Magnepan MMG Loudspeakers Swigging Champagne on a Beer Budget

By Jeff Dorgay

While we shy away from audiophile clichés, the Magnepan MMGs are truly one of the best values in hi-fi. These days, $600 dollars will buy you a pair of speakers that are more than likely built in China and resemble toys that belong in a Happy Meal rather than your living room. Not so the MMGs.

In the past, Magnepan’s entry-level speaker was only available direct from the factory, keeping costs to the bone and dealer markup out of the picture, but now they will be on your dealers showroom floor. Equally generous, Magnepan allows for a very liberal trade-in during the first year (full purchase price in most cases) should you move up the ladder to one of its larger speakers. Product manager Wendell Diller points out, “We actually don’t get many pairs back. They usually end up in a second system or passed on to a family member.”

What the MMGs offer—quite possibly better than any product (save the new Rega Brio-R integrated amplifier) we’ve reviewed with a budget price tag—is a serious helping of genuine high-end sound. Properly installed, and matched to room and amplifier with care, the MMGs give you the best swig of champagne on a beer budget that you’re likely to encounter in high-end audio.

Setup and Amplifier Matching

I initially used the MMGs in my small living room (11 x 17 feet, 8 foot ceiling) with excellent results. Their light weight and small size makes them easy to experiment with different listening positions. At only 1.25 inches thick, the 14.5 x 48-inch panels weigh about 15 pounds each, so you can move them back up against the walls when not doing critical listening and bring them back out to proper position for serious sessions. Yes, imaging will suffers somewhat, but even against the walls, the MMGs can still be used for background music. They are available in off-white, grey, or black with natural, black, or oak trim. Back in black is the way I’d go.

Once the MMGs had about 200 hours of play, I broke up listening sessions into three distinct categories. The first utilized speakers with budget receivers that can be purchased used for under $100. The Pioneer SX-626, Marantz 2235, and a few other vintage 70s receivers I had on hand would not drive these speakers to any kind of realistic volume level without issue. At best, I kept going to Radio Shack for fuses; in one instance, I looked for my fire extinguisher. The Nakamichi TA-2A, featuring an amplifier section designed by Nelson Pass, proved the exception.

The next group featured the recently reviewed Croft Micro 35 preamplifier and a vintage Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier. The latter is a solid-state design, again with Nelson Pass’ STASIS topology, and can be procured for about $700 on the used market.  A number of other great power amplifiers that can be had for under $1,000 will also mate well with the MMGs, which respond as well to quality as quantity of watts. While only 50 watts per channel, the robustly constructed Rega Brio-R integrated did a splendid job driving these speakers. I did not have such luck with any of my lower-powered tube amps. This has always been my experience with Magnepans. Tubes yes; low power, no.

Finally, to probe what the MMGs were capable of delivering, I tried the Simaudio 600i and 750D CD player/DAC. The combination is 20 times the cost of the MMGs yet truly showed what the little speakers could do given superior source components. If you have electronics at this level and always wanted to sample the Magnepan sound, the MMGs will make for a good show; they certainly have enough resolution.

In my smaller room, the speakers ended up about six feet apart with very slight toe-in, and located about three feet from the rear wall for the best sound. If you are working with a room this size and can accommodate them, add a pair of 2 x 4 foot GIK 242 panels about 2 feet in front of the speakers. They absorb the first reflection from the sidewall and help expand the left-to-right stereo image beyond the speaker boundaries.

Room gain was my friend, offering slightly more bass in the smaller room. Still, I preferred the MMGs in my main listening room (16 x 24 feet) on the long wall. This kept the speakers well away from sidewall boundaries. The small amount of lower bass I lost in transition was well worth the expanded stereo image.

