The Amateur Audiophile
It’s been a long time since I’ve purchased real stereo equipment, but one month ago today I took a carefully hoarded cache from Craigslist sales to my local hi-fi store to purchase something I’d been wanting for years: a pair of Magneplanar speakers.
Magneplanars, for the uninitiated, use Mylar panels, rather than conventional cones, to produce sound. They also radiate sound from the rear, which reflects off the wall behind the speakers, and helps create a more open sound than ordinary box (or “dynamic”) speakers might.
These speakers replaced my venerable Polk 10bs, purchased in 1985 while I was in the US Navy. Yes. 27 years. Our relationship started in Naples Italy and continued through Spain, Indiana, Missouri, and finally ended in Austin, where we parted ways a day after I bought my Maggies. (The new owner was very pleased to be getting a replacement for his set with blown tweeters.)
I’d been visiting my local Magnepan dealer, Audio Systems, for several months, listening their set of Magneplanar 1.7s and MMG 12s. I didn’t hear a big difference between the smaller 12s and the larger 1.7s, aside from extended bass response on the larger set. At half the cost and a more subtle statement, I was going to be very pleased with the 12s.
Except…But I’m getting ahead of myself.
On that first visit, Stuart, the gentleman who assisted me, cued up “Take Five” from Dave Brubeck’s classic Time Out. I have the disc on CD, so I’m quite familiar with it. But the sound coming from those small panels was…revelatory. I heard subtleties I never heard with my Polks. As Stuart noted, it sounded as if the horn was being played by an actual human being. And the drum solo – the sticks just seemed to pop off the drum heads. The cymbals sizzled. Starting at about 3:00 minutes into the track, the piano and base start driving the composition, building the expectation, hinting at a resolution that doesn’t come, and doesn’t come and then doesn’t come…and then at 4:22, there it is. The horn. The resolution. The revelation. I knew these were the speakers for me.
At home, I listened to “Take Five” on my own system. It was OK, but lacked the subtlety I heard in the store.
The next time I went back, I was armed with two CDs of tracks from my collection, to see what my music sounds like on those speakers. Magneplanars are said to be great for acoustic music, and vocalists, but not so great for rock, R&B, or any genre relying on massive bass. I came away quite pleased. Many tracks sounded good. “Luck be a Lady” from Sinatra at the Sands was a standout. Some were OK. Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” had…something. Graininess? A grey veil of…what? Something indefinable that wasn’t wholly pleasant, anyway.
Except… the music sometimes seemed to be located on the floor. I mentioned this to Stuart, and he didn’t seem convinced. Subsequent web sleuthing has uncovered at least one other person that heard the same thing. I had a little something to think about, in any case.
Several weeks before the purchase, I took my consumer grade Sony amp to the store, and Stuart hooked up the 12s. My goal was to ensure that what I heard from the MMG12s wasn’t due solely to the source (Sonos, or NAD CD player) or the amp (NAD). They sounded quite good, even on my amp.
The next step was to Craigslist a few more items to take me over the top for the purchase. By the time I was ready, there was a list of Magneplanar 1.6s listed on Audio System’s consignment page. At a $100 bucks less than a pair of new 12s, these speakers, if they were in great shape, sounded good, were suitable for my system, and had a high enough Wife Acceptance Factor (WAF), would be a great deal.
They were in great shape. And sounded fantastic. And wouldn’t stress my Sony amp any more than the 12s would. And were acceptable to my wife. The deal was soon done.
Takeaways from this experience:
- It probably would have made the most sense for me to have purchased a new amp than new speakers, especially 4 ohm speakers like the Magneplanars. My Sony amp can drive these speakers, but a more robust amplifier that, as Crutchfield puts it, is “4-ohm stable for use with a wide range of speakers” would be better. (More on this later.) But I really didn’t want to wait a year plus to purchase new speakers. Your mileage may vary as you dip your toe into the world of hi-fi. (But it’s hard to resist the siren call of new speakers!)
- Take your music, on CD. This will afford you an opportunity to demo your preferred music on the speakers you’re considering. Some of the classic rock (like “Thunder Road,”) would doubtless have sounded better on traditional box speakers. But it sounded good enough – as did all the other music. And the music that sounds great on the Maggies…sounds really great.
- Connect your equipment to the speakers. My goal was to ensure I’d be happy with the sound. It would have been preferable, I suppose, to have brought the MMG 12s to our home, and demo them in place. (Better hi-fi retailers will be happy to offer this service.) I opted instead to take my amp to the audio store. Had I brought the speakers to the amp (and source components), I would have had a lot more to think about. (More on this later.)
- Think about used equipment! I’m convinced I’m happier with the 1.6s than I would have been with the MMG 12s. As I noted, at times their sound stage did seem to be sitting on, or slightly underneath the floor. I don’t know how I would have fixed that. But no issues like that with the 1.6s. I got a great deal on some great speakers. And, hey, I can always upgrade the stands. Or the crossovers. Or send the whole speaker off for a complete modification.
Next: Settling in