EXOTICA: MAGICO Mini Loudspeaker

Equipment report
Magico Mini
EXOTICA: MAGICO Mini Loudspeaker

Israeli-American designer Alon Wolf’s MAGICO Mini—the speaker that so impressed me, RH, HP, WG, and just about everyone else who heard it at this past CES—is a compact, stand-mounted, two-way mini-monitor that costs $22,000. At over 200 pounds per side (including its dedicated stands) the Mini is obviously a perfectionist product. (Wolf makes nothing but—e.g., see Robert Harley’s review of the MAGICO Ultimate in Issue 160.) Its beautifully finished sealed enclosure comprises sixteen 1" layers of 17-ply Baltic birch, laminated together and formed into a teardrop shape that tapers towards the rear. Internally, the box is massively braced to reduce standing waves. The drivers themselves aren’t directly attached to the birchwood frame because, according to Wolf, the enormous pressure generated by their back waves inside the Mini’s sealed box would eventually cause fastening screws to work themselves loose, compromising driver/enclosure integrity. Instead, the drivers are bolted to front and rear plates machined from one-and-a-half-inch-thick 6061T-6 aircraft-grade aluminum billets, ensuring that driver/enclosure coupling always remains perfect. Wolf has also milled the front faceplate into a curve rather than a flat plane—a particularly expensive bit of additional machining that doesn’t just look good but also reduces diffraction effects.

The Mini’s 1" ring-radiator tweeter is Scan Speak’s top-of-the-line D2904/700000 Revelator; its 7" mid/woofer is an ultra-expensive MAGICOexclusive design that uses vapor-deposited titanium (the world’s stiffest, lightest metal, ideal for linear pistonic action) in a constrained-layer sandwich. Powered by an outsized neodymium magnet (as is the tweeter), the proprietary titanium mid/woof is said to be capable of linear 1" peak-to-peak excursions (i.e., it has the wallop of a ten-inch driver). All Mini crossover parts are sourced from the Raimund Mundorf Company of Cologne, Germany, maker of the celebrated MCap- Supreme silver/gold capacitors. Like the speaker, Wolf’s one-hundred-and-twenty-pound dedicated stand is a work of applied art, constructed of 6061T- 6 billet-aluminum to increase stiffness and lower energy storage, and treated with birch fascia to improve damping. Its massive bottom plate can be fitted with a variety of spikes or gliders; its top plate is angled at a precise 2.7 degrees to ensure perfect time alignment between tweeter and mid/woofer and is fitted with a unique ball-bearing mounting system to decouple the speaker from the stand.

Wolf has spared no expense to make certain that form maximizes function in his Mini. That said—and for all the cost-noobject parts and fanatical tweaking that have gone into its construction— the Mini on its stand remains a $22,000 two-way, and the question any reviewer or consumer has to face is: Why spend this kind of money on a mini-monitor? Well, let me step completely out of a character for a moment and show you one reason why. Below you will see a quasi-anechoic frequency plot taken by me and my friend Bill Waslo—the genius (and I don’t use the word lightly) behind Liberty Instruments’ remarkable Praxis suite of loudspeakerdesign- and-measurement tools. (For more information on Liberty’s Praxis suite, go to www.libinst.com.)

Take a look at the horizontal frequency plot. From about 57Hz to above 6kHz it is almost ruler-flat, give or take a dB or two, rising a bit more in the top treble (and extending well beyond the test limits into the ultra-high-frequency range) and rolling off at a gentle 6dB/octave in the bass. This, folks, is almost textbook-perfect frequency response for a two-way in a sealed box. What makes this graph even more remarkable is that, in this case, the Mini sounds almost exactly the way it measures.

