I recently had the opportunity to visit Magnepan’s White Bear Lake, MN headquarters and manufacturing facility, partly for a factory tour, partly to get an introduction to the firm’s new Mini Maggie speaker system, and partly to hear an unorthodox “stereo” system that Magnepan had set up in its "skunkworks"-like listening room. It’s that latter aspect of my visit that is the subject of this blog.
About a year ago I reviewed an excellent surround-sound speaker system comprised of a set of Magnepan’s motorized, two-way MMC 2 quasi-ribbon-type, dipolar wall-mount speakers (used for the left/right and surround channels), a CC5 quasi-ribbon-type center-channel speaker, and a set of DWM planar magnetic woofers (these augmented, at the very lowest frequencies, by a superb JL Audio f112 subwoofer). Magnepan’s head of marketing Wendell Diller came out to Austin to help set up the system and we wound up listening late into the evening, working on getting speaker positioning, channel level trims, and other system adjustments just so—all with the goal achieving spectacularly coherent surround sound (both for multichannel music and for movies).
As we worked on the system, it struck me that with Magnepan speakers it is relatively easy to get a system adjusted to the point where sound quality is very good; the hard part is pressing on through toward an even higher level of sonic quality, where imaging and soundstaging gel in a truly great way. The problem is that it’s so easy to get “very good” results that you’re tempted to settle for them, rather than doing the hard work of careful trial and error experimentation (and listening, listening, and more listening) until you get something more. But if you do that work, the fact is that the sonic rewards you’ll enjoy can be extremely satisfying.
In the course of our setup and tuning work—which eventually yielded fantastic results—Diller and I talked at length about exactly what role center-channel speakers can or should play, and discussed ways in which center channel arrays could, in principle, prove useful in high-end music systems (and not just for home theater applications). About then, almost as if by intervention of divine providence, we stumbled upon a few small but significant final tweaks that brought the review system to breakthrough levels of performance. And as a result, I had my answer to the “but will it work for high-end music listening?” question.
The answer is yes, a properly set up surround system can sound fantastic for music listening, maybe even better than a conventional stereo system can—even when listening to stereo source material (and I must admit I didn’t entirely see this one coming) through surround processing algorithms such as Dolby Pro Logic II. Diller just smiled at my reactions and mentioned that he and the Magnepan team had been experimenting with stereo systems that use a center-channel array, which he termed the “Tri-Center” concept.
“If you like what you’re hearing here in this review system, which I think is already quite good, then you really should come up to White Bear Lake to hear a demo of the Tri-Center in action.” What self-respecting audiophile/home theater enthusiast could resist an offer like that?
The Magnepan listening room is more a rough-and-tumble working lab than a posh listening salon, and for that reason I did not photograph the room. But if you ever have the chance to visit, here’s what you’ll find. The room is set up around perfectly positioned stereo pair of Magnepan 3.7’s planar/ribbon dipole speakers (or, I suppose, any other new speakers Magnepan might have under development). But here’s what’s unusual. The stereo system can be played in the normal way, using just the beautifully dialed-in left and right speakers, or it can be set up so that—in addition to the left/right pair of 3.7’s—a three-piece center-channel array (the Tri-Center array) can also be brought into play.
None of the above, however, is obvious when you first enter the listening room, since Diller is a big believer in conducting blind (as in “listen in pitch darkness”) listening tests, where you can’t see what is playing, nor do you know—in A/B comparisons—which system is which. Diller ushered me into the darkened room, then, somewhat humorously using a headband-mounted flashlight to guide my steps (this “lamp unto my feet” approach was calculated to make sure I would not trip over cables or lab gear). Once situated in the designated listening chair, we began to play music and make comparisons, using both a collection of demo tracks that Diller had assembled, plus a wide range of reference material (pop, jazz, classical, etc.) that I had brought along.