I’ve just heard something extraordinary: namely Magnepan’s three-piece Mini Maggie desktop speaker system ($1490), which I feel confident in describing as the best system of its kind in the known world. These are strong words, to be sure, but words that in this case are more than justified by this compact system’s jaw-droppingly terrific performance. In the course of this review, I’ll discuss the Mini Maggie system’s sound in some detail, but before I do, some background information is in order.
The Mini Maggie system consists of three elements: a pair of true ribbon/planar magnetic dipole desktop panels and a matching Magnepan DWM planar magnetic dipole woofer module, which is designed to fit neatly within the knee hole space of a typical desk. The crossover network for the system is housed within the woofer module, so that you would run speaker cables from your amplifier to the woofer, and then run shorter supplemental speaker cables from the woofer up to the two desktop modules—all very simple, elegant, and more or less foolproof. Once you get the system wired up and begin to play music, it’s pretty much time to fasten your figurative seatbelts, because you will be treated—assuming your amp and source components are up to the task—to sound that not only sets a world-class standard for desktop audio, but comes very close to matching world class standards for hi-fi systems of any kind.
Let me also provide a few words of explanation and introduction for those of you who have never seen or experienced Magnepan loudspeakers of any kind. All of Magnepan’s loudspeakers, regardless of size, use planar magnetic drivers and are dipole radiators (meaning they radiate sound to the front and to the rear, but have a distinctive dispersion pattern that, if viewed from directly above the speaker, would resemble a “figure 8”). There are several implications of using this sort of configuration.
First, Magnepan speakers do not have (or need) box-type enclosures of any kind, and second, Magnepans do not use traditional piston-type drive units with cone or dome-shaped diaphragms. Instead, Magnepan speakers have relatively large, rectangular, membrane-like diaphragms with conductors (either wires or quasi-ribbons) bonded in a specific pattern over the diaphragm’s surface. The diaphragms, in turn, are mounted in a minimalist perimeter frame (remember, there are no boxes here) and suspended in front of an open-mesh metal panel to which are attached slender arrays of bar-type magnets, also arranged in a specific pattern. When audio signals pass through the conductors on the diaphragm, they interact with the fields from the magnets causing the entire diaphragm surface to be pulled toward or pushed away from the magnet array, thus producing sound.
In Magnepan’s most sophisticated speakers (including the Mini Maggie systems), tweeter assemblies use what the firm terms “true ribbon”-type drivers, which offer another variation on planar magnetic driver technology. Instead of having conductors bonded to an underlying plastic membrane, ribbon drivers use an ultra-thin, corrugated “ribbon” of aluminum in a dual-purpose role, serving as both the conductor and as the diaphragm at the same time. The result is a driver whose sole moving element is quite literally lighter than the air it is moving, which means the driver can be incredibly responsive and offers almost incomprehensibly quick transient response.
One final configuration note is that Magnepan speakers are typically fairly large in frontal area, but are very thin—just 1.25 inches thick! For listeners who have played with Magnepan speakers the ultra-thin design seems perfectly normal, but it can be a bit mind-bending, at least at first, for those who have known nothing but box-type loudspeakers in the past. But after a few minutes of listening, many first-timers concede that “Maggies” neither look nor sound like box speakers, noting with delight that they offer important elements of sonic realism few box speakers can match.
Magnepan Mini Maggie desktop panels:
•Mini Maggie desktop panels feature planar magnetic midrange drivers and true ribbon tweeters whose design is a miniature version of the tweeter used in the firm’s top tier 3.7 and 20.1 floorstanding loudspeakers.
•Desktop panels are each a bit larger than a typical notebook in frontal area (14” high x 9.5” wide), but are—as mentioned above—just 1.25” in depth or thickness.
•The panels come with elliptical pedestal-like desktop stands and are offered with either natural or black-finished solid oak or dark cherry trim and fabric grilles produced in black, grey, or off-white.
Magnepan DWM woofer panel:
•The DWM woofer features a wideband planar magnetic driver that in essence is a scaled-down version of the woofer section of the flagship Magnepan 20.1 speaker.
•Quoted frequency response of the DWM module is 40Hz – 5 kHz, which is remarkable bandwidth for a bass module.
•The versatile DWM is set up so that it can accept either stereo inputs, which is how it is used in the Mini Maggie system, or mono inputs (which come into play in larger Magnepan systems where listeners might use one DWM per channel for added bass reinforcement or system tuning).
