Magnepan 20.7 Loudspeaker
- by Don Saltzman
- Feb 03rd, 2015
Audio reviews today are rife with proclamations that a product sets new standards, is the best the reviewer has ever heard, perhaps the best in the world, and the like. Because so many products are system- and room-dependent, and because so many older products are still so good, I normally would be reluctant to reach such sweeping conclusions. Nevertheless, after living with the Magnepan 20.7s for over three months, I have no choice but to report that, in my opinion, this speaker does indeed set new standards as to the capabilities of a flagship planar transducer.
Most readers of this magazine are familiar with the overall design concept of a planar loudspeaker. Instead of using cones or domes or horns, planars use a very thin diaphragm of some type to reproduce music frequencies. Generally, the larger the panel or panels that are used, the greater the low-frequency extension and bass output of the speaker. Because of the relatively small excursions of most planars, the low frequencies require a lot of panel surface area. Some manufacturers of electrostatic or other planars (such as MartinLogan and Eminent Technology) are often able to use smaller planar panels because they augment the bass with traditional dynamic bass drivers. This works, but sometimes at the expense of continuity between the planar and cone drivers. It’s all in the execution. Unlike electrostatics, Magnepan loudspeakers utilize proprietary ribbon and “quasi-ribbon” magnetic transducers. One of the major advantages of this approach is that the speakers do not need to be plugged into an AC outlet and there are no transformers to alter the sound. In my experience, the Magneplanar designs will generally play at higher sound levels, without breakup, than most electrostatic designs. On the other hand, most listeners would agree that electrostats probably offer the very last word in microscopic detail.
Planar loudspeakers are dipole by nature, in that the rear sound wave of the panels is generally equal to the sound wave at the front of the panels. This equal generation of sound may require somewhat more care in placement of the speaker, but the rewards are a generous soundstage and ambient field that are difficult, if not impossible, to obtain with traditional dynamic speakers, particularly those that are smaller in stature and use a limited number of drivers. Still, I have heard fans and owners state that they prefer the “more direct” sound of dynamic and horn/cone hybrid systems. They are not wrong that these other technologies may provide a more “upfront” sound, which may be somewhat more dramatic on rock and jazz recordings. I too have always enjoyed the music reproduction of good cone and horn loudspeakers, particularly with their very specific instrumental focus, solidity of image, and ultimate bass slam.
Yet, as an owner of Magnepan 20s and 20.1s for over 20 years (that’s a lot of 20s), I can unequivocally state that once set up properly and with the right amplifiers and associated equipment, the large Maggies can do a remarkable and very satisfying job of projection of instruments into the room. If not quite the equal of large cone or horn systems in that regard, they come surprisingly close. Plus, the large Maggies can provide real-sized instruments on an (almost) real-sized stage, something even many or most of the large cone-based systems cannot do. Planars are also known for the high definition of their bass output. But if all planars have had a traditional weakness, it is in the reproduction at higher volumes of midbass and low bass with slam and authority.
Before discussing the specific qualities of the speaker itself, a few words about Magnepan are in order. Founded by legendary designer Jim Winey in 1969, Magnepan is located in Minnesota where all of its products are made. A recent visit to the factory was enlightening in that it revealed the tremendous amount of skilled hand-labor involved in making each speaker. While Magnepan is justifiably proud of the reasonable prices and high value offered by its products, it seems incredible to me that the company can maintain its prices when so many of the steps in building the speakers are done entirely by hand. I tried my own hand at putting together part of a panel—it would have taken me many hours to perform an operation done in a few minutes by Magnepan’s technician. Not surprisingly, they made me no job offer. Although Jim Winey is now retired, he still offers some design input and the company continues a program of improvement to its entire product line. Jim’s son, Mark Winey, and Magnepan’s long-time marketing manager, Wendell Diller, continue to advance the Magnepan flag.
Magnepan understandably strives to emphasize the relative value of its products. Personally, I believe they understate the competitive performance of their flagship loudspeaker compared to dynamic or horn systems at any price, including those in the $80,000 to $150,000 range, or more. Yes, it is that good. The 20.7s may not do everything a speaker in the $100,000+ price range can do, but they come close in many respects and are arguably superior in other important respects. It is a system of trade-offs, often won by the large Maggies if the user is prepared to drive them with appropriate associated equipment and if the user is prepared to accept these relatively large (but thin) monoliths in a position at least four to five feet (more is even better) away from the front wall. The user must also be patient enough to accept a long break-in period, more about which below.
Design Advantages of a Large Dipole Loudspeaker
I am not an engineer (so please bear with me) but I have had so many years of experience with the Magnepan 20 Series that I believe I can state some of its main design advantages with some accuracy. Besides, many of these points are made by Magnepan on its website, and I am not afraid to crib when needed. The 20.7 is approximately 29 inches wide, 79 inches tall, and 2 inches deep. It is a hybrid design utilizing a tall but narrow true ribbon tweeter, a “quasi-ribbon” midrange consisting of a very low mass Mylar diaphragm suspended between rows of magnets on both sides and a larger quasi-ribbon Mylar woofer panel driven by opposing magnets. One of the design successes of the 20.7, compared with earlier versions, is that the integration of the three planar drivers is now totally seamless. The entire speaker seems cut from the same cloth, or at least the same aluminum and Mylar, as the case may be.
