In a world where many loudspeaker manufacturers offer products based on the ‘very high performance = very high prices’ formula, the US-based firm Magnepan builds speakers that prove sophisticated performance can be surprisingly affordable. Magnepan’s primary loudspeaker range—comprising the 30.7, 20.7, 3.7i, 1.7i, .7 and the newest addition the family, the LRS—is always keenly priced, but even by Magnepan’s standards we were taken aback by the value of the LRS. Magnepan’s speakers aim to deliver best-in-class sonic value for money at each of their respective price points, which means they inevitably will be compared to competing speakers selling for two or more times their prices. Frankly, Magnepan would have it no other way since value-orientated engineering is part of the company’s DNA. As a result, I think the firm rather likes to be cast in the role of David in a world of audio Goliaths (giants beware!).
This review centres on Magnepan’s newest, smallest, most affordable, and arguably most overachieving model to date: namely the LRS (which stands for Little Ribbon Speaker). Before delving into the LRS’ design, construction, and sound let’s take a brief look back to see what factors brought this new speaker into being.
For many years Magnepan has offered inexpensive entry-level models intended to serve as gateways to future purchases of bigger and better Magnepan speakers down the road. These gateway models included the SMG and MMG/MMGi loudspeakers—each well respected in its day. In recent years, however, the SMG and MMG models’ reputation for best-in-class sound quality per dollar (or pound or euro) has gradually begun to fade.
A common thread amongst Magnepan’s past entry-level models has been that their designs were deliberately skewed in favour of making the speakers easier to drive for comparatively low-priced and low-powered receivers and integrated amplifiers. The thought was to build starter Maggies that could be driven by whatever electronics first-time buyers were likely to have on hand. One catch, however, was that the very design changes necessary to make the SMG and MMG easy to drive also had the unwanted effect of limiting their absolute levels of sonic performance. In practice this meant that while the SMG and MMG performed well in their entry-level roles, they lacked some of the nuanced and almost “magical” sonic qualities that make Magnepan’s larger speakers so desirable. Complicating the picture further still is the fact that entry-level competition from abroad, especially in the form of Chinese-manufactured speakers from ELAC and others, has stiffened considerably over time.
Magnepan was not about to take the gradual erosion of the SMG/MMG’s reputation lying down. In fact, I recently received a note from Magnepan’s Wendell Diller (the firm’s head of sales, marketing, and product development), in which he explains,
“’Designed in America; Made in China’ has been a successful formula for many manufacturers. Our slogan – ‘Made in America; Sold in China.’ – is more than an attempt at humour (addressing the trade imbalance). The LRS is our attempt to compete with beautifully crafted speakers from China. The competition is fierce.”
So, the LRS represents Magnepan’s bid to reclaim the high ground in high-end audio’s value-for-money sweepstakes, but it is also more than that. It represents a sea change in Magnepan’s marketing approach, as the company website proclaims,
“What if you own $10,000 or $20,000 speakers? Why would you want to audition the LRS? Actually, we had you in mind when we designed the LRS. The LRS … was designed from the ground up to give you a pretty good idea what to expect from the 20.7 or 30.7.”
Reflect on that statement for a moment. We are talking about a small £1,190 speaker that aims to emulate essential elements of the sound of Magnepan’s two top models, both carrying five-figure price tags. Talk about a daunting challenge.
As Magnepans go, the LRS’s are small: they measure 48 inches × 14.5 inches × 1 inch and are light enough that users can easily pick them up and move them around their listening spaces as desired. Like all Magnepans, the LRS’s feature CNC-milled, MDF perimeter frames to which are attached the firm’s signature planar quasi-ribbon driver array consisting of a large rectangular bass/midrange driver and an adjacent, slim quasi-ribbon tweeter.
