It has taken me quite some time to come to terms with these speakers, identify their strengths and weaknesses and ultimately begin to appreciate what they do best.
The reason for the long ‘break-in’ period (me, not the speakers), was primarily due to one fundamental flaw in the process, and that is that I changed too many components in too short a time frame. I won’t get into the reasons for this; suffice to say that moving house was the primary culprit, the new listening room being somewhat larger than previous.
Design / Construction:
Most people I’m certain are familiar with Magnepan speakers and what they represent. The MG 3.6R sits one down from the top of the Magnepan range, with its bigger brother, the MG 20.1 occupying top spot.
The MG3.6 is a 3-way speaker, with a planer/magnetic midrange/bass and a true ribbon tweeter.
It’s specification on paper tends to mask the true characteristic of how easy (or difficult) a load it presents to any amplifier. Rated at 85db/500hz/2.83v sensitivity and a 4 ohm impedance, one might assume a fairly conventional load, not requiring anything too ‘brute-force’ for amplification. One might also be wrong, but more on that to follow.
Much of the Magnepan’s sonic signature is derived from it’s use of ribbons, in place of the typical cone drivers, and it’s open ‘box-less’ construction. Most box speakers assume a certain sonic characteristic that is heavily influenced by the construction of the enclosure, the Magnepans are free from this influence and tend to sound…’open’, ‘box-less’ ……different.
Before getting into specifics, I should state that these speakers were purchased on the used market, and were therefore fully broken in when they arrived.
Many people probably reject Magnepan as a speaker choice due to the problems associated with shipping and handling such a large ‘fragile’ object. Properly crated, as mine were, they are no more prone to shipping mishaps than any other speaker of similar proportions.
Measuring 24” x 71”x 1.625” they are quite large, but they are not particularly heavy, so unpacking, assembly and preliminary positioning was not a difficult task for one person.
Magnepan, for reasons known only to them, are not proponents of the ‘rigid construction is best’ theory. The stock stands are flimsy at best, and a gentle push on the top of the speaker has it swaying too and fro like drunken sailor. One might consider this less important given that the speaker is a true dipole design, with equal sound pressure output from the front and rear of the speaker, thus perhaps providing some cancellation of the forces which might try to set the speaker in lateral motion to the detriment of the sound. Still, it is disconcerting to see such a basic support structure on a speaker that retails for over $4,000.
Disappointing also is the external crossover box, and its method of coupling to the rear of the speaker. As mentioned previously, the MG 3.6R is a 3-way design, the crossover components for the tweeter are mounted inside of the speaker, but the bass/mid crossover components are mounted within two small boxes which attach to the rear of the speakers using supplied metal pins. These pins also act as electrical conductors, making the connection between the box and the speaker terminals. Small brackets are supplied which attach the crossover box to the speaker, removing support stresses from the pins. All of this is barely adequate, and for me, creates something of a dichotomy. How can a speaker gain so much critical acclaim, yet completely fly in the face of everything we have come to know about the importance of construction and support? It leaves me wondering what a ‘hot-rod’ version of this speaker might sound like, with rigid frames, integral support stands that brace the whole structure of the speaker and couple it effectively to the floor, improved internal wiring and crossover components, and the addition of spade connectors to replace the cheap banana’s. These are probably improvements that could be implemented during the manufacturing phase for less than $1,000 in parts, and a couple of additional hours of labor. These improvements could elevate the speaker into another class, and allow the manufacturer to demand a much higher price for a speaker that is already considered something of a bargain.
One can’t expect to mimic the setup of a floor-mounted box type speaker with a large dipole. At a basic level, these speakers need room to breath, and need space to the rear of the speaker to develop stage depth. Dipoles radiate sound in a ‘figure of 8’ pattern, so sidewall, floor and ceiling influences are less than with a typical box type speaker. In my room I have the ability to place the speakers quite freely, with as much as 8’ behind them, 14’ between them, and well clear of the side walls. This isn’t how they are finally positioned, but my starting point was to take advantage of the large room and set placement to the boundary extremes.