The design parameters of the 20.7 offers a number of advantages (and a few disadvantages) when compared to a dynamic or horn system. First, the speaker is not in a box. All drivers are suspended by a sturdy perimeter frame, with an open front and back. No box means no box colorations to the sound. Manufacturers of the more expensive dynamic or horn speaker systems often go to great lengths, and great expense, to make as rigid and acoustically “invisible” an enclosure as possible. Their goal is to eliminate box-related colorations, which are automatically eliminated in Magnepan’s boxless designs. No box means no box resonances to control, or colorations to eliminate. I think it is fair to say that a lot of the substantial additional cost of competing loudspeakers is devoted to the design and construction of the enclosure. Indeed, if Magnepan were required to build box enclosures to the same quality level as Rockport, Wilson, or Magico, as a few examples only, the 20.7s undoubtedly would offer far less of a price advantage when compared with those speakers. I believe this is an important concept to keep in mind. It is not that Magnepan set out to build a “cheaper” loudspeaker. Instead, it is because its planar design does not require the construction of a very expensive box enclosure that it enjoys the design advantage of being able to offer competitive (or superior) sound at a much lower price.
Another major advantage of the Magnepans, and all planars, is the low mass of its drivers. It is obvious that the lower the mass of the driver, the more quickly it can respond to electrical input. The signature Magnepan true-ribbon tweeter is an ultra-thin aluminum foil approximately five feet long by ¼-inch wide. The Magnepan website points out that it is 1/10th the thickness of a human hair. Hence, it is extremely low mass and responds accurately to even the smallest of signals. I have listened to and admired a huge variety of tweeters through the years, but I still believe this ribbon tweeter to be one of the finest made today. I have not heard a smoother or more extended high-frequency transducer. The quasi-ribbon midrange and bass drivers, while not of the vanishingly low mass of the true ribbon, are still of a very low mass design. Very thin aluminum strips are bonded to thin Mylar panels, which in turn are tightly stretched between the perimeter frame and suspended between carefully spaced rows of bar magnets. The musical electrical signal passes through the thin aluminum strips, which in turn moves the Mylar panel as it is attracted to or repelled by the magnets. While I was at the factory I observed that proprietary devices are carefully attached to the panels to minimize resonance. These ribbon and quasi-ribbon drivers are of much lower mass than competitive dynamic drivers.
Another design advantage of the 20.7s is their ability to offer a more uniform output of sound energy throughout the room, often called “power response.” Magnepan states, and I have read concurring technical articles, that a dipole’s bidirectional radiation pattern contributes to a power response flatter throughout the listening room than a front-firing dynamic speaker. These authors indicate that the taller the line source, the better the power response. With this in mind, Magnepan states it would offer floor-to-ceiling speakers if it believed its customers would buy them. Further, the 20.7s dispersion characteristics produce a more-enveloping sound field, like real music in a concert hall, and often minimize adverse interactions between listening room and loudspeaker. Even though one-half of the sound is radiated rearward, the direct sound from the front of the speaker reaches the listener first and allows for excellent imaging, although in my experience well-designed dynamic and horn systems may offer even superior imaging. That is one of the tradeoffs with a dipole transducer. The reflected sound and life-size instruments allow more of a “you are there” immersion in the sound, a feeling of being there, at a slight expense of imaging precision. Yet I have never heard super-precise imaging in the concert hall, so this point has never been an issue for me. Opinions vary. In my listening room I have slightly reduced the amount of midrange and treble energy reflected off of the front and side walls by “upholstering” parts of the walls in a thin layer of cotton batting, covered with a silk cloth in a neutral color. One cannot tell they are covered without actually touching the walls. It seems to me that the net effect has been to make my 25′ long by 16′ wide by 8′ high room, reflection-wise, slightly larger than it is.
Because of the line-source dispersion characteristics of the 20.7s, only a relatively small amount of their sound output is radiated toward the ceiling and floor. This has the desirable effect of minimizing unwanted reflections from the floor and ceiling, compared to a point-source speaker. Further, the midrange driver and tweeter tend to produce most of their energy on-axis, so sidewall reflections are considerably reduced as well. All of this helps with imaging and accuracy of the soundstage. It also minimizes (but may not completely eliminate) the need to make adjustments to the room.
How Are the 20.7s Different from the 20.1s?
I wish I could fully answer that question. Wendell Diller, great host that he was, was almost mum on the physical differences between the 20.7s and their predecessors. Very frustrating, to say the least. All I could get out of him was that they used higher quality capacitors in the crossover and to “listen and you will hear.” But I did learn from Jonathan Valin’s excellent 2012 blog about the 20.7s (highly recommended reading), and also from the folks at Audio Research, that the midrange driver in the 20.7 is new, with half the mass of the quasi-ribbon panel in the 3.7s. That may help explain the more seamless blend between midrange and tweeter, definitely smoother in that respect than the 20.1s. The crossover is also new and, after break-in, seems to be one of the major contributors to the success of the 20.7s.
