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First Listen: Magnepan Mini System

I’ve been meaning to get down to The Gifted Listener in Centreville for about two months now — and today was the day.

The target? The new Magnepan Mini System.

Tom Unger, proprietor, took delivery of a set of the Minis about, well, two months ago. Full disclosure: I took delivery of my Magnepan 3.7 speakers from Tom back in August — and I am still totally in love with those non-speaker speakers. More about that here.

The Minis are … ah … small. I know — shocker! At 14″ tall and 10″ wide, they’re all of an inch (or so) deep. The DWM is quite a bit bigger, but still, diminutive, and it “sits below”. The intention is that this bass panel could and would actually sit under a desk … but I’m still dubious about how well that would work and I can’t imagine that the integration would be seamless when the system is configured like that.

But, hearing is believing (as it were) and Tom had his set up in a faux-desk setup that mimicked the approach pretty well.

The Mini panels are pretty robust. Rather, the feel pretty robust under my fingers. Handling them isn’t going to be an issue. I mean, not that you’re going to want to fondle them or anything, but if you have to reposition them, there’s no real issue about screwing them up — and ditto the DWM bass panel. Tom tells me that they’re very robust too and there’s little concern that you’re going to put your foot through one when you’re seated at a desk. Again, I’m dubious — but I’ll admit that I didn’t attempt any stress testing on either the Minis or the DWM while I was visiting. 😉

The speakers feature a real ribbon tweeter and a “standard” Maggie panel, like the 3.7. And also like the 3.7, there’s only the one set of inputs for the speaker cables, so if you were planning on biamping them like you might with a pair of older 3.6R speakers, you’re out of luck. All you’ve got there, aside from speaker cable inputs, is a spot for an optional resistor to back off the response of the tweeter should you find it too aggressive (I didn’t, and we were using the standard steel bar jumper), and a fuse.

FWIW, I found that the sound quality improved with both toe-in and some distance from the rear wall. Not like 3.7 distance (4-5′), but some. Say 2′. That is, imaging and tone both improved when they were pulled forward.

Bass impact from the panel was just meh, pretty much as I’d expected, but let’s just say that it wasn’t what called attention to itself. In this respect, I don’t think anyone with either 1.7s or 3.7s to likely be seriously reconsidering their purchases.

Bass/mid-bass response, again, improved with some clearance to the rear of the DWM.

The wiring setup is a little odd/interesting. Speaker wires from the amp are going to head to the DWM first and then a second set will fan out to the Mini panels. That is, the Mini System is wired (with standard speaker cables — bananas only!) from amp to DWM to Mini. What I don’t know is if this is done to improve the group delay (and therefore the integration) or to simplify the wiring topology (most amps have only one set of outputs, unlike my awesome Plinius SA-Reference). This brings up an interesting possibility, too — perhaps you could wire them all (DWM and the L/R Mini panels) in parallel, which might be a way you could do biamping — tubes on the top, Class D on the bottom. Dunno, but I don’t see why not.

As you can see, above and below here, I toed in the Mini panels. I toe in my 3.7s, too, so I figured this would be a great place to start for nearfield-style listening. The tweeters were on the inside (and no, I didn’t swap them to the outside — another time) and I fiddled around here, pointing them over my shoulders and eventually in toward my nose. I found that the imaging locked as long as they pointed at me, creating a very solid and very stable center. In fact, when I got lock in, the image was freaky-good, like 3-D holography good. Depth and height were excellent and pinpoint — easily the best I have ever heard on anything resembling a desktop-sized speaker. But that’s not the story.

The real story is the tone. It was pure Magnepan. Rich. Natural. Textured. In-your-face. Real. I was frozen for a good 45 minutes.

Tom played some Martina McBride, a favorite demo of his for dynamics and punch, and the little Mags did very well with this. While they obviously didn’t hit as deep or as hard as my big 3.7s, the Minis still had great texture and admirable extension. When we switched over to Jerry Garcia and David Grisman’s “Not For Kids Only”, the stringed duet and accompanying vocals were among the most compelling I’ve heard on any system, full stop, no qualifiers.

And, yes, the Mini System sounds very similar to the sound of the newest Maggies. Like my 3.7s. And perhaps — maybe — they might even be better in the following way: the Minis come across as point sources where the 3.7s are very definitely line sources. Locked into the sweet spot, the Minis are freakishly good. I was shocked.

Am I giving up my 3.7s and replacing them with a Mini System? Ah, no.

