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Desktop audio never sounded this good before

The all-new Mini-Maggie System is a radical rethink of what desktop speakers can sound like.

The 14-inch-tall Mini-Maggie satellite speaker.

Desktop audio has never been important to me. I already have a high-end hi-fi in my apartment, so while I occasionally play music on my Audioengine P4 speakers that live on my desktop, I'm not really listening. The music is just there in the background. When I want to listen, I turn on my hi-fi.

That's me, but for some 21st-century audiophiles, the computer is the primary music source at home. That's why Magnepan has designed the all-new Mini-Maggie system. I was the very first reviewer to audition it, and to say I was impressed would be an understatement. The system retails for $1,495, but in some ways sounds better than my Magnepan model 3.7 speakers that sell for nearly four times as much!

Magnepan is known for its floor-standing speakers, but the Mini-Maggies are 14 inches high, 9.3 inches wide, and just 1.25 inches thick. They can be superthin because they don't use conventional cone woofers; the Mini-Maggies feature proprietary thin-film driver technology and ribbon tweeters. The speakers are built in Minnesota with American-made parts.

I listened to the Mini-Maggie system with a Denon DVD 3910 SACD/DVD-Audio player, Audio Research LS-1 line-stage preamp, and a big Threshold S/550 power amp. The system's clarity actually surpassed my Magnepan 3.7s, which are extremely pure-sounding speakers, but I was sitting a lot closer (4 vs. 10 feet) to the Mini-Maggies, so I was hearing more direct sound, and fewer room reflections with those. With good recordings, the Mini-Maggies project remarkable soundstage depth and produce sharper, more distinct stereo imaging than my 6-oot-tall panel speakers. The desktop system was about 5 feet away from the front wall, but most of the depth disappears if the Mini-Maggie speakers are placed closer than a few feet away from the front wall. There's one other downside: vertical dispersion is limited; to hear the Mini-Maggies at their best your ears must be near the same height as the speakers, so if you stand up, the sound loses most of its clarity. The larger Magnepan speakers don't have that problem.

The Mini-Maggie, shown without grille, so you can see there's no dome tweeters or cone woofers. Steve Guttenberg

The Mini-Maggie system also includes a DWM-Maggie woofer panel that measures 22.5 by 19.25 by 1.25 inches. The speakers and woofer are covered in black cloth and sit on small stands. My demo system's woofer was placed in the desk's foot well. I was a little concerned about how the speakers and woofer's sound would blend--that's a concern with every satellite-subwoofer system--and it's never perfect. The Mini-Maggie system was good in that regard, but there were times I felt the bass was too lightweight. Bass quantity varied from one recording to the next, and at its best it was never as deep and powerful as a decent subwoofer (Magnepan never refers to the DWM-Maggie as a subwoofer; it calls it a woofer). If you want deep bass, add a sub.

The first thing that grabbed me about the system's sound was its size. Sitting 3 feet away from the speakers the sound took on a three-dimensional presence, and the crisp attack and dynamic impact of well-recorded drums were on par with what you get from very high-end hi-fi systems. You can almost feel the texture of the drum heads, and hear the metallic brassy ring of the cymbals. With good live recordings, like the "Allman Brothers at the Fillmore East" SACD, I heard so much more of the sound of the band in that old theater. The Mini-Maggie's tweeters sound so pure and effortless, I didn't think about their sound. It was just there, more akin to the way we experience high-frequency sound in real life, where acoustic instruments never sound tizzy or harsh. They sound just as clear over the Mini-Maggies. When you hear, say, an acoustic guitar over the Mini-Maggie system, you can't help but notice how much more it sounds like there's a real guitar in the room with you.

Piano dynamics, from soft to hard, came across with an intensity that no small box speaker can match. There's an open quality to the Mini-Maggie system's sound that's simply more natural than the sound that comes out of box speakers, and after listening to any Magnepan speaker, you're so much more aware of how box speakers contain and restrict the sound. Bass punch is another matter; high-end box speakers have more visceral impact than panel speakers. That said, my Magnepan 3.7 speakers play louder and make a lot more bass than the Mini-Maggies; what can I say, size still matters.

So sure, no speaker is perfect, each type has different strengths and weaknesses. The Mini-Maggie system's clarity is astonishing. Of course, careful setup, speaker placement, and system matching are required to get the most out of the speakers. It was designed as a desktop system, but the Mini-Maggies might work as hi-fi speakers in very small rooms.

Magnepan prices start at $600 a pair for the MMG model, which is much larger than the Mini-Maggie. I'll review the MMG soon.

The Mini-Maggie system will be available from Magnepan dealers starting in September.

The Mini-Maggie system, without grilles. Steve Guttenberg