Magnepan’s On-Wall Surround Sound Speaker System--Part 1 (TPV 96)

Equipment+
Categories:
Speakers,
Subwoofers
|
Products:
Magnepan CC5,
Magnepan DWM,
Magnepan MMC2
Magnepan’s On-Wall Surround Sound Speaker System--Part 1 (TPV 96)

Most audiophiles worthy of the name have heard (or at least heard of) Magneplanar loudspeakers and know of their reputation for delivering exquisite sound quality and exceptional value. Many of us have, at one point or another, fallen for the firm’s famous planar magnetic, dipolar loudspeakers, which look very much like large, thin fabric-covered room-divider screens that—somewhat amazingly—produce clear, pure, ultra-coherent sound that is exceptionally lifelike. Nevertheless, the fact is that many “interior designers” (yep, that’s a euphemism, which you’re free to interpret as you see fit) are sufficiently put off by the “large, thin, fabric-covered room divider” aesthetic that they rule out Maggies on the grounds that they (take your pick) are too large, too weird-looking, or that they tend to visually dominate the spaces in which they’re placed.

The sad part about this is that Magnepans can—especially for home theater applications—get rejected as a viable option (on purely visual grounds) before they ever get a chance to strut their formidable sonic stuff for would-be owners. Being a “sound-first” kind of guy, I regard this as a veritable tragedy, but I can see how a roomful of Maggie floorstanders in a full-on surround-sound configuration might be a bit much for some homeowners to take. But happily, all is not lost, since the good people over at Magnepan have, very quietly and almost secretively, been cooking-up the elements of an easy-to-live-with, visually unobtrusive on-wall Magnepan system geared specifically for home theater/multichannel music application where big Maggies simply wouldn’t fit.

That’s the good news. The not-so-good news, however, is that almost nobody knows that Magnepan’s on-wall system even exists, which is part of why I’m doing this review. (Actually, most Magnepan dealers are aware of the on-wall system, though few have the space to demonstrate it in their showrooms. But stay tuned; Magnepan is looking at possible solutions, including alternate demo options.).  
__________

Sidebar: Elements of the Magnepan On-Wall Speaker System

MMC2 On-Wall Dipole Speaker
What are the core elements of the Magnepan on-wall system? The key element is an ingenious, motorized, on-wall, planar magnetic/quasi-ribbon type, 3-way, dipolar speaker called the MMC2 ($1995/pair). To give you some idea of speaker’s size, let’s note that the MMC2 panel measures 52” high x 10.25” wide x 1” thick. Thus, the panel is fairly large, but the cool part is that it seems almost to shrink (in a visual sense) once it’s mounted against a wall surface.

What’s up with the motorized aspect of the design? Well, let’s begin by acknowledging that the MMC2, like all dipolar speakers, outputs sound both from the front and back sides of its panel. The purpose of the motor, then, is to provide a simple, foolproof mechanism that allows the thin, slim MMC 2 panel to swing out from the wall when the speaker is in use, giving the speaker plenty of room to “breathe,” but then to retract flat against the wall when the listening session is done, giving the room a clean, uncluttered look. (Magnepan offers a power supply box, which can be controlled by 12V signals from an AVR or A/V processor, and that can drive the motorized mechanisms of up to six MMC2's.). It’s a very clever idea that works beautifully in practice.

How good is the MMC 2 compared to Magnepan’s vaunted floorstanders? Let’s just say that it leverages technologies drawn directly from the firm’s award-winning MG 3.6 loudspeaker (Magnepan’s next-to-the-top-of-the-line model), but that is configured in a significantly more compact form. Magnepan’s Wendell Diller observes that the MMC 2 midrange driver “has similar wideband characteristics to the midrange of the 3.6.” The MMC 2 covers frequencies from 100 Hz on up to 24 kHz.

Avid students of up-and-coming products may also find it interesting to note that the MMC2’s midrange driver technology will likely reappear in an upcoming high-end desktop speaker Magnepan has planned, which will be known simply as the “Mini Maggie.” Watch AVguide.com for news of that new model to appear at some point in the (we hope) not too distant future.

Where did the MMC2 come from? There is really a two-part answer to this question. First, Magnepan realized there were prospective customers who sought the “Maggie sound” for use in home theater/music systems, but who would not or could not embrace the looks of traditional Magnepan floorstanding speakers. Second, Magnepan saw an opportunity to bid on a project to equipment the high-roller suites at the Mandalay Bay Resort/Casino in Las Vegas, NV. So, in a sense the Mandalay Bay project (for which Magnepan’s winning bid was accepted both on sonic and aesthetic grounds) gave the company the opportunity to create an on-wall system worthy of the Magnepan name.

