Veritable books have been written about the Magnepan speaker company and its Magneplanar speakers. I’m not going to reiterate that history here. Instead, I will relate my particular experiences using the latest iteration of the sophomore model, the .7. The Magnepan .7 Quasi Ribbon planar speaker retains the tidy appearance of a field of speaker material broken only by the wooden or optional metal side rails and its stand. A variety of color options are available for the fabric and rails; see the Magnepan website. The optional contemporary clear oval stand with upright posts for mounting the speaker at the bottom adds a touch of flare to an otherwise unexciting appearance.
Are you a panel person?
The appeal of a panel speaker is the scale, the seemingly gargantuan size of the presentation. I liken the difference between a dynamic speaker and a panel speaker to the difference between a tornado and straight-line wind. A tornado curls and compacts the wind with concentrated force. Straight-line wind is concentrated wind pushed outward as a mobile wall of pressure, less compact but nearly as destructive. In both the dynamic and panel speaker technologies size matters, just as there is a world of difference between a dust devil and a tornado, or a stiff breeze and straight-line wind. However, the perceived nature of the sound remains consistent with the technology employed.
Concentration of the images and vastness of the experience are, to my ears, the two variables that differ most between dynamic and panel speakers. Both types of speakers can be detailed and warm as well as inviting to the ear, or they can be sloppy, harsh and uninviting. I have not found panel speakers to be inherently more detailed than dynamic speakers, but I have found panels to be more panoramic, spreading the images more than dynamic speakers do. This is true nearly universally between dynamic and panel speakers. Your job is to hear both types and determine whether one seems inherently more “real” to your ears.
Magnepan has rightly garnished a reputation for offering excellent performance at a reasonable cost. Additionally, since there is no dedicated power supply necessary for the panel’s operation, as with an electrostatic speaker, it is broadly a user-friendly panel speaker. With the updates in construction of the panels to extend life expectancy, the owner who does not abuse his Magneplanar speakers can enjoy many trouble-free years of high quality sound.
Review system configurations
The review systems I assembled for the .7 revolved around the Salk Audio StreamPlayer Gen III file server/streamer with embedded Roon music interface software and Tidal streaming audio service. I upgraded the sound of the StreamPlayer III with the addition of a HD-Plex Linear 100 Watt Power Supply. In constant use was the Exogal Comet DAC with its upgraded PLUS Power Supply. The Comet has an integral digital volume control, so no separate preamp was used in this system. I strongly encourage those still using a traditional preamp/amp combination in association with an outboard DAC to try a DAC with integrated volume control as this category of component is making great strides in becoming a new standard for digital sources.
Two other points about the review systems. First, I assembled an alternative setup using the Eastern Electric Minimax DSD Supreme DAC in conjunction with the TEO Audio Liquid Pre, both reviewed and highly recommended at their price points. I ran the same amplification schemes as outlined below (except for the Exogal Ion), and the outcome did not vary in terms of the overall perception of the amplifiers or the character of the speakers. Yes, there were nuances, variations on a theme as it were, but in no instance did the .7 revolt or reinvent itself.
The other notable point is in regard to system cabling. Two brands were used throughout the review, TEO Audio and Clarity Cable. TEO Cable sounds more light and open, while Clarity Cable sounds denser and more bottom-end weighted by comparison. The important takeaway regarding system construction is that when given the opportunity, double the speaker cables in a parallel fashion. For example, I keep on hand a set of Cardas single banana adapters that turn speaker cable spade terminations into banana terminations. The Cardas adapters accept a second set of banana terminated speaker cables directly into their hollow backsides. This allows piggybacking the banana connections, effectively increasing the amount of conductor material used in connecting the speakers to the amp. This is a method I use when I run the .7.
Does it work? Of course it does, or else I wouldn’t recommend it. It is so efficacious that after the initial review work is completed I never listen to any single-wired speaker with only one set of cables – I always seek to double them (parallel) up. Note well: This is an entirely “at your own risk” proposition. If you are hasty or hook them up incompetently, you will either trip your amp’s protection circuitry (if it has such) or blow your amp. All connections must be perfectly parallel with no leads crossed over to an inappropriate post.
If done successfully you will have upgraded the .7 to a very much improved version, the homemade .7 Extreme, let’s say. Everything about the performance improves, and I should not have to spend much time discussing that concept; you will either believe me or not. Let those who trust my system-building instincts consider this upgrade – and the potential risks – and capture a better performance from the .7.
You can accomplish the same thing by using a speaker cable with double the total gauge. However, that does not allow for bi-wiring when suitable. It also can become cost prohibitive to chase ever larger, more expensive speaker cables. The key is finding the best cable with massive total gauge when doubled, and for a reasonable price for the set.
