Magnepan LRS Loudspeakers Review
Real budget esoterica is few and far between – but this new quasi-ribbon loudspeaker properly fits the bill, says Rafael Todes…
AUD $1,499 RRP
A few years back, I reviewed Magnepan's 3.7i loudspeaker and was blown away. The list price of $13,000 had me thinking impure thoughts of robbing banks – deliciously fast, impactful and very real, it was an amazing thing to hear. Now though, perhaps I may not need to after all – because the new $1,499 Little Ribbon Speaker is a fraction of the price and still provokes similar emotions in me.
The LRS has sort-of 'shrunk in the wash', so to speak. While the 3.7i is 1,800mm tall and 610mm wide, this is a more room-friendly 1,210mm by 370mm – still a big speaker by most people's standards, then. I first heard it at Bristol's Sound and Vision show in February of this year, and assumed the cost was ten times this actual amount, then did a double-take when I saw the price tag. Editor-in-chief David Price tells me he had exactly the same experience at StereoNET's Melbourne Hi-Fi Show last November!
Still, there seems to be some confusion surrounding this speaker, as it's similar in size to the previous MMGi model, which is a planar magnetic design (where the wires are connected to a non-conducting membrane). The LRS, on the other hand, is a quasi-ribbon loudspeaker, essentially a series of ribbons glued to a Mylar panel for each of the treble and bass units. It's called a quasi-ribbon, as a true ribbon is not glued to Mylar and stands alone.
Founded by Jim Winey in 1969, Magnepan is located in White Bear Lake, Minnesota and has made upwards of 200,000 pairs of Maggies since, yet still seems to be one of the best-kept secrets in hi-fi. By eschewing a cabinet, the speaker avoids the problems that all such box loudspeakers face – namely cabinet resonances, port chuffing and quacking, to name but a few of the issues. This speaker is dipolar, so what comes out of the front comes out-of-phase from the rear. As a result, positioning is critical, forcing me to spend a great deal of time experimenting with the distance from the rear wall and toe-in angle…
Small changes make huge differences, and the experience of one user in one location is likely to be very different to another user in another location. The speakers are 'handed' with the treble panel on the outer side to maximise the soundstage, so it's advised to have the left-handed speaker treble panel on the far left, and vice-versa for the right speaker. I connected this review pair of LRSs to my VAC Phi 200 valve monoblock power amps, using Townshend F1 fractal cable, and a dCS Bartok streaming DAC. You'll need gutsy amplification, as quoted sensitivity is a middling 86dB; frequency response is listed as 50Hz to 20kHz.
This speaker's presentation is extraordinary, being utterly natural and involving – there's no other way of putting it. Madeleine Peyroux's Instead was rendered with startling transparency for a speaker at this price, her voice having a wonderful timbre replete with all the shades and colour it deserves. Her acoustic guitar was lightning-fast and immediate, and the percussion zinged and sizzled like I was sitting just a few feet away. There is something about hearing a plucked instrument on panel speakers with a super-light membrane; its instant attack reminds us that it's so much lighter than the cone and voice coil of a conventional driver. As well as immediate leading edges of notes, you also get divine decay; the way the note tails off doesn't add anything and presents the musical line in a grippingly truthful way.
The LRS is not universally perfect of course; it has its foibles. Yet you can forgive pretty much anything at this price, considering just how good its strengths are. I detected a slight hollowness around the upper bass. The lower bass seems surprisingly good for such a small panel, but I noticed that sometimes listening to the Beaux Arts Piano Trio playing Mozart Trios – the most recent recording on the Philips label – the presence of the cello line was a little understated. It's true that in the early piano trios, the cello doubles the left hand of the piano, and isn't adding musically to the mix, but still it seemed lighter than is natural. Contrast this to a MartinLogan Monti with its hybrid panel and active moving coil bass driver, and the latter sounds amazing in the right room – but it's really fussy and costs way more.
