Magnepan Magneplanar MG1.6/QR loudspeaker

Brian Damkroger, January, 1999

On the occasion of a recent major birthday, my significant other, Bonnie, gave herself a “mid-life crisis” present—a beautifully restored, bright yellow Porsche 911.  She’d spent the previous several weeks wading through reference books to figure out exactly which year and model she wanted, and each night we’d discuss the pros and cons of various models, options, and points in the 911’s +30-year evolution.  Bonnie explained to me that, throughout its production run, the 911 maintained the same basic design and a consistent set of engineering goals, but was continually updated and refined.  In her mind, the 1973 Targa was the one to have, the last and fastest of the lightweight 2.4-liter models.

It struck me that the Thiel CS2.3 and Magneplanar MG1.6/R are both kind of like Bonnie’s 911.  Each has grown out of the vision of a single, brilliant designer.  Each reflects the long, steady evolution of a basic design, and the consistent focus on a core set of engineering criteria.  Parallels can even be drawn between the car’s and the speakers’ performance characteristics.  Adjectives like “crisp,” “precise,” and “fast” come to mind, either behind the wheel of Bonnie’s 911 or in front of a Thiel loudspeaker.  On the other hand, Magnepan has used their unusual planar magnetic design to produce a coherent sound that’s far greater than the sum of its parts—not unlike how Porsche’s rear-engine design, air-cooled boxer engine, and odd ergonomics came together in one of the most coherent high-performance packages in auto history.

Thiel and Magnepan have been intertwined throughout my personal audio history as well.  I alternated between Magnepan MG1s and Thiel 03As for years, torn between the Maggies’ coherence and soundstage and the Thiels’ detail and dynamics.  I repeated the scenario a decade later with the Magnepan MG3.5/R and Thiel CS3.6.  Both were dramatically better than their predecessors, but the essences of their personalities—and the tradeoffs—remained.

The Thiel CS2.3 and Magnepan MG1.6/QR are the natural candidates with which to continue these comparisons.  Each incorporates its designer’s latest thoughts and newest driver technology.  Both are medium-sized floorstanding systems aimed at the serious-but-not-stratospheric heart of the market.  Even their specs—frequency response, sensitivity, power requirements, impedance—are remarkably similar.

Magnepan Magneplanar MG1.6/QR: $1475/pair
I begin every Audiophiles Anonymous meeting with “My name is Brian and I’m a Magnepan kind of guy.

I’ve been a Maggie fan ever since I heard my first pair in the late 1970s.  My first real high-end speakers were Magnepan’s MG1 Improved, and I even took a pair of Maggies when I spent a year in Australia.  The unique strengths of the large panel/dipole radiator concept—their coherence and soundstage reproduction—have always worked for me, and outweighed their shortcomings in low-level detail and dynamics.  I couldn’t help wishing, however, for the magic combination that would blend the planar’s strengths with those of a topnotch dynamic system.  In fact, my two long-term reference speakers, the Infinity RS-1B and the Audio Artistry Dvorak, are attempts at just such a blend, though each is as much a compromise as a combination of strengths.

Designer Jim Winey and Magnepan have been addressing the same issues for the past two decades.  Each succeeding generation of Magneplanars has been more dynamic, detailed, and articulate than the previous one, all the while maintaining and even refining Magnepan’s wonderful, seamless sound.  About two years ago I had their MG3.5/R in for review and was delighted and amazed by how successful the evolution and refinement has been.  The ‘3.5/R is a sensational speaker, and, at $3150/pair, one of the High End’s most spectacular bargains.

I first heard Jim Winey’s latest creation, the $1475/pair MG1.6/QR, at the 1998 WCES, and was more than a little interested.  When Magnepan’s Marketing Manager, Wendell Diller, told me that the ‘1.6/QR improved on the ‘3.5/R in a number of ways, I was hooked.



