March 1, 2004
Magnepan MG3.6/R Loudspeakers
About a year ago, after spending six years exploring horn-loaded speakers and low-powered tube amps, I decided it was time to try a different path to self-understanding. And so, after a hiatus of more than 20 years, I immersed myself in the world of planar and electrostatic speakers.
Though stark in some ways, the change from horns to planars and electrostatics proved surprisingly continuous. Part of the attraction of both planars and full-range horns is the promise of coherence, of all music reproduction being cut from the same cloth: no combinations of paper woofer, Kevlar midrange, and titanium tweeter strung together by a complex crossover that even the legally deaf can hear intruding on the music.
So it was that I came to be reunited with my first love: Magneplanar loudspeakers. A lot had changed in both the Maggies and me since our earliest encounters, and I was keen, if a bit hesitant, to see if that youthful romance could be rekindled. Thus it was that the Magneplanar MG3.6/Rs took up residence in the family/listening room.The MG3.6/R ($4375 USD/pair) is a three-way design in which the ribbon tweeter is mated to planar-magnetic midrange and bass elements. In the Magneplanar speaker line, only the flagship MG20.1 and the MG3.6/R employ true ribbon tweeters; the highly regarded 1.6/QR uses the ubiquitous quasi-ribbon. Magnepan claims a nominal impedance of 4 ohms and lists the MG3.6/Rs efficiency as 86dB. As these figures suggest, the speaker is difficult to drive. It requires a great deal of current and will lustily devour whatever power youre prepared to feed it. The more I fed it, the happier it was.
When a pair of Magneplanar MG3.6/Rs is in your listening room, their presence is unlikely to go unnoticed. On its stock stand, the speaker stands about 6 tall, 2 wide, and a couple of inches deep. The MG3.6/R can be biwired via its external crossover, which is mounted on the speakers rear. Termination is best achieved by pins, though owners can purchase adapters that permit the use of spade lugs. These adapters, however, do not easily accommodate most spades. I did most of my listening with the Maggies biwired, during which time my reference speaker cables took a beating at the hands of the Magnepan adapters.
I did the better part of my listening with the MG3.6/Rs up on the stands supplied by Magnepan. If the key to dressing well is accessorizing, then the Maggies are unlikely to score big among the Sex and the City crowd. The stands are rudimentary at best, but do keep the speakers from tipping over. About halfway through the review process I received a pair of Mye Sound stands, which turned out to be a necessary upgrade for the MG3.6/Rs (see sidebar).
Each pair of MG3.6/Rs is mirror-imaged -- the speakers must be placed so that both ribbon tweeters are nearer either the inner or the outer edges of the speakers, as viewed from the front. I listened to the MG3.6/Rs extensively in both configurations, and ultimately preferred the larger, more engaging soundstage created with the tweeters closer to the outer edges to the slightly narrower, if marginally better-focused soundstage created by having the tweeters along the panels inner edges.
The MG3.6/R is a dipole: Sound emanates equally from the speaker's front and back, but the back wave is out of phase with the front. Thus, the sound's overall coherence depends on choosing the right distance from the front wall. Magnepan recommends starting at least 3 out from the front wall and moving the speakers incrementally to find the best bass response. Once that position has been identified, the speakers can be moved closer and farther apart from one another to optimize clarity, transparency, center-fill, and imaging.
The MG3.6/Rs phase coherence depends on the woofers output arriving at the listening position before the tweeters output. This means that the degree of toe-in depends on how the tweeters are placed. The Maggies required considerably more toe-in when positioned so that their tweeters were on the speakers inner edges.
Even with all these variables, I found the Magneplanar MG3.6/Rs surprisingly easy to set up. In my large room (30 x 18 x 9), this meant bringing the speakers out about 4 from the front wall and about 9 from one another (measured from center to center). One of the great joys of the Maggies was that, once Id established these positions even roughly, they made music pretty much without further fine-tuning.
