Magnepan Magneplanar MG 3.6 Loudspeakers 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Floorstanding Loudspeakers
Written by Andrew Robinson   
Thursday, 01 February 2007

One of the most lauded speakers in the history of audiophilia, the Magneplanar 3.6 might seem like an odd subject of review for a publication that is more focused on cutting-edge 1080p video displays than propping up exotic, mercury-filled speaker cables on the floor on some oddball, sawhorse-like stands. Yet in a world where 1.5 million relatively flat HDTVs get sold every month in this country, it has become time to take a critical look and an even more critical listen to one of the more famous flat speakers ever made, the Magnepan 3.6. And this time, I broke a vinyl copy of Jazz at the Pawnshop over my knee and scratched a CD copy of Steely Dan’s Aja before I started my listening as if to flip the proverbial bird to the audiophile gods before I even started the project. As the Magnepan 3.6 has been reviewed in all of the old-school print magazines, this review without question was going to be different. Can big, nearly $4,500, physically flat audiophile speakers cut the mustard in a world where mainstream consumers could not care less about tweaky audiophile tendencies? People with the money, the ears and the inclination to buy such a luxury goods item as the 3.6 have different demands on their products, with questions along the lines of: can they play back movie sound tracks at powerful levels? Can they rock Audioslave at 100 dB without blowing up? Can they recreate real instruments in a way that lures you into your easy chair to listen to SACD, DVD-Audio or even your iPod for hours at a time? It’s a new world out there and it’s time to see if an old-world champion can keep up.

All About Maggie 3.6
The Magneplanar is unlike conventional speakers in the sense that it doesn’t employ traditional dynamic drivers. Instead, the 3.6 utilizes a thin membrane or diaphragm that (not unlike MartinLogan’s hybrid electrostats) generates a large, more cohesive sound across the frequency spectrum. Unlike most MartinLogan designs, the typical Magnepan speaker doesn’t use a powered woofer to augment the lower registers, giving it a more full-range design than the competition. The 3.6’s high frequencies are handled by a true ribbon tweeter, which is reportedly presents the source and ultimately the recorded material itself more transparently, creating a more natural and true to life presentation. The 3.6 has a full-range design, due in part to its larger size at 24 inches wide by 71 inches tall and one-and-a-half inches thick, giving it roughly 540 inches of radiating area. That’s a lot of real estate for sound. With the ribbon tweeter in tow, the 3.6 seems like a two-way speaker. However, it has a three-way design boasting a frequency response of 34-40kHz, with a sensitivity rating of 85dB/2.83v into four ohms. It’s important to point out that the 3.6, like all Magnepan speakers, is a dipole design in that sound fires behind the speaker out of phase from the waves emanating from the front, which in my opinion goes a long way toward creating a more lucid and natural-sounding soundstage. More importantly, the Magneplanar’s lack of a “box” frees it from resonances and a lot of coloration that plague more traditional speakers, making the 3.6 more of a window to the music than a tool for reproducing it. However, while the 3.6 may be a metaphorical window to the sound, it is not a visual one. It is large and comes in a variety of fabric and wood finishes, ranging from light to very dark, with prices to match, though the 3.6's stock price is $4,450.00. The 3.6 isn’t aesthetically slick like an iPod, but it has a sort of vintage chic that seemed to fit right in with my modern décor. It was like a retro 1950s piece of furniture in a modern room. Somehow, it worked and felt right. Guests during the months I had the Maggies on display all had something to say about them, be it good or not so good, on the presence they had in the room.

More than any other speaker, the Magneplanar seems to come with a barrage of special needs that any person in the know won't hesitate to spew out at you: it takes a lot of power, it’s challenging to fine-tune to your room, it can't play loud and on and on and on. It's a lot of audiophile bullshit that frankly turns people away before they even get a chance to hear and decide for themselves. So, for this review, I was going to ignore all of it. Well, most of it. I started by unpacking and assembling, yes, assembling, the 3.6s. They need to be mounted to their "legs," which are more or less metal L brackets not unlike those found in a hardware store, albeit slightly better-looking. Also, the 3.6's crossover and binding posts are located in an external box that needs to be attached via very small screws with the supplied Allen wrench. With the help of a friend, I had the 3.6s upright and ready to go in about 40 minutes.

