High-end audio has a long history of manufacturers refining their existing products and then applying the “Mk II” designation. Given that high-end audio designers are perfectionists by nature, it’s understandable that they will revisit a design and try to make it better. Usually, the product’s basic platform stays the same while the implementation and parts quality are upgraded. In my experience, Mk II versions tinker at the margins of a product’s sound, but do not fundamentally change it. The product’s sonic character is still apparent, with perhaps a little more transparency, lower noise, smoother timbre, or other such incremental advances.
The new Mk II version of Magico’s Q7 loudspeaker is not one of these products. Yes, the changes appear to be minor; nonetheless, the Mk II takes the Q7’s sonic character in a new and unexpected direction. The Mk II updates, surprisingly, allow a very different listening experience to unfold.
In my review of the Q7 in the January 2013 issue, I concluded that Magico’s flagship was “the single most impressive product—in any category—in my 23 years of full-time reviewing.” Nothing in the intervening two-and-a-half years has changed that opinion. To recap, the Q7 is a four-way, five-driver dynamic loudspeaker in a sealed enclosure. The drivers are all custom built specifically for the Q7, including the dual 12″ woofers, 10″ mid/bass driver, 6″ midrange, and 1″ beryllium dome tweeter. The drivers’ motor structures are extremely sophisticated, and the diaphragms are made from a woven carbon-fiber material called Nano-tec. The enclosure is as heroic as the drivers; the 750-pound speaker is built from solid slabs of aluminum reinforced by an intricate three-axis aluminum bracing. Although the Q7 appears from the outside to be simply a scaled-up Q5, the Q7’s enclosure and driver technology are significantly more sophisticated. (See my review in Issue 229 for the technical details.)
So how can such a tour de force in loudspeaker design be improved? On paper, the Q7 Mk II appears to be a minor update rather than a major overhaul. The “only” differences in the Mk II are a new midrange driver diaphragm, a new tweeter, and a revised crossover. That’s it. The price has increased from $185,000 to $229,000. Q7 owners can upgrade for $44,000, exactly the price difference between the models.
Let’s look at the upgrade in detail. The midrange diaphragm, which had been made from Magico’s carbon-fiber-based Nano-tec material, has been replaced with a different carbon-based material. This new and highly advanced material is 30 percent lighter than Nano-tec, yet is 300 percent stiffer. The combination of lightness and stiffness is the Holy Grail of driver design; the lightness allows the diaphragm to start and stop quickly by virtue of its low mass, and the stiffness prevents the diaphragm from flexing (and thus introducing distortion) under the stress of being driven by a voice coil attached to it near the diaphragm’s center. A light diaphragm can also provide superior low-level resolution; music’s very fine details are not obscured by the diaphragm’s inertia. Think about the very low-level components of an audio signal—the most delicate musical details of timbre, microdynamics, and ambience—applied to two drivers, one of them with a high-mass diaphragm and a stiff surround material, and the second with a featherweight cone and very compliant surround. It’s easy to visualize how, with the high-mass cone, music’s very fine structure would fall below the driver’s ability to move in response to that signal. The driver’s mechanical structures set a threshold below which no information can be resolved. But the lighter the diaphragm, the more powerful and sophisticated the motor structure, and the more carefully designed the surround material and its shape, the lower that threshold becomes. The result is an increase in low-level detail. Moreover, lighter diaphragms more faithfully reproduce the leading-edge attack of transients, which translates to a greater sense of realism and better conveys microdynamic expression.
The new diaphragm’s improved characteristics were made possible by a breakthrough carbon material called graphene. In conventional carbon fiber, the fibers are woven into thin sheets layered atop one another. Resin added to the carbon fiber melts when heated, and then cures when cooled, bonding the layers into a single structure. This resin accounts for most of the weight of a carbon-fiber diaphragm. But graphene isn’t a carbon fiber. Rather, according to Wikipedia, it is “a two-dimensional, atomic-scale hexagonal lattice in which one atom forms each vertex” (see illustration at right). That is, this form of carbon isn’t a fiber or a nanotube, but a lattice structure just one atom thick. Again according to Wikipedia, “Graphene has many extraordinary properties. It is about 200 times stronger than steel by weight, conducts heat and electricity with great efficiency, and is nearly transparent.” Although graphene’s existence was known for decades, it became a commercial product after a series of groundbreaking experiments by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester, for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010. Magico’s research into new diaphragm materials led them to graphene. When Magico contacted the company making it, the company was surprised to learn that graphene had an application in loudspeaker drivers.
