Mini to the Max

Throughout my professional audio career I have owned, heard, and loved countless 2-way loudspeakers. So many classics, some experimental ones, and certainly some of the most well-regarded and legendary 2-ways have caressed my ears and heart over the past 20+ years. And after several months of listening, testing, prodding, pushing, and becoming utterly immersed in their magic, I have fallen for a loudspeaker that, out of habit, I would ordinarily (prejudicially) have rejected as an impossible contender.

 

Oswald’s Mill Audio “Mini”

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Photo Credit: Cynthia van Elk

Last September, Jonathan Weiss (OMA’s visionary leader) lent a pair of his Mini loudspeakers to me just prior to my coming up to NY and PA for a visit. My aim on that visit was to find out what makes Oswald’s Mill Audio tick, and to look at the world behind the curtain, so to speak. This on the heels of having a very unlikely (and extraordinary) experience the preceding April, at the end of the New York Audio Show. If you’ve read parts ONE and TWO of my Down The Rabbit Hole series (part 3 in the works …), you’ll have some background on this already. Now it is five months and hundreds of hours of listening later, and I’m ready to share what I’ve experienced with you.

Let’s begin with a wag of the finger: Audiophiles tend to look at a well-designed product and automatically think that it can’t possibly sound good. I remember having to battle this unreasonable bias when I was importing Davone loudspeakers from Denmark. They had the look of very finely designed and extremely well made Scandinavian furniture, which meant to the audiophile that they couldn’t possibly perform very well (and this was FAR from the case, as the reviews indicated). Nevertheless, it seemed always to be a battle to get past deeply flawed “audiophile wisdom” (and the bratty plugging of ears) and let the performance register and speak for itself. I suppose this prejudice would be even more evident for OMA products, especially the Mini, as they appear to have been designed to make aesthetic statements rather than designed for performance. My own initial reaction to them on first sight, and before hearing them, was exactly that – so don’t think for a moment that I’m pointing fingers away from myself! Although I thought I held myself apart from this, my gut reaction to seeing the Mini last April proved I was not quite cured of it.

It might surprise you to find out, then, that the look of an OMA loudspeaker is the LAST thing addressed in the process, not the first. In my conversations and emails with Weiss, he laid bare the process by which an OMA loudspeaker is born – in this case, the Mini is explained:

“Bill Woods and I discuss a problem or a raise a salient question. In the case of the Mini, the question was: “why are there no small two way horn systems?” Then there follows some exhaustive computer modeling, searching for appropriate drivers, modeling horn size, flare, enclosure volume, networks, etc. – very methodical. A rough model is then built to test assumptions. Once we find that we are on the right track from the acoustic design standpoint, I go to [industrial designer] David Imperio and we try and figure out how to create a design that looks like something someone would want to have in their living room – even if they are not an audiophile, and yet it has to perform sonically, and be able to be made without too much pain and suffering.”

This brings into relief something of an irony, in a way. If one examines the history of the compact 2-way monitor, one inevitably lands at ground zero: Edgar Villchur’s invention of the acoustic suspension loudspeaker and the ultimate miniaturization of Hi Fi for the home. It was kind of a massive compromise, getting all of that sound into such a small box, and it had a massive tradeoff – namely: the need for an enormous (10x) increase in amplification power because of the utter loss of sensitivity. The irony, looking backwards, is that the AR monitor was essentially a Hi Fi “lifestyle” loudspeaker for the home – less about “fidelity” per se and more about compactness, convenience, and affordability. [For more information on Villchur and his invention, please see this AES article: Villchur ]

So as we look at the endless sea of compact 2-way monitors that comprise the industry-catalogue of offerings, from the least expensive to the most unreasonable, and even to three-way and larger systems, it becomes apparent that they are genetically related to that first “lifestyle” loudspeaker that Villchur invented back in the early 1950’s. The much larger and more expensive corner-horn loudspeakers that had found their way into more affluent homes thanks, in part, to the work of  Paul Voight and O.P. Lowther – these were far less compromised, but few people had the room or the money to enjoy them.

