MAGICO Ultimate III - 5way horn-loaded floorstand speaker system.

MA 35 SF ULT
Price on application
Magico

We create industrial “works of art” that simply out-perform any custom or commercially available speaker system in the world.

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MAGICO Ultimate III loudspeaker: the Bugatti Veyron of Hi-Fi
....Robert Harley - TAS The Absolute Sound  

ULTIMATE - Perhaps the most ambitious loudspeakers system ever built, the Ultimate is an all-aluminium, active, five-way horn-loaded system. Standing a few inches short of eight-feet tall and weighing more than 1000 pounds apiece the Ultimate is fully, 1:1 horn loaded speaker system down to 100Hz.

"Insomuch, even as I attempt to share the experience with you I'm just lost for words. Both Jack Bybee and I just sat there after each song looking at each other just mumbling to ourselves. There are no words that can ever fully explain what I actually felt while listening to this system" …… Clement Perry - Stereophile

I should state right now that there was absolutely no hint from the system's sound that the Ultimate was a horn-based loudspeaker. This wasn't a case of forgiving some tonal colourations and enjoying all the other attributes of horns. Rather, the Ultimate had zero horn coloration. Had I heard the system without knowing the technology on which it is based, I would not have guessed it employed horns" ….. Robert Harley - TAS

"In Dead Can Dance classic “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove”, the sitar was as realistic as it gets, while the ambience created by the Ultimates was phenomenal. Then the California Guitar Trio performed “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the system revealed a transparency close to being unreal, we felt the guitars being in the room). Alan Taylor’s voice on “Scotty” was deep and natural with background piano notes being uncoloured and faithful to their true tonal"….. Dr. Panagiotis Karavitis  - Part Time Audiophile.

Specifications

Reviews

Videos

Specifications

DRIVER COMPLIMENT:
1 x 1" horn loaded tweeter
1 x 6" horn loaded upper midrange
1 x 20” horn loaded lower midrange
1 x 12” horn loaded Midbass
1 x 15” Woofer, coupled with a 4,000 watt amplifier

SPECS:
Sensitivity: 114dB
Impedance:16 Ohms
Frequency Response: 20Hz–33kHz
Dimensions:

Height: 94" (238 cm)
Width: 18" (footprint) - 48" (top) (45/122 cm)
Depth: 42" (footprint) - 65" (top) (106/165 cm)
Weight: 1100 lbs. each (499 kg)

AMPLIFICATION OPTIONS:
3x Stereo or 6x Monaural amplifiers are required for the three compression drivers. Whether the amplifiers are solid state or single ended tube (SET) they should all be the same make and model for all of the compression drivers which have a very high sensitivity.
A purpose built solid-state amplifier (2x250W) is supplied with the Ultimate III’s to operate the driver mounted behind the large horn lens.

CABLING REQUIRED:
2x 15amp Power Cables for Active Crossovers
4x 20amp Power Cables for Internal Mid-Bass and Bass Amplifiers
4 Pairs of Speaker Cables (tweeter, upper-Mid, Lower-Mid, Mid-bass)
1 Pair Interconnect from Pre-Amplifier to Magico Active Crossovers
3 Pair Interconnect from Magico Active Crossovers to Volume Control Boxes.
2 Pair Interconnect from Active Crossovers to 4 channels of internal amplification for Mid-bass
and Bass
3 Pair Interconnect from Volume Control Box to 6 channels of external amplification for Tweeter, Upper-Midrange, and Lower Mid-Range Bass jumper cables (provided)

Reviews

A Day in the Life With Dr. Jim and Abigail Langham, and The Magical Magico Ultima loudspeakers
Clement prry

SUMMARY: In so much, even as I attempt to share the experience with you I'm just lost for words. Both Jack Bybee and I just sat there after each song looking at each other just mumbling to ourselves. There are no words that can ever fully explain what I actually felt while listening to this system.

A Day in the Life With Dr. Jim and Abigail Langham, Behold electronics and The Magical Magico Ultima loudspeakers

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears, and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area, which we call the Twight Zone........Rod Serling

Where does one start when attempting to write about the audio experience of a life-time? Fresh from all the sights and sounds of another busy and hectic CES, I set my sights further west to Oakland, CA as a guest of music connoisseur, Dr Jim Langham (who, in his spare time, is a long time and well-respected ophthalmologist whose worked in the San Francisco - Bay area for over 40 years).

My experience, when it relates to listening to something this visually and sonically imposing - not to mention the obvious HUGE financial outlay - proved utterly humbling. It also served as a very rare glimpse and a true example of what is possible in the here and now if your musical passions runs this deep (and you've a wallet to match).

Designer Alon Wolf's Magico loudspeakers, in whatever model, became industry darlings overnight. And for good reason: they have a refreshing look, are designed flawlessly and more importantly produce a magnificent sound. Wolf's most radical design is a multi-driver horn of which only three-pair exist and Dr. Langham is one fortunate owner. With a retail price of nearly $400k, one can only imagine what these behemoths sound like if Wolf's least expensive Magico (model V2s @ $18k) gained high praise in the press along with a huge fan base.

Now, try to imagine my experience of hearing the Magic Ultimas strapped to FIVE of the most versatile high-end amplifiers in the world: The Behold BPA-768 stereo amplifiers and the super-sophisticated 12-channel APU-768 preamp replete with its own Digital to Analogue converters (DACs), room-correction and an active 10-channel digital crossover with manual phase and time alignment capabilities. All these features dear reader are nestled inside a single chassis. More impressive is each Behold amplifier houses eight DACs per-channel: All eight DACs are designed to cascade and thus upsample to 768-bit resolution. Steve Balliet of Reflection Audio serves as Langham's setup genius and trust me, after dinner with Balliet and Langham discussing their goals and sonic objectives via mathematical equations - and the ensuing brain cramps the came ala Behold's Ralf Ballmann - there' s no question Balliet's qualified for the job of syncing this system together and getting it to sound its best. 

Best sounding electronics ever? What's the best wristwatch?  Automobile? That's a silly question often asked in this hobby.   The reality is, there's no such thing because "best" is totally subjective. Besides, there's always something on the horizon that's going to up the ante anyways which makes the entire notion slippery and elusive at best. Most versatile? Now that's a good question. And yes, I would qualify the Behold series of high-end electronics as the most versatile I've ever seen. It's no coincidence that both Jean Yves and Dr. Langham employ room correction in otherwise excellent acoustic spaces (Yves using my former reference Tact 2.2XP). Moreover, both their rooms seem more than adequate when it comes to size. Both, if I guesstimate, are about 25' feet across with about 40' deep while the listening chair and sweet-spot was still about 10' to 12' (max) from the loudspeakers.

The Behold amplifiers in Dr. Langham's system are totally inconspicuous as they're housed below in his basement directly below each loudspeaker (I did get the chance to give them a peak but with a very low ceiling and no hard-hat, I dared not venture past the doorway) Serguei Timachev's Stealth Audio Dream Series cables are shown going through the floor to the sublevel where five Behold amplifiers are housed.

The sheer width and depth of the Magico Ultimas is far more intimidating when you're standing next to them.

When I last visited Paris back in the fall of '04, I had the unique opportunity to hear Jean Yves Kerbrat's  6-way horn system. This provided a performance benchmark from a horn system as far as I was concerned. Clearly, the best sounding system I've heard... until a few weeks ago when I sat before the mighty Magico Ultimas.

Back in 2000, I visited Singapore and Japan to hear the new series of tube electronics from Zanden Audio. Here, they were strapped to a pair of 99-dB sensitive Sawada Audio Tutankhamen loudspeakers which employed four lowther drivers employed, by design, to excite the listening space more than the listener ala the Bose direct/reflect slant. In many respects, and mostly with classical music, I never heard a more honest and harmonically true transducer. 

