Adventures in Magnolia A/V

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by Josh Ray on July 28 '06

(This is the second part in a series looking at audio retail. Read our previous Adventures in Circuit City)

Magnolia A/V is a home theater retail chain that began on the west coast and and has now spread throughout the nation. In LA, Magnolia is located on a prime piece of real estate on Santa Monica Blvd between Santa Monica, the beach and the rest of Bev Hills, Bel Air and West Hollywood. So as the film/TV/music insiders make their scramble from the studios on one end of town to the agencies on the other, they pass right by Magnolia. In the land of film, TV and music one would imagine A/V would be a very important part of people's lives, right? Nope. And one would imagine that one of the most prominent -- if not the most prominent -- A/V retailer would at least put together a banging audio demo, right? RIGHT?

So let's get down to the A/V. Actually, my bad, A/V is an incorrect term. V/A is more accurate. Imagine Best Buy with leather chairs -- or leather-like chairs -- and you get the idea. In fact, Best Buy recently purchased the Magnolia chain of stores, ending decades of mega mom/pop A/V retail and presumably keeping the qualities that made Magnolia successful, like, say, customer service, intact. Upon entering Magnolia, and after the mandatory "just browsing," you're able to wander aimlessly between the endless rows of anorexic displays.

I visited Magnolia with none-other than bicentennial SF contributor Danny Kaey. Wanting to get down to the real equipment, I made eye contact with a salesman who was eagerly watching me, no doubt hoping I was in the market for some major A/V gear (in truth, I was wearing my stylish shoes which, understandably, make me appear to be a filthy rich blogging tycoon. Little did he know). We were promptly taken to the dedicated listening room with acoustic treatment, chairs in listening spots and speakers bigger than baby carrots.

So here is Magnolia's lineup:

Martin Logan Summits ($10k)
Vienna Acoustics Beethoven ($5K)
Sonus Faber Concertino Domus ($1500)
(Monitor Audio and others elsewhere in store)

Various receivers


who cares

Most everything Sumiko distributes

 Va Images Products Classic Beethoven Beethoven Maple Gp

So Danny and I take our chairs and the rep pops in my too-fun Flaming Lips At War with the Mystics album. At this point, we're still pretending to be regular consumers. Asking questions, innocent as can be, etc. The first demo system was comprised of the Vienna Acoustics with Primare CD, pre and amp. Verdict? As Danny put it, "this room sucks!" So sweet. Yes, it was really, really bad. While I've never spent quality time with Vienna Acoustics gear before, I have heard good things from people I trust. This, however, was terrible. The whole sound was squashed, muffled, dark, bizarre. The bass seemed accurate but the rest of the sound was just weird. What was going on?

Our second and final demo was with the Martin Logan Summits. If you're not familiar with either Martin or Vienna, Vienna is a typical speaker company with drivers in boxes. Martin Logan, on the other hand, plays the exotic dipole electrostat hybrid game. For the mids and the highs, a giant electrostat sheet vibrates and radiates sound both forward and backward. But Martin Logans have curved baffles so the rear-firing signal isn't an exact mirror of the front signal. For the lows, an active bass section uses dual 10" aluminum drivers -- one front-firing and one down-firing -- in a sealed box with 400 watts of ICEpower.

The reason I mention Martin Logan's unusual tech is in attempt to explain why I believe these must be some of the most difficult speakers in all of audio to tame. Dipole radiating means you have to take in consideration both front and rear reflections so the distance from the back wall is far more critical than usual. Four feet from the back wall is usually considered normal for di and bipoles. Combine 10" drivers firing in two different directions and you have one wild set of variables to deal with.

So what did it sound like? Like five different speakers playing at once. At some points, I thought "wow, that sounds amazing!" And at others, well, it was just bad. Combined, the sound was bizarre with so many different tonal qualities being presented simultaneously.

And that's why I believe the Martin Logans should be the last, not first, purchase a person new to audio should make. God forbid they actually take Martin Logans home! I was at an acquaintance's pad where, not surprisingly, previous versions of the Summits had taken residence. How were they setup? Pushed right in the back corners with a giant TV taking up the remaining space in between. There are some speakers you can do this with and sound okay, but 6 foot tall dipoles with 10" woofers? I don't blame the consumer but Magnolia for letting him walk out of the store with these monsters.

So what's the deal with Magnolia? The salesman was incredibly nice and helpful and knew his stuff. After the initial demo we told him who we are and started talking shop. Who buys these speakers? The young Hollywood stars walk out with Martin Logans because they look insane. Vienna gets good business as does Sonus Faber. His favorite system? The little Sonus Faber bookshelves that weren't even set up. What did he honestly think of the Martin Logans and the Vienna? Eh, he doesn't like the Logans and thinks the Viennas weren't set up correctly. When we went back and looked at the Viennas, one speaker was 8-10 inches farther out in the room than the other one. Then he said, "hey, if you complain to the management, they may actually make the room sound better!"
 Images Trim Speaker Summit Bubinga Alu
I like this guy and I think I just got him fired. Ah well. So what about Bose? Everyone who works there hates Bose but they have it in the back if customers want it. Who wants it? Old people. Turntables? Old people. How old? 70+. Anything else? Yeah, people are starting to be interested in buying just two nice speakers instead of doing a cheaper 5.1 system. LA has more old plaster wall homes than most of the new-growth West so rewiring is a major pain. Besides, two speakers with a nice finish are far more impressive than Bose bobblehead speakers. People burnt on Bose? In affluent LA, yes, but there really is still such a void of information about other products.

