Alon Wolf: To Move Out of the Way Page 2

"The last speaker I actually bought," he says, "was the Sonus Faber Extrema, which I immediately found faults with, took apart, and reassembled. It eventually got to the point where I felt I could only have the speakers I wanted if I built them myself. Thanks to my work in industrial design, I was able to produce things on the computer that no one else was doing. My early designs were far more organic and flowing—speakers that are rounded and that sort of thing—than anything that was available back then. Now that approach is sort of catching on."

Fifteen years ago, Wolf built his first aluminum speakers. Each weighed 500 lbs. (Each Magico Model 6 weighs 650 lbs.) Soon he was building speakers for friends. Eventually, at a demo of speakers made by a different company, he encountered premier mastering engineer Paul Stubblebine, who told him he'd been traveling the world for many years looking for a speaker for his studio. Wolf said that he was building speakers right down the street, reached for his card, and invited Stubblebine over for a listen.

Two weeks later, Stubblebine called. He arrived one Saturday morning lugging his mastering tapes and Pacific Microsonics equipment, hooked everything up, and listened to full orchestral recordings for eight hours. Wolf, sitting right behind him, had no idea if Stubblebine liked what he was hearing.

Eventually, Stubblebine rose and said, "Well. I have to leave now. It's late. Sorry I took up your day. I'd like to come again, if possible."

Wolf replied, "Sure."

Stubblebine returned in a couple of weeks and spent four more hours. Finally, he turned to Wolf and said, "These are the most amazing loudspeakers I've ever heard. I'd like to buy a pair. How do we do that?"

Wolf eventually completed building the Walls, the 800-lb speakers that Stubblebine still uses in his mastering studio.

"That's when my mind made the switch," says Wolf. "I realized that I had something that not just crazy people like me would appreciate."

Soon Wolf had built his first big extruded-aluminum speaker, the Reference, which served as the precursor to the Model 6. In between, he built others, including a pair for Jeff Rowland. Each time he received a commission, he was able to start fresh with a new design. "That's how I built the big horns," he says. "People appreciated what I was doing, and were happy to go along on a really wild ride to see how much we could push it."

For 10 years, Wolf built speakers 10 hours a day while doing animation work full-time. Sometime in 2002, a Hong Kong distributor asked him to build the finest possible, price-no-object, two-way loudspeaker that would also be a work of art. Thus was born the Mini, a sealed (ie, portless) two-way with unique curved sides and sculpted aluminum stand. Once the distributor saw and heard it, he ordered more Minis for his clients.

Even as he worked on those Minis, Wolf continued to build pairs of his huge horns. Over the next four years, he perfected the Ultimate.

Less than three years ago, Wolf dropped his other work, entered the consumer market, and went double full-time with Magico. The Magico team also includes VP of engineering Yair Tammam, who serves as "the brain behind a lot of the stuff that we do in terms of physics, such as writing software, building drivers, and doing simulation."

The Word Gets Out
Stereo Sound of Japan first wrote about the original Mini in early 2005, and subsequently gave it a Best Buy recommendation and their 2005 Grand Prix Award. Three other Japanese publications soon followed suit; Audio Basic devoted a cover story to the Mini in summer 2005.

Across the seas, online publication 6Moons jumped on the bandwagon. Then, beginning with its March 2006 issue, The Abso!ute Sound focused first on the Ultimate and then on the Mini, and granted the minimonitor several awards. Stereophile, whose requirement of "five US dealers minimum" for any component reviewed protects audiophiles from companies and products that are here today and gone tomorrow, began covering Magico in January 2007, discussing the Mini, the V3, and the Model 6 in our online reportage of the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show. Now, with at least 13 Magico dealers in the US (in addition to at least 17 others throughout the world), this feature and John Atkinson's review of the V3 appear simultaneously.

Why, with so much publicity, has Magico been slow to assemble a dealer network? The answer lies in Alon Wolf's commitment to impeccability, as reflected in the Mini's elegant design and his website's sophisticated layout. "I choose dealers who can represent the product properly," Wolf explains; "dealers who conduct business on an ethical standard I can accept, and deliver real value and service in return for customers' hard-earned dollars. I get a call a week from a home-theater dealer who wants to carry Magico, but I'm very careful about whom I work with. A lot of dealers are so cynical. It's not about the sound; it's just about how to survive. I don't care how many Minis you can sell—if I don't like you, I can't do business with you."