My most recent experiences of walking the halls at the Venetian and the S.H.O.W. - reliving all the wonderful exotic sounding setups I heard are duly documented in my show coverage. By comparison to what I heard listening to the Magico Ultimas with Behold electronics, everything I heard at CES, in Paris or Japan pales by comparison.

Using a Wadia and Goldmund CD as dedicated transports, the life-like sense of scale Langham's system is capable of proved absolutely astonishing. Dynamics? I never heard anything this dead quiet and then instantly LOUD. I heard voices so delicate, yet so "there" while simultaneously other instruments appeared further recessed into the soundstage yet so tangible. Hard to describe.  After hearing this for more than an hour, I developed a new-found respect for the term three-dimensional. Big, bold and musical, I would qualify it as the sonic equivalent of an IMAX movie. It got to the point where I began second-guessing if certain sounds from songs I knew intimately were actually coming from the loudspeakers themselves.

Yes, it got really spooky quiet.

In so much, even as I attempt to share the experience with you I'm just lost for words. Both Jack Bybee and I just sat there after each song looking at each other just mumbling to ourselves. There are no words that can ever fully explain what I actually felt while listening to this system.

The MAGICO Ultimate loudspeaker is, in my view, an advancement in the state-of-the-art in music reproduction.
Robert Harley

SUMMARY: I should state right now that there was absolutely no hint from the system's sound that the Ultimate was a horn-based loudspeaker. This wasn't a case of forgiving some tonal colourations and enjoying all the other attributes of horns. Rather, the Ultimate had zero horn coloration. Had I heard the system without knowing the technology on which it is based, I would not have guessed it employed horns.
The system wasn't a one-trick pony optimized for midrange realism to the exclusion of all else. The sense of resolution, of hearing every iota of information in the music, extended well into the midbass. Acoustic bass was reproduced with a terrific combination of warmth, pitch definition, and extremely articulate reproduction of dynamics. The low bass was very good in terms of extension, dynamics, and definition, but not extraordinary in the way that the rest of the spectrum was reproduced. In spatial presentation, the Ultimate created a closer, more intimate presentation that favoured smaller-scale music. Delineation of individual instruments, and the impression of space between those instruments, was extraordinary. The system was clearly optimised for precise image focus rather than a large and billowy presentation. The Ultimate setup at Wolf's home with the DEQX crossover) had a more convincing sense of size, space, and depth on large-scale orchestral music.

EXTENDED REVIEW: I heard Bob Nachtigall's Ultimate-based system on two occasions during visits to San Francisco. The first listen took place just a week after they were installed. The second was two months later after the system was "95%" tweaked in.

In Nachtigall's system, the midbass, lower midrange, upper midrange, and tweeter amplifiers are all single-ended-triode monoblocks based on the Western Electric 300B tube, custom designed and built by 3 Dimension Audio's Alex Dondysh. The lower midrange, upper midrange, and tweeter amplifiers deliver 9W each, while the midbass amplifier is a 22W push-pull design based on a pair of 300 B power tubes. Each monoblock is split into two chassis-amplifier and power supply. The power supplies employ tube rectification, no electrolytic capacitors, and point-to-point wiring. Each amplifier was custom-tweaked for the driver to which it would be mated, including different output transformers. The compression drivers' 16-ohm impedance makes an ideal load for a single-ended triode amplifier. The woofer amplifiers are Mcintosh MC501 monoblocks, chosen in part for their high power low distortion, and cool running, but mainly because their relatively-low-damping-factor, transformer coupled output blends well with an otherwise all-tube system. That's 18 amplifier chassis if you're counting.

The active crossover is a Marchand XM44 solid-state unit extensively modified by Mark Eckert with Black Gate and REL caps, Caddock resistors, Bybee filters, and modified Welborne Labs outboard power supplies. Crossover slopes are a very steep 24dB/octave and 48dB/octave.

LP playback is via a Basis Debut vacuum 'table and Graham 2.2 tonearm, fitted with a Clearaudio Insider Reference cartridge. The LP front end is mounted on a Vibraplane isolation system. CDs are played on an MBL 1621 transport feeding a Pacific Microsonics Model 2 DAC. The Model 2 is actually a professional HDCD encoder/decoder designed for mastering rooms. It features Keith Johnson's extraordinary DAC and analog output stage. A Sony SCD-777ES player, fitted with the Modwright "Absolute Truth" tubed output stage, spins SACDs, Audio interconnects are Sahuaro Jetstream: loudspeaker cables are Stealth Audio Hybrid MLT; and power cords are FIM Gold. The equipment sits on Billy Bags racks fitted with Dyna-mat treated shelves, with each component (except for the turntable) resting on Brightstar Audio "sandboxes."

The listening room is as elaborate as the rest of the system. The room, a separate area of Nachtigall's home, was gutted to the shell and rebuilt by Alan Goodwin of Goodwin's High-End. With the exception of the Brazilian cherry hardwood floor, every square Inch of the room and ceiling is covered with custom acoustic modules and soffits. The Medex modules were CNC-machined from AutoCAD drawings, put together on the East Coast to ensure a precise fit, and then disassembled for shipment to San Francisco. The width, depth, height, and angle of each of the 40 modules that make up the walls and ceiling are derived from acoustical mathematical relationships based on the room's dimensions. The room can be acoustically tuned on-site not only for personal preference, but also for a specific loudspeaker's radiation pattern. The symmetrical placement of these precisely angled and dimensioned hard-surfaced modules results in a room with no parallel surfaces--one that can control room reflections and modal ringing, and curtail evenly spaced reflection-clusters without resorting to overly damped and absorptive surfaces. The result is a room that gives the impression of a space larger than its 19' x 15 x 1l' dimensions would suggest. Low-frequency control is provided by adjustable bass traps built into the corner and ceiling soffits along the bottom of the side. walls.

Finally, the AC power is built around a Toshiba industrial-strength uninterruptible power supply that converts incoming 220V AC to DC, and then regenerates perfectly clean 60Hz, 120V balanced power. The system can run for several hours off the system's 400 pounds of storage batteries. A custom grounding scheme provides an ultra-low impedance path to ground via a continuous run of 10-gauge high-purity copper encased in a mu-metal conduit and terminated in a silver-plated copper bus bar. A massive braid of silver-plated copper was exothermically welded to the bus bar, which is connected to two 10-foot by 2-inch diameter copper rods sunk into the ground, each sur rounded by 100 pounds of electrolytic slurry. The AC power system is built into a walk-in-closet-sized room lined with RF shielding It didn't take long in the listening seat to know | was hearing a musical presentation that was in some ways unlike any I had heard before. This system did many things well, but in two qualities, it was revelato. ry. These two qualities, which were related and reinforced each other, also carried with them many tertiary effects that contributed to the stunning overall presentation.

The most striking aspect of the Ultimate's sound was a palpability and immediacy that went for beyond anything I've previously heard in reproduced music. The illusion of the instrument actually in the listening room was so tangible it was spooky. This wasn't an incremental advance in realism; it was a giant leap. Although apparent on every instrument and every disc, it was particularly stunning on voice. The sense of realism was so palpable that hearing vocals through the system produced an almost eerie feeling that another human presence had suddenly appeared in the room. Surprisingly, every piece of music I played created the impression of hearing real instruments rather than a facsimile of them.

