Review: Magnepan Mini Maggie

“This is the worst listening room I’ve ever heard,” Magnepan’s Wendell Diller said, half joking. It might have been less than half.

Honestly, I couldn’t disagree. We were sitting in my office, facing my computer and a newly setup Mini Maggie system. I don’t review speakers in my office, for good reason. It’s basically a cube with mostly bare walls: one of the worst acoustic environments possible.

And with any speaker — especially a planar magnetic speaker — the room is a huge part of the deal. So began my quest for a better room, better sound, and the perfect setup.

As any high school grad can (hopefully) tell you, sound is waves: compressions and rarefactions in the air your ears interpret as audio information. These waves can bounce off walls, ceilings, even windows in the case of high frequencies. They’re absorbed by soft things like sofas, drapes, and so on. The key to any good-sounding room is absorbing enough to prevent excessive reverberation, but keeping enough reflections so the room isn’t “dead” (like you’re listening inside a pillow).

All speakers interact with the room they’re in. Amazing speakers can sound awful in a bad room, and mediocre speakers will sound, well, mediocre in a good room. With panel speakers, though, the room becomes a much bigger part of the equation. Electrostatic speakers (like MartinLogans) and planar magnetic speakers (like Magnepans) emit sounds from both front and back. You’re hearing much more “bounced” sound than you would with a traditional direct-firing speaker.

In other words, the room and the placement are far more crucial with Maggies, and I had poor placement in a worse room.

Let me be clear, my theater, where I do most of my reviews, is great. Thick carpet, bookshelves all along one wall, soft sofa. Acoustically, it’s pretty good. This was not my theater. I never bothered to acoustically treat my office because other than the occasional headphone or tablet, I don’t review gear there (Well, here. It is where I write the reviews).

The Mini Maggie system is a high-end desktop audio system, designed as a unique alternative to traditional computer speakers. No question it’s a niche product. At $1,490 and requiring decent amplification, they’re not for the standard Bose-sumer. But with more and more audiophiles converting to digital, and more and more of us tied to our computers all day, the need for a decent desktop audio system is acute.

Setup

Knowing the speaker’s need for specific placement, Wendell had flown in from Minnesota to make sure I didn’t bollocks it up. I was OK with this (I usually don’t like manufacturers to set up their own gear, preferring to do it myself), as Magnepan expects their dealers to do the same. Also, he insisted.

We got them setup and sounding OK, but I promised I’d work on the room, to make them sound better. My room was an especially bad example of acoustics, so I’d bet most rooms wouldn’t need the work mine did.

I added some curtains to the two glass doors, changing them from total reflection to a bit of absorption. I added some second-hand diffusers I “borrowed” from Brent. Along one wall I placed an accordion room divider covered in a sort of circular-patterned twine (don’t ask me, I think it came with the house). If you’ve never done room acoustics before, I recommend a professional. Bookshelves, though, are usually great and thick carpet rarely hurt anyone.  

These improvements were cheap, only took an afternoon, and offered a noticeable improvement. Now it sounded like a normal room, not a tile shower. Consequently, the speakers sounded way better. But I’ll get to that, there was another issue.

Magnepan rates the Mini Maggies as 4 Ohms with 86 dB efficiency at 500 Hz. So they’re going to need a real amp (and it will run hot). Initial setup with a desktop digital amp of otherwise great quality resulted in a strained, constricted sound.

Instead, I hooked up one of my favorite pieces of audio gear, a Simaudio MOON i3.3 integrated amp. Rated at 100-watts per channel, the i3.3 is really a beefy high-end amp with an awesome USB DAC and a volume knob. The Maggies came alive. Even in my tiny office, the soundstage was enormous: Depth, height, an absolute wall of sound.

(As it was at the end of its lifecycle, I had to replace the i3.3 mid-review with the newer and improved-er MOON 340i. No big changes as it relates to the Mini Maggies, just wanted to mention it.)

Performance

There’s a certain realism to the sound from these speakers. Everything is a little more lifelike. Maybe it has something to do with how they interact with the room, more like musical instruments do in the real world. On “Bibi” from Jayme Stone & Mansa Sissoko’s brilliant Africa to Appalachia album, the plucks and strums of the strings, and the cracks of the percussion took on a crisp urgency most speakers lack. Transients had a sharp attack not found with many traditional tweeters. I’m not one to dip into the hyperbolic “it was like they were in the room” tripe, but it was closer to that with these speakers than many others I’ve heard.

The richness of the guitar on “Elegy” from Tycho’s Dive album is often buried in the lush mix through most speakers, but here it was a balanced part of the soundscape. The “bigness” of these speaker’s sound can’t be understated.

Though the Mini Maggies look like a 2.1 system, they’re really not. The woofer panel is really just an extension of the satellites, not a true “subwoofer.” Magnepan bills the Mini’s as “essentially a 3.7 in miniature.” As in, it’s like one of their big single speakers split in 3. Planar magnetic speakers are big for reason. They need size to go low.

Bass is tricky to get right in a room, even more so when the bass in question is coming out of both sides of a single panel. Move the woofer unit closer to the wall, and you’ll likely get more bass, to a point. Moving it around changes the amount of bass noticeably. Depending on the size of your room, it may not be enough. I tend to like a warmer, slightly bass heavy sound, so you might be fine with the balance. For me, I’d listen to the Mini Maggies with a sub, just as I would with most speakers.

“Fall” from the TRON: Legacy Reconfigured album sounded lighter than it does with most speakers. I added a sub, and it blended well with the Maggies, adding the fullness they lacked with this style of music.

Conclusion

The Mini Maggies are going to appeal to a certain type of person, an audiophile looking for a bigger sound than is typically possible with traditional desktop speakers. There is something addictive about the sound from planar magnetic speakers: a fast, open realism that adds a new dimension to recorded music.

Because of their significant interaction with the room, careful setup is required. It’s tempting to try the Mini’s in a bigger room, like a standard 2-channel environment. In that type of install, the Maggies may or may not work. I tried them in my theater (a big room), and they worked. . . as long as they were paired with a sub. Again, it would all depend on the room.

And to that end, Magnepan has a 30-day in-home trial program, for you to setup and listen, tweak and listen, then listen and enjoy. . . or you can return them.

I listen to music from my computer all day long, and I’ve had quality speakers hooked up to a computer since the mid-90s. To me the idea of a high-end desktop audio system is perfectly logical. If you’re still using the plastic speakers that came with your computer, well, I’m amazed you’re still reading. 

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