August 2003Magnepan CC3 Loudspeakers
by John Potis
Over the course of the last two years Ive come to understand exactly how it is that Magnepan has come into possession of one of the most loyal customer bases in all of high-end audio. Ive yet to come across a pair of Magneplanars -- I've heard at length the MG1.6/QR, MG3.6/R, MGMC1, and CC2 -- that didnt deliver an almost unbelievably high degree of both value and musical satisfaction.
So it was with a modicum of puzzlement that I approached Magnepans new CC3 loudspeaker. Previously I found its predecessor, the CC2, to be the most accomplished center-channel speaker Id ever encountered when used in conjunction with Outlaw Audios ICBM bass-management system. Now I was being told that the new CC3 and its lower bass limit of 80Hz would obviate the need for the ICBM, which was all well and good -- this would make a great center-channel speaker even better. So why then was Magnepan going to send me three CC3s?
Well, the CC3 has a higher calling than being a mere replacement for the CC2. Certainly there will be those who have been chomping at the bit for an easier-to-implement center-channel speaker, but Magnepan hopes that the new CC3 will also appeal to a new crowd of speaker buyers looking to get their speakers up and off the floor. In that light, Magnepan views the new CC3 as a special-application speaker suitable for some interesting mounting options. Five CC3s can be ceiling-mounted in their horizontal orientation, making a multichannel system exceedingly decor friendly. Or maybe the CC3 can be mounted on walls or in custom enclosures in the more usual vertical orientation. Who knows? Clearly Magnepan wanted to come up with a user-friendly speaker with applications limited only by the users (and decorators) imagination.
The $990 USD CC3 uses two planar-magnetic drivers with a crossover point of 900Hz to reportedly produce the range from 80Hz to 20kHz. Sensitivity is quoted as 86dB/W/m. The tweeter is 31" x 2 1/2" (32 1/2 square inches), while the bass driver is 155 square inches. The 15-pound, 5 1/2"-deep CC3 is of nearly 3" less deep than the CC2 while retaining its predecessors 36" and 11" height. More important than obvious visible changes is one that you cannot see: Where the CC2 was a single curved planar-magnetic segment, the CC3, while still continuous, loses its curvature for a length of about nine inches smack dab in the center. The reason for this is as ingenious as it is simple. Small dipolar speakers suffer from rapid bass roll-off due to the fact that longer low-frequency soundwaves will bend around the speaker to cancel the equal yet out-of-phase output on the other side of the speaker. One solution is to create a natural and gentle rise in the speakers voicing as frequencies fall to naturally offset that cancellation. The other solution, which involves making the speaker so physically large as to preclude these cancellations, is obviously inappropriate for a speaker intended for center-channel placement.
Through the creation of this new flat spot, Magnepan has managed to change the bottom-end resonance signature of the CC3 by spreading the bass drivers natural resonant frequencies over new and varied areas. Magnepan has now squeezed an entire extra octave of bass frequencies from the CC3, making it suitable for use with the bass-management systems incorporated in the bulk of surround-sound processors as well as putting the CC3s lower limits well within reach of most subwoofers in situations where bass management isnt available. This means that Maggie users who have heretofore eschewed the use of outboard bass-management systems because of their added circuitry and complexity now have a guilt-free center-channel solution.
System and uses
I used the CC3s in stereo and multichannel configurations. In the latter case, three CC3s were used along with a pair of Magnepan MGMC1s as surrounds. The speakers were driven by Rotels multichannel RMB-1095 amp, which was controlled by the McCormack MAP-1 multichannel preamplifier. Filling in the bottom octaves were two Velodyne SPL 800 subwoofers. CD, DVD and multichannel SACD was via the Sony DVP- NS500V, and all interconnects and speaker cables were JPS Labs Ultra Conductor.
With the knowledge that I wouldnt be too keen on permanently mounting speakers on my ceiling for a temporary review situation, Magnepan set about to design three floor-standing jacks. Stretching from the floor to the ceiling, these vertical jacks pinned the speakers to my ceiling. This mounting scheme will not be produced for the public, so Im unable to offer advice on use. As I said, use your imagination in terms of mounting the CC3.
As a stereo pair
So what exactly do you get with a pair of CC3s? Well, most importantly, you get the famed Magneplanar midrange purity and transparency. Its all there. What you dont get is the upper-frequency air that the MGMC1 and MG1.6/QR are so famous for. Dont get me wrong -- the CC3 doesnt lack in ultimate terms, and its hardly dark or closed-in. And on the other hand, it counters with an unrestrained, open quality that very nearly compensates.