The second quality of the Ultimate that is unprecedented in my experience, and one that no doubt contributed greatly to the stunning sense of realism, was its instrument's harmonic structure, as well as microdynamic nuances. The Ultimate laid bare a wealth of detail that indicated the mechanism by which the instrument produced sound. This ultra-high-resolution presentation was anything but analytical, cold, or clinical. This was resolution beyond any system I've previously heard. Unlike other high-resolution presentations that tend to thrust the detail in your face and call attention to itself, the Ultimate's resolving power was much more subtle and profound. The Ultimate's uniqueness is in its ability to reach way down and present the finest, lowest-level aspects of Instrumental timbre and microdynamics. For example, brushes on snare drum sounded like individual bristles moving over and striking the rim and drum head rather than a generic, undifferentiated sound.

I should state right now that there was absolutely no hint from the system's sound that the Ultimate was a horn-based loudspeaker. This wasn't a case of forgiving some tonal colorations and enjoying all the other attributes of horns. Rather, the Ultimate had zero horn coloration. Had I heard the system without knowing the technology on which it is based, I would not have guessed it employed horns.

Hearing this system bolstered, in my mind, a long held speculation about why reproduced music doesn't sound like the real thing. It has seemed to me that the process of converting atmospheric compressions and rarefactions (sound waves) into mechanical motion of the microphone diaphragm, and then into an electrical signal, strips from the original sound the lowest-level components of that sound. These low-level components are fine harmonic nuances, tiny micro-transients, and other microscopic elements of the sound that convey to the listener just how the sound was produced. It could be, for example, the sound of a woodwind's reed making a minute clicking noise as it moves back and forth. We don't hear this clicking as a separate component of the sound when hearing the live instrument, or identify its absence in the reproduction, but when it has been wiped smooth, we hear the result as an intangible loss of palpability, immediacy, presence, and realism. It's these lowest-level sounds that are most fragile, and the first to be erased in the recording and reproduction process. Complete "erasure" of the low-level components isn't required to produce this effect; a reduction in the steepness of micro-transients' leading edges, for example, is likely to rob the instrument of the characteristics that enable us to instantly distinguish between the live sound and its reproduction.

The microphone diaphragm is the first place this "erasure" occurs, and every circuit the signal must traverse scrubs off just a little more micro-detail, although to a lesser extent. (PCM encoding at 44.1kHz and 16-bit quantization is undoubtedly a larger contributor to this effect than the microphone.) The second place in the recording/reproduction chain where low-level information is obscured is obviously the loudspeaker. Converting an electrical signal to magnetic energy and then using that magnetic energy to push and pull a diaphragm back and forth is a process ripe for acoustic losses.

But how much of reproduced music's lack of realism lies at the feet of the microphone and how much at the loudspeaker? Hearing the Ultimate system sug. gested to me that conventional loudspeakers contribute more of this erasure (perhaps "blunting is a more accurate term) of low-level detail than microphone diaphragms. Why? Because over the hundred or so recordings I heard through the Ultimate, there was one constant: the impression of vivid tonal and dynamic realism. We even listened to the Beatles' "Come Together," and it was like hearing a completely different recording of this familiar song. It was as though the ses sion had been secretly recorded by high-resolution gear and delivered by a time machine, and we were now hearing it for the first time. I've used the expression "laid bare" already, but I can't think of a more expressive way of conveying what this system did to "Come Together." Hearing it instantly conjured up a visual image of John, Paul, George, and Ringo in the studio performing. It was human, direct, and real in a way I've never heard in reproduced music.

Clearly, loudspeakers are a major source of detail erasure. It's easy to imagine how large and complex power amplifiers, which must convert a low-level incoming signal to huge voltage swings backed by hefty current delivery, scrub off a bit of the signal's finest information. It's even easier to imagine how the conversion of electron flow in the voice coil into magnetism, the conversion of that magnetism to the large motion of a relatively massive diaphragm, and the motion of the diaphragm itself cause the smallest and most fragile components of the signal to disappear or become attenuated, while the more robust signal components pass through relatively unscathed. But it is precisely these micro-aspects of the signal that contain that last bit of information we need to identify the sound as being live rather than a reproduction.

A musical signal reproduced through a horn loaded system undergoes an identical process, but on a much smaller scale. The compression drivers' extremely powerful magnets require only a tiny fraction of the current of direct-radiating drivers to produce their miniscule diaphragm excursions. It seems intuitive that this roughly ten-fold reduction in electrical and dynamic forces allows the process to be performed with higher precision.

The MAGICO Ultimate loudspeaker is, in my view, an advancement in the state-of-the-art in music reproduction. Its achievement also suggests something deeper about the mechanisms by which the sounds of instruments are corrupted by the recording and playback process. Perhaps the low-power-amplifier/high-sensitivity horn-loaded loudspeaker approach, realized at the highest level in Bob Nachtigall's system, is the true path toward creating the illusion of live music in our homes.
........ Robert Harley

A look into a radically different approach to loudspeaker design along with some speculations about reproduced music
Robert Harley

Thus began a four-year project that resulted in the Ultimate. Standing a few inches short of eight-feet tall and weighing more than 800 pounds apiece, the Ultimate is an all aluminium, five-way horn-loaded system. In the active configuration, each of the Ultimate's four horn drivers must be powered by its own amplifier, with an external active crossover dividing the frequency spectrum. An additional amplifier channel is required (per side) to drive the direct-radiating woofer.....

ROBERT HARLEY A look into a radically different approach to loudspeaker design along with some speculations about why reproduced music doesn't sound like the real thing.

For those of you who don't follow the automotive press, Bugatti's new Veyron 16.4 is an insanely over-the-top supercar with unprecedented performance—and an unprecedented price. The Veyron sports 1000 horsepower, a top speed in excess of 250 mph, and aerodynamic body panels that deploy at high speeds. The price? $1.2 million.

If there's a parallel to the Veyron in the audio world, surely it is the "Ultimate" loudspeaker system from MAGICO. Like the Veyron, the Ultimate is hand-built in limited numbers, planned without compromise to be the best in the world, extravagant in design and execution, and, at a hair under a quarter of a million dollars, wildly expensive.

MAGICO is a small manufacturer of very-high-end loudspeakers with just three models in its line. (since updated to over 10models spread over 4 different ranges). The Oakland, California-based company makes the $22,000-per-pair Mini, a physics, not two-way mini-monitor with integral stands. Revered by Japanese audiophiles and the Japanese press (it just won Stereo Sounds 2005 Grand Prix Award, as well as the COMPO Grand Prix Award from Radio Engineering), the jewel-like Mini makes a statement in itself (a twenty-two-grand mini-monitor?). MAGICO also makes to order the Reference, a $120,000 system recently chosen by the great mastering engineer Paul Stubblebine for his mastering room. The Reference was the only other model in the MAGICO line until an interesting collaboration developed between MAGICO founder and chief designer Alon Wolf and a small cadre of West-Coast audiophiles including Bob Nachtigall.

A little history sets the stage for what will follow. About ten years ago, Nachtigall walked into a small high-end store in San Francisco and casually explained that he hadn't bought a new "stereo" since his college years and was interested in what "a really good hi-fi sounded like these days." This is Nachtigall's recollection of that moment: "I was encouraged to sit facing a pair of utterly plain, ladies-shoebox-sized, rectangular wooden boxes ridiculously perched as if on impossibly tiny ballerina tiptoes atop a pair of Stonehenge-class, roughcast, gun-metal-grey pedestals. Just as I was beginning to wonder if the proprietor had not taken appropriate notice of my Italian-made suit or understood the meaning of my request to hear his really good' equipment, he walked over to a stack of brushed aluminium boxes, pushed a couple of buttons, and walked out of the room. Somewhat bemused and certainly not quite comfortable, I followed him with my eyes as he left the room, then turned back to face the diminutive speakers just at the exact instant when the sound of guitars, drums, and bass so immediately, completely, and explosively filled the room that I can only imagine that the sensation would not be unlike witnessing the Big Bang from an infinitely distant vantage point. The astonishingly detailed intensity of the music coincident with the sublime and magical illusion of hearing and seeing a woman's voice suspended in space left me so stunned that I have no recollection of breathing during the entire experience. I remember some time later falteringly staggering out of the room in a disoriented stupor".

