The Magnepan Magneplanar MG 1.7 loudspeakers

[Magnepan 1.7]
[Italian version]

Product: Magneplanar MG 1.7 Loudspeaker
Manufacturer: Magnepan - USA
Cost: 2500 UKP
Reviewer: Maarten van Casteren - TNT UK
Reviewed: April, 2014

For the last couple of months my living room has been a bit smaller, and much darker than before, but it also has been a better place, at least for me. The rest of the family doesn't really share my enthusiasm, and the reason for this disagreement has been the presence of a pair of loudspeakers. Not just normal loudspeakers, mind you, but something I've wanted to try for a long time: Magneplanar panel speakers. Their reputation is tremendous, and in some circles the love for Maggies takes on an almost religious quality. For some people, once they've experienced Magneplanar speakers nothing else will do anymore. There's a risk in trying something that can change your convictions, but I'm glad I did. I'm now a different man, even if I'd still like to see the light of day in my living room again.

So, what's so special about Magneplanar speakers, then? Well, where to start? Almost all 'normal' speakers use cone based drivers and some sort of enclosure. Maggies don't. They use a membrane with conducting tracks glued to it. This membrane is then suspended in front of a grid of bar magnets, such that the magnetic field passes through the conducting tracks. Then put a current on the tracks and the resulting force will move the membrane. The only real disadvantage is that you need a large area, as the extent of the movement is limited. The big advantage is that the music signal is converted to air movement in a much more direct way. There are parallels with electrostatic speakers: they too use a membrane instead of a cone, but they also rely on a separate power supply to put a voltage over the membrane, and transformers for the music signal. Maggies do without these complexities.

Maggies are dipole speakers, again like most electrostats. This means that the membrane is suspended in the air without an enclosure, so sound will come from both the front as well as the back, virtually in equal strength. Again, there are advantages and disadvantages to this. One enormous advantage is the absence of box colouration, as there simply is no box. This has a bigger effect on the sound than you might expect: it's not unusual for budget speakers to radiate almost as much energy from the enclosure as from the cones, at certain frequencies. No enclosure, no problem. Also, the sound from the back can be used to create large sound stages, as it will reflect of your back wall and then off the side walls again. But, the disadvantage is that they will not work very well when close to that back wall, so dipoles need a lot of space around them.

[Magnepan 1.7]

One absolute disadvantage is the size. These things are enormous, really enormous. I'm 193cm (6ft4 in Victorian measures) tall and I can just about put my chin on the top of these speakers! They are also at least twice as wide as most floorstanders, and given that they need to be far into the room they tend to dominate anything but the biggest spaces. You also need to make sure that there's not too much furniture behind the speakers: bare walls with perhaps a bit of damping would be ideal. You'd really have to adjust your whole room to these speakers to get the best out of them. For those blessed with a dedicated listening room this would be no problem, of course, but if the M1.7's have to sit in the living room with the rest of the family then you need to be prepared for some serious compromises.

The M1.7 are a 3-way system, with most of the panel dedicated to bass and a section of about 5cm set aside for the higher frequencies. An even smaller section of that HF section is dedicated to the upper frequencies. The HF section is to one side of the panel, and the recommendation is to use the speakers with the HF sections on the outside of the speakers. That's what I did, and it worked brilliantly.

Maggies have a reputation to be difficult to drive and to need a lot of power. Impedance is 4 ohm and efficiency is rated at 86dB/Watt, so that doesn't indicate an extremely difficult load. My Usher R1.5 didn't have any trouble driving them, and the Hypex NC-400 power amps worked even better. I do realise that both these amplifiers are relatively powerful and capable of driving problematic loads, so I cannot really say much about smaller amps. Given the price of the Maggies (in the UK that is - they're much more affordable in the US) and the dedication needed to put these in your house, I very much doubt if many people will use them with lesser amps than me.

[Magnepan 1.7]

Installing them in my living room was a bit of a job, not just because of their size, but also because you need to screw the legs to the panels before you can set them upright. They initially made my Victorian wooden floor boom a bit, so I put them on sorbothane feet and that solved the problem, or at least improved it enough to not be too audible anymore.

One specific aspect of the dipole characteristic is the fact that they emit no sound sideways. From the listening position this isn't clear, but if you start walking around the room the sound changes more than with other speakers. Hold your head to the side of one speaker and you only hear its reflection off the wall, which is a strange sensation. It also means that Maggies are a little bit more critical for correct placement, although in my room I just needed to bring them out a bit more from the back wall than my usual speakers. Still, some experimentation is recommended.

Sound

This is what the Maggies are famous for, so I was expecting something good. I wasn't disapointed: the sound is immediately impressive. Soundstage is about 50% bigger than with anything else I've used, and I'm really not exaggerating this. Focus is not as pinpoint precise as with my own Unity Audio 'The Rock hifi' active speakers, but it is still pretty good, certainly given the size of that soundstage. Tonal balance is fine, with only really deep bass missing. Bottom end is well textured, top end really silky and sweet and the bit in between just gorgeous. Overall the first impression is very, very good.

With further listening the Maggies start to show even more of their talents. The sound is very lifelike, sweet and open, drawing you into the music and the performance. Good quality life classical recordings are almost a shock and as close to a real life event as I've ever experienced in my system. With really big orchestral music the M1.7's still fall a bit short, simply not able to recreate the full energy and impact of a large orchestra, but with chamber music and smaller jazz ensembles the feeling of a real musical event in your living room is almost unbelievable. It can be like stepping in a warm bath: these speakers are so enveloping and natural sounding that good recordings become magical.

