Magnepan MG 3.6 1.6, CC3 surround speaker system
A Tall Order
Magnepan's MG 3.6 and MG 1.6 models are thin, but they're hardly small. The 3-way MG 3.6 has planar-magnetic midrange and bass sections, each running nearly the speaker's full height. The bass panel is wider, with an area of 537 square inches (a conventional 12-inch woofer has roughly a fifth of that surface area), and is said to be capable of reaching down to 34Hz. The midrange and woofer planars share a fast-acting, 4-amp fuse in an external crossover box affixed to the speaker's rear. The MG 3.6's true ribbon tweeter has its own fast-acting, 2.5-amp fuse, also in the crossover. The fuses are there to protect your speakers from costly repairs; still, replacing a ribbon costs less than $200, provided you return the damaged unit to Magnepan for refurbishing.
The crossover box is a bit unusual, to say the least, and something that owners of large Maggies will appreciate. Previously, Magnepan required you to run one short pair of speaker cables from the crossover box to each speaker's midrange-woofer and tweeter connections. Not only was this inconvenient, it required cables terminated in banana plugs. In fact, all Magnepans require the easy-to-insert but sometimes loose-fitting banana connectors. But unlike most manufacturers, Magnepan gives you a way to tighten them down—with a supplied Allen key.
The big improvement with the MG 3.6 is the new mounting system and hard plugs for the crossover, which let you mount it directly to the back of the speaker. The crossover sticks somewhat awkwardly out the back of the speaker, but the short cable runs have been eliminated. Also eliminated is any difficulty moving or repositioning the speakers, now that the crossovers are off the floor. When the crossovers were on the ground, your hands and feet had their work cut out for them, lest you pull the cables apart. Moving around my old pair of IIIa Maggies, I felt and looked like Mel Brooks trying to traverse airport security in High Anxiety: "Shtep, shtep, shlide, shlide, shlide."
The 2-way MG 1.6 surround is slightly smaller and less ornate than the MG 3.6, but it's still distinctly Magnepan. The simpler crossover requirements of a 2-way system mean there is no need for an external crossover box. The 1.6 is the practical and economic alternative to the true-ribbon 3.6. The 1.6's quasi-ribbon extends the high-frequency response to 24kHz—above even the range of pre-teen humans—while the 3.6 ribbon keeps working up to a dog-healthy 40kHz. At the other end, the 1.6 is rated down to 40Hz, while the 3.6 is still effective at 34Hz. Either number is likely to be affected by speaker placement, but neither number is a limitation in a home theater with a subwoofer.
The 2-way CC3 is Magnepan's third center-channel model. The CC3's biggest advance over the company's earlier centers is in the bass, with styling taking a close second. With its specified –4dB point of 80Hz, you might want to try crossing over at 90 or 100Hz, but I used 80Hz for my testing. The CC3 is convex—its two midrange panels angle off slightly to the sides of the room, improving horizontal dispersion, while the quasi-ribbon fires directly on center.
The Two Towers
Since I last owned Magnepans, my life has been complicated by a home theater screen. My old IIIa Maggies worked well with only 7 feet of space between their inner edges. Now, with a screen and visibility concerns (too close and the speakers would block the view of the screen for people sitting off to the sides), I was forced to place the MG 3.6s with their inner edges 88 inches apart. By following Magnepan's recommendation to keep the tweeters on the outer edges, the ribbons were very far apart—126 inches. In addition, since the IIIa era, I had rearranged the room to accommodate new furniture, and I now sit more than 15 feet from the front speakers. This was acceptable while the MG 3.6s broke in, but before I did any serious listening, I rearranged the room so that I was only 12 feet from the speakers, which yielded a more physically and aurally intimate listening environment.
Back in the day, I always enjoyed my vinyl. It was therefore no surprise to find that Maggies are still a good match for the Big V. Running either of my preamp-processors (Aragon Stage One, Krell HTS) direct in preamp-only mode easily highlighted differences between the two phono stages I had on hand. The tubed Audio Innovations P1 phono preamp counterintuitively offered superior and more forceful bass than the solid-state Rotel RQ970BX. However, the P1 also proved highly microphonic, producing a very-high-pitched tone, a situation exacerbated by the MG 3.6's ultrasonic ribbon, which was all too willing to reproduce that tone. The phono preamp had to be removed.
