Review: Magnepan MGMC1 / MGCC2 - by John Potis - April 2002
In January of this year, I reviewed Magnepan’s MG1.6/QR / MGCC2 / MGMC1 home-theater speaker system for our sister publication Home Theater & Sound. In that review, I started off with a short introduction to Magnepan as a company, but I seriously doubt that many readers of SoundStage! are unfamiliar with Magnepan. They are makers of some of the most unique and highly regarded speakers around. They have some of the most loyal customers you will likely encounter and a very established network of dealers. If Magnepan is new to you, I urge you to read the factory-tour article here on SoundStage! for an introduction.
|A taste of state-of-the-art performance at a very affordable price.|
The speakers Magnepan produces are like no other you are likely to encounter. Called Magneplanars, the speakers vary in height and width, but once you are familiar with one model, you will instantly recognize others as being from the same family. Unlike conventional box/dynamic loudspeakers that use the speaker enclosure to reinforce the sound created by the drivers, Magneplanar flat panels couple directly to the air, producing sound waves that propagate in a dipolar radiation pattern -- which is to say from the front and back of the panels equally, yet out of phase.
The panels themselves consist of a 0.5 mil Mylar diaphragm bonded to current-carrying wire conductors, which are "driven" by permanent bar magnets spaced behind the diaphragm. The phenomenally light diaphragm is propelled by the reaction between the current and the magnets, generating sound with its vibrations. Magnepan has teamed this quasi-ribbon magnetic-panel technology with what they call a quasi-ribbon tweeter. The difference between the true ribbon tweeter found on Magnepan models further up the price scale and the quasi-ribbon used in the system under review is that where the quasi-ribbon tweeter has the current-carrying conductor mounted to the Mylar membrane, with a true ribbon, the free-floating (suspended within the magnetic field) current-carrying conductor is actually what vibrates to create the sound. "I won't need a lifeline for that question, Regis."
The home-theater speaker system from Magnepan that I reviewed had a retail price of $3350 USD. I concluded the review with the declaration that this high-resolution system raised the bar for me in terms of what I expected from home-theater sound. However, for this review, SoundStage! decided to assemble a multichannel music system and knock the price of entry down to a paltry $2400 by omitting the full-range Magneplanar 1.6/QR and substituting a second pair of Magnepan’s new MGMC1, which did necessitate the inclusion of a subwoofer and its associated cost (see the sidebar to this review).
|Sound||"Make the room come alive" with "balanced, detailed and musically lithe performance that is completely free of the speaker"; "system transparency far exceeds anything else at the $2400 price point."|
|Features||Planar-magnetic panels with quasi-ribbon tweeters that, in the case of the MGMC1, can be wall mounted and swing out of the way when not in use; multiple grille-cloth/finish options.|
|Use||Requires a powerful amplifier as well as the Magneplanar-specific Outlaw Audio ICBM for bass-management duties.|
|Value||"The affordable system with which you can elevate your enjoyment of Dolby Digital, DTS and Dolby Pro Logic II material now..." and "standing ready to take you to the next level."|
At each corner of this multichannel ensemble is the new MGMC1, $750 per pair, a small panel (by Magneplanar standards) measuring 46"H x 10 1/4"W x 1"D and weighing in at 10 pounds. Magnepan rates the MGMC1 as having a frequency response of 80Hz-24kHz +/- 3dB with the stipulation that the MGMC1 must be placed within very close proximity to a wall for bass reinforcement (more on this later). Magnepan also specifies an 86dB efficiency as well as a 4-ohm impedance. Recommended power for the MGMC1 is between 40 and 200 watts. Its crossover point is 1300Hz.
The MGMC1 can be mounted on stands designed specifically for them and available at extra cost, or they can be wall-mounted via an included hinged bracket system that allows the speaker to be positioned flush against the wall when not in use. Very smart.
Anchoring the system is another new design from Magnepan. With the realization that the center speaker is the most important speaker in any surround system, Magnepan set out to create a center-channel speaker fully up to the task. But the first barrier they encountered was the one of necessary bass and dynamics versus the limited size of the speaker that will likely be found perched on the top of a TV set. Their goal of remaining true to the Magnepan philosophy of eschewing dynamic drivers (cones and domes) and designing a center-channel identical in both spirit and sound to the Magneplanar line made the task even more difficult. What they came up with was the $1,199 MGCC2, another two-way speaker that utilizes the quasi-ribbon tweeter, which in this case is crossed over to the bass panel at 750Hz and extends to 18kHz. But unlike any Magneplanar to date, the MGCC2 features a curved diaphragm designed to widen dispersion in the horizontal plane in order to deliver full-spectrum sound to a wide array of seated listeners. The MGCC2 is 10 1/2" high by 36" wide by a maximum depth (in the center) of 8". It weighs in at 22 pounds, which makes it light considering its size.