The Mk II’s tweeter is a ground-up design three years in the making. The new dome’s diameter is slightly larger than that of the Q7 (28mm vs. 26mm), and the beryllium dome is now coated with a thin diamond layer. The diamond coating increases the dome’s stiffness, reducing distortion and extending the frequency range over which the dome moves as a perfect piston. Diamond also adds a bit of mass to the dome, but presumably this disadvantage is more than offset by the greater stiffness. The tweeter’s geometry is completely new, including the magnet structure and the chamber behind the dome.
The tweeter’s larger diaphragm and increased stiffness made it possible to lower the crossover point between the midrange and tweeter. The midrange driver doesn’t have to play as high into the treble, and there’s less disparity in dispersion patterns between the two drivers at the crossover point. As a side benefit, the crossover is simpler. Plus it benefits from new, super-exotic, and super-expensive capacitors from Mundorf, the same ones used in Magico’s M Project speaker (reviewed by JV in Issue 255).
Because the new tweeter is slightly larger than the old driver, the Q7’s 85-pound baffle must be removed, machined to create a bigger opening to accommodate the tweeter, and then anodized again. Consequently, the update from a Q7 to a Q7 Mk II must be performed at the factory. The dual 12″ woofers, the 10″ mid/woofer, and the enclosure remain unchanged.
So, how different can the Mk II sound with simply a different tweeter and midrange diaphragm material? At first listen, the Mk II sounds as though it has a different tonal balance, with less energy through the upper-midrange and treble. The result is a more relaxed sound that is a departure from the Q7’s signature characteristic of ultra-high resolution, transparency, and incisiveness through the midrange and top end.
The classic conflict in high-end audio (in every product category, incidentally) is between resolution and transparency on the one hand, and ease and musicality on the other. Components with high resolution are often, justifiably, branded as “ruthlessly revealing,” “analytical,” and “sterile.” The other side of the coin is the product that errs on the side of smoothness, sacrificing real musical detail for a romantic, almost impressionistic, presentation that fosters a relaxed engagement. The high-resolution components tell you more of what’s going on musically, but at the expense of reduced engagement because of an almost physiological “tightening” in reaction to the sound’s incisiveness. Conversely, lower-resolution components that have greater ease fail to engage for the opposite reason; the listener is presented with less information about the music and the intent behind its creation. Ultimate resolution and ultimate ease are mutually exclusive. Higher-quality components take you closer to the ideal of accuracy and musicality, but there are always trade-offs.
This conundrum has a parallel in Jonathan Valin’s three types of listeners: those who value transparency to sources above all else; those who seek systems that best convey the sound of instruments in a concert hall; and those who don’t care about these ideals and instead gravitate toward whatever components produce the most pleasing and enjoyable sound.
I’ve digressed into this clash of resolution and ease because the Q7 Mk II renders moot this age-old conflict. The new Mk II simultaneously offers greater resolution and greater ease—a remarkable feat that results in a significantly more involving and engaging musical experience. In addition, the Mk II reveals some truths about music reproduction, and the quality of recordings in general.
The best way to describe the Mk II is that someone took a knob marked “glare and hardness” and turned it way down. It sounds at first like a frequency-response difference, specifically a very broad dip through the brilliance region and into the treble. When I first heard the Mk II at Magico’s factory, I was taken aback by what at first seemed to be a “darkness” to the sound. Magico’s Alon Wolf assured me that the Mk II’s frequency response is identical to that of the original. But after about fifteen minutes I began to hear that there was no treble roll-off, no reduction in upper-midrange energy, and no tinkering with the frequency response. What I was hearing was a significant reduction in distortion that had been manifested as upper-midrange and treble energy. This phenomenon occurs in other components, including DACs and cables. When we say a cable is “bright” we’re not suggesting that the cable boosts the treble, but rather that its distortion fosters the impression of excess treble energy. Similarly, poor-sounding digital can sound simultaneously bright and lacking in treble extension and air.
One would expect that this apparent softening of the sound and greater ease were purchased at the expense of reduced resolution and transparency. Yet, astonishingly, the Mk II is significantly higher in resolution than the original in every way—instrumental tone color, fine transient detail, the ability to pick out a single instrumental line within complex arrangements, the “puff” of air around images within the soundstage. This increase in resolution and clarity is realized not just because the midrange and tweeter are more detailed, but because their lower distortion unmasks previously obscured information.