The MG1.6/QR’s family tree can be traced back to my MG1s, but Magnepan’s driver technology and designs have evolved so far that it would be a stretch to call them “descendants”.  The look is familiar, however, and the large planar configuration still draws attention.  Even guests with years of exposure to audio exotica at Casa Damkroger y McKenzie are taken aback by the Maggies.  “That’s a speaker?  How does it work?  Can you hang it on the wall?”  Combined with the awesome VPI TNT and the wall-of-tubes VTL Ichibans, the ‘1.6/QRs make quite an impression on the uninitiated.

The ‘1.6’s outward appearance is standard Magnepan: a slim, elegant panel about 5'6" tall, 19" wide, and 2" deep.  My pair was covered in off-white cloth, with inset cherrywood side trim.  The terminal panel is centered at the bottom of the back side, and the ‘1.6 is biwirable.  The terminals accept only banana plugs, but Magnepan supplies an adapter to allow the use of speaker cables with spade lugs.

The ‘1.6 is a two-way design that crosses over at 600Hz.  The speakers are mirror-imaged, the 9"-wide bass portion running up the inside of each panel from about 11" off the floor to 61" up, and the 2" by 48" tweeter adjacent and outboard.  The bass driver is a planar magnetic design, specifically a 9" by 50" section of the 0.5-mil-thick Mylar diaphragm, attached to the frame around its perimeter.  The grid of wires that carries the audio signal is affixed to the diaphragm; it interacts with an array of magnets attached to a screen just behind the diaphragm.

Magnepan refers to the tweeter as a “Quasi-Ribbon” design to distinguish it from both the planar magnetic driver and a “true” ribbon of the sort they use in the MG3.5/R.  The Quasi-Ribbon uses the outer 2" of the same 0.5-mil Mylar diaphragm as the bass panel with “some tricks along the intersection to avoid IM distortion,” according to Wendell Diller.  The signal is carried by wide aluminum-foil traces rather than wires, so that a much greater portion of the driver’s surface area is actually driven.  The MG3.5/R’s true ribbon, in contrast, is suspended only at its ends, and the signal is carried by the driving element itself, as opposed to an appliqué of aluminum.

Compared to the MG1.5/QR, which preceded it, the ‘1.6 incorporates two major changes, according to Diller: “The first is that the Quasi-Ribbon driver is increased in size, which allows the crossover point to be shifted about an octave lower, so that the Quasi-Ribbon covers more of the midrange.”  The second is that the midbass has been improved by refinements in the damping and tensioning systems used to control panel resonances, refinements that Diller laughingly refers to as “black art”.

The design of the MG1.6/QR, and of Magnepans in general, gives rise to some unusual characteristics.  First of all, there’s no box, hence no box resonances.  Second, the ‘1.6 is a dipole radiator, meaning that its rear-firing wave front is exactly out of phase with the front.  Combined with the driver’s large area, this results in a more or less planar wave front at low frequencies instead of a traditional dynamic system’s omnidirectional radiation.  Imagine a barn door moving back and forth, as contrasted to an expanding and contracting ball.

Thus, the Maggies and typical speakers will load a room very differently, and get different levels of bass reinforcement from walls behind and beside the speaker.  One result is the articulate midbass that Magnepans are noted for; another is that large, planar dipoles can seem to have less bass than they should do, due to cancellation between the front and rear wavefronts as they overlap around the edges of the panel.

An integral part of Magneplanar lore is that they’re difficult to set up.  True?  Well, yes and no.  Yes, they’re unusual, and yes, small adjustments do make a big difference.  But no, it’s not really difficult to do, and the factory instructions are pretty straightforward.  Besides, Maggies sound pretty good right out of the box—a few feet from any adjacent wall, a little bit of toe-in, and voilà—you’re ready to listen.

The next step is to follow the manual’s instructions, which will give you pretty close to the smoothest response you’re going to get, and a decent soundstage.  Beyond that, it’s just a matter of careful listening and progressively smaller movements, down to about ½" at a time.  I ended up with the speakers’ outer edges 4' from the front wall and just under 58" from the side walls.  For reference, my unbox‘n’plop-‘em-down distances were 4'6" and 5', respectively.