By this you may think I mean that from the midbass through the lower treble the Mini’s flat frequency response translates uniformly into a more accurate reproduction of instrumental timbres. And this is true to an extent. But only to an extent. A speaker this flat doesn’t “create” more accurate tone colors; it transmits them more accurately. Since tone colors on sources vary wildly—listen to an RCA, a Mercury, and a Decca recording of, say, the Brahms Violin Concerto, one after the other, and then tell me what “accurate” violin timbre means—the Mini will only sound as “good” as the source allows it to sound. Indeed, the Mini may be less appealing on some LPs and CDs than a speaker that doesn’t measure as flat as it does, a speaker that tends to plump up the bass or warm the mids or roll off the treble. This is not to say that the Mini is one of those measures-well-but-sounds-thin-and-analytical numbers. On the contrary, it sounds as dark or light, focused or bloomy, warm or cool, rich or lean as the record itself, though for all its chameleon-like fidelity it always sounds pleasant.

What the Mini’s frequency response really translates to— what you can hear regardless of the timbre quality of the source, provided your front end is first-rate and your room is properly treated (for which, see below)—is a lot more of the low-level details that tell you where, when, and how an instrument is being played. From a certain angle, the hills and dales of measured frequency response are like hills and dales in a speaker’s resolution ceiling. A peak tends to increase (sometimes attractively) the perception of musical detail in a narrow band, a dip to reduce it. A large part of a speaker’s characteristic sound really corresponds to the overall effect these artificial emphases and deemphases make on the ear. By minimizing them, the Mini minimizes its own contributions to the sound, greatly increasing overall transparency to the source. As noted in last issue’s roundtable, being able to hear more clearly when, where, and, particularly, how an instrumentalist is playing his instrument adds enormously to the illusion of realism. From the midbass through the lower treble, the MAGICO Mini is capable of making musicians sound at least as “there” as the best loudspeakers I’ve heard.

However, it takes some doing to get the Mini to audibly reproduce all the detail it is capable of resolving. A quasi-anechoic frequency-response plot tells you how well a speaker can perform, on-axis, with the room taken out of the equation. It does not tell you what the speaker will sound like in a realworld listening space, when you are sitting in the sweet spot ten or so feet away from it. In a small-to-moderately-sized room like mine, a direct-radiator like the Mini with a relatively widedispersion tweeter can and will produce audible early reflections from side and rear walls—reflections that can screw upimaging and obscure detail. Although the Mini’s superb ringradiator is less problematical than many dome tweeters I can think of (its dispersion narrows as frequency rises above 10kHz), proper speaker placement1 and judicious room treatment are still musts, though these things will grow progressively less critical as the size of your listening space increases. In my room the Minis didn’t show their absolute best until I added Ben Piazza’s Hallographs to the rear corners.2 After doing this, the soundstage came into perfect focus.

Hearing the Minis at their absolute best is definitely worth the effort. Thanks, undoubtedly to Wolf’s inert cabinets, these speakers can “disappear” as sound sources to a greater extent than other direct-radiators I’ve heard in my home. Instrumental and vocal images simply hang in space like freestanding mobiles, leaving few clues that they are being generated by two gorgeous birchwood boxes.

It isn’t just their superbly crafted enclosures that make the MAGICOs disappear so completely; it is the superior blending of their drivers. (The smoothness of the blend can be seen in the Minis’ phenomenal frequency-response plot.) Almost all two-ways tend to sound more “of a piece” than conventional front-firing multiway loudspeakers. After all, they have fewer cones and crossovers and smaller boxes.

But even with the best of them you can, with enough time and close listening, begin to hear how the woofer overlaps the tweeter, slightly warming and darkening the midband, thickening textures and slowing down transients—the way a subwoofer does the sound of its satellite, although to a much less damaging and obtrusive degree. There just isn’t any sense of driver “overlap” with the Minis; they truly sound as if they were singledriver speakers, or as close as two-ways have thus far gotten to that ideal.

This does not mean that you can’t hear the Mini’s drivers at all, just that you can’t hear the woofer and tweeter as separate elements. The slight rise in the Mini’s topmost treble, for instance, is audible as a mild addition of air, bloom, and transient energy, which (provided I’m not sitting directly on the tweeter’s axis) I find attractively lifelike in the same way that I find the rising top end of a good moving-coil cartridge attractively lifelike. Nor does the Mini’s disappearing act mean that you can’t hear its box at all, just, once again, that you don’t hear it as a sound source. The speaker’s acoustic-suspension enclosure, for example, takes a bit of getting used to if you’ve been living for several years with the plummier bass of a ported box, as I have.

