This was adapted from my May 21, 2012 post on the Stereophile forums' Entry Level section, and represents my first serious attempt at writing an equipment review. It's also the first time I had heard anything remotely 'high-end' (for what I believed that meant) in my home. I felt I had to scribble it out almost immediately that night, and there's plenty of passionate gushing to that effect. (I do hope that I've evolved as a writer since then!) Nevertheless, the more MMG reviews out there, the better. It's amazing what can be had on a minimum wage budget, and it makes me happy to share the good news with anyone for whom music is more than just aural wallpaper.
The act of removing these oatmeal and oak-colored slabs from their boxes, affixing their feet and standing them upright seemed out of a dream, as if what I had done was to somehow inject them with the potential of life. To the uninitiated, the anthropomorphism of Maggies is unquestionable; conventional speakers are built up like blocks, bookshelf speakers may be placed on stands. With Maggies, you put feet on them and raise them off the ground, whereupon they assume humanoid proportions and exert a willful energy in the room.
The family even has an endearing nickname, which henceforth I will sprinkle with restraint lest it wear out its welcome. But as they stood before me, beaming with newness and filling my nose with the smell of its taut, seamless grillecloth which carried nary a trace epithelial of a microfiber-gloved finger, they seemed as unblemished, uncontaminated and unbelievably virgin to Earthly existence as a newborn baby. I fell in love with them immediately.
Even though they’re the babies of their range—the least expensive, and second-most diminutive speaker Magnepan makes—they still stand four feet tall. I’d read this figure on paper in the past, and have auditioned this and larger Maggies in showrooms before, all the way up to the six-foot-six-inch MG 20.1, but that didn’t prepare me for having these human-scaled things standing in my cramped 13×14′ home office loft, blocking the light of my desk lamp, casting long and ominous shadows on my carpet.
Well, how did I get here?
Long story short, I’ve had my current pair of Bose 301 series-IV speakers since the seventh grade. Now nearly three years after achieving my BFA, I felt it was time for change. So I inquired within the Stereophile.com forums for advice, secretly hoping for a nudge in the direction of something that has held my curiosity for many years, but was too scared (and jobless) to try out.
I grudgingly accepted the fact I’d have to move the Bose 301′s from atop their 50-lb, sand-filled stands, whose spikes had settled comfortably and securely into the carpet underlay after having been positioned so painstakingly, in order to stand the MMGs in roughly the same place. Apart from the feeling of having my sanctuary disrupted, setup was speedy. I switched out the 3-amp fuses for fours, just to set my mind at ease about cranking the volume. The instruction manual and many user accounts gave me the impression I’d have the devil’s own job trying to get a solid listening level from the new Magneplanars.
As per user account, the sound did seem to come out of the air itself. But that was my poor primitive brain failing to cope with the MMG’s dipolar dispersion before I reached my seat, whereupon the sweet spot leapt into stark relief. I sat, listened, moved the speakers closer together, farther apart, fore and aft, and experimented with positioning the tweeter. (The instruction manual recommends placing the tweeters on the inside.) The “sound” in this case, was BBC’s Top Gear, and Jez, Dick and Jim's voices are usually mixed for center, so that helped with getting the imaging right, while also having a few laughs doing what is the audiophile equivalent of eating one’s vegetables. At three feet apart, with my chair seven feet away, I felt the MMGs succeeded in creating a nearly Jeremy Clarkson-sized stereo image. Whether that’s to be celebrated is up for debate.
Let there be Sound.
My name is Matthew Ward, and I am a photographer, video editor, and film score nerd. To bust the cherry on my new speakers, I reached (figuratively, from my HTPC’s flac library) for the soundtrack from Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie, performed con fuoco by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, and composed—with a nod to Holst’s “Planets”—by William Stromberg (Unknown label, as my copy was provided directly from Visual Concept Entertainment, Inc.) It’s powerful, sinister, dynamic, and as far as film score albums go, refreshingly neutral, with a lovely midrange.
Again, user accounts and my glass-half- empty attitude led me to believe the MMGs wouldn’t sound very good at all until they’ve been broken-in for at least 100 hours, which as a working man, is just as much free time to be had in Magnepan’s 60-day trial period. I had the volume knob at 10 o’clock up from about nine, whereat the Bose used to play most comfortably. Thinking back, it surprises me how deep, and loud, the little 301s could go. Sure enough, the MMGs didn’t go quite as deep, nor were they as punchy, even though they’re plenty punchy for apartment listening.
Everything above 50Hz, however, was several orders of magnitude above anything I’d heard at home. During the repeated full orchestral blasts of “Operation Hardtack/Teak and Orange” (all tracks are named after different bomb tests), my jaw dropped. I didn’t make it drop, it just did. The dipole/planar MMG were taller, lighter, faster, tighter, and just disturbed the air with greater speed and ferocity than I'd ever experienced at home.
The following day I played the score from Braveheart (CD, London G2 48295.) No bass? The MMGs had bass enough to vibrate the floor under my feet. Where the Bose would make this very warmly mixed album sound muddy at times (particularly during “Battle of Stirling”, “Falkirk” and “Mornay’s Dream”), the MMG clarified it, turning the reproduced kettledrum-like sounds into the reproduced sounds of kettledrums, thanks in part to the speakers’ radiating area, and no doubt to the renowned Magneplanar midrange. I also found they can go comfortably, dangerously loud, such that I wondered if reviewers had been inflicting permanent damage on themselves by their claims of Maggies being power hogs. Then again, I was driving them with the Emotiva UPA-2, the [since-discontinued] baby of Emotiva’s line of affordable high-current amps. It can provide 185 continuous watts into the MMG’s constant four-ohm load, and that’s plenty for my small room. The concluding thwack at the end of “Attack on Murron” almost took my head off.
