The names are confusing, we have to admit. Is it Magnepan or Magneplanar? The terms are so close that they're sometimes used interchangeably. However, once you've spent a day at this well-known company, you'll fully understand the use of the words: Magnepan is the company, Magneplanar is the trademarked name for the loudspeaker technology. Magnepan makes Magneplanar speakers -- lots of them.
Then to now
The story behind an audio company, especially one as established as Magnepan, is usually a mixture of a good idea, a good deal of work and some good fortune. Magnepan's Jim Winey, like essentially every audio designer, loved music -- and tinkering. The audio bug bit him in college (Iowa State), after which he married, moved to Minneapolis and went to work for 3M. Shortly thereafter, Winey met William Johnson, who was yet to create Audio Research. Johnson had a retail store at which Winey heard "some really good audio equipment, including electrostatic speakers." So Winey started to experiment with electrostatics with the goal of producing a really unique product.
Winey could envision what he wanted to create -- a large panel speaker made from a featherweight material -- but making it work was another story. Winey tried various approaches, but they failed. Then one fateful day, Winey stood staring at the ceiling, closely examining the patterns of the tiles, and as though a vision from above, he suddenly "saw" how to make his loudspeaker work. He rushed home and carefully built his first speaker, his brainstorm translating perfectly to practice. He connected an amplifier to his new creation, and according to him, "It made music."
But there was a snag. Winey was employed as an engineer by 3M, and as is common in technology-driven companies, contracts ensure protection of intellectual property. And Winey had such a contract with 3M -- one that stipulated anything he created, whether at work or home, belonged to his employer.
Here's where the good fortune comes in: Although 3M was interested in developing Winey's driver technology, they took no action when Winey left 3M and started his own company. Now that he has a successful company of his own, he sees the need to protect a company's intellectual property.
He immediately set out to patent his design, and in 1969, "in a house on 6th Street in White Bear Lake," he founded Magnepan -- on $50,000 that he and his family would have to live on for two years and use to run his business, including outfitting a lab. The first years were lean times for Winey -- going from a well-paid engineer at a prestigious company to an up-and-coming inventor/entrepreneur working on his own.
Of course, there were obstacles. Winey had a working prototype, but getting a product ready for sale was another story. Winey worked alone for two years, further developing that first speaker. It was a long and arduous process, but just as with the original design, a bit of good luck interceded. Winey eventually created a commercial version of the speaker, and he took it to a store in the Minneapolis area. William Johnson, who by now had established Audio Research, heard the speaker and was impressed. Audio Research and Magnepan entered into a marketing agreement giving Audio Research a five-year exclusive to Winey's first speaker -- the multi-panel Tympani series. Within a year, Magnepan was out with its first single-panel model, the MGII, which it sold through its own set of dealers. According to Winey, the brand "grew very fast -- from almost nothing in sales to a couple million dollars." He went from a one-man operation to a company with some substance. Winey set out to build Magnepan's current facility in White Bear Lake, northeast of St. Paul, and the company moved in in 1980.
These days, Magnepan employs 40 people in its 55,000-square-foot facility, which houses corporate and engineering offices as well as the full production facility. Magnepan currently makes eight different speaker models for two-channel as well as home-theater use. By high-end-audio standards, the company is quite large.
Since the company's inception, Magnepan has produced over 200,000 pairs of speakers. Currently, these range in price from the MMG ($550 USD per pair), which the company sells factory-direct, to the six-and-a-half-foot-tall MG20.1/R ($11,995 per pair).
A visit to the factory revealed Magnepan speakers of various vintages sprinkled throughout. The lobby of the building has a pair of MMGs connected to NAD electronics, while the listening room the day of our visit was configured for multichannel sound, which Magnepan does NOT consider only a home-theater concern. The company is finalizing a system now that's aimed squarely at multichannel music use, and Wendell Diller, Magnepan's marketing manager and the guide for our tour, was not afraid to say so. First and foremost, Magnepan is a music company. Of course, you can use the system for home-theater use too, as they aptly demonstrated with the movie Casper.
Given the proprietary nature of its planar/ribbon driver technology, Magnepan builds every major component of its speakers, partly out of necessity and partly to keep its costs down. In fact, it was difficult not to wonder what Magnepan speakers would cost if a company were to begin building them today. And to complicate things, in addition to building new speakers, Magnepan repairs and refurbishes older models as well as manufactures its own stock of replacement parts. Try that at home!
