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Published September 1, 2004


Magnepan MMG W and MMG C Loudspeakers


"We’re getting Maggies! Cool!" That was my wife’s reaction when she learned we were getting a full five-channel review system from Magnepan. The first time she’d heard Magnepans, on a trip to Chicago a year or so before, had made her an instant convert. Never mind that the MG20.1, at nearly 6.5’ tall by 2.5’ wide, needs lots of room to breathe and would require a complete rethinking of her decorating scheme. "We’ll make room," she said. Unfortunately, the MG20.1’s used-Accord price was an instant deterrent.

I felt duty-bound to tell her that, at $897 USD, the five-channel MMG W/C system we were getting was at the opposite end of the price/performance spectrum from the MG20.1. Then there was the fact that we might have to drill holes in her freshly painted walls to mount them. It didn’t make a bit of difference.

For those of you unfamiliar with Magnepan, they’re a great example of a company that thinks outside the box -- literally: They have eliminated the speaker enclosure. The basic Magnepan Magneplanar speaker is a large panel consisting of a Mylar diaphragm stretched over a frame. The voice "coil" is an aluminum wire glued to the Mylar, arranged in a grid of long rows from the top to the bottom of the panel. Precisely aligned strips of magnets on one side of the panel complete the required elements of the speaker. The main physical difference between Magnepan models is the size of the panel, and the models MG3.6/R and above include a true ribbon driver to reproduce the high frequencies. The MMG W consists of a single panel 38" high by 10.375" wide and 0.75" thick. This is quite small by Magnepan standards; once mounted, the speakers are very unobtrusive. The MMG C center-channel is only slightly smaller, and is bowed to improve dispersion from side to side.

Magnepan speakers are so different from the cone-and-dome speakers most people are used to that 95% of the general population will have no idea what they’re looking at. Be prepared to answer questions: What is that? Where does the sound come from? How does it work? As you answer, you’ll find such words as dipole and planar creeping into your vocabulary. And you need to know the following: Magnepan is the name of the company, Magneplanar is the name of the technology, and Maggies is what everyone who owns them affectionately calls the speakers.

The hard part

You might be tempted to install the MMG Ws right away, in whatever locations look convenient. Don’t do it. While you’ll probably get acceptable results, a little work put into placing Maggies can pay huge dividends in the overall sound quality. Besides, the MMG W is designed to be mounted on a wall; once that’s done, it isn’t easy to move. Magnepan realized this early on and developed a temporary mounting kit ($18/pair) that allows the purchaser to move the speakers from one location to another without having to drill holes in the wall. I had to make a minor modification in the kit to account for the crown molding in my listening room, but once I’d done that, moving the MMGs around to find the best positions was a fairly simple task.

Where those optimal positions will be will depend a lot on your room, but it probably won’t be where you first place the MMGs. My experience suggests that you should think wide placement -- 50% farther apart than your conventional speakers isn’t unreasonable. That’s where the MMGs ended up in my two-channel listening room, to form an almost perfectly equilateral triangle with my listening position. Given a little more space, I might have set them even farther apart. In a narrow room, you might even consider placing the speakers on the side walls.

When the Maggies arrived, my home-theater system, where I would do my multichannel listening, was already occupied by another system. Not to be denied, my wife asked if I could hook them up in the family room. This was when I broke the first rule of planar speakers: I hooked them up to the 4-ohm taps of the relatively low-powered Cayin TA-30 integrated amplifier ($799), which pushes all of 30Wpc to the speakers. The conventional wisdom is that planar speakers require lots of power and don’t get along well with tube amps. But I bowed to conjugal pressure and my own curiosity and went ahead. If you try this at home, be aware that you might risk melting a little Mylar if you don’t exercise caution with the volume control.

When I moved the system into my theater room, a door on the left side of the front wall prevented me from placing the MMG Ws in the optimum positions. For a variety of reasons, a side-wall installation wouldn’t work, so I ended up with the MMGs about 3’ closer together than I would have liked. To compensate, I listened to the system from about 2’ farther from the rear wall than normal. After some experimentation, the surrounds ended up on the rear wall, 6’ from the listening position and angled out into the room at about 60 degrees.

The MMGs require a subwoofer. Throughout my listening sessions, a Rocket UFW-10 provided the low-frequency reinforcement for the system. Other equipment used in the review included the Adcom GCD-600 and Rotel RCD-1072 CD players, Anthem AVM 20 preamp-processor, and Rotel RB-976 power amp.

Tubes ’n’ planars?