Though large by center-speaker standards, by Magneplanar standards, the MGCC2 is still rather small, and the laws of physics being what they are, a small planar-magnetic speaker can either produce bass or be dynamic, but not both. So in order to maximize dynamics, Magnepan made a decision to limit bass. How limited? Try 160Hz. Interestingly, neither the MGCC2 nor the MGMC1 use any form of high-pass filtering. Rather the tension exerted on the speakers’ membranes acts as a sort of mechanical high-pass filter; below the speakers’ limits, they simply do not respond to the input signal, making it improbable to overdrive them with too low a frequency.
Still, the problem remained that Magnepan needed to find a solution for filling in the gap between most surround processors’ standard 80Hz filter and the MGCC2’s octave-higher 160Hz limit. Magnepan went to Internet-based Outlaw Audio and negotiated for the creation of a Magneplanar-specific version of Outlaw’s Integrated Controlled Bass Manager (ICBM). Purchased separately for $325, the Maggie-specific ICBM offers a selectable high-pass-filtered center-channel output appropriate for use with the MGCC2. With selectable filter settings as high as 240Hz (the frequency labels on the ICBM are unchanged from the regular version, but Magneplanar owners will know that actual values are double those noted on the ICBM panel), the ICBM actually filters out the bass frequencies that would be destined for the MGCC2 and "recombines" those filtered frequencies into the front right and left speakers (recommended to retain the proper timbre and center imaging), or directs them to a subwoofer, or directs them to both. Outlaw Audio’s standard ICBM is a full-featured bass-management system that is extremely flexible and sonically transparent. As discussed by Jeff Fritz in his SoundStage! review, it is just about mandatory for multichannel DVD-A and SACD music systems given the horrendous omission of any kind of bass management.
Both the MGMC1 and MGCC2 are available with a variety of grille colors and wood-trim finishes (as is the entire Magneplanar line). These, along with wall-mounting, makes it all the more possible to fit the five-speaker system into a living room or family room -- and thus the lives of its owners.
For my home-theater review, I set the Magneplanar speakers up in a more or less perfect room. But few of us have perfect rooms, and my own family room is about as imperfect as any, so it was here that I decided to install the Magneplanars for this multichannel-music review. One half of my room is part of a recent addition to the house and the other part is original. The problem is that when the room was expanded, portions of load-bearing walls could not be removed, so I’ve got three partial walls jutting out from what is the front of my room. You can imagine how those walls would break up those reflections intended for re-radiation back into the room.
What I found was that largely due to the presence of a center-channel speaker, this room worked remarkably well with the MGMC1/MGCC2 system. As a matter of fact, the left partial wall gave me the perfect place to hang the front left MGMC1. For narrow rooms, Magnepan suggests hanging the speakers from the right and left walls with the rear speakers hanging the same way but at a 30-degree angle behind the listener. My room is much too wide for this as the left side of the room flows into an open kitchen. So I was forced to hang the rear speakers on the rear wall, which not only worked very well but also looked great. I placed the MGCC2 on top of my TV with Vibrapods underneath.
Having used similar systems in two different rooms, I found that final settings on the Magneplanar-specific ICBM may vary as they are somewhat dependent on the room. I settled on a center-channel setting of 200Hz with the rear-mounted Recombine toggle engaged (which routes bass signals to the front speakers). Settings for the front and rear channels were 80Hz and 60Hz respectively.
Given the low prices of the speakers under review, Magnepan’s Wendell Diller was eager for me to give the system a go with, shall we say, less-than-top-shelf electronics. I was amenable because one of the things I found in the previous review was that these Magneplanars are remarkably forgiving of electronics. So detailed, liquid and transparent are these speakers that as long as your electronics are without glaring flaws of their own, the Magneplanars will combine to give you a product with a much higher degree of panache than would be anticipated. Where some speakers are at the mercy of the associated electronics to achieve anything close to their potential, the Maggies actually seem to elevate moderately priced electronics to new levels of transparency and musicality.