The Mini Maggie crossover system:
•The Mini Maggie crossover section is a built-in feature of the DWM module.
•Wendell Diller, Magnepan’s head of marketing, states emphatically that the Mini Maggie system’s crossover design leverages the firm’s latest design thinking as drawn from the company’s two newest full-size loudspeaker designs: namely the award-winning 1.7 and 3.7.
Other important points:
•Given the fact that the Mini Maggie systems sports advanced technologies drawn from the firm’s more expensive full-size speakers and also quotes quite wide-range frequency response, some listeners will inevitably ask if the system can be used as a near full-range satellite/woofer-type system in smaller rooms settings.
•Wendell Diller fields such questions by emphasizing that the Mini Maggie system was designed from the outset for near-field, desktop listening applications—applications where the speaker’s performance is simply spectacular. While conceding that the Mini Maggie “will work” as a sat/woofer-type system in some small rooms, Diller’s opinion is that listeners who want a whole-room speaker system might be better off choosing one of Magnepan’s larger floorstanding models.
•There are two reasons why the Mini Maggie system is best used in a desktop context. First, as Diller points out, the phase response of the Mini Maggie system is “incredibly easy to get right” in a desktop setting, but much harder to get right when it is set up as a whole-room system. Second, the power response characteristics of the Mini Maggie system are geared for specifically for near-field listening, whereas the power response characteristics of the bigger, floorstanding Maggies typically works out better in a whole-room context.
•At present, the Mini Maggie system is offered only as a three-piece system, meaning that the Mini Maggie desktop panels are not sold separately.
Before describing how the Mini Maggie system sounds, I first need to ask you to set aside any preconceptions you might have regarding the levels of performance that can be expected from “desktop speaker systems.” I say this because, in my experience the Mini Maggie system simply tears up the established, unspoken rules of desktop sound, throws them in the trash bin, and start all over again at a much, much higher level of performance than I frankly would have thought possible.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the sheer size (that is, depth, width, and height) of the soundstages that the Mini Maggie system produces. In the past, I’ve heard fine near-field monitors that offered excellent levels of clarity, definition, and imaging precision, yet none of them have ever really produced soundstages that had the sort of expansiveness and holographic depth you might hear from a great full-size loudspeaker in a large listening room. The Mini Maggie system, however, is different, and shockingly so. When you listen to the Mini Maggie rig on a desktop, you have little if any sense that the desktop modules are even the sources of the sounds you are hearing, because the soundstage you hear is almost unbelievably wide and—on good recordings—tends to unfold in a convincing three-dimensional space that extends far behind the speakers and, in fact, extends far behind the back wall of the listening room itself. No other desktop system that I have heard even comes close to the Mini Maggie system in this regard, and frankly not many full-size speakers can do as well. Granted, the Mini Maggie system may not fully equal the soundstaging capabilities of the firm’s much larger and more costly model 3.7 and 20.1 floorstanders, whose very tall midrange panels and ribbon tweeter do a superior job of conveying the sheer height and volume of large scale listening environments (realistically suggesting, as they do, the size and scope of large concert halls, for example). But even so, I think it’s fair to say the Mini Maggie establishes a new benchmark for desktop systems, and one that I doubt will soon be equaled.
But there is more to the Mini Maggies system than imaging precision and soundstage depth, because the system also offers uncannily smooth and well balanced frequency response (from about 40 Hz on up), plus downright mind-blowing levels of resolution and detail. Although I know it will surely sound like an exaggeration, I think I could probably count on the fingers of just two hands the number of high-end full-size loudspeakers I’ve heard that offer as much or more resolution than the Mini Maggie system does, and all of them cost many multiples of the Mini Maggie system’s price. The Mini Maggie system really is that good.
If the foregoing statements sound like wild claims, then consider this. Magnepan has been on a roll of late, so that when our sister publication The Absolute Sound reviewed Magnepan’s 1.7 loudspeaker ($1995/pair) it was immediately proclaimed one of the greatest bargains in high-end audio (frankly, it’s the sort of affordable speaker that sounds so good that it makes you want to race out and spend $20k or so on electronics, just to have components good enough to reveal the speakers’ full potential). Then, along came the even better model 3.7 loudspeakers ($5500 pair)—models that both The Absolute Sound’s founder Harry Pearson and Executive Editor Jonathan Valin regard as arguably the greatest high-end audio bargain of all time.