CC5 Center Channel Speaker
To complement the MMC2 (and several of the firm’s other full-size floorstanding speakers), Magnepan has created the brand new CC5 2-way, quasi-ribbon type, dipolar center channel speaker, which—by design—can be wall mounted via an optional Omnimount-type bracket, or stand-mounted. Three things make the CC5 particularly attractive.

First, it’s voicing is a very close match to the MMC2, and to the MG 3.6 and MG 1.7 floorstanders. This is important, since midrange/treble purity and cohesiveness are hallmarks of all Magnepan designs, so that the last place you would want to make a compromise would be in the critical center-channel speaker of a Maggie home theater system. With the CC5, no compromises are necessary (in fact, you could almost view the CC5 as a “junior version” of the firm’s much more costly, flagship CCR center channel speaker). Second, as mentioned above, the CC5 can be used as a wall- or stand-mount design, which gives the end user a lot of flexibility in placement. Third, the CC5 ($1095) is well priced for the level of quality on offer, so that it makes good sense as a logical companion to the MMC2 (or to the MG 1.7, etc.). The CC5 covers frequencies from 200 Hz – 20kHz.

DWM Compact Woofer
As any avid Magnepan enthusiast will tell you, Maggies are not easy speakers to match with traditional subwoofers, and once you hear them in action it is easy to understand why. Magnepans offer, from top to bottom, exceptional transient speed and freedom from the cabinet resonances your might hear in typical box-type speakers. As a result, when you attempt to marry Maggies with traditional subs, the subs almost invariably wind up sounding slow, thick, and sluggish in comparison.

To provide more appropriate bass support for the MMC2 (and CC5), then, Magnepan created the DWM planar magnetic, dipolar woofer system ($795/each). The DWM is surprisingly compact (19.25” high x 22.5” wide x 1.25” deep) and weighs just 19 pounds, so that it is easy move around within the room portable, but also lends itself to in-cabinet mounting schemes. The DWM handles frequencies from 40Hz on up to the crossover point for the MMC2 or CC5, though the wideband DWM offers frequency response that extends all the way up to 5kHz (a much higher frequency higher than, in practice, the woofer will ever need to reach).

By design, the DWM is set up with onboard crossover networks so that you feed a full-range signal to the DWM module’s “Amp In” inputs, and then use the provided “High Out” taps to feed the MMC2 (or CC5). Interestingly, each DWM provide not one but two sets of crossover inputs/outputs, so that a single DWM can conceivably be used to provide bass support for a pair of MMC2’s (though for more dynamic clout, I would recommend using one DWM for each of the front-channel MMC2’s).

From a technical standpoint, the DWM leverages the woofer design technology of Magnepan’s flagship MG 20.1 loudspeaker. This means that the DWM, like the woofer section of the 20.1, uses dual magnet plates* with “opposing magnetic fields” that “compress the magnetic field, allowing more spacing and a longer ‘throw” for the woofer diaphragm.” *Note: some enthusiasts have taken to calling the dual magnet plate design a “push-pull” motor structure, but this is not really the case.

To be clear, then, the combination of one DWM plus one MMC2 (or CC5) constitutes a more or less full-range, dipolar loudspeaker, but one where the woofer can, if necessary, be positioned some distance away from its on-wall counterpart to better fit the owner’s décor scheme.

It is also worthwhile to note that Magnepan offers two higher-priced versions of the DWM. One is a dressed-up version called the DW-1, which looks, says Wendell Diller, like “a modern Scandinavian end-table/coffee table. The other is a version called the “CC Speaker Stand” that is configured to serve as a companion floor stand for the CC5 (or CCR) center-channel speaker.

And One Finishing Touch…
As eagle-eyed readers will note, the DWM woofer does not plumb the very lowest octave (20 Hz – 40Hz) of the audio spectrum, so that performance minded enthusiasts will likely want to add a good, conventional subwoofer to provide some very low bass support from about 40 Hz on down (this frequency is low enough that it keeps speed differences between the lightning-fast Maggies and the sub from becoming apparent).