The amp is critical
In many instances speakers are efficient enough that one can drive them pretty well with nearly any decent amp or even a mass-market receiver if necessary. Take a dynamic speaker that is rated at 6-8 Ohms and sensitivity from 88 dB or higher and you can get acceptable results using anything from an SET or higher powered tube amp to a hybrid tube-solid state design, solid state Class A, Class A/B or even Class D design.
A speaker like the Magnepan .7, which is of 4 Ohm impedance and 86dB sensitivity, is a different matter as it is significantly less efficient, meaning the speaker is tougher to drive and requires an amp that produces plenty of current to drive the speaker successfully. If lower-powered amps with less current output are used, the results suffer. Magnepan takes an agnostic approach to the question of how much power is needed. They rightly suggest the best approach is to set up a demo at a dealer incorporating into the system the model of Magneplanar speaker you wish to hear along with an amplifier you are considering. Also correct is the generality that customers who buy the larger models of speakers also tend to spend more, and often get more power, in their amps. So, the answer from Magnepan is summarized as follows; customers’ preferences for power are all over the map, you really need to listen for yourself, and the bigger speakers tend to be paired with more powerful amps. The website states, “We hear of customers that are perfectly happy with 50 watts and others using 1000 watts. Without the option of listening with you, we have no way to give meaningful advice.”
That response doesn’t resolve the question of whether a more powerful amp in general is to be preferred. Magnepan is playing it safe, as many manufacturers do, by not making a strong recommendation. They have too many variants of systems used to take sides, so they deflect the question. If I were at Magnepan, I likely would do the same.
However, I can answer the question forthright. If you think you can obtain the same results with a low quality or underpowered amp, you are wrong, and the sound quality you achieve will be relatively poor. There has never been an instance where, other aspects of amplifier performance being equal, I would prefer a lower-powered amp for a panel speaker. The .7 with lower power will be flabbier sounding (which is often confused as a “full” sound), more congealed, and less dynamically alive. It will also suffer in terms of a shrunken soundstage. The only aspect in which it might excel would be tonality.
To give you an idea of how important this is, one of the systems I used with the .7 incorporated the Red Dragon S500 class D amplifiers, which boast 500wpc in stereo into 4 Ohms and 1,000wpc mono into 4 Ohms. However, there are other solid-state designs that offer opportunity to configure the system such that even better performance can be achieved. Simply put, it is nearly impossible to get from any Magneplanar speaker its best performance when you under power it.
This is not a quality issue. Case in point, the First Watt J2 is a lovely 25wpc lower-power amplifier that is worthy of consideration if you have higher efficiency speakers. The J2 is laudable with the PureAudioProject Trio15 Voxativ open-baffle speaker, and nothing short of mind blowing with the Trio15 Horn-1 version now under review. I knew the J2 amplifiers would be challenged to shine with the .7 and indeed the Quasi Ribbons did sound recessed and lacking in macrodynamics. The soundstage was deflated and definition reduced relative to the expansion and precision gained with higher-powered amps. That does not mean the .7 was tonally superior with higher-powered amps. That is the crux of the problem, as a lower-powered amp may be perceived by some listeners to have a “sweeter” character than a higher-powered one. For that reason, even though dynamics and overall definition might be somewhat reduced, a subset of audiophiles who listen at well below live levels may opt for the lower-powered amp. However, they are willingly or unwittingly foregoing much of the potential of the speaker when they do so.
There likely will not be a meltdown or a blow up if you drive the .7 conservatively with a mass-market receiver, or a lower-powered high-quality amplifier such as the First Watt J2. But if you like to approach live listening levels with the Magneplanar, prepare yourself for possible distortion because you are simply overdriving the speakers with insufficient power. Also expect potential damage, or at least having a fuse blown or circuit protection feature tripped due to too much demand for current from the amp. You are not likely to damage the robust Nelson Pass designed J2, but could harm a less robustly built amp. I do not listen at such levels and do not recommend audiophiles assault their hearing in such a fashion.
Simply put, a beautiful amp and a fine speaker do not always make for the best sound. Pay attention to the amplification needs of your speaker and seek one with proper design to maximize the potential for the best sound. I normally recommend that speakers such as the .7 be powered by at least 200wpc, and ideally by an amp that is rated to 2 Ohms impedance. An amp designed to drive lower-impedance speakers, including electrostatic speakers, can crush the .7. Pair it with the REDGUM RGi 120 ENR Integrated amp (under review), which has 500wpc into 2 Ohms and a high current design, makes the .7 snap to attention.
If you desire to make the .7 sound its best be prepared to spend more, perhaps much more, on the amplification. If you are under the impression that one always spends far less on the amplification than the speakers, then you likely will choke the performance of the .7. Then again, the .7 is very reasonably priced. There is an exception in terms of the power rating that I mention below, but it requires an unorthodox system configuration.