Magnepan 30.7 Loudspeaker, Part One

by Jonathan Valin | 

Over the years I’ve listened to just about every loudspeaker that Jim Winey’s fabled Minnesota company Magnepan has engineered and manufactured. I’ve also owned more Magneplanars than any other kind of loudspeaker. Why? Because from the moment I first heard the Tympani 1-Us in Basil Gouletas’ Chicago apartment back in 1973—and I’ve written about that paradigm-changing moment repeatedly—I haven’t been able to get past the realism with which these planar-magnetic panels (and way back when, they were completely planar-magnetic) reproduce voices and acoustic instruments.

While it is much easier to hear what Maggies do right than to explain why, I’m gonna give explanation a try.

To begin with, Maggies have no box and, hence, no box coloration. Given the strides that have been made in dynamic drivers and their enclosures, you might think this wouldn’t make as dramatic a difference as it did years ago. But with the exception of speakers that use extremely inert enclosures, like those of Magico (to my ear, Magicos have always sounded more like Maggies than any other dynamic transducers), that really isn’t the case. Boxes, no matter how skillfully made, are still boxes, and to varying degrees they still add their own resonant colorations to the sound. (They also add confusion to the sound, due in part to the turbulence of the backwaves that are rattling around inside them.) Typically this results in a dark, woody hue overlying the natural tonality of instruments, some elongation (or truncation) of the duration of the dynamic/harmonic envelope, and a masking of fine detail—faults the Maggies simply don’t suffer from.

Now I’ll grant that the sound of box speakers can often be very attractive—that the spring-like action of air trapped inside (or vented partly from within) their enclosures adds “zip” to attacks, tonal density and dynamic weight to the upper bass and lower midrange, and slam to the midbass. Indeed, for those listeners who put beauty and excitement first, the added color and power of box speakers are indispensable. For listeners looking for an approximation of the sound of the real thing, however, these are colorations that one almost never hears in life, unless the orchestra itself is enclosed in a box (as a pit orchestra is) or its sound is being amplified by loudspeakers in a hall or auditorium.

Second, Maggies are dipole line-source rather than dynamic point-source loudspeakers. This means they generate their sound in free space forward and backward, rather than sending half toward you and half into a sealed enclosure or an enclosure with a hole in it. Because of their highly coherent, figure-eight wavelaunch, line sources like the Maggies tend to interact less destructively with listening rooms than point-source speakers do. They have little-to-no floor or ceiling bounce, zero output immediately to their sides, a backwave that is mostly dissipated by the room itself, close-to-uniform “power response” on- and off-axis, and zero cabinet diffraction. This doesn’t mean that they are a snap to set up; they are anything but. It just means that once properly positioned, they don’t add as much room sound to the presentation as typical dynamic speakers do. Combine this with their boxless openness, free-standing imaging, vast soundstage, phenomenal resolution of inner detail, lightning transient response, and sunny naturalness of timbre, and Maggies seem markedly less “there” as sources than almost any dynamic-speakers-in-a-box I’ve heard.

Third, like electrostats Maggies use extremely lightweight membrane drivers that have a much larger radiating area than cone drivers and that, unlike cone drivers, are uniformly driven over their entire surface, making for lower distortion and higher linearity in their passbands. Unlike cones, Maggies do not need extremely steep crossovers to keep breakup modes at bay (although, to be fair, Magnepan has in the past played various tricks to mask the differences in speed, distortion, and resolution among its planar-magnetic, quasi-ribbon, and true ribbon drivers). Even though I have some quibbles about earlier iterations of large single-panel Maggie’s (for which see the next paragraph), at their best Magnepans are very, very, very nearly as fast on transients, as high in resolution, as low in coloration and distortion, and as neutral in timbre as the most discerning electrostats (and considerably deeper-reaching and more linear in the bottom octaves than most ’stats).

Having said all this, let me admit that in my experience Maggies have also been among the most consistently frustrating loudspeakers I’ve heard and owned. When a component is nearly incomparable in certain respects, over time the areas in which it falls short (and all speakers fall short) start to weigh on you like Marley’s chains. And until just a few short weeks ago, the Maggies, particularly the large single-panel Maggies (the 3.7s and the 20.7s), brought burdens as well as blessings.

