Magneplanar 1.7: First Listen

Magneplanar 1.7
Magneplanar 1.7: First Listen

The Magneplanar 1.7—the first new loudspeaker from Magnepan in better than a decade—was the most eagerly anticipated introduction at this year’s CES. Happily, its debut turned out to be a smashing success. Even more happily, its “debut” in my listening room, which took place last Wednesday when Maggie’s Wendell Diller installed them in my system, has been a smashing success. I have now listened to the 1.7s for five days (almost continually, which should tell you something about their irresistible appeal) and I can say with confidence that they are worthy successors to the 1.6s, the speakers I have long thought (and often called) the best buys in high-end audio.

Truth be told, I think the 1.6s also are (or were, prior to the arrival of the 1.7s) the best speakers in the Maggie line, at least in one (to me) critical respect. Much as I admire the “true ribbon” Maggie 3.6s and 20.1s (both of which I’ve reviewed in various iterations), I have always had a problem with, well, their true ribbons. Precisely because of their superiority in transient response and resolution, Maggie’s true ribbons have always stuck out a bit compared to the quasi-ribbon or planar-magnetic panels they are mated with. (Indeed, I have generally had a problem with speakers that attempt to mate a ribbon or electrostat to any other driver, save for another ribbon or electrostat.) Yes, Maggie’s true ribbon is a marvel of speed, resolution, low distortion, and extension, and, yes, it was and remains superior to the “quasi-ribbon” that Maggies uses in the 1.6 and now the 1.7. But when you can persistently hear a driver as a separate element in the presentation, it makes the speaker as present as the music it is reproducing, rather spoiling the illusion that you are listening to one seamless transducer, which, as I’ve noted in the past, is as close as hi-fi gets to creating the illusion that you are listening to NO transducer.

(For those of you who don’t understand the difference between “true” and “quasi” ribbons, in a nutshell the incredibly lightweight foil in a true ribbon IS the driver—it simultaneously conducts the signal and turns it into sound waves. In a “quasi” ribbon, the foil is not the driver—or not exactly. In a quasi-ribbon, that strip of aluminum foil is itself attached to an extremely lightweight strip of Mylar; the foil, which is suspended between permanent bar magnets, acts as the signal conductor (a planar voice coil, if you will), transmitting the signal to the entire surface of the Mylar, which, in turn, vibrates to produce sound. As a point of comparison, in a traditional planar-magnetic driver the Mylar driver is not driven uniformly over its entire surface by a foil of aluminum as it is in a quasi-ribbon; instead, it is driven by a lattice-work of thick signal-conducting wires that are attached to the Mylar itself. The difference in the uniformity of drive and in the relative mass of the driver should be obvious.)

Up until the 1.7, all Maggie speakers used a mix of ribbon (typically for high frequencies), quasi-ribbon (typically for high frequencies and upper mids), and planar-magnetic drivers (typically for the lower mids and the bass), which, as I just noted, made for variations in uniformity of drive, uniformity of dispersion, uniformity of mass, and uniformity of power-handling that could sometimes be heard as slight discontinuities in the overall presentation. This was particularly true of the transition between ribbon tweeter and quasi-ribbon or planar-magnetic panels, but also of the transition between quasi-ribbon and planar-magnetic panels.

What makes the 1.7 such a landmark—and a departure—is that every driver in it, from its super-tweeter panel to its tweeter/upper mid panel to its lower-mid/bass panel—is a quasi-ribbon, making this the first Magneplanar to use ribbon technology in ALL of its drivers. The speaker’s crossover has also been carefully redone, as has its “enclosure” (the 1.7s use a stiffer aluminum-and-MDF frame rather than Maggie’s traditional all-wooden one). The result is a speaker of superior “uniformity”—a speaker’s whose power-handling, dispersion, resolution, and overall presentation are more “of a piece” than ANY previous Maggie design. (This does not mean, BTW, that the 1.7 will outdo its bigger brothers in some critical areas. Maggie’s true ribbon tweeter, taken on its own, remains a superior transducer, and the considerably larger planar-magnetic mid/bass panels in the 3.6 and 20.1 simply produce “bigger,” fuller, deeper bass than the smaller quasi-ribbon bass panel in the 1.7)

