Magico S1 Mk II Loudspeaker

Magico loudspeakers have impressed a good number of TAS equipment reviewers. No fewer than seven Magico models are endorsed in the 2017 Buyer’s Guide and the most ambitious designs have served as references for Robert Harley (the Q7 Mk II) and Jonathan Valin (the M Project). Alan Taffel and Anthony Cordesman were not stinting in their praise for two models in the less elaborately, but no less uniquely engineered S Series, the S5 and S7. At $38,000 per pair, the S5 is the lowest price of the products just mentioned. All these speakers represent a substantial investment, a reflection of the materials and technology that go into their manufacture.

At $16,500 (in its M-Cast finish) the new Magico S1 Mk II is the least costly product that the California company makes, other than one subwoofer. The term entry-level definitely catches in my throat, as this is significantly more money that the “flagship” offerings from several manufacturers I’ve positively reviewed recently—the PSB Imagine T3 or the Ryan Tempus III, for examples. Surely, this smallest Magico floorstander must blend into the throng of high-performance full-range loudspeakers that sell for under $20k. Well, sorry, that’s not the narrative here. The Magico S1 Mk II is very much a Magico and, as such, at this price point represents a smoking value.

There’s been plenty of ire expressed toward Magico on our website regarding the application of the “Mk II” suffix, specifically to the speaker at the very top of the regular production line, the Q7. Alon Wolf argues cogently for why this anger and cynicism is misplaced. In Wolf’s view, there are two aspects to the design of his loudspeakers, the “platform” and, well, everything else. The “platform” is the enclosure, the extruded aluminum monocoque design of the S Series, or the more complex and labor-intensive construction of the Q and M Series. “I don’t really care for the Mk II designation,” Wolf told me. “I encourage people to talk about it as ‘the new S1’ or ‘the new S5.’ The platform for the S Series is a fundamental achievement in terms of construction, and we are not going to change it anytime soon. It’s too good to mess with. There is no better way to build a loudspeaker in my mind for this kind of cost.” The extruded metal pieces are made for Magico at the only factory in the United States with the capacity to produce pieces this large. The process is “mind-boggling,” says Wolf. “You take a 21″ billet of aluminum—one solid piece—and push it through a cookie-cutter profile. It’s an incredible thing to watch.” There actually is one difference in the fabrication of the S1 enclosure in its Mk II iteration. The original S1 used “pressure bracing”—a piece of machined aluminum was pushed tightly against the inside skin of the speaker. Now, Magico bolts the four internal braces from the outside: “The tension points are much more powerful,” says Wolf. This, of course, results in holes in the enclosure that must be welded and sanded to restore a smooth exterior surface and, one assumes, ensure mechanical integrity.

What gets the speaker its “Mk II” appellation are the new drivers it uses and the necessarily reengineered crossover that unites them. The two new drivers are designs that have trickled down from pricier models in the Magico line, a 1″ diamond-coated beryllium tweeter and a 7″ graphene Nano-Tec mid/bass cone. (Magico’s use of graphene—a material that is so exceptionally stiff and light it has engineers and scientists in many fields pretty pumped—is still among the few commercial applications of the stuff.) The crossover is a fourth-order Linkwitz-Riley configuration that employs Magico’s “elliptical” topology. As with other speakers in the S and Q lines, the S1 Mk II is available in both an M-Cast finish or, for about $4000 more, a glossy M-Coat version—both in various colors. I actually prefer the M-Cast option, as the speakers are less visually obtrusive and easier to keep looking pristine. (Wolf doesn’t hear or measure any difference between the two finish choices.) A metal grille that covers both drivers, held in place magnetically, is easily removed for critical listening.