Brass and woodwind instruments are much more listenable, with greater warmth and body. Paul Desmond’s sax on the spectacular 45rpm Analogue Productions reissue of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five had a roundness and liquidity I’d never heard before. I enjoy the music of Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, a modern interpretation of big-band swing performed by a group of virtuoso musicians. The Mk II conveyed the vibrant physicality of a 19-piece big band playing full-tilt, but did so without any edge or hardness. The Mk II’s higher resolution better resolved the instruments’ individual timbres during the unison phrases and also better conveyed instrumental lines in the often intricate arrangements. Listening to these discs was revelatory, and not just for the greater musical enjoyment. It also suggested that a lot of the hardness we hear in reproduced music, but never in life, isn’t permanently encoded on our recordings. Of course, there are many recordings overlaid by a glassy texture, but not all of the blame can be laid at the feet of the discs. This realization has important implications, suggesting that our music libraries contain more information and less glare than we assumed. As playback equipment gets better, we can get more out of our music.
String sound was simply gorgeous, with a tonality much closer to what one hears in the concert hall: dark, rich, and voluptuous rather than thin and wiry. The Mk II vividly conveyed the impression of a wooden body resonating in all its complexity and density, now stripped of any hint of a mechanical patina.
One of the interesting musical effects of the Mk II’s greater “gentleness” was a heightened sense of phrasing and the expression within that phrasing. I heard this on a wide range of music, but a few examples jump to mind. On the aptly named “Harlem Nocturne” by tenor-saxophonist Illinois Jacquet (from 1953’s Swing’s the Thing, LP reissue), I could more clearly hear how he wrings so much feeling from each languid note. Or Keith Jarrett’s tender and moving playing on the title track of the CD My Foolish Heart, recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1990. The Mk II is just more expressive and communicative. Speaking of this Jarrett CD, the Q7 Mk II recreated a remarkable sense of hearing a live performance by this great trio (Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and Jack DeJohnette) and their spontaneous music-making. The Q7’s lack of aggression put me in a more relaxed state of mind that made me more receptive to appreciating such nuances.
The new tweeter is a marvel, with electrostat-like speed and clarity, and none of the hardness typically associated with dome tweeters. It reaches down into the finest details, from cymbals being gently struck to the harmonics of a violin, infusing these instruments with vibrant presence without sounding artificial. The Mk II’s top end is much more refined and sophisticated, with greater delicacy and nuance. Moreover, the treble sounds better integrated with the midrange, although I had not noticed a discontinuity before. I think that’s because the tweeter doesn’t call attention to itself; the treble just sounds like part of the musical fabric rather than a separate component.
Although the two 12″ woofers and 10″ mid/woofer remain the same, the bass improved as well. I heard greater pitch definition, increased dynamic fidelity, and richer and denser timbre. How could this be, given that there was no difference in the woofers or enclosure? I think that the improvements in midrange performance affect the impression of bass. First, the reduced midrange distortion “unmasks” the subtleties of timbre and tone color in the upper harmonics of bass-rich instruments. Concomitantly, the midrange’s greater resolving power reaches down to reveal the finest details of those harmonics (which at these midrange frequencies are very low in level). These phenomena combined to realize a stunning sense of pitch definition, timbral richness, and dynamic shading. Speaking of the bass, I should reiterate that the Q7’s bottom end is stunningly great in every respect. The combination of a huge sense of weight and heft along with speed, precision, totally effortless dynamic impact, and delicacy, without any bloat or overhang, is unprecedented in my experience. Although I’ve described the new Mk II as “gentle,” make no mistake: This speaker is capable of sledgehammer-like impact and slam when called for. I’ve seen more than a few visitors physically lifted out of their seats on the bass drum whacks from the 176.4kHz/24-bit Firebird on Reference Recordings. It doesn’t hurt to drive the Q7 Mk II with the Soulution 701 monoblock amps, whose bass heft and impact are second to none. It’s a combination you have to hear to believe.
