FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 37
Magnestand Mods for the Magnepan MG 1.6QR
The subject of tweaks and mods to audio equipment is widespread. The Magnepan speakers are truly high-end transducers but most of the line is designed and produced to meet price points within the reach of the average audiophile. Most of the existing tweaks or mods to Magnepan speakers involve upgrading the passive crossover parts or removing the passive crossover entirely and going the active route. More rigid and solid stands and struts have also been very popular with Maggie owners. Now Magnestand (a one-man show run by cabinet joiner alias Peter Gunn of Pennsylvania) has researched, tested, prototyped, and produced a totally comprehensive mod that essentially throws every part of the stock Magnepans in a landfill, save the Mylar driver panels. As an aside, Magnestand does not currently modify Magnepan's true ribbon models as they limit their mods to the long-discontinued SMG and later QR models only. Stay tuned.
Peter Gunn's web site details his four year experimentation with various Maggie models that culminated in his current modification. These mods are fairly radical in that they require a completely new crossover in an external box, a new driver frame, struts, and bases constructed of solid wood.
Having been a long time Magnepan owner, I contacted Mr. Gunn and requested a DIY approach to modifying my 1.6QR units. Although I did much of the work myself, it is important to note that Magnestand no longer offers any DIY kits and I can now understand why. This project is extremely labor intensive and imposes high risk to the fragile Mylar panel drivers.
Unlike most Magnestand customers, I was able to perform the mods in a serial process over a fairly long period of time. This is partially due to the success of the Magnestand mods and their current backorder/waiting list. While waiting for my frames, struts and bases to be built, I built and rewired my Maggie crossovers with Peter's series design using premium parts. Having prior recent experience with actively bi-amping these speakers, the passive series crossover seems fairly simple and straightforward. However, I was not prepared for the positive results. It is true that the series crossover allows the Maggies to speak with one voice and eliminates the wide midrange depression and obvious crossover points of the stock design. Having tried active and stock passive mods on these speakers, I now greatly prefer the passive series design. An anecdotal observation proves interesting in that if you play the stock 1.6QRs and place your ear almost directly on the grill cloth over the panel you will hear an obvious tonal balance change as you move your ear from the bass/mid panel and then to the QR tweeter. With the series crossover, there is no such obvious change; it is very subtle at best. Clearly the series crossover is allowing for a lot of driver overlap. I don't have the technical acumen or test equipment to analyze these crossover changes in terms of lobing, dispersion, etc. but I can tell you that to my ears, in my room, the series crossovers sound significantly more real, lifelike, and musical than the stock versions. There is much more meat on the bone and flesh in the overall sound. I rate the series crossover a smashing success and recommend it highly over just replacing the stock passive parts with higher quality components.
When I finally received the frames, struts, and bases in solid oak, the quality of materials and fit were very impressive. It is rare that true craftsmanship can be had at this price level. This build quality stands in stark contrast to a world full of particle board speaker boxes covered with veneer. All of the Magnestand woodwork is beautifully rounded and routed. The brackets that attach the frames to the base are also substantial and provide a small degree of backward tilt. The bases include large spikes to solidly couple the bases to the floor. The Mylar panel is also screwed into the solid wood rather than stapled ala the stock Magnepans. When I received the unfinished hardwood frames, struts, and bases, I incorrectly assumed this would be as easy as assembling a piece of furniture from IKEA. Not so fast. The finishing was relatively straightforward in that I wanted to retain the basic grain of the oak and also wanted them to slightly resemble my long-gone Martin Logan CLS. Once the finishing was complete, the removal of the crossover parts and Mylar frames from the stock particle board frames was tedious but fairly routine. However, drilling the Mylar frames is an experience I would rather not repeat as the metal shavings scattered all over the Mylar panels due to the proximity of the magnets and made their removal time-consuming and delicate. That Mylar panel is THIN (read fragile).
One controversial aspect of the mod is that the Mylar panels are reversed front to back in the frames. As I once owned the Tympani 1Ds, the panels in my modded 1.6QRs are now back to the “normal” orientation and they sound more natural that way. Depth of field is increased and the beaming effect is reduced. It would be interesting to ask Jim Winey (Magnepan's founder) why Magnepan started reversing the panels sometime in the 1990s as some of the most famous and best sounding speakers Magnepan ever produced (the various Tympani versions) all had their pole pieces facing forward and not to the rear.
I frankly was not prepared for much of a sonic change by mounting the panels in solid wood as opposed to the stock mdf frames. But I now think I may have discovered why some audiophiles don't like the Magnepan sound. While initially sounding impressive with a large wave launch and good speed, the panels do tend to ring and blur after the initial transient. They now sound like they are totally damped and instead of "snap-blur" they just leave you with the snap and speed of an electrostatic. This mod also makes them sound more efficient. Whether this is real or imagined I can't say. It would be fascinating to measure the stock 1.6QR vs. a full Magnestand mod for efficiency, phase, and overall frequency response.