The Perfect Vision Review System
Our review system consisted of four MMC2’s (two for L/R mains, and two for L/R surrounds), a CC5 center channel speaker, a pair of DWM woofers (used in conjunction with the front pair of MMC2’s), and a superb JL Audio Fathom f112 subwoofer (which we used to provide the aforementioned touch of very low bass “frosting” that makes the system complete).
__________

Sidebar: A Special Surround System Requires Special Setup Procedures

As readers may have gleaned from some of my comments above, the Magnepan on-wall speaker package constitutes a very special kind of surround sound system that, perhaps predictably, requires special setup procedures. I’ll try and explain those special setup requirements in some detail, and to explain how (and why) Maggie system setup differs from the approach you might use with conventional speaker systems.

No Room EQ, Please
For starters, let’s note that Magnepans are dipolar speakers that produce sound to the front and to the rear, but not to the sides of, their thin panels. As a result, Magnepans tend to interact less with rooms than conventional piston-type loudspeakers typically do. They also exhibit very different volume fall-off characteristics as the listener moves farther away from the speakers (with Maggies, volume falls off at 1/x, where x is the distance between the listener and the speakers, where with conventional speakers volume falls off at 1/X2).

Given factors like these, the fact is that Magnepans tend not to respond well when used with most automated speaker setup/room EQ systems (most of which were designed with the characteristics of conventional speaker systems in mind) so that Magnepan strongly advises against using them. In practice, this means you’ll need to manually adjust speaker distance and channel level settings. Note: this is a simple task that is made easier if you have two tools on hand: A) a good tape measure, and B) a simple, cost-effective sound pressure level meter (of the kind you can easily pick up at your local Radio Shack).

Let the Maggie Woofers Carry Most of the System’s Bass Workload
With typical speaker systems, it’s normally a good idea to hand off much of the system’s overall bass workload to a powered subwoofer, but with a Magnepan system this is not the approach you’ll want to take at all. The reason, as mentioned above, is that Maggies are so fast and so pure-sounding that they make most subs sound thick, slow, and sluggish by comparison—except in situations where you use the sub only to provide extremely low frequency bass support (roughly from 40 Hz on down). In practical terms, this means your best option is to route most of the system’s bass workload through real, fast, dipolar Magnepan woofers.

In The Perfect Vision review system, here’s how we accomplished that goal (you can use a similar approach in setting up your own Magnepan on-wall system):

Step 1: Use a pair of Magnepan DWM woofer modules to provide bass support for the left and right front MMC2 speakers, with one DWM connected to the left MMC2 and the other connected to the right MMC2. Place the DWM’s so that their panel surfaces are perpendicular to the sidewalls of the room, with the flat surface of the woofer panels facing the listening area.

Important note: by combining the DWM with the MMC2 you have created what are in essence a pair of near full-range speakers that will—as you’ll see in a moment—serve as the “bass anchor” for the entire system.

• Step 2: Using a special Magnepan-mastered test DVD disk supplied with the DWM’s, check to make sure that the DWM’s are operating in phase with the MMC2’s and with each other.

Step 3: In the setup menu of your AVR or A/V controller:

⇒ Set your left/right main speakers (the font MMC2/DWM pairs) as LARGE speakers,

⇒ Set your center channel (i.e., the CC5) as a Small speaker, and

⇒ Set your left/right surround speakers (i.e., the rear MMC2’s) as SMALL speakers.

⇒ Finally, chose the NONE setting (or equivalent) for the subwoofer*.

Important note: by making these adjustments, we are causing the system to redirect the system’s bass workload to the two DWM woofer modules used in the front two channels, which is our goal.

* Although, we have just indicated (by choosing the NONE setting in the subwoofer set up menu) that there is no subwoofer in the system, we actually will use

Step 4: Using a special Magnepan-mastered test DVD disk supplied with the CC5 center channel speaker, you will compare the sound of the left channel (left MMC2 plus left DWM), the right channel (right MMC2 plus right DWM), and the center channel (CC% plus both the left and right DWM) as they play pink noise (which will produce a distinctive, “whooshing” sound). Your goal is then to carefully adjust the level settings for the center channel so that its overall sonic signature and output levels closely match what you’re hearing from the front left/right MMC2/DWM pairs.

⇒ Here’s what actually going on. When the left channel plays pink noise, you’ll hear the left MMC2 and the associated left DWM woofer module together produce a certain distinctive sonic signature, and the same is true when the right channel plays. For obvious reasons, the left and right MMC2/DWM pairs should sound essentially identical to one another.

⇒ When the center channel plays, you will hear the CC5 as supported by both the left and right DWM’s as it works to reproduce the very same pink noise signals you’ve just heard played in the left and right channels.

