Over the years I’ve listened to just about every loudspeaker that Jim Winey’s fabled Minnesota company Magnepan has engineered and manufactured. I’ve also owned more Magneplanars than any other kind of loudspeaker. Why? Because from the moment I first heard the Tympani 1-Us in Basil Gouletas’ Chicago apartment back in 1973—and I’ve written about that paradigm-changing moment repeatedly—I haven’t been able to get past the realism with which these planar-magnetic panels (and way back when, they were completely planar-magnetic) reproduce voices and acoustic instruments.
While it is much easier to hear what Maggies do right than to explain why, I’m gonna give explanation a try.
To begin with, Maggies have no box and, hence, no box coloration. Given the strides that have been made in dynamic drivers and their enclosures, you might think this wouldn’t make as dramatic a difference as it did years ago. But with the exception of speakers that use extremely inert cabinets, like those of Magico (to my ear, Magicos have always sounded more like Maggies than any other dynamic transducers do), that really isn’t the case. Boxes, no matter how skillfully made, are still boxes, and to varying degrees they still add their own resonant colorations to the sound. (They also often add confusion to the sound, due in part to the turbulence of the backwaves that are rattling around inside them.) Typically, this results in a dark, woody hue overlying the natural tonality of instruments, some elongation (or truncation) of the duration of the dynamic/harmonic envelope, and a masking of fine detail—faults the Maggies simply don’t suffer from.
Now I’ll grant that the sound of box speakers can often be very attractive—that the spring-like action of air trapped inside (or vented partly from within) their enclosures adds “zip” to attacks, tonal density and dynamic weight to the upper bass and lower midrange, and slam to the midbass. Indeed, for those listeners who put beauty and excitement first, the added color and power of box speakers are indispensable. For listeners looking for an approximation of the sound of the real thing, however, these are colorations that one almost never hears in life, unless the orchestra itself is enclosed in a box (as a pit orchestra is) or its sound is being amplified by loudspeakers in a hall or auditorium.
Second, Maggies are dipole line-source rather than dynamic point-source loudspeakers. This means they generate their sound in free space forward and backward, rather than sending half toward you and half into a sealed enclosure or an enclosure with a hole in it. Because of their highly coherent, figure-eight wavelaunch, line sources like the Maggies tend to interact less destructively with listening rooms than point-source speakers do. They have little-to-no floor or ceiling bounce, zero output immediately to their sides, a backwave that is mostly dissipated by the room itself, close-to-uniform “power response” on- and off-axis, and zero cabinet diffraction. This doesn’t mean that they are a snap to set up; they are anything but. It just means that once properly positioned, they don’t add as much room sound to the presentation as typical dynamic speakers do. Combine this with their boxless openness, free-standing imaging, vast soundstage, phenomenal resolution of inner detail, lightning transient response, and naturalness of timbre, and Maggies seem markedly less “there” as sources than almost any dynamic-speakers-in-a-box I’ve heard.
Third, like electrostats Maggies use extremely lightweight membrane drivers that have a much larger radiating area than cone drivers do and that, unlike cone drivers, are uniformly driven over their entire surface, making for lower distortion and higher linearity in their passbands. Unlike cones, Maggies do not need extremely steep crossovers to keep breakup modes at bay (although, to be fair, Magnepan has in the past played various tricks to mask the differences in speed, distortion, and resolution among its planar-magnetic, quasi-ribbon, and true ribbon drivers). Even though I have some quibbles about earlier iterations of large single-panel Maggies (for which see the next paragraph), at their best, Magnepans are very, very, very nearly as fast on transients, as high in resolution, as low in coloration and distortion, and as neutral in timbre as the most discerning electrostats (and considerably deeper-reaching and more linear in the bottom octaves than most ’stats).
