Speakers

Two speaker design types, flat panel or box: Which one's right for you?

The Magnepan MMG and Pioneer Elite SP-EBS73-LR are two very different sounding speakers, so which one is best for you?

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The Magnepan MMG (left) and Pioneer Elite SP-EBS73-LR (right) Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Readers are always asking for speaker recommendations, and while I can supply my favorites they might not be a good fit for every reader. Personal preferences are just that, personal; there's rarely a clear-cut best speaker for all buyers.

The Magnepan MMG and Pioneer Elite SP-EBS73-LR are two very different-sounding speakers that sell for nearly the same price, so which one is right for you?

I'm a huge fan of the MMG flat-panel speaker, it is in some ways the best sounding speaker you can buy for $599 a pair. Standing 4 feet tall, the MMG is just 1.25 inches thick, and it radiates sound from its front and rear surfaces. Rather than use a conventional dome tweeter or cone woofer the MMG's ultra-thin diaphragm has a flat tweeter and midrange/woofer. The entire speaker is covered with a non-removable cloth grille. Impedance is rated at 4 Ohms, and the MMG can handle lots of power.

Magnepan builds the MMG, along with all of its more expensive speakers in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. The company was founded in 1969.

There's a good chance that every speaker you've ever heard was a box speaker, and if that's the case the MMG will be a revelation. Freed of the box the MMG's sound is more open and spacious, vocals are incredibly natural, more human, and real sounding. The MMG may be Magnepan's least expensive speaker, but it uses the same ribbon tweeter technology found on its higher-end designs.

Bass definition is superb, the clarity of the low-end is unmatched in the MMG's price class. Bass oomph and power is another matter; I doubt too many fans of rock, reggae, hip-hop, or dance music will be satisfied, and while you can add a subwoofer to augment the bass, achieving a smooth blend between sub and MMG is never easy.

The panels' soundstage is deep and wide, and floats free of the speakers. No box speaker priced anywhere near the MMG images as well, but to sound its best the panels must be placed two or more feet away from the wall behind them. Some owners push them up against the wall when they're not listening, and then move them out into the room when they are.

Magnepan sells some of its more expensive speakers through brick-and-mortar dealers, but the MMG is sold factory-direct with a 60-day satisfaction guarantee.

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Pioneer's Coherent Source Transducer combines a 4-inch midrange driver and a 1-inch tweeter into one driver Pioneer

Now let's turn our attention to the best monitor speaker I've heard in this price range, the Pioneer Elite SP-EBS73-LR ($750 per pair). Its high-end pedigree shines through every aspect of its performance. Perhaps because there's more than a bit of trickle-down engineering at play here, the SP-EBS73-LR was designed by Andrew Jones, who was responsible for developing another "bookshelf" speaker, the TAD CE1 Compact Evolution One ($24,000 per pair) that garnered raves last year in Europe and at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.

The SP-EBS73-LR is a three-way design, and the front baffle features a CST (Coherent Source Transducer), with a 4-inch aluminum midrange driver with a 1-inch soft dome tweeter mounted in its center. There's also a 5.25-inch aluminum woofer. The SP-EBS73-LR's top panel features an upward-firing CST driver array that's only intended for use with Dolby Atmos and DTS:X equipped AV receivers that have special height surround channels, but I didn't listen to any Atmos or DTS:X movies while listening to the SP-EBS73-LRs. Finished in wood grained black vinyl the speaker measures 7.4 by 15.7 by 9.7 inches, it weighs a solid-feeling 15.7 pounds, and impedance is rated at 4 Ohms.

The SP-EBS73-LR will sound best placed on 24-inch or taller floor stands, 12 inches or more away from the wall behind them. Bass is very clear and deep for a speaker of this size, but if you need more you can always add a subwoofer, such as Pioneer's excellent SW-E10 ($599).

There's an undeniable clarity to the sound, without a whit of grit or harshness, just oodles of detail, and a pair of SP-EBS73-LRs can project a huge stereo soundstage with a tremendous sense of depth and spaciousness. Really nice, but the MMG sounds bigger still, with even less "box" sound, but the SP-EBS73-LR's dynamics and visceral impact exceed the MMG's.

The SP-EBS73-LR can be used on its own in stereo, or as front speakers in a home theater system flanking the matching Pioneer Elite SP-EC73 center channel speaker. The MMG can also be used in home theaters, but it lacks the SP-EBS73-LR's dynamics and bass oomph. For two-channel stereo systems in small to mid-size rooms, playing acoustic-oriented music for owners that don't crank tunes really loud, the MMG would be a better, clearer, more spacious sounding choice. For maximum home theater impact, four SP-EBS73-LRs and Pioneer's matching center speaker and subwoofer would be the preferred option.

The Magnepan MMG and Pioneer Elite SP-EBS73-LR are both excellent speakers, but they sound very different and appeal to different types of buyers.