Speaker of the year: Magnepan 3.6/R

It's just 1.5 inches thick, but 71 high; anyway you look at it, the Magnepan 3.6/R is an amazing speaker.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

I've reviewed a gazillion speakers, and I can't remember more than a few dozen of them. They're just a string of big and little boxes; some sounded really nice, most were merely OK, and surprisingly few were truly awful.

Magnepan's speakers stand out from the crowd first because they're so thin, the MG 3.6/R is 1.5 inches thick, and standing 71 inches high, it's really tall. But it was the sound that blew me away. It's an incredibly clear, high-resolution sound, and sounds decidedly unspeakerlike. That's why it's the Audiophiliac's Speaker of the Year.

The 3.6/R at home Magnepan

As I said in my Home Entertainment magazine review "That's why the MG 3.6/R will sound like a revelation to first-time listeners; the gap between the sound of real, live music and recorded music feels a whole lot smaller. The speaker projects a more full-bodied, three-dimensional soundstage than any box can; correction, the MG 3.6/R's sound was bigger and deeper than I've ever heard from a speaker retailing for less than $50,000. With the MG 3.6/R instruments and voices emerge closer to their real-life scale and size. Clearly, Magnepan engineers changed the way speakers move air."

Instead of the usual woofer and tweeter, the MG 3.6/R uses three "planar-magnetic" drivers: a 55-inch tall aluminum foil "ribbon" tweeter; a 199-square-inch 0.5-mil-thick Mylar midrange diaphragm; and a 500 square inch Mylar woofer. The speaker is essentially a panel that moves air, and projects sound from its front and rear surfaces. The drivers are Magnepan patented designs, all manufactured at the company's factory in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. American hi-fi at its best.

The affordable Magnepan, the MMG Magnepan

More about the planar-magnetic midrange and woofer. Rather than use a conventional voice coil that pushes and pulls the center of a cone diaphragm, wire grids are deployed across much of the surface of the flat planar-magnetic diaphragm--the design gambit produces lower distortion than cone or dome type drivers. Sounds radical, but the MG 3.6/R is far from a cutting edge design: It's been in production for more than ten years, and the original MG 3 debuted in 1983.

The sheer believability of the sound can be, at first, a little jarring. The ribbon tweeter is so much more realistic sounding than any dome tweeter I've ever heard. Cymbal crashes sound like crashes. The treble dynamics/impact/vibrancy are absolutely state of the art. So much so that returning to box speakers can be a letdown, they sound smaller, more contained, and well... boxier.

The MG 3.6/R goes for $5,395 a pair, and sure, that's a lot of money. But it's an investment that pays off over the long haul; it's the kind of speaker you can own and enjoy for decades. Let's compare and contrast the MG 3.6/R with Nikon's latest dSLR, the D3, that retails for $5,000, without a lens. Nikon will probably sell thousands of them.

I'm sure it's a great camera, but digital camera technology is still advancing at a fast clip, and this state-of-the-art wonder will be hopelessly out of date in a few years. Besides, anybody who can afford to drop that kinds of money on a camera will likely move on to the next big thing by then. It's "disposable" technology, so in that sense it's way more expensive to own that a great high-end audio system.

Some lucky so and sos blow $932 a day to rent a Ferrari 355 GTS.

I've blogged about the 3.6/R's little brother, the MG 1.6/QR ($1,895), but if that's still out of range, check out Magnepan's $599/pair model, the MMG (which is sold direct). Match that baby up to a nice integrated amplifier like Rotel's sweet RA-1062 ($699), and you'd be well on your way. I haven't heard the MMG yet, but hope to review it sometime next year.