Part of the reason that the Minis need careful setup is the sheer amount of energy they put into the room. They pack a far more powerful punch than other two-way dynamics I’ve heard. I’m not sure exactly why this is the case—I’m guessing it’s a combination of the MAGICO boxes not “storing” much energy and the drivers themselves having superlative transient response (both starting and stopping) and exceedingly low levels of distortion— but with the right front end (try a London Reference car-tridge with a Lamm LP2 Deluxe or a Clearaudio Titanium with an ARC PH-7 phonostage) these beauts can sound close to lifelike on things like rim shots, plucked or crisply bowed strings, or piano played staccato or sforzando. For instance, in the second movement of the Kalabis Sonata for Violin and Piano [Panton], when Milan Langer repeatedly jabs his Steinway hard to sharply punctuate the lyrical line of the violin, through the Minis these sforzandos literally make you jump, as they would in life—they are that fast, clear, hard-hitting, and immediate, though not at all harsh-sounding. Again, when all four instruments of the Madison Quartet sound the opening notes of Marc Neikrug’s String Quartet [MHS] in a unison fortissississimo played sul ponticello—signaling the start of what Neikrug himself calls a “maniacal” piece of music—you’ll not only hear the stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks “zing” of the open strings, you’ll hear the incredible weight and speed of the sforzando bowing. (What a sound effect!) Likewise, when Nadia Salerno- Sonnenberg plays pizzicatos at the close of the Allegro of the Prokofiev First Violin Sonata [MusicMakers], the snap of the strings is uncannily realistic, without any of the defocusing blur that makes most plucked strings sound (via stereo systems) either the slightest bit too “slowmotion,” too splayed out over time, or too fast, too condensed in duration. Ditto, for the upper octave runs of Sandra Rivers’ grand on this same disc. Reviewers often talk about every note of a trill or a run being distinct; here they genuinely are— and they are without any losses of color, slurring of pace, or diminution of touch. When you can literally count the individual quavers or semiquavers of a speedy arpeggio, that, folks, is phenomenal transient response and phenomenal clarity. And, once again, this speed and resolution comes without any sacrifice in warmth or delicacy.

Perhaps because box and drivers are elevated off the floor on Wolf’s super-duper stands, the Minis also tend to throw bigger, more three-dimensional, more life-sized images than their floorstanding two-way competition. Indeed, sitting in a centered seat you would be hard put to tell the difference between the Minis and my reference four-way omnidirectional MBL 101 Es solely on the basis of image or soundstage size. (Off-axis nothing beats the imaging and staging of the MBLs.) Here is one two-way that truly does sound almost as wide and deep and tall as the Big Boys. Anyone looking for large-speaker sound in a space too small to accommodate large-speaker bulk ought to keep this in mind.

When you add the Mini’s invisibility, resolution, transparency, and dynamics to its huge soundstage and life-sized three-dimensional images, you end up, on the right recordings, with vocalists and instrumentalists who sound closer to being there in the room with you. On Joan Baez’s eponymous first album, for instance, the Minis will conjure up the then-nineteen- year-old girl with astonishing completeness. Any decent speaker can tell you that Baez is belting the opening lines of “Rake and Rambling Boy” fortissimo to capture the élan of the folk song’s bandit-hero or spinning out her sweet, wide vibrato pianissimo to add just the right hushed charm to the “surprise” ending of the touching love ballad “John Riley.” What the Minis do is add harmonic and dynamic subtleties that even the finest speakers often miss—levels of fortissimo within fortissimos, levels of pianissimo within pianissimos, the precise way Baez embellishes the pitch, color, intensity, and duration of each note (what in an opera singer would be called her fioritura). The Minis don’t just give you a beautiful voice; they give you Baez, feeling and thinking the song’s delivery, using her gorgeous instrument to shape the drama of what she feels and thinks. It is really quite an amazingly lifelike presentation.

