Is it time to drop the magic show? (Hi-Fi+)

Magico Q5
Is it time to drop the magic show? (Hi-Fi+)

A while back, I noted that the Magico Q5 made the best sound I’d ever heard from a loudspeaker. Several months on, and nothing I’ve encountered can unseat that conviction. But, here’s the little secret…

This is the least well-named brand in audio. There’s no ‘magic’ in Magico’s Q5.

This is not some hocus-pocus, breathed upon, tweaked-up loudspeaker design. There’s no falling back on empty claims and voodoo physics, no design elements that sprang from dreams, astrological tables or homeopathic repertories. It’s just good engineering, raised to a very high power.

Disregarding the sound quality entirely, this project is the sort of thing that attracts engineers like moths to a flame. Not just audio people, engineers of all stripes would ‘get it’. The braced aluminum spaceframe within, the way the drive units go on a world tour to utilize the technological advantages of engineering teams across continents, the no-compromise bill of materials and the heavy quarter-inch plating that goes into the outer casing; these are all things engineers would drool over. OK, some might ask if this is overkill for the task of making good sound (there is space hardware built to less demanding standards), but any engineer worth his or her salt would walk away from the CAD/CAM workstation and the finished product with no small degree of respect.

In a way, this has parallels with British turntable and arm-meister, SME. Once again, side-stepping any discussion of sound or performance, the engineering that goes into an SME design is not hard to spot. Rumor has it that when pitching for high-grade engineering contracts outside of the audio industry, SME’s late founder Alistair Robertson-Aikman used to send an SME tonearm to the chief engineer of the prospective client, with a note saying “if you can find someone who could make this better than we can, you can keep it”. This would be followed by a humbling visit to SME’s factory in Steyning, and a contract. And usually, sales of an arm or two to the engineers doing the visiting. That's not arrogance (ARA was not an arrogant man), it's confidence in the knowledge that your engineering kung fu is strong. Just as sales people love to be sold to, good engineers love good engineering.

When you consider the loudspeaker (or turntable) as a small-scale engineering project writ large, it reshapes one’s reactions to other products in that field. Not simply rivals at the same price/performance level, but even – especially – at more down-to-earth prices. If the engineering is reflected in its sonic performance (and in mechanical-engineering exercises like turntables and loudspeakers, that's highly likely), and you spend enough time to acclimatize yourself to that engineering-derived performance, it effectively eliminates a lot of products in the process. At less heady and breathless price levels, this line of reasoning gives you greater admiration for loudspeaker companies like B&W, PSB and Revel; brands that take the time and energy to engineer a loudspeaker. It also gives renewed respect for the blue-sky research done by the BBC, KEF and the NRC in the past, as well as the fruits of such programs. The importance of correctly ‘voicing’ a loudspeaker to ensure it doesn’t sound like someone tipping a sack of spoons down a fire escape should not be understated, but neither should the significance of backing up that loudspeaker voicing with good, solid physics, mathematics and engineering.

In other words, perhaps good loudspeaker designs need to come from engineering schools, not Hogwarts.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the self-taught, wild-haired audio designer, having flashes of brilliance and designing audio masterpieces. Indeed, a great deal of the best of the best in high-end audio comes via this route. Plus, many of these people are not as 'self-taught' or as  ‘wild-haired’ as it might seem. But the trouble with designer-led loudspeaker companies is they can turn into brands making ‘designer’s folly’ loudspeakers, where overall performance is compromised in order to achieve a specific or unstated goal.

While this design process can produce remarkable results – this little world of ours would be an altogether duller place without at least some loudspeakers that stress one aspect of performance at the expense of the others – we need to distinguish those products that are striving to follow a different, but potentially just as valid, audio path from those that are compromised by shortcomings in the design. Because, I suspect we have been too accepting of weaker designs being represented as ‘idiosyncratic’ and too unwilling to recognize their moves away from accuracy as moves away from fidelity.

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