuracy. Unfortunately, some audiophiles dont make the connection between accuracy and neutrality. And even if they do, they often dont associate that with musicality. In my estimation, all three terms can go hand in hand, and the Mach MC proves it. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the MC and came away far more impressed than I thought I would be given the number of high-quality minimonitors Ive listened to over the last couple of years. Its not easy for a company to bring out a small speaker and have it compete with the best. The Mach MC does.
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