Magnepan Magneplanar MGMC1 Speaker System
If Magnepan has a company motto, it might be something along the lines of, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." For more than 30 years, this Minnesota company has been busy making its Magneplanar loudspeakers for those audiophiles who care more about great sound than they do about owning the latest candidate for loudspeaker of the month. Magnepan rarely introduces a new model; when they do, it's generally just another evolutionary step in their continual refinement of the planar magnetic approach that they use in all of their products. This conservatism breeds long-term customer loyalty, and Magnepan invariably trumps other high-end manufacturers in the areas of customer satisfaction and repeat business.
For decades, spouses everywhere have been calling out for invisible speakers. Apart from in-wall designs that require you to hack a hole in your wall, the Magneplanar MGMC1 comes about as close to meeting this goal as any high-quality speaker I've ever seen. A flat, fabric-covered, 10- by 46-inch panel, the MGMC1 attaches directly to the wall and is typically positioned at about a 45- to 60-degree angle from the wall. What makes the MGMC1 really slick, though, is that the wall mount is actually a hinge that allows you to fold the speaker flat against the wall when you don't need it, at which point it looks kind of like a plain fabric picture hanging on the wall, sticking out only about an inch or so.
For the James Bond wannabes among us, Magnepan has even proposed a version in which small electric motors that are triggered by your pre/pro will automatically rotate the speakers into position. At that point, if your significant other still thinks the speakers are ugly and in the way, I suppose that plan to put in a Murphy bed doesn't stand much of a chance, either.
Magneplanars have always required a little more care to set up properly than box speakers. With just as much sound coming out of the back of the speakers as the front, you can't just lean them up against the wall and expect good sound. Without a cabinet to trap the panel's rearward-firing output, deep bass has always been most panel speakers' Achilles heel. Now, however, with the emergence of multichannel surround systems that incorporate a subwoofer, the old rules have changed somewhat. Bass management enables us to redirect all of that nondirectional bass information to the sub, while the main speakers, freed from the need to play deep bass, can be optimized to maximize their performance capabilities over the rest of the range.
Of course, mounting the speakers on the wall requires that there be walls where you want to put the speakers, and the MGMC1s will fit more naturally into some rooms than others. The perfect room is perhaps a basic shoebox shape, with the longer walls on the sides and the listening position centered between them, set away from the rear wall. This arrangement allows you to angle the speakers at 45 degrees or more (relative to the wall). If set up correctly, the reflected rear wave from the speakers helps to enhance the sound's spaciousness. Luckily, my own room fits this model almost exactly, and I was able to position the front and surround speakers in a way that gave me both an excellent, smooth response through the midrange and a big, open sound with plenty of detail. Another possibility is to mount the speakers on the front wall to either side of the screen or possibly on the sides of a wall unit.
Magneplanar speakers have always employed a driver design that Magnepan has labeled planar magnetic. A thin Mylar sheet is stretched tightly on a frame, and a long, serpentine voice grid (analogous to
the voice coil in a conventional speaker) is bonded to the Mylar surface in a repeating pattern that covers the sheet. The result looks a bit like an extra-dense version of those rear-window defrosting wires in your car. A rigid, mesh steel plate with rows of firmly attached flexible bar magnets is sandwiched near the Mylar sheet, with a small gap left between the magnets and the Mylar sheet to allow the Mylar to vibrate. While the results are similar in many ways to an electrostatic speaker's output, a Magneplanar doesn't need to be plugged in like an electrostat does, and it's generally pretty easy to drive, as there aren't any transformers in the signal path.
Flat-panel speakers generally radiate their sonic energy in a way that's fundamentally different from box speakers, and this is largely responsible for their unique sonic qualities. The small dome tweeters that most conventional speakers use have excellent dispersion and radiate sound in a fairly even hemispherical pattern, yet the rules of physics tell us that, as the size of a driver increases, its output becomes progressively more directional, resulting in a speaker that will beam quite noticeably. This beaming becomes increasingly pronounced as you go higher in frequency; with some speakers, there's a clearly delineated sweet spot, outside of which the treble response falls off quite sharply. When a tweeter is long and skinny like the one in the MGMC1, the sound will have good side-to-side dispersion, while its length means that vertical dispersion will be tightly controlled. As long as you mount the speaker so that your ears are the same height as any part of the tweeter ribbon, you should be able to hear all of the high-frequency information as intended.
