Review: John Potis - Home Theater & Sound - January 2002
Home Theater & Sound - http://www.hometheatersound.com
In 1988, Stereophile magazine conducted a reader survey asking which speakers its readers were using and how satisfied they were with them. The answers astounded me. Not only was Magnepan the most-owned speaker brand among the respondents, but a full 99% of Magneplanar owners would buy them again (Magnepan is the company, Magneplanar the technology). That kind of customer loyalty is impressive, but it does make you wonder. If Maggies score so high among the people who already own them, why aren't they better known?
At least part of the answer is that Magneplanar speakers are different. Unlike conventional box loudspeakers, which use the speaker enclosure to reinforce the sound created by the drivers, Magnepan's flat panels couple directly to the air, producing sound waves that radiate from the front and back of the panels.
The panels themselves consist of a 0.5mm Mylar diaphragm bonded to current-carrying wire grids, which are "driven" by permanent bar magnets spaced behind the diaphragm. The phenomenally light diaphragm is excited by the reaction between the current and the magnets, generating sound with its vibrations. In recent years, Magnepan has teamed this quasi-ribbon magnetic-panel technology with a vertical, direct-coupled true-ribbon transducer, which acts as a tweeter, reproducing the sound from 1kHz on up. (For more on Magnepan's technology and construction methods, see the SoundStage! factory tour.)
Over the years, Magnepan has endeavored to improve its speaker line with each successive generation. In addition to its popular MMG entry-level loudspeaker, the company has produced the MG1.6/QR, a loudspeaker that has garnered almost universal praise -- and has enabled Magnepan to move into home theater with an affordable and attractive system.
The $3676 home-theater speaker system under review here is anchored by the MG1.6/QR, which serves as the front speakers. This 64.5" tower seems, at first glance, more imposing than most speakers out there, certainly the ones in its price class. Tall? Yes. Wide? Fairly. But at only 2" deep, it's remarkably unobtrusive.
Still, why so large? Because, when it comes to creating sound, exciting air is key -- and nothing excites like displacement. Planar drivers don’t have high excursion, so the more surface they have, the louder they can play. The MG1.6/QR's 442 square inches of radiating surface -- and its 2"-by-48" quasi-ribbon tweeter -- enables it to produce a fairly sizable wave-launch.
Dialogue duties fall to a completely new speaker. Reckoning the dialogue channel to be essential to the success of a home-theater system, Magnepan went back to the drawing board and came up with a curved, two-way design, the MGCC2, which incorporates variations on the quasi-ribbon driver and ribbon tweeter used in the MG1.6/QR. Oriented horizontally, its curved shape provides broad dispersion.
However, the relatively small size of the MGCC2 necessitates a significant compromise. With a scant 198 square inches of radiating surface, the speaker does not match the larger Maggies in size, and therefore cannot produce the same bass output as its larger siblings. It can't even reach the 80Hz shutoff imposed by most home-theater processors. (Though some processors, such as the B&K Reference 30, do allow for an appropriate crossover.)
To overcome the MGCC2’s 160Hz lower-frequency limit, Magnepan went to Internet-based Outlaw Audio, which designed a Magneplanar-specific version of their Integrated Controlled Bass Manager (ICBM). Purchased separately for $325, the Magneplanar-specific ICBM offers a high-pass-filtered center-channel output appropriate for use with the MGCC2. Once set up, this version of the ICBM will high-pass filter the signal going to the MGCC2 at frequencies up to 240Hz and, as you choose, it will redirect bass frequencies to your front right and left speakers, to your subwoofer(s), or to all three. Outlaw’s ICBM is a full-featured bass-management system that is far more flexible than any I’ve encountered in surround processors. As Jeff Fritz found in his SoundStage! review of the ICBM, it is a transparent and easy-to-use addition to any multichannel system.
Surround duties are performed by the MGMC1, a two-way design that also incorporates Magnepan’s quasi-ribbon tweeter. The MGMC1 can be stand- or wall-mounted and has a hinged bracket system that allows it to be positioned flush against the wall when not in use.
The Maggie system does have a few limitations, which, at first glance, might rule it out for some buyers. First, the size of the speakers may put off consumers concerned over spousal acceptance. But before you make up your mind on the acceptability of these speakers, I highly recommend that you get a look at them in person. They are just not as imposing as you might think. They also have the added benefits of being light and movable. When not in use, they can be easily slid out of the way. My wife prefers their appearance to that of any box speaker I’ve had through here.
The next caveat is that they do like power. Their 4-ohm rating is not ultra-punishing, but they crave wattage, and there's no getting around it.
Also, this system includes no subwoofer, so you'll have to add one or choose to use the system as I did, without a subwoofer.
Finally, the speakers will not play as loudly as most dynamic-driver-based loudspeakers. They have a dynamic threshold beyond which they should not be taken. However, this dynamic ceiling never bothered me because I never bumped against it in day-to-day use. These Magneplanar speakers played plenty loud enough for me, and given their propensity for lightning-fast transient response and for illustrating microdynamic contrasts, I never felt the need for higher output.
When you want to get someone’s attention whisper
I think the reason so many home-theater owners are inclined to drive their systems to deafening levels is because they are trying to overcome a lack of quality with quantity. When a system lacks finesse and nuance, an emotional connection can be next to impossible to make. Frustrated, the listener strives to make that emotional connection through higher SPLs.
On the other hand, those with musically detailed systems know that when it comes to SPLs, sometimes just a little dab will do ya. All you need to do is rise above the room’s noise floor and everything becomes crystal clear. This is how I felt about the Magneplanar system. It is so utterly detailed and uncolored, so sprightly and so involving.
