Magnepan 20.7 Loudspeaker

Unprecedented Full-Range Planar Sound

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Magnepan 20.7
Magnepan 20.7 Loudspeaker

Of course, this bass reproduction still may not satisfy everyone. In my room, I seem to have substantial output to at least 25Hz. While I do not really feel that anything is missing, I have some recordings that contain information below 25Hz. I am aware that these speakers are not quite retrieving the very lowest organ fundamentals or lowest synthesizer notes, but in truth the 20.7s’ reproduction of organ and synth are still exemplary. I confess I do not listen to organ recordings that frequently and if you are an organ aficionado, these may not be the best choice in speakers for you. In addition, while the 20.7s are capable of an extraordinary amount of “slam,” it is not quite the same as slam produced by cones. The 20.7s certainly exhibit tighter and more transparent bass than most dynamic speakers, but I believe that as the frequencies go below about 50Hz, well-designed cone subwoofers may offer a slightly greater degree of control, punch, and certainly greater extension. Yet the bass from the 20.7s is so satisfying overall, I would not think of attempting to mate a subwoofer to these speakers. One of the goals of adding good subwoofers is to obtain a larger sense of the space of the venue. The bass of the 20.7s is certainly more than adequate to accomplish most-to-all of that goal, without the need for subwoofers.

So when you put this ribbon tweeter and quasi-ribbon midrange and (fully-broken-in) quasi-ribbon bass panel all together, how do they sound? In a word, transcendent. The speakers are physically quite large but the extent to which they sonically disappear is amazing. For example, on really good orchestral recordings (see below), the sound is laid out in the middle of the speakers, behind the speakers, on the speakers, in front of the speakers, to the sides of the speakers, and even sometimes behind the seated listener. Within this wonderful and stable constellation of instruments, it is not that difficult to lose track of the size and location of the 20.7s, big as they are. If you are partial to large-scale orchestral music, as am I, these are the speakers for you unless you are prepared to spend far greater sums on loudspeakers, and even then there will be trade-offs. I pulled out some of my old Deccas and was rewarded with virtual travel to another place and time. I first put on a favorite disc of Julius Katchen playing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, Pierre Monteux conducting. I have been playing this record for years. I dropped the needle, sat down and immediately the walls of the room melted away to a much larger space. Stunning. Strings were sweet and sometimes abrasive, as real strings will sound. And the piano sounded amazingly real and present. Not present as in the sense of a piano in my room in front of the speakers, but realistically present on a stage well behind the speakers. When Katchen entered in the first movement, every note hung in space in the center of the orchestra, slightly above seated ear-level. This is just as I hear it when I am seated in the orchestra of almost every symphony hall I have visited. There’s more. Wait until you hear the lower registers of any well-recorded piano through the 20.7s. I have always admired the reproduction of piano through the larger Wilson speakers, especially their ability to convey the concussive quality of the instrument. The Maggies don’t have quite the impact in this regard, but are surprisingly close. Moreover, the 20.7s are stellar in conveying the timbre and weight of the lower registers. Because all of the notes of the piano are reproduced by low-mass planar drivers, the lower notes are reproduced with the same precision and speed as the higher notes, leading, simply, to a more convincing piano. In dynamic speaker systems the upper registers are often reproduced by dome tweeters or small cones, while the lower registers are generally reproduced by larger cones. Obviously, this can still lead to an excellent-sounding piano, if the design is good. But piano reproduction through the 20.7s may be unsurpassed in the sense of continuity from lowest to highest note.

Yet another formidable aspect of the 20.7s was revealed with the Katchen Brahms. During even the most demanding passages, with piano, strings and woodwinds playing full tilt, the speakers never lost their cool. By that I mean each section of the orchestra and instrument in that section clearly had and maintained its own delineated space, surrounded by the ambience of the hall. Inner detail was easily perceived and the locations of all instruments on the stage never seemed compressed or jumbled. The soundstage was so stable that you could sense the size and location of certain sections of the orchestra even when no instrument in that section was playing. Now and then, depending on the passage being played, instruments would simply pop out of their reserved space. This is very much how the orchestra sounds in a live venue. In my opinion, there are very few loudspeakers at any price with the ability to portray a large orchestra with this degree of verisimilitude. 

At the recent audio show in Newport Beach I picked up some records from Chad Kassem (Acoustic Sounds). He urged me to try his re-issue of the famous RCA recording of Scheherazade with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. I told him that I had a number of original copies at home, please show me something else, but he pressed on anyway. (There are reasons he’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest, retailer of vinyl today.) So I bought it and thought I would try it, for fun, during the course of this review. I confess—I am a total snob when it comes to originals versus reissues. While I refuse to get drawn into the original v. reissue debate, I will say this: His reissue is fantastic in its own right. The entire recording seems tonally correct and offers a huge sense of space, with great dynamic contrasts. I have heard the fourth movement a thousand times, including at audio shows, but this time I almost fell out of my chair. Totally explosive! If this doesn’t give you goosebumps, check your pulse. Glad he talked me into it.

