Affordable American hi-fi, does it exist?

We no longer manufacture computers, TVs, or cameras, but America still makes high-quality audio gear. And not all of it is expensive.

While I regularly write about ultra-high-end gear that's made in the U.S., I also cover as much affordable stuff as I can find. Grado Labs in Brooklyn manufactures some of my favorite headphones priced from $79 and phono cartridges from $60. My friends at Schiit Audio in Newhall, Calif., make headphone amplifiers and digital-to-analog converters with prices starting at $249. As for speakers, Zu Audio makes gorgeous-sounding models priced from $1,200 per pair. These companies aren't just based in the U.S., they also manufacture their products here.

The superthin MMG panel speaker. Steve Guttenberg

If $1,200 doesn't qualify as affordable, how about an American-made, bona-fide audiophile speaker that goes for $599 per pair? The Magnepan MMG is such a model, and I spent some quality time with it at the company's factory a few months ago.

Unless you're a hard-core audiophile, you might think that all speakers are boxes--skinny towers, sleek sound bars, or tiny cubes--and they all have some type of cabinet. They always sport an assortment of dome tweeters and cone drivers, so you might conclude that all speakers are made that way. Not true, Magnepan, based in White Bear Lake, Minn., has never incorporated even a single dome tweeter or cone woofer in their designs; the sound-producing elements are proprietary thin-film drivers. The MMG panel is 48 inches tall, 14.5 inches wide, and a mere 1.25 inches thick.

So if every speaker you've ever heard was a box, with dome tweeters and cone woofers, the MMG's sound will be a revelation. Freed of the box, the sound is more open and lifelike. The MMG may be Magnepan's least expensive speaker, but it uses the same ribbon tweeter technology found on its more expensive designs. No wonder the MMG's clarity exceeds box speakers selling for many times its $599 price.

A Magnepan worker hand-building a flat-panel speaker Steve Guttenberg

Bass definition is also superb, so it's easy to hear every note on the acoustic basses on my favorite jazz CDs. Drums and percussion sound crisp, with excellent dynamic contrast. K.D. Lang's vocals on her "Hymns of the 49th Parallel" CD were perfectly formed and realistic-sounding. The sumptuously arranged strings and guitars had a vivid presence. The panels' soundstage is deep and wide, and floats free of the speakers. No box speaker priced anywhere near the MMG images like this.

The MMG is less convincing with rock; it lacks the muscle to convey visceral power. The panels make a decent amount of bass, but it's not going to rattle your windows. Some Magnepan owners add subwoofers, and that's one way to get around that shortfall.

Magnepan's more expensive speakers like to be hooked up to big power amplifiers, but the MMG sounded fine with the Pioneer VSX-99 receiver I used for all of my listening tests. The panels should be placed 3 or more feet out into the room to sound best, but since they're light its easy to move them back against the wall after you're finished listening. The MMG works best in small, 250-square-foot or smaller rooms.

Magnepan sells its more expensive speakers at brick-and-mortar dealers, but the MMG is sold factory-direct with a 60-day satisfaction guarantee. If you want to move up to one of the larger Magnepan speakers (depending on the model) within a year of the MMG's purchase you'll receive up to full credit from Magnepan for your traded-in speakers.

 

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