Still, this lack of relative air came as a real revelation. It seems that when used as a center-channel speaker, the CC3 depends on the front right and left speakers for their contribution to the depiction of air and "space." In this regard the CC3 sounds flawless when bridging between two Magneplanars. But when saddled with creating the same illusion on its own, the CC3 sacrifices a bit of that Maggie magic.
But the CC3 is a speaker designed to go places floorstanding speakers wont. If you have the floor space and the spousal approval, by all means stick with the bigger Maggies. But even here the question is whether or not the CC3s can be judged as a suitable substitute for larger Magneplanars. You better believe it.
When placed around the room in their custom stands, the three CC3s produced an outstanding soundstage. What I didnt expect (and what came as quite a surprise) was the fact that the CC3s produced a soundstage not up at the ceiling but suspended from the floor -- just as Im accustomed to hearing. As it turns out, due the fact that we have two horizontally placed ears, we seem to do a dreadfully inadequate job of placing sounds in the vertical plane, and even when I was specifically trying to locate the origin of the music, when seated back from the speakers, I never got the sense that the music was coming from above. The only caveat is that the listener must be at least as far back from the plane of the speakers as the speakers are high. In other words, if the speakers are mounted eight feet off the floor, as a general rule you had better be sitting at least eight feet from where the speakers would be located were they be placed on the floor. In my room, I also found that once this rule is adhered to the speakers offered an extraordinarily wide sweet spot. But if you sit too close to the speakers, moving off center created some problems such as rolled-off highs and a lack of continuity of soundstage and instrumental placement.
As far as imaging and soundstaging go, I found that the biggest trade-off with the ceiling-mounted configuration came in the area of image density and specificity. Dont look for sharply delineated image outlines. But on the other hand, image placement was remarkably good in the lateral plane.
Oh, and speaking of highs, the CC3s do require that they not be positioned flush against the ceiling. They will have to be toed down toward the listening position in order that the high frequencies are more evenly dispersed throughout the room. As it happens, the CC3s were a greater aesthetic success this way too.
But most important (in my application) is the way that the CC3 works in a very complimentary fashion when placed next to the room boundary -- in this case the ceiling. Like the MGMC1, the dipolar CC3 survives such a placement as no box speaker can. Its dipolar radiation pattern means that the speaker exhibits depressed output directly above and below the speaker, which means that the ceiling lies in the speakers "null" and in turn means that the CC3 suffers from greatly reduced midrange colorations caused by early reflections and diffraction off the ceiling. Also, like the MGMC1 with its similar 80Hz bass extension, the CC3 thrives on the boundary reinforcement of bass frequencies without ever becoming boomy or unnaturally laden.
Once I merged the CC3s with the MGMC1s, the first piece I headed for was the stellar James Taylor Live at the Beacon Theater DVD. I was treated to a large and spacious soundstage populated by naturally delineated images, which hung gently just beyond the speakers. Taylors voice was fantastically open, clean and uncolored. The soundstage was also peppered by sounds of different percussion instruments -- most of which were placed between the speakers. Cymbals were realistically portrayed with an excellent combination of splash and sizzle. They also occupied a real physical space on the stage. Taylors opening acoustic guitar on "Enough to be on Your Way" and "Daddys All Gone" had similar authenticity, as it was both eerily on stage before me and it had the proverbial ring of truth. The accompanying vocals on "Shower the People" were so emotionally communicated by the CC3s as to be positively goose-bump inducing.
After many weeks with the CC3s in this configuration, I can say that I grew accustomed to their altitude and began to take their performance for granted. Soon it was time to make a change.
Next I dropped the center-channel CC3 to the top of my TV and looked around the room for ideas on what to do with the front right and left speakers. Spying the dining-room table in the next room gave me an idea. I dragged two dining-room chairs into the room and set them across the front of my room to form an arc with the center-channel speaker. I then placed one CC3 vertically on each chair. This meant that the CC3 was now in the more familiar Magneplanar orientation with the tweeter placed to the outside and vertical.