If you go online, you'll find a barrage of theories about the best place to put your Magneplanars in your room. I placed mine where I place all my loudspeakers, roughly two feet from the front wall with a foot and a half to either side, which put the 3.6s about six feet apart from one another. I toed them in a little and left them. You can fiddle with placement until the cows come home and you might hear a difference here and there, but for the most part, if you treat the 3.6 like any quality loudspeaker, you'll be fine. In fact, you will likely be better than fine. Pour a tall glass of Macallan 25 and experiment with an inch one way or another. With some time and effort, you might find another few percentage points of performance, but for the most part, I didn't think it was that hard to get them sounding good.

Next, I connected the 3.6s to my home theater rig rather than my two-channel set-up, which consisted of the Outlaw 7200 multi-channel amp, the Outlaw 970 processor and the Toshiba XA-1 HD DVD player. All cables and power filtration came by way of Monster Cable. The reason I decided to connect the 3.6s to such a modest set-up was to illustrate that even with budget gear, the 3.6s are capable of sonic feats that most people, audiophiles especially, spend tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars chasing. So, even with a Mark Levinson 433 amplifier and 326S preamplifier within reach of the mighty 3.6s, I never caved – I stuck with the budget gear for the duration of the review.

Music And Movies
To kick things off, I decided to just go ahead and start pushing the outer limits of the Magneplanars with difficult to reproduce, non-audiophile dynamic material. I figured if they were what everyone said they were, then this would be a very short experiment. Either I'd turn the Magneplanars off from ear fatigue or, worse, they'd blow up. You see, the 3.6s can't play loud, right? They're not rock speakers. They're delicate instruments that must be tenderly caressed and fussed with before they reach sonic nirvana. More bullshit. I got your Nirvana right here. I started with Nirvana's second album, Nevermind (Geffen), and the generation- and genre-defining track "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The opening guitar appeared as if from nowhere, heralding the onslaught of drums that rocked my room to its core and never let up. The kick drum was rendered faithfully with tremendous snap and punch, grabbing hold of my most visceral inner urges and starting to squeeze. The entire drum kit had excellent air and extension and felt more like the real thing than anything I'd heard in a long time. The ribbon tweeter helped round out the presentation by breathing what I can only describe as awe-inspiring life into the cymbals. I was having so much fun that I played the intro to the song over and over before actually getting to the vocals. Speaking of vocals, Kurt Cobain’s sounded exceptional on the 3.6s. There were no signs of editorializing or, worse, glossiness. The 3.6s simply reproduced these rough yet poignant vocals without restraint. They were raw, grainy and angry, the way Cobain should sound. His voice took center stage amidst the raging guitars and slamming drums, the way he would have in an actual live performance, without being drowned out or overly accentuated, as he might be in the presentation of some other high-end speakers. At rock concert volumes, the 3.6s held their composure beautifully with zero signs of strain or fatigue. The music just rocketed out of the 3.6s’ thin membranes, filling my listening space with an enveloping, dare I say "live," sound that most traditional loudspeakers simply can't achieve. The soundstage was enormous, arching appropriately back behind the speakers and extending well beyond the sidewalls. The soundstage was nicely detailed if not razor sharp. Then again, what live rock performance is? What the 3.6s did have was air, the sense of scale and space and, above all, a sense of real understanding of the source material. Often, high-end loudspeakers tend to decipher the music, presenting it to you in the way they see fit. Not the 3.6s: they keep it real. And they can play it real loud.

Moving onto the track "Drain You," it was more of the same. With the volume pegged, Cobain's vocals maintained excellent presence among the other instruments. The 3.6s’ midrange, even with a voice as sweet as Cobain's, is simply staggering. It's effortless, just effortless. The drums again were deep and impactful. Now I'll admit, at ear-shattering volumes, the 3.6s would benefit from a decent subwoofer to round out that last bit of oomph. However, for speakers that are criticized for having nearly zero bass capabilities, the 3.6s proved shockingly good at reproducing what bass they can do. The cymbals never became brittle or harsh at intense volumes; instead, they seemed to sing just a little more sweetly. One thing that did surprise me was the 3.6s’ dynamic prowess. Often, hard-to-drive speakers can tend to be a bit sluggish with anything but a kilowatt of power behind them, yet I found the 3.6s to be quite agile and extremely responsive to the track's dynamic shifts. I wasn't lucky enough to see Nirvana live, and no speaker, no matter what their brochures say, can fully recreate a live concert experience, yet with the 3.6s in my system, I feel like I've come very close. In my experience, no speaker, none, has come closer to sounding like a live event than the 3.6s.