This type of tall, slim speaker looks impressive and sounds great for the front left and right channels, but you really can't make a center-channel speaker this way. Most home theater fans I've encountered wouldn't be too happy if you plunked a big, tall monolith right in front of their screen. The normal solution is to make the center channel short and squat by turning the standard vertical-speaker layout onto its side, with the drivers positioned next to each other. Try this with a flat-panel speaker, however, and you'll find that you now have a speaker with good vertical dispersion but limited lateral dispersion. That's fine if you and your family like to sit in the middle of the room, stacked up like heads on a totem pole, but it's not so fine for normal folks who want to sit side by side on sofas and chairs.
Magnepan's clever solution was to curve the panel in their MGCC3 center-channel speaker into a gentle arc, greatly increasing high-frequency dispersion and allowing everyone to hear a full-range sound without having to sit bunched up in the middle of the room. It's still an open-backed dipole design, so it sounds best when sitting on a stand a foot or more away from the wall or cabinet, although Magnepan says that you can put it inside a cabinet without compromising the sound too seriously.
Magnepan makes no claims that any of their speakers are magnetically shielded, and naturally I was concerned that the MGCC3 center channel might screw up my TV's picture. To my relief, I found that there was absolutely no effect on the picture even when I pressed the front of the speaker right up against the tube.
The MGCC3 is Magnepan's first center-channel speaker design to have bass response that extends as low as 80 hertz, which helps it to blend seamlessly with the MGMC1s while making it compatible with the bass-management options in a much wider range of electronics than the earlier CC1 and CC2 models. For the bottom two octaves, you need to provide your own subwoofer, and I was able to get excellent results using an M&K MX-350THX sub, while the highly flexible B&K Reference 30 pre/pro allowed me to experiment with a wide range of crossover settings. In practice, I found that the integration between the panels and the subwoofer worked best when I set the crossover point at around 120 Hz. Setting the crossover at 80 Hz resulted in a slight loss of midbass warmth and impact.
Right from the first note, I was blown away by how coherent and engaging the Maggies sounded. I was prepared for a fairly thin, phasey sound that would require me to carefully tweak the speaker angles and subwoofer settings. However, from the outset, this system had a compelling, highly communicative sound that was very easy to listen to. Because the front speakers were separated by the room's full width, there wasn't a rock-solid center image when I played the system in two-channel stereo mode, but the sound was so darn musical that audiophile notions like imaging became secondary. Besides, you could always introduce the center channel to fill in the image, using a mode like DTS Neo:6 or Dobly Pro Logic II. From the upper bass right on up through the highest frequencies, these speakers have a purity that just makes you want to crank up the sound and enjoy. The Maggies could rock with any kind of music from Motrhead to Liszt. Even with difficult recordings like the SACD version of Carole King's Tapestry, the Maggies allow you to understand why the record company felt a reissue was necessary.
While the Maggies do a great job with any type of material, there's no question that they were designed by people who put Mozart, Coltrane, and Creedence ahead of Terminator 3. Explosions and gunfire certainly don't cause the Maggies any distress, but there's no doubt that many regular box speakers would be able to outperform them in sheer large-scale dynamics and power on Richter-scale-generating material. In a way, however, this misses the point. Even movies like Terminator 3 feature more quiet scenes with normal dialogue and sweeping music that the Maggies can work their magic with than scenes of lease-breaking bedlam.
I keep having to remind myself that the MGMC1s cost only $750 per pair. That price seems absurdly low when you consider the performance and technology level you get. The center channel is certainly one of the best-sounding models out there, and it matches the MGMC1's sonic character beautifully. Add to this the fact that the hideaway MGMC1s are some of the least intrusive speakers on the market, and it's hard to see how this system could fail.
Magneplanar MGMC1 Speaker $750/pair
Magneplanar MGCC3 Center-Channel Speaker $990
• Wonderfully coherent and lively sound
• Very high WAF (wife acceptance factor)
• The speakers work best in an appropriately shaped room