Needless to say, Nachtigall was hooked on high-end audio. By 2001 he had spent years on the familiar upgrade treadmill but was never quite satisfied with any of the loudspeakers he had owned or auditioned. Purely by chance, Nachtigall was introduced to MAGICO designer Alon Wolf at the time when Wolf was finalising the design of his all-aluminium, four-way, dynamic-driver Reference. But just when Nachtigall was about to commit to the Reference, Wolf began experimenting with very large horns and compression drivers to satisfy himself that he hadn't overlooked any technology. Immediately, Wolf realised that he was on to something. He demonstrated these radical experimental speakers for Nachtigall, who immediately shared Wolf's enthusiasm for the potential of a massive, horn loaded system. Nachtigall and a small group of fellow WestCoast audiophiles commissioned Wolf to design and build not just the best loudspeaker in the world, but the best possible loudspeaker that could be created.

Thus began a four-year project that resulted in the Ultimate. Standing a few inches short of eight-feet tall and weighing more than 800 pounds apiece, the Ultimate is an all aluminium, five-way horn-loaded system. In the active configuration, each of the Ultimate's four horn drivers must be powered by its own amplifier, with an external active crossover dividing the frequency spectrum. An additional amplifier channel is required (per side) to drive the direct-radiating woofer. The two midrange horns (8" and 20", respectively) are machined from solid blocks of aircraft-grade aluminium, and then anodised to give them a subtle pearlescent glow. The massive midbass horn, mounted at the top of the system, is made from .25"-aluminium reinforced by 56 machined-aluminium ribs that are hand-welded to the frame. It takes more than two months to construct just one of these devices. The machined parts are so big and intricate that only two machine shops in the country can fabricate them. The woofer and three of the horns (tweeter, upper-midrange, midrange) are mounted in a 2"-thick slab of aluminum that acts as the baffle. The precision with which the horns fit into this panel is remarkable. At the throat of each horn is an ultra-expensive, high-sensitivity compression driver (as high as 115dB 1W/1m). A support structure behind the baffle holds the horns and compression drivers in place. The woofer is a conventional direct-radiating design (a horn-loaded woofer would have been too big) based on a custom Aura 15" driver with a neodymium magnet and 4" edge wound voice coil, and a peak-to-peak excursion of 2.5".

Why are the horns so big, and why are there so many of them? The horn structure acts as an acoustical impedance-matching device to most efficiently couple the compression driver's tiny diaphragm to the air. This impedance-matching function works only over a narrow range of frequencies, determined by the size of the horn's mouth. In most horn designs, the horn operates over a wider frequency range than is theoretically ideal. This is done to keep the horn size, and number of drivers reasonable. When the horn is asked to reproduce frequencies above or below the limits imposed by the horn's size, sensitivity drops, non-linearities are introduced, and distortion increases. Below the horn's low-frequency cutoff point (determined by the mouth size), the horn is too small to provide adequate loading and the driver begins to function as a direct radiator, losing the benefits of the horns are used, each can be operated within the linear region of its passband. The massive midbass horn (the uppermost driver) allows the system to remain horn-loaded down to 120Hz. Frequencies below 120Hz are reproduced by the conventional direct-radiating woofer.

The advantage of a horn is that the diaphragm in the throat is very small, has extremely low mass, and makes only a tiny excursion to produce a high sound-pressure level. Consequently, very little amplifier power is required, and almost no heat is generated in the voice coil. Indeed, the Ultimate's sensitivity is rated at a whopping 110dB 1W/1m for the horns, and 88dB for the woofer.

The compression drivers mounted in each horn's throat are unlike conventional dynamic drivers. They feature massive and powerful magnet structures, are built to very tight tolerances, weigh more than 50 pounds each, and cost as much as $10,000 apiece. The super-light diaphragms have miniscule excursion, always operate in the linear range of the voice coil travel, and consequently, have almost unmeasurable distortion. These compression drivers would not work without the efficiency-increasing effect of the horn structure to which they are attached. The horn also allows the designer to control the loudspeaker’s directivity, decreasing the amount of sidewall and ceiling/floor-reflected energy.

The Ultimate's fundamental design goal is to capitalise on the horn's inherent strengths while avoiding its traditional limitations. The number and size of the horns in the Ultimate is set by the laws of physics, not by standard loudspeaker-manufacturing practices.

Machining the midrange, upper midrange, and treble horns from solid blocks of aluminium, and constructing the lower-midrange horn with the elaborate welded framework overcomes another problem inherent in conventional horns: resonance. Even tiny resonances in the horn are effectively amplified because the horn's acoustic impedance-matching function works just as well for tiny excursions of the horn itself (caused by resonances) as for audio signals generated by the diaphragm. It could be argued that horn resonances are a far greater source of coloration in horn loudspeakers than are cabinet resonances in conventional dynamic box speakers. Controlling resonances is particularly challenging in horns the size of those used in the Ultimate. The large mouth size requires a commensurate depth (the trapezoidal 32" by 46" by 48' mid-bass horn is 60" deep). The larger the panel, the more resonance prone it is, which is why so much effort and cost has been expended on horn structures machined from aircraft aluminium.

Three crossover options are offered for the Ultimate. The first is a traditional passive crossover that allows the system to be driven by just one amplifier for the upper four drivers, with a second amplifier driving the direct-radiating woofer. The second option is an active analog crossover that requires ten amplifier channels (for stereo). Eight of these amplifier channels can be low-power, owing to the system's extremely high sensitivity. The amplifier driving the direct-radiating woofer must be of relatively high power. Finally, the Ultimate can be fitted with a digital crossover sourced from DEQX, the Australian company best known for providing the DSP-corrected crossover for the NHT Xd loudspeaker. I can't imagine anyone choosing passive crossovers for the Ultimate Directly connecting the power amplifier to the drivers' voice coils, with no intervening capacitors and inductors, confers a huge advantage in sound quality.

In addition to the system in Bob Nachtigall's home, two other Ultimate systems have been installed so far. MAGICO builds the Ultimate to order, with a four-month lead time and a price of $229,000, which includes delivery and setup by Wolf.

After Wolf has finished setting up the Ultimate, you can take him out to dinner-in your Bugatti Veyron, of course : ).

This is spooky realism you have to experience for yourself (if you’ve got the bucks and the opportunity). Just be aware, if you do have the money, that once you hear the Magico Ultimate IIIs you may find it tough to settle for anything else.
Jonathan Valin

SUMMARY: Here is what the Ultimate III can do that no other horns I've heard, it can largely disappear as a sound source. The blend of drivers is so seamless, the soundstage so wide and deep, the top-to-bottom tonal balance so neutral, the imaging so natural, the transparency and resolution so very high that the U3 sounds more like a Quad 57 than a typical horn system, until, of course, changes in intensity come along and then you get what no other kind of speaker can give you quite as realistically—the dynamic range of the real thing.