Portrayal of violin through the Maggies was equally satisfying, whether it was Heifetz playing the Bruch Concerto in G Minor [RCA], or Menuhin playing the Mendelssohn Concerto with Efrem Kurtz [EMI]. As I am writing this, I am listening to Ricci playing Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole with Ansermet conducting [Decca]. Ricci’s violin is full bodied, soaring in the middle front of the orchestra, with great presence. And it’s fast! Cello? Try the famous Brahms Sonatas for Cello and Piano with Janos Starker [Mercury]. Unlike most of the recordings mentioned above, this time Starker’s cello and Sebok’s piano are in the room with you. Definition and timbre of the cello and piano are exemplary. If you darken the room a bit and sit back, you will realize that the monoliths in front of the room, despite their size, can sound truly intimate. As intimate as a small monitor played at moderate levels? No and yes. No in the sense that a small monitor can obviously disappear more easily than large speakers. But certainly more intimate in the sense that, with the 20.7s, it seems like a life-sized cello and piano, played by life-sized people, are in the room with you. To me, that’s intimate. Likewise, if you play the wonderful Shostakovich cello sonata with Daniel Shafran [RCA], a true sense of intimacy is conveyed. Life-size instruments are in the room with you, or at least on a stage right in front of you. It is impossible not to get lost in the emotion of the music when it is presented like this.

Whatever you may decide to play, I doubt the 20.7s will disappoint. Each instrument in the Brahms Piano Quartet in C Minor, Festival Quartet [RCA] is beautifully delineated in its own space, with a real sense of a physical body playing the instrument. Or try Stravinsky’s L’Histoire Du Soldat with Stravinsky conducting [Columbia]. A tremendous sense of air and space while instruments from the doublebasses to the strings to the woodwinds are realistically portrayed. In Part I, the Soldier at the Brook, the cornet is simply startling in its clarity and presence. And throughout, the bass drum rumbles through the room in a way only dreamed of by the 20.1s or, indeed, any large planar that has come before.

How about jazz? Or rock? Good questions. I think it will come as a surprise to many that the 20.7s can project a trumpet, sax, or trombone into the room with almost the same power and drive as a large dynamic system or even a horn, with a richness and fullness of body that eludes most other speakers of any type. Try Ellington Indigos [Columbia] through the 20.7s and see if you don’t agree that on “Prelude to a Kiss,” Johnny Hodges is there, in your room, giving a private performance of his sax.  And on “Tenderly,” Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet is featured alone in centerstage until the full orchestra joins in, spread across the room to the far right and far left of the speakers. The 20.7s almost disappear into this panorama of instruments. Or listen to the powerful and amazingly present sax of Sonny Rollins in “How High the Moon,” from Sonny Rollins & The Contemporary Leaders [Contemporary]. I believe that Ying Tan and his ORG recordings group are making some of today’s best reissues of jazz classics (but I have yet to hear the Blue Note reissues of Ron Rambach and Music Matters, or most of the reissues by Acoustic Sounds, which others tell me are also terrific). On the 20.7s, the ORG reissue of Mingus Ah Um has more drive and presence than I have heard not only on any other planar, but most dynamic speakers as well. Ying Tan’s earlier Groove Note reissue of The Red Hot Ray Brown Trio has also become one of my most-played albums. I know I am sounding like a broken record, pardon the bad pun, but on these speakers Ray Brown’s bass and Gene Harris’ piano have a new-found life and vitality, with great definition and transparency. 

Rock and roll through the 20.7s? Let’s do that. With the speaker’s new and improved midbass punch, coupled with the great transparency and openness of the ribbon and quasi-ribbon drivers, listening sessions with classics like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin leave a new insight and appreciation for music I have heard hundreds of times. And there is a lot of great rock available by new(er) groups whom I have now heard many times in concert. Fortunately, most of them love vinyl and release almost all of their music on vinyl as well as CD. For example, I am a big fan of Franz Ferdinand and their two-record set Tonight (Domino) is killer if you are into alt bands. It’s a little digital sounding but still, if you like this kind of rock, you will find it impossible to just sit still in your chair. Try the entire side of “What She Came For,” “Live Alone,” and “Can’t Stop Feeling.” On the new Maggies the sound literally rocks the house—one of the few times I started wondering if I might be bothering my neighbors. But if you buy this set, the first song to play is “Lucid Dreams.” The first section of the song is vocal while the last few minutes are instrumental—in fact, it sounds like they hired a DJ to help with this last section. I can’t really describe the instruments being used, it is mostly electronic in any event, but I assure you that with the 20.7s this cut swirls and drives through the entire room, front, back and sides. The walls and speakers disappear.