Important: One key point to bear in mind is that lower frequencies from the center channel are, with the help of your AVR or A/V controller, being redirected over the to left and right channels for bass support, which means that lower frequency material from the center channel will wind up being handled by the left and right DWM modules.

⇒ Your objective is to adjust the level setting for the CC5 (which, remember, is supported by both the left and right DWM modules) so that pink noise from the center channel sounds almost exactly like pink noise does when played through the left and right channels. The closer the match you can achieve, the better.

Hint: If pink noise as played through the center channel sounds too light and airy (because there is too much midrange and treble content relative to the output from the DWM woofers), try turning the CC5 level settings down. Alternatively, if pink noise through the center sounds too dark (because there is too much bass content relative to the output from the CC5), try turning the CC5 levels up.

⇒ Using the supplied Magnepan center channel setup disk, keep making trial and error adjustments until you’re satisfied that you’ve achieved a best-case match between the front three channels.

Step 5: Installing a supplementary subwoofer for very low-frequency bass support. Run a pair of interconnect-cables from the front left and right-channel preamp outputs of your AVR or A/V controller to the left/right line-level inputs of your powered subwoofer.

Important note: Through this approach, you will send full-range input signals to the sub. Importantly, those full-range input signals already incorporate combined low frequency information from all of the system’s channels (that is, from the front left/right, center, and surround left/right channels). Then, we will use the subwoofer’s own crossover control to filter out all but the very lowest bass frequencies, which are the only frequencies we want the sub to reproduce.

⇒ Set the crossover control on the subwoofer at about 40 Hz (though it’s OK to experiment with slightly higher or lower crossover frequencies if you wish).

⇒ Starting with the sub’s volume control turned all the way down, listen to music with low bass content (pipe organs, concert bass drums, etc.) while very slowly turning the subwoofer levels up.

⇒ Your objective is to dial-in the subwoofer to add just a subtle and appropriate touch of very low frequency reinforcement (40 Hz and below) to flesh out the extreme bottom end of the system’s sound.

Hint: the subwoofer’s contributions should affect very low frequencies only (frequencies felt almost more than they are heard), and should be extremely subtle—so that not even a critical listener could say for sure whether a subwoofer is being used or not. If you reach a point where the sub’s contribution becomes obvious, you’ve gone too far. Back off the subwoofer’s volume level and try again.

Hint: the outcome we’re seeking is for very low bass reinforcement to appear only when it is needed, and even then to do so without ever overtly drawing attention to the subwoofer.

 __________

OVERVIEW

Consider this system if: you are the sort of listener for whom “pretty good” or even “very good” sound just isn’t good enough. This system is geared for music and movie lovers who are keenly appreciative of the finer points of sound reproduction and who therefore prize superb levels of sonic detail, resolution, purity, and that oh-so-elusive quality of cohesiveness (one of the keys to realism). When set up properly the Magnepan system also offers incredibly compelling, 3D imaging—the kind that can seem almost scarily realistic at times. Indeed, this whole system is all about the pursuit of realism—a quality that reaches beyond excellence in hi-fi to achieve a higher standard of performance.

Finally, note that this system, unlike others that Magnepan offers, stands a very good chance of winning approval from the “interior designers” of this world. It sounds big and three-dimensional, but (mostly) gets out of the way when it’s not in use.

Look further if: you are on a tight budget, require a system that effortlessly achieve monstrous “bringing the house down” volume levels, or if you would prefer a system that is dirt simple to set up. In truth, the Maggie system is more than fairly priced for the quality if offers, but it is by no means cheap. Note, too, that the Magnepan system is relatively insensitive and thus requires a powerful AVR or A/V controller/amp combo to give of its best. With sufficient power, the Maggie system can play quite loudly, but note that, when pushed too far, the DWM woofer panels can “bottom out” momentarily (this doesn’t hurt anything, but can sound pretty nasty if it occurs). Third, as noted above, the Maggie system requires several simple but admittedly unorthodox setup steps, which some users might find daunting.

Ratings (relative to comparably-priced surround speaker systems):
Transparency and Focus: 10
Imaging and Soundstaging: 10
Tonal Balance: 9.5
Dynamics: 8.5
Value: 9.5 (but note that while the Magnepan system does a beautiful job with frequencies from about 40 Hz on up, you will need to add a supplementary subwoofer to handle frequencies between 20 – 40 Hz).

This is Part 1 of 2. Click here to read Part 2.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Featured Articles