Having said all this, let me admit that in my experience Maggies have also been among the most consistently frustrating loudspeakers I’ve heard and owned. When a component is nearly incomparable in certain respects, over time the areas in which it falls short (and all speakers fall short) start to weigh on you like Marley’s chains. And until just a few short weeks ago, the Maggies, particularly the large single-panel Maggies (the 3.7s and the 20.7s), brought burdens as well as blessings.
First, there was the matter of driver-to-driver coherence. While Magnepan’s true ribbon tweeter is a technological and sonic marvel, to my ear it never blended smoothly with Maggie’s quasi-ribbon drivers, which also didn’t blend seamlessly with Maggie’s planar-magnetic panels. (This is precisely why I’ve always preferred Maggie’s all-quasi-ribbon 1.x series to the larger single-panel speakers in its line. Yes, you lost some of the extension, resolution, and sheer glamour of Maggie’s true ribbon on the top end—and you definitely lost some of the amazing soundstage size and low-end reach of the bigger ’Pans—but what you gained back in octave-to-octave smoothness was well worth the sacrifice.)
Second, line-source Maggies do not have the laser-cut image focus of point-source cones; their images are quite a bit larger than those of box speakers, which is something that takes getting used to (or not). With big ensembles or big instruments like pianos or drumkits, this isn’t a problem; in fact, it is quite realistic. But vocalists can sometimes seem slightly outsized—and flat in aspect.
Which brings me to three: Maggies (or at least latter-day ones) don’t have quite the same three-dimensional body as cone speakers. And that is because they don’t have the power-range warmth and fullness (or box coloration, depending on your point of view) of cone speakers. To be fair, large single-panel Maggies have sometimes seemed a bit sucked-out in the power range (a byproduct, perhaps, of their dipole radiation pattern—and the bass-range phase-cancellation that can engender—and the largeish passband of their single woofer), and though quite extended and well defined in the bottom octaves they definitely don’t do “slam” the way big dynamic speakers do. On acoustic instruments that play down into the low bass, such as doublebasses, timps, piano, organ, contrabassoon, they are nigh incomparably realistic. On Fender bass, synth, rock drumkit, or any instrument that is as much about power and impact as it is about pitch, timbre, and duration, the thrill, though not gone, is not there the way it is with, oh, big Wilsons.
Fourth, Maggies are extremely large and not particularly attractive loudspeakers that do anything but disappear in a living room. Though I’ve heard them perform quite well in smaller spaces, they tend to like big rooms and, regardless of the size of the listening space, they thrive on power. Though not difficult to drive, Maggies need lots of amplifier, though they don’t necessarily need crème de la crème amplification.
Believe it or not, all of this has been by way of an introduction, because what I will be reviewing here is a big (make that huge) Maggie that greatly ameliorates almost all of the past problems of Maggies large and small—a Maggie that is, in fact, the best ’Pan I’ve ever heard (and, once again, I’ve heard them all) and one of the best buys in an ultra-high-end loudspeaker I’ve ever come across.
For years now, I’ve been begging Mark Winey and Wendell Diller to build a new Tympani—a multi-panel Maggie that would inculcate the company’s latest technology, solve the driver-to-driver and power-range issues that plague Maggie’s large, single-panel speakers, and compete on a more even footing (as the three-panel Tympanis once did) with the flagships of the dynamic contingent.
I certainly wasn’t alone in nagging Mark and Wendell to cook up a new Tympani. My late colleague, mentor, and fellow Maggie lover, Mr. Pearson, also incessantly politicked for a statement Maggie (as did my pal Jacob Heilbrunn, whose initial observations are appended below). It is a genuine shame that HP didn’t live to see and hear the 30.7, for he would most certainly have loved them, as I most certainly do.
I’m not using that word “love” figuratively here, for on first listen the sound of the 30.7s brought back all of the thrill and wonder I first experienced in Basil’s home forty-five years ago, when the original Tympanis fooled me (and my wife, Kathy) into thinking that someone was playing the actual grand piano that was sitting behind those “decorative screens” in Basil’s living room.