Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab
318 N. Laflin Street
Chicago, IL 60607-1006 USA
Purchases made through Music Direct
Bookshelf loudspeakers with 1.25 silk dome tweeter and 6.5 mica/kevlar impregnated paper cone; shielded; sensitivity 88 dB; 6 ohms; bi-wire capable; weight 20 pounds; measuring 12.5H x 8W x 14.5D; 10 year warranty; $300 upcharge for rosewood or sycamore, $500 more in walnut high gloss (see pictures on website). Music Direct now owns Mobile Fidelity, so all the products are sold directly through them.
Musical Fidelity A308 Integrated Amplifier and A308 CD player, Audioquest cables, Lovan Affiniti 24 and Premier SS-26 stands; Bowers & Wilkins 705 loudspeakers ($1500) and Von Schweikert VR-1 loudspeakers ($1000) for comparison.
Break-in took place over a 4 week period. I ran the speakers with movie and music sound in a two-channel configuration. The speakers come with small metal cones or rubber feet that can be stuck onto the bottom of the speakers. I didn't use either and chose to put the speakers on stands. The speakers are solid and the binding posts on the back are very impressive. I left the shorting bars for bi-wiring in place during the review. I used speaker wire with both spade and banana connectors with no trouble.
Right out of the box the speaker design looked familiar although the representative from Mobile Fidelity assured me that the drivers, crossover, and cabinet were tweaked/designed specifically for their purposes. The original design was intended for use as a monitor in their mastering room. Apparently, they felt the design was so good that it should be marketed to the end-user. When I showed the speakers to an audiophile buddy he said, "Hey, those look like the Von Schweikerts!" I happened to have a chance to check out a set of VR-1s and there were definitely some similarities. The bass driver looks almost identical and the tweeter looks similiar except for four extra screws. The cabinet height and width are identical and the port in the back is not only the same shape and size, but in the same location in the cabinet. They are also both manufactured in China. The one obvious physical difference is that the OML-1 has a larger angled front baffle. And later, I found out the second big difference...the sound.
Listening Test I -- OML-1 vs. VR-1
Since I had access to the VR-1 and the designs seemed to be superficially similiar, I thought I might as well make some listening comparisons. I began with track 4, "Santa Monica," from Everclear's Sparkle and Fade. A friend and I did most of the listening together and he helped to switch speaker cables back and forth for me and I for him. The VR-1 produced more sibilance on the voice and sounded slightly nasal and congested in the midrange. There appeared to be less definition and air overall. There was an added richness to the guitars that was pleasing, however. The OML-1's did not have as much power on the accompanying guitars, but the lead guitar clearly sounded better than on the VR-1. The voice was dead center and very clean. I felt I was missing a little low end and with music with prodigious amounts of deep bass (or in large rooms), I would recommend the addition of a subwoofer. Mid- and upper-bass sounded fine, and even at higher levels I didn't hear any strange distortions in the bass region. Due to the fact that the voice sounded less colored and the sense of space and air was better on the OML-1, the slight added richness was not enough of a reason to prefer the VR-1.
The next track I listened to was "Infatuation," track 6, off of Christina Aguilera's Stripped CD. The VR-1's were slightly shouty in the voice, and there appeared to be an emphasis in the midrange on this track just like the first. The bass was not as well defined as with the Mobile Fidelity speakers and the presentation was not nearly as open sounding. The OML-1's had better imaging, voice was more natural, and there was a feeling that more information was being retrieved from the recording. This track clearly demonstrated the superiority of the OML-1's, and at this point I realized I would have to look for a more worthy contender.
Listening Test II -- OML-1 vs. 705
Bowers and Wilkins have always had a fine reputation and have produced many good monitor (i.e. smaller-sized) speakers. The 705's are the newest model in the series that used to be called CDM. They are more expensive than the OML-1 in the black finish, but are equivalent in price when the OML-1 is purchased in the gloss walnut. Right away I was encouraged by how close in many ways the speakers both sounded.
I put on track 6, "Rudy," from my MFSL recording of Supertramp's Crime of the Century. The B&W speaker has a larger cabinet, and this resulted in slightly improved low-bass performance. There was an added richness in the midrange imparted by the speaker that sweetened the sound in this area in a pleasing way. In fact, the whole frequency range sounded a little richer and smoother. I wouldn't say it is veiled, but in some ways softened perhaps. I was surprised when I switched to the OML-1's. I was expecting a much larger difference than I heard. Vocals on the Mobile Fidelity speakers were crystal clear--glassy. At higher levels there was a very slight strain on the speakers than seemed to reduce their presence. By comparison, when the B&W's got louder, they just got loud. The bass on the OML-1 was very impressive given its size.
I listened to two different tracks from Atlantic Jazz: Best Of The '60s, Volume 1. The first one was Les McCann singing and playing piano on "With These Hands." The second one was "Equinox" by John Coltrane. The OML-1's were slightly laid back in comparison to a slightly more upfront sound produced by the 705's. In my notes I wrote that there was less added to the voice when listening through the OML-1's, but this made the speaker less involving. The piano in certain parts of the record (although somewhat badly recorded) came across more clearly with the 705's. Image size was a bit smaller than with the B&W's. The sound was unemphasized, however the cymbals (for some reason) did not sound as convincing as with the 705's. With the 705 there was a feeling of softened high frequencies, but voice was richer and fuller. An extra bit of presence and larger soundstage made the sound seemed less confined.
I switched over to classical music and put on a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Brahms, Ein Deutsches Requiem op. 45. I did most of the listening with the first track. The OML-1's produced a sound that was controlled and polite, almost like what you expect from a typical British mini-monitor--very delicate and clean. There was a good sense of space. The B&W 705 did NOT sound like a typical British mini-monitor and sounded big and bold. At the same time, tonally, the speaker reminded me of a warm blanket, the choral group comes in and comforts and warms you.
With part II, "Forlane" from Le Tombeau de Couperin by Ravel off a London CD I noted that the OML-1's did not deliver as rich a presentation as the 705's, but my notes read: "Totally believable." Some listeners may prefer a sweeter sound, but the design of the Mobile Fidelity OML-1 is clearly not to emphasize or de-emphasize any particular range of sound. Similiarly, on track 3, "Whenever I Say Your Name," from Sting's Sacred Love CD I felt the OML-1's were not as lush as the B&W's, and a little dryer on the vocals. The percussion on this track sounded exceptionally clean with the Mobile Fidelity speakers.
In many ways the OML-1 represents a bargain. It stood head to head with a more expensive speaker in many aspects of performance. Mobile Fidelity has accomplished exactly what they were after--an accurate reproducer that does not unduly color the sound. So, sure enough, it works extremely well as a small monitor speaker, and will also find a happy home for people who value accuracy and trueness of sound. For those looking for a little boost here, a little cut there, you will need to look elsewhere or depend on upstream electronics to affect that change.
-- Brian Bloom