Well, as good as the speakers sound when placed on the ceiling, there was no question that the CC3s preferred the traditional vertical orientation. Sure, I had to nudge the crossovers on the subs just a notch or two to compensate for the change in midbass response (due to the lack of boundary reinforcement) but boy oh boy did the system open up and sing. In multichannel or in two-channel stereo, the CC3s aptly demonstrated their Magneplanar lineage. And the aforementioned relative lack of upper-frequency air as compared to other Maggies? It seemed to disappear. Suddenly I could envision the CC3 being mounted vertically on walls and (horror!) inside entertainment-center enclosures where most box speakers become unacceptable.
Going back for Taylor
Curious about the CC3s straight stereo presentation, I cued up James Taylors Hourglass CD [CK67912]. The truth is that it was difficult to stay in reviewer mode with this system, and once I became acclimated to what I was hearing, it was easy to forget about my job as reviewer. That may sound like a bit of cliché, but its the truth. "Gaia" demonstrated that the CC3 was capable of some excellent imaging in the lateral plane, as about four minutes into the song the traveling drums traversed my room. Well-mated with the subwoofers, the CC3s broadcast those drums in a stunning manner too. But more importantly than drum spectaculars, I found myself head back and enjoying the music. What the CC3s do so unusually well in this price range is consistently avoid any and all distracting nasties that constantly remind you that you're listening to reproduced music. "Little More Time with You" and its varied pallet of percussion also cast a wonderfully complex soundstage with well-rendered flavors of drums typified by both speed and incisiveness.
After that it was time for another DVD classic: the DTS version of The Eagles Hell Freezes Over. Once the music got going, I was immediately arrested by the sound of the classical guitar on "Hotel California," which sounded first-rate. The CC3 has midrange purity aplenty, and the guitars sounded as clean as a whistle, transparent, spacious and uncolored. Even the hand-drums transient ease followed by rich tonality oozed authenticity.
"Tequila Sunrise" and Glenn Freys vocals further demonstrated how adept the CC3 is in its portrayals of the voice. Frys voice and rich, resonant signature was so entirely different from Henleys that it had a completely different lower-midrange character -- no artificially bumped up midrange or artificial warmth imposed here. "Help Me Through the Night" and Felders use of the wammy bar is more prominently displayed than on a lot of other systems despite the fact that its level is greatly reduced in relation to the other guitars on stage. The same can be said about his lick right at the end of the song -- it just sounds so real with its transient snap and full-bodied follow through. The hollow-bodied electric guitar sounded so tonally rich and meaty but at the same time it was as transparent as highly polished crystal. Obviously, while not putting the music under a microscope, the CC3s do the detail thing very well.
Moving to multichannel, the SACD release of Dark Side of the Moon [Capitol CDP 7243 582136 2 I-US] was a real treat too. The first track features instrumentals circling the room, and the CC3 was the perfectly seamless complement to the MGMC1s placed in the back of the room. The alarms at the beginning of "Time" also formed a coherent and continuous ring round me -- ditto the snarling drum kit. The ride cymbals on "Time" were presented with a very high degree of articulation and refinement -- no surprise given the use of Magnepans highly accomplished quasi-ribbon tweeter which, in my opinion, is sold short as it is always compared to Magnepans true ribbon. The true ribbon may be better, but the quasi-ribbon is darned good.
I hope that all CC3 users have the same degree of success with subwoofer blending that I did. "Money" sounded spectacular in its rhythmic agility. Highlights included a pulsating, physical bass line that melded with the CC3s to propel rather than bog down the songs verve. No matter what system I listen through, Im generally let down by a slightly hazy fog that overlies some of the vocals on this SACD. Often the vocals just dont measure up to the instrumentals in terms of transparency. The CC3s were easily detailed enough to demonstrate this greatest of the SACDs shortcomings, but on the other hand, the enhanced overall transparency was able to strip away at least one layer of the vocals haze.
Those looking to clear some floor space by mounting speakers on the ceiling will lose a degree or two of Maggie magic with the CC3 but will still succeed to a much higher degree than with any box speaker I know -- box speakers just dont live happily adjacent to room boundaries. If you have an application where you can stand the CC3 on end for a more typical vertical placement, so much the better. The CC3 succeeds to an even higher degree and competes well from 80Hz on up with Magnepans other overachievers.
As a center-channel speaker for multichannel music and home-theater systems, the CC3 remains unsurpassed at anywhere near its price point. Vocal and instrumental articulation, transparency, and authenticity join an open and spacious presentation that box speakers can only approximate. If you dont have room on the center of your wall for a full-range floorstanding Magneplanar, the CC3 is a highly attractive alternative that is both space-efficient and cost-effective.
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