My listening chair is approximately 7' from the rear wall, which places me about 11' from a line drawn between the speakers.  Both speakers were toed-in slightly, with their axes intersecting perhaps 10' to 12' behind my head, and the right speaker angled in slightly less than the right.  My ear height is about 40", midway up the ‘1.6’s panels.  I got the best results from the Maggies with VTL Ichibans and a biwire combination of Synergistic Research Resolution Reference on the bottom, Designer’s Reference on top.

The room has been treated with panel resonators in the front corners, and Echo Busters bass traps in the front and rear corners.  I also use Echo Busters diffusers behind the speakers and listening chair, and their absorbers on the side walls at the first reflection point.  Each pair of speakers was burned-in for 200 hours.



The dominant characteristic of Magnepan speakers over the years has been their uncanny coherence.  The Maggie I’ve lived with most recently, the MG3.5/R, was incredible in this regard.  With the ‘3.5s, individual images were distinct and detailed, yet continuous.  They were cut from a single cloth, so to speak, with no sense that the signal was being fragmented and routed through separate drivers and crossovers.  Images struck just the right balance between edge definition and coherence with the surrounding space, all wrapped up in a seamless, rich portrayal of the original ambient environment.  The result was a performance that seemed holographic in a way that other speakers couldn’t match.

Once the MG1.6/QRs were dialed in, I settled in with the Mannheim Trio’s three-LP Vox Box of Mozart’s Piano Trios (Vox SVBX 568) to see how well the little Maggies could pull off this vanishing act.  First up was side 4, the “Kegelstatt” Trio (K.498 in E-flat Major), and the ‘1.6/QRs did quite well, thank you very much.  My listening room seemed to melt away, morphing into a seamless sonic portrait of the original performance and space.  With the lights out, I felt as if I could have gotten up and walked in between the players, or walked over and touched the back and side walls of the recording venue.  The viola was at the left front, the clarinet at the right front, and the piano slightly behind—and they were right ‘there’.

Dave Bailey’s One Foot in the Gutter (Epic/Classic BA 17008) was another great example.  The instruments seemed dimensional and solid enough to touch, but the real kick was how well the ambient environment was reproduced.  The space between instruments, the walls—even the people laughing and talking in the background—seemed live and, well, right ‘there’.

The ‘1.6/QRs were equally proficient at portraying spaces and performances of all sizes.  Solo instruments and small ensembles had the proper size and weight, and the balance of distance and space—listener to performer to surrounding space—seemed appropriate for the scale of the instrument or group.  Large orchestras were handled unusually well too, much better than I’ve heard out of box speakers at anywhere near the Maggies’ $1475/pair price.  The ‘1.6/QRs’ soundstage was quite large, particularly in the width and height directions, and there was never the sense you get with a lot of speakers: of a miniature orchestra on a toy stage .  A round of thrift-store shopping one weekend led to my having a Shahrzad Festival, comparing London, RCA, Columbia, and Everest versions.  The ‘1.6/QRs did a great job of portraying the different views of the orchestra and space, and always seemed consistent in how they balanced perspective, scale, and distance.

The MG1.6/QR’s ability to disappear was outstanding, but didn’t quite match up to that of the MG3.5/R.  The ‘1.6 simply didn’t sound as neutral or as transparent as the ‘3.5/R.  The ‘1.6/QR’s top-end response didn’t match the transparency of the ‘3.5/R’s ribbon tweeter, for one thing.  The ‘1.6 sounded sweet and extended, but slightly thick in comparison to the ‘3.5.  Second, although the ‘1.6/QR was unfailingly musical and engaging, it didn’t sound particularly flat in my room.  I’ll leave the measurements to JA, but they sounded a bit boosted in the upper bass and the low treble.  The latter affected the perspective, as I’ll discuss in a minute, and seemed to emphasize both record-surface noise and the hashy digititis that’s woven into some CDs and inexpensive CD players.

