2010-11This is Part 2 of the Magnepan On-Wall Surround Sound Speaker System review. You can read Part 1 here.
As I thought about this section of the review, two key words that came up over and over again in my listening notes were “cohesiveness” and “coherency,” which I feel are the two defining characteristics of the Magnepan on-wall system. With many speaker systems you will hear subtle (or perhaps not-so-subtle) sonic discontinuities that remind you that you are, after all, listening to collections of disparate drive units that have been loaded into box-like cabinets—cabinets that can also contribute audible colorations of their own. But with the Magnepan system there are no boxes, no piston-type drivers, and no voice coils (at least not in the traditional sense) to contend with. There’s just an open frame in which is suspended a membrane-like diaphragm that is driven over its entire surface area, so that there are virtually none of the phase problems that can arise in most multi-driver systems.
The result is a sound that is very pure, very clear, very lifelike, and that offers excellent transient speed while exhibiting a wonderful quality of internal self-consistency. What does this quality of self-consistency really buy you? Well, for starters it means that all of the elements of a given sound—the fundamentals, the harmonics, the attack, the body, and the decay of individual notes—all seem to originate from a single source and to together, rather than sounding like a discombobulated collection of pieces and parts. If it’s realism you seek, then you may find (as I do) that these benefits have a huge impact for you. In fact, if you’ve never spent quality time with a Magnepan system, then I can’t overemphasize just how compelling and disarming the qualities of coherence and cohesiveness can be.
In terms of overall timbre, and tonal balance, the Magnepan on-wall system reflects its technical influences, which means that it sounds a bit like a cross between the firm’s second-from-the-top model, the MG 3.6 loudspeaker, and its top model, the MG 20.1. The midrange and highs of the system, which are contributed primarily by the MMC2) remind me of the sound of the MG 3.6: well-balanced, fast, and open, though relative to the MG 3.6 the MMC2 can sound slightly forgiving way up high (perhaps a deliberate design concession in light of the fact that the MMC2 will, by definition, be used in close proximity to hard, reflective wall surfaces?). Interestingly, the MMC2 provides a Tweeter Attenuator switch that offers LOW/HI settings, so that you can tune the speakers response to best fit the acoustic properties of your listening room (I used the HI setting for the tweeters in The Perfect Vision’s relatively well-damped listening room, but your mileage may vary).
Overall voicing of the CC5 center channel speaker is very similar to that of the MMC2 on-wall speaker (or, for that matter, to Magnepan’s MG 1.7 full-range speaker), though the treble response of my review sample, which was a pilot production unit, was slightly downturned relative to the MMC2 and MG 1.7. But note: just before posting time I learned from Magnepan’s Wendell Diller that the full, serial-production CC5 units do not have the slight treble rolloff that I observed in my review sample. Instead, the full-on production CC5 offer treble response that aligns just about perfectly with that of the MMC2 (or MG 1.7).
The bass of the system, which is primarily defined by the DWM woofer, resembles that of the MG 20.1, albeit with less absolute low-frequency extension than the 20.1 offers (remember that the very large 20.1 floorstander has much more surface area to work with, whereas the DWM is quite compact). In particular, the DWM offers excellent transient speed (it really is fast enough to keep up with the MMC2, which most other woofers would not be) and superb pitch definition, but it also offers something more: namely, rock-solid mid-bass punch. This last element is particularly important in light of criticisms I’ve sometimes heard regarding Magnepan’s full-size speakers, where some listeners feel the Maggies lack mid-bass clout relative to conventional piston driver-equipped speakers. For those listeners I think Magnepan’s on-wall system will prove an eye-opening surprise, in that the DWM woofer combines Magnepan’s traditional virtues of speed, transparency, and purity with an element of serious mid-bass muscle and “grunt.”
Viewed as a whole, the Magnepan on-wall system sounds a fair amount like Magnepan’s critically-acclaimed full-range speakers, but with a just slightly warmer balance overall, which is primarily attributable to the ample mid-bass punch of the DWM woofers. Bass performance is, as with any dipole system, tunable by subtly repositioning the woofers in the room, and one of the coolest aspects of the on-wall system is that you can move the woofers around at will without disturbing the placement of the on-wall or center channel speakers.
Two key questions: knowledgeable listener will surely ask two important questions about the Magnepan on-wall system. First, does the MMC2/CC5/DWM combination yield a truly well integrated sound? Second, how well do the imaging and soundstaging properties of the system work, given that the MMC2 must be—by definition—attached directly to the listening room walls. Let me tackle these questions independently.
Coherency and integration: the fact is that the MMC2/CC5/DWM combo integrates surprisingly well, yielding a sound that—as I mentioned above—is approximately as coherent as that of an MG 3.6 floorstander, though perhaps not at perfectly all-of-one-piece as Magnepan’s reigning coherency champ: the new MG 1.7 loudspeaker. There are, however, some keys to achieving this well integrated sound. First, make a point of positioning the front MMC2’s and the CC5 on one common arc relative to the listening position. Second, experiment with the swing-out angle(s) for MMC2’s until you achieve maximum transparency and openness. Third, experiment with the exact positioning of the DWM's until you achieve both a coherent sound and good bass output levels. Fourth, carefully follow Magnepan’s set-up procedures for the CC5, so that it sounds balanced relative to the MMC2/DWM pairs. If you follow these steps, you’ll get exemplary sound from the MMC2/CC5/DWM combo.