I’ve spent some time describing the sound of the Q7 Mk II, but it’s the listening experience that counts, and what drives us in the hobby. I can say that the Mk II produces a significantly different musical encounter than the original, as great a loudspeaker as it was, and is. I found myself experiencing music in a different way through the Mk II, with a much deeper connection and appreciation for the artistry and expression. I felt more of the musicians’ expression. I played a lot more LPs than digital. I listened to a much wider range of music. I listened for longer sessions, and more frequently. I listened at louder levels, without fatigue. I was, on many occasions, completely oblivious to the passage of time. The Q7 Mk II had that magical ability to transcend everyday experience and produce an altered state of consciousness that was sublime.
How could a mere midrange diaphragm and tweeter replacement have such a profound impact on how I experienced music? There are, I believe, three phenomena at work. The first is that there’s not a linear relationship between the objective magnitude of a sonic difference and the psychoacoustic perception of that difference. A “small” change in the sound can be interpreted as a significant musical difference because our brains play such an interactive role in translating the vibrations of our eardrums into musical meaning. An example I related in The Complete Guide to High-End Audio is an experience I had with DAC many years ago. I was listening to a CD by a five-member group, one of whom was the vocalist who played percussion during the long instrumental breaks. Through all previous DACs, the percussion had always been another sound fused into the sonic tapestry. When the vocalist wasn’t singing, it was like listening to a four-piece band. But the new DAC was particularly adept at separating individual instruments from the whole, as well as conveying the transient attack of percussion instruments. In my mind’s eye, for the first time, the vocalist never departed—she remained “on stage,” playing those percussion instruments. Just by this “small” change in the presentation, the band went from being a quartet to a quintet during the instrumental breaks. The brain can do a lot with a little additional information.
Second, music’s meaning is conveyed in the physical properties of the sound. If the sound’s physical properties are missing or altered, so is the musical meaning. Contrast this with words on a page; the words’ meaning isn’t dependent on the font, the paper, or the ink. We get the same message regardless of the quality of the medium. But with music, if a component doesn’t faithfully convey microdynamic nuances, for example, that aspect of the musician’s expression is diluted, and with it our perception of the meaning and intent.
The third phenomenon is what Meridian’s Bob Stuart calls “the increasing importance of the smaller difference.” This is the idea that humans are highly attuned to very small variations among similar things. He points out a wide range of human endeavors, from dog-show judging to wine tasting. We make very fine discriminations between similar things, and find those differences important, but only if we care deeply about the subject. It’s not surprising that those of us who derive so much pleasure from music find these differences valuable.
The Mk II version of the Q7 takes “the Magico sound” in an entirely new and surprising direction. Yet it’s a direction that I believe any music lover will find captivating. The increase in resolution on its own makes the Mk II a worthy upgrade, as does the reduction in hardness. But it’s the synergistic effect of the two that vault the Q7 Mk II to a new level of loudspeaker performance. That is this transducer’s singular triumph.
For me, the Q7 Mk II has transformed the listening experience, perhaps to an even greater degree than living with the original Q7 did.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Four-way, five-driver dynamic loudspeaker
Driver complement: 12″ woofer (x2), 10″ mid/bass, 6″ midrange, 1.1″ tweeter
Woofer loading: Sealed
Impedance: 4 ohms
Frequency response: 20Hz–50kHz
Dimensions: 15″ x 60″ x 32″
Weight: 750 lbs. each
3170 Corporate Place
Hayward, CA 94545
Amplification: Soulution 701 monoblocks, Hegel H360 integrated amplifier; Soulution 725 preamplifier
Digital front end: Aurender W20 music server, Berkeley Alpha Reference DAC, Berkeley Alpha USB converter, Audience Au24SE AES/EBU cable, AudioQuest Wild AES/EBU
Analog front end: Basis Inspiration turntable, Air-Tight PC-1 Supreme cartridge, Moon by Simaudio 810LP phonostage
Support: Critical Mass Systems Maxxum equipment racks (x2), Maxxum amplifier stands (x2)
Cables: MIT Oracle MA-X
AC: Four dedicated AC lines; Shunyata Triton 2, Hydra DPC-6, Hydra Typhon V2 (x3) conditioners, Shunyata Sigma power cords
Acoustics: ASC 16″ Full-Round Tube Traps, ASC Tower Trap, Stillpoints Aperture Panels
Accessories: Klaudio ultrasonic record cleaner; Shunyata cable lifters, Critical Mass Systems Rize isolation, Stillpoints Ultra2 isolation
By Robert Harley
My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.More articles from this editor