The MG3.6/Rs arrived during my review of the terrifically good Innersound ESL 800 monoblock power amps. During the bulk of my time with the MG3.6/Rs, this was the amp-speaker combination I used, though I did listen to the Maggies through the Simaudio W-5 and the mbl 8011 monoblocks. The rest of the system remained the same throughout. Digital playback was handled by a Modwright-modified Sony DVP-S9000ES DVD/SACD player, analog by a Well Tempered Classic turntable and tonearm tracking a Grado Reference II cartridge, both feeding Tesla JJ 243 and upgraded Counterpoint 5.0 preamplifiers. I used my usual mix of Stealth Silver and Gold interconnects. I mostly listened with the Maggies biwired: Stealth Hybrid MLT speaker cables on top, Stealth Premier Plus copper cables below. When not biwiring the speakers, I tried both Straight Wire Virtuoso II and Stealth Hybrid MLT. Power conditioning was provided by the Blue Circle MR1200.
Below a certain power and current threshold, the MG3.6/Rs simply did not play. To be sure, I could hear the amplifier through the speaker, but I didnt hear the speaker being driven by the amplifier. Once the basic threshold of power and current was secured -- in my experience, this is what is minimally provided by, say, an Audio Research VT100 -- the speakers strong but wonderful personality asserted itself: natural, relaxed, a warm tonal balance, palpable three-dimensional images, a midrange to die for, and a limitless musical heart. Every Magneplanar speaker exhibits these attributes to some degree; the MG3.6/R exhibited more of everything.
In previous encounters with the MG3.6/R, I had found the speaker a bit veiled, ever so slightly diffuse, and only moderately dynamic. These struck me as minuscule shortcomings, especially in the light of the speakers extraordinary virtues and relatively modest cost of $4375/pair. Indeed, most listeners will not notice these shortcomings, in part because the MG3.6/Rs personality is so seductive and compelling.
I was concerned to see if these modest shortcomings could be ameliorated by pairing the MG3.6/Rs with state-of-the art electronics. With the Simaudio W-5 in place, the Magneplanars displayed a relaxed and steady personality. The midbass tightened, and extension at both frequency extremes increased. There was a noticeable improvement in macrodynamics, but the speakers character didnt change substantially: it was still warm, full, and musical, with lifelike imaging and a deep soundstage, but a bit opaque.
Things became considerably more interesting when I paired the Maggies with the mbl 8011 monoblocks. My time with the mbls was limited, but during the two weeks I had them, the MG3.6/Rs character changed significantly. It was as if I had added a subwoofer to the system. The Maggies plumbed previously uncharted depths, and with an authority that belied their status as planar speakers. This was apparent from the opening bass note of "Blues In" on the Art Pepper Quartets Modern Art [Blue Note CDP 7 46848-2], and on every Percy Heath solo on the Modern Jazz Quartets extraordinary live performance, The Last Concert [Atlantic SD2-909]. I dont think Id ever heard Ron Carters bass, on his quartets great Piccolo [Milestone M55004], exhibit as much life, weight, and sheer power through any planar speaker as it did through the Maggie-mbl combination.
Nor did the increased weight, extension, and dynamics of the bottom end come at the expense of tonal imbalance or a loss of sophistication elsewhere in the frequency range. Unlike other German solid-state amps -- many of which strike me as decidedly, even intentionally cool and detached -- the mbls sound robust and warm. Driven by the mbls, the Maggies took on a relaxed glow, exhibiting an ease of presentation from top to bottom that was addictive.
But if the mbls gave me an indication of the Maggies potential, the Innersound ESL 800s were a revelation. If the mbls got the Maggies up and dancing, the Innersounds lit a fire under them. The Innersound-Magneplanar combination was among the most synergistic amp-speaker matches in my experience. With the Innersounds in place, another layer of veiling was removed, the Maggies overall speed increased, and the speakers took on a dynamic temperament uncommon to planars and altogether novel in my experience. Images were locked in and focused, the background blackened, and the speakers came wholly to life.
I dont mean to suggest that the MG3.6/Rs achieved the transparency of electrostatics. Some electrostatics achieve their trademark transparency at a cost to the musics overall body. Driven by the Innersounds, the Maggies had increased transparency, clarity, and focus while retaining the seductive naturalness of the Magneplanar sound -- a naturalness predicated on midrange solidity, weight, and body.