First, there was the matter of driver-to-driver coherence. While Magnepan’s true ribbon tweeter is a technological and sonic marvel, to my ear it never blended smoothly with Maggie’s quasi-ribbon drivers, which also didn’t blend seamlessly with Maggie’s planar-magnetic panels. (This is precisely why I’ve always preferred Maggie’s all-quasi-ribbon 1.x series to the larger single-panel speakers in its line. Yes, you lost some of the extension, resolution, and sheer glamor of Maggie’s true ribbon on the top end—and you definitely lost some of the amazing soundstage size and low-end reach of the bigger ’Pans—but what you gained back in octave-to-octave smoothness was well worth the sacrifice.)

Second, line-source Maggies do not have the laser-cut image focus of point-source cones; their images are quite a bit larger than those of box speakers, which is something that takes getting used to (or not). With big ensembles or big instruments like pianos or drumkits, this isn’t a problem; in fact, it is quite realistic. But vocalists can sometimes seem slightly outsized—and flat in aspect.

Which brings me to three: Maggies (or at least latter-day ones) don’t have quite the same three-dimensional body as cone speakers. And that is because they don’t have the power-range warmth and fullness (or box coloration, depending on your point of view) of cone speakers. To be fair, large single-panel Maggies have sometimes seemed a bit sucked-out in the power range (a byproduct, perhaps, of their dipole radiation pattern—and the bass-range phase-cancellation that can engender—and the largish passband of their single woofer), and though quite extended and well defined in the bottom octaves they definitely don’t do “slam” the way big dynamic speakers do. On acoustic instruments that play down into the low bass, such as doublebasses, timps, piano, organ, contrabassoon, they are nigh incomparably realistic. On Fender bass, synth, rock drumkit, or any instrument that is as much about power and impact as it is about pitch, timbre, and duration, the thrill, though not gone, is not there the way it is with, oh, big Wilsons.

Fourth, Maggies are extremely large and not particularly attractive loudspeakers that do anything but disappear in a living room. Though I’ve heard them perform quite well in smaller spaces, they tend to like big rooms and, regardless of the size of the listening space, they thrive on power. Though not difficult to drive, Maggies need lots of amplifier, though they don’t necessarily need crème de la crème amplification (for which, stay tuned).

Believe it or not, all of this has been by way of an introduction, because what I will be blogging about (in several installments over the next month or two) is a big (make that huge) Maggie that solves almost all of the past problems of Maggies large and small—a Maggie that is, in fact, the best ’Pan I’ve ever heard (and, once again, I’ve heard them all) and the best buy in an ultra-high-end loudspeaker I’ve ever come across.

For years now, I’ve been begging Mark Winey and Wendell Diller to build a new Tympani—a multi-panel Maggie that would inculcate the company’s latest technology, solve the driver-to-driver and power-range issues that plague Maggie’s large, single-panel speakers, and compete on a more even footing (as the three-panel Tympanis once did) with the flagships of the dynamic contingent.

I certainly wasn’t alone in nagging Mark and Wendell to cook up a new Tympani. My late colleague, mentor, and fellow Maggie lover, Mr. Pearson, also incessantly politicked for a statement Maggie (as did my pal Jacob Heilbrunn, whose comments are appended below). It is a genuine shame that HP didn’t live to see and hear the 30.7, for he would most certainly have loved them, as I most certainly do.

I’m not using that word “love” figuratively here, for on first listen the sound of the 30.7s brought back all of the thrill and wonder I first experienced in Basil’s home forty-five years ago, when the original Tympanis fooled me (and my wife, Kathy) into thinking that someone was playing the actual grand piano that was sitting behind those “decorative screens” in Basil’s living room.

