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In Memory: Magneplanar Inventor Jim Winey (1934-2024)

Although it is inevitable, it is still saddening to see the stalwarts of high-end audio pass away. In the last decade or so, we’ve lost David Wilson of Wilson Audio Specialties, William Zane Johnson of ARC, Arnie Nudell of Infinity and Genesis, Bascom King also of Infinity and, lately, Constellation Audio, Atsushi Miura of Luxman and Air Tight, Lloyd Walker of Walker Audio, Jim Thiel of Thiel Audio, A.J. Conti of Basis Audio, Tim de Paravicini of EAR, Hideaki Nishikawa of TechDAS, and, of course, Gordon Holt and HP, among many, many others. In my little corner of the audio world, the deaths of Lloyd Walker and Miura-san were particularly hard to take, as they were dear friends as well as high-end greats.

Now, as I write, I just learned that another friend and high-end luminary, Jim Winey, founder of Magnepan and inventor of the magnetostatic or planar-magnetic loudspeaker, has passed.

Although I didn’t really know Jim as well as I did Miura-san and Lloyd, he was a more pivotal figure in my life than either of my two close friends. In fact, he (or rather his first product) was the chief stimulus for my (still) ongoing pursuit of the absolute sound, but I’ll come to that later.

An inveterate audiophile and inventor, Jim made his living as an industrial engineer at Minnesota’s 3M company. Evenings he spent in his basement, thinking up new designs for loudspeakers. After hearing an unusually lifelike-sounding RTR electrostat at a Minneapolis audio store owned by William Z. Johnson (who went on to found the Audio Research Corporation and to become Magnepan’s first distributor), Winey flirted with building his own ’stat but changed his mind after gluing a rudimentary voice coil to a flexible two-foot strip of ultra-thin 3M magnetic material and feeding a signal to it from his Dyna 75 amplifier. Although severely limited in bandwidth and volume, the sound of this primitive first “Maggie” was so realistic Winey decided to perfect the concept.

It is not often that an audio designer comes up an entirely new type of transducer, but Jim Winey did. It took him several years, but by 1971 he was marketing the huge three-panel Magnepan Tympani I, with two panels housing large planar-magnetic mid/bass drivers that worked up to 3.2kHz and the third a narrow planar-magnetic tweeter that worked above the crossover point. All the drivers used a very thin, very light sheet of 3M’s Mylar as a diaphragm, with thin wires glued to the Mylar’s surface as voice coils and an array of permanent magnets behind and around the diaphragm assembly to create a magnetic field. (Your amplifier supplied the current to the voice coils, which interacted with the magnetic field with enough force to move the diaphragm and make sound—rather like a beater striking a drum skin, hence a “tympanic membrane.”)

By the time I auditioned the Maggies, in the winter of 1972–73, Winey had gone through four iterations of the Tympani I. What I heard that snowy day—though, as you will see, I didn’t realize I was listening to it—was the Tympani I-D.

At the time, I was graduate student at the University of Chicago, crazy about literature, writing, and music. As luck would have it, I fell in with a bad crowd of fellow hi-fi nuts (also students at U.C.) who were friends of an audio dealer named Basil Gouletas. Basil worked out of his apartment on the Near North Side, and one snowy day my wife and I paid him a visit.

As you may recall from my previous retellings, Basil was rather like the Hugh Hefner of audio salesmen. I never saw him wearing anything but pajamas and a robe (even when he traveled outside his apartment to visit customers). His “store” was just a shabby, oblong living room at the end of a short hall off the front door, with a grand piano parked in a corner on the window side of the room, a credenza loaded with turntables and equipment farther down that wall, a La-Z-Boy recliner within arm’s reach of the credenza on the backwall, and a long, low, dilapidated couch on the inner wall of the room. A pair of what I took to be grey decorative screens was parked in front of the piano, blocking our view of the instrument.

As I sat down on the couch beside my wife Kathy, Basil reached over to the credenza. Suddenly, someone behind the screens began playing the grand piano. Since we couldn’t see the piano bench from where we were sitting, I asked Basil: “Who’s playing your piano?” He grinned and said: “Rubinstein.”

Of course, it turned out those decorative screens weren’t screens, after all. They were Maggie 1-Ds, and the amps powering them were William Zane Johnson’s ARC D-75s, fed by his ARC SP-3 preamp.

Now, what you must remember is that this was the tail end of 1972. Although I followed the mainstream audio magazines religiously, TAS didn’t yet exist (and I’d never heard of Stereophile). What we know today as “high-end audio” was just coming into being—in a tsunami of new technologies, new products, and new brands that would soon overwhelm the old standbys. So, even though HP would rave about the Maggie 1-Ds in the very first issues of TAS, none of the mainstream mags had covered them. Until stumbling on them by accident and thinking the sound they made was that of a real grand piano, I didn’t know they existed.

What you also must remember is that, back then, almost all of us relied on the numbers that Stereo Review and High Fidelity and Audio printed to help us make buying decisions—our assumption (and that of the press) being the better those numbers, the better the sound.