There are also some physical differences between the 20.7s and its predecessors that are readily apparent to the user. First, Magnepan finally has done away with the bulky and seemingly power-hungry external crossover. The crossover network is now entirely built into the speaker. This makes initial setup much easier. The connections at the rear of the speaker have also changed slightly. In the 20.1s, there is a connector for loudspeaker cable that works best with banana plugs. The 20.1s have a similar connection that can also be used to insert resistor leads for the purpose of slightly attenuating the output of the tweeter. Magnepan does supply resistors for that purpose, although I have achieved very slightly smoother sound by using several high-quality resistors in parallel to achieve the desired value, such as one ohm. Magnepan supplies a thick metal bar to insert in place of a resistor if you choose not to attenuate the tweeter. Again, I have obtained a very slight sonic improvement over this bar by using a high-quality speaker jumper. Since my speaker cables are Audioquest Volcano, I also use Volcano jumpers made for this purpose.
The 20.7s continue with the same connection protocol, except now there is an additional input in which to insert a resistor to attenuate the output of the midrange panel. I tried a resistor in this location for only a short period of time before deciding that midrange attenuation was not the way to go, particularly in light of the substantial output of the bass panel. So I use another Volcano jumper at this location. The last readily observed change to the 20.7s is the elimination of the metal feet at the base of the speaker. In their place is a new oval shaped wooden base, about 1-¼” high, running the full width of the speaker. I think the new base looks more elegant than the metal feet and seems to offer a sturdier mounting surface.
A Breakthrough in Full-Range Planar Music Reproduction
The previous 20.1s have offered world-class midrange and highs, with world-class bass definition and very good but not world-class midbass punch or slam. Many people, including me, would gladly trade an ill-defined boom box for high-definition planar bass. On the other hand, with a flagship speaker, why should we trade anything? The same question applies to dynamic and horn systems costing upper-five through six figures. At that price, why shouldn’t the speakers do everything? They should, but often they don’t. That is why it is relatively common to see very large and expensive dynamic speakers and horn systems being used with (usually very expensive) subwoofers.
The 20.7s offer substantial improvements over the treble and midrange reproduction of the 20.1s, although I am not sure these improvements qualify as “breakthroughs” as such. They are probably more evolutionary in nature. First, the tweeter seems much better integrated with the midrange driver. In the past, it was not uncommon for the ribbon tweeter to “stand out” on its own with some types of music. For me, this necessitated a loading resistor for the tweeter, balancing the value of the resistor between extended and airy highs, on the one hand, with making sure the tweeter did not call attention to itself, on the other. With the 20.7s I have not encountered this issue. At first I installed the resistors out of habit, believing they would be necessary. But the tweeter sounded smooth and open without calling attention to itself, so I removed the attenuation tweeter and replaced it with a speaker jumper. The highs are now even more open than before, but still the tweeter does not seem to call attention to itself. This improvement in integration is a really nice achievement. The attenuation resistors can always be easily installed, with negligible degradation to the sound, if the user still believes there is a little too much treble output in his or her room.
The ribbon tweeter remains a work of art, easily overlooked when one is confronted with a wide array of competing tweeter technologies. With the right source material, it offers unparalleled delicacy of timbre, laser-like focus into the farthest reaches of the stage, and superb air and atmosphere (if on the recording), all without harshness. Furthermore, it will play loudly enough to fully satisfy on music ranging from full orchestral to heavy metal, without distortion. To be fair, it still won’t play quite as loudly as many dome and horn tweeters. But I play rock and roll at very high levels in my medium/large listening room and have not had an issue with the tweeters of the 20.7s distorting, breaking up, or blowing protection fuses. Moreover, this tweeter seems to be able to retrieve innermost detail on a level with the best electrostats.
The 20.7 midrange driver is, in my view, also state-of-the-art in terms of transparency and tonal accuracy, commensurate with the tweeter. It seems somewhat, not a quantum amount, smoother and more coherent than the 20.1s. As already noted, the transition between midrange and tweeter is now more seamless. In listening to an old favorite, “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove” from the Dead Can Dance Into the Labyrinth LP (4AD), there is a refrain repeated by the vocalist, “I don’t believe you anymore.” As he lowers his voice at the end of the refrain, on the 20.1s his voice would sound ever so slightly thick and discontinuous. Not so on the 20.7s, where he sounds completely natural throughout. On all material auditioned with the 20.7s, acoustic instruments and voices sound remarkably like acoustic instruments and voices heard live. As Jonathan Valin wrote in his blog, the 20.7s will greatly appeal to those who seek “the absolute sound.” Don’t we all? These speakers are superb at conveying the sound of live acoustic instruments in a real performance environment. The instruments and vocalists are not miniaturized, nor are they enlarged. It is very possible that the more direct dispersion patterns of dynamic and horn speakers could lead to a conclusion that more information is being presented, but that appears to me to be a psychoacoustic effect. The same (or more) information is being presented by the Maggie tweeter and midrange (and bass panel), but its slightly more diffuse overall presentation may lead some to erroneously conclude that some information is missing. It’s not.