Frequency response of the 1.7 is said to range from 40Hz–24kHz (which the eagle-eyed among you will note is not all that different than the frequency response of the 1.6). Its sensitivity is rated at 86dB/500Hz /2.83v. Its impedance is 4 ohms. All of which means that, like the 1.6 and every other Maggie, the 1.7 will take some power to drive, although how much power depends on the size of your room, the kind of music you listen to, and the levels you are comfortable listening at. At the moment I am driving the 1.7s with the most transparent amps I’ve heard—the $115k Soulution 700s—coupled (via Tara Labs Zero and MIT Oracle MA-X) with the best preamps I’ve heard—the Audio Research Reference 5 and Audio Research Reference 2 Phono—and fed by the best sources I’ve heard—the Walker Proscenium Black Diamond Mk II record player with Da Vinci Reference Grandezza Mk II cartridge and the “Level 5” United Home Audio TASCAM 15ips, two-track tape deck playing back fabulous second-generation mastertapes from The Tape Project. At a later point I will switch over to the ARC 610Ts, the Technical Brain amp and preamp, the BAlabo amp and preamp, and to much, much, much more affordable electronics from Odyssey, but for the nonce let it be clear that I could happily live with the 1.7s in a system that is as ultra-high-end as the one I’m using. THAT’s how good they are.

Appearances to the contrary, I’m not going to write an entire review at this point. I will save the issues of dipolar line-source speakers versus monopole point-source speakers, frequency response, distortion, etc. for another day. But I do want to make some initial observations about the 1.7s’ sound:

1)    First, yes, they are audibly and substantially more coherent than previous Maggies—more of a piece top-to-bottom than the 1.6s, the 3.6s, and the 20.1s.

2)    Yes, the addition of the super-tweeter has greatly improved the treble over that of the 1.6s—more air, more detail, more transient speed, more bloom. But, be aware, that played very very very very loudly (and I’m talking well above100dB+ SPL peaks) that tweeter can turn bright in the upper mids, although I’m not at all sure, at this point, whether this is a panel-excursion issue or an amplifier-running-out-of-steam issue. The quasi-ribbon bass is improved, too, in resolution and dynamics, although I wouldn't say it goes much deeper than that of the 1.6s (at least, not in my room)--quite solid and flat down into the  40s. I believe the bass panel can also be overdriven at very very very loud levels.

3)    Yes, as I just implied, the 1.7s will play loudly more eagerly than the 1.6s, although they still may not be the ideal stadium rock speaker. More importantly from my point of view, they will also play more convincingly at low-to-moderate levels than the 1.6s (or any Maggie I’ve heard). Like their newfound coherence, this is a major departure from previous Maggies. While they sound progressively more room-fillingly realistic as you turn the volume up to a lifelike level, they do not sound anemic dynamically at lower volumes nor do they seem short of bass or treble.

4)    They image better than any Maggie I’ve ever heard. I assume this may be a side-benefit of the uniformity of drive, dispersion, and power-handling of the all-quasi-ribbon complement of drivers (and it may have something to do with the addition of the separate super tweeter, too), but the “mouth-as-big-as-a-bass drum” effect of many previous Maggies is…gone. While they still have lifelike size of image (at lifelike volumes), the focus of the images is VASTLY improved—almost to the level of something like the point-source Magico M5, which is a paragon of imaging.

5)    Their soundstaging is simply the best I’ve heard from a dipole. With the right source (like The Tape Project’s dub of Reference Recordings’ Arnold Overtures—horrible music, great sound—or the superb Philips LP of Richard Rodney Bennett’s terrific Piano Concerto), your jaw will drop when you hear the way these relatively demure panels fill the back third of your room with precisely layered, minutely detailed, incredibly deep, wall-bustingly wide sound.

6)    They are considerably higher in resolution at low, moderate, and high SPLs than the 1.6s, from top to bottom. Though I wouldn’t say they are as transparent to sources or as finely detailed as, oh, the MartinLogan CLXes (nothing is) or M5s, they are nonetheless very finely detailed and transparent. Save in the bottom octave or octave-and-a-half, you aren’t going to miss much if anything with these little numbers.

7)    They are intoxicatingly realistic. There is something about Maggies that simply sounds like the real thing, particularly in the midrange, particularly on voices. Maggies aren’t the only speakers that have this supreme gift (Magicos have it, too—in spades--and so do CLXes). But some combination of neutrality, coherence, transient speed, image size, dispersion, dimensionality and bloom, and resolution of texture has always made Maggies sound more real than a large percentage of their competition. Here—with the right recordings, at the right levels—that realism (at least in the midband) is very nearly as close as I’ve come to the absolute sound in my listening room, and simply unmatched for a speaker at this price point (or, really, anything even remotely close to its price point).