A visitor to stereophile.com named billmilosz commented: “Compared to these, everything else sounded like it was coming out of a cereal box.” When I read that, I laughed out loud.
That reader was responding to my AXPONA report about Magnepan’s new $650/pair Little Ribbon Speaker (LRS)which I presume he also heard at the show.
Naturally, as a prattler who has long served at the altar of hyperbole, I was jealous of billmilosz’s simile. So I’ll try now to verify his observationwhile fashioning a more thorough and maybe even philosophical description of Magnepan’s newest entry-level speaker.
Magnepan’s more expensive speakers are available at 70 brick-and-mortar stores, but like the similarly sized MMGi that proceeded it, the LRS is sold factory-direct and through dealers, with a 60-day satisfaction guarantee. If you want to move up to one of the larger Magnepan speakers within a year of purchase, you’ll receive credit from Magnepan for your traded-in speakers, depending on the model you’re trading up to. Sounds like they’re cutting some new bait in White Bear Lake, Minnesota!
As Magnepan’s head bait-cutter, Wendell Diller, writes on their website, “The LRS is a full-range quasi-ribbon speaker that was designed from the ground up to give you a pretty good idea what to expect from the 20.7 or 30.7. The LRS was designed using high-end electronics and monoblocks. The LRS will perform nicely with a receiver, but it was intentionally designed to extract the most from high-end amplifiers and electronics. The LRS expects more from a properly designed high-current amplifier. That is a radical departure from most entry-level loudspeakers. If you put your expensive high-end amplifier on the LRS, you will hear the difference.”
I asked Diller about the technical differences between the LRS and its predecessor. His answer: All versions of the MMG were generically planar magneticwires connected to a nonconducting membrane. The LRS, in contrast, is a ribbon speakeror, as Magnepan prefers to describe it, quasi-ribbon, since to them, the only true ribbon is the original aluminum-foil variety.
The LRS is a relatively low-sensitivity (86dB/500Hz/2.83V), low-impedance (nominally 4 ohms) loudspeaker with a taste for amplifier current. That suggests to me a speaker that will likely sound different with every amp I tryand sure enough, after weeks of auditioning these slender (14.5″ by 48″ by 1″), quasi-ribbon floorstanding panels, and driving them with a variety of high-quality tube and solid-state amplifiers, I realized that getting the most from the new Magnepans requires not only a sophisticated, current-capable amplifier, but it also requires a sophisticated audiophile with some listening room floor space and a trained ear.
After unpacking their new speakers, the first thing an LRS owner needs to do is look through the grille cloth (with a flashlight, if necessary) and identify the side where 12 shiny, vertical “ribbons” are spaced about 1/8″ apart: That is the tweeter. You may place the tweeter side on the outside (for a bigger sweet spot) or on the inside (for better focus). All my listening was done with the tweeters on the inside.
I first heard the LRS in an audio-show space that measured 24′ by 34′ (816 square feet), with a 10′ ceiling. The pair sounded clear and uncolored. Their soundstage was superdetailed and seemingly infinitely deep. But they also sounded a touch hard and stressed. When I set them up in my little 10′ by 13′ by 9′ (130 square foot) room, they sounded dramatically more relaxed and fleshed out tonewise. It was immediately clear: the LRS prefers small rooms.
But getting the LRS to sound just right was a two-step process. Step one involved moving the panels away from room boundaries a little at a time, until I heard the flattest response in the 70200Hz range. That was pretty easy. At their final resting point, 37″ from the front wall, I still sensed a minor 34dB bump at 100Hz, but there was no mud or boom in the bass.
The second step was trickier. The speaker’s response in both the vertical and horizontal planes appears more directional than it is with most box speakers. This directionality is exacerbated by the LRS’s two-way designit employs a first-order crossoverand its side-by-side placement of the woofer and tweeter.
“Whether the tweeter is on the inside or outside, the tweeter should not be closer to the listener than the bass section,” Wendell Diller told me. “Measuring from your seated position, if the bass panel is 10′ 6″ [away], the tweeter should be at least 10′ 7″.” Think in terms of mid-to-treble balance and remember to not place the LRS parallel to any walls.
Of course, you can use a tape measure to certify the aforementioned woofer-tweeter relationship. I used a Bosch GLM 20 Compact Blaze Laser Distance Measurewhich worked perfectly while making the setup process fun. I ended up with the tweeter 8′ 0″ from my listening seat, and the woofer at 7′ 10″ away. (The speakers were 6′ 10″ apart.) With my ears about 40″ above the floor, the sound was precisely focused and natural-toned.
In that position, I noticed that bass began rolling off around 60Hz, and the treble appeared to fade quickly above 10kHz. (A pair of 1.2-ohm resistors are included to attenuate the tweeter, but I never felt any need to use them.) From 200Hz to 6kHz, this new Maggie delivered flat response with minimal room-added fluff or brightness.
I caution readers not to judge these speakers on a single audition in an unknown system. As I experimented with amplifiers and positioning, I realized the LRS could sound anywhere from hard and shouty and lean to thick and slow and soft. It takes patience to set them up just right! Driven by the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium tube (EL34) amplifier when the new Magnepans arrived, I removed my No.2 daily-driver reference speakers, the Harbeth P3ESRs, and connected the LRSes to PrimaLuna’s 35Wpc ProLogue Premium. I imagined the PrimaLuna would choke somewhat while trying to flow extra current from its 4-ohm taps. But it didn’t. Bass wasn’t Thor’s hammer, but guitar picking and string strumming brought me copious detail-charged pleasures. This was a sweet, elegant-sounding combination that really let the music flow. I found it extremely enjoyable. I suspect, though, that many of you would find it too tubey-sounding: Its chief weaknesses were lack of bass punch and transient snap.
Driven by the Pass Labs XA25
Even with low-feedback tubes, the Little Ribbon Speakers demonstrated an uncommon level of uncolored detail and clarity. But the full measure of this naturally rendered clarity was not exposed until I connected the famously transparent Pass Labs XA25 stereo amplifier ($4900).
At the time I switched from the PrimaLuna amp to the Pass Labs, I was reviewing fancy phono cartridgesand immediately, on every black disc, I was hearing stuff I subliminally knew was there but never actually noticed. I heard new coughers in audiences. I spotted a squeaking church-bell support. The backs and sides of soundstages became open for inspection. It was a new kind of fun.
Things got genuinely spooky when I put on the Electric Recording Company’s new LP reissue of The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker (Riverside/Electric Recording Company RLP 12-838). It was a promo copy, loaned by a friend, and the sound was recording-studio clear in a way I rarely experience from any home hi-fi. Hooker sang dramatically, swinging for expression between loud and whisper-soft. He strummed at his guitar with that signature John Lee Hooker beat. Intimacy, rhythm, and absolute clarity dominated the experience. Hooker’s singing voice had throat and lungs. His vocal inflections were roller-coaster rides. Wow!
What a recording! What a speaker! What a completely memorable high-fidelity moment.
Compared to the KEF LS50
Few if any 21st century speakers have been anointed as classics; the moderately priced KEF LS50 ($1499.99/pair) has achieved that status. It is so effectively balanced and well-executed a design that it does virtually everything rightexcept move air and make low bass. Comparing the LRS to the high-functioning, overachieving KEF was a must.
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1645 Ninth Street
White Bear Lake, MN 55110
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