Prepare to Settle In

Foghat’s “Take It or Leave It,” from Mobile Fidelity’s edition of Fool for the City, painted a wide aural canvas. The rock classic spread out well beyond the speaker boundaries and revealed solid echo traits. Because they have enough mid-bass energy, the MMGs do a surprisingly good job with this type of music—provided there is enough power and you keep the volume reasonable. Another great example of the wide-stereo effect came courtesy of Chicago’s “Prelude to Aire” from Chicago VIII. Most percussive elements were again floating well beyond the speaker boundaries and possessed substantial depth. I also highly recommend Explosions in the Sky’s recent Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. Its ethereal soundscapes are full of minute details and reverb-drenched guitars that will bounce all over your listening room.

The MMGs really shine on music that has a slightly limited dynamic scale. Queue up your favorite minimally accompanied vocalist and hear the MMGs strut their stuff.  The Bad Plus’ “Nirvana” (from For All I Care) had an ideal balance of airy vocals and instrumental richness, with a slight touch of compression—a good thing in this case since it didn’t push the speakers beyond their capabilities. “Long Distance Runaround” from said album proved equally enjoyable, with great plucky acoustic bass riffs that played to the major strength of all Magnepan speakers: the ability to resolve mid-bass texture.   Vocalist Wendy Lewis’ voice hung between the speakers as the piano remained off to the right, with excellent decay. By not asking the MMGs to go terribly deep or play incredibly loud, I fooled a number of non-audiophile listeners that thought we were auditioning more expensive speakers. Of course, music lovers locked into traditional audiophile female vocal fare will not believe their ears, either. The MMGs amaze in the manner in which they disappear.

Switching to Genesis’ Lamb Lies Down on Broadway quickly revealed the shortcomings of the MMGs. When the first big synth bass riff kicks in on the title track, it simply wasn’t there. Whether you are listening to Pink Floyd or Eminem, you aren’t going to get deep bass. But the bass that you do get is very high quality. And that’s what makes the MMGs the most musically involving speakers I’ve heard for the money. To wit: Their performance with the Beastie Boys’ Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, on which they magnified many cool tidbits buried in the mix.

All types of panel speakers have been justifiably accused of providing a “one person” sweet spot. The MMGs are guilty as charged. However, the real limitation is that the sweet spot is more restricted in the vertical axis than in the horizontal. Much of this is due to the fact that the MMGs don’t have the sheer panel area of larger Magnepan models. I’ve experienced the same effect with smaller speakers from MartinLogan, so this is not endemic to Magnepan. But again, keeping the MMGs within their comfort zone provides stellar results.

Yes, your favorite box speaker may offer better off-axis performance, but it will not give you the gigantic soundstage and natural midrange offered by the MMG when you sit up straight in your listening chair. It’s a trade-off, but one I’d happily make for this level of resolution—and certainly, price. And the MMGs’ resolution impressed me the most. While it’s unlikely they would ever be used in this category, the speakers easily resolved differences between the $6,000 Simaudio i-7, $8,000 600i, $12,000 700i integrated amplifiers during last issue’s comparison test—an impressive feat for any speakers, much less a $600 pair.

An Auspicious Start to Any High-End Audio Journey

If you crave a high-quality music system on a tight budget, the anchor is no further away than Magnepan’s Web site. Played within their limits, the MMGs provide a rich musical experience that will hook you in your quest for better sound—just as the company’s products have done for many other audio enthusiasts.

With only minor limitations, the MMGs communicate musical fundamentals like nothing else in their price category. The only downside? They require careful attention during setup to sound their best, and their high resolution will reveal shortcomings in the rest of your system. However, on many levels, that’s what high-end sound is about. And the rewards far outweigh the minimal effort required to get the MMGs sounding their best. To put it another way: The MMGs deliver the goods better than any other speaker I’ve experienced at this price.

Magnepan MMGs

MSRP:  $599


Analog Source Rega P9    Denon DL-103R   Avid Pulsare phonostage
Digital Source Simaudio Moon 750D
Amplification Simaudio Moon 600i
Cable Audioquest Columbia