I would be remiss if I did not here mention what I believe to be one of the greatest advantages of a large line-source speaker: the size and location of the image in the vertical and horizontal planes. Whether the listener is seated or even standing, the orchestra, soloists, band, or singers are presented dimensionally in a way closer to real life than can be achieved by almost any other speaker design, large or small. There is little to no sense of compression in any dimensional plane. Instruments float in space at ear level, even if you are standing. If the source material and your listening room allow, instruments also float in space to the sides and to the rear of the speakers. Small floorstanders simply cannot offer this degree of realism—all too often it seems like you are listening to a miniaturized orchestra or soloist. In my view, even most large dynamic speakers may not be as convincing as the 20.7s in size and space. All too often the large floorstanding speaker, even flagships costing over $100,000, rely primarily on a single dome tweeter facing the listener, sometimes augmented with a rear-firing tweeter to add “ambience.” To me, it often seems that regardless of how large the dynamic speaker may be, the sound seems “beamed” from wherever the dome tweeter or horn tweeter (or midrange) may be located. (I am preparing for the hate letters.) With its tall line-source tweeter and midrange, the 20.7s do not exhibit this “beaming” effect and seem to offer a more uniform and lifelike presentation of instruments and people in real space, regardless of exactly where you may be seated. I am not saying that seating position is unimportant with the 20.7s—it is. To obtain the best staging laterally, there is still a “sweet spot,” although that spot is wide enough to allow for more than one listener. But regardless of where you sit, the tall line source still seems to place lifelike-sized instruments in a close to lifelike-sized vertical and horizontal space. That is an accomplishment and feature not to be undervalued.
While on the subject of the soundstage, the 20.7s will exhibit excellent depth so long as there is adequate open space between the speaker and the front wall. Indeed, for the first time the 20.7s even reproduce sounds and ambience behind the listener, but more about that in a minute. As you move the speakers closer to the wall, the sense of depth will compress. Thus, to get the great reproduction of which the 20.7s are capable, the potential buyer must be willing to commit to placing the speakers properly in the room. To anyone considering the purchase of any large speaker system, dynamic or horn or planar, I do not believe this should be a significant issue. All of them need to be placed somewhat into the room to sound their best. To be sure, the 20.7s will sound excellent in smaller rooms and placed closer to the walls, but to realize their full performance potential they need room to breathe. (Magnepan the company, in its written materials and on its website, is careful not to prescribe any specific rules concerning placement of the speakers or associated equipment, although helpful general guidelines are given.) In my experience with the 20 Series, I believe they need to be placed at least four to five feet in front of the front wall. If room permits, a distance of seven to eight feet would be optimal, but not absolutely essential for enjoyment of the 20.7s.
As noted, another apparent improvement of the 20.7s over the 20.1s is in the linearity of phase response. With the 20.1s, on some material I would experience the sound wrapping somewhat around the sidewalls between myself and the speakers. But with the 20.7s, for the first time I hear sounds and possibly out-of-phase effects wrap not just around the entire wall, but also behind my head as well. I have heard this effect at some of my friends’ homes with very phase-accurate speakers, but I have not heard much of it before on the 20s. It substantially adds to the sense of air and space and helps the speakers disappear. For example, on the song “Climbatize” from the killer Prodigy LP Fat of the Land [XL], there is a whooshing sound at the beginning and interspersed throughout that, in the past, seemed to emanate from about the middle of the right sidewall. With the 20.7s, that sound now starts way behind me, seemingly from the middle of the rear wall. Now there are also holographic sound effects on the left side that I simply never heard before. At the end of the song there appears to be a shaker instrument of some type that previously seemed pretty holographic in the front half of my room. Now the sounds from the shaker tail off behind me, off the rear wall. I have had the same experience with a number of LPs and CDs—i.e., hearing holographic effects I did not know were there. Very cool stuff.
While the improvements discussed above are substantial and beneficial, where is this so-called “breakthrough” I have been trumpeting? It’s in the midbass and bass of the 20.7s. For many of you who have owned or listened extensively to full-range planars in the past, it may be safe to say that, while you admired the bass, you still were left wanting to some extent. You may have wanted more of the “slam” offered by good dynamic drivers. Or you may have wanted the woofer to plumb greater depths. Or you may have wanted both. I recall at New York audio shows in years past, even Magnepan demonstrated the 20s or 20.1s with cone subwoofers, not with great results. There was too much overlap between the Maggie bass and the subwoofers, leading to a muddy and ill-defined low end. Most owners of large planars that I have spoken with, whether those speakers be planar-magnetics or electrostatic, have wished for greater bass slam and extension while retaining all the high-definition “goodness” of their speakers. Many have tried and continue to use subwoofers, with varying amounts of success. Others refuse to use subwoofers out of concern for damaging the coherent and well-integrated bass already offered by their speaker.