The review pair of S1 Mk II’s, sporting a black M-Cast finish, came carefully packed in two sturdy cardboard boxes. (The M-Coat version is shipped with the two speakers sharing a single wooden crate.) The user’s guide is quite thorough regarding unpacking, which is a two-person job. Clear guidelines for placing the loudspeakers are provided as well. I set up the S1 Mk IIs in a position that had worked previously for speakers of similar size. Peter Mackay, Magico’s VP for Global Sales and Marketing, visited for a morning and—using two tape measures, a laser distance measurer, a bubble level, a calibrated microphone plugged into his laptop, and pieces of blue painter’s tape on the floor—ended up moving the speakers forward about 4 inches. I don’t mean to sound snarky, as the S1s sounded much better when Peter was finished. Some of that was, undoubtedly, Peter’s careful leveling of the speakers and spiking them through the carpet and underlying acoustic treatment to the concrete slab beneath. The point is that you shouldn’t hesitate to enlist the aid of your Magico dealer to set the S1 Mk IIs up: He’s likely done it before and may have been trained by Mackay himself. In my 15′ x 15′ room (a hallway off one of the sidewalls obviates any standing-wave problems; the ceiling height varies from 10′ to 12′) the S1s ended up 25″ to 29″ from the front wall—they were canted in toward the listening position—and 8′ apart, center-to-center. The distance from each speaker to the sweet spot was 9′ 6″. Mostly, the Magicos were driven by Pass XA 60.8 monoblocks, with some service from a 200Wpc Parasound HCA-2200II stereo amplifier. The preamp/processor was my trusty Anthem D2v. Digital sources included an Oppo BDP-93 (used as a transport) and a Baetis Reference music computer feeding the Anthem’s DACs; for analog, a VPI Scoutmaster fitted with a JMW Memorial tonearm and Sumiko Bluepoint Special EVO III cartridge. Cabling was mostly Transparent, the notable exception being a Shunyata Anaconda AES/EBU wire from Baetis to Anthem.

My first impression of the Magico S1 Mk IIs was that the sound was lean in comparison to my beloved Wilsons (Duette 2s with and without WATCH Dog subwoofer)—in the sense that any extraneous sonic detritus was gone and only the meaningful electroacoustic representation of the original musical event remained. With orchestral scores, colorful music was colorful, not colored. Devotees of Romantic and early twentieth century repertoire know that certain composers have a difficult-to-describe yet characteristic density, a center-of-gravity to their symphonic sonority that makes the identification of the author of even an unfamiliar work possible. Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Bruckner, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky—the tonal palette of each of these masters was utterly idiomatic through the Magicos.

To examine this sonic parameter more closely, I pulled out a recording I’ve used before to evaluate tonal accuracy, one I plan to refer to in future reviews as “The Old Italian Violin Test.” To recapitulate: In 1998, the esteemed Chicago violin dealer Bein & Fushi published a handsome coffee table book, The Miracle Makers, that explored the history, craftsmanship, and, of course, the aural magic of the violins built by the two most famous makers of string instruments, Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù [see TAS Issue 125]. A few years earlier, 30 such instruments—the estimated total value at the time was around $100 million, which would be considerably higher now—were brought to a recital hall in Purchase, New York, to be photographed and then played by one violinist, the American virtuoso Elmar Oliveira. Oliveira was recorded by Mark Levinson, using Cello gear, in three CDs worth of music ranging from Bach to Ysaÿe. The third disc is a singular undertaking—Oliveira plays the first 30 bars of the Sibelius Violin Concerto on all the violins in succession, alternating between a Stradivarius and a del Gesù. Through good equipment, even a listener lacking any experience with 300-year-old Cremonese violins can quickly distinguish the more focused and brilliant sound of a Stradivarius from the darker, warmer, earthier tone of a Guarneri instrument. The S1 Mk IIs did this more effectively than any other loudspeaker I’ve had in my listening room. In fact, I could readily distinguish among different Strads and different Guarneris with the Magicos, such was their degree of tonal and textural resolution.