Technological Breakthroughs
Magico has spent over four years developing new proprietary drivers that are composed of different weights of carbon fiber woven together. The cone in the V3 weighs 7gm and is made of the same material used to make helicopter blades. "You can put this cone upside down and stand on it and nothing will happen to it," says Wolf. "You can't do this with titanium; it will bend. This stuff has been around five years, but no one else is using it."

This driver breakthrough has now been applied to the Mini II, whose new proprietary driver replaces the original Mini's semi-proprietary, modified driver. Given the new woofer's 75mm voice-coil—the original driver's was 32mm—and a neodymium magnet strong enough to lift a 5-lb steel plate, Magico claims that the new drive-unit can sustain a lot more power and dissipate heat much more effectively. As a consequence, the Mini II now extends down to 36Hz, and has a lot more beef in the low end.

"The new driver can sustain a lot more punishment without distortion," Wolf explains. "The cone is supported both in the center and in the middle, which adds a lot more stiffness. Soft cones—polypropylene, just about any substance—lose pistonic motion as the frequencies lower, and start to wobble. That's where you start getting group-delay issues, and your bass is out the window—soft, woolly, and out of focus. The larger voice-coil, with its extra support and greater control, helps prevent this."

In response to criticism that neither the Mini II nor the V3 plumbs the depths, Wolf emphasizes that his sealed designs have a 12dB/octave rolloff, while ported designs have a 24dB/octave or greater rolloff. Sealed designs, which are hard to execute properly, maintain a far gentler slope of bass decline, and offer bass of greater integrity because the woofer need not work so hard. Because ported designs have extra boom at the port's resonant frequency, Wolf maintains that many audiophiles, including reviewers, are fooled into thinking that most ported speakers extend far lower than they do. Having measured several ported designs that claim low bass, I've seen the truth in Wolf's assertion (footnote 3).

Magico crossovers are designed in a virtual environment, using proprietary software that emulates a passive crossover design. After measuring the drivers, impedance, and other physical elements of the speaker, and importing figures into a software-created virtual environment, Magico can simulate the crossover to an accuracy of 1/4dB. In the case of a three-way speaker, for example, once Magico builds the crossover in their virtual environment, they can send a signal to three different amplifiers and feed the speakers via a virtual passive crossover. They can then change values in the computer and immediately hear the difference.

"You cannot create the perfect phase if you can't see what's happening in real time right in front of you," says Wolf. "You just can't. Unless you have a controlled function that dictates your slope as you go from one driver to another so they are in perfect summation and there is no cancellation between drivers, you cannot have good phase integration. Your soundstage is screwed up because your off-axis integration is not good. There are a lot of technical advances available today to create much better loudspeakers, but a lot of speaker manufacturers have not adopted them."

Magico's Bottom Line
Magico's ultimate goal is to create "objectively fine loudspeakers" that maintain integrity at high sound-pressure levels. First priorities include achieving low distortion levels, coherent phase and impedance behavior, and an even power response. After those issues are satisfactorily addressed, extended and linear frequency response comes next.

"If our design efforts measure well," says Wolf, "we will probably have a pretty darn good-sounding loudspeaker. If we don't like what we hear, it's usually small things that need changing, and we know where to adjust. As long as the subjective changes fall within the objective scientific parameters that we are willing to accept, that's fine. Plus or minus 2dB across the entire spectrum is a lot. I mean a lot. I can make the speaker sound lush or lean, or bright or dull, within these parameters. But I don't build speakers just to sound good for me. I don't sign off before the science part is safe and sound.

"Our goal is to give you a technically unassailable speaker that performs well in any reasonable environment. If a speaker has a hump at 80Hz just because it sounds better to its designer in a particular environment, then the hump remains no matter what. If the speaker lacks a full midrange, or its bass alignment is off, there's nothing a consumer can do to change it. If you have a 10dB suckout at a poorly executed crossover point, the missing energy is never coming back. Magico would rather give you a solid design that has everything there rather than one with missing or added parts that consumers cannot retrieve or subtract. The goal of a Magico design is to move out of the way. That's the bottom line: to move out of the way."

Footnote 3: Was I initially fooled? Only my hairstylist knows for sure.