Anyone who has experienced a football game on HDTV knows that while players are a little more three-dimensional and focused, the real difference is in the new level of ambient detail. Where before the game was played on a featureless sea of green, you now see individual blades of grass. Rather than a blurred background of undistinguished humanity, you now see real human faces. The Magneplanar system is HDTV's sonic equivalent. What it does is highlight previously unnoticed ambient details that draw you into the experience to a whole new level.
But I don’t want to give the impression that this Magneplanar system is wimpy. Far from it. On a tip from Magnepan’s Wendell Diller, I unplugged the front right- and left-channel inputs at the ICBM. Then I cued up the defense-of-the-bridge scene from Saving Private Ryan. With the ICBM redirecting the MGCC2's bass frequencies to the MG1.6/QRs, I listened to the center-channel speaker, the center channel's bass through the MG1.6/QRs and the two surrounds.
Wimpy? Heck no! What I heard was amazing in its brawn, not to mention its finesse. The MG1.6/QRs delivered a level of bass that would shock those who criticize planar-bass reproduction, and the level of detail I gleaned from the center-channel speaker was startling and revelatory.
With all five speakers in action, try the bedroom scene from The Haunting. Listen to the delicate sound of the burning candles; you can hear the gentle crackling of the burning wax. Then there's the surprisingly authentic sound of windows frosting over as the temperature of the room plummets. And when all hell breaks loose (literally), the Magneplanar system is fully capable of reproducing the raucous mayhem.
You have probably observed the ongoing debate between music and movie aficionados concerning the requirements for music versus movie-soundstrack reproduction. I find that, while a mediocre system is more tolerable with movies, a really good system takes the home-cinema experience to a new level. The Maggie system proves my point. It brings a sense of realism to the forefront, as I have never experienced it before. Take, for instance, the opening battle scene from Gladiator. The Magneplanars showed me detail like no system has before. The thunder of hooves, for instance, took on newfound realism as the Magneplanar system differentiated the strikes from one another. The ensuing battle scene seemed remarkably non-chaotic as the action all around me was portrayed in a manner that made sense, rather than sounding like a mass of sonic debris.
Reproduction of concert videos was nothing short of artful. This system raises the bar for cohesiveness with a completely seamless quality of surround sound. Magneplanar owners know how easily the speakers completely disappear, leaving behind only the soundstage, and now home-theater owners will find that the surround speakers do so too. In fact, even turning my head toward the speaker and looking at it usually provided no sonic clue as to its existence. All I heard (sensed!) was enveloping sound. And, oh, what sound it was.
James Taylor’s Live At Beacon Theater was absolutely stunning over this system. The opening acoustic-guitar riff on "Daddy’s All Gone" was reproduced so precisely, and with such microdynamic detail, that I could easily hear the instrument’s reverberation spread like rings in a pond until, reaching the auditorium walls, it clearly revealed the hall’s size and signature. Later in the song, when the electric guitar entered, its reverb was a delicately nuanced shimmer that I doubt most people in the audience fully appreciated. "Shower the People," a wonderful song performed here in elegant simplicity, was elevated to goose-bump territory by Arnold McCuller’s accompanying vocals. This system conveys emotion as well as it does space.
Comparison with other systems I’ve reviewed for HT&S is a little difficult, but perhaps the system that came as close to the Magnepan both in terms of quality and price would be the Tannoy Saturn system that I reviewed last April. A Reviewers’ Choice-designated system, the Tannoy system had similar bass extension (without its subwoofer) as the Magnepan and came in at $3300, so less than the system from Magnepan sans ICBM (which would be a great addition to both systems). Aesthetically, you can make up your own mind about which system you would rather look at, but for me, the Maggie system just exudes class. Others will prefer the smaller, traditional boxes of the Tannoy system. Where sound is concerned, there’s just no contest -- the Maggie system is more musically refined and offers greater detail and transparency. On the other hand, the Tannoy system will probably play louder and will ultimately require fewer watts no matter what your listening level.
As a reviewer, I try to describe what I hear and describe what sets one system apart from the rest. Some systems are more difficult to write about than others, but this Magneplanar review almost wrote itself. Those who have not read enough here should keep an eye out at SoundStage! for a comprehensive multichannel-music-oriented review on a similar Magneplanar system.
No doubt some will find it unorthodox that Magnepan has turned to Outlaw Audio, an Internet-based company, for their ICBM, which may or may not be required for use depending on the adjustability of the bass-management system of your processor. Personally, I applaud Magnepan for doing what it takes to bring to market a home-theater system that is purely Magneplanar in spirit. However, the ICBM is an extra $325, and you'll have to buy it over the Internet unless Magnepan can work something out with Outlaw Audio and its own dealer network. As a customer myself, and in the face of rising Internet sales that bypass the traditional brick-and-mortar shops, I would encourage support of any dealer who stocked the Magneplanar-specific ICBM so that customers could buy this complete system in one place. If you find such a dealer, treasure him -- he's clearly one of the good guys.
In the meantime, I can only try to sum up this Magneplanar system as the most revealing, the most emotionally evocative, and the most reasonably priced system that I’ve ever reviewed for Home Theater & Sound. Adding to this system’s wonder is that you don’t have to break the bank on electronics to experience this level of reproduction either. This system is so utterly clean, detailed and transparent that those forced to use ultra-polite levels (such as apartment dwellers) will not miss a trick. And while bass performance was very good on its own, it will require a good subwoofer to plumb the depths of deep bass, just as do most systems comprised of even more expensive speakers.
But this Magneplanar speaker system does everything else so exceedingly well that I can only urge you to go listen for yourself and determine if it raises the bar of performance for you -- as it has done for me.
1645 Ninth Street
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