Jonathan Weiss and Bill Woods found the answer to their original query as to why there weren’t any small 2-way horn systems and set off to create a hybrid design that would split the difference between the high efficiency of more classical horn designs and the compactness of post-Villchur designs: combine a horn tweeter with a modern midbass driver in a bass-reflex box. Some sensitivity would be lost, but they found a reasonably sensitive midbass driver that had the LF extension they wanted. The process of combining these elements seamlessly was something of a struggle, but the ultimate product of that struggle was a loudspeaker that was high-design and truly high-fidelity. The Mini has almost escaped notice by the Hi Fi industry generally, but it hasn’t escaped the notice of the mainstream press at all. Weiss comments,

“What resulted from that process, with the Mini, has gotten more press than any other OMA speaker. More real [mainstream] press than any speaker I know of, actually. Last year alone, Mini was a Men’s Journal pick in their top 100 issue, Interior Design Magazine featured it for the ICFF show, Mini was chosen for the Wired Pop Up Store, appeared in GQ, and so many more. This is the kind of press that audiophile companies complain that they aren’t getting.”

Indeed. From CESes, to Stereophile shows, to regional shows like RMAF, THE Newport, AXPONA, Capital Audio Fest, etc. this is always one conversation that comes up as a tireless quandary – “How can we get our industry to appeal to people outside of our industry?” Countless schemes for special interest groups have been proposed, a few even launched, and it always seems to result in the same outcome: individual players are far too concerned with how they will benefit specifically and individually such that they cannot see the forest for the trees and participate for the good of the industry as a whole. I believe the euphemism is, “Trying to herd cats.”

OMA operates outside the dysfunctional familia-sagrada of High End Audio and for its efforts it has been rewarded with recognition from some of the most well regarded design magazines in the world but, ironically, has garnered so very little attention from the people for whom their sonic accomplishments should actually matter most. Part of the reason for this is, that after having been briefly exposed to it, Weiss is not at all interested in paying and playing into the sort-of Tammany-Hall political atmosphere of this little corner of the consumer electronics industry. Likewise, few industry players have extended the invitation to begin with. It’s a shame, really, because the readers and enthusiasts who might find OMA products supremely and surprisingly satisfying are still being fed meat from the descendants of Villchur (et al) and have very little idea how delightful these alternative options can be.

So I’ve set about trying to correct that situation, if only just a little bit, realizing that THFR doesn’t have the reach of a Stereophile or, to a lesser degree, The Absolute Sound. Still – I’ll share my experiences with you in the hopes that it might have been worth your while to read – and to share (wink wink, nudge nudge).

 

Enter The Mini…

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My room is moderately sized, essentially 15′ wide by 23′ long with 8′ high ceilings. It was converted into a music room from an in-law apartment that was added to the house about 10 years before we purchased it. The front 3/4 of the room has tatami-mats on the floor (a gift from my friend, Michelle), otherwise the floor is covered with blue shag carpet (medium pile). I do not have anything on the walls to absorb, reflect, refract, or diffuse. Along the front wall you’ll find 3 IKEA Expedit record shelves (2×4 oriented horizontally), and behind the listening system there are two more of these racks stacked and filled with records. That is the extent to which I have any sound-modifying furniture or fixtures dispensed in my room. I have found little need nor use for sound absorbers as, in my (considerable) experience I feel that they rob the music of dynamic life.

I’ve got the Minis set up rather close to the side walls, roughly 2 feet, in order to take advantage of some proximity effect in the low-frequency region. Thanks to the constant-directivity of the tweeter horn and its relatively narrow dispersion, a modest toe-in allows me to dial out reflections from the side walls – eliminating the danger of first reflections that ordinary two-ways would otherwise be susceptible to suffering from so close a proximity to the side-wall. They are otherwise set up in an equilateral triangle with respect to the listening position – 10 feet between tweeter center, and ten feet between speaker and listening position.

95dB Sensitivity

This is probably the most sensitive loudspeaker I’ve ever had in my system, entirely because I have never before found a horn loudspeaker that I liked enough to listen to for a very long time. I understand why a lot of people love the horn sound – the immediacy is very addicting – but there is a quality to typical horns that I cannot abide, namely their papery honkiness, and so I’ve never invited one into my home before. From what I’ve understood, this characteristic is due to distortions caused by the various flare-rates of the shapes on high and mid frequency horns. OMA’s use of conical horns is said to have neutralized and/or otherwise avoided this tendency to be “shouty” – a point which has been contested by some highly opinionated hobbyists in internet-forumland. Notwithstanding the bazillion opinions one might unearth when trolling the various enthusiast forums, I found upon first listen last April that the OMA loudspeakers did not honk or shout at me at all, unlike the myriad other horns I’ve heard over the last 20+ years, and so I’m satisfied with Weiss’ explanation based on what I’ve heard with my own ears.

However, because this is a two way that incorporates a more-or-less conventional pro-midwoofer in a bass-reflex box, the full sensitivity of the tweeter had to be padded down in order to match the sensitivity of the woofer. That means a moderately-high sensitivity of 95dB, which is still plenty sensitive to benefit from the delights of flea-watt tubes, as you may have read in my coverage of the Woo Audio 234 Monobloc and its 2 watt 45 SET output option.