The sound—or lack thereof—of the diamond-coated dome tweeter is alluring, with a lack of hardness and harshness at the top of the audible frequency range that surely indicates good mechanical behavior of the driver well beyond that point. The Act I Prelude to Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin begins with a high-flying harmonized theme for violins divided into eight parts. It’s rare to hear that ethereal sonority realistically recreated on disc. Through the Magicos, I did, with the Esoteric SACD reissue of Herbert von Karajan’s EMI program of Wagner Overtures and Preludes. Not only did the strings register as individual players joining to produce an ensemble sound, but it was possible to hear that other high-pitched instruments—flute and oboe—were in the mix as well. Cymbals on good jazz recordings (Patricia Barber’s Café Blue, the M & K RealTime Records direct-to-disc LP For Duke) weren’t splashy, and it wasn’t hard to distinguish among cymbals of different sizes. It’s not just the extended, linear output of the tweeter that makes the top end of this loudspeaker so beguiling; it’s the seamlessness with which it hands off to the graphene mid/bass cone—a device that clearly can keep up with the high-frequency driver it’s paired with in the S1 Mk II.

Bass performance from this sealed-box system was tight, tuneful, and punchy on recordings having an abundance of such information, say, “Brite Nightgown” from Donald Fagen’s Morph the Cat. In an attempt to embarrass the modest-sized Magicos, I assembled an electronica playlist on the streaming service Tidal—tracks like “Strobe” (Deadmau5), “Spannered in Pilton” (OTT), and “Heartbeat” (The Knife)—and turned the volume up to an un-neighborly level. The Magicos held their own, with more than a suggestion of gut-wrenching bottom-end impact. You can’t open a dance club with S1s. But I do expect to hear from the condo association.

Spatially, the speed and continuousness of the two drivers serves well those who relish dimensionality in the listening experience. SACDs and Pure Audio Blu-rays from the Norwegian 2L label often provide seating diagrams for the musical forces as they were recorded, including a program of wind ensemble pieces performed by the Royal Norwegian Navy Band (Symphonies of Wind Instruments). For works by Hindemith, Schoenberg, and Rolf Wallin, there are two semi-circles of woodwinds closest to the conductor, a ring of horns, percussion and tubas behind them and, across the back, a straight row of trumpets, cornets, flugelhorns, and trombones. Morten Lindberg’s recording is simply miked and the Magicos recreate the disposition of the players just as depicted in the liner notes. Soundstaging is similarly impressive, whether the recording is out to represent a real space (Kingsway Hall for Decca’s La Fille mal gardée) or an intoxicatingly expansive artificial one (“Why Worry” from Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms).

Needless to say, Magico’s S1 Mk II isn’t a perfect loudspeaker. While the S1 Mk II is undeniably a full-range speaker, it’s still a relatively small one, and if your room is big, and your taste runs to large-scale music, and you like to listen to that music at life-like levels, you’re going to be disappointed. More existentially, we all know that there is no such thing as a “perfect loudspeaker.” That transducer would have to produce sound that, objectively and subjectively, was indistinguishable from the real thing—and that ain’t happening, at least in my lifetime. Because of this inescapable fact, we audiophiles find ourselves having discussions about the merits of speakers voiced according to “taste” as opposed to those designed strictly by the numbers. All the finest loudspeakers, of course, employ both approaches. But more successfully than most, Magico begins with theoretical constructs and then undertakes a lengthy and methodical course from computer to test bench to factory to listening room. They create products that both measure well and excite the brain’s pleasure centers as effectively as loudspeakers of the “as you like it” school, to use JV’s terminology.

Magico has steadily moved its family of products forward in its entiretyRemember, there was a time when Magico’s enclosures were made primarily of wood; now they’re all-aluminum, save for the M Series (which uses carbon fiber and aluminum). For the S Series and Q Series, Alon Wolf has his “platform” established and continues to advance the performance of the drivers and other components he puts into these optimized enclosures; significant engineering accomplishments achieved in the most exalted Magico models will ultimately inform the design of all the speakers produced in the Hayward, California, factory. The Magico S1 Mk II is, indeed, as much of a Magico as the S7 or the Q7, and must be a top consideration for anyone in the market for a loudspeaker up to $20k. As the saying goes, it “comes from a good family.”