Review: The Call of Multichannel Music
In a month that Doug Schneider writes about my two two-channel systems in his "Traveler" column, I feel a little self-conscious about telling you of another system, especially one so different from the ones I have. But doing so lets me tie up a loose end from the CES as well as plug Jeff Fritz's "Surrounded" column and its emphasis on multichannel music.
As anyone who's been to CES knows, finding good sound there is often an ordeal because the hotel rooms in which the systems are set up vary in size and the companies whose products are on display have only a short time to transform a hotel room into a listening den. So I entered the Magnepan room at T.H.E. Expo with only the idea of saying hello to Wendell Diller on my mind, not listening to the multichannel music system he had set up. I knew how hard it was to place two speakers in such a room; arranging five seemed like a task too large for any mere mortal.
But then these were Magneplanar MC1 speakers ($850 USD per pair), which are meant for mounting (via included brackets) adjacent to a room boundary. Of course, this cuts down on the choices of where to place the speakers and dictates that you mount one on the left side wall and one on the right, both facing forward. The same thing happens for the rear channels, with all four MC1s facing the listening spot. The fifth speaker, the CC2 center-channel ($990), has its placement as part of its name: it goes right between the two front MC1s and on a stand that lifts it to a height roughly equivalent to that of the MC1s. The accompanying picture shows this better than I can explain it. The whitish panel on the right wall is the speaker. Other equipment for this system included a Sony XA-9000ES multichannel SACD player and TAP-9000ES multichannel preamp/control unit, an Outlaw Audio Magneplanar-specific ICBM, a whack of Bryston amplifiers, enough Nordost cabling to connect everything, and a pair of very small Velodyne subwoofers, one of which is pictured on the floor between the flower pots.
Two things made this system special. First, the speakers, mounted on their brackets, were rather unobtrusive by high-end-audio or home-theater standards. The MGMC1s simply swing out of the way and against the side walls when not in use, leaving only the MGCC2 in plain sight. Wendell speculated that an "automation kit" to motorize the movement of the MGMC1s would be a hit. This would require perhaps pushing a button on your remote control to make your Magnepan multichannel-music system ready for use. Cool!
The second, and more significant, aspect of this system was the sound, of course. I heard an early prototype of this system when Doug Schneider and I visited the Magnepan factory in the middle of 2001, but this new iteration was leagues better than that system at filling the room with musically significant detail. Orchestral recordings displayed a soundstage that was truly wall to wall and even seemed to spread beyond the room's boundaries. And when Wendell played some live jazz recordings, these only in four-channel mode, the sense of being among the spectators was unrivaled by anything I've heard in stereo. All of the two-channel goodies were apparent too: transparency, perfect tonality, scads of detail, and life-sized images. Even among all of the mega-buck systems on display in Las Vegas, this one by Magnepan was one of the best I heard.
If you do the math, the speakers, all five of them, cost $2690; I'm not sure exactly what the electronics and cabling cost, but I suspect the figure wouldn't break the bank for either a committed audiophile or home-theater enthusiast. Thus, a system like this is attainable, and it will please both the music and movie camps. I bet spouses will take to the idea of having speakers that hinge back and out of the way too, and in normal use, the center-channel speaker will likely sit on a TV and not on a stand front and center.
In 2000, I wrote an editorial that discussed why I don't like home theater, and while I stand by what I said there, especially in terms of the home-theater experience, I also acknowledge that Magnepan's CES system has me more than a little intrigued at the thought of using more than a stereo pair of speakers. I was sorry that Jeff Fritz, our in-house multichannel-music maven, didn't get to hear this system, but I suspect he would have been as impressed as I was, and perhaps more so given that he knows this realm better than I do. Yes, there are still great limitations in terms of software, but even if SACD never lifts off, DVD is not going away, and record companies like Telarc are already issuing multichannel recordings in both formats. There will be more music available as time goes on.
But no matter -- this Magnepan system was not created specifically for multichannel-music believers. It was made for initiates and skeptics like me, and it accomplished its goal of having me expand my stereo way of thinking. I can't say I'm quite ready to buy such a system -- I still enjoy my reference system, to which Doug Schneider, after his visit, would certainly ask, "Who wouldn't?" But multichannel music is calling, and we should all be ready to hear it.