I could say exactly the same things about Henryk Szeryng and his Guarnerius on the Szymanowski Second Violin concerto [Philips], Milan Langer and his Steinway on the aforementioned Kalabis Sonata for Violin and Piano [Panton], the big battery of percussionists and their various drums on the superb recording of Manuel Enriquez’s Ritual [Forlane], or the Swingle Singers a cappella on Luciano Berio’s Cries of London [Decca Head 15]. With the right recordings the Minis not only deliver the instruments; they deliver the artists and their artistry. So if Joan Baez and these various others are the right recordings with the Minis, which are the wrong ones? Well, here we come up against the immutable.

The Minis are two-ways, which means for all their other virtues they will not reproduce the 20–40Hz range with the lifelike power and impact of, say, the MBL 101 Es. Oh, they’re nothing short of superb where they do play in the bass—down to 40Hz or so (room-lift tends to fill in the gradual 40–60Hz rolloff shown in the frequency plot). Through them you will still hear—perhaps more clearly than ever, given the Minis’ incredibly low distortion—the thick strings of Alicia de Larrocha’s Steinway ring when she sustains those deep bass notes in the first movement cadenza of the Montsalvatge Concerto Breve, or Miklós Perényi’s cello growl in its bottom register in the lyrical first movement of András Mihály’s gorgeous Cello Concerto [Hungaroton], or the big bass drum in Hugh Wood’s exceptionally well-crafted Cello Concerto [Unicorn] set off a floor-shaking temblor. That said, acoustic-suspension (sealed-box) bass isn’t as punched-up as ported bass; it is altogether smoother, tighter, more controlled. In principle these are very good and lifelike things to be; in practice, though the Minis actually go deeper than many ported two-ways and roll-off much more gradually in the bottom octaves (with “useable response” extending rather astonishingly into the mid-thirties),3 they may not always sound as plush and powerful as a ported two-way, simply because they don’t add the energy of a port around 35–40Hz. To put this a different way, you won’t lose pitch definition with the Minis in the 40–60Hz region, or, Lord knows, tone color, size, pace, transient speed, or low-level resolution. You will, in fact, gain in all of these areas. What you may lose, depending on the recording, is a bit of midbass excitement, though Wolf would claim that it is false excitement added by the port.

How much the Mini’s flatter, less punched-up bass response and lack of true 20Hz extension matters to you will depend on what kind of music you listen to. For small-scale classical, jazz, pop, or folk, the Minis will be hard to beat. On large-scale classical or big-band acoustic jazz, they will (minus an organ concerto or two) remain hard to beat. But with electronica or arena rock or drum-and-bass or techno-pop, no two-way is going to be the right choice, unless you plan on adding two (extremely good) subwoofers.

I’ll confess to being old school when it comes to subs. The way I see it, if you wanted a three-way, you should’ve bought a three-way—and not a two-way like the Minis. You simply can’t add a sub to a speaker system this remarkable without paying some audible price in opacity in the upper bass and lower midrange. And the Mini’s upper bass and lower midrange are two of its defining glories.

If you’ve spent any time measuring the frequency response of loudspeakers, you’ll find the Mini’s nearly ruler-flat plot in the 100–500Hz range nothing short of remarkable. This is the power range, and most speakers suck it out. Not these little sticks of dynamite. Adding a subwoofer is bound to lump this amazingly flat response up. On the other hand, if something like David Bowie’s Earthling is your thing or you want to hear the lava-flow synth on Paula Cole’s “Tiger Lily” running under your feet, then you’ll have to bite the bullet and add two subs. There isn’t much left to say about Alon Wolf’s masterpieces.

I’ve heard better (and deeper) deep bass; I’ve heard better treble (but only from the $46k MBL 101 Es). In between, I have not heard better. Without doubt, the MAGICO Minis are the most thoroughly, knowledgeably, and successfully engineered mini-monitors the high end has yet seen and one of the small handful of truly great speakers that (a lot of) money can buy. For their near-textbook frequency response, their transparency to the source, their single-driver coherence, resolution, invisibility, starting and stopping transients, dynamic range and scale, soundstaging and imaging, they are wonderful reviewer tools; for what they did with Joan Baez’s voice and Miklós Perényi’s cello and Milan Langer’s Steinway and Henryk Szeryng’s Guarnerius, they are just plain wonderful.

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