Now consider this: which of Magnepan’s several world-beating speakers do you suppose the sound of the little Mini Maggie system most closely resembles? If you guessed the model 3.7, your answer is right on target, which is simply amazing. Granted, the model 3.7 loudspeakers do offer certain undeniable advantages, such as deeper bass extension, a broader overall dynamic envelope, an even greater ability to convey soundstage size (especially height), and—of course—the ability to fill large rooms with sound. But even so, when it comes to rendering musical transients, textures, and timbres accurately, the little Mini Maggie system hangs right in there with its illustrious, award-winning big brothers. As Wendell Diller put it, “the thing that makes the Mini Maggie so much fun is that it really does sound like a 3.7 that you can fit on your desktop.” I can’t speak for you, but to me that sounds like a wonderful idea, especially when you consider that the 3.7 often winds up being compared with speakers ten times its price.
As I listened to the Mini Maggie system, it dawned on me that this little desktop speaker system neatly bridges the gap between the appeal of today’s best headphones and today’s best full-size speakers. On the one hand, the Mini Maggie package offers precisely the sort of ultra-finely focused, highly detailed sonic presentation that makes world-class headphones so much fun to listen to. On the other hand, the Mini Maggie system effortlessly does what no headphone system I’ve heard really can, which is to place a large, spacious, well-focused soundstage in front of the listener (as in a live music venue), rather than having the stage unfold within the listener’s head (as with headphone systems). In a sense, then, the Mini Maggie package gives you virtually everything you would want from a great headphone (except, sadly, very deep bass extension), plus something more that really helps bring the music alive.
Are there caveats? There are a few, though it almost seems churlish to bring them up given how much the Mini Maggie system has to offer, and for such a reasonable price. First, note that the Mini Maggie system, like all Magnepan speakers, is relatively low in sensitivity and definitely likes being driven by powerful amplifiers (Diller says users have been happy with amps as small as 25 Wpc and as large as—no joke—1000 Wpc). Next, note that the Mini Maggie system is, for obvious reasons, extremely sensitive to amplifier quality (remember: this is a very revealing speaker system that incorporates a world-class ribbon tweeter). Third, note that while the system can play quite loudly in a desktop context, it does have its limits and will eventually exhibit signs of compression if pushed to really aggressive volume levels. Fourth, be aware that the system’s bass, which sounds terrific down to about the mid-40 Hz range, really doesn’t go much lower than that (most listeners will neither notice nor care, but pipe organ enthusiasts might). Finally, note that the Mini Maggie desktop modules are—like all dipole speakers—sensitive to placement. I listened to the system at a desk that was positioned well away from the walls of the office in which it was located, and in that location the system sounded superb. Still, it is conceivable that results might be less good if the Mini Maggies were positioned overly close to a wall.
Though the Mini Maggie system is small, it always reminded me to keep in mind the bigger picture. What I discovered is that, in essence, the Mini Maggie package is a $1490 system that sounds very much like Magnepan’s own $5500 speaker system, which in turn routinely gets compared to $50k high-end speaker systems. If you like that kind of performance math as much as I do, you’ll want to run—not walk—to the nearest Magnepan dealer to check these things out. In my opinion, they’re not just a bargain; they are a gift—especially for those who do not have sufficient space to install full-size Magnepan speaker systems (apartment dwellers take note).
In looking over my notes from listening sessions with the Mini Maggie system, I find my comments fall in three main areas: observation on the system’s remarkable spatial properties; comments on the system’s unusually lifelike reproduction of musical textures, timbres, and low-level details; and remarks on the system’s surprisingly robust dynamic capabilities. On track after track, and on all genres of music, these qualities really helped set the Mini Maggie system apart from other desktop systems I have heard or reviewed.
One of my favorite test tracks (and one many manufacturer’s have adopted as a preferred demo piece) is the Astor Piazzolla composition “Kicho” as performed by the Blue Chamber Quartet on First Impressions [Stockfisch, SACD]. “Kicho” opens with an elaborate solo played on acoustic bass, which ranges so high up in pitch that the initial illusion is of hearing a cello—until, that is, the bass suddenly plunging down into its lowest register. Later, as the piece unfolds, the bass is joined by a vibraphone, harp, and piano, which together create a delicious interplay of tonalities and textures. I wound up taking notes on an instrument-by-instrument basis, and here’s what I observed. The harp, I noted, sounded positively “luminous” through the Mini Maggie system as did the vibraphones, while the attack of the piano sounded, “lifelike, highly focused and riveting.” The bass, in turn, sounded at once “light, warm, and full-bodied” with “punchy dynamics and a powerful but never an overblown lower register.” Three characteristics struck me about the Mini Maggie’s overall presentation. First, they reproduced this well-recorded track with exceptionally low levels of grain, so that their sound was “like a great headphone, but with killer imaging.” Next, they offered truly remarkable spatial coherence, meaning that it was easy to drink in the convincing sound of the acoustics of the recording venue. Finally, the system exhibited “ballsy dynamics” throughout the track, which becomes extremely exuberant at times—capturing large dynamic swells without even seeming to be breathing hard.
