Cuttin-Edge, On-the-Spot Reporting

Have You Seen?


Magico’s founder, Alon Wolf, isn’t the kind of person to say things just to appease you; he’ll tell you what he thinks with absolutely no softness in his delivery. It’s hard, just like the metal used in the cabinets of his speakers. For example, he’s told me that my Canon camera is crap, my recommendation of the 2013 movie Gravity is a “stain on my résumé,” and that my high praise for a well-regarded two-way standmounted speaker that many other writers also like is an embarrassment. Don’t talk to him if you’re easily offended.

Alon WolfAlon Wolf

On the other hand, I take little offense to what he says for four reasons. One reason is that I, too, can be opinionated and blunt, so I understand where he’s coming from when he talks like that. Another is that I’d rather listen to someone express what he or she thinks rather than listen to them say what he or she thinks I want to hear. You get to know the real person that way. Third, he won’t disagree to simply disagree, at least not always -- I’ve seen him give credit when credit is due. For instance, we agree that Sigma is making some great camera lenses these days; that the little-known Wind River was probably the best movie of 2017, even though most think it’s Dunkirk; and that Norway’s Hegel Music Systems is one of hi-fi’s highest-value electronics leaders these days, a point I’ll come back to in a bit. All three topics came up on my December 13 trip to his factory because they usually do -- photography, movies, and hi-fi are what we often discuss. Finally, the way he expresses himself verbally mirrors the products his company creates -- they follow their owner’s vision, which is admirable and results in things that aren’t “me too” creations. That also goes for the new A3, which at $9800 USD/pr. is the company’s most “affordable” speaker yet. I detailed its construction in “Magico A3 Loudspeaker -- the Concept.”

Since I know Alon’s demeanor well enough, it came as no surprise to me that, mere seconds after I arrived and sat down in Magico’s main meeting room to learn more about the new A3, he said, “I am going to do something that challenges you as a reviewer. You might not even write about it.”

He was, as he often does, saying something to startle me and put me on the spot. It didn’t do that; instead, I was intrigued with what he had in store.

Magico and FocalFocal No2s and Magico A3s

The moment I walked into Magico’s listening room, I immediately recognized a pair of bright-white Focal Sopra No2s side by side with the new A3s. What he had said when I first got there now made sense. I’d not only reviewed a pair of No2s on SoundStage! Hi-Fi in October 2015; the No2 was given a Reviewers’ Choice award at the time of the review and was recognized as one of our Products of the Year a few months later. The No2 sells for $13,999 per pair, so about 43% more than the A3. He told me that he brought the No2s in for their own price-point frame of reference, but knowing I was coming, he decided to keep them set up. Allowing me to hear the A3s alongside the No2s was a bold move by Alon, given the strong reputation of the No2 and how much more it sells for. I think the reason he thought I might not write about it is that I wouldn’t want to bring up a speaker I had reviewed so glowingly. Little did he know . . .

After a cursory glance at the No2 and A3, some might think they’re nothing alike. The No2 is a bit bigger, has a wood-based cabinet, shows itself off with ultramodern industrial design, and is available in multiple colors. The A3 has a basic-looking rectangular cabinet made from panels of aluminum, and comes only in black. Yet a closer look reveals something more important -- they are both three-ways with one tweeter, one midrange, and two woofers, and the drivers in both speakers are roughly the same size. As a result, they can be thought of as two takes on floorstanding, four-driver, three-way speaker design that can, on paper at least, move similar amounts of air.

Magico and FocalThe two four-driver three-ways

Alon used a single Hegel Music Systems H30 power amplifier to drive the A3s and No2s, so we couldn’t go back and forth in an instant. Alon had to stop the music, disconnect and reconnect the MIT speaker cables he was using, and start up again. That’s not ideal, but since he allowed me to listen as long as I wanted, I found it fine for the purpose of this listening session. I wanted to get a handle on how the A3 sounded, not to write a definitive review -- an important point to keep in mind as you read my impressions of the sound below.

Alon said he would’ve used Hegel’s companion P30 preamplifier, which he also believes to be an outstanding performer, but it doesn’t allow for individual input-level adjustment, which we needed to level-match the speakers. So he used a CH Precision P1 preamplifier, which has adjustable input levels. Music files were delivered by a Baetis music server, but I didn’t catch the model name. Ditto the interconnects -- I didn’t look behind the equipment racks to see what they were.

When Alon first played the Sopra No2s, I heard a sound akin to what I heard from those speakers in my own listening room -- a clean, natural-sounding midrange; strong upper bass with tremendous punch when needed; lively highs; but a lack of very low bass. Although loudspeaker measurements don’t always correlate well with how a speaker sounds in a room, the No2’s measurements do -- if you have the skillset to decipher measurements, you’ll see that our frequency-response measurements from the tests we performed at Canada’s National Research Council show just what I described. Our measurements also show that the No2 can play loud with low distortion, which also proved true in Magico’s room. Just as in my room, the speakers showed no sign of strain, even when Alon cranked them up. I wouldn’t call the No2 the pinnacle of accuracy, but it does sound natural and it’s consistently fun to listen to, with a sonic signature that’s a little Technicolor.