EXTENDED REVIEW: Here’s a riddle: What costs $650,000 (excl sales tax) the pair, takes 18 month months to build, weighs 1000 pounds per side, must be driven by ten amps, employs an active DSP-controlled crossover, uses six ALE compression drivers and four custom-made mid-bass and bass drivers, has trapezoidal and spherical horns CNC-milled out of aircraft-grade aluminium, and sounded downright awful at Munich High End a couple of months ago? If you read my show report, you already know the answer: In my opinion Magico’s ultra-expensive, ultra-exotic, five-way, horn-loaded Ultimate III was a disappointment in Deutschland.

In hot, sunny Northern California, however, where I recently listened to the Ultimate IIIs from morning to night for three solid days, Magico’s flagships fared a wee bit better. I don’t know if I’m now prepared to call them the best speakers in the world, but I am prepared to say in all my years of reviewing I’ve never heard any other transducer change its character so completely, dramatically, and positively.

How did this ugly duckling turn into a breathtaking swan? Well, let’s consider the circumstances in Germany, and then consider the conditions in the good ol’ U.S. of A. (All of you true believers who castigated me for pointing out that the emperor’s new speakers were lacking little things like imaging, coherence, neutrality, lifelike timbre, etc., take note.)

First, the U3s don’t come as a single, finished unit (how could they, given their size, complexity, and bulk); they have to be assembled in situ. In Munich the Magico team finished putting the MOC pair together the night before the show started. That didn’t leave a whole lot of time for setup. In California, Magico’s Alon Wolf spent several weeks dialing in the pair of U3s that I listened to. In Munich he perforce spent four hours.

Second, in Munich the U3s were ensconced in a small “room” (if you can call a partitioned-off space in a long corridor a “room”) with glass/acrylic “walls” front and back and flimsy paneling to the sides. Not only was this “room” too shallow and narrow to allow proper placement of such gigantic loudspeakers vis-à-vis listeners; it was also inherently noisy. Sonic “bleed-through” from displays in neighboring rooms and the incessant roar from the corridor (especially when the doors were opened) virtually compelled the folks running the demo to play jet-engine loud, completely obscuring one of the things that the U3s do better than any other loudspeaker I’ve heard—play very softly with extraordinary clarity, color, and energy.

In California, the U3s were ensconced in a virtually ideal listening space. Purpose-built by Alon Wolf at a cost of over US$250,000 (excl sales tax), the Magico listening room in Hayward, CA, is a floating chamber built from an outer shell of 5" Quiet Rock with an inner shell thirty-three-feet long, twenty-two-feet wide, and thirteen-feet tall constructed on resilient channels of 2" sheet rock (which act as a membrane trapping the bass down to 25Hz). The inner room is also treated on its interior with a variety of RPG’s wooden acoustical diffusor panels. The Magico listening room has a noise floor of 24dBC SPL! Short of an anechoic chamber it is the quietest place I’ve ever listened in.

Third, in Munich, because of the severely limited amount of time available for setup (and the severely limited space to set up in), Wolf DSP’d the U3s for phase but did not DSP them for time alignment. I’m now pretty well convinced this oversight—in combination with the too-close seating distance and incredibly high average loudness levels (see below)—was a large part of the reason they couldn’t image worth a damn, and also a large factor in their overall incoherence (the sense I got that I was listening to a collection of highly colored individual horns rather than a single neutral source).

In Cali, the U3s were painstakingly DSP’d via their digital crossover for linear amplitude, phase, and time (impulse) response. As a result, their imaging in Hayward was astonishingly lifelike at all volume levels and their sound was more neutral, realistic, and octave-to-octave coherent than any horn loudspeaker I’ve heard. This may seem absurd to say, given how awful they were in this regard in München, but in the broadest sense of the word the U3s are perhaps the most “focused” large loudspeakers (of any kind) I’ve auditioned, delivering timbres, textures, and dynamics with a fixity, a blur-less clarity, that I can honestly say is nonpareil in my experience.

Fourth, I have been told (on pretty good authority) that the U3s were being played in Munich at average listening levels that regularly approached 100dBC SPLs. (That’s average levels, folks—not peaks.) This is not only insanely loud—ruinously so for one’s ears if indulged in on a regular basis—it is also insanely wrong for acoustic instruments. While playing at very, very, very loud levels may create the impression of greater dynamic range with highly compressed electric pop, playing back a cello, a guitar, a vocalist, a piano, or an entire orchestra at 100dBC average levels doesn’t enhance dynamic range; it destroys it by making soft passages far louder than they should be and loud passages unrealistically loud.

In California, I listened to the U3s on a wide variety of music—from pop to jazz to classical (all digitally sourced, alas). None of it was played back at anything close to 100dB average levels. Indeed, I actually measured the dynamic range of several of the classical and jazz pieces we listened to (with an SPL meter), and average levels ranged from the high 60s to the low 80s depending on the music.

Not very impressive, you think? Well, when you’re listening in a room with a noise floor of 24dB and you’re listening to a speaker that is capable of incredible articulation at 30dB SPLs, even a simple cello sonata, such as Steven Stucky’s Dialoghi on Yarlung, can generate a dynamic range of 50–60dB, with truly lifelike pianissimos in the upper 30dB range and truly lifelike fortissimos in the high-80 or lower 90dB range. No other speaker I’ve heard can turn this trick (and it is a helluva realistic trick) as well as the U3s.

I could go on about the differences between the U3s in Munich and the U3s in Cali (inadequately integrated subwoofer in Munich, no subwoofer in Hayward; decent electronics and source in Munich, superb electronics and source in Hayward; not-particularly-transparent cabling in Munich, exceptionally transparent cabling in Hayward; etc.), but the bottom line is this: The U3s sounded 180-degrees different (and a million degrees better) in California because the room, the setup, the DSP’ing, the volume levels were different. In fact, everything was different, except, of course, for the speakers.

Let’s talk about those speakers.

It may seem odd that a loudspeaker company which excels at designing and building dynamic transducers that use the highest-technology drivers and materials currently available would turn to the oldest kind of loudspeaker for its flagship. Acoustic horns have been with us since Edison, and actively driven horns since the early twentieth century. That’s a long time for any technology to stick around. But there are very good reasons for the horn loudspeaker’s longevity, the first and foremost of which is its incomparable efficiency.

A horn is able to provide higher SPLs (and greater transient speed and dynamic range) at a given listening position and given wattage for two reasons. First, the horn’s tapered shape increases the directivity of the driver’s wave-launch, concentrating and intensifying the sound rather in the same way that a flashlight’s beam becomes brighter and more intense when that beam is focused rather than diffused. (The horn’s tapered shape and consequent highly-directional wave-launch has the substantial additional benefit of reducing the deleterious effects of room reflections, since, unlike conventional cone or dome drivers or planar dipoles, horns don’t radiate substantial amounts of their energy hemispherically or in a figure-eight pattern.)

Second,
A horn plays louder, with greater speed and dynamic range, because it more efficiently couples its driver to the air of the room via a phenomenon known as “acoustic impedance-matching.” Like a megaphone, a horn constricts the area and volume of air that the driver (or human voice, in the case of a megaphone) works “into.” As a result of this constriction, the acoustic impedance of the air trapped in the horn’s throat (the narrowest part of the horn immediately in front of the driver) comes much closer to the high acoustic impedance of the driver’s diaphragm. (When the impedance—the electrical, mechanical, magnetic, or thermal opposition of a system to the flow of energy—of a source and a load are matched, power is transferred maximally.) This superior impedance-matching of air and driver allows a horn to generate higher pressures from smaller movements of its diaphragm. Moreover, as the horn’s tapered shape gradually increases in area toward its mouth (the widest part of the horn that opens onto the listening room), those high-pressure sound-waves generated in the horn’s throat by minuscule vibrations of the driver’s diaphragm grow lower in pressure and progressively larger in displacement as they travel down the horn’s length, allowing them to couple more efficiently to the low-impedance air of the listening room. A horn-loaded driver is in many ways the ideal acoustical-energy delivery system, typically providing ten times more sound power than a cone speaker would from the same amplifier output.