Desperate to make the LRS sound even better, I connected a solitary REL subwoofer doubling the left channel. Driving it actively and experimenting with the crossover frequency and volume, I found a point where the upper bass was gently present but not obtrusive, and gave gentle support to the midrange as well. It was definitely an improvement and one of the first times I've successfully managed to integrate the sub with anything in my system, so it's something to consider should you go ahead and purchase a pair of these Magnepans. You can also tweak the treble panel of the LRS; the company provides two alternative resistors which can be inserted between the treble panel links on the rear of the speaker. Their effect was easily noticeable, but I settled on the version that was the default setting in my listening room, namely the metal bridges with no resistance.
Back as nature intended without the subwoofer, and the LRS showed its dynamic limitations with a big orchestra. One of my favourite recordings of the later Haydn symphonies – Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic on the 88th Symphony – is a grand sounding piece that's carried in its entirety by my reference B&W 802D3s. The sense of weight that the different orchestral sections display really is something. Yet the Maggies couldn't really pull this off; they weren't able to generate the illusion of a substantial violin section and instead produced shadows on the wall, rather than making the object sit there in front of you.
The 3.7i did achieve this feat, reminding me that the LRS is a fraction of their cost and so shouldn't be blamed. I got the sense that this speaker is something of a loss leader, giving you a bite-size taste of what Magnepan's serious, expensive stuff can do. Still, the overall effect was pretty special. It's just that this speaker sounded best in the less busy passages of the symphony, the minuet and trio, where the orchestral dialogue uses paired-down forces, and the woodwinds really shine. Fascinatingly this cheap speaker even wrong-footed my expensive B&Ws at some moments, yet still didn't quite pull off big set pieces.
In my second listening room – which has higher ceilings and a pair of factory-rebuilt Quad ESL63s powered by Trilogy EL34 monoblocs, I found the LRS had a very similar skillset to my classic electrostatics. They related very well to the Trilogy power amps, yet weren't quite as enveloping in their presentation and seemed a bit brighter. Indeed this combination showed a slight metallic twang to the Maggies that I couldn't quite shake, despite moving them around a lot in the room. They also seemed to miss the punch and power of the VAC KT88s, suggesting the sweeter and more lithe EL34s didn't quite have the grunt to properly drive them. Still, they made a very nice noise all the same.
Soundstaging is sublime, as evidenced by The Oscar Peterson Trio playing You Look Good To Me. I heard a really spacious presentation – the double bass was really making its presence felt, and I got a jaw-droppingly realistic rendition of the bowed solo. Once again it's really hard to think of any price rival of the LRS coming anywhere near close – there's nothing even on the same page. Yet it's not actually this that really wowed me on this track, rather it was the lovely texture to the musical instruments in play. Peterson's piano had a light touch, dancing feeling to his fingers, which jumped out of the recording. On many other speakers I could mention, this piano can sound cloyingly thick, but not so here. Transparent and lithe, it integrated into the trio perfectly.
Needless to say, thanks to the aforementioned razor-light transducers, the percussion on this jazz classic was something else – the sound of the brush on the drum skin and rim being quite electric. The LRS does transients spectacularly; its timing puts it amongst the best I have heard for a long while in this respect. It's like sitting in the front row of a smoky jazz club, and hearing three great musicians freely converse. You simply don't get this from conventional box loudspeakers, until you start spending silly money.
The Magnepan LRS is remarkable given its $1,499 retail price; it gives a telescopic view into what larger Maggies are capable of, without having to rob that proverbial bank – or as today's world would have it, hack it. It's at its splendid best with the highest quality of amplification – so has expensive taste – yet it reproduces relatively simple programme material brilliantly, such as female vocals and small jazz ensembles, etc. It's able to have a good go at large scale orchestral, but can't completely defy the laws of physics; even so, judicious use of a subwoofer can help here too. Overall then, this inspired budget speaker will hook you right into the Magnepan brand, which could eventually seriously damage your wealth!
For more information, visit Magnepan.
Gifted violinist Rafael is one quarter of the Allegri String Quartet, playing second fiddle. Once a member of the CBSO under Sir Simon Rattle, he now teaches at London’s Junior Royal Academy. A long-time audiophile, he’s still on a quest for the perfect sound.