Folks, if you’ve never heard a Magneplanar Tympani speaker (or if, like me, you haven’t heard one for decades), you will be stunned and amazed by what a big Magnepan is capable of—and in this case you will also be delighted by the improvements that Mark and Wendell and the Magnepan design team have wrought. This is, quite simply, the most top-to-bottom coherent, highest-resolution, most astonishingly lifelike planar loudspeaker I’ve ever heard (from Maggie or anyone else). On acoustic music of any kind, it is very nearly peerlessly realistic (especially through the midband), making almost everything else I’m familiar with—and I think I’ve heard most of the contenders—sound a little less jaw-droppingly “there.”

So what is a Magnepan 30.7? It is a four-panel (two panels per side), line-source, ribbon/quasi-ribbon loudspeaker system of considerable width (a little under four feet across per side!), height (about six-and-a-half feet), and just a couple of inches in depth. As the four panels that comprise a stereo pair are completely separate (not hinged to one another, as the panels on each side of the Tympanis once were), you will have considerable latitude in placement, which is both a blessing and a curse. (With great latitude comes great responsibility.)

Unlike previous big Maggies, the 30.7s are four-way (first-order crossovers) loudspeakers, with a quasi-ribbon low-bass and a “transitional” quasi-ribbon upper-bass/lower-midrange planar driver in the larger of the two panels (the use of two bass-range planars to span the bottom end and the power range dates back to the Tympani IVa, though the IVa was a three-way design with far less advanced planar-magnetics). The quasi-ribbon midrange and the true ribbon tweeter are housed in the second panel, which is the smaller (less wide, though just as tall and thin) of the pair. Wendell Diller tells me that “something new” has been incorporated in the quasi-ribbon midrange, though precisely what that is remains a secret.

However, the sonic effects of that secret—and of whatever more, and there is considerably more, that Mark, Wendell, and Maggie have done to improve sound quality (Wendell says that, properly set up, the 30.7 will reproduce a near-perfect square wave—i.e., step response)—are immediately apparent to the ear. This is the first and only Maggie I’ve heard in which Magnepan’s true ribbon tweeter doesn’t immediately stick out like a sore, uh, true ribbon. The blend—in speed, resolution, output, timbre—with the quasi-ribbon midrange is forehead-slappingly seamless, suggesting some kind of major reduction in the quasi’s breakup modes (or other distortions) through the crossover region, and perhaps some sort of taming of the ribbon tweeter itself.

All you have to do is listen to this thing to experience the same paradigm-shifting astonishment that I first experienced so many years ago, when I discovered that a loudspeaker could not only sound “good,” it could also sound quite literally “fool-you real.” Put on Masterpieces by Ellington [Acoustic Sounds] and just marvel at the utter naturalness with which the 30.7s reproduce Russel Procope, Paul Gonzalves, Johnny Hodges, Henry Carney, and Jimmy Hamilton’s tenor, alto, and bari saxes and clarinets; Nelson Williams, Andrew Ford, Harold Baker, Ray Nance, and William Anderson’s trumpets; Quentin Jackson, Lawrence Brown, and Tyree Glenn’s trombones; Mercer Ellington’s horn and flute; Sonny Greer’s drumkit; Wendell Marshall’s standup bass; Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s piano, and (on “Mood Indigo” and “Sophisticated Lady”) Yvonne Lanauze’s sultry contralto vocals on this now-seventy-year-old mono recording. If, in your listening life, you’ve ever before heard, a big band reproduced with this level of performance detail (you can not only hear every key-press on the brasses and winds, you can also hear the reeds vibrating and every breath the soloists take between skeins of notes) coupled with this level of timbral and dynamic naturalness through any other loudspeaker, then I’d like to hear that speaker.

Or try the great Analogue Sounds reissue of the Son House LP Father of Folk Blues, and once again just revel in the realism with which the 30.7s reproduce every slide, squeak, pluck, and pick of that National steel guitar (body and string) and every creak and cranny of that crusty old man’s voice. It is like he is standing there, playing for you.

Or try the great Bernstein recording of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto (the one that Spielberg used in Bridge of Spies) if you want to hear strings like shot silk, doublebasses with the color, definition, bowing detail, and acoustic power of real doublebasses, timps that shake the room, piano with genuine ivory sparkle on top and lifelike power and fully articulated harmonics on the bottom, along with touches of instrumentation and color in the scoring that you’ve never noticed before.