I did measure the ‘1.6’s bottom-end response in my room, and found it to roll off pretty sharply below about 50Hz.  Wendell Diller, who presided over setup, noted that the ‘1.6/QRs didn’t have the bottom-end extension and power in my room that they had in some other installations.  In most rooms, he said, the ‘1.6/QR should be good to at least 35-40Hz.

The biggest component of the ‘1.6/QRs’ sonic thumbprint, however, was a slight but consistent forward perspective.  Instruments seemed a little bunched up toward the front of the soundstage, which was projected slightly in front of the speakers.  The ‘3.5/Rs, in contrast, had a slightly recessed perspective—no more correct, perhaps, but one that made the images seem more integral with the surrounding space.

Where the ‘1.6/QR’s performance was an improvement over the ‘3.5’s—and a big surprise—was in its reproduction of detail and dynamics.  Each generation of Winey designs has improved on these traditional Magnepan bugaboos, but the MG1.6 actually moved them from the “Weaknesses” column solidly over into “Strengths”.  Its reproduction of dynamic transients, both macro and micro, was outstanding.  I never thought I’d say this about a Magnepan, but the MG1.6/QR had me digging out rock and jazz favorites just to revel in their dynamic transients.  AC/DC, Dire Straits, John Hiatt, Jonny Lang, Tommy Castro—all sensational.  Ray Brown’s “Mistreated But Undefeated Blues,” from Soular Energy (Concord Jazz/Bellaphon LELP 111), was a particularly great cut.  Brown’s bass snapped and bounced, digging woodily into the low notes.  The shimmering cymbals and brushed snares had an electric presence that permeated and supercharged the air around them.  Gene Harris’ piano, Emily Remler’s guitar chops, Red Holloway’s sax solos—all jumped, popped, and rang with a speed and snap I never expected from Magnepans.

Another LP that blew me away was a Japanese pressing of Steely Dan’s Gaucho (MCA VIM-6234).  It was super-clean and super-fast, with huge, stunning dynamic transients that exploded out of a rich, black silence.  The leading edges of transients were laser-sharp, their dynamic swings, huge and precise, had not the faintest hint of softening or overshoot.  The transient speed and accuracy seemed to make the images even more three-dimensional, clearly outlining their sides and back edges.  I’d heard “Babylon Sisters” used as a demonstration of huge dynamic transients many times over the years, but had always accepted that my Magnepans would never have that kind of impact and punch.  Let me tell you, the ‘1.6/QR most definitely did!  Wow!



The ‘1.6/QR’s resolution of inner detail was another area of surprising strength and a contributor to its vivid presentation.  Instruments and voices were dense and dimensional, and rich with tonal and dynamic subtleties.  Album after album, my notes were filled with comments like “clear,” “precise,” or “great inner detail—individual voices and instruments within a section are wonderfully distinct.”  I was repeatedly taken aback by how complex and real a familiar voice—say, Joni Mitchell’s or Rickie Lee Jones’—sounded through the ‘1.6.

Similarly, its reproduction of solo piano—Artur Rubinstein on the Reiner/Rachmaninoff, Wallenstein/Liszt LP (RCA LCS-2068), for example—always seemed to reveal subtleties that I’d not noticed before.  That RCA album is a particularly good example.  All of the instruments and sections of the orchestra, even the soft trumpets and cymbals at the very rear of the stage, were reproduced with the same level of inner detail, the same wonderful coherence and placement, as Rubinstein’s piano.

The ‘1.6/QRs’ exceptional ability to resolve low-level details and weave them into a coherent picture was a big component of their magic.  I mentioned the Dave Bailey album; another good example was Johnnie Johnson’s “Tanqueray,” from Johnny B. Bad (Elektra 61149-2).  The Maggies revealed background details I’d never noticed before, but without making them seem over-etched or unnaturally spotlit.  They were just an integral component of the coherent, live ambience.  Pick your favorite recording, whether it be a symphony, a live club jazz performance, or an all-out rocker—I think you’ll like the Maggies’ presentation.