Most film scores, and James Horner’s in particular, are significantly pumped up in the lower-midbass, so despite the MMG’s 50Hz roll-off, they sounded very full-bodied on Braveheart, and later Glory (CD, Virgin V2-86150.) This led me to search for albums in my library with a warm mix, or midbass hump, like the 2011 remaster of Gerry Rafferty’s City to City (CD, EMI 5099908726728), and The Bass-ic Collection by Stanley Clarke (CD, Epic 64277) and then, with adrenal glands primed, cautiously probe the limits of the MMG’s performance as I pushed the volume just beyond my comfort level. In the end, the neighbors did not complain, I was not evicted, and the Maggies, mercifully, surprisingly, did not harden. Not before my ears were fatigued and needed a break anyway.
Only when I played drier mixes like Jurassic Park (CD, MCAD-10859, the very first and most listened-to film score in my collection,) did I notice reports that I expected to register in the bottom octave that just weren’t there... yet. “Okay, so I’ve found their limit” I thought, but there was nothing at all to fret about. (After all, everything sounds dry after an hour with Stanley Clarke.)
These speakers were the best I’ve ever heard my music sound at home, and over the course of a few albums’ play not only justifying their worth over my well-traveled Bose 301, but delivering the coherence and detail of my Sennheiser HD600 cans and JH Audio JH-5 in-ear monitors, all while expressing that speed and lightness in the third dimension. Energizing my room with the presence of sound, with pressure waves imperceptibly tickling the nerves in my skin, and thumping the cavities of my body, thus creating within me a confluence of visceral and sublime pseudo-sexual emotions that had me rapt, confused, and grinning like Alex DeLarge under the hangdog stare of Ludwig Van—something no set of headphones, no matter how good, can ever hope to do. Maybe it’s a matter of taste, or fetish, but this is coming from a man who’s spent more over the years on headphones than speakers. The MMG allowed me to do more than just discover new things about my favorite music, I could love upon those discoveries and revel in them.
The Long And Winding Road
I’ve heard better equipment in the past, or at least what I’ve been told by people who know more than I do is ‘better’; certainly more expensive. The first time I visited a high-end audio showroom in my mid-teens, I clapped eyes on the mantis-looking Wilson Audio Maxx 2 (which if memory serves me, $65,000.00 USD,) and have been following the brand ever since. (More like coveting their unattainable wares.) The Watt/Puppy 8, Sophia 2, Sasha W/P, I’ve heard (and hugged) them all. I read articles about their manufacturing procedures, and combined with a passing childhood interest in DIY speaker building (which I indulged for the first and only time near the end of highschool when I built a massively inefficient 9-foot- tall electrostatic monolith) I developed a massive amount of respect for Dave Wilson and Co., and their creations. I admired their flawless clearcoated paint jobs, masculine architectural styling, and the engineering, research and painstaking levels of quality control behind the making of them, the true depth of which I will never know. I appreciated them as apex technological marvels. I could not, however, fully appreciate what they did best, because I hadn’t acquired the taste.
And what should I have expected, listening to my Bose 301s at home for the past fifteen years, powered by my dad’s old Fisher from 1975... and then at a whim, bestriding a rocket ready to punch the stratopause? (It made for some genuinely sphincter-crunching inner drama as the proprietors of these boutiques would inquire about my system characteristics. A total Wilson geek with no street cred, I never told the truth.) I’ve heard the Maxx 3 powered by Boulder monoblocks, the Magnepan MG 3.6 and 20.1 powered by Ayres, and it was all nice and good fun. But between Bose at my soul-food smelling home, and high-end Maggies in a nigh-inhospitable showroom, I had absolutely no point of reference. Audiophilia, like wine-tasting, is a journey you cannot rush. In Clarkson’s own words, I was trying in my overeagerness, to go from baby’s milk straight to Port.
With the MMGs here, I finally got a little taste of what I had been missing in the showroom. Something happens when you take this stuff home with you, and I predicted as much. What I couldn’t predict was how far and fast I’d travel up the learning curve once I auditioned them in my room, with my equipment.
The way I feel now, I can never go back. I love my Bose 301s to kibbles ‘n bits, and have had them practically forever, long enough for a not-at-all unimportant learning experience to take place, and make me love my music that much more. I’ve used them to serenade family members, I’ve blasted them for friends, and at RIT they became as much a part of my college identity as the tattered and oversized jean jacket with which I vainly disguised my hollowed-out lankiness. Today I’m still lanky, but now a bit more muscled and with better posture. The jean jacket is three years retired, having since found a milligram of fashion sense and now more at ease about my proportions. Now thanks to Magnepan, and the kind and knowledgeable forum community at Stereophile.com, the 301s are sitting on the floor, waiting to be walled up with Perspex in a makeshift gallery with my other beloved childhood artifacts. And like the jacket before them, they are irreversibly and incontrovertibly sacked.
As for the MMG, just ninety-five more hours of break-in to go.
Since then, I've added a subwoofer: the down-firing D15SE from Rythmik Audio, pending review.