But, with certain conditions being met, the midbass and bass of the 20.7s is so satisfying that I don’t think the thoughts “lack of slam” or “needs a subwoofer” will come to anyone, even on a subliminal level. This is the first large full-range planar I have heard that is fully convincing on orchestral bass, timpani, rock bass guitar and drum kits. On great orchestral material, you feel the full weight of the orchestra and are transported to enough of the recording space to lose sense of the dimensions of your room. On rock, electronic and dance music, you want to. . . . get up and dance (for me, if nobody is watching)! Isn’t this what the high end is supposed to be? In my view, if the bass isn’t right or close to right, the presentation is more polite and you lose many of these sensations.
But there’s always something, and the exemplary bass performance of which the 20.7s are capable does not come all that easily. I have written several versions of this section over the past few months and I have had to throw them all away. The ribbon tweeter and quasi-ribbon midrange sound really good “right out of the box” and only improve as time goes on. But the bass panel is a different story. When I first connected these speakers to the same equipment I have been using for quite a while on my 20.1s, I thought the bass was almost unlistenable. In fact, I could not understand why Magnepan released a speaker that sounded like this. The midbass was boomy, somewhat heavy and lacked control. There was low bass, but it too was boomy and various frequencies sounded distressingly like the same note.
But I learned that the key with this speaker is perseverance and patience, a lot of patience. Simply put, these speakers require substantial break-in and certain types of electronics seem to offer better results than others. No warning as to necessary break-in is offered by Magnepan in the somewhat sparse owner’s manual, but it should be. As I continued to play music, I could observe that the bass quality and quantity were changing, if not on a daily basis, then at least a weekly basis. Recordings that sounded unacceptable in the bass a week or two earlier, gradually started to sound tighter and more controlled, if not yet where I thought they should be. The speakers continued on their upward-sloping odyssey of improvement in this regard. I was not sure what awaited at the top of the slope, if indeed I could be certain I was at the top.
My reference amplifiers, VTL 750s, have always been a good match for the large Maggies. More than enough clean power, great sense of space and ease in presentation. Even though I continued to hear the bass response of the speakers improve over the course of the first 80–100 hours of listening (and I also played the speakers when I was out of the house), I started to wonder if an all-tube amp was the best choice for this bass panel. The midrange and highs were wonderful, but the bass was not yet in their league. Maggies have always sounded great on tube gear, indeed it is one of their strengths, but I thought experimentation might be in order for the 20.7s. I also thought it very possible, if not likely, that these speakers were developed using solid-state amps. But I am a tube aficionado and did not want to completely abandon the sound of tubes. What to do? I called Jim White of Aesthetix Audio, who was kind enough to loan me a pair of his Atlas Signature monoblock amplifiers. These hybrid amps feature a solid-state output with a tube input. They seem to offer damping and control similar to a purely solid-state amp and a lot of power—rated 300 watts into eight ohms and 600 watts into the four ohm load presented by the Maggies.
With the Atlas Signatures in the system, the midbass and bass immediately sounded more controlled and coherent. These amps seem to offer a better grip on the bass panels than the VTLs, although other all-tube amps may offer different results with these speakers. I did put the VTLs back in the system a few times as the speakers continued to break in—the bass continued to substantially improve and ultimately became quite acceptable, but never quite to the point of the Atlas. Sure, the presentation of the Atlas in the midrange and highs was not quite as “tube-like” as the VTLs, for better and worse, but the Atlas sounds more tube-like than not and seems to offer most of the benefit of tubes with the control and slam of good solid-state. Not a bad trade-off and, in my system, it sounds stellar. Moreover, the Atlas Signature monos are in a price range ($16,000 per pair) consonant with the purchase of the 20.7s, and the 750s are no longer being made. Most of the newer, high-powered all-tube amps are more expensive than the Atlas. Less powerful all-tube amps, especially newer designs with improved components, may be very satisfactory with the 20.7s as well. Experimentation is the key.
Almost all reviews of larger Magneplanars mention that the speakers need power. You will not read differently here. On the 20 Series I have had good luck in the past with tube and solid-state amplifiers in the 300-watt range, or larger. The speakers are relatively low in sensitivity although they do not appear to provide a difficult load for the amplifiers, at least for the amplifiers I have had available. Smaller amplifiers will certainly drive the speaker, but will probably not be adequate if you like to listen to large-scale music at levels approaching realism. Because these speakers are truly full-range and will reveal even subtle changes in the equipment chain, I believe it is safe to say that no amplifier is “too good” for the 20.7s. It should be noted, as Jonathan Valin pointed out in his blog, the Maggies still seem to need a little kick in volume before they really come alive and exhibit their best dynamics. And yes, the dynamic range of the 20.7 at full tilt is awesome, unprecedented in my view for a planar, but still not quite as wide-ranging as the largest dynamic and horn systems.