The first and probably most important thing that the dipolar Magneplanars do is make the room come alive. While they disappear as no other speaker I’ve used (including ribbon/dynamic hybrids and electrostatic/dynamic hybrids), they leave behind the most expansive and convincing sense of real space that I’ve ever encountered in my home. If this system doesn’t make your walls disappear, I don’t know which speakers will.
|Velodyne SPL 800 subwoofers|
| When Magnepan’s Wendell Diller offered to have sent a pair of the Velodyne SPL 800 subwoofers ($899 each) he used at CES 2002, I readily accepted. But upon arrival, it seemed as though two small subs had been sent to do the work of a single real subwoofer. Nevertheless, these two 35-pound, 10 1/2"H x 10 1/4"W x 12"D boxes were just too cute to not give a try. |
Though the SPL 800 offers extension to only 28Hz, the fact is that it offers plenty of oomph down to its limit, and for 99% of the music I listen to, that’s plenty of extension. In terms of punch and weight, the pair of subs sounded like much larger units. In fact, toward the end of the review period, I disconnected one of them and found that a single subwoofer was all I needed for the music I listen to -- classical to high-energy rock -- and at the volume levels I prefer. Furthermore, when I used only one subwoofer, even when operated up to 110Hz, it offered no audible clue as to its location. On classical music, the bass section remained to the far right side of the stage, just as it should.
Not only was the little Velodyne the best small sub I’ve ever used, it was one of the very best subs I’ve used. The only time I ever felt that something was missing was when playing Telarc’s new multichannel SACD recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture [Telarc SACD 60541]. The cannons were missing some of the subsonic weight and drama that larger subs with more extension can offer. But when it came to real music, the SPL 800s performed magnificently. Subtly plucked basses from Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, Op. 24 were so neat and orderly that the Velodyne subs portrayed their contributions such that the reverberation throughout the hall was almost as important as the original notes. And Capriccio Italien had all the bass-drum slam (as did the 1812 Overture, for that matter) that I could have hoped for. Both cuts sounded spectacular in terms of bass pitch, definition and weight.
Even Pink Floyd’s "Time," "One Of These Days" and "When Tigers Broke Free" offered more bass slam and mayhem than the engineers could have dreamed that the speakers of the day could reproduce. Nothing on the Echos CD came close to shaking these little subs. But more importantly, when the subs were called upon to do piano, such as with Michael Camilo’s Triangelo SACD [Telarc SACD 63549], the instrument never sounded larger than life, and the lower registers were never exaggerated in any way, just clean and balanced throughout.
The Velodyne SPL 800s are unique in terms of their size, price and abilities. They offered superb performance, period.
System transparency far exceeds anything else at the $2400 price point. Nothing else comes close -- not even for several times the system’s price. And as good as the front three speakers are, it’s how well the rear channels worked in my room that put the system over the top. Anybody who has been forced to place surround speakers on or close to a wall knows that the wall has a disastrous effect on both bass response and overall timbre. Not only that, but the wall’s diffraction effects make the speaker that much more localizable. But what if that surround speaker depended, in a very symbiotic way, on the wall for its spectral balance, as does the MGMC1? It will sound completely natural when used near a wall, that’s what. And as the wall sits largely in the dipole’s null (the axis of minimum direct sound radiation), even the wall’s diffractive/reflective effects are minimized. And although the debate rages regarding the use of monopole or dipole surrounds, the Magneplanars give you the best of both worlds. The bulk of the signal arriving at your ears is directly radiated from the speaker (you don’t sit in the null as you do with the usual dipolar surround speaker) and there is plenty of reflected sound arriving at the ear with enough delay so as not to confuse imaging and detail but also enhance the perception of space. The result is balanced, detailed and musically lithe performance that is completely free of the speaker -- so free that even turning my head and looking right at the speakers did not give it up as the source.
I gave Pink Floyd’s Echoes [Capitol 2 CD CDP 7243 36111 2 5] a spin first, using the Pro Logic mode on my Yamaha processor. First, as a compilation disc, the tracks were recorded over a period of years and the Maggies really let me know it. As a rule, the later the recording, the better the engineering. Tracks like "Wish You Were Here" and "Us And Them" exhibited superb sonics, and the Magneplanar system produced string tone that was spot-on in its tonality, delicacy and conspicuous lack of grain. Vocals were as physically large as the recording dictated, and even the fly buzzing around at the beginning of "High Hopes" sounded particularly true.