The driver array starts with a sturdy perforated metal screen in the rear, arrays of precisely spaced vertical bar magnets affixed to the front of the screen, and a very thin Mylar diaphragm suspended in front of the magnet array. Bonded to the diaphragm is an elongated, serpentine ‘voice coil’ made of extremely low-mass, film-like aluminium conductor strips covering nearly the entire diaphragm surface. As audio signals pass through the conductors, the diaphragm membrane is attracted to or repelled from the magnet array, thus producing sound. Magnepan uses various proprietary techniques to control unwanted resonance both in the driver diaphragm and in the perforated screen/magnet assembly.
The one-piece driver panel is internally divided into adjacent bass/midrange and tweeter sections, each optimised for its respective frequency range. Users can differentiate the tweeter from the bass/midrange section by observing the spacing between the voice-coil strips; the slim tweeter uses very narrowly spaced voice-coil strips, where the larger bass/midrange section uses more widely spaced strips. (Normally the voice-coil strips are just barely visible through the speakers’ outer fabric grill socks, but if necessary it’s possible to shine a torch light through the grills to get a better view). The speakers are supplied as a mirror-image pair, giving users the option of running the LRS’s with tweeters orientated inward (said to give sharper image focus) or outward (said to give broader, more spacious sound stages). Grill socks are offered in three colours: black, grey, and off-white, while the edges of the speakers feature thin wooden trim strips (options include black or natural solid oak, or dark cherry). Pairs of sturdy steel tilt-back feet complete the design, while also providing flip-down tilt adjusters for those who prefer the sound with the speaker panels tipped toward a near-vertical position.
The LRS crossovers use a phase coherent, 6dB/octave network. The rear panel of the speaker provides not only the expected ‘+/-‘ speaker terminals, but also a connection point where, at the user’s option, included tweeter loading resistors or bypass jumpers can be installed. In this way, LRS users can trim the speaker’s treble output to best match the acoustics of their rooms (or the sonic character of ancillary components).
For my listening tests, I used the LRS with an excellent Rega Osiris integrated amplifier (265 Wpc @ 4 ohms) and Rega Isis CD player. System power was fed through a Furutech Daytona 303 power conditioner, while all system power, signal, and speaker cables were likewise sourced from Furutech. Equipment was carried on two Solid-Tech Rack-of-Silence and matching vibration control devices. Room acoustics were treated with Auralex, RPG and Vicoustic panels.
Realistically, given is size and price, the LRS is not the sort of speaker that will be all things to all listeners. With that said, however, I would argue that is also a giant killer of the first rank. Let’s begin by addressing the LRS’s limitations head on, so we can then focus more of our attention on the many things the speaker does so very well.
First, the LRS produces very little bass below 50Hz, although the bass it does produce is taut, punchy, fast, and extremely well defined. Second, the speaker sounds its best at moderate rather than elevated volume levels, partly because its size limits maximum output levels and partly because the LRS presents a load that can potentially overtax some amplifiers. Third, the LRS’s treble response, although objectively and subjectively superb, can not quite equal the preternaturally fast, smooth, and extended high frequencies produced by the state-of-the-art pure ribbon tweeters used in Magnepan’s three top models (the 3.7i, 20.7, and 30.7). Fourth, unlike Magnepan’s earlier SMG and MMG models, the LRS stands as a comparatively demanding, low impedance (4 Ohm), low sensitivity (86dB/2.83V), and “performance first” design that requires high-resolution and relatively high-power amplification capable of delivering plenty of current on demand.
As for limitations, the four mentioned above are about it. Now, however, let’s focus on the LRS’ sonic strengths, which are many.
From the moment they were first powered up, the LRS’s created one overriding impression, which is that they sound far, far more costly than they actually are. One’s eyes register the presence of two small, tasteful, yet unassuming speaker panels, but one’s ears tell a different story. On good recordings, there are broad, deep soundstages to enjoy, sharply focussed imaging, layers upon layers of nuanced musical textures and timbres, dramatic levels of overall resolution, and breathtakingly quick transient speeds to savour. The mind reels when trying to take in all these positive qualities at once, so that one might be forgiven for thinking, “I can’t believe this is happening.” But it is, fellow music lovers, it is.