When Alon made the switch to the A3s for the first time, the differences were not night and day throughout the entire audioband, but they were obvious at the frequency extremes. The A3s didn’t have as much upper-bass energy as the No2s did, which didn’t surprise me, since most speakers don’t. However, the A3s did extend quite a bit deeper in the bass -- down to 30Hz or so, whereas the No2s dropped off a cliff by about 50Hz. The A3s’ overall bass reproduction also seemed better controlled and more defined.

At the top end, the A3s sounded more relaxed and more natural overall than the No2s did, as well as less hot and splashy sounding. This surprised me after what I’ve heard from some recent Magicos, particularly the original S5, which I reviewed for SoundStage! Hi-Fi in December 2013. Back then I wrote, “[T]he S5 sounded quite lively on top, even a little hot, depending on the recording.” More recently, Hans Wetzel reviewed the company’s S1 Mk.II, also on Hi-Fi, and wrote that, “[T]he treble was slightly prominent.” When I heard Jeff Fritz’s original Q7s in his room, I thought they sounded bright also. In Magico’s big listening space, the A3s’ highs were still extended and lively enough, but any sort of hotness or brightness was absent, at least when compared to the No2s’ highs. Being as blunt and outspoken as Alon is, I mentioned that aspect to him, and he said that the company has been working hard to constantly improve its tweeter designs. The A3s still sounded extended up top and extremely natural, but never came across as too hot or too bright.

When I asked Alon to play the A3s louder and louder, I didn’t hear noticeable distortion or compression, even in his very large room. Then again, I didn’t ask him to play the pair obscenely loud. This is something I’d like to test in more familiar surroundings. But from what I could glean in Magico’s listening room, even though the A3 is a small-ish floorstander, it seems like it can put out a lot of sound, and a pair should have no trouble charging up fairly large listening rooms.

Going back and forth with more music selections revealed that the high- and low-frequency differences I initially heard remained consistent regardless of the recording we listened to. Eventually, more differences came to light, particularly when we played recordings with male or female vocals. It was with these vocals that I could hear slightly more detail and texture through the A3s than through the No2s. Furthermore, the vocalists and any accompanying instruments were a little more focused in space on the soundstage -- I could determine their placements more precisely. According to Alon, this superior image focus is the result of using aluminum for the cabinet, as opposed to MDF, which is why it’s also used for his S- and Q-series speakers (the M-series speakers use a combination of aluminum and carbon fiber).

I can’t necessarily confirm Alon’s assertion about MDF, because I have heard wood-based speakers display extraordinary detail and image focus. But I can’t completely deny it, either, as I’ve never previously heard any of those speakers side-by-side with a pair of A3s. I can only report what I heard in this instance, and that was that the A3s hung images in space more precisely than the No2s did. On the flipside, I thought the No2s were a little more spacious-sounding overall. One caveat about these two observations: the No2s were positioned to the outsides of the A3s, so a little bit farther apart. In hindsight, after I reviewed my notes back at home, I wished we’d switched their placements in order to see how that would affect image focus and overall spaciousness.

MagicoThe A3s alone

The best I heard the A3s sound on that day was when Alon played a track I’d never heard before -- Avishai Cohen’s “Four Verses / Continuation,” which must’ve been ripped to his server from Cohen’s Duende, released on CD in 2012 (the only format I could find it on when I looked afterward). Obviously, with an unknown track, there’s no frame of reference as to how exactly it should sound; still, I feel the need to remark on it because of how awestruck I was with the A3s’ presentation of it. The instruments sounded exceedingly natural and were placed vividly on the soundstage; the clarity and detail throughout the audioband were high; and there was nothing in the sound that screamed this is Magico’s entry-level design. In other words, any compromises that might’ve been made to bring this speaker to market didn’t jump out at me, which, in my mind, is the mark of great speaker design.

Hearing a speaker in a manufacturer’s listening room, even if you know the other speaker playing in there, doesn’t qualify as a review, which is something that can’t be emphasized enough. There are way too many unknowns -- the associated equipment, the room, the music being played, among others -- to make definitive judgments. As a result, consider what I wrote so far as preliminary listening impressions that may or may not be followed by a formal review; Alon never promised us a pair of A3s to review.

Was there any use to this exercise then? I believe so. When Alon told me about the A3, I was far more excited than earlier in 2017 when I learned about the M6, which is priced at $172,000 per pair -- a price so high that very few can afford a pair. I care very little about what few people can buy. Instead, I care considerably more about products that many more audiophiles can afford, which is precisely where the A3 slots in and exactly why I took the time to visit his factory to see the speaker before anyone else could, since it’s not yet on the market.

What I saw and heard at Magico’s factory on December 13 is certainly noteworthy. Alon Wolf, via Magico, has managed to bring his lofty speaker ideals down to a price point that’s not necessarily affordable -- $9800 isn’t cheap by any stretch! -- but is, as I wrote in my first A3 article, “attainable for someone with a good job and income.” These ideals are not only about top-drawer build quality, but also about reference-quality sound, which, based on my audition, the A3 leans toward. In sum, the A3 has all the necessary earmarks to become the best-selling Magico speaker yet, so I’ll be interested to find out others’ impressions come February, when it’s officially released.

Doug Schneider
Founder, SoundStage!