Over the past week, I’ve had the pleasure of having three excellent speakers in the house – the Usher 6311, Totem Forest, and Magnepan SMGa. All three of these tackle the challenge of stereo reproduction in very different ways and sound damn good doing it. This is a reflection on my time spent with them and what I’ve learned from the experience. The ‘trials’ were performed with a Marantz 2216, Shuguang S200mk preamp, Shuguang S845mk SET tube monoblocks, Pioneer BDP-51fd BDP, Douglas Interconnects, and Audioquest CV-8 speaker cables. To begin, I’d like to offer my opinions on the speakers themselves:
This is my baby. I’ve had a hard time considering any speaker long-term in my rig because of the overall performance these have provided. They are warm and musical and never fatigue. The soundstage they provide extends well beyond the speakers and, according to my wife, has quite a bit of depth to it. When I first got them, I had not done any component dynamatting/room treatments and they could come across as harsh and very forward. As I’ve continued to improve my system, they have tamed down considerably and are now quite relaxed on the top end. In my 14’ by 12’ room, they have the ability to pressurize the room in every sense of the word. I’ve never needed a sub with them: my one attempt to integrate a sub was laughable after seeing how little was added to the sound. In fact, adding the sub likely diminished their performance instead of enhanced it. For an 87 db speaker, these things are able to sound well on almost anything I’ve thrown at them. Need a speaker than can pull double duty? Well guys, this is your speaker. It excels at both 2 channel and Home Theater. It isn’t the final word by any means, but its still very seldom you look at a speaker and are able to say that it can completely engross you in both presentations.
While I do love this speaker, I find the details to be lacking. Things that are apparent on other systems are still audible, but you have to listen for them. The imaging is a little less defined than it was originally, something I assume was a trade off for the improvements that have given them a richer tonal quality. Bass can at times be overpowering, and with the wrong components upstream it can be very undefined.
However, when paired with the Shuguang S845mk, they could be the poster child for synergy. It just sounds…. Right. This alone makes it hard to part with them, but until now, I haven’t known exactly what it was about the pairing that made me feel this way. More on that later.
Along with the Polk LSiM 705, these are the most expensive speakers I’ve had in my house when comparing MSRP. They are beautiful speakers, and for me, their overall design and appearance is very representative of their performance. The speaker is very sleek, modern, and simple looking. It has nice touches that say “look at me”, but at the same time calls no attention to itself. I’ve never heard a coffin disappear anywhere near as well as these things do. That ability definitely rivals many high quality bookshelves. The highs sparkle and are able to point out any flaws in the recording. The presentation is in front of the speaker, and while the soundstage can extend beyond the confines of the speaker, it doesn’t spread as far horizontally as the Usher does. The bass is tight and noticeable, but not punchy. One big benefit these have is that they are able to be placed closer to the rear wall than the Usher is and actually sound better that way.
The downfalls of this speaker are direct results of their strengths. Give it poorly recorded music, and you can have a very short listening session. They can get fatiguing if not set up properly. The bass, while articulate, does not have the ability to pressurize the room on either amp. They come across sounding more like a bookshelf entirely than your traditional tower in that aspect.
Overall, I really like the Forest. It is an excellent speaker and brings to the table many things I wish the Usher was better at. Like the Usher, these too would probably be a great dual purpose speaker, but would definitely require a subwoofer for HT.
I’ve had these for a few months now after craving the opportunity to hear what the Magnepan sound was all about. At first I wasn’t too impressed – they did a few things that really stood out, but left me feeling underwhelmed about the overall experience. Then, I started messing around with placement. Wow, these things really started to shine! As Danny has told me before, proper setup of Magnepans is akin to switching amps – once you find the right placement, you know it and finally get to experience what the speaker is capable of. The SMGa disappears EXTREMELY well. Its like the speakers aren’t even there. The details in the music went off the chart and had me listening for things I’d never heard before with music I’m intimate with. For instance, on Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight”, a verse or two before the drums kickin, he begins to take on a synthesized type of sound. With the SMGa, I realized this was not computer driven – there was actually a second guy talk-singing in the left speaker completely independent from Phil. I had to play this for my wife and she was amazed that she had never heard it before – it was that apparent. Women sound astoundingly good on them. You think Stevie Nicks or Norah Jones sound good on your rig? Yeah, I did too. The SMGa made their performance on the Usher sound like an amateur.
The Magnepan sound obviously has its pitfalls though. Imaging is definitely not a strong point. While you can get a pretty solid image for one source, if several sources come in the image tends to get a bit muddy. They lack extension on both ends of the spectrum. They crave power and are the only speaker of the three that actually sounds better on the Marantz than the Shuguangs. The soundstage shrinks both horizontally and in depth. They also require proper placement well into the room, an attribute that makes them impossible for HT application (even with a sub) as they would block out a large portion of the screen.
The SMGa is a speaker I picked up cheap and won’t be leaving my possession anytime soon. It is a great compliment to the extreme dynamics of the Usher. I love mellow, folksy type music and that is where the Magnepan really shines. Even with their limited extension, they are a speaker that I’d highly recommend most people at least get their ears on because their sound is very unique.
What I learned
Before I got the Totem, I was very happy with my two speakers. The Totem does a great job bridging the gap between the two, and had me debating which way to go from here. I’ve been struggling with this for the last week and it finally hit me tonight what I wanted to do and why it was the best choice. I’ve decided to keep the Usher and sell the Totem. Why? As great as the Totem is, what it doesn’t bring to the table is the presence and impact of the Usher. I guess I’ve got a touch of my car audio days left in me because I still like to FEEL the music. I don’t need overpowering bass, but when a kick drum hits, I want to feel it as well as hear it. I’d love to get the detail and imaging of the Totem out of the Usher, but in order to do that I think I’m going to have to look up the line. The Mini Dancer 1 is on my radar once again as a top candidate for my next speaker. It should be able to add some of the Totem character while maintaining what it is I love about the 6311.
What I think got in the way was having a speaker in the house with a similar design concept and having it point out flaws in the 6311. I think the instant reaction is to focus on those flaws and want them fixed. I gave it time to think it all through and came to the realization that I wasn’t focusing on anything the 6311 brought to the table on the positive end. The impact turns out to be the biggest thing that sucks me out of music, and I definitely did not realize that until I stepped back to look at the whole picture instead of pieces of the puzzle.