So here's the question to you: how is it possible a major company with considerable funds screws up this badly? They had acoustic treatment on the walls and while I'm not a professional acoustician, I do believe first order reflections are more important than, say, other strange locations. Regardless, as dedicated, treated, professional listening spaces go, this was towards the bottom. Worse, it's clear the time had not been put in to properly set up these two speakers to deal with room anomalies.

That said, I hate room-bashing for no other reason than everyone who isn't rich/insane enough to have a treated listening room feels like a chump whenever it's brought up. I don't have a completely dedicated listening room and very, very few people do. Only audiophiles do and audiophiles are crazy (Danny has a huge dedicated room and, yes, he is certifiably insane).

Like I mentioned, the saleman's favorite speakers where the Sonus Fabers. They are killer speakers but they are also two ways (tweeter and mid/woofer). With two ways, one isn't facing the room interactions that plagued the other speakers with bed-sheet-sized electrostat drivers or multiple bass woofers. It's just much, much easier.

Moreover, I will put good money that a great two-way bookshelf with an excellent subwoofer -- like the Velodyne DD subs with active DSP, Martin Logan's own servo subs or Sumiko's REL brand -- will be vastly easier to setup in a normal room and ultimately more musically satisfying than any massive "tower of power" speaker, regardless of price. And have deeper bass to boot. It just makes sense to work in a midrange-centric approach than a bass-centric more-is-better approach that creates nearly untamable room interactions and a never-ending speaker placement and room treatment nightmare.

 Sonus Images Products Concertino Domus Pair
For our industry, it's an unbelievably huge problem when a prime retail spot for movie, TV and music stars and industry insiders fails to display an excellent audio system. And it's not the equipment's fault necessarily but how it's being used and presented. I find it completely foolish and irresponsible of Magnolia to push the Martin Logan mutants on audio neophytes. Regardless of the hi-fi empowering drum I bang on, I must imagine Magnolia is losing massive referral business that could be had if the speakers they sent to people's houses sounded good. If Magnolia itself is unable to make the speakers sound at least decent in a dedicated listening room, do they really expect their clients to properly setup their rigs? Not a chance and, ultimately, it's money lost for Magnolia in referral business and money lost for audio in general when friends and family hear $10k+ speakers that sound like mud.

Of course, I can't entirely blame Magnolia since the entire audio industry has been on an elephantiasis speaker kick for ages now. Martin Logan has also been very successful at branding and acquiring reviews so it's not Magnolia's fault for picking up a popular brand.

Well, then, here's my plea for the industry to realize that bigger isn't better and bass is not the most important quality. If audio becomes logical again then I bet we'll sell a lot more speakers. And if we can't even do that then we don't even have Bose to blame.


Martin logans are a bitch to set up properly, no argument there. But once set up properly I have never heard better. Certainly not a speker for beginners.
Martin Logan get good reviews because they are great speakers
Ummm, Josh, have you actually ever heard a PROPERLY set up pair of Summits? I have, and their transparency and imaging are breathtaking. Shame on Magnolia for not knowing how to set them up, but shame on you for insinuating the speakers are to blame.
No, I haven't heard the Summits set up properly and, from opinions I trust, I believe they can sound very good. I didn't say the speakers are bad, just that they are monstrously difficult to set up. Magnolia wasn't able to set them up correctly and very few of their customers would be able to either. I doubt you would have been terribly proud to hear your speakers done so little justice and Martin Logan can't be terribly happy either. If anything, I hope Martin Logan and Sumiko demand better. They deserve better. Hi-fi deserves better.
I can answer your question, Josh, but to do so fully would require about 10,000 words. Instead I'll simply say good sound isn't what corporations care about and let P.T. Barnum say the rest: "There's a sucker born every minute."
Bigger stores are starting to realize that if yo pick up good brands, setup and staff intelligence needn't be that high.
If someone hears a properly set up pair of MLs elsewhere, Magnolia can easily pick up their business on price or convenience. As the article sais, Most MLs Magnolia sell are sold on their looks (in LA? Quelle Suprise!) and the sound is being compared to Bose.
80% of the people that walk into the store will buy audio gear because it looks cool. Never really sitting down to listen to them, or know how to listen to them, which they obviously can't really do if they are not set up close to perfectly. It has nothing to do with LaLa land either, it is the same on the East Coast. I don't like MLs mainly for the reason that the sound field is so small, and if you are off axis a millimeter of it they sound like poo. If you are in the magical spot though, wow. Magnolia's job is to sell speakers, and they don't care for what reason they sell them. I have met many a person that want MLs just because they look cool, then for how they sound, argg. I went into a Tweeter a couple of months ago with a buddy, East Coast equivalent of Magnolia, and half of their speakers were nowhere even close to being set up right. We spent 1/2 our time fiddling with the speakers to get them to be positioned close to right. Two pairs of bookshelf speakers were actually on the wrong side.
Fred F has it right. Us audiophiles and hobbyists are mostly the ones who value sound more than looks -- although I'm willing to admit looks are important to me too, when I can afford that luxury (pride of ownership, admiring the art, etc.). But the overwhelming percentage of buying decisions are made by how the product looks. Sad but true; and when I made my living on the retail floor, you're damn straight I was aware of that.
In my area the chain store selling Martin Logans is Tweeter. My experience listening to them at two different Tweeter stores is similar. The salesmen at both locations did not recommend them. To me they were very disappointing at both locations. I had put them my auditon list and was expecting to be impressed.
Every speaker requires some set up work. If you are going to buy a speaker to hide it in the corner or to push it against the wall, maybe Bose does not seem to be a bad choice after all.