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 believable.
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.