On well-recorded and intensely atmospheric live recordings such as ‘Anabasis (Live)’ from Dead Can Dance In Concert[Pias, 16/44.1] the LRS’s convey an uncanny impression of both the acoustics of the concert venue as well as the expectant hush of the audience as the song begins. ‘Anabasis’ features juxtaposed high and low percussion rhythmic figures that propel the song forward and the little LRS’s do full justice to both, capturing the delicate, richly textured shimmer of the cymbals and (most of) the depth and weight of the low-pitched bass drum. Against this backdrop, the song’s gorgeous midrange synth washes and evocative, middle-Eastern themed vocals spread out upon an impressively broad, deep stage. It is the sort of vivid, expansive and self-assured sound one might expect from loudspeakers carrying four- or more likely five-figure price tags, but it is stunning to hear them pour forth from speakers of this size and price.
The LRS’s articulacy and dynamic agility are outstanding, too. To appreciate what I mean by this, try Rodrigo y Gabriela’s rendition of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ from their album of the same name [Universal Imports, 16/44.1]. Folklore has it that this song has been so over-played that it has been banned in most every music store in the known world, but Rodrigo y Gabriela’s flamenco guitar interpretation is so energetic, expressive, and finely crafted that one can’t help but stop and listen. Happily, the LRS’s do their part to bring the music alive. First, they capture the sharp transient attacks and the fiery but also warmly rounded timbres of the guitars in a highly realistic way. Next, the speakers effortlessly keep pace with the performers’ often fleet-fingered runs of notes while also making it easy to appreciate differences between the guitarists’ playing styles. Most importantly, though, the LRS’s show this guitar duet is truly a conversation between two world-class musicians who both have a lot to say.
Finally, the LRS’s can work wonders with vocals and (to a point) bass instruments. A perfect illustration would be the song “Uh, uh, uh, uh, uh” by the Spanish singer Bebe (María Nieves Rebolledo Vila) from her album Y. [EMI, 16/44.1]. The song is an intimate duet between Bebe and bassist Javier Rojas and features Bebe’s delicately inflected (and at times almost child-like) voice accompanied by Rojas’ solo electric bass (which is simply recorded through a closely mic’d studio amplifier). Through the LRS’s Bebe sounds almost physically present in the listening room, as does Rojas and his bass amp. The LRS’s are capable of terrific musical immediacy thanks to resolution that just won’t quit and bass that, though not deeply extended, offers absolutely top-shelf transient speed, punch and pitch definition.
Stated simply, Magnepan’s LRS is the most expressive, revealing, resolving, sharply focussed, and well-balanced loudspeaker at or anywhere near its price that I have ever heard. It is brilliant, too, at imaging and rendering spacious three-dimensional soundstages. It may also be the only Magnepan small enough to potentially find favour with décor-sensitive family members—something the bigger Magnepans often fail to do. Put these factors together and you’ve got arguably the finest ‘entry-level’ high-end speaker money can buy.
Magnepan LRS loudspeaker
- Type: Two-way, quasi-ribbon-type, planar dipolar loudspeaker
- Driver complement: one quasi-ribbon bass/midrange driver, one quasi-ribbon tweeter
- Frequency response: 50Hz – 20kHz
- Impedance: 4 Ohms
- Sensitivity: 86dB/2.83v
- Dimensions (H×W×D): 48 × 14.5 × 1 inches;
121.9 × 36.8 × 2.54cm
- Weight: Not specified
- Frame trim: Natural or black solid oak, dark cherry
- Fabric: Off-white, black, and dark grey
- Price: £1,195 per pair
Manufacturer: Magnepan Incorporated
Distributed in the UK by: Decent Audio
Tel.: +44 (0)5602 054669