Magnepan 3.7: First Impressions

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Magnepan 3.7
Magnepan 3.7: First Impressions

I know it’s a stretch, but for the sake of argument let’s say that you don’t have six dimes to drop on a pair of the highest-fidelity, lowest-coloration, fullest-range loudspeakers I’ve heard in my home—the $60k Magico Q5s. What to do? Well, there are always the $40k TAD CR-1s or the $30k Morel Fat Ladies or the $22k MartinLogan CLXes, among many many other worthies from Scaena, Nola, Wilson, Focal, YG, Hansen, Vandersteen, sonus faber, MBL, Verity, Revel, Avalon, Quad, and Magico itself. But—stretch with me, again—let’s say you don’t have that kind of green, either. Let’s say you’re…well, me. You lust for ultra-high-fidelity sound, but don’t have the coin for the Big Boys. What then are your options?

Ladies and gents, allow me to introduce you to the speaker I would choose: the $5495 Magneplanar 3.7 ribbon/quasi-ribbon dipole.

You will be reading all about this wonderful new transducer from Magnepan in HP’s Workshop in Issues 212 and 213—and I myself will chime in, briefly, in Issue 214. But to set the table, let me begin by saying (as HP does) that the 3.7 solves the problem that has bothered me most about “true ribbon” Maggies—and solves it completely. As you may recall from my 1.7 review, I’ve shied away from Maggie’s “true ribbons” not because I don’t like Maggie’s ribbons but because I like them too much. They are so good—so much faster, lower in distortion, and higher in fidelity than Maggie’s planar-magnetic drivers—that they audibly tend to call attention to themselves.

In the earliest versions of true-ribbon Maggies, this attention-grabbing discontinuity was marked. The ribbons weren’t just better than the planar-magnetic drivers they were then paired with, they also played louder (or were higher in sensitivity, which is functionally the same thing). Unless you damped the wall behind them (easier said than done without unintended consequences elsewhere in the passband) or padded them down with resistors (ditto) or added a whomping subwoofer (which tended to offset the extra treble energy with added bass energy, albeit at a substantial price in coherence, transparency, resolution, and neutrality), you could invariably hear the true ribbons as a separate element in the presentation. Moreover, because the ear is particularly sensitive to parts of the bandwidth in which the true ribbons play, hearing them didn’t just ruin coherence; it also added excessive upper midrange and treble brightness to the overall presentation. In short, despite their considerable virtues—and there are few speakers I’ve heard that can make voices, in particular, sound as breathtakingly realistic as Maggies do—the Maggie 3 Series and the Maggie 20 Series speakers failed to negotiate the very first hurdle any loudspeaker faces (at least in my listening room): They failed to disappear. In fact, I was always aware of the ribbon-Maggies’ presence because the discontinuity between the true-ribbon tweeter and the quasi-ribbon/planar-magnetic drivers was always obvious.

As the years passed, Maggie tamed this brightness and discontinuity to an extent, but even the most recent true ribbons (and with Maggie, “recent” has, until the last couple of years, been measured in decades) have had an audible vestige of this sonic legacy. The 3.7s are the first true ribbon Magnepans that do not.

I really don’t know how Maggie has done what it’s done here—and Wendell Diller, who paid me a visit a couple of days ago to install the speakers, ain’t saying—but if I were to speculate, I would guess that the ribbon’s output has been damped down somewhat and its distortion (and the break-up modes of the other drivers playing alongside it) reduced—in part via a re-engineered crossover. I do know that Maggie is using much, much higher-quality parts in the 3.7 crossover than it has in earlier 3 Series speakers (which is one reason why the 3.7s cost what they cost), and past experience (with Magico and Morel speakers) suggests that when crossovers are successfully re-engineered to reduce out-of-passband “break-up” modes, the sonic effects are sizeable and easy to hear. There is this, as well. Earlier 3 Series Maggies used planar-magnetic panels for the midrange and the bass. In the 3.7, Maggie has substituted quasi-ribbon drivers for the planar-magnetic ones (just as it did with the smaller 1.7s introduced last year). The break-up modes of these faster, lower-distortion quasi-ribbon drivers, optimized via Maggie’s new crossover, may be considerably lower in level than those of the planar-magnetic panels they’ve replaced, whose break-up modes may have been further roughing up what was already a too-bright treble driver.

I’m guessing about this, of course, but there is no doubt that the 3.7’s ribbon tweeter is no longer “there,” no longer an easily audible and obviously separate part of the sonic presentation. The blend is so complete—and so successful—that I would have to say this is the most coherent Magneplanar I’ve yet heard. There is simply no part of the frequency spectrum you can point to and say, “This sounds different than or stands apart from the rest of the frequency spectrum.”

Are the 3.7s more coherent than the very coherent all-quasi-ribbon 1.7s? Yes. And I’ll tell you precisely why. Despite their excellence, the 1.7s still have a bit of “Maggie grain” to their presentation (as I said in my review)—a low-level, higher-frequency sandiness or spittiness or sibilance that is mostly audible in quiet passages or silences, but that is actually there all the time, overlaying the soundfield like a very fine scrim, sort of like groove noise on a well-used LP (although much lower in level). It is only when you hear loudspeakers that don’t have this driver/crossover/enclosure grain, such as the Magico Q5s, that you become aware—acutely, actually—of how much this noise detracts from a realistic illusion of voices and instruments.