With the newly found transparency, coherence, and bass slam of the 20.7s, I also find them to be much more enjoyable at lower listening levels than the 20.1s. Still, the dynamic contrasts at low listening levels do not seem quite as pronounced as with a good cone or horn system. At the other end of the spectrum, I agree in general with Jonathan Valin’s conclusion that at higher listening levels you may not get all of bass weight and slam offered by larger cone woofers. Nevertheless, in my slightly larger listening room I find the bass output and quality of the 20.7s to be revelatory for a planar and very competitive with most large dynamic systems.
I cannot explain why it takes so long for the bass panels on the 20.7s to break in. I can speculate that it may be a function of the new capacitors being used in the crossover, or the initial tightness of the bass panel itself, or a combination thereof. At the present, with well over 200 hours on the speakers, I believe they are fully broken in. The end result: highly defined midbass and bass with no sense of boxiness or boom. Cellos and doublebasses seem real, with an in-the-room reality that is stunning. Bass drums and timpanis rumble and roll throughout the room, as in an orchestral hall. There’s more. The midbass has a degree of slam simply not heard before on a full-planar design. The kickdrum has real kick. Honestly, in my room it sounds as if Magnepan has somehow stuffed one or two very high quality 15″ bass drivers into the cabinet, only with better definition. This is not hyperbole. If you have the opportunity or make the opportunity to hear a fully broken-in set of 20.7s, you will see and hear for yourself.
Of course, this bass reproduction still may not satisfy everyone. In my room, I seem to have substantial output to at least 25Hz. While I do not really feel that anything is missing, I have some recordings that contain information below 25Hz. I am aware that these speakers are not quite retrieving the very lowest organ fundamentals or lowest synthesizer notes, but in truth the 20.7s’ reproduction of organ and synth are still exemplary. I confess I do not listen to organ recordings that frequently and if you are an organ aficionado, these may not be the best choice in speakers for you. In addition, while the 20.7s are capable of an extraordinary amount of “slam,” it is not quite the same as slam produced by cones. The 20.7s certainly exhibit tighter and more transparent bass than most dynamic speakers, but I believe that as the frequencies go below about 50Hz, well-designed cone subwoofers may offer a slightly greater degree of control, punch, and certainly greater extension. Yet the bass from the 20.7s is so satisfying overall, I would not think of attempting to mate a subwoofer to these speakers. One of the goals of adding good subwoofers is to obtain a larger sense of the space of the venue. The bass of the 20.7s is certainly more than adequate to accomplish most-to-all of that goal, without the need for subwoofers.
So when you put this ribbon tweeter and quasi-ribbon midrange and (fully-broken-in) quasi-ribbon bass panel all together, how do they sound? In a word, transcendent. The speakers are physically quite large but the extent to which they sonically disappear is amazing. For example, on really good orchestral recordings (see below), the sound is laid out in the middle of the speakers, behind the speakers, on the speakers, in front of the speakers, to the sides of the speakers, and even sometimes behind the seated listener. Within this wonderful and stable constellation of instruments, it is not that difficult to lose track of the size and location of the 20.7s, big as they are. If you are partial to large-scale orchestral music, as am I, these are the speakers for you unless you are prepared to spend far greater sums on loudspeakers, and even then there will be trade-offs. I pulled out some of my old Deccas and was rewarded with virtual travel to another place and time. I first put on a favorite disc of Julius Katchen playing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, Pierre Monteux conducting. I have been playing this record for years. I dropped the needle, sat down and immediately the walls of the room melted away to a much larger space. Stunning. Strings were sweet and sometimes abrasive, as real strings will sound. And the piano sounded amazingly real and present. Not present as in the sense of a piano in my room in front of the speakers, but realistically present on a stage well behind the speakers. When Katchen entered in the first movement, every note hung in space in the center of the orchestra, slightly above seated ear-level. This is just as I hear it when I am seated in the orchestra of almost every symphony hall I have visited. There’s more. Wait until you hear the lower registers of any well-recorded piano through the 20.7s. I have always admired the reproduction of piano through the larger Wilson speakers, especially their ability to convey the concussive quality of the instrument. The Maggies don’t have quite the impact in this regard, but are surprisingly close. Moreover, the 20.7s are stellar in conveying the timbre and weight of the lower registers. Because all of the notes of the piano are reproduced by low-mass planar drivers, the lower notes are reproduced with the same precision and speed as the higher notes, leading, simply, to a more convincing piano. In dynamic speaker systems the upper registers are often reproduced by dome tweeters or small cones, while the lower registers are generally reproduced by larger cones. Obviously, this can still lead to an excellent-sounding piano, if the design is good. But piano reproduction through the 20.7s may be unsurpassed in the sense of continuity from lowest to highest note.
Yet another formidable aspect of the 20.7s was revealed with the Katchen Brahms. During even the most demanding passages, with piano, strings and woodwinds playing full tilt, the speakers never lost their cool. By that I mean each section of the orchestra and instrument in that section clearly had and maintained its own delineated space, surrounded by the ambience of the hall. Inner detail was easily perceived and the locations of all instruments on the stage never seemed compressed or jumbled. The soundstage was so stable that you could sense the size and location of certain sections of the orchestra even when no instrument in that section was playing. Now and then, depending on the passage being played, instruments would simply pop out of their reserved space. This is very much how the orchestra sounds in a live venue. In my opinion, there are very few loudspeakers at any price with the ability to portray a large orchestra with this degree of verisimilitude.