System coloration, something that absolutely plagues systems in the $2000 price range, was nonexistent. With no speaker boxes come none of the boxy colorations. What you get is remarkably open, liquid and detailed sound with no obscuring colorations. Not that the MGMC1s are quite the equal of the larger speakers in the Magneplanar line. They are not. But then again, the larger speakers like the MG1.6/QR are superior in this regard to speakers at multiples of their price too.
Instruments known for possessing real texture come through that way loud and clear. Muted trumpets from Nice N’ Easy, a multichannel SACD [Telarc SACD 60532], really showed off the speed and agility of this system. This disc features Eric Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops performing Nelson Riddle arrangements of Sinatra standards. "Let’s Face the Music," for example, starts off with the high-speed cymbal work that is eventually joined by some frenzied acoustic bass to which is added the full brass and woodwind sections. The Maggies preserved each instrument in space with crisp transients as well as neat instrumental outlines. Or try "Get Happy" for some splendidly recorded strings, tenor sax and trumpet, each reproduced as capably as far more expensive systems.
|Loudspeakers Velodyne SPL 800 subwoofers.|
|Amplifier Rotel RMB 1095 five-channel amplifier.|
|Processor Yamaha DSP 1A.|
|Digital Bel Canto DAC 1.1 for CDs, Pioneer DV-525 DVD player as transport and for DVDs, Sony SCD-CD775 multichannel SACD player.|
|Digital cable DH Labs D-75.|
|Interconnects JPS Labs Ultraconductor.|
|Speaker cables JPS Labs Ultraconductor.|
|Accessories Vibrapod isolation pods used under MGCC2.|
System dynamics were also superb. In my Home Theater & Sound review, I noted that the Magneplanar system did require a good deal of power and even then system dynamics could be somewhat limited as compared to some dynamic speakers (though I never did hit the dynamic ceiling). But that caveat is largely removed through the use of the smaller MGMC1s. The system's inefficiency does mean that you need some gain, and you will likely advance the volume control further than you are used to, but as the speakers are all crossed over well above the deep-bass frequencies, which would otherwise strain the system, they really sing. This system played remarkably loud with no sense of stress.
The levels of coloration that make vocals, as reproduced by most center-channel speakers, suddenly sound completely unacceptable were absent over the MGCC2. And detail? Tons. You don’t even have to put on well-recorded music to hear the difference. Just listen to TV broadcasts over this speaker, and I’ll guarantee that you hear them as you have never heard them before. Personally, I didn’t know that TV could sound so clean, clear and transparent. One afternoon I sat with my daughter and watched PBS children’s programming, and I couldn’t believe how good Clifford the Big Red Dog, among other shows, sounded over the Magneplanar system. Not interested in children’s cartoons? Well, the point is that no matter what I put on, the Magneplanar multichannel system raised my level of appreciation.
The Magnepan MGMC1 is an astounding value at $750 a pair. No, it doesn’t have any bass at all and will necessitate the use of a subwoofer, even if used as a stereo pair. But there are no $750 monitor speakers that I know that offer truly satisfying bass on their own anyway. But what sets the MGMC1 apart from similarly priced monitors is everything that happens above 80Hz. Everything. I don’t know of many $2000 monitors that can match the transparency, low levels of coloration and overall smoothness of the MGMC1.
Relative to the MGMC1, the $1,199 MGCC2 is fairly expensive. Even as compared to most center-channel speakers, it’s not cheap. But it is also the most accomplished center-channel speaker I’ve ever heard, which makes it no less of a value than the rest of the system and makes it the worthy anchor of far more expensive systems. Yes, it only goes down to 160Hz and it requires the added expenditure for the Magneplanar-specific ICBM. I say throw the price of the ICBM right at the MGCC2 and consider it a $1275 center-channel system. It’s still a bargain.
As SoundStage! editor Marc Mickelson suggested in a recent editorial, like it or not, multichannel music is coming. And this Magneplanar system is the affordable system with which you can elevate your enjoyment of Dolby Digital, DTS and Dolby Pro Logic II material now. And once the industry has ironed out the wrinkles of multichannel SACD and DVD-A sound, it’s also the affordable system standing ready to take you to the next level. A terrific system now and for the future -- what more can you ask for?
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