Those who fall in love with the Magneplanar sound often do so because of its exquisitely seductive midrange -- robust, unhurried, natural, personal -- but there was much more to love about the MG3.6/R than its midrange. From the midbass through the midrange, the speaker was as tonally accurate as any in my experience. There was nothing in the slightest bit hi-fi-ish about the MG3.6/R.
Above all else, the Magneplanar MG3.6/R played music -- all kinds of music, at all kinds of rational listening levels, always in a believable, entirely natural, and personal way. I enjoyed everything I listened to through them, from Tomasz Stankos searing trumpet on his Soul of Things [ECM 1788] to Stephen Ulrichs fretless Telecaster on the Big Lazys self-titled 1999 release [Tasankee 1]. The wonderful Isaac Hayes baritone on the great soul theme album, Hot Buttered Soul [Stax SCD 4114-2], oozes a sexual sensibility that, if it appeared as an image on your computer, could get you arrested in the UK. The haunting beauty of George Lloyds Cello Concerto as performed by cellist Anthony Ross [Troy 458] is matched by the dark drama of Aulis Sallinens Shadows [Finlandia FACD 346]. And some may equal, but no speaker surpasses, the Magneplanars way with the female voice.
The most pleasant surprise, however, came in the lowest octaves. To be sure, the MG3.6/R did not plumb the deepest depths, but its bass was remarkably good. Especially with the mbls, the bass had weight, extension, dynamics, and believable authority. With the Innersounds it had a little bit less of each. In both cases, the bass was reproduced with a transparency and realism that perfectly matched the speakers overall character.
One often hears that the Magneplanar MG3.6/R does not come alive at lower listening levels. This was not my experience; even in my large listening room, the Maggies maintained their natural beauty, their ability to cut to the core of the musical event at lower volumes. On the other hand, one of the great but somewhat under-appreciated virtues of the MG3.6/R was its ability to charge a room. Set up correctly, it could energize a listening space as can few other speakers. The MG3.6/R is especially comfortable in reasonably large rooms, and sounds best in farfield listening. I ended up doing most of my listening from 15 away.
The best electronics I had on hand allowed me to dig deeply into the heart of the MG3.6/R. I was rewarded by increased dynamics, clarity, focus and transparency -- but at a price. The same amps that elevated the speaker to new heights revealed what sounded to me like a shortcoming in the crossovers ability to seamlessly integrate the ribbon tweeter with the rest of the speaker. I heard a difference in speed and tonality between the tweeter and the planar driver. The former appeared to favor speed in attack, leading edge, and decay, at the expense of some of the body. In contrast, the planar elements softened and rounded the leading edges a bit in favor of fully textured notes whose decay was unhurried and harmonically complete.
The Magneplanar MG3.6/R is one of the most successful speakers I have had the pleasure of knowing. Though it did not resolve inner detail with the incisiveness of the very best electrostatics, it nonetheless drew me into the music through nuance and subtlety as well as through power and dynamic realism. And while it was not as dynamic as the best cone-and-dome speakers can be, it charged my room with a lifelike realism and dynamism that convinced me that the Who really were live at Leeds, or at Lesters or Marys or Joes -- wherever the speakers happen to be located. And while the MG3.6/Rs did not pretend to present sharply focused images in the manner of minimonitors, it was impossible not to be struck by their lifelike and natural imaging.
Potential buyers are often encouraged to place the Magnepan MG3.6/R on their short lists of must-listens -- for good reason. Fed adequate power and current, the speaker will reward the music lover with the possibility of music of any kind reproduced limitlessly, faithfully, and naturally. The speakers heart and soul are revealed relatively easily and at reasonable cost, especially in light of the reward. At the same time, the MG3.6/R can stand up to the best amplification -- it is nearly impossible to outclass in this regard.
The Magnepan MG3.6/Rs did all this without once seeming like a compromise. The speaker embodies a glorious musical vision -- a nearly ideal balance, not a negotiated settlement -- and represents a major sonic achievement. If you love music and aspire to play lots of it of all kinds, then youll be hard-pressed to find a better supporter of your listening pleasure than the MG3.6/R. On the other hand, this speaker does not wear all its possibilities on its sleeve. It invites you to explore its capabilities, to dig ever deeper into the listening experience.
Price: $4375 USD per pair.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
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