At the recent audio show in Newport Beach I picked up some records from Chad Kassem (Acoustic Sounds). He urged me to try his re-issue of the famous RCA recording of Scheherazade with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. I told him that I had a number of original copies at home, please show me something else, but he pressed on anyway. (There are reasons he’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest, retailer of vinyl today.) So I bought it and thought I would try it, for fun, during the course of this review. I confess—I am a total snob when it comes to originals versus reissues. While I refuse to get drawn into the original v. reissue debate, I will say this: His reissue is fantastic in its own right. The entire recording seems tonally correct and offers a huge sense of space, with great dynamic contrasts. I have heard the fourth movement a thousand times, including at audio shows, but this time I almost fell out of my chair. Totally explosive! If this doesn’t give you goosebumps, check your pulse. Glad he talked me into it.
Portrayal of violin through the Maggies was equally satisfying, whether it was Heifetz playing the Bruch Concerto in G Minor [RCA], or Menuhin playing the Mendelssohn Concerto with Efrem Kurtz [EMI]. As I am writing this, I am listening to Ricci playing Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole with Ansermet conducting [Decca]. Ricci’s violin is full bodied, soaring in the middle front of the orchestra, with great presence. And it’s fast! Cello? Try the famous Brahms Sonatas for Cello and Piano with Janos Starker [Mercury]. Unlike most of the recordings mentioned above, this time Starker’s cello and Sebok’s piano are in the room with you. Definition and timbre of the cello and piano are exemplary. If you darken the room a bit and sit back, you will realize that the monoliths in front of the room, despite their size, can sound truly intimate. As intimate as a small monitor played at moderate levels? No and yes. No in the sense that a small monitor can obviously disappear more easily than large speakers. But certainly more intimate in the sense that, with the 20.7s, it seems like a life-sized cello and piano, played by life-sized people, are in the room with you. To me, that’s intimate. Likewise, if you play the wonderful Shostakovich cello sonata with Daniel Shafran [RCA], a true sense of intimacy is conveyed. Life-size instruments are in the room with you, or at least on a stage right in front of you. It is impossible not to get lost in the emotion of the music when it is presented like this.
Whatever you may decide to play, I doubt the 20.7s will disappoint. Each instrument in the Brahms Piano Quartet in C Minor, Festival Quartet [RCA] is beautifully delineated in its own space, with a real sense of a physical body playing the instrument. Or try Stravinsky’s L’Histoire Du Soldat with Stravinsky conducting [Columbia]. A tremendous sense of air and space while instruments from the doublebasses to the strings to the woodwinds are realistically portrayed. In Part I, the Soldier at the Brook, the cornet is simply startling in its clarity and presence. And throughout, the bass drum rumbles through the room in a way only dreamed of by the 20.1s or, indeed, any large planar that has come before.
How about jazz? Or rock? Good questions. I think it will come as a surprise to many that the 20.7s can project a trumpet, sax, or trombone into the room with almost the same power and drive as a large dynamic system or even a horn, with a richness and fullness of body that eludes most other speakers of any type. Try Ellington Indigos [Columbia] through the 20.7s and see if you don’t agree that on “Prelude to a Kiss,” Johnny Hodges is there, in your room, giving a private performance of his sax. And on “Tenderly,” Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet is featured alone in centerstage until the full orchestra joins in, spread across the room to the far right and far left of the speakers. The 20.7s almost disappear into this panorama of instruments. Or listen to the powerful and amazingly present sax of Sonny Rollins in “How High the Moon,” from Sonny Rollins & The Contemporary Leaders [Contemporary]. I believe that Ying Tan and his ORG recordings group are making some of today’s best reissues of jazz classics (but I have yet to hear the Blue Note reissues of Ron Rambach and Music Matters, or most of the reissues by Acoustic Sounds, which others tell me are also terrific). On the 20.7s, the ORG reissue of Mingus Ah Um has more drive and presence than I have heard not only on any other planar, but most dynamic speakers as well. Ying Tan’s earlier Groove Note reissue of The Red Hot Ray Brown Trio has also become one of my most-played albums. I know I am sounding like a broken record, pardon the bad pun, but on these speakers Ray Brown’s bass and Gene Harris’ piano have a new-found life and vitality, with great definition and transparency.
