Microphase Audio Design SAT MK1 Loudspeaker Review
Microphase Audio Design
SAT MK1 Loudspeaker
AUD $1,980 RRP
Microphase Audio Design is an Australian loudspeaker manufacturer operated by Jean-Marie Lière, a passionate Frenchman with a strong technical background in electronics and acoustics. Before Jean-Marie moved to Australia some twenty-five years ago, he started out helping his friends and work colleagues prototyping DIY loudspeakers. The fact that he worked at Hewlett Packard and had access to massively expensive test equipment certainly helped.
This was back around 1978, and in a time when mini hi-fi systems from Aiwa and others were starting to become popular. Jean-Marie admitted that while the electronics were fine, the Japanese loudspeakers that usually accompanied those systems didn't marry well with European tastes. So he began work on a small loudspeaker using French Audax drivers. Finding that they were not quite what he needed, Jean-Marie approached Audax regarding the construction of custom drivers, with a redesigned cone and stronger magnet, voice coils and adding a phase plug.
To his amazement, Audax agreed, and the Microphase SAT was born around 1984. This proved a real commercial success, with units sold throughout France, Germany, Belgium and Scandinavia to many happy homes. Also, because of the speaker's speed, accuracy and quality, it was used by radio stations, record pressing plants and recording studios. Some variants were active, with an amplifier built-in.
About five years ago, Jean-Marie brought out the SAT MK1, the subject of this review and successor to the original SAT model. It costs $1,980 and is sold directly from Microphase Audio Design (or M.A.D.), bypassing the middle man that would significantly inflate the purchase price.
The SAT MK1 is a two-way bass-reflex mini monitor made from marine grade birch plywood sourced from Finland. It allows the cabinet to be very dense and stiff for its size and is the polar opposite to the thinner-walled BBC monitor designs. It is smaller than I anticipated being 210x210x145mm or about the size of a two-slice toaster. The main driver is 110mm, and the tweeter is a bespoke 25mm silk dome. The crossover frequency is quoted as 4kHz using a Linkwitz-Riley crossover with a gentle 6dB/octave slope.
Incidentally, Audax adapted many of the upgrades that Jean-Marie requested many years ago into their standard range, but again he has used bespoke custom drivers from Audax with the new range. Mandatory is the use of paper cones for the woofer. Jean-Marie told me that he strongly prefers paper because they sound better than most other materials, especially for their given price. “Paper has no equivalent due to its stiffness, lightness, simplicity. The way it's made, it is natural and homogenous and unlike many materials, it doesn't have a life (or additional unwanted sound) of its own.”
Jean-Marie has gone to great lengths to ensure that the SAT MK1 is smooth and uniform right across the entire frequency range, and also important is time alignment between the drivers. Having two drivers with the characteristics that you require is handy, along with careful and yet not overly complicated crossover design helps gets the job done. The small paper membrane woofer has little mass and is fast to respond to inputs. Having a fast slew rate aids detail retrieval, dynamics and provides realistic transients. An inert and rigid cabinet allows the drivers to operate as they were designed.
The birch cabinet has a clear polyurethane finish and looks smart. The grill that covers the woofer is magnetically attached and can be easily removed. At the rear are multi-way binding posts made from brass and accept bare wire, banana or spade connections.
The SAT MK1 is surprisingly efficient with a claimed 90dB/1W/1m, which is unusual for a loudspeaker of this size. Frequency response is said to be 60Hz to 25kHz +/-6 dB, so there isn't any ground thumping bass energy. Microphase Audio Design has a matched subwoofer available for those that require more, but it wasn't supplied as part of this review. Nominal impedance is rated at 4 ohms, with the curve staying between 2 and 5 ohms – so you'll need a sturdy solid-state amplifier. I used a Leema Acoustics Quasar integrated without any problems.
This little loudspeaker needs careful alignment to give off its best. I ended adding small stick-on plastic cones under the cabinet, and each speaker was positioned 10cm from the rear wall, facing straight ahead with no toe-in. As you'd expect for a mini monitor, small-to-medium sized listening rooms are best.
The SAT MK1 is a lovely, smooth-sounding loudspeaker with surprisingly few vices. True to the ethos of a great a mini monitor, it has plenty of detail, insight and get-up-and-go. For example, the Linos Piano Trio playing Bach's Piano Trio No. 5 in E Minor produced a highly detailed rendition of the piano and string instruments, with decent speed and fine instrumental separation.
Tonally there's little added warmth or colour coming from the cabinet, but that's not to say it has a hard and brittle character. Although this little speaker does sound lean at times, it's pretty close to neutral, so if there is warmth present on the recording, you'll hear it. Midband proved capable of delivering vocals very well, with the treble in much the same manner. Female artists like Norah Jones and Carly Simon sounded wonderful, as did the male voices of Nick Cave and Thom Yorke.
The introduction to Lana Del Ray's Not All Who Wander Are Lost features just vocals and guitar, but the speaker's fine detail retrieval let me hear when her vocal was overdubbed, doubled and then doubled again. Lesser loudspeakers don't have this level of transparency and openness to reveal all that is going on. Crop Circles by Tash Sultana gave another example of the clear and defined nature of the assorted instruments.
Being a standmounter, there isn't much low bass energy below 90Hz (the approximate -3db point), but the roll off down from the midrange is smooth and even. The Game is Over by Evanescence sounded dynamic, this speaker focusing on replaying Amy Lee's vocal and the electric guitar rather than the kick drum or bass guitar.
Creep by Radiohead is one of my go-to tracks for timing, and the SAT MK1 didn't disappoint. I heard genuine speed from the two small drive units, with rhythmic cohesion between the cymbals, snare and kick drum within the recording space, along with their attack and decay. Naturally, the speaker's dynamic capability is somewhat limited by the small surface area of the mid/bass unit. However, it is still respectable – but you don't buy this sort of box to power nightclubs.
Jamming by Bob Marley and The Wailers produced a great vibe with a “get up and boogie” type physical reaction. These M.A.D. loudspeakers love to be driven by a powerful amplifier with decent current capability. I swapped out a Leema Acoustics Pulse IV with a rated 80W into 8 ohms for the more powerful Quasar with a rated 180W, and the sound certainly benefited from the extra control and punch of the bigger amp. With sensible use, an even gutsier amplifier would not be out of bounds.
Spatiality is another highlight of this mini-monitor. Your Precious Love by Marvin Gaye had an outstandingly large and deep soundstage that extended around a metre beyond the boundary of the speakers. Marvin's voice was focused front and centre, but well forward of the instruments. Indeed they really suit a turntable – my original pressing of Did I Hear You Say You Love Me by Stevie Wonder had a holographic soundstage with an excellent front-to-back depth perspective with tangible graduations. Everything came together with the live recording of Beethoven's Triple Concerto & Symphony No. 7 featuring Anne-Sophie Mutter, Yo-Yo Ma and Daniel Barenboim. The soundstage was massive, with each instrument given a specific place within the panorama.
The Microphase Audio Design SAT MK1 is a quality loudspeaker that's capable of reproducing music with all of its emotion intact, allowing a performance to speak to your heart. My suggestion would be to match a pair with a musical and powerful amplifier, preferably in a relatively compact listening space. I can understand why it appeals to the pro-market as a recording studio monitor, as it's highly revealing of musical nuances. An audition is a must. To Jean-Marie Lière I say, “monsieur, you have produced a winner.”
Starting his first audio consultancy business in the early ’80s whilst also working professionally in the electronics industry, Mark now splits his time between professional reviewing and AV consultancy.