But playing much louder with much less amplifier power is only one of a horn loudspeaker’s inherent virtues. Because the diaphragm of the driver attached to the horn works so much more efficiently (thanks to increased directionality and acoustic impedance-matching), the driver itself has far less work to do than a non-horn-loaded driver, such as a typical direct-radiating cone or membrane that has to move air without the benefit of impedance-matching. The horn-loaded driver’s much smaller excursions mean much lower inertia and distortion (and no back-wave to speak of), which translate into a clarity, electrifying speed and pace, and sensational dynamic range that have to be heard to be fully appreciated. No other kind of loudspeaker can move air as efficiently as a horn speaker does—and on powerful instruments or large ensembles the effect can be startlingly realistic.

That’s the inherent positive side of horns. The negative side, unfortunately, is also built into them.

Because of horn-loading, the very high-pressure sound-waves generated in the horn’s throat are literally reflected off the throat walls. Any irregularities in those walls (any bumps or dips or material or structural resonances) and any high-Q resonances in the drivers themselves (when a compression driver is run out-of-passband, it decouples from the horn, particularly in its lower frequencies, generating distortion) will add a characteristic turbulence to the signal that ends up being amplified along with the music. The sonic result of this added distortion is the “cupped hands” or “horn coloration” that you typically hear on P.A. systems—like someone talking with his hands so tightly cupped around his mouth that they slightly pinch his nose. Such colourations also have the psychoacoustic side effect of localising the drivers, making them sound even more like individual tubes than like a coherent loudspeaker system.

Additionally, though properly designed horns are inherently phase-correct transducers, the various resonances of the materials the horns are made of and the necessarily (because of the physical size of the tubes) much wider disposition of the drivers in space vis-à-vis each other can make overall time/phase/frequency coherence a dicey proposition. The small cone and dome drivers of a latter-day dynamic loudspeaker are typically located to the exact micrometer on a baffle—to ensure a time/phase/frequency-coherent wave-launch. Though the positioning of drivers in a horn system is also mathematically precise, the horns’ physical size, their inherent resonances, and, paradoxically, their more highly directional wavel-aunch tend to work against such coherence at normal seating distances, once again making you increasingly aware that you’re listening to separate drivers playing in separate frequency ranges.

Nowhere is this sense of incoherence more prominent than in the bass, which in many contemporary horn systems (such as the Avantgarde Trio Compact I owned and used in the late nineties) is often handled by a conventional cone subwoofer. Seamlessly matching a cone subwoofer to an ultra-fast, ultra-clean, ultra-high-sensitivity horn system via conventional means is about as tough a task as you can set yourself in high-end audio. Even the best direct-radiating cone subs will seem slightly sluggish off-the-line compared to the super-charged engine of the horn-loaded drivers. Plus, as is the case with any subwoofer, you have the extremely tricky issue of crossover slope/point to negotiate, plus the little matter of dispersion pattern, which is highly directional and relatively room-independent in a horn and (up to a certain frequency) omnidirectional and highly room-dependent in a sub.

The horn loudspeaker’s inherent strengths and weaknesses have remained more or less the same for decades. Some people can live with those weaknesses simply because of the strengths. I can’t. And I spent nearly three years trying to do so back in the late nineties with the original Avantgarde Trio Compacts.

However, something marvellous has happened to horn loudspeakers in the last few years: DSP. Although you might think (correctly) that I’m the last guy on earth who would celebrate anything digital, I have to admit that horn loudspeakers, such as the Magico Ultimate III and Avantgarde Zero-1, make far and away the best case I’ve ever heard for DSP. There is simply no analog way to completely correct a horn’s built-in amplitude, phase, and impulse nonlinearities (or to blend horns with a dynamic woofer). But there is a digital way to do all these things. Computerised crossovers can generate slopes of such complexity and sophistication that—given the proper programming—drivers that don’t typically cohere seamlessly and colourlessly can be made to cohere seamlessly and colourlessly. When DSP is implemented in a no-holds-barred, five-way horn system like the U3, where structural resonances have also been eliminated and drivers are never asked to work outside their passbands, the results are thrilling. 

Here is what the Ultimate III can do that no other horns I've heard, it can: largely disappear as a sound source. The blend of drivers is so seamless, the soundstage so wide and deep, the top-to-bottom tonal balance so neutral, the imaging so natural, the transparency and resolution so very high that the U3 sounds more like a Quad 57 than a typical horn system, until, of course, changes in intensity come along and then you get what no other kind of speaker can give you quite as realistically—the dynamic range of the real thing.

As terrific as the far-more-affordable Zero-1 is (see my forthcoming review in Issue 245, from which some of the previous discussion of the virtues and shortcomings of horns has been adapted), it cannot compete with the U3 in sheer lifelike presence—nor should it be able to considering the staggering difference in do-re-mi. Magico’s use of ultra-expensive ALE compression drivers, horns CNC-milled to buttery smoothness from thick aluminium stock, an extraordinary 15" dynamic woofer of Magico’s own design, and a separate mid-bass horn that permits crossing over to that woof at 120Hz simply set it apart from virtually all other horns in build and performance. The sonic result of all this effort and expense is, as I noted earlier, a speaker capable of reproducing pitches, timbres, durations, and dynamics with a clarity and precision that make every other speaker I’ve auditioned—including some truly great ones—sound slightly “smeared” in comparison. Here, for once, all of the things that in theory make horn loudspeakers superior transducers—the directionality of their wave-launch, their near-distortionless drivers, their almost ideal transfer of acoustic energy from source to room—work in concert to near perfection, and do so from top to bottom on music large-scale and small. To hear the way this speaker conjures a piano, a sax, a trumpet, a drum kit, a standup bass, a string trio, a large chorus, or a full orchestra—and the incredible resolution of performance details it wrings from all these instruments and musicians—is to come a step closer to feeling that you're in the presence of actual instruments and actual instrumentalists.

So why is it that am I not quite prepared (yet) to call the U3 “the best speaker in the world” (although, God knows, it is certainly very, very high among the best)? Well, for several picayune reasons that may actually add up to one long-standing bias in favor of analog sources. First, as great as the blend is between the U3’s four horn-loaded drivers and its superb dynamic woofer (and it is the best blend by far of any horn/cone-woofer system I’ve heard—in fact of any hybrid of any type), that woofer doesn’t have quite the bottom-octave expansiveness that some other great dynamic loudspeakers have. Oh, it goes down deep—35 to 40Hz—with simply incredible resolution, power, speed, and control, but it doesn’t have all the lifelike bloom and warmth in the bottom-most octaves of certain large dynamic speakers. There is also a very slight reduction in bloom in the topmost treble. While the U3 is unrivalled on stick work—even extremely delicate brushes on cymbals are reproduced with a clarity and presence that I’ve never heard before from any transducer—the sense of the note expanding into free space, lighting up the air around it, and setting it into wave-like motion is just the slightest bit curtailed.

