Planar Speakers

More specifically, why I like planar magnetic speakers (and headphones!).

Sound quality: this one is subjective, yet important. When set up properly, planars sound more natural, open, and transparent than conventional speakers. They’re perfect for acoustic music across all genres from small to large ensemble classical, jazz, vocals, etc. Solo piano, vocals and chamber music are particularly good on planars.

Low distortion: Measuring total distortion in Room EQ Wizard, my  Magnepan 3.6/R measure about -60 dB (0.1%) in the treble, -50 dB (0.3%) in the midrange, and -40 dB (1%) in the bass. That’s lower than most conventional speakers, even lower than most headphones. And it is an uncorrected figure, including the distortion in the microphones, amplifier, and DAC; the actual distortion from the speakers alone is even lower. The Audeze LCD-2 headphones (planar magnetic) have 0.1% total distortion throughout the entire frequency spectrum, even in the bass. No conventional headphone matches that, not even the Sennheiser HD-800.

Why is planar distortion so low? I can think of 2 reasons. First, each Mag 3.6 panel spans the area of about a dozen 12″ woofers, and its ribbon tweeter is 5′ long. The drivers are physically large, so it only takes very small movement/excursion to produce the same sound level. And the distortion that a driver produces is related to its excursion. Second, the drivers don’t have as strong Q resonances as conventional drivers do, both mechanical and electrical.

Linear phase: The 3.6/R have a relatively flat impedance curve: 4.2 ohms in the bass, to 3.3 ohms in the treble. They don’t have the big impedance vs. frequency swings that conventional speakers have. This promotes linear phase and flat group delay.  The 3.6/R measure group delay of a flat zero through most of the frequency range, and only exceeds 10ms in the bass (below 80 Hz).

Easy load: Because planars have relatively flat impedance vs. frequency, they are primarily resistive loads that are easy for amplifiers to drive, despite their lowish impedance.

Drawbacks

Planars are dipoles, so they radiate equal energy front and rear, and the rear energy has inverted phase. This makes them more sensitive to room setup than conventional speakers. This can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your situation.

Planars tend to be inefficient, so they require more power for the same listening level. However, their dispersion is line-source (rather than a point-source), so the volume does not drop with distance as quickly as with conventional speakers.

Planars are difficult to measure because near-field, you can’t “hear” all the drivers from a single microphone position. And far-field, what you measure is as much the room as it is the speakers.

Planar drivers are side by side (the panel and the ribbon tweeter). They can’t be aligned vertically like conventional speakers, so the midrange to treble timing and impulse response depends on the angle between the speakers & listener. More specifically, the speakers should be angled so the panels are closer to the listener than the ribbon tweeters.

Planars usually require a big room, and sound best when placed well into the room away from the walls. This leads to a low wife-approval-factor, unless you have a dedicated audio room.

While planars have taut, low distortion bass, they usually don’t reproduce the lowest octave. The larger ones, like the 3.6/R, are good down to about 30 Hz, which is fine for most music. But if you want that room-shaking 20 Hz rumble for movies with explosions and such, you’ll need a subwoofer.