The spatial characteristics of the system were even more clearly in evidence on the Michael Tilson Thomas/San Francisco recording of the Copland Organ Symphony [SFS Media, SACD], where I wrote that, “this tiny system creates a huge sense of space, complete with depth, width, and precise instrument localization—the works.” String tones were “fabulous,” finding that just-right sweet spot between clarity and incisiveness on the one had, with a buttery, golden tonality on the other. The pipe organ’s reed sounds and pipe resonances, I noted, were “very believable.” True, the organ’s very lowest bass pitches were “not entirely present,” but the bass that was present seemed so realistic that I wrote down this note: “Generally, you won’t miss the really low stuff.” While very low bass frequencies might be missing, I observed, “the Mini Maggie’s foundational mid-bass may even be more self-evident and appropriately balanced than in some of the bigger Magnepan speakers.” But the longer I listened, the more the system’s spatial characteristics continued to impress, so that I wrote, “this system is headphone-like in its intensity, focus, and detail, but at the same time it offers the precision imaging and soundstaging of a more traditional full-size speaker.” On the very loudest passages of the Organ Symphony, which I had perhaps turned up to unrealistically high levels, I observed that “the system can sound a bit strained on full-bore orchestral swells, though this may be a case where big crescendos are more OK with the speaker than with the amplifier.” Even so, it was amazing to hear the Mini Maggie package tackle very demanding orchestral material with so much gusto.
The system is no slouch when handling modern pop recordings, as I discovered when I put on Imogen Heap’s “Bad Body double” from Ellipse [RCA]. Part of what makes this track work, apart from Heap’s catchy hooks and sly, wryly humorous vocals, is the sheer richness of the techno-pop textures, details, and effects it employs. I was so impressed with the Mini Maggie’s handling of these elements that I simply jotted this note: “The ‘atmospherics’ on this track are phenomenal,” rich in their layering and detail, yet well integrated with the musical whole. About the only area in which I found the Mini Maggie system’s performance less than stellar involved some of the downright subterranean synth-bass washes found on the track, which either went missing or sounded “good, but a little too subdued.” But the overarching point I hope to make is that, as you listen to the Mini Maggie system, you may find yourself compelled to evaluate it by the very same standards you would normally use to judge large and extremely expensive multi-thousand-dollar full-range high-end speakers. In short, the Mini Maggie system is so good that it invites, and frankly demands, such comparisons.
Consider this system if: you like the idea of enjoying true, world-class sound from a three-piece desktop system that costs a tick under $1500. In a very real way, this system combines the resolution, detail and focus of top-tier headphones, with imaging and soundstaging characteristics similar to those of full-size loudspeakers. At this moment in time, the Mini Maggie package is the finest desktop speaker system in the world.
Look further if: you question whether desktop listening is really right for you (in our experience desktop systems “click” for some music lovers but not for others), or if you are unwilling to support the Mini Maggie system with appropriately good ancillary equipment (this system is by no means fussy, but it is very, very revealing). Otherwise, you’d be crazy not to consider this little giant killer.
We believe the Mini Maggie system is the finest desktop speaker system presently available. It comes closer than any other system ever has to the elusive goal of offering world-class sound at an Everyman price. Even if you think desktop audio might not be your cup of tea, you owe it to yourself to hear this system, just for the joy of experiencing what is likely to remain a benchmark product for years to come.
SPECS & PRICING
Magnepan Mini Maggie Desktop Speaker System
Type: 3-way planar magnetic/true ribbon speaker system
Frequency Response: 40Hz – 40 kHz
•Desktop modules: 86 dB/500Hz/2.83V
•Woofer module: 86 dB/50Hz/2.83V
Impedance: 4 Ohms, desktop and woofer modules
•Desktop modules (H x W x D): 14” x 9” x 1.25”
•Woofer module (H x W x D): 19.25 x 22.5” x 1.25”
Weight (complete three-piece system): 41 lbs.
Warranty: Limited Three-year, to original owner