Grain—whether it is being added by drivers, enclosures, crossovers, electronics, sources, or all of the above—tends to make voices and instruments sound the slightly peppery way that half-screened photographs look, as if they are composed of tiny dots of information separated by tiny dots of noise, rather than “whole,” continuous-tone sonic images. In addition to adding a texture to music and backgrounds, this noise also tends to make instruments sound slightly flatter in aspect than they do in life, as if they are (almost literally) being viewed through a screened window rather than in open air.

The 3.7s have eliminated or, at least, greatly reduced this granular noise. I would assume this is a direct result of the more successful blending of all drivers, but in particular of the way the “true ribbon”—with its inherently lower distortion—has been folded into the mix. In my view this is almost as significant an achievement as Maggie’s sensational new blend of true ribbon and quasi-ribbon panels. This is a “noise” I’ve associated with Maggies since I first heard the I-Us. Here it has been vanquished to the degree that well-recorded voices, like Melody Gardot’s on “Who Will Comfort Me?” from My One and Only Thrill [Verve], sound entirely grainless, three-dimensional, free-standing, and “there” (provided, of course, that you are using electronics capable of reproducing dimensionality and not adding grain of their own, such as the Technical Brain TBC-Zero v2 or ARC Ref 40 preamp, Technical Brain TBP-Zero EX or ARC 610T amps, and the Technical Brain TEQ/TMC-Zero or ARC Reference 2 phonostages).

Whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, “realism” in hi-fi playback systems tends to work on a sliding scale; how “there” a voice or instrument sounds depends on how many of the same qualities we hear in life (when we hear these voices or instruments singing or playing) are being incorporated into the presentation. Like the Magico Q5s, the Maggie 3.7s are working at a very high level on this scale (at least, they are in the midrange and the treble). Given a first-rate source, they are recovering more dynamic/harmonic information and delivering that information with lower distortion and more lifelike timing (that is, with the more lifelike durations of transient, steady-state tone, and decay) than any other speakers in their price range I’ve heard. In the midband and the treble, they are almost literally moving the bar up on the “realism scale” to the level of some of the world’s greatest (and most expensive) transducers.

Although their exceptional blend of drivers and unparalleled (for Maggies) lack of grain and distortion is already apparent, there are some areas of performance I’m not yet sure of. Timbres are fabulously realistic on most instruments, imaging is unusually precise (though life-sized), soundstaging is vast, and the treble is simply phenomenal—as quick, open, airy, and extended as almost anything I’ve heard regardless of price. But I haven’t gotten a firm fix yet on the 3.7s’ bass extension and power-handling.

I don’t want to leave the wrong impression. There is nothing wrong with—and certainly nothing discontinuous about—the 3.7s’ bass, which blends as seamlessly with the midband and the treble as the treble now blends with everything else. I’m just not yet sure how deep these speakers are capable of going in my smallish room—or how much power they are capable of reproducing as they descend in frequency. When I heard the 3.7s at CES, I felt that the bass didn’t have quite the same amazing presence as the midrange and treble; in my listening room I have something of the same impression. For instance, on the truly phenomenal EMI recording of Schnittke’s Second Sonata (“Quasi una sonata”), the 3.7s reproduce Kremer’s violin—and all its dynamics (which on this showy piece range from quadruple-p to quadruple-f and all stops between)—with very nearly the same speed, resolution, and in-the-room-with-you realism of the $60k Magico Q5s (the highest-fidelity speakers I’ve yet heard). This is remarkable—in fact, unparalleled—in a $5.5k loudspeaker. Ditto for the upper bass, middle, and top octaves of Gavrilov’s concert grand. What I’m not getting—at least, at this time—is thunderous power and precise pitch definition in the low-to-midbass that I hear via the Q5s on the lower-octave sforzandos of that piano. Nor am I getting quite the same dynamic range on fortissississimos. (Of course, this is a grossly unfair comparison. One of the Q5s glories—and one of the things that you are paying $60k for—is its phenomenal bass extension, resolution, power-handling, and sheer realism and its overall dynamic range.)

At the moment I would guesstimate that in my room, with the gear I’m currently using, the 3.7s are going down (flat) to about 50Hz. I consulted with HP, who’s had the 3.7s in house for considerably longer than I have, and he tells me that on initial setup the 3.7s were going down to around 50Hz in his Room Two, just as they are in my Room One and Only. However, he also tells me that with break-in (he recommends playing back a pipe-organ recording for several days) the 3.7s gain another 10Hz of bottom, and now descend to roughly 40Hz (after which they roll-off precipitously). Since Mr. P and I generally hear things alike—and since I’ve had this bass “break-in” experience with other Magneplanars—I will withhold judgment on 3.7 bass until I’ve played the darn things more.

Remember, thus far I’ve only listened to the 3.7s for three days with one set of electronics. I haven’t broken them in; I haven’t firmly settled on final positioning; I haven’t tried them with a variety of ancillary gear. The bass thing—and other details—will become clearer as I listen more, and I will report my findings as time goes by. For the moment, suffice it to say what I’ve already said: Even on a short listen, these are the speakers I’d buy if I couldn’t buy the Q5s, because in many ways (certainly from the lower midrange through the top treble) they come as close to the sound of the Q5s as I have gotten—or that HP has gotten with his own reference speakers—without spending Q5 money.