Part of the issue here—if you want to call it an “issue”—isn’t so much inherent in the speakers but in the source. In Cali, I was only able to listen to the U3s with digital files (albeit great ones), and because the speaker is so damn transparent, digital recordings sounded, well, more digital. (Thus, in part, the reduction in bloom at the extremes and the inertness of the air between and among instruments.) At some point I hope to hear the U3s with a great analog source component, like a UHA Phase 11S OPS reel-to-reel tape player or a world-class phonograph like a Walker V or TW Acustic Black Knight. (Of course, any analog source would have to be digitised to be played on the U3.) For the nonce I’m more than comfortable saying that if you’re extremely rich (and extremely crazy) and live in a house with a great listening room of ample size and own exceedingly high-resolution/low-noise electronics, you owe it to yourself to audition the Ultimate III. Properly housed and driven, it very likely is the best transducer for file-based digital playback. And though analog playback remains a bit of an unanswered question as of this writing, I find it hard to imagine that the U3s will prove less than breathtaking on any source.They were certainly more goose bump-raisingly realistic on Elinor Frey’s cello, the Janacki String Trio’s violin, viola, and cello, Gregory Porter’s voice (and the ambience of the studio he was recorded in), Keith Jarrett’s piano and Charlie Haden’s double bass, and the entire Minnesota Orchestra than any other speaker system I’ve heard. This is spooky realism you have to experience for yourself (if you’ve got the bucks and the opportunity). Just be aware, if you do have the money, that once you hear the Magico Ultimate IIIs you may find it tough to settle for anything else.
.........Jonathan Valin

I’d rate the tonal balance as just about perfect,........some significant level of veiling has been removed, ......the instruments themselves seem more clearly to exist in local space, with decay and air and instrumental body stunningly well represented.
Tom Martin

SUMMARY:  (note - this ireview is of model II, since replaced by revised miodel III.) The biggest thing about the Ultimate IIs, I think, can be described as relaxed resolution. The sense of transparency that the Ultimate’s give is absolutely top-notch. You hear detail as clearly as on any speaker I’ve heard. In this it is reminiscent of electrostatic speakers. But it is different from many of those electrostatic speakers in that you don’t have the sense that the detail is partially produced by the speaker as an artifact or “enhancement.” The detail just seems to be there as it is in reality. The resolution of the Ultimates is relaxed in the sense that it sounds like it is supposed to be there. It sounds like the detail is integral to the core sound (voice, horn, guitar, drum). Strain, glare, etch, fizz, and the like just aren’t part of the picture when playing good recordings.
Ultimate IIs are exceptional is their dynamic capability. On the music Alon played for me, this was more a matter of what we might call “microdynamics”—the sense that each instrument is uncompressed. Each instrument breathes and pulses naturally when microdynamics are superb as they are with the Ultimates. That contrasts with “macrodynamics” which is the sense that the full orchestra or the band can go from quiet to full-tilt tutti without compression. When we get to tonal balance, we’re in an area where I expect highly transparent, very dynamic speakers to be revealed as poseurs. Not so with the Ultimates. I’d rate the tonal balance as just about perfect, because it reminded me so much of live music. The treble certainly wasn’t hot, as I suspected it might be

EXTENDED REVIEW: (note - this ireview is of model II, since replaced by revised miodel III.) I recently had the chance to visit Alon Wolf at Magico to listen to the Ultimate II horn speakers ($395,000—that’s not a typo). You may recall this speaker because Jacob Heilbrunn listened to the same setup and commented briefly on it a few months back on AVguide.com. Several years ago, Robert Harley covered the Ultimate I in The Absolute Sound (the Ultimate II is a significantly revised production version of the I, which was basically a one-off handmade effort).

Since I’ve been periodically blogging on our Web site about horns, this trip was particularly interesting. Magico has a reputation for building some of the finest conventional cone/box speakers currently available. When its top-of-the-line speaker is a horn, you sense further confirmation that horns are not your father’s loudspeaker technology. But are they really something special or is Alon Wolf a cynic who simply builds expensive stuff because a few fools will pay for it? Those practicing experience-free living will already know their answer. The rest of you will want to read on.

The idea behind the Ultimate II is pretty simple: Build a technically correct, cost-no-object horn speaker that fits into medium-sized or larger rooms. Sounds simple, but a few hours with Alon makes it clear that his version of “technically correct” isn’t a casual statement. Alon focuses on the science of loudspeakers and puts a lot of emphasis on thinking through the fundamental issues. He’s the kind of guy who took the mention of “first principles” seriously in science classes.

In any event, Alon points out a key problem with horns: You either have to build a very large midbass/lower midrange horn (because you can’t change the wavelengths of sounds) or your woofer has to extend up to rather high frequencies. The former means you actually have a speaker that is mostly horn-loaded, which is the straightforward way to have sonic continuity across most of the spectrum. The latter allows you to build a less expensive system, but also means that you have cone drivers handling a larger part of the spectrum with some inevitable discontinuity (or a discontinuity in a different place). Since the Ultimate II is a cost-no-object design, Magico has designed and built a necessarily large and very costly midbass horn that works down to 100Hz. 

Alon makes another interesting point, “There are no inexpensive technically correct horns because horns have to be relatively big.” This is true even if you don’t go as far as he does toward a full-range horn system. Alon believes that it is essentially impossible to build a technically correct horn without such costly approaches, which is why his other speakers, even though costly, do not use horn-loading.

Once on this path, Alon decided to use the best compression drivers he could find. They’re Japanese, they’re expensive, and they’re huge. The midrange compression drivers have more metal than most woofers I’ve seen. The voice coils are of large diameter and the machining is beautiful. The rest of the system is an enthralling mix of techno-geek and modern art, which I would say is audio pulchritude at its finest (but you might hate it).

The woofer is the only cone in the system. The Ultimate uses a 15” driver with sealed-box loading. Each woofer is powered by an integral 2000-watt amp and has 2.5” peak-to-peak excursion, allowing plenty of output down to 15Hz in normal rooms according to Magico.

Audio porn is cool, but really doesn’t matter much. What matters is how the Ultimate II sounds. I would add that it also matters what this Magico tells us about horns and about music reproduction in general.

You probably hate caveats, but honestly I am compelled to say that the following comments are based on a brief listening session in a room I’ve never been in before, with equipment I don’t know. This is not a set of “bet my life on it” comments. Not only that, I’m about to pin what I heard on the speakers, but, seriously, maybe the speakers were completely generic and what I’m commenting on is Alon’s interconnects. And I didn’t listen to the speakers blind so I could be hallucinating, with most of my comments the result of some misguided patrician or commercial bias (or both). That said, I doubt it.

Now I’m a pretty left-brained guy, and that bias causes me to want to analyze the Ultimates as a way of communicating what they do. But before I do that, let me give you a more holistic view.

The Ultimate IIs are completely and utterly exceptional. If you prefer, they are revolutionary, stunning, and amazing. They blew me away. They do things that I haven’t heard any other speaker do (I listen to approximately twenty systems per year and have for most of the twelve years I’ve been in charge of The Absolute Sound). Much of what the Ultimate IIs do well is musically consonant, and they do relatively little that isn’t musical. The result is certainly a speaker that one could declare the best in the world.

Except, I don’t believe in the idea of “the best speaker in the world.” It is a misguided idea in its singularity. Singular superiority is misguided because experience tells you that nothing is perfect and people respond differently to different imperfections. Logic also tells you that every engineering choice involves trade-offs, and often these are pretty severe. Those severe trade-offs mean that products will inevitably do some things well and others not so well. This yields choices for the consumer about what sonic mix generates the best virtual reality sensation.

None of this means that music reproduction can’t be thrilling. Au contraire! I can honestly say I prefer my reference system to some live music I hear, and I think live music is thrilling. It just means that choosing equipment requires a little personal involvement.

Okay, I feel better now. And since we can now talk in the realm of reality, we can discuss what the Ultimate IIs do well and what trade-offs they make, with the understanding that just because there are trade-offs doesn’t mean these aren’t very good speakers.