The makings of a Magneplanar
We were able to see a number of speakers in various stages of manufacture, which gave a somewhat false sense of what goes into making these very esoteric speakers. Magnepan manufactures two different kinds of proprietary drivers: true ribbon tweeters with response beyond 20kHz and planar-magnetic/quasi-ribbon midrange and bass drivers. This latter driver is the one on which Jim Winey built his company, and it operates without an electrostatic driver's transformer, essentially functioning like a very large, very light dynamic driver. Although this is not completely accurate -- it's more like a series of dynamic drivers that fire along a vertical axis, creating a planar transducer.
Perhaps the most obvious goal of Magnepan speakers is to produce a truly boxless sound, which is accomplished by the speakers' ability to project sound front and back, top to bottom, portraying height as well as stereo width and depth. The speaker also has a unique dispersion pattern. First, it operates in a dipole fashion (the back moves in while the front moves out). Second, the panel moves as one big "sheet," forcing the soundwave ahead in a highly directional manner. It's a unique, exhilarating sonic experience that many audiophiles swear by.
The first step is in building planar-magnetic drivers is laying the magnets -- long, thin strips of magnets whose polarity must be observed to create the necessary magnetic field. Like so many of the manufacturing processes around Magnepan, this requires a specially build jig, so the spacing of the magnets is correct. This meticulous work is all done by hand. After this is completed, the masonite backing of the driver has to be ground to a predetermined thickness. This entire assembly is then transported to the station where the Mylar is stretched to create the surface of the driver.
Perhaps the trickiest part of the process is the way the Mylar has to be stretched uniformly from driver to driver. This involves applying the correct amount of tension. We watched as the sheet of Mylar is unrolled, placed over a frame, stretched, and then the panel is lifted from below to create a perfectly flat and taut surface.
After the raw driver is created, the aluminum conductor wire is attached using a special adhesive. Once again, this is all delicate and skilled work done by hand. At this point, the driver is essentially finished.
While the drivers are being built, so are the other components of each speaker. The speaker frames are precision machined on a CNC lathe from sheets of MDF, after which they are painted black to be less visually obtrusive. Elsewhere, crossovers are wired by hand and fabric grille "socks" are sewn -- although Magnepan keeps a running stock of both for every speaker it manufactures. In another area, all of the pieces come together. Drivers are mounted into the MDF frames and wired to the crossovers. The grilles are stretched over the frames, and the rear hardware is added, including trip pots for the drivers. Wood accents are affixed, at which point the speakers are fully assembled. They are then tested and packed for shipping.
It's impossible to tour the factory of an audio company, especially a speaker company, and not drool at the thought of hearing what's being created before your eyes. Our chance came after we toured the facilities. While we would have loved to hear the top-of-the-line 20.1/R or the over-achieving 3.6/R, we were treated to a demo of a new multichannel system that uses four MGMC1 speakers, all of which were mounted on wall brackets, along with an MGCC1 center-channel speaker. We listened to music and movies, all via a $500 Denon surround-sound receiver that drove the typically inefficient Magnepan speakers well. Also in use was an Atlantic Technology subwoofer, which was chosen for its lack of audiophile pizzazz. Magnepan suspects that this system consisting of five Magneplanar speakers and costing $2400 will be used with more budget-priced components.
What makes Magnepan speakers sound so special is their overall clarity and coherence through the midrange. The five MGMC1 speakers displayed these traits in abundance along with throwing a very spacious and seamless soundstage. In fact, the sound effects from Casper would take root in areas of the room seemingly not covered by a particular speaker. But it was the midband that stole the show, even voices in the movie having a quality of "thereness" that seemed one step closer to the real thing. We look forward to reviewing some Magnepan products very soon.
Start to finish
From beginning to end, our tour of the factory took about two hours, with photo ops along the way, of course. We've visited other large audio companies, but not one more integrally involved in every process needed to create its products. We've also never been to a company that is so focused on and dedicated to its original vision. Seeing the original loudspeaker proudly on display affirms this. And talking with the refreshingly down-to-earth Jim Winey was a pleasure. Winey's original plan was to build a loudspeaker to make music in a special way. In turn, what he's done is create a truly revolutionary line of products that not only make music, but make it for virtually every type of buyer. When compared with other exotic speakers on the market, Magnepan products are decidedly affordable. And when asked about whether he has considered exotic materials in the speakers' construction, Winey matter-of-factly says that, "We won't put anything extra in the product that doesn't directly contribute to the sound."
Magnepan is in its 32nd year of business, and it's perhaps most proud of the loyalty of its customers, who often upgrade only within its stable of products. After hearing some Magneplanars at length, we know why this is: the speakers have a set of qualities not easily replicated, especially at the price.
To find out more about Magnepan, visit www.magnepan.com
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