All that changed after I heard the Maggies. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, I was thunder-struck by the revelation that hi-fi gear didn’t just have to sound “good” or measure well. At its best, as it was in Basil’s grungy room, it could also conjure up an illusion of the real thing.

To say that that afternoon at Basil’s apartment listening to the Tympani I-Ds was the best audio demo I’ve ever experienced doesn’t do it full justice. For me, it changed everything about my passion for audio. Suddenly, I had a standard that made more sense (and was far more satisfying) than frequency response graphs or THD measurements—the sound of real instruments making music. A few months later, HP and TAS came along (bringing with them a whole bunch of like-minded readers, also tired of and frustrated by the numbers game), and a new aesthetic was born—the absolute sound. Of course, I was already a card-carrying member of the club, thanks to Jim Winey and the Magneplanar Tympani 1-Ds, which is why I said he was the most pivotal figure in my life as an audiophile.

Of course, Jim’s influence on me didn’t stop with the 1-Ds. Since hearing them, I followed the development of his products more closely than that of any other brand (save for ARC), His speakers soon became push-pull rather than push-only transducers. His planar-magnetic drivers became quasi-ribbon ones. His best tweeters became true ribbons. He quickly downsized and economized his offerings, making magnetostatic technology available to everyone. And I was there for all of it, buying many of his products and, later, reviewing the ones I didn’t own. To me, Jim Winey and his friend William Zane Johnson were the high end.

And now, they’re both gone.

I can’t help feeling that Jim Winey’s passing marks the end of an age, an age I was part of—the era of high-end audio. What we are heading for now is less certain. I have the feeling that it will be more computerized, more style-and-convenience-based, more and more pricey, and less and less hands-on human.

I also feel that audio criticism will have to change with the times. With the rise and predominance of rock and rap and electronica of all types, the old audiophile reviewing standards have become less useful, less applicable. The absolute sound was, after all, based on acoustic music—which the Magnepans were and are incredibly adept at reproducing realistically. Harry and his cohorts looked down their collective noses at a lot (not all) of electronic pop. But today’s world doesn’t share their taste.

Oh, we’ll still have acoustic pop, jazz, and classical recordings and “absolute sound” speakers like Maggies to play them on. After all, it was just a year or two ago that Jim’s son, Mark, and old hand Wendell Diller introduced the Magnepan 30.1 (the best large Maggie I’ve ever heard) and the LRS+ (the best small, inexpensive Maggie I’ve heard). But the guys who started this thing of ours—who put the realistic reproduction of vocalists and acoustic instrumentalists first and invented the means of doing so—are passing on.

It’s going to be tough to duplicate their passion and inventiveness, but, of course, someone will. In the new age of higher-tech audio, new stars will rise—and hail to them. Just let us not forget the contributions of the older generation, men like Jim Winey, without whom my life as a listener (and the lives of so many other music lovers) would have been incomparably poorer.

-Jonathan Valin

 

You might also be interested in Cynthia Blankenship’s 2023 interview with Jim Winey about the history of the company:

Tags: AUDIOPHILE HIFI HIGH-END JIM WINEY MAGNEPAN OBITUARY

Jonathan Valin

By Jonathan Valin

I’ve been a creative writer for most of life. Throughout the 80s and 90s, I wrote eleven novels and many stories—some of which were nominated for (and won) prizes, one of which was made into a not-very-good movie by Paramount, and all of which are still available hardbound and via download on Amazon. At the same time I taught creative writing at a couple of universities and worked brief stints in Hollywood. It looked as if teaching and writing more novels, stories, reviews, and scripts was going to be my life. Then HP called me up out of the blue, and everything changed. I’ve told this story several times, but it’s worth repeating because the second half of my life hinged on it. I’d been an audiophile since I was in my mid-teens, and did all the things a young audiophile did back then, buying what I could afford (mainly on the used market), hanging with audiophile friends almost exclusively, and poring over J. Gordon Holt’s Stereophile and Harry Pearson’s Absolute Sound. Come the early 90s, I took a year and a half off from writing my next novel and, music lover that I was, researched and wrote a book (now out of print) about my favorite classical records on the RCA label. Somehow Harry found out about that book (The RCA Bible), got my phone number (which was unlisted, so to this day I don’t know how he unearthed it), and called. Since I’d been reading him since I was a kid, I was shocked. “I feel like I’m talking to God,” I told him. “No,” said he, in that deep rumbling voice of his, “God is talking to you.” I laughed, of course. But in a way it worked out to be true, since from almost that moment forward I’ve devoted my life to writing about audio and music—first for Harry at TAS, then for Fi (the magazine I founded alongside Wayne Garcia), and in the new millennium at TAS again, when HP hired me back after Fi folded. It’s been an odd and, for the most part, serendipitous career, in which things have simply come my way, like Harry’s phone call, without me planning for them. For better and worse I’ve just gone with them on instinct and my talent to spin words, which is as close to being musical as I come.

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