The Thiel CS2.3 and Magneplanar MG1.6/QR are both outstanding speakers, and I’d unhesitatingly recommend either one.  Both show how far and how successfully their designs have evolved.  They have refined their inherent strengths, and their traditional weaknesses have been largely ameliorated—so much so that the tradeoffs between their performances aren’t as clear as might once have been the case with two comparable designs from these companies.

Each offers a different set of attributes, both outstanding.  The Maggies, for example, now offer the more vivid, dynamic presentation, while the Thiels have the more softly articulate voice.  But the MG1.6/QR offers an incredible amount of performance and musical enjoyment for the money.  You could build a killer system around the Maggies for under $3000 and either live happily ever after, or upgrade around them to your heart’s content.

On the other hand, the more-expensive Thiels are more neutral and more transparent.  Bonnie and I spent many delightful nights with the Maggies, digging out record after record, but when it was time to work on a review, I always turned to the Thiels for their neutrality.  This isn’t to say that the Thiels weren’t engaging—quite the contrary.  After the serious listening was done, I was never in any hurry to replace the CS2.3s.

The bottom line is that both are excellent loudspeakers, and a listener won’t go wrong with either.  If you’re in the market for speakers at either of these price points, I strongly urge you to give these two a listen.  If you haven’t listened to Maggies or Thiels in a while, you might be surprised.

Summing Up
A few things stand out very clearly from my time with the Magnepan MG1.6/QRs.  First, this is a spectacularly enjoyable loudspeaker—the sort that a music lover could happily buy and never look back, spending the rest of her time and money on building and enjoying a music collection.  On the other hand, a die-hard audiophile could assemble a killer budget system around the ‘1.6/QRs and spend the rest of his life upgrading components around them.  The little Maggies won’t bite the heads off of lesser upstream components, but they will most definitely respond to the quality of signal they’re fed.

The second thing that strikes me is how impressive an evolution of the Magneplanar design the MG1.6/QR is.  It manages to retain all of the traditional Magnepan strengths—the coherence and the wonderful disappearing act—while spectacularly improving on the company’s past performance in the areas of dynamics and resolution of detail.  These are now arresting, outstanding performance attributes, not areas where compromises must be made.

Last but certainly not least, I find it incredible that Magnepan has achieved this level of performance in a speaker that retails for $1475/pair.  In my 20 years of involvement in the audio hobby, I can’t think of another product that has offered as much performance for as little money as the MG1.6/QR.  Highly—very highly—recommended.



Sidebar 1: Specifications

Magneplanar MG1.6/QR



Sidebar 2: Associated Components

Analog playback: VPI TNT Mk.IV turntable, JMW Memorial tonearm, Benz-Micro LO4 cartridge.
Digital playback: Ultech UCD-100, CAL CL-15 CD players.
Preamplifiers: Sonic Frontiers Phono 1 and Line 3, VAC CPA1 Mk.II.
Power amplifiers: VTL Ichiban.
Cables: MITerminator 2, 5; Kimber KCAG, KCTG; Bi-Focal XL; Synergistic Research Resolution and Designer’s Reference; Nordost SPM.
Accessories: Bright Star isolation systems, Tiptoes, Standesign, Bright Star, and Merrill equipment stands; PAC Super IDOS, MIT Z Center, and Nirvana AC conditioners; Synergistic Research A/C and Reference Master Couplers; VPI 16.5 and Disk Dr. record cleaners, Decca/Hunt record brush, Immedia Needle Nektar stylus-cleaning fluid; Nordost ECO3 and Music Fidelity DiskSolution CD treatments; Sumiko Fluxbuster, Dennesen Soundtractor, Shure stylus-pressure gauge; Sheffield/XLO Test & Burn-in CD; Echo Busters room-treatment products.—Brian Damkroger



Sidebar 3: Measurements

The MG1.6/QR plays significantly quieter than the Thiel CS2.3 for the same voltage input.  I estimated its B-weighted sensitivity at a low 83.7dB(B)/2.83V/m, though this will be moderated somewhat by its line-source behavior in-room.  Its impedance (fig.1) is basically that of a 4.5 ohm resistor, modified by the crossover, which results in the peak at 600Hz.  Any good 4-ohm-rated amplifier should be able to drive the Maggie without difficulty.  There are no cabinet resonances—the MG1.6/QR doesn’t have a cabinet.