Moving the speakers around with the stock stands on a carpeted floor is very simple – they slide around quite freely.
Magnepan show a steep toe-in angle, and I have experimented with angles ranging from 0 degrees to 45 degrees. Magnepan recommend tweeter placement to be at a greater distance from the listener than the bass panels, since the tweeter can ‘overwhelm’ the sonic picture in certain setups. With a high toe-in, this would require tweeters on the inside. I finally settled on around 3-5 degrees of toe-in, which means tweeters on the outside edges of the speaker.
At this point I’m going to wind the clock forward, since most of you are probably asleep by now anyway. I’ve tried several different amps with these speakers, including powerful tube Monoblocks, and bi-amped SS configurations. I won’t describe the sonic attributes of each here, though if anyone would like to email me I would be happy to provide more information on my lengthy trials and tribulations.
I have also implemented a few tweaks a very quick summary of which is:
Cardas Crossover pin replacements – an absolute must.
Cardas Tweeter attenuator pin replacements – an absolute must.
Sound Org Custom Magnepan stands – marginal improvements, MYE stands are supposedly much better.
My immediate impression of the Magnepan sound was – wow!! I’m not a newcomer to this style of musical presentation, having owned Quad ESL57’s and a pair of Apogee Caliper Signature II’s, along with various box speakers.
The first thing that strikes you about the Magnepan sound is how open and natural it is. You immediately realize that a good percentage of what you hear in a typical box speaker… is the box.
The next thing that strikes you is how differently these speakers express themselves when compared to more conventional box designs. The sound has tremendous scale and clarity, yet the timbre and texture of notes from an acoustic instrument, like an upright bass for example lacks some fullness and roundness.
Sound flows from these speakers in a big open wave, it doesn’t jump at you with the same dynamic snap and attack that typical box speakers provide.
I’ve recently listened to Talon’s Peregrine speaker, albeit in a less than ideal setting, and they struck me as having many similar qualities to the Magnepans. The Talon’s also buck the trend exhibited by typical boxes and provide this same effortless and flowing presentation, without the dynamic attack and presence.
Other speakers I have listened to recently include speakers from B&W and Kharma. Focusing on the B&W model 808, since I lived with them in my system for a full week, they present sound in a completely different way to the Magnepans (and the Talon’s), more, dare I say it, conventional.
It strikes me that what I am observing here is what makes this hobby so interesting. Two different pairs of speakers can both be contenders for the high end, yet can both present themselves sonically in completely different ways, almost night and day in terms of musical presentation, yet, given the rules of our hobby, they can both coexist and both claim respect in the industry.
Getting back to the matter at hand, with my chair some 17’ from the speakers, and the speakers moved in to approximately 13’ apart, the soundstage from the 3.6R’s was huge, with excellent center fill energy and a good cohesive stage presentation. The stage width easily extended beyond the outer edges of the speaker, when required to do so, and depth was quite good, though not as deep as other speakers, particularly the Quads.
Bass was somewhat lacking, both low bass and mid/upper bass, which gave the sound an overall lean presentation.
I was able to get a slightly better bass response using the Rives Audio Test CD2, and simply playing the low frequency test tones whilst moving around the room. I was able to move the listening seat to a position where the 50-80hz region was slightly boosted, giving a little more bass effect and warmth to the overall sound.
I also initially found the tweeters to be a little too bright for my tastes, with just too much treble energy. Brass instruments such as solo trumpets and even solo woodwind instruments came across with just too much energy and force.
I was able to tame this slightly forward presentation somewhat by moving the speakers closer to the front wall, but with an unwanted loss of soundstage depth as a trade-off.
I was able to achieve something of a compromise between tonal presentation and stage depth, but it always left me wanting more of what the compromise had removed. In a nutshell, I wasn’t really satisfied with the sound to the point were I could live with and enjoy these speakers in the long term.
The comments above encompass and span a variety of system changes, all implemented in an effort to correct the tonal balance of the system and realize the sonic attributes that I had initially sought. These changes mostly related to power amps, and I saw amps from McIntosh, Belles, Conrad Johnson, Cary and Perreaux come and go, in a relatively short space of time.
