22 April, 2010

HiFi Letter from NYC 2010 (3): More thoughts on Magnepan

HiFi Letter from NYC 2010 (3): More thoughts on Magnepan

(revised May 6, 2010)
Do you want your sound big? Your image big? What does it mean by big? I think there are several facets to the perceived "bigness".

It is amazing how the majority of audiophiles have been brainwashed by "pinpoint" imaging, which of course exists not in the real world. Even considered on its own term in sound reproduction, imaging is only desirable if it is accompanied by good texture, what some would term "fleshiness". Real music is made of flesh and blood, so its reproduction should too convey the good presence of the musicians.

How often even expensive systems fail in that regard! Many people have "images" that can be "located", but they are pitiably small, low in height and bland. Can that be good reproduction?

This the Maggie owner usually does not need to worry about. Due to the height of the panels, the sound is usually big, even in systems of certain leanness (unfortunately too common). I'd not say Maggies have presence that is as truthful as horns or electrostatics (like my Martin Logan Source), but it offers a good semblance. So what we get is imaging that does relate to the music.

An acid test for coherence is reproduction of MONO music. A good CD transfer, or better yet a proper mono LP playback (e.g. my Denon 102 cartridge) should yield full and solid sound with even better instrumental timber than stereo - and THAT the Maggie does very well. You'll be amazed how badly many of today's speakers cannot do this most simple of things, a sure sign of their incoherence.

Speed and Coherence
When you have a speaker with drivers of different nature, people tend to dismiss it for incoherence. In reality, even if 2 drivers look alike, they can be incoherent in marriage. An example of this would be quite a few Dynaudio speakers for me (especially the 2-ways).

And Maggies? I think the incoherence is there, just a little more subtle. Jonathan Valin of TAS hinted that the "true" ribbon Maggies are possibly MORE incoherent that their "lesser" quasi-ribbon brothers, and regards the 1.6 as possibly the most coherent of the bunch. On the TAS Blog, he now stresses this even more in his raves about the superior coherence of the new 1.7. Now, would that make you start to doubt all the other reviewers (and users) whose praise for Maggies were absolute in the past? It should, if the coherence of the 1.7 is truly in another class.

But I think he has a point. I have ALWAYS thought the treble of many big Maggies "somewhat" unnatural, and not superior to their domed counterparts. Funny this treble is precisely what some Maggies die-hard's crave, those who regard a Maggie as not worth listening to if it doesn't have a "true" ribbon.

I think the reason why the treble sometimes bother me is not because of itself per se, rather because it sticks out for its speed, which is faster than the bass panel, fast though that is. Just a little, and it matters little whether your amplification is fast or slow, the difference stays. One can hear this sometimes even in the agile MMG. Occasionally, on a big SOLO piano recording the treble and bass notes of the same chord seem disjointed and coming from different spaces. Interestingly, with big orchestral pieces one almost never notices, except sometimes the spotlighted solo's (like the oboes and solo violin in Ein heldenleben on the Kempe/EMI recording) stick out a bit too much by unduly highlighting the leading edge.

Speed and Dynamics
How dynamic is Maggie? Hm...in my book the answer is not very, at least not in the top eschelon. Let us look at micro-dynamics first. Due to its speed, micro-dynamics seem superb at first, but careful listening makes one doubt a little. The speed and the slight "whiteness" impose themselves and rob the instruments of some natural harmonics, hence the perceived "air" is somewhat artificial. Ones hears many details, but somehow the small inflections and rhythmic subtleties are not the best conveyed. Repetitive notes sometimes have a mechanical "ringing" quality to them.

What about macro dynamics? I'd say even the large panels are somewhat limited. The lack of true bass substance means to a full-range listener lack of the ultimate macro dynamics. Can a Maggie faithfully reproduce a bass drum whack? The answer is NO, not in any of the Maggies I have heard. I'll relate to you a story. Once a well-known Maggie person came to my house and listened to Mahler's 5th on my Tannoy Canterbury (15") and liked it a lot; when we went to his place he made sure he played me that too on his "true ribbons". He said to me, proudly: "See, the Maggie can do it too!" but although it was well done I didn't have the heart to tell him there is no comparison in the fortissimo; on the Maggie you don't perceive physically the weight and power of the full orchestra in cry, which to me translates to lack of ultimate dynamics. Incidentally, have you noticed Maggie users are very careful about the volume? It's for a good reason; regardless of room and ratio there is a limit to how loud the Maggies would go before unraveling musically, or even mechanically. They are loudness restricted, and hence dynamically restricted.

It depends on what you listen to. Speed has something to do with perceived power. In jazz, fast transients may be overtly exciting, but in classical, even hard rock, too fast a perceived speed lends an unpleasant breathless quality. For balance, personally I think Maggies should not be paired with gears of super speed; too much of a good thing. Slowing things down a little brings paradoxically more perceived power. Experienced men should know that, no? To that end, I think a tube preamp is a good thing for Maggie.

Let's not exaggerate. Maggies are wonderful things, especially for the money. But they are NOT the perfect transducers as some claim, or the most truthful. Even the most experienced Maggie fans are more often than too intoxicated by their open airy sound to remain blind to their shortcomings.

I am most intrigued by the recent introduction of MG 1.7. the first Maggie to extend the (quasi)-ribbon technology to the bass panel. Preliminary words on the net, including those by JV, have been highly favorable, though dissent is starting to emerge by traditional Maggie users (claiming it is "cold"). Would that be my next upgrade? Or would it be one at all?

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