I didn't want to leave Nirvana, but it was time for some Pearl Jam and their breakout album Ten (Epic). What I'm going to say might sound a bit strange, but it's the only way I can describe it: on the track "Black," Eddie Vedder's vocals were reproduced as if through a completely different loudspeaker. The 3.6s seemed to change their sonic signature to fit the new, slightly mellower tone of Pearl Jam. Vedder's voice was still rich and rife with detail; it just didn't seem to be coming from the same speakers. The midrange didn’t seem as light on its feet. Instead, it was full-bodied, coming from the gut, with a greater sense of weight that anchored itself firmly in the center of my room way in front of the 3.6s and the rest of the instruments. Was Nirvana wrong? No. They were both right. It's just that the 3.6s allowed me to hear further into the soul of the music in ways traditional speakers simply can't do. Within seconds, I was swaying back and forth in my chair as I visualized hundreds upon hundreds of lighters dancing in the air. The 3.6s’ sound just wafts over you in a wall of music that sweeps you away. I've never heard such spaciousness in music before. The 3.6s aren't vague-sounding or forward, they're just right. The bass guitar was extremely nimble and plenty deep, as were the drums. The cymbals took on a life of their own, shimmering across the furthest reaches of the soundstage like tiny lights in the dark dancing across a rain-soaked wall. I wouldn't classify Pearl Jam as usually beautiful-sounding, yet it was with the 3.6s. I'm not so sure I've ever gotten the full meaning, or should I say feeling, of "Black," but like good teachers, the 3.6s helped show me the way.

I switched tracks to "Jeremy" and was immediately drawn to the cymbals, that is, until the drums rocked in and launched me back into eighth grade. Vedder's vocals once again were full of emotion that the 3.6s never failed to recreate. Not wanting to sound redundant, I will say that the 3.6s have rhythm. Loads of it. They can swing, they can rock and everything in between. Their dynamic capability is rather startling, given their sheer size. Okay, the lowest reaches of the bass could be a bit fuller but again, what's there is pretty damn impressive. Other speakers would kill for the kind of seamless presentation that the 3.6s can dish out from top to bottom.

Keeping with my anti-establishment theme, I went ahead and grabbed Tool's album AEnima (Volcano Records) and cued up the track "Eulogy." The track begins with several minutes of textural elements and subtle percussion that builds up to the song's eventual release. These elements, ranging from light raps on a wood block to some more synthesized sounds, are quite amazing and a bit eerie through the 3.6s. The entire opening played out more like a horror flick, so much so that my eyes began to dart around the room as I tried to locate each individual sound. At times, the music seemed to emanate from behind me, no doubt attributable to the 3.6s’ bipolar design. Nevertheless, it was freaking sweet. When the drums, mainly the bongos, finally do chime in, their sound reached back into the farthest extremities of the soundstage, completely free from the 3.6s’ physical boundaries. The bass was full-bodied and filled out the otherwise treble-based performance beautifully. When the song really gets going, the 3.6s exhibited more of that rhythmic muscle I had heard earlier. Maynard's vocals grabbed at my throat and never relinquished their grip until the track was over. Nothing within the track seemed to stress the 3.6s; they simply wouldn't back down. I pushed the volume higher still and found that my ears crapped out way before the speakers did. The music just thundered on and head banging commenced. Yes, there was head banging. Honestly, forget everything you thought you knew about the 3.6s and all of the bloated audiophile nonsense that comes with it, for these are speakers that know how to rock and roll. They are simply and utterly fantastic.

