Magnepan MG 3.6 1.6, CC3 surround speaker system Page 2

Were David Letterman writing this review, it would be the time for the No.1 reason to sell your cow and buy these speakers. In this case, it was the midrange, which has always been Magnepan's strong suit. Human voices—a reference to which everyone can relate—were exemplary. The biggest problem facing designers of box speakers is the box itself, which can too often lead to a cupped or muted quality. Magnepan gets rid of the box and, with it, the box's colorations. Sliding onto my VPI Aries turntable the now classic Getz/Gilberto LP (Verve V-8545), I was immediately transported to a recording studio in New York in early 1963. Both Astrud Gilberto's voice and Stan Getz's tenor sax were in the room.

Switching to a somewhat more recent live album, Ella Fitzgerald at the Montreux Jazz Festival (LP, Pablo 2310-751), this less meticulously recorded event nonetheless effectively communicated her performance. With my eyes closed, it was easy to put picture to sound, and "watch" Ella mouthing the words. I could almost hear her smile. Was it a perfect re-creation of the original event? The only ones who can say are those who attended that concert in 1975. It was, however, very believable. The Magnepans' midrange was, quite simply, that ever-elusive palpable presence for which we audiophiles forever palpitate.

Movies that Move
I watched lots of movies with the Magnepans, and even more TV on DVD (the only way to go). All of it sounded great. Even though my room is quite large (700 square feet, 5400 cubic feet), the Magnepan system, assisted by my Velodyne FSR-18 subwoofer with 18-inch cone, had no trouble filling the room with sound.

I've spent less and less time with full-blown action adventures of late, but for this review I cracked open my still-sealed DVD of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Warner Bros. 27723). The music accompanying the opening sequence has some huge bass sequences, one of them particularly long. The MG 3.6 and MG 1.6 speakers were running Full Range, so even though the subwoofer took it down to Hades level, the big Maggies still had their work cut out for them. Unlike my old IIIa's, neither of the new models suffered any flapping.

Later, in chapter 5 of T3, when John Connor breaks into a veterinarian's office to down some doggie dope, all the floorstanding speakers were barking away at the racket he made. Whether it was in the mix or not, the MG 1.6 surrounds were slightly more muted in the highs than the true-ribbon MG 3.6s up front. However, the sound of crashing glass, firmly fixed to the center channel (though actually emanating from all three front speakers), was shrill enough to serve its purpose. Still, I couldn't help but wonder how much more crystalline a true ribbon might have been in that all-important center position.

Overall, the new CC3 center-channel was wonderful, but its vertical dispersion was limited. Positioned directly below my screen, so that the speaker's top was just below my seated ear level, the CC3 put out a fairly wide swath of intelligible dialog, even well off its horizontal axis. But when I stood up and walked around, and the CC3's limited vertical dispersion became evident, dialog became somewhat phasey. If you have to place the CC3 atop a large TV, tilt the speaker so it's aimed down at the listening area and you should be okay—when the CC3 was properly positioned, its strongest suit was intelligibility. Magnepan has made large strides by making sure the CC3 center's frequency range extends down to 80Hz; human and cyborg voices alike were fully rendered.

Moving to a more musically involving DVD, Under the Tuscan Sun (Touchstone 34858), the opening cocktail party is enveloping and noisy. Thanks to the Magnepans, it was also clear as a bell. The sounds of a Tuscan marketplace were all sweetly conveyed, while plucked violins and basses painted a foreign land. With this soundtrack, the Magnepan system worked well on many levels, not the least of which was the sense of height it easily conveyed. Sounds were broad yet pinpoint, life-sized yet larger than life, all at the same time. Dipoles have an almost unfair advantage in this regard—when such speakers are set up correctly, and at the proper playback level (don't be afraid to turn them up), the walls of your home theater will be pushed back. The sense of expansiveness that had so correctly described the recording venues in my 2-channel listening sessions was only a harbinger of what the Maggies could do in a home theater setup. Instead of my home, these speakers transported me to one of the nicest cineplexes I've ever visited—and the popcorn was free.

This Magnepan surround system is not inexpensive, but it's not outrageously expensive either. At $7090 (without your choice of subwoofer), the MG 3.6/MG 1.6/CC3 system is strictly competitive with the best I've heard. It was rich, resolute, and capable of reproducing the best that 2- and multichannel sources have to offer. Some might not want to believe it, and perhaps planar sound is an acquired taste, but my long experience with Magnepans is that the music they produce is always ethereal, the listening sessions always satisfying at a gut level. Such an experience can and should lead you to rediscover your music and movie collections, as you hear them in a very new light. A lifetime of listening to box speakers will not prepare you for the out-of-body experience granted by high-quality planars.

If you're considering spending $5000– $10,000 on a surround speaker system— or even much more than that—you owe it to yourself to seek out the Magnepan system and hear what it has to offer. The MG 3.6, in particular, is possibly the finest speaker ever made for less than $5000/pair—or even for less than $10,000/pair.

Food for Thought
Those unfamiliar with Magnepan's planar-magnetic technology are often taken aback by the lack of any visible drivers. Whereas dynamic speakers push all their sound from cone drivers, Magnepans use a large plane, or "planar" surface, to move relatively vast amounts of air in order to reproduce all sound from the bass to the upper midrange. The planar material, which is similar to Mylar, is etched with a conductive surface material. When you apply the alternating current from your amp to the conductive planar material, it is alternately attracted and repelled to strips of artfully arranged magnets.

The high frequencies are reproduced using a similar technology in a separate driver. Magnepan's two top models, the MG 20.1 and MG 3.6, use true ribbons for their tweeters. These narrow strips of thin, corrugated aluminum, which stretch nearly the entire height of the speaker, are as delicate as butterfly wings to the touch but as impervious to shock as electric eels in the throes of passion. The ribbon tweeter is considered, by me and some other audiophiles, to be man's finest creation. All other Magnepan speakers use what the company calls a quasi-ribbon to reproduce high frequencies. The quasi-ribbon uses a wider band of less expensive material similar to that used in the midrange and woofer panels, but repackaged and re-engineered for high frequencies.

Planar-magnetic speakers are notoriously inefficient. The MG 3.6 is rated at 85dB SPL from 1W at a distance of one meter, so a single-ended tube amp is certainly out of the question. My first Maggies, a pair of IIIa speakers, didn't come to life until I sold what I thought was a powerful 100Wpc amp and went for a dealer-recommended Bryston 4B. That amp's over-250Wpc rating (into 4ohms) seemed to do the trick.

All Magnepan speakers are dipoles and thus interact more highly with the room than point radiators, with the exception of their radiation toward the sides, where the out-of-phase front and rear radiation produces a null. This supposedly leads to difficulty in room placement, but with the exception of a pair of MMGs in my daughter's room, where necessity forced them against the wall, I've never had trouble making enough room to coax their best performance from them. Keep them a few feet out from the wall, toe them in (ribbon tweeters to the outer edges or not), and make sure you have plenty of juice on tap.—FM