If asked to draw a picture of a typical set of loudspeakers, I’m betting most readers would sketch box-like enclosures with round, piston-type drive units on the front. Or they might draw a set of skinny, pylon-like “plasma speaker” enclosures with small drivers on the front, with a bigger box and driver shown alongside to represent a subwoofer. Either way, they probably wouldn’t draw a pair of Magnepan’s MG1.6s—speakers that challenge established norms in that they have neither box-like enclosures nor traditional piston drivers of any kind. Instead, Magnepan planar magnetic speakers are tall, wide, thin fabric-covered panels that look something like room divider screens, and that sound—at their best—more than a little like live music.
Magnepan speakers aren’t looking to be different just for the sake of being iconoclastic. On the contrary, their unorthodox design is the result of a concerted effort to address a number of problems that have proven maddeningly difficult for traditional speakers to solve. The first of these would be the problem of producing speakers that sound completely coherent from top to bottom and that offer natural and unforced clarity.
Consider what happens if you play a recording such as the “Fantasia Suite” from John McLaughlin, Paco DeLucia, and Al DiMeola’s Friday Night in San Francisco [Columbia, LP]. You’ll hear three master guitarists performing onstage together at the same time, using acoustic guitars tuned to the same pitches and played at similar volume levels. This could be recipe for sonic chaos, and with some loudspeakers it would be, but the Magneplanars make it easy to tell the guitars apart because they show how each instrument combines different elements of timbre, attack, resonance, and decay to exhibit a sonic signature as distinctive as a human fingerprint.
To capture these subtleties Magneplanars forego traditional piston-type drivers, instead using two lightweight, membrane-like planar magnetic drivers mounted side-by-side in a tall (64.5-inch x 19.2-inch x 2-inch) open frame. A relatively large rectangular panel serves as a wide-range mid-bass driver while a smaller, narrower “quasi-ribbon” panel serves as a tweeter. Because these membranes have substantial surface area they really don’t have to move very far in order to produce a lot of sound, and because the membranes are driven across their entire area driver movements can be very precisely controlled. The result is a speaker that’s a champ at reproducing textural nuances and transient details and that speaks with one coherent voice.
The second problem Magneplanars tackle is that of reproducing music to convey a realistic sense of depth, width, and height. If you reflect back on favorite concert experiences, you might recall being subconsciously aware of the size and acoustics of the hall, and of enjoying the way that music washes up and over you as you listen. Magneplanars work to capture these qualities in two ways. First, their tall, vertically oriented drive panels help the speakers produce a naturally big, spacious sound that beautifully renders the height and scale of live music. Second, Magneplanars are dipolar speakers that simultaneously radiate sound to the front and to the rear. Sound from the front of the speakers provides vital information our ears need in order to localize vocalists and instruments onstage, while sound from the rear reflects off of back walls to approximate the depth, width, and hall ambience you might experience in a live music venue. Put these factors together, and you’ve got a loudspeaker that does a superb job of reproducing the spatial aspects of recorded music.
The MG1.6s aren’t perfect, and have some limitations and special requirements prospective owners should know about. First, the MG1.6s’ excellent bass extends down to about 40Hz, but not much lower.This will be sufficient for many listeners, but those who want deeper bass will need a subwoofer. Second, Magneplanars need a certain amount of room to “breathe,” and therefore must be pulled a few feet out from the back wall to perform properly. Third, the MG1.6s like power and lots of it; if possible, plan on driving them with amplifiers that put out 100Wpc or more. Finally, know that Magneplanars require a minimum of 100 hours of break in
before they’ll sound their best.
If you can work with the requirements sketched out above, then you’re in for a rare musical treat, because MG1.6s, priced at just
$1775/pair, are arguably the greatest bargains in high-end audio. Though some competing speakers do certain things better, the MG1.6s manage, overall, to sound more like live music than anything else in their price class. And isn’t that what this game is all about? TPV