Magnepan 20.7 Loudspeaker

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Magnepan 20.7
Magnepan 20.7 Loudspeaker

Let me start with what you won’t get with Maggie’s new flagship ribbon/quasi-ribbon dipole three-way, the $14k 20.7s.

First, you won’t get all of the dynamic range that you get with well-designed cone speakers. Indeed, unless you goose the volume a bit (I will have more to say about amplification in a bit), the 20.7s will tend to flatten dynamic contrasts on the fortississimo side, particularly at low to moderate levels. Although Maggie’s latest dipoles—the 1.7, the 3.7 and, now, the 20.7—have made strides in this regard, “dynamic compression” is still an issue, and you will still need a bit more power to bring these planars to the fullest dynamic life they are capable of. (Even at that, no single-panel Maggie will ever be the poster-child for large-scale dynamics.)

Second, you won’t get quite the same microscopic inner detail you get with certain electrostats, such as the MartinLogan CLXes, or the current kings of low-level resolution chez Valin, the Raidho C1.1 two-way mini-monitors. Not that I think that anyone will actively pine for more detail when listening to the 20.7s—by any reasonable standard they are incredibly high-resolution transducers capable of bringing out nuances that the majority of other speakers, including speakers that cost a good deal more than they do, simply don’t know are there. All you have to do is put on a recording like the Melodiya LP of Prokofiev’s First Violin Sonata and listen to the clarity and realism with which the 20.7s reproduce the incredible variety of the great Gidon Kremer’s bow strokes (a fantastic panoply of articulations) to grasp, in an instant, how high in detail (both instrumental and performance-related) these big Maggies really are. (The 20.7 features a newly designed quasi-ribbon midrange driver, which is said to have half the mass of the quasi-ribbon panel in the 3.7, making for a better fit with the featherweight tweet and the highest midband resolution of any single-panel Maggie I’ve auditioned.) Unless you’re intimately familiar with the sound of the Raidhos or the Logans or the Magico Q5s, you’ll never dream that you’re missing anything (and you aren’t missing much).

Third, although the 20.7s aren’t bass-shy once they’re broken in, you won’t get all the weight, slam, and authority in the low bass and the midbass that you get with large dynamic speakers with large cone woofers. However, the positive side to the Maggie’s bass (provided they are properly set up) is that you also won’t get the roller-coaster room nodes that almost invariably accompany cone-speaker bass. The 20.7s’ dipole bass sounds very smooth, flat, nimble, tight, and detailed in the bottom octaves, with zero overhang on transients. And it goes deep, down near 30Hz in my room!

Fourth, though everything depends on room, cabling, electronics, source, and volume-level, the 20.7s can sound a bit bright in the upper midrange and top treble on certain material at very high volumes. This may be caused by the true ribbon tweeter, which has always tended to “stick out” a bit in previous Maggies, being stressed, or it may be the breakup modes of the midrange driver rather than a problem in the tweeter per se. I don’t want to make too much of this “issue,” as the blend of ribbon and quasi-ribbon here is, with most music at most levels, as smooth, seamless, and grain-free as I’ve heard from any Maggie (including the 3.7)—and greatly improved over that of the previous 20 Series speakers. Once again, the slight brightness isn’t noticeable at anything short of very loud levels (and then only on a few inherently brightish recordings).

Fifth, big planar dipole speakers like the 20.7s will not give you the ultra-tight image focus of a superb two-way like the Raidho C1.1 (or of a really exemplary multiway like the Magico Q5). Though I think the 20.7 is markedly improved in this regard vis-à-vis the 20.1 (thanks to its lighter, faster, higher-resolution quasi-ribbon midrange panel and superior, more phase-correct crossover), it still doesn’t have the razor-cut imagery of the tightest-imaging loudspeakers. With certain large instruments, such as pianos or standup bass, or choirs of instruments or voices, this isn’t really much of an issue. Indeed with pianos and such the Maggie’s bigger, somewhat less sharply defined imaging can help create a bloomier, more lifelike presentation (for which, see below). However, part of the reason that the Raidho C1.1 sounds so uncannily realistic on certain instruments—such as the violin on the Wuorinen recording or the zither on the Bozay—is precisely its incredible focus, which is itself rather like a subset of high resolution. Superior focus allows instruments to “stand out” more clearly, with greater three-dimensionality, detail, and presence. On the other hand, the diminutive C1.1 also tends to shrink the size of instruments and vocalists a bit, where the much larger, more expansive 20.7 does not.

Sixth, Maggies have always been hogs when it comes to amplification, and the 20.7 is no exception. My current reference amplifier, the Constellation Audio Centaur, is rated at roughly 500Wpc into the 20.7’s supposedly benign (in impedance) 4-ohm load. By comparison, the Magico Q5 (with which the Centaur makes an almost perfect match) is a much trickier (in impedance) 4-ohm load. And yet…the Centaur coasts when driving the Q5s and gets uncomfortably warm to the touch driving the Maggies (when the speakers are played loud for an extended period of time). Why this should be the case is a bit of a mystery, since Maggie claims that the 20.7 has a sensitivity of 86dB. Be that as it may, the bottom line here is that you cannot bring enough amp to this party, even if (like me) you listen in a moderately sized room.

Seventh, Maggie 20.7s (like all membrane speakers) are shipped with their quasi-ribbon membrane drivers super-taut. (You actually have to install the ribbon tweeter, although doing so is, almost literally, a snap.) Those membranes need to be played—and played hard—to loosen up and acquire the flexibility to show their best stuff on large excursions, particularly in the bass where large excursions are common. There is nothing unusual about this. All speakers require “break-in”; the Maggies just need a little more than some, although the upside is that you will hear how they are improving with every additional hour of play.

