In a world where many loudspeaker manufacturers offer products based on the ‘very high performance = very high prices’ formula, the US-based firm Magnepan builds speakers that prove sophisticated performance can be surprisingly affordable. Magnepan’s primary loudspeaker range—comprising the 30.7, 20.7, 3.7i, 1.7i, .7 and the newest addition the family, the LRS—is always keenly priced, but even by Magnepan’s standards we were taken aback by the value of the LRS. Magnepan’s speakers aim to deliver best-in-class sonic value for money at each of their respective price points, which means they inevitably will be compared to competing speakers selling for two or more times their prices. Frankly, Magnepan would have it no other way since value-orientated engineering is part of the company’s DNA. As a result, I think the firm rather likes to be cast in the role of David in a world of audio Goliaths (giants beware!).
This review centres on Magnepan’s newest, smallest, most affordable, and arguably most overachieving model to date: namely the LRS (which stands for Little Ribbon Speaker). Before delving into the LRS’ design, construction, and sound let’s take a brief look back to see what factors brought this new speaker into being.
For many years Magnepan has offered inexpensive entry-level models intended to serve as gateways to future purchases of bigger and better Magnepan speakers down the road. These gateway models included the SMG and MMG/MMGi loudspeakers—each well respected in its day. In recent years, however, the SMG and MMG models’ reputation for best-in-class sound quality per dollar (or pound or euro) has gradually begun to fade.
A common thread amongst Magnepan’s past entry-level models has been that their designs were deliberately skewed in favour of making the speakers easier to drive for comparatively low-priced and low-powered receivers and integrated amplifiers. The thought was to build starter Maggies that could be driven by whatever electronics first-time buyers were likely to have on hand. One catch, however, was that the very design changes necessary to make the SMG and MMG easy to drive also had the unwanted effect of limiting their absolute levels of sonic performance. In practice this meant that while the SMG and MMG performed well in their entry-level roles, they lacked some of the nuanced and almost “magical” sonic qualities that make Magnepan’s larger speakers so desirable. Complicating the picture further still is the fact that entry-level competition from abroad, especially in the form of Chinese-manufactured speakers from ELAC and others, has stiffened considerably over time.
Magnepan was not about to take the gradual erosion of the SMG/MMG’s reputation lying down. In fact, I recently received a note from Magnepan’s Wendell Diller (the firm’s head of sales, marketing, and product development), in which he explains,
“’Designed in America; Made in China’ has been a successful formula for many manufacturers. Our slogan – ‘Made in America; Sold in China.’ – is more than an attempt at humour (addressing the trade imbalance). The LRS is our attempt to compete with beautifully crafted speakers from China. The competition is fierce.”
So, the LRS represents Magnepan’s bid to reclaim the high ground in high-end audio’s value-for-money sweepstakes, but it is also more than that. It represents a sea change in Magnepan’s marketing approach, as the company website proclaims,