Imaging and soundstaging: Many audio enthusiasts believe that dipole speakers need to be positioned well away from the sidewalls of rooms to achieve best results, but frankly the MMC2’s are the exception to this rule. In fact, I found the Magnepan on-wall system, once carefully dialed-in, could produce wide, deep, wraparound 3D soundstages that were as good as—and in some respects better than—those achieved by Magnepan’s full-range speakers positioned in the normal way.
To verify this, I tried substituting a pair of Magnepan MG 1.7 speakers in place of the front MMC2/DWM pairs in the test system and found that, while both systems were very good, the on-wall system seemed to enjoy some practical advantages that I found enchanting. Specifically, with the on-wall speakers in play, the MMC2’s did an even better job than the MG 1.7’s did of coupling to the room, so that the front soundstage (always a strength of Magnepan systems) was seemingly able to bend and wrap right around to the sides and rear of the room in a remarkably seamless way.
Let me give this point the emphasis it really deserves by stating that Magnepan’s on-wall system is one of the best 3D imagers and soundstagers I’ve ever heard at any price. I can count the systems that might surpass this one’s 3D soundstaging capabilities on the fingers of my two hands, but all of them cost far more money (think high five- to low six-figure price ranges) and are more complicated, to boot. That’s how good this Maggie rig really is.
What of potential drawbacks? I can think of only two. First, the Magnepan system does—as noted above—entail some specialized setup procedures. These aren’t hard procedures to follow by any means, but they do involve a certain amount of thinking and acting “outside the box.” Second, the elements of the Maggie system are not terribly sensitive, and therefore require powerful (and I mean really powerful) amplification to give of their best. Even so, the limiting factor in most rooms will be the DWM woofer modules, which sound great and can play fairly loudly, but whose diaphragms will, when pushed beyond their limits (for example, by humongous bass sound effects from action movies), actually bottom out, thus causing a temporary, and thankfully non-destructive, flatulence-like noise. On possible solution, here, is to go with three (or more) DWM’s, using one each for the front left and right speakers, plus one for the center channel. Another solution is to contact Magnepan, who can either supply or recommend an easy-to-install capacitor solution that will deliberately give the DWM a slightly higher rolloff frequency (with this solution, you would of course use a correspondingly higher crossover setting for your powered sub).
Apart from these (to me) minor limitations, however, the Maggie system sounds great, both for movies and for music.
One of the greatest things about the Magnepan on-wall system is the uncannily realistic and natural way that it handles normal sounds and everyday conversations in movies. To appreciate what I mean, put on the film Crazy Heart and the listen carefully to voices of country musician Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) as he grants a post-show interview to reporter Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Craddock asks Blake “Who’s real country?” and then invites him to comment on his former protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who has since gone on to become a superstar.
You can hear notes of sincere admiration, almost paternal pride, but also of envy and awkwardness in Blake’s voice as he attempts to describe his complicated feelings for Tommy, but then thinks better of his choice and gruffly adds, “I don’t want to talk about Tommy.” Craddock, sensing that she’s struck conversational gold, persists, asking, “What do you want to talk about?”
Blake, who has begun to notice how very attractive Ms. Craddock is, is not one to be cornered easily, so he slyly (but also sincerely) turns the tables by replying, “I want to talk about how bad you make this room look. ‘Never noticed what a dump it was until you came in here.” Craddock, caught off guard by the suddenness and sincerity of Blake’s interest, turns away and blushes, leading Blake to chuckle and then add with real tenderness, “I haven’t seen someone blush in I don’t know how long.” Plainly touched by Blake’s attention, Craddock responds by shyly saying, “Well, I can’t help it if my capillaries are close to the skin…”
I’ve played this sequence through many good surround systems, and the best ones have turned in fine performances, but none I’ve tried thus far can surpass the Magnepan system in terms of its ability to reveal subtle, emotional modulations in human voices—and to do so with a disarmingly natural and realistic sound. The Maggies just pull you in, creating soundscapes that aren’t so much spectacular as they are .
But good though the Magnepan rig is on quiet, intimate scenes, it is also highly realistic on larger-scale material, as you can hear in one of the cool concert scenes from Crazy Heart. Bad Blake has been invited to open for a concert given by his old friend Tommy Sweet, and the venue is a large open-air pavilion in Arizona. After a very revealing pre-show sound-check scene, where we see Blake arguing with the soundman to get his PA setting just right for the evening’s show, we get to see a beautiful clip of Blake’s opening song for concert—one where, as a special surprise (both to Blake and to the audience), Tommy appears onstage to sing with Blake.