Photo Credit: Cynthia van Elk

Photo Credit: Cynthia van Elk

On Conical Horns…

Weiss has horn-expert Bill Woods design the horns for their loudspeakers as particular for the drivers that were specified for each design. These horn designs are then cast at one of two foundries – one in Pennsylvania and the other in Virginia – and are proprietary to OMA. For the larger mid and bass horns, the casting is complimented by extensions crafted from hardwood – usually Pennsylvania Walnut. I asked him what makes the conical horn more desirable than the more customarily flared horns, and his reply was short and sweet:

“Constant directivity is a huge plus with conical (straight wall) horns- as long as the horn is “loaded” the full spectrum will be directed uniformly over the area defined by the horn’s flare. With curved horns, this does not happen- they beam with rising frequency response. The main reason our conicals don’t sound like horns is very simple- no constriction at the throat. They are open, where all curved wall horns are closed down at the throat, to increase loading and efficiency (and SIZE- they are thus much smaller than conicals.) That constriction is most of where the colorations come from. The rest come from the inherent diffraction caused by a spherical wave propagated by the driver seeing a bending wall instead of a straight wall.”

This helps to explain the differences I’ve heard between the more popular flared-horn types and the OMA-style conical (straight wall) horns. I can say without exception, as I have listened to every official model of OMA loudspeaker, that these horns do not sound like horns at all – there is no honking or shouting. What remains is an ease and effortlessness that makes other loudspeaker types, specifically dynamic speakers, sound asleep at the wheel. One other point that Weiss raises is also important when parsing the differences between ordinary speakers and horn speakers: because horns have a constant, narrow dispersion field it doesn’t require a tremendous amount of effort to ensure that the energy is directed to the listener and not to the walls. This means that the “near field” for listening is naturally much larger than it would be for dynamic types that have much wider dispersion.

In the case of the Mini, this is true for the frequencies being propagated by the tweeter horn, but not so much for those being projected by the dynamic woofer. In fact, when I first saw the Mini at Jonathan’s NYC loft last April, I was certain that it would sound like a hot mess. The speed and articulation of the horn vs. the high-mass plodding of the midwoofer in a bass-reflex box would almost certainly spell DISASTER; yet it was such a compelling performance that I was enraptured – and so I remain.

Style vs. Substance

Photo Credit: Cynthia van Elk

Photo Credit: Cynthia van Elk

Weiss is, perhaps foremost, an aesthete more concerned with the communication of beauty through art than he is concerned with the obsessive compulsions of audiophilistic status-seeking. To look at the Mini is to see, condensed in a visual statement, a philosophy respecting the sculptural aspects of loudspeakers as objets d’art – and not mere sound-projecting appliances. You may or may not be hip to the design itself, but it is obvious that these are manifestations of an authentic vision and not garden-variety MDF boxes made in China or Indonesia.

Weiss has aimed OMA’s intended market at high-end, luxury lifestyle types – the sort of people who are naturally appreciative of (and can afford) beautifully-designed and painstakingly-made things. Be these things watches, paintings, sculptures, furniture, cars, clothing, etc – they’re not shopping at Marshalls or Target, and they are not pestering anyone for discounts. OMA’s loudspeakers, electronics, and turntables all have individual personalities with regard to their designs. The Mini is quite a different design statement from the Monarch, the AC-1, or the Imperia. As a matter of style I actually love the Mini’s design, but a good friend of mine who visited (and who was shocked into delicious disbelief when he heard them) nevertheless was not fond of it, preferring the sprawling wooden beauty of the Monarch.

All of this is not to say, however, that this is all beauty and no brains. As you may have ascertained from some of my remarks, the Mini is an accomplishment in sonic performance that is not to be overlooked simply because it has an obvious visual style about it. As Weiss explained above, the performance was designed into the Mini well before they made their aesthetic choices – making certain that the final design wouldn’t compromise the prime directive of the Mini to project beautiful music.

But as I’ve suggested, this is not a loudspeaker for neurotic audiophile types seeking approval or staking out status-points from among their peers. The chances that one might find a pair of these on eBay or Audiogon are only slightly higher than the chances of one finagling a discount from OMA, and both are higher than one’s chances of OMA accepting some manner of trade-in of your old (audiophile approved brand, MDF/veneered) loudspeakers toward a pair of these. In this way, perhaps, Weiss thinks of OMA as a destination – not as a waypoint on a journey – and so it requires a rethinking or complete abandonment of these sorts of habitual audiophile expectations.