Summing Up
As you have read, I believe the 20.7s are a complete success. They are the first full-range planars, of any design, that I have heard that are fully satisfying from lowest to highest frequency, from small chamber ensemble to largest orchestra and chorus, from jazz soloist to kick-ass rock and roll band. They are not perfect and they do not do everything as well as some of the most expensive dynamic and horn speaker systems. They do not have quite the dynamic extremes of these other designs, nor quite the low-level detail of the best minis or electrostats. But, in the real world and for most listening rooms, these differences are minor. Moreover, the dynamic contrasts and detail resolution of the 20.7s are so good that the only speakers that could possibly give them a run for the money cost many multiples of the $13,850 list price of the 20.7s. In fact, I believe that the only true competition comes from speakers costing in excess of $80,000, and even then the Maggies will continue to excel in many respects.

Magnepan, the company, would focus on what a great value the 20.7s are at their asking price. I would focus on what a great value the 20.7s are compared to almost any other speaker on the market, regardless of price. They offer the great resolution of a full-range planar with, for the first time, truly dynamic bass capabilities. You will not need or even think about adding a subwoofer. They offer a panoramic and three-dimensional stage when called for, yet can be intimate and place solo performers in your room for your private entertainment.

So when contemplating the purchase of the 20.7s, in some ways it may be prudent not to consider the price. But then again you must. You should not consider price in the sense that just because this speaker is not priced in the stratosphere, does not mean it is not capable of stratospheric performance. In that regard, I believe it is one of the great audio bargains being offered today. It is a contender for best in show, regardless of price. The concept of “low cost” should also be jettisoned when choosing upstream audio gear. The 20.7s will work well with lower cost equipment, for sure, but their best performance will be obtained with high-quality amplifiers, preamplifiers, and front-end gear. Care must be taken in the selection of this equipment to maximize the potential of the 20.7s, especially their bass panels. But most of us must also take price into account by contemplating how to maximize the use of our audio budget, unless it is unlimited in size. Certainly a stellar system built around the 20.7s and appropriate associated equipment, while not inexpensive by any test, would cost far less than a comparable system built around competing speakers in a much higher price category.

There are other important factors to consider if the 20.7s are on your horizon. They are large but do not take up an inordinate amount of floor space. To obtain their best performance and maximize their dispersion characteristics, they must be placed somewhat out into the room. But that is true of almost all high-end flagship loudspeaker of any design. The 20.7s are fairly inefficient and, in my experience, perform their best with amplifiers rated at 300 watts, or more, into four ohms. My time with the 20.7s indicates that the bass panel requires a great deal of break-in time to sound as intended. You will need to be patient for a number of weeks before these speakers sound their best. I have also experienced particularly good results with solid-state/tube hybrid amplifiers, but designs vary and certainly I have not had the opportunity to hear these speakers with all of the newer solid-state and tube designs available today. There may be all-tube designs that are a great match with these speakers; only experimentation will tell.

The promise of these speakers is great and their value, in an absolute sense and when compared to all other loudspeakers at any price, is undeniable. Whether or not you are in the market for new speakers, I think you will find your time well spent in seeking out and listening to the 20.7s at some length. Bring your favorite vinyl or other source material and discover the wonderful capabilities of these thoroughly modern, truly full-range planar loudspeakers.

SPECS & PRICING

Type: Three-way planar-magnetic/true ribbon loudspeaker
Frequency response: 25Hz–40Hz
Sensitivity: 86dB, 500Hz, 1 meter, 2.83V
Impedance: 4 Ohms
Dimensions:  29" x 79" x 2.5"
Price: $13,850

Magnepan Inc.
1645 Ninth Street
White Bear Lake, MN 55110
(651) 625-1425
magnepan.com

Associated Equipment
Kuzma Stabi M turntable with Kuzma 4Point arm, Lyra Etna, Koetsu Rosewood Platinum Signature, and Kuzma CAR 40 cartridges, EMM Labs CD player, Aesthetix Eclipse Io phonostage with two power supplies, Aesthetix Eclipse Callisto linestage with two power supplies, Audio Research 5SE linestage, Aesthetix Atlas Signature monoblock and VTL 750 amplifiers, Purist Audio Design, Transparent, and AudioQuest cabling

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