Each of the above amps came with their own signature and qualities, and offered something different into the mix, but none ultimately corrected the deficiencies to a satisfactory extent.
Enter the Krell:
On the verge of giving up the Magnepans, I was accosted by a local audiophile (Nrchy), and for the sheer fun of it we traded amps on a loan basis – out went my beautiful Cary V12i Mono’s and in came Nrchy’s sinister looking Krell FPB200.
The first thing that became apparent was that these speakers really do need a barrel full of good clean power – forget about paper watts, these speakers need real watts, and more to the point, current. The Krell opened up the speakers and created a pure and effortless sound that melted the speakers (not literally), delivering a highly transparent picture, with extended stage width and depth. The stage presentation changed from a recessed stage to a more forward presentation, not forward in the tonal sense, but in the sense of physical placement of performers on the stage.
The stage became more layered and 3 dimensional and I could now clearly sense that performers were not standing in a straight line, but occupying different places at varying distances from the front of the stage.
This improvement in dimensionality helped to improve my perception of image specificity. I had considered the imaging quality with previous amps to be fairly good, but the Krell presented images more clearly defined, with more space and air around each image and a greater sense of presence.
The Krell also seemed to render stage and image scale more accurately than with previous amps. The Carys presented big, almost bloated images, mostly confined within the outer edges of the speakers. Track 7 on Dianna Krall’s Live in Paris presents a piano that completely dominates the soundstage with its 20’ wide keyboard! The Krell provides a more lifelike image size and creates a more realistic presentation.
The Krell took a firmer grip on the lower octaves, as one would expect from its reputation alone. I can’t honestly say that the bass was more extended than with the Cary or even the Perreaux 3150B, but it was more tuneful and articulate.
Playing track after track of familiar music, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the scale of the presentation. When people talk about trying to recreate the illusion of live performers in the living room, well, when was the last time you saw a 5 piece band performing on a stage that was only 7 feet wide? To recreate live music you need physical space. With the Magnepans sitting 13’ apart, and well away from side walls, the stage scale was spectacular. The Cowboy Junkies’ ‘Trinity Sessions’ is a pretty well recorded set, recorded using a single mic, with minimal post recording processing and in a fairly good acoustic venue. The performers are placed realistically on a stage that is released from the confines of the speaker boundaries, with reverberant ambience seemingly enveloping the room. These are real sized performers and instruments, with space between and around them, as you would expect at a live acoustic event.
The sense of 3-dimensionality isn’t the best I’ve ever heard, that accolade goes to a system I heard many moons ago comprised of much more expensive amplification, with a much more expensive front end (Linn Isobariks, active Naim amps, LP12/Ekos/Troika), but it is very good, particularly late at night when the AC power supply is cleaner.
Despite obvious improvements brought about by the partnership with the Krell, the tonal balance was still a touch too lean for me to be completely satisfied. However, I was able to edge the tonal presentation a little more towards neutral by changing I/C’s and speaker cables. Also, running balanced XLR’s to the Krell, made a significant improvement over single ended cables, even with expensive Purist Audio RCA’s versus relatively inexpensive DH Labs Silver XLR’s (one tenth of the price of the Purist).
It’s an old cliché I know, but these speakers are truly revealing of what is upfront of them in the component chain.
There is something very special about the Magnepan MG3.6R, particularly when your listening room allows flexibility of placement with good distance between speakers and walls.
The tonal balance is a little tipped toward bright, but you can tame the bright presentation by carefully selecting source components, amplifiers and cables.
The MG 3.6R is clearly capable of stellar performance, given the removal of certain constraints and partnering with appropriate equipment, in particular, a good quality and high powered amp.
If you have the time, patience and inclination to pursue the goal of achieving a sound that is open, full scale, accurate, articulate and free from the sonic coloration of boxes, and if you can cast off your conceptions of how a conventional speaker should sound, then I highly recommend giving the Maggie’s a try.
Note! Read my notes on a complete crossover rebuild for the Magnepan 3.6R