While this review was supposed to be two-channel only, I couldn't resist the urge to watch a movie or two. I started with the HD DVD presentation of The Bourne Supremacy (Universal Studios Home Video). I didn't have any of Magnepan's center channel or rear speakers on hand, so I rounded out my system with some Definitive Technology speakers. Right off the bat, one thing was overwhelmingly apparent: if you're going to be using the 3.6s or any sort of Magnepan speaker in a multi-channel configuration, you're going to want to make sure it's an all-Maggie system. The 3.6s just didn't jibe with the dynamic drivers of the Definitives the way other speakers can and do. This being said, I set the disc to high-resolution stereo and continued with the show. I never thought I’d say this in my career, but even in two-channel, the 3.6s create one heck of a surround sound movie experience. The sense of atmosphere in many of Bourne’s wide European shots was incredible. It was if the city went on for days and I was right in the middle of it. The way the 3.6s can unravel the minutest ambient details is quite shocking, given their stature. Dialogue through the 3.6s was natural, distinct and appropriately rich. The 3.6s’ way with dialogue seemed so effortless that I didn’t find myself missing my center speaker. More impressive still was the way that the 3.6s retained all of their musicality throughout the film’s score, even when playing it back behind a foreground car chase. The 3.6’s ribbon tweeter is just amazing; it draws that last bit of detail out of everything, taking the sounds and bringing them into sharper focus, all the while remaining incredibly poised and balanced within the rest of the 3.6’s sonic presentation. Dynamically, the 3.6s proved just as awesome with movies as they did with rock music. Bourne’s climatic car chase was visceral and had a sort of “right here” feeling about it that was unlike anything I had experienced before.

The Downside
Magneplanars are big and they aren't exactly subtle in the looks department. Some people have very strong reactions to the look of the speakers. Even competing MartinLogans have visually transparent panels. Maggies are far more imposing. with a larger footprint and non-see-through grille covers. If the 3.6s are too big for you for any number of reasons, I really do suggest you look toward some of the other speakers in Magnepan's arsenal. No matter how you look at it, Maggies of all sizes need a subwoofer, but don’t think that you need to spend a fortune on one. I used an Outlaw LFM-1 Plus subwoofer left over from another review to stellar results.

In terms of the 3.6’s fit and finish, more expensive and exotic fabrics would help. More exotic wood sides and finely made hardware would really help make the speaker look more twenty-first century. One only has to look at the MartinLogan Summits (a far more expensive pair of speakers, you will note) to see how such a feat can be achieved.

The 3.6's crossover is a bit clunky-looking and not exactly stable when mounted on the back of the Magneplanar's frame. In fact, the crossover is the only thing that somewhat indicates the 3.6's price bracket. Simple engineering could have cost-effectively solved this design issue.

Lastly, the 3.6s do need a quite bit of power. Any Maggie dealer will tell you that this is not a speaker that you should ever hook up to a receiver. Even so, you don't have to spend a fortune on power the way some other folks may have you believe. I found the Outlaw 7200 amp to be very good at controlling the 3.6s’ large panels, while allowing the ribbon to just sing. With any luck, your dealer will have a barrage of different amps to test with the 3.6s. Just be sure you start with the cheapest and work your way up, so that you can hear what exactly you're paying for. Beyond Outlaw, Rotel and NAD come to mind as good matches for some 3.6s.

The biggest downside to the Magnepan 3.6s is the fact that they've been plagued with so much audiophile misinformation and stereotyping that this has limited their market share. Their own singular focus on the audiophile market for marketing hasn’t helped them achieve the mainstream consumer demand they could and should have. At this level, they could learn a lesson from Bose and open up to new (in Bose’s case – all) market channels, because I think that if more people could hear these speakers, they would learn to love them.

Let’s not beat around the bush. The 3.6s are amazing speakers. With a base price under $4,500, it becomes more and more difficult to justify buying more costly high-end speakers. Sure, the 3.6s are large and they may be a bit old-fashioned looking, but their sheer musicality and live sound is just staggering. They sound like no speakers I’ve ever heard before, in that they don’t sound like speakers at all. They sound like music.

At no point during my time with the Magnepan Magneplanar 3.6 speakers did I ever feel as if I was listening to a prerecorded event. Everything through the 3.6s sounds either live or somehow authentic to the studio. Sure, there are those out there who will say, “Yeah, but Wilson WATT Puppies will give you a better soundstage, and Revels will do deeper bass, blah blah blah.” I don’t care. That’s more of the audiophile crap that I was talking about. The 3.6s aren’t perfect, but for my money, they are the most emotionally honest and involving speakers I have heard anywhere near their price range.
Manufacturer Magnepan
Model Magneplanar MG 3.6 Loudspeakers
Reviewer Andrew Robinson

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