But further to the non-audiophile sentiment, I should explain this: the Mini will not fulfill an audiophile’s totemistic fantasies about the typical laundry-list of sound-effects. Yes, the vernacular will certainly apply if you’re so focused on imaging, soundstaging, depth, width, PRAT, dynamics, impact, detail, presence, palpability, naturalness, and on and on … but if that is where your mind is heading, then you might not be prepared for a loudspeaker like the Mini. One doesn’t go to a live music event and think about imaging, soundstaging, detail, presence, blah blah blah … one just gets immersed in the wholeness of the event. In much the same way, the Mini (and the other OMA loudspeakers that I’ve heard) are “eventful” – or to borrow a word my favorite shaman, Gizmo: the Mini has a “wholeosity” about it that no particular parsing of portions can suffice to describe or reveal.

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There’s a Latin expression – Ne Plus Ultra – which basically translates to the quality of being as good as it gets, a profound attainment. Nothing comes after Ne Plus Ultra, there is no room left for competition, there can be only one. The apex, the apogee, the zenith, the crown. In terms of what it is that I want out of a loudspeaker – in fact, some things I never knew I wanted – “Mini” delivers the goods in every possible way. If you love tube amplification, and especially if you love great SET amplification, and especially especially if you love great flea-watt SET amplification … OMA’s “Mini” should be considered as an obligatory audition.

OMA’s “Mini” 2-way loudspeaker is, for me, everything a 2-way monitor should be while being none of what a 2-way monitor shouldn’t be. It is as refined and musical a performer as I’ve heard, but it is not at all an “audiophile” loudspeaker — this is for graduates (escapees) of audiophilism, those who have made it out relatively intact, who are done screwing around with trade-ins and trade-ups and trade-acrosses, who can no longer engage in the neurotic magazine-myth-chasing, and who finally want to settle on a “sunset” system that will play music beautifully for the rest of their lives – and they can just invest the rest of their time and mad-money buying and listening to wonderful music.

 

>>> $21,000.00/pair <<<

 

By true high-end standards this shouldn’t be a shocking price. Magico’s Mini swept the audiophile world by surprise with a compact, dynamic 2-way acoustic suspension monitor for $20k back in 2005 ($30,000.00 for the Mini II a few years later). While there was some public grousing here and there, the customer for whom the Magico Mini was intended understood, appreciated, purchased and enjoyed it. Now we have a new “Mini” to talk about, and once you encounter it you’ll realize that, while all of audiophiledom has been Zigging for the last 40 years, Oswald’s Mill Audio has managed to Zag in the most delightfully surprising way.

You’ll have to hear it for yourself to truly understand, but in several very important ways (as compared to the doyens and behemoths strutting at up to ten times the price) the OMA Mini can shamelessly stand toe-to-toe with the “best” in the industry. You may think that this is just hyperbole-soaked reviewer-speak. You would be entirely mistaken.

If you are at all an aficionado of tube amplification, and especially low-watt SET amplification, the Mini should be at the top of your very short list for audition. But be prepared – if the Mini hits you in your heart that way it has hit me in mine, you will probably turn your back on the Groundhog-Day sameness of typical audiophilia with its magazine-myths and monthly king-making routines and just settle down for a lifetime of music. The Mini has a way of shifting your priorities, if you let it.

Past follies become evident, and future delight – imminent.

 

Oswalds Mill Audio Mini Loudspeaker

$21,000/pair

www.oswaldsmillaudio.com

 

Some Associated Gear:

A few brief notes about associated gear.

AMPLIFIERS: I used the Klimo TINE monblocs (40w/ch EL34 PP), the Woo Audio 234 Monoblocs (2, 4, 8w with 45, 2A3, and 300B tubes SET), and the ridiculouslyu good for the money Clones Audio 25i integrated amplifier (a gaincard clone “chip amp” for under $1k). The flavor-differences between amps and individual tubes were easily discernible, but the Mini always came shining through beautifully.

PREAMP: With the TINE monoblocs I used the Klimo Merlino Gold Plus preamplifier (with Thor outboard power supply).

TURNTABLES: Klimo Beorde with Soundsmith “Boheme” cartridge and MMP4 phonopre || Continuum Caliburn with Soundsmith “Hyperion” cartridge and MCP2 phonopre.

Although I’ve heard the Mini with OMA’s “Parallax” integrated amplifier while at Jonathan’s NYC loft, I’d love to have a chance to hear it “in situ” in my own listening environment – perhaps at a later time this will be possible, but my impression during my visit was very positive.

 

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