As can be seen in the photos, my DIY Magnestand 1.6QRs differ from the stock Magnestand modded units in the following respects:
1. My homemade crossover boxes are plain and finished in fashionable flat black. The Magnestand crossover boxes are a work of art.
2. Mine are sans-grills as I prefer the more industrial look of the naked pole piece side of the driver. I also didn't relish constructing the grille assembly which according to Mr. Gunn is one of the toughest parts of the mod.
The Magnestand mod for the 1.6QR is currently priced at $1595 and includes all labor and materials. Exotic wood species are available at extra cost. At first glance, the mod prices may seem a bit daunting and overpriced. However, after doing only a small portion of the mod myself I soon became convinced that they are priced more than fair given the quality of materials and the substantial labor involved.
Having listened to the stock 1.6QRs for a period of several years, I think I have a fairly good grasp on their sound as they have remained in my system through source, preamp, amp, and numerous cable changes. The Maggies remain due to their uncanny ability to present life-like images with amazing depth of field given proper room placement.
Now the bad news for the Maggie owner looking to upgrade; Peter Gunn's Magnestand mods have proven extremely popular. This custom, one-man operation and the extremely labor-intensive aspects of the mod have created a backlog of work through 2008 and beyond. To make matters worse, having done a pseudo-DIY version of this now extinct "kit" I can assure you that it is a seriously challenging DIY project with many risks. One slip of the drill bit and your tender Mylar panel will be seriously damaged.
Having owned numerous Magnepan models for almost 25 years, I never would have believed that their mylar panel with QR ribbon would have been capable of near-electrostatic transparency. But there you have it with the Magnestand mods. Having heard Quads and owned two different models of Martin Logans, including the classic CLS model; this subjective opinion is based on real world listening experience. The Magnestand 1.6QRs have greatly increased transparency and speed while giving up only a smidgen of the famed Maggie warmth. The only area that I might quibble with Mr. Gunn is in this performance area. I do think the Magnestand mods lose a slight bit of warmth over the stock designs but I believe some of this warmth in the stock design is essentially a blurring of the signal which masks detail but sounds more forgiving. The best part about the mod for me personally is the greatly increased sweet spot. I wouldn't even refer to it as a sweet spot anymore. The soundstage is larger and more defined but it remains stable from a much wider area in the listening room. The increased clarity in every frequency range is stunning. I am weary of review hyperbole, but these mods really do unlock the hidden potential of the Maggie design. Once freed from their flimsy particle board frames, those panels boldly strut their stuff and can compete in speed and accuracy with most any transducer type, they are that good. Hard to believe? Yep, I had serious doubts about Magnestand's claims before the mods, but no longer. Hearing is believing. I also have plans to A/B these with stock units but that report will have to wait for a future follow-up assuming Positive Feedback readers are interested.
A fellow audiophile who heard the Magnestand modded 1.6QRs mused on the end-game question for Magnepan the company. The mind boggles at the quality of sound if stock Maggies were shipped with solid wood frames and state of the art crossover components. Of course, they would probably quadruple in price but they might still be competitive in the crazy world of five and six figure audiophile speakers.
If you are even remotely interested in upgrading Maggie QR models, I highly recommend reading the information on the Magnestand site. Even if you don't agree with all of Peter Gunn's design conclusions, it is interesting and provocative stuff. I salute Magnestand for taking the Magnepan design to its logical conclusion and I am personally thrilled with the resulting improvements.
To answer a few points, first, it was unexpected but not surprising to hear him say he preferred my XO design to passive XO's. I do too, and so has every other DIY'er who has tried both passive and my XO on the 1.6 and reported back to me. There is nothing like a single, unified, full range driver and even a passive system cannot beat it.
As far as him hearing increased efficiency, his ears are not wrong. Stock, all new Magnepan models are about 86 dB efficient, however this XO design raises that to about 92 dB which is a fairly large increase, and it does this to every model so modified. This is due to the XO being used, and has nothing to do with the driver or it's size. It has also been verified by computer.
In regards to his thought about the slightly missing "warmth", I believe what he is not hearing is a by-product of the harmonic distortion created by the mdf frame as well as fuses being in the XO path. It's more of a quasi warmth (or slurring) and not a natural one and perhaps more time with them will reveal that natural warmth is still there. Also, should an owner wish for more warmth it can be made up with the use of a tube preamp that has those qualities. Another plus is the owner can then control the amount of it whereas previously it was out of his hands.
This modification for me was not an end, it was a journey. Along that journey I discovered that many of the hard core beliefs held about Magnepans are simply incorrect, both in what they are capable of, and what the reason they cannot attain their true potential is. My goal was only ever to make the best Maggies I could, and afterwards share that with others. For some people I make the stands, for others I give them the info freely to do it themselves. Still, and somewhat amazingly, there are those who won't even entertain that what I have done is right, good or even valid. That is why I am very glad your review was able to shed more impartial light upon the subject.
Again, thank you very much for a very well considered review, and I hope the speakers give Greg many years of pleasure.