As it is still very early in the review process, I will have much more to say about the Magneplanar 30.7s as I get further experience with them. Although I can already tell that I will have some caveats about these Maggies vis-à-vis the finest dynamic speakers (particularly on rock and electronic music), trust me when I tell you that, from top to bottom, they are the very epitome of an “absolute sound” transducer. Unlike Frank Sinatra singing the Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn song, I don’t fall in love that easily (the last time I did was the Magico M Pros, to which the 30.7s bear a striking sonic resemblance), but the fact is I love these things.

Oh, and I’ve saved the best for last. Not only are the 30.7s the handsomest-looking large Maggies of all time (in their blue trim and snow-white panel covers), they are also among the best deals Maggie has ever offered. They cost $29,000 the pair (release slated for January). That’s not chump change, I grant you, but compared to the price of the six-figure speakers they so successfully compete against, it makes them, perhaps, the greatest bargain in ultra-high-end history.

Jacob Heilbrunn comments:

Wendell Diller, the marketing manager of Magnepan, can be pretty tight-lipped about the company’s plans. I knew that the storied manufacturer of planar loudspeakers has been contemplating a more elaborate design for several years, but it came as something of a welcome surprise when Diller announced that he planned to visit me in September, before continuing his journey to Cincinnati to see Jonathan Valin and Julie Mullins, with a spanking new four-panel loudspeaker called the 30.7. Welcome because, as diligent TAS readers may know, I cut my audiophile teeth on the 3.6 loudspeaker before graduating to the 20.1, which I used for over a decade in a bi-amped configuration. Surprised because Magnepan usually moves at a pace best described as glacial. Change, you could say, does not come easily to the folks at Magnepan, who have carefully and cautiously improved their loudspeakers over the years. The 30.7 represents an attempt by Magnepan to build upon and surpass the legendary Tympani IVa, an elaborate six-panel design that continues to enchant a select group of audiophiles.

So I was all ears, as it were, when Diller pulled up in front of my house in a van containing his precious cargo. He announced that he had devised a strapping system to ease the load of transporting the two bass panels and the two midrange/tweeter panels into my basement listening room. Strap or not strap, it was a fairly heavy lift on the bass panel. Diller, who is in his early seventies, was up to the job. Impressive. All that outdoors activity—if you know Wendell, then you’re aware that he’s an avid woodsman—is paying off for him. Then came the really tricky part—setting up the speakers. We really only had an afternoon to tackle the project since two local TAS reviewers, Anthony Cordesmann and Alan Taffel, were scheduled to drop by in the early evening to listen to the loudspeakers. I don’t think that either Diller or I thought we got all the way there in terms of positioning the speakers optimally, but Diller pronounced himself more than satisfied with the sonic results.

Even before we fired up the Ypsilon Hyperion amplifiers to drive Magnepan’s latest confection, it was obvious to me that there are a number of inherent advantages to the way the 30.7 is constructed. In the 20.1 or 20.7, for one thing, the proximity of the tweeter to the bass panel means that the former is subject to a goodly amount of shaking on loud passages. I expected a purer mid/tweeter sound as a matter of course from the 30.7. Another advantage to extricating the mid/tweeter panel is that you can get bigger and better bass from a larger, separate panel. What’s more, Magnepan has figured out how to extend its ribbon technology to the edge of the loudspeaker in order to produce a larger radiating area. Magnepan is also using a first order crossover throughout the loudspeaker, which means that it doesn’t require an outboard crossover because the number of capacitors and coils is way down. With the third order crossover in the 20.1, you pretty much had to bi-amp to obviate the need for the external crossover and avoid dragging down your amplifier. Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to note that the new loudspeaker looks pretty nifty as well. The blue that you see in the accompanying photo looked quite fetching to me..

How did it sound? After a few hours listening, I can say that it surpassed any of Magnepan’s previous efforts. On the bass drum whacks on the Reference Recordings CD of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, it–but I’m not about to commit hysteron-proteron. For a fuller take, you’ll just have to wait for my colleague and chum Jonathan Valin’s review in the magazine.

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