MOVIE PERFORMANCE The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe would challenge any speaker system to battle. Director Edward Zwick unleashes cannons, pistols, rifles, Gatling guns, swords, spears, and arrows. Samurai on thundering horses pound down the turf, with quite a few hitting the ground from a gallop. All in all, the multilayered sound design creates a whirl of aural motion. The Nanosats put me in the vortex of the action, whether on the streets of 1876 Yokohama or in frenzied battle scenes. There wasn't a hint of boxiness or the subtle edge distortion caused by the flat baffles of conventional speakers.
If I knew anything about metallurgy, the speakers might have given me clues to the alloys of each sword from listening to their furious collisions in the movie's numerous sword flights. The Nanosats revealed more than just a clank as swords met. First I heard them cleaving the air, then the initial impact, followed by the sound of metal sliding against metal, and finally the slight reverberation after they separated. Similarly, each gunshot was more than a simple bang or crack. The Nanosats reproduced these sounds with immediacy and transparency, which is one of the highest accolades I can bestow on a speaker.
About midway through the movie, during Cruise's internment in the samurai leader's mountain camp, the soundtrack telegraphs a thunderstorm before you see it. The thunder crack on my left - spread between the left front and surround speakers - was so convincing that I flinched. The rain that followed sounded delicate and pure, and voices were natural and really seemed to come from the images onscreen.
The Nano Sub won't break any leases or damage the china. It puts out authentic bass, but you won't feel it in your gut. Turning up its level control or placing it in a corner helps a bit, but the Nano Sub is more of a woofer than a sub woofer. It does, however, spare you the phony oomph heard from many subwoofers that pretend to go deeper into the bass.
MUSIC PERFORMANCE For stereo listening, I returned to Japan almost a century later for the Miles Davis Quintet recorded at Kohseinenkin Hall in Tokyo in 1964, from a new Columbia box set. The Nanosats sounded every bit as good with two-channel music as with surround sound movies. The imaging was remarkable, and I could discern Miles's embouchure on the mouthpiece of his trumpet. Ron Carter's bass was firm and assertive, with good definition. The speakers not only resolved musical detail but also faithfully reproduced the flaws of the original recordings. For example, I could hear tape hiss and subtle print-through from one layer of tape to the next.
To evaluate multichannel music on the Nanosats, I turned to Mr. Mellow, James Taylor, on the Super Audio CD of his Hourglass , but I had to tame the bass a notch. Taylor crooned straight from the center, but his brigade of accompanists were dispersed around the room. Even Clifford Carter's organ playing, which is pretty low in the mix, came through clearly. I felt naturally engulfed in the musical sound field, yet the instruments and voices remained distinct instead of fading into a wash.
BOTTOM LINE With its low price and good sound, Mirage's Nanosat system should be high on your audition list if you're interested in good-sounding home theater speakers but want to spend less than a grand. The satellites may look a little strange, but they focus your attention on the sound rather than their appearance and play loud enough to fill a decent-size room. Too bad they can't improve Tom Cruise's acting.
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