Music in the Round #3 Page 2
Big things in small packages
I suspect that the gurus at Magnepan who came up with 80Hz as the MGMC1's rolloff and recommended crossover frequency took into consideration just how common 8' ceilings are. That height implies a room mode at around 70Hz, and these small speakers could take some advantage of it to support their waning bass response. Well, my room is 16' by 16' by 8', and its 70Hz mode is quite strong—there was no evidence of a suckout or any compromise in power in the crossover range between the Magnepans and the Paradigm Servo-15.
The result? At their mid-wall height, the bass-managed Magnepans conveyed a magically full and transparent illusion with good multichannel source material. In my CES report in September's column, I described my experience of hearing the master tapes of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski's recordings of orchestral works by Ravel that Mobile Fidelity was preparing for SACD release. Well, the results (Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 4002) are all that I anticipated. Via the MGMC1-CC3-Servo-15 system, the sound was a remarkably grain-free and exquisitely detailed audio view of the orchestra. As with the master tapes, I did not hear a huge amount of hall ambience—just enough to sense the space.
What was outstanding was that I could hear each instrument and know its precise placement in the orchestra. First and second violins were distinguishable from each other, as was every woodwind and brass instrument. The bass and midbass were so good that I could easily distinguish the bass drum and timpani in sound character and placement, even though both were in the rear of the orchestra and neither was strongly lateralized. From the quiet stirrings at the beginning of Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole to its explosive conclusion, dynamics were stunning and, with either the eVo6 or the 300Wpc Adcom GFA-7805, the Maggies never ran out of steam or ran into limits.
Bass power, of course, was the Servo-15's domain. That power was not lacking, but the system's overall performance was due to the good integration of the Maggies and the sub. Voices were the most demanding of careful setup with the Maggies, but they were also the most rewarding. At the original sessions, the chorus in the Daphnis et Chloé suite stand at the back of the hall and appear primarily in the rear channels. It's positively hair-raising to hear them from there, sounding so lively and confirming a consistency of ambience only hinted at by the sound of the orchestra itself.
The midbass (60-100Hz) with the bass-managed Magnepans was still a bit leaner than with the Paradigms, but my preferences shifted with the music. With solo piano, such as on Mari Kodama's Beethoven disc (Pentatone Classics 5186 024), the two speaker systems had equal midrange clarity, but the Maggies allowed me to hear more details of the piano strings and pedaling than I heard on the Paradigms. On the other hand, the important piano solos on Bob Belden's wonderfully atmospheric Black Dahlia (Blue Note 5 41745 2) seemed just a bit thin compared with the rest of the ensemble. But I really dug that ear-popping opening chord, the bluesy trumpet, and the large, warm orchestral sound that submerged me in a deep noir mood with the Maggies.
I got some spectacular results using the Paradigm Studio/60s as front L/R speakers, the Magnepan CC3 in the center, and the MGMC1s in the rear. With 5-channel sources, such as the bonus, final track on MFSL's Ravel/Skrowaczewski SACD, the CC3 had a remarkably illuminating effect on the Paradigms that still contributed a deep soundstage and midbass weight. With its horizontal ribbon, the CC3 has excellent vertical dispersion to compensate for its placement above the plane of the floorstanders, and offered so much more information in the middle—where, after all, most of the music is. The MGMC1s in the rear worked well also.
What distinguished the Maggies from the Paradigms was the amount of internal detail I could hear from almost any disc, as long as the volume was not set too low. If I did that, the Maggies' soundstage shrank and they sounded a bit anemic. Switching back and forth, I traded depth of image and warmth with the Paradigms for clarity and precision with the Magnepans.
The fundamental properties of the Magnepan speakers are of a quality well beyond their modest prices: $750/pair for the MGMC1, $990 for the CC3. To those prices must be added the cost of a decent subwoofer and bass management, which may already be built into your player, receiver, or preamp-processor. These are necessities; in multichannel or stereo, the Maggies have no bass below 80Hz, and sound very lean on their own. But provide those ancillaries and operate the Magnepans as intended, and they'll almost completely disappear, acoustically speaking. Considering their flexibility in placement and adjustment along with their performance, they're a multichannel bargain, especially if you have to get your speakers off the floor.
Someone's got to do the dirty work
Each of the SACD and DVD-Audio players I have offers some bass management—but the options vary, are obscure, or, stupidly, apply to only some disc formats, not all. But why try to have each and every player do this when every one of them will have to be channeled through a preamp and amplifier? It was apparent that I needed an analog-domain multichannel bass manager. Fortunately, the Outlaw Audio ICBM ($249) is just such a dandy device. My success with Magnepan's Home Theater Set would not have been possible without it.
The ICBM is a seven-channel crossover with a mixing facility for the bass. The crossover is independently selectable for the L/R, Center, L/R Surround, and Center/Surround channels. (The latter is provided for compatibility with 6.1- and 7.1-channel home-theater systems and for the six-channel setups championed by Chesky, Telarc, and MDG.) The crossover settings are bypass, 120Hz, 100Hz, 80Hz, 60Hz, and 40Hz. Options for mono/stereo subwoofer drive and bass redirection into full-range main speakers are included. The Mix control allows adjustment of LFE signals relative to the other channels, often a necessity when switching among music and movie sources. A subwoofer level control adjusts that output, including LFE and all signals redirected to the subwoofer. Finally, the subwoofer's low-pass slope is switchable between 12dB/octave (normal) and 36dB/octave (THX). All the right tools for the task.
The ICBM can be used between any two line-level devices; if you need to manage only one multichannel source, the Outlaw can go between source and pre-pro. I tend to mix and match several multichannel players, so I put the ICBM between the preamp and power amp so that it could do its job on any and all sources, including two-channel ones.