Wow! That’s what my wife and I said when we first heard two MMG Ws hooked up to the Cayin TA-30 tube amp. It also describes the response of each of my friends who heard them. It was one of those things you have to hear to believe. About two minutes into "Don’t Fence Me In," from The Frank and Joe Show’s 33 1/3 [Hyena 9320], there’s a guitar flourish that extends well outside the speakers and ended up almost to my immediate left. Now that was depth of soundstage. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought I had surround speakers hidden somewhere in the room. As with everything else I threw at them, the Maggies were the very model of clarity. Witness Dr. John’s voice, on "Sheik of Araby" from the same disc: slightly nasal and a little edgy, but very immediate, almost as if he were standing right there. The most expensive speakers I have in the house, at more than ten times the price, couldn’t match the Maggies’ soundstage or sense of presence.

Soundstaging and imaging were again the big story on "Time After Time," from David "Fathead" Newman’s Song for the New Man [Highnote 7120]. The cymbal at the left was just inside the left speaker, but the decay reverberated out into the room. This seemed very natural to me, and is something that no conventional speaker has quite gotten right in this space. Newman’s sax was nailed in place just to the left of center and a bit out in front. Clarity was again stellar, with a slight edge to the horns on "Shakabu" that’s missing with all too many speakers. Besides their trademark soundstaging, it’s this remarkably clear and coherent midrange that sets Magneplanars apart from nearly every conventional speaker on the market.

We’ve got you surrounded

Once I’d freed up space, I moved the MMGs into my home-theater system for a little multichannel listening. During "On the Run," from the SACD release of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon [Capitol CDP 82136 2], the Maggies completely "disappeared" and let the music flow, leaving me immersed in a seamless soundstage. The footsteps early in this track began well to the left of the front left speaker, traveled across the front, then turned the corner to the right rear and finally crossed behind me, to exit stage right. Never was there a break in the progress of the footsteps or in the Maggies’ ability to put them in exactly the right spot. Nor did the sound ever seem to be coming from any given speaker.

No examination of DSOM is complete without checking out "Time." Normally, I’m no big fan of the "sound everywhere" form of musical surround; I feel it gets in the way of the performance. However, DSOM is no ordinary album, and on "Time," the feeling of being enclosed in a room full of clocks is nothing short of a revelation. With the Maggies properly set up and balanced, the clocks were here, there, everywhere -- yet I felt I could reach out and touch one, had it been just a few feet closer.

The clarity of Alison Krauss’s voice in "We Hide and Seek," from the SACD of Alison Krauss + Union Station’s Live [Rounder 11661-0515-6], gives me goose bumps. There’s something about it that just sounded real through the MMG system. This album is a prime example of how to record a multichannel audio disc: The surrounds are used mostly for ambience and, on this live recording, the sounds of the audience. It was very effective and believable through the MMGs on such tracks as "New Favorite," where the stroking of the guitar reverberates slightly through the listening space but doesn’t stand out as a distinct sound. I almost had to listen for it to hear the reverberation, but it was there.

At the opposite end of the surround spectrum is the SACD of The Police’s Every Breath You Take [A&M 069 493 607-2]: The guitars in "Can’t Stand Losing You" come from all over the place. The MMGs made the best of a bad situation, suspending the instruments properly in space, albeit in utterly unnatural places. On the other hand, the way the rim shots in "Walking on the Moon" decayed out into space worked nicely, even if the occasional obvious reverberation behind me and to the right was distracting.

The competition

If you’re looking for the particular sound of a planar speaker, then the MMG W/C system has no competition at the price. The closest conventional competitor I’ve heard recently is the Ascend Acoustics CBM-170 ($328 per pair) with matching CMT-340 center ($298 each), which is very nearly the same price as the Magnepan system at $858. Both systems are impressive for the money, but each represents a totally different approach to sound reproduction. The Ascend system has flat frequency response with good high-frequency extension, while the Maggies tend to roll off a bit at the top end. Also, the Ascend system is more efficient, will play louder without strain, and is easier to drive with a lower-powered amp. On the other hand, nothing else I’ve heard anywhere near this price can approach the Magnepan system in terms of soundstaging and midrange coherence.

My single caveat is that the MMG W/C system is not as forgiving of placement as are conventional speakers. If conditions force you to place them closer together than is optimal, you’ll lose much of their expansiveness and depth of soundstage. But if you’ve got room to tinker, the MMGs should reward you with an audio experience unlike any other.

To sum up

As I complete this review, a debate is going on in my house: Should we buy the MMG W/C review samples? They could be just the ticket for the basement theater I’m planning. Or should we jump in with both feet and build a system based on Magnepan’s more expensive 1.6/QR? One thing is certain: We’ll soon count ourselves among those fortunate souls who own Maggies and listen to them daily.

It isn’t often that I sit down in front of a new speaker system and say "Wow!" But during the course of this review I did just that, over and over. When Magnepan set out to build the MMG W/C, they didn’t end up with only a budget entry for the planar loudspeaker market; they rewrote the rules of what budget speakers can sound like. To understand how brilliantly they’ve succeeded, you’ll have to hear the MMG W and C for yourself.

...Jeff Van Dyne

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