Rock and roll through the 20.7s? Let’s do that. With the speaker’s new and improved midbass punch, coupled with the great transparency and openness of the ribbon and quasi-ribbon drivers, listening sessions with classics like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin leave a new insight and appreciation for music I have heard hundreds of times. And there is a lot of great rock available by new(er) groups whom I have now heard many times in concert. Fortunately, most of them love vinyl and release almost all of their music on vinyl as well as CD. For example, I am a big fan of Franz Ferdinand and their two-record set Tonight (Domino) is killer if you are into alt bands. It’s a little digital sounding but still, if you like this kind of rock, you will find it impossible to just sit still in your chair. Try the entire side of “What She Came For,” “Live Alone,” and “Can’t Stop Feeling.” On the new Maggies the sound literally rocks the house—one of the few times I started wondering if I might be bothering my neighbors. But if you buy this set, the first song to play is “Lucid Dreams.” The first section of the song is vocal while the last few minutes are instrumental—in fact, it sounds like they hired a DJ to help with this last section. I can’t really describe the instruments being used, it is mostly electronic in any event, but I assure you that with the 20.7s this cut swirls and drives through the entire room, front, back and sides. The walls and speakers disappear.
As you have read, I believe the 20.7s are a complete success. They are the first full-range planars, of any design, that I have heard that are fully satisfying from lowest to highest frequency, from small chamber ensemble to largest orchestra and chorus, from jazz soloist to kick-ass rock and roll band. They are not perfect and they do not do everything as well as some of the most expensive dynamic and horn speaker systems. They do not have quite the dynamic extremes of these other designs, nor quite the low-level detail of the best minis or electrostats. But, in the real world and for most listening rooms, these differences are minor. Moreover, the dynamic contrasts and detail resolution of the 20.7s are so good that the only speakers that could possibly give them a run for the money cost many multiples of the $13,850 list price of the 20.7s. In fact, I believe that the only true competition comes from speakers costing in excess of $80,000, and even then the Maggies will continue to excel in many respects.
Magnepan, the company, would focus on what a great value the 20.7s are at their asking price. I would focus on what a great value the 20.7s are compared to almost any other speaker on the market, regardless of price. They offer the great resolution of a full-range planar with, for the first time, truly dynamic bass capabilities. You will not need or even think about adding a subwoofer. They offer a panoramic and three-dimensional stage when called for, yet can be intimate and place solo performers in your room for your private entertainment.
So when contemplating the purchase of the 20.7s, in some ways it may be prudent not to consider the price. But then again you must. You should not consider price in the sense that just because this speaker is not priced in the stratosphere, does not mean it is not capable of stratospheric performance. In that regard, I believe it is one of the great audio bargains being offered today. It is a contender for best in show, regardless of price. The concept of “low cost” should also be jettisoned when choosing upstream audio gear. The 20.7s will work well with lower cost equipment, for sure, but their best performance will be obtained with high-quality amplifiers, preamplifiers, and front-end gear. Care must be taken in the selection of this equipment to maximize the potential of the 20.7s, especially their bass panels. But most of us must also take price into account by contemplating how to maximize the use of our audio budget, unless it is unlimited in size. Certainly a stellar system built around the 20.7s and appropriate associated equipment, while not inexpensive by any test, would cost far less than a comparable system built around competing speakers in a much higher price category.
There are other important factors to consider if the 20.7s are on your horizon. They are large but do not take up an inordinate amount of floor space. To obtain their best performance and maximize their dispersion characteristics, they must be placed somewhat out into the room. But that is true of almost all high-end flagship loudspeaker of any design. The 20.7s are fairly inefficient and, in my experience, perform their best with amplifiers rated at 300 watts, or more, into four ohms. My time with the 20.7s indicates that the bass panel requires a great deal of break-in time to sound as intended. You will need to be patient for a number of weeks before these speakers sound their best. I have also experienced particularly good results with solid-state/tube hybrid amplifiers, but designs vary and certainly I have not had the opportunity to hear these speakers with all of the newer solid-state and tube designs available today. There may be all-tube designs that are a great match with these speakers; only experimentation will tell.
The promise of these speakers is great and their value, in an absolute sense and when compared to all other loudspeakers at any price, is undeniable. Whether or not you are in the market for new speakers, I think you will find your time well spent in seeking out and listening to the 20.7s at some length. Bring your favorite vinyl or other source material and discover the wonderful capabilities of these thoroughly modern, truly full-range planar loudspeakers.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Three-way planar-magnetic/true ribbon loudspeaker
Frequency response: 25Hz–40Hz
Sensitivity: 86dB, 500Hz, 1 meter, 2.83V
Impedance: 4 Ohms
Dimensions: 29″ x 79″ x 2.5″
1645 Ninth Street
White Bear Lake, MN 55110
Kuzma Stabi M turntable with Kuzma 4Point arm, Lyra Etna, Koetsu Rosewood Platinum Signature, and Kuzma CAR 40 cartridges, EMM Labs CD player, Aesthetix Eclipse Io phonostage with two power supplies, Aesthetix Eclipse Callisto linestage with two power supplies, Audio Research 5SE linestage, Aesthetix Atlas Signature monoblock and VTL 750 amplifiers, Purist Audio Design, Transparent, and AudioQuest cabling
By Don Saltzman
My stock in trade for the past 45 years or so has been business litigation. If you are being sued for breach of contract or, better yet, you want to sue someone who has done you wrong, just give me a call. I love courtroom brawls.More articles from this editor
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