That ribbon is part of the reason that larger Magnepan speakers have enjoyed such a following in the 2-channel world—it is the aural image in my mind against which all tweeters are eventually compared. With high frequencies extending up to 40kHz, the ribbon tweeter suffers no noticeable rolloff in the human hearing range. In fact, those unaccustomed to so powerful a treble presence might choose to use the provided 1ohms resistor to subdue the tweeter. I began the review process without the resistor, though I remembered using it years ago to tame what may have been flaws elsewhere in my system. But with either the Sunfire Cinema Grand Signature or Aragon 3005 power amp, or the Yamaha RX-Z9 receiver, I didn't need the resistor with most material. With older favorites transferred from analog tape to CD early in the digital era, such as Supertramp's Crime of the Century (CD, A&M CD-3647), the temptation to strap on the resistor was there, but I resisted. Never tailor your system around your worst source—only the best.
The new SACD of Paavo Järvi conducting the Cincinnati Symphony in various works by Ravel (Telarc SACD-60601) is a good example of one of the better sources. Passing through the Yamaha's multichannel input, the "General Dance" that closes Daphnis et Chloé had plenty of high-frequency energy, none of it in need of taming. Quite the opposite—the MG 3.6's top end was extremely expressive of the original event. The pair of them were full of detail, acting as near-perfect communicators of room shape and size. The sense of "air" was expansive, magical, definitely there.
Bass is one area where Magnepans are often unjustly maligned. Well, perhaps unjustly is the wrong word. My MG IIIa speakers were quite unsatisfying on their lonesome—I remember how the opening heartbeats of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon would cause fitful flapping of their woofer panels at even moderate levels. A Vandersteen 2W subwoofer and a crossover point of about 40Hz cured that problem.
But by all accounts, Magnepan has long since solved their bass problems—the current crop of large Maggies are quite capable on their own. My brother-in-law was over one night listening, and he said the MG 3.6s had quite a kick. I instinctively leaped to switch off the subwoofer so we could listen in straight-ahead 2-channel stereo, but the sub apparently hadn't even been on. Problem cured, I'd say.
When Wendell Diller of Magnepan came over to help me set up the speakers, I fear I might have left him with the impression that I'd set the sub level too high. Well, actually, I usually do, at least with conventional box subs, where pumping up the bass can have a greater impact with home theater and little downside in the quality of straight music.
With Magnepan speakers, however, this is not the case. The bass from a dipole planar depends more on the room for reinforcement than a standard driver, but it is capable of far more nuance and, in some cases, realism. By its very nature, planar bass is very different from the bass produced by conventional speakers, and requires a period of adjustment before it can be fully appreciated.
That appreciation usually comes in a kind of sonic epiphany. Acoustic bass instruments seem to benefit the most from planars—they well up and present a chest-warming wave front, with none of the punchy, dislocated quality of cones. Rock bass is less about nuance and more about pervasiveness. The sustained sense of low-frequency pressure that greets you at a rock concert as you cross the threshold from a stadium's infinite food court into the seating area was ever evident through the MG 3.6s. When they were properly positioned—not too close to the wall behind them (between 26 and 28 inches in my room)—the sense of a real bass instrument being present in the room was most convincing.
Even without a subwoofer, the MG 3.6 was capable of awe-inspiring moments. Precisely eight minutes into Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, from Holst's The Planets, as performed by the Orchestre Symphonique du Montréal under Charles Dutoit (CD, London 417 663-2), the incredibly powerful combination of double bass and organ rattled my room's doorknobs. From an average orchestral level of 80dB SPL (C-weighted, slow response), a few thunderous notes produced a peak of 105dB at my listening seat. I dare say I could have asked for even more.
Can the MG 3.6's bass satisfy those who suffer from an uncontrollable predilection for deep bass? No, and its published lower limits speak directly to that. But even in the range where the MG 3.6 is strongest, some will never completely adjust to its nature and will always prefer the more direct and potentially less room-dependent bass of conventional drivers. However, in a home theater, where lusty movie bass is just a subwoofer crossover away, the purity of the Maggies' bass when run full-range for music listening is a pleasure indeed.