Fig.1 Magnepan MG1.6/QR, electrical impedance (solid) and phase (dashed) (2 ohms/vertical div.).

The somewhat complicated graph in fig.2 shows the Magnepan’s response on the ribbon axis halfway along its length, averaged across a 30° horizontal window and overlaid by the individual outputs of the Magneplanar woofer and the quasi-ribbon tweeter.  The acoustic crossover point appears to be 600Hz, as specified.  Though there are many small peaks and dips, the balance through the treble is flat, but the tweeter level appears shelved-down compared with that of the woofer.  Though this will be partly due to proximity effect at the close microphone distance employed (see my “Measuring Loudspeakers” article elsewhere in this issue), it is also characteristic of the speaker.  The apparent rise in the lower midrange is partly real and partly due to proximity effect, though the trend is smooth.

Fig.2 Magnepan MG1.6/QR, acoustic crossover and anechoic response on central tweeter axis at 50" (the latter averaged across 30° horizontal window), corrected for microphone response, with the nearfield woofer response plotted below 300Hz.

The large peak in the octave between 50Hz and 100Hz is a function of the woofer diaphragm’s tuning.  This will be ameliorated somewhat by the dipole cancellation referred to by BD in his report.  However, in-room measurements I took of the MG1.6/QR did reveal an energy excess in this same region; I’m not surprised that BD found the speaker to sound “a bit boosted in the upper bass.” 

Fig.3 shows the ‘1.6’s actual responses taken over a wide, +15°, -10° vertical window.  The line-source behavior renders the speaker very forgiving with respect to listener ear height.  Laterally, things are more complicated.  What would otherwise be straightforward dipole behavior is overlaid by the lobing that you would normally find in the vertical plane with a two-way speaker with the tweeter mounted above the woofer.  The off-axis differences in response are shown in fig.4, with those on the woofer side of the panel at the back of the graph.  The dipole behavior is significant below 2kHz or so.  Above that region, there are some frequencies where the dispersion is much wider than at others—it is possible that these, together with the peakiness noted in the on-axis response, contribute to BD’s finding the speaker to be balanced somewhat forward in the low treble.

Fig.3 Magnepan MG1.6/QR, vertical response family at 50", from back to front: responses 15°-5° above central HF axis; reference response; responses 5°-10° below central HF axis.

Fig.4 Magnepan MG1.6/QR, lateral response family at 50", normalized to response on tweeter axis, from back to front: differences in response 90°-5° off-axis on woofer side of panel; reference response; differences in response 5°-90° off-axis on tweeter side of panel.

Despite its flatness, the MG1.6 is not a time-coherent design, at least not on its tweeter axis.  The step response on this axis (fig.5) reveals the tweeter to be connected in inverted acoustic polarity, and its output leads that of the woofer by a small fraction of a millisecond.  Finally, the Maggie’s cumulative spectral-decay plot (fig.6) is relatively clean in the low treble, though there are hints of some low-frequency energy storage.  The mid- and high-treble regions, however, appear to have some delayed energy problems.  I am never sure with large-diaphragm speakers if this behavior represents resonances or the presence of multiple reflections.  But again, it might correlate with BD’s finding the treble to be balanced a little forward.—John Atkinson

Fig.5 Magnepan MG1.6/QR, step response on tweeter axis at 50" (5ms time window, 30kHz bandwidth).

Fig.6 Magnepan MG1.6/QR, cumulative spectral-decay plot at 50" (0.15ms risetime).