While the Minis do sound stage and imaging even better than the 3.7s (point vs line source, remember), the 3.7s aren’t seriously in jeopardy. On the 3.7s, the sound is bigger and more textured. More life like. The mid range is more immediate. More layered. More … everything. There’s more sense of space, more roundness to the tone, more harmonic rightness with the big 3.7s. Oh, and the bass on the 3.7 kicks the Minis right in the balls. That’s important to me. Ball kicking. Yeah!

I should say something about the accompanying gear here, too. Fronting the system was a very fine Marantz SACD player (we used only Redbook CDs, not SACDs, sadly) running into a $4500 VTL IT-85. This tube integrated was new-to-me, and I think it’s terrifically sexy. It’s compact, and though perhaps not compact enough for every desktop, I think it’d look great on mine. Ahem. More relevantly here, it’s EL34 generated 85wpc were more than sufficient to drive the Mini System to uncomfortably loud levels.

Which is another thing to mention — these are designed as (almost) nearfield monitors. Doesn’t mean you can’t run them in a home theater setup, but I’d advise against it as Maggies do tend to sound their best on-axis, and I found that with the Minis, this was doubly true. Theater for one? By all means, have at it!

But what about the old axiom — Maggies love power? This is a bit harder. In my brief time with them, I felt that they sounded best played a bit louder than you might want for a true nearfield monitor experience. Which means you’ll get the best bang for your buck when you sit up in your chair, perhaps even lean back a bit, with your hands laced behind your neck. Consider reclining a bit, if that’s an option (and if it’s not, have you considered a new chair?). Whatever. What I’m not going to recommend is hunching over your laptop as you’re typing as the ideal listening posture, what with the speakers some 18″ from your ears. Unwise. Again, turn up the volume, sit back, and just know that you’re totally going to lose track of time.

So, as to power, I’d definitely not use my little 3.5wpc Miniwatt N3 on them to be sure, but a small integrated amp like the VTL or even a Bel Canto C5i would be (and was, at least in case of the VTL) more than enough to blow out your eardrums, should you choose to experiment with brain damage.

I think the Mini System is a killer. At $1500, it’s hardly cheap of course. By way of comparison, my Miniwatt + HRT Streamer + Audioengine P4 desktop system cost a bit less than these speakers do by themselves. But, to be honest, my desktop system doesn’t sound as good as Tom’s does. It just doesn’t. Compounding things for those of you bass whores out there, you might want to consider adding a second DWM (which adds another $800) to stereo-ize the bass on the Mini System. Tom tells me that he’s sold the system in just this way, with two DWMs, and customers have been over-the-moon happy with the resulting sound quality.

If I have any nits, it’s more on placement than sound quality. Put the bass panel under a desk? Really?!? I mean, wouldn’t it be better with the Minis sitting on stands, with a pair of DWM panels sitting on the floor next to them and everything out in the middle of the room, away from the walls? Maybe. But at this point we’re no longer talking about a desktop system, are we?

And the DWM panels aren’t cheap either — adding a second to the Mini System takes the cost of the entirety to over what a 1.7 would cost. So, naturally, you have to ask: is the sound quality of the Mini System better than a 1.7? IMO, the answer is no. If I had to choose, I’d rather have the 1.7 (and the 3.7 far more, but then, they’re far more) than the Mini System.

Probably. Maybe? Hmm. Yeah, I’m pretty sure.

But — and this is a HUGE butt of a but — there is just no way you can fit either the 1.7 or the 3.7 into anywhere near as many places as you can the Mini System. Like a desk, say. The 1.7s would look mighty silly on a desk. So, when the application is right, the extraordinary flexibility of the Mini System and their utterly mesmerizing sound quality will be pretty much unbeatable.

If you’re shopping for a state of the art system for your home office, kitchen, studio, or any other cramped or compromised space where you can’t setup the bigger Magnepan speakers, don’t hesitate — go Mini and go big. Were I a betting man, I’d be happy to wager that you’d be over the moon, too.

About Scot Hull (976 Articles)
Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and "The Occasional Magazine"

1 Comment on First Listen: Magnepan Mini System

  1. It has been a while since I purchased any high-end audio gear, having been happy with my setup as can be seen at http://this1that1whatever.com/blog/h/high-end-audio-system-pictures.php.

    Recently, my Kinergetics CD player died and now I am looking for a DAC to buy down the road. I have an immediate need to buy an Apple computer to develop an iPhone app. I am eyeing the Mac mini which has Firewire, USB and Ethernet ports. I figured one of those should interface into a DAC with corresponding input.

    Very nice Magnepan mini system. I am familiar with the large Magnepan speakers as I had compared to my Apogee ribbon speakers.

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