Not that they are bad on lesser recordings, by the way. The fact that they have excellent resolution without becoming harsh (at reasonable levels) works with all sorts of music and recordings. I've recently bought the new remixed Blu-ray audio version of 'Close to the Edge' by Yes, and that sounded superb. Voices are wonderful, obviously, and stunningly lifelike.

What they lack in comparison to some current systems is impact. I'm referring to setups that are also intended for movie replay and include a subwoofer. You will never get the slam and deep bass impact a good subwoofer can deliver from these panels. The deep bassdrum 'thump' that some dynamic speakers can produce is somewhat missing with these panels. You can always add a sub, obviously, so I don't see that as a big problem. For the sort of music I normally listen to the bass was more than adequate, and I prefer quality over quantity anyway. And don't mistake impact for transient response, as these panels actually are very good at that. As long as we're not expecting them to reproduce explosions they do really well, especially with complex instruments like piano.

The only things that gives these speakers away, apart from the rather overwhelming visual appearance, is a very slight papery, cellophane like signature originating from the panels themselves. Other than that they simply disappear, and at low volumes they become truly inaudible. This disappearing act is partly why they are so lifelike and make you feel like you're closer to the performance than with most other speakers. The other reasons are probably their uncanny dynamic expression, uncoloured character and top to bottom consistency.

There's one strange thing with these Magnepan speakers: within a rather large range of volume settings the sound barely seems to change. And I really mean that you can turn up the volume a few notches and feel like it's still precisely as loud. It is only when you start playing them very loud that they become a bit harsher and start to feel louder. Right up to that point they just sound fine, almost irrespective of volume. They also sound very clean and sweet when played within this range, almost to the point where you keep turning them up to add that bit of 'bite' back into the music that comes with many other speakers. It is only after some hours of exposure that you get used to this, learn to keep the volume within their envelope and start to really appreciate what these panels can do. They give almost unprecedented insight in almost all recordings, even in the bass. Initially bass can seem somewhat dry and lack impact, but soon you find out that bass lines are extremely easy to follow and details never heard before start appearing out of the bottom frequencies.

Visitor were generally very impressed, but mostly commented on the fact that 'you could listen to them for hours'. Although I agree that they are not fatiguing at all, and very sweet and easy on the ear, I still think this is missing the point a little bit. It probably takes a bit longer than normal to really appreciate these speakers, possibly because we are all very much used to the sound of dynamic drivers in mdf boxes. The stunning dynamic expression, freedom from boxiness and the ability to present every recording in its own way are things that take a bit longer to discover, but for me it is precisely these things that set these speakers apart and make them such compelling musical performers. So, take your time before you reach your final verdict on a pair of Maggies.

The M1.7s were also suprisingly good at showing the differences between the two amps I used to drive them. My Usher R1.5 is big and powerful, and sounded like that, but the Maggies did expose a bit of an edge to the top end. I've always known that the Usher was a bass amp, and that the top end was one of its lesser talents, but these panel speakers brought that out more than usual. I also used a set of Hypex NC400 modules, and these sounded better. Just as strong as the Usher in the bass, but very clean and open in the high frequencies. It almost felt like taking the whole amp out of the equation.

In the end, music simply sounds more natural through these panels, and going back to normal speakers proves it. Many traditional loudspeakers now sound quite boxy to me. The Maggies also have that wonderful consistency over the whole spectrum, presenting everything in a very organic and unforced way. It makes performances work better and more recordings now make sense than before. All of this adds to the feeling of being in the actual presence of musicians. Many revealing speakers give a lot of insight in the recording. The M1.7 speakers go a step further and connect you to the performance.

Conclusion

You cannot really call yourself a petrolhead if you've never owned an Alfa Romeo. That's something I once heard Jeremy Clarkson say, and one of the reasons a brother of mine owned an Alfa for a while. Magneplanar speakers are like that. They're special, and for purely audiophile reasons. They are actually very impractical, difficult to accommodate and not without their limitation, but still, if you haven't experienced what Maggies can do, you've not really understood this little hobby of ours.

Distributor's comments

As you have correctly noted, we generally have 2 issues in the UK which can sometimes get in the way of a customer taking the plunge...they are namely positioning/size and price. Whilst it's true that right up against a wall the dipole nature of a Magneplanar can be problematic we normally find that in most UK living rooms it's an overstated issue for 2 main reasons.

1. As you say, any natural instrument will send sound all around, so this in part explains why a Magneplanar sounds more real than a box speaker regardless of where you plonk it. Most live music is also played in some kind of 'room' so reflection is entirely normal. Minimising anything unwanted is normally quite possible with some experimentation as you discovered and 2. Once built Maggies (unlike box speakers) are easily moved into a background listening position for normal life to go on around them which also makes their size much less of an issue.

Note: The interesting flipside to the comment in 1. above is that any electrified music (recorded or live) comes to our ears via a box speaker, so that in itself will mean in some way we are all 'conditioned'. I'd love to go to a gig where the PA is made up of MG20.7S - that would be interesting!

2. The price of Maggies here is often scrutinised but rather unfairly so. Note for example that the oft quoted $1999 US price is a bit of a misnoma... for one it doesn't contain their equivalent of VAT and also it refers to the basic finish, which is (how can I be polite here) er... basic?! For that reason we don't bring it in. Add this to the cost of getting a pair here safely, duty paid and the difference is nowhere near where many imagine it would be. Any UK Magneplanar dealer will earn less on this than any other speaker brand he sells so I really appreciate their support and therefore I admit I do find it frustrating that so much is made of the price. All imported product here is more expensive than in its native country so I struggle so see why it is mentioned so often. At 2500 the MG1.7 represents great value when coupled with electronics of an appropriate spend and surely that's the important bit not how much they cost in the US.

© Copyright 2014 Maarten van Casteren - maarten@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com