If you have ever had the chance to perform live music at an open-air venue (something I’ve had a chance to do a couple of times in the past), then you know how supercharged the atmosphere can be. As a performer, you hear the stage sound of your own instrument and those of your band mates, plus the powerful stage presence of vocalists, but you are also aware of the slightly time-delayed sound of the PA system projecting sound out into the audience, and the even more time-delayed sounds of crowd responses to your performance.
As Blake and his band (soon to be joined by Tommy Sweet) perform Blake’s song “Falling and Flying”, I was floored by the dynamic energy and sheer realism of the Magnepan system. The rich, slightly overdriven sound of Blake’s guitar as played through a battered Fender tube amp sounded spot on, as did the sound of the Fender bass guitar and drums played by the backing band. And through the Maggie system, the power and force of Blake’s voice conveyed a real, heartfelt exchange of energy and mutual appreciation between the aging musician and the responsive crowd. But what made the scene even more believable were the slightly time-delayed echoes of the PA system pushing sound out into the pavilion grounds (and beyond), plus the audible waves of crowd noises welling up as listeners audibly responded to the song’s catchy chorus lines. This is surround sound at its best.
To give the Magnepan system a thorough musical test, I put on the Jerry Junkins/University of Texas Wind Ensemble’s new recording of John Corigliano’s Circus Maximus (Naxos, high definition audio disc on Blu-ray). Circus Maximus is described as a “symphony for large wind ensemble” and what is fascinating is that the piece was conceived from the outset to be both performed and recorded “in the round.” In practice, this means the piece was performed by a stage band positioned at the front of the concert hall (Bass Concert Hall at the University of Texas at Austin), a marching band positioned at the rear of the hall, with smaller groups of instruments (a saxophone quartet and string bass, percussionists, French horns, and a B Flat clarinet) deployed at various locations in the side and rear balconies of the hall.
As I played Circus Maximus through the Magnepan system, I was confronted by an embarrassment of sonic riches. First, the system captured the bright, tart, brilliant “bite” of the brass instruments with a just right touch of dynamic emphasis that showed the power of the instruments, without making them sound hard-edged or “glassy.” Next, the system captured a sense of the dynamic scope of the composition, ranging from relatively quiet passages (as in the piece’s fourth movement, “Night Music I”, which is quite subdued in mood), to literally explosive passages (such as the piece’s final eighth movement, “Coda: Veritas”, whose concluding note is punctuated by—no, I’m not making this up—a shotgun blast). Not many surround systems I’ve heard could cover this piece’s dramatic dynamic mood swings as effectively as the Magnepan system did.
But the real topper of them all involved the Magnepan system’s ability to handle the challenging imaging demands of Circus Maximus, where—as I mentioned above—some passages are played behind or even directly to the sides of the listener’s seats. This is where the 3D imaging/soundstaging prowess of the Magnepan system really proved its worth. As I listened to Circus Maximus from end to end, it dawned on me that I could (and at times did) turn my listening chair toward to face the sides, or even the rear, of The Perfect Vision listening room. When I did, I found I was able to hear wide, deep, and surprisingly well-focused soundstages from all sides of the room. Frankly, Circus Maximus represents a serious, acid test for the imaging capabilities of any surround system, and it is a test that the Magnepan passed with flying colors.
Magnepan’s on-wall surround speaker system isn’t cheap, and requires extra care during set up, but it offers superb sound quality in a format that, by design, can complement a variety of décor schemes in a way most high-performance surround systems cannot.
Where some on-wall systems suffer compromised performance in the name of greater convenience, the Maggie system manages to leverage its on-wall design to couple with the listening room is a very effective way, in the process creating surround soundscapes that are unfailingly natural and, at times, delightfully lifelike.
SPECS & PRICING
Magnepan MMC2 on-wall loudspeaker
Type: Planar magnetic/Quasi ribbon
Driver complement: 3-way
Frequency response: 100 Hz - 24 kHz
Sensitivity: 85 db/1 meter/500 Hz/2.83 v.
Impedance: 4 ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD): 52” x 10.25” x 1”
Weight: 15 lbs.
Warranty: 3 years
Price: $1,995 pair
Magnepan CC5 center channel speaker
Type: Quasi ribbon
Driver complement: 2-way
Frequency response: 200 Hz - 20 kHz
Sensitivity: 88 db/1 meter/500 Hz/2.83 v.
Impedance: 3 ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD): 10.5” x 36” x 5”
Weight: 13 lbs.
Warranty: 3 years
Price: $1095 ea.
Magnepan DWM woofer
Type: Planar magnetic
Driver complement: 1-way
Frequency response: 40 Hz -5 kHz (wideband)
Sensitivity: 86 db/1 meter/100 Hz/2.83 v.
Impedance: 4 ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD): 19.25” x 22.5” x 1.25”
Weight: 19 lbs
Warranty: 3 years
Price: $795 ea.
System Price: Magnepan components: $6675, plus $2800 for (optional) JL Audio Fathom f112 subwoofer. Total: $9475 as tested.