Eighth, the 20.7s are large speakers—two-and-a-half-feet wide and six-feet seven-inches tall, about the size of an NBA small forward. This is a big panel, folks, that won’t suit every room and every taste (though I should point out that, as big as they are, the 20.7s do wonderfully well in my moderately-sized digs). Just make sure that you and your significant others are prepared for two speakers each the size of LeBron James standing in your listening room.

Now for the good news.

The 20.7 is the fullest-range, most neutral, seamless, and grainless single-panel loudspeaker that Magnepan has yet made. While it may not quite match, as noted, the standard-setting Raidho C1.1 in focus and low-level detail, it is focused and detailed enough to fully compete with (or best) just about any transducer, cone or membrane, in sheer realism.

Plus the 20.7 does a disappearing act that is hard to believe given the size of its panels, vanishing into a soundfield that shrinks and expands (as it should) with each recording but that can, with expansive discs, balloon to colossal proportions, engulfing the listening room from wall to wall to wall. Because the 20.7 is also the highest-resolution single-panel loudspeaker that Magnepan has ever made, it is capable of peopling the vast landscape of, oh, “Closing Time” (off the great Leonard Cohen album Songs from the Road [Columbia]) with naturally sized (not miniaturized) replicas of Cohen, his marvelous backup singers, his terrific band, and the vast audience arrayed in front of them, giving you a wonderful sense of being transported to the venue where they were performing.

Where the Raidhos and Magico Q5s seem to make instruments and vocalists pop up in your room as if they are playing right now in front of you, the Maggies seem to carry you to the hall or the studio in which the recording was made. Because of the way those big panels move and mix the air of your room—they are dipoles after all—with the air of the venue on the recording, ambience seems to suffuse the soundfield front to back, side to side, and floor to ceiling, rather than being presented as a discrete element that you hear mostly on decays or sharp transients. Consequently music sounds as if it’s being made in a different space and time than the “now” of your listening room. To put this differently, the 20.7s are more “you are there” speakers than “they are here” ones.

Again in part because of their dipolar radiation pattern, the Maggies present timbres and dynamics differently than direct-radiating loudspeakers like Raidhos or Magicos. Although they are every bit as fast as these paragons of transient response and arguably more seamlessly neutral, they sound less aggressive (and once again, more immersive) than direct-radiators, projecting their timbres and dynamics forward and back (rather like omnis do). Though this may soften attacks just a little bit (depending on the instrument and how it is being played), it also gives dynamics very lifelike three-dimensional bloom, as if singers and instrumentalists aren’t beaming their sound directly at you like flashlights, but radiating their voices and timbres hemispherically like streetlamps, not just lighting up the air in front of them but the air around them (as they do in life). Because of the way that Maggies also suffuse the air that is being so lit with ambience, the effect can be magically realistic—once again as if you were being transported to a real venue to listen to real musicians.

Though I wouldn’t say the 20.7s are the ideal “fidelity to mastertapes” kind of loudspeaker (transparency to sources is not the strongest suit of dipoles), they will tell you how things are recorded and played—and composed. For instance, on the great Time (not the magazine, the label) LP of Bruno Maderna’s Serenata No. 2, the 20.7s do as good a job as I’ve heard of showing how, at the start of the piece, Maderna harmonizes new notes with the decays of previously sounded ones, creating a lilting, melting sound world of considerable serenity and beauty. At the same time, the 20.7s do a wonderful job of preserving the distinct timbres and dynamics of wind instruments—including flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, and French horn—doubling (and being doubled by) violin, viola, doublebass, and harp. As anyone who is ever been to a concert can tell you, discerning who is playing what in such an ensemble can be a considerable challenge, but the 20.7s are up to it.

The 20.7s are probably not the ideal “as you like it” speakers, either. At least, they won’t be for rock ’n’ rollers looking for the ultimate in midbass slam. Though their bass is quite extended (as noted, down to 30Hz in my room) and seamlessly well integrated with their midrange and treble, they won’t do Fender bass with the power and pop of a Wilson, Focal, or Magico. (Nor do they have the warm, rich timbres that some “as you like it” listeners crave. They are simply too dead-center neutral for that.) OTOH, they will do acoustic bass—classical or jazz or acoustic rock—very realistically, and are simply exceptional on bottom-octave piano. (Indeed, I don’t think there is another speaker that makes a well-recorded piano sound more like an actual piano than this Maggie. In part this is because a Maggie’s planar wavelaunch, as Dick Olsher once astutely noted, is similar to the planar wavelaunch of a concert grand, giving the presentation more of the size, volume, and dispersion of the actual thing. In the case of the 20.7 it is also because their bass is so extended, finely textured, and bloomy.)

The listeners for whom the 20.7s are ideal—for whom Magneplanars have always been ideal—are absolute sound types. This Maggie’s magical ability to transport you to a different space and time and to there realistically recreate (with lifelike scope and size) the sound of actual acoustic instruments is extraordinary—and, of course, the very definition of the absolute sound. Indeed, the 20.7s come as close to achieving Harry Pearson’s goal of reproducing the sound of real instruments in real space as any speaker I’ve heard. I love ’em, but then I’ve loved and owned more Magneplanar speakers than those from any other manufacturer (save for MartinLogan CLSes and CLXes).

If the sound absolute is what you crave (and you can live with the 20.7s’ sundry demands and peculiarities), Magnepan’s new flagships earn my highest and warmest recommendation. It almost goes without saying (since these are Maggies), but the 20.7s are also incredibly good values. Now hie thee forth and give them a long listen, and see if you don’t fall in love with them too.

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