The biggest thing about the Ultimate IIs, I think, can be described as relaxed resolution. The sense of transparency that the Ultimate’s give is absolutely top-notch. You hear detail as clearly as on any speaker I’ve heard. In this it is reminiscent of electrostatic speakers. But it is different from many of those electrostatic speakers in that you don’t have the sense that the detail is partially produced by the speaker as an artifact or “enhancement.” The detail just seems to be there as it is in reality. The resolution of the Ultimates is relaxed in the sense that it sounds like it is supposed to be there. It sounds like the detail is integral to the core sound (voice, horn, guitar, drum). Strain, glare, etch, fizz, and the like just aren’t part of the picture when playing good recordings.

Alon attributes this to low distortion. It got me to thinking that we really don’t talk about distortion in speakers, as if they have vanishingly low distortion like amplifiers. But that isn’t the case. Anyway, whether it is low distortion or something else, the Ultimate IIs sound clean without being painful.

The next area where the Ultimate IIs are exceptional is their dynamic capability. On the music Alon played for me, this was more a matter of what we might call “microdynamics”—the sense that each instrument is uncompressed. Each instrument breathes and pulses naturally when microdynamics are superb as they are with the Ultimates. That contrasts with “macrodynamics” which is the sense that the full orchestra or the band can go from quiet to full-tilt tutti without compression. I thought the Ultimate IIs were also very, very good in this area, but the music we played wasn’t primarily geared to show this off.

I also have to say that occasionally this dynamic capability has a side effect that I didn’t love. A few sounds seemed exaggerated, as if a mild anti-compressor had been applied. This tendency to “shout” (a little more dramatic term than is warranted) is one I’ve heard on other horn speakers. Whether it is an interaction with the listener’s ears, or a resonance or something else, I don’t know. It isn’t a big problem (it doesn’t happen very often), but it is there.

When we get to tonal balance, we’re in an area where I expect highly transparent, very dynamic speakers to be revealed as poseurs. Not so with the Ultimates. I’d rate the tonal balance as just about perfect, because it reminded me so much of live music. The treble certainly wasn’t hot, as I suspected it might be. The bass was probably a little too strong at times, but I don’t think this was a balance issue as much as the inevitable bumps down low due to room modes in what was a smallish room. Because of this, I thought the bass character wasn’t perfectly matched with the rest of the system.

On these standard items the Ultimates are very special speakers. When we get to soundstaging and perspective we enter a realm where it isn’t as easy to be unequivocally positive.

Let me say right off the bat that I was impressed with the ability of the Ultimates to get the image off the speakers. Central imaging and lateral placement were impressively good. That said, the Ultimates are visually very, very large and it is at times hard not to let your mind locate the sound on the speaker. Or maybe a better way of saying this is that the visual dominance of the speaker makes it pretty clear that this is reproduced music, not virtual reality. Some people would want to listen to these in the dark for the full effect.

Perspective is also an interesting and debatable element of the Ultimates. If you are accustomed to the orchestral analogy, one could say these are speakers with a “podium” perspective. I would say my reference mbl 101e system has more of a Row J perspective. Many highly transparent direct radiators sound like their perspective is from about Row E. So, when I say that the Ultimates have a podium perspective, it is meant to convey the sense they give of sitting more where the conductor is rather than in the audience. These notions aren’t exact and they depend on the recording, but I hope they give you some idea of the relative differences on offer.

Another way of bringing all this together is to say that the Ultimates sound more like you are listening to the microphone feeds than delivering a virtual reality. Some significant level of veiling has been removed, and so has some of the ambience of the venue. The instruments themselves seem more clearly to exist in local space, with decay and air and instrumental body stunningly well represented. Alon points out: “In this case there is no loss of spatial cues, on the contrary. The horns project information in a fundamentally different way than what we’re used to hearing from a point source or a planar. Once you get accustomed to this, they sound more like the real things rather than a window to it.” It seems likely to me, given the higher directivity of a horn, that the reproduction of ambience is different here and likely involves less ambience being “added” by the speaker/room than with other wider dispersion systems. The horn approach would seem to be better, but how this is accounted for in the recording is another interesting matter that will vary from disc to disc.

Perhaps now my rant about singular superiority makes more sense. On the podium you get something you don’t get in the audience. And vice versa. You can’t be a short-tall person or live in a big-small house. In the case of speakers, these are choices. The Ultimates present a rather different choice than most speakers we hear. To my mind that is a good thing.

I sense that this unusual combination of qualities is significantly related to the horn drivers in the system. It certainly suggests that if you can find horn speakers in your price range, you should hear them because they can sound: a) very good, and b) very different.

Finally, I want to comment briefly on the issue of value. These are extremely expensive speakers. They aren’t perfect. If you’re one of those people who think products like this shouldn’t exist, well, I feel sorry for you. If you are one of those people who think a product at this price point should be perfect, I encourage you to work on your connection with reality. I was deeply impressed by the artistic spirit behind them. I, frankly, prefer to live in a world where people follow their dreams and share them (by manufacturing them and selling them as Magico does) with others. Alon Wolf and the team at Magico are having one heck of a dream.
.......
Tom Martin

So, is this the ultimate loudspeaker?
Dr. Panagiotis Karavitis 

SUMMARY: In Dead Can Dance classic “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove”, the sitar was as realistic as it gets, while the ambience created by the Ultimates was phenomenal. Then the California Guitar Trio performed “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the system revealed a transparency close to being unreal, we felt the guitars being in the room). Alan Taylor’s voice on “Scotty” was deep and natural with background piano notes being uncoloured and faithful to their true tonal

EXTENDED REVIEW: This was without doubt the most discussed product of the show. Everybody was talking about it: “have you heard it?-yes, not yet, I will, you must”. Even engineers from other brands cued just to take a picture or two.

The Magico Ultimate III, a hybrid horn, aluminium made speaker system with a staggering price tag of US$600.000 (excl sales tax). What you get for this kind of money?

Four horn loaded compression drivers that cover the spectrum down to 120Hz, then a conventional 15” woofer for the lower octave amplified by a few thousand Watts of Class D amps.
Cross over is electronic and Alon Wolf, president of Magico brought a few Nelson Pass First Watt amps with him from the States. A Referenc Passlabs pre-amp, EMM Labs transport and Pacific Microsonics Model 2 DAC (modified by Magico) completed the rig.

Magico was giving a half-hour presentation every hour and there was a ton of people waiting at the entrance, from morning till closing. On my second attempt, I finally managed to be seated and hear for myself what’s all that buzz about. Expectations were very high.

In Dead Can Dance classic “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove”, the sitar was as realistic as it gets, while the ambience created by the Ultimates was phenomenal. Then the California Guitar Trio performed “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the system revealed a transparency close to being unreal, we felt the guitars being in the room). Alan Taylor’s voice on “Scotty” was deep and natural with background piano notes being uncoloured and faithful to their true tonality.

If I wanted to be picky I would point out that the system also included two double 15” Q-Subs, so the abyssal bass we heard from those Taiko drums actually came from a total of 6 active woofers, and not just the two of the Ultimates. Mr. Wolf said they could have done it without but they brought ‘em “just in case”. What bothered me the most was not that much the need of extra subs but the slight drifting of the soundstage I heard in female voices. During playback, I could almost see the soundstage climb slightly and the come back again to the original position as if the singer stood up from the chair during the recording, only to sit back again after a few seconds when her voice returned to the previous frequency.

I did my best at being picky for all of you, so we don’t just drool after something we simply cannot afford.

Yeah. Not working.

Videos

https://youtu.be/gqzTPx0dd-g

Magico Ultimate III Loudspeakers, Alon Wolf Magico

Magico Ultimate 3 listening session, US$675,000 (excl sales tax) loudspeakers