Some people love subwoofers, while others consider them the work of the devil, a mid-fi abomination. Certainly, bad subwoofers dominate the genre, but the advent of home theatre has made them all but unavoidable.
And their very ubiquity has pushed the price down...and the quality in the same direction. Make no mistake, any subwoofer has a tough job to do. For the grim details, read Paul Bergman's article Reproducing Extreme Lows in this issue.
Paying $400 for a subwoofer is probably just trouble, we figure, but what if you have a little more money? Our favorite subwoofers cost C$2000 up (way up as a point of fact), so what can you expect for half that price?
Audio Products International, the parent company of Mirage, has lots of experience building products to a price. Though it does have cost-is-no-object speakers as well, it has often used its large plant and its buying power to turn out products its competitors can't match (if only because API also build the speakers of many of its competitors).
And on the face of it Mirage is offering a lot of subwoofer for not much money. Inside is a pair of 19 cm woofers in a bipolar configuration (that's what the "BP" in the model name means), fed from a 100 watt amplifier. There are many inputs and outputs, with connectors that are better than the price would encourage you to expect (binding posts, not guillotines), and enough controls to do nearly anything you may want to do (see Setting Up the Subwoofer). The finish is gorgeous, with a piano black top and a non-removable grille cloth (except with scissors, maybe). The bottom is threaded for either rubber feet or spikes, both of which are included. As is common with subwoofers, this one shuts down its amplifier when there has been no signal for a while. It "wakes up" when it senses a signal. Because no amplifier we know of sounds the same warm and cold, we wished there were an "always on" option, even though Greenpeace wouldn't agree.
To evaluate this inexpensive subwoofer, we devised no fewer than three tests. Each test was done with three recordings: Fanfare for the Common Man (Reference Recordings RR-93CD), 76 Trombones from Beachcomber (RR-62CD) and Papa John from You Can't Take My Blues (Audioquest AQHD1041). Though the three sound quite different, all have considerable content at very low frequency, and not at microlevels either!
The first test
You may be familiar with our Reference 3a Suprema speakers. Each speaker consists of a hefty two-way speaker sitting atop its own subwoofer, each of which contains a pair of push-pull carbon fibre drivers. These two subs add about C$10,000 to the price of the Royal Master -- essentially the Suprema minus the subwoofers. We disconnected them and brought in the Mirage instead. We were aware that we were replacing an expensive product with one a tenth of the price.
To do this, we did not filter the feed to the Suprema tops, because they simply don't need it. We set the sub's crossover to 50 Hz, which is exactly where the Suprema's own subs go to work. With only a few minutes of experimentation, we got the other controls set where we wanted them.
The Fanfare is a speaker killer, with powerful, extended lows. Played through the full Supremas at anything above background level, it is almost scary. We were surprised to hear how well the Mirage coped with all that sound. It didn't quite have the same refinement, nor did the lows occupy the same volume as they had with our full reference speakers, but nor did they either cover up the music or add anything unmusical to the mix. There was no sign of softness or bloat, and the bottom end remained solid.
Gerard noted a problem, however, one which we would hear throughout these tests: an added roughness to the midrange and the highs. This roughness was not the fault of the subwoofer, since we had set it to operate below 50 Hz. Rather it was due to the way we were forced to do the installation.
Here's why. Our Copland CTA-301 preamplifier is linked to our Moon W-5 power amplifier by a pair of Pierre Gabriel ML-1 cables, which lock onto both units with WBT connectors. To use the subwoofer the way we were using it, we had to use an adapter (our own FYA gold-on-brass-with Teflon adapters) and a second cable, also a Pierre Gabriel. This is all good stuff, but it's added stuff, and it weakens the integrity of the connections. Our system is of high enough resolution to allow us to hear the connectors. Considering the growing popularity of both subwoofers and biamplification, we wish preamplifiers came with two or even three sets of outputs, as some do (Linn preamps are an example).
That detail aside, the Mirage did just beautifully on 76 Trombones which was nothing less than superb. The heavy-duty percussion came through in exemplary fashion. "I would have written more if it weren't so good," said Albert, "but I hardly wrote anything."
This inexpensive subwoofer also did well with the Doug MacLeod song, which sounded clean and clear, its rhythmic line not slowed a bit. The very bottom end, where some of the percussion and the bass do their work, were noticeably less varied, suggesting that a bit of cabinet coloration was covering up their timbres, but we have to emphasize that this coloration was minor. The overall effect was truly excellent.
We now suspected that the BPS-150i would do very well with more conventional speakers...and our next mission was to confirm it.
The second test
It is of course obvious that no one would actually buy such a subwoofer as a substitute for the Supremas' more capable subs, so it was time to try it with speakers to which it really could be matched. We selected the Reference 3a MM De Capos (see the full review in this issue), a lower-cost version of the top part of the Supremas. Since these speakers use essentially the same drivers as the Supremas, we set the Mirage up pretty much the same way, made some minor adjustments, and ran through our discs again. (Complete result in the print issue)
The third test
The De Capos are so capable that they could expect only minor help from a subwoofer, at least on most recordings. However there are some small and excellent speakers that can really use the backing. It's doubly important for some of them, because their small dimensions give them other advantages, such as the quickness, absence of resonances, and the ability to project a lifelike 3-D image.
For our final test, then, we brought out just such a speaker, the long-discontinued Elipson 1400. This tiny unit, barely larger than the Totem Model One -- and with a smaller woofer -- still sounds wonderful, but of course recordings with large amounts of low frequency energy can embarrass it. Not only can it not reproduce very low notes, but the bass energy will make the small woofer cone flap, muddying all of the music.
This time, then, we used the BPS150i's optional crossover network, rolling off the feed to the Elipsons below 100 Hz. And of course we set the subwoofer to take over at that frequency. A few adjustments later, we were ready to go.
Model: Mirage BPS150i
Warranty: One year with bill of sale
Dimensions: 48 x 42 x 40 cm
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