Magnepan 1.7

May 21, 2011
Extra: Kari Nevalainen



Reviewing an audio product is to understand it, and to understand an audio product is to have a language for describing its sonic character. The better the language, the greater the chances that the product will get understood. However, what is being said about sounds is very rarely literally true. The most interesting sounds are therefore those, which are not real. These are sounds that exist only thanks to our conversations, our knowledge and our descriptions. As soon as we stop talking and deliberating about them, they cease to exist. Nevertheless, the non-real sounds are at least as important part of the sound evaluation than the physical components of the sound, and certainly the most intriguing part. Back to the point ...

This time my task is to understand Magnepan 1.7, its the sonic policy. I ignore its technical description, also because the subject has been covered in numerous reviews and reports prior this. Just as a reminder: in addition to some features of its outer appearance, the 1.7 deviates from its famous precedessor 1.6 in two respects: first, rather than being a two-way design, it's a three-way design with a woofer, a tweeter, and a super-tweeter for the frequencies above 10,000 hertz; and secondly, unlike the 1.6., the 1.7 is a "full-range" ribbon design meaning that the woofer, tweeter, and super-tweeter drivers incorporate same material and structure.

To understand a product requires time. Thanks to the importer, Hifiguru, I was fortunate to live long enough with the 1.7 in order to get familiar with the 1.7's sonic peculiarities (the amp was changed from time to time but for the main part the 1.7 was partnered with a plus 1000 euro 200W solid state integrated). Having said this, I must say that the 1.7 wasn't the hardest case I've come across. The sound of the 1.7 has a distinctive nature, and the speaker does not hide it.

The Magnepan 1.7 is one of the smoothest and most consistent sounding loudspeakers I've encountered for a long time. Push almost any music through it, and it's bound to sound from good to very good. There won't be those interruptive moments - or there are only very few of them - when the listener must conclude that Fine, this was it, here's the limit, here the good news ends, here the speaker fails, this and this piece of music simply isn't right food for it, and so and so forth.

In this regard, the owner of the 1.7 can congratulate himself: even if he didn't know anything about sound reproduction he can be fairly confident that his speakers sound good. Frequency and phase linearity of the 1.7 will take care about that, I guess. He just have to make sure that the room won't interact in a way that ruins everything. But even in this respect, the dipole principle (less first reflections) keeps the risk is lower than it would be with ported designs, for instance.

The dipole radiation and the consequent soundstaging quarantees that eg. well recorded orchestral music can sound just wonderful, amazingly neat and affective. Very open and spacious. But note: not wild. When the speakers are correctly placed and angled, the sound does not fly wildly everywhere in the room but stays in good control between the speakers, as a landscape painting executed with a firm hand. Angling the speakers towards the listener allows finetuning the degree of the control.

At some point I decided to make a list of recordings that sounded especially good and fresh with the 1.7 but when the pile just grew and grew up I eventually gave up the idea. Small scale acoustic music, jazz, chamber music, of course. One of the surprises was how even rougher material didn't come out ridiculed. Surely there area speakers that rock better than the 1.7 but the 1.7 can rock too. Music-wise the 1.7 is a genuine all-arounder, not in a sense that the best full-range dynamic speakers are, but an indirect way. "Indirect"?

Let's ask how does the 1.7 do all the good things it does? And I dont' mean technically; technical goodness is not what I'm after here. I mean the way or "style" with which the 1.7 presents music. Here's how it does it: it first buffers/stores/filters the sound somewhere in its music making whirlpool, it then gives an account of it, and finally throws it out in that cool and non-erring manner it does. This is "filtered" sound at its best, filtered not meaning muffled or muted or coated. Think of a DAC that buffers the incoming data before reclocking it and sending to the DA chip.

The 1.7 is like a grand vintage mono/stereo FM table radio placed on a corner table. Switch it on, and it sounds smooth, secure, relaxed, unobtrusive, comforting with sufficiently correct tone colors, great vocals, and not perfect but nicely integrated bass. But the sound comes from somewhere. The listener is not part of the sound event but observes it from outside, from a distance. To the sound of a vintage FM table radio the 1.7 just adds more brightness, clarity, volume, bigger soundstage, greater immaterialism etc., but the basic idea of the sound remains.

By saying that the sound comes from a distance, I'm not pointing to the 1.7's soundstaging or imaging capabilities, which are very good if one values those properties. Rather I'm talking about representative realism: the 1.7 does not put the listener in direct connection with the (sonic) objects in the natural world but through their representations. In this respect, the 1.7 deviates most from my horns, which - metaphorically speaking, of course - enable a direct contact with sense perceptions without any intermediates. If the horns provide raw data of the physical world, the 1.7 offers the listener its replica of that world.

Is that a good or bad thing? It depends. On one hand, the filtered sound of the 1.7, the replica, is very appealing in its orthodoxy. It makes listening to the speaker a highly pleasant experience, coherence and infallibility of the sound being the main ingredients of that pleasure. On the other hand, the virtues of the 1.7 are also its vices: superior smoothness easily translates into a feeling of excessive security and safety. The speaker is so self-confident and secure in what it's doing that from time to time one feels like shaking it a bit to become more alive, more edgy, rougher. More human. Just like in music, it's the unexpected dissonances that often give the composition life and character, and maintain interest in what is still coming. The 1.7 could have been more often a bad boy. The 1.7 beautifies things, not with respect to its tonal balance, but its "style". Piano music sounded generally fine but would no doubt have benefitted from increased rugged realism, and concretism.

I know, I know. I should mention something about the bass of the 1.7 (not having much experience of the bass of the 1.6, I may not be in the best position to comment on the bass of the 1.7). I'd say that the bass was more or less what I expected it to be, ie. present but not in a way preferred by dynamic box speakers, nor by dynamic dipoles.

With orchestral music, for instance, the 1.7 makes the double bass section sound tender and warm, not super tight and low. Often that fits perfectly to this type of music/recording, and even organ music can make wonderful listening with the 1.7. But the bass notes are not reproduced as autonomous kicks and punches of dynamic woofers. Rather, they come out as part of the sonic whole, and it much depends on individual preferences how well or not the bass reproduction of the 1.7 is considered to serve different type of music.

In absolute terms, the Magnepan 1.7 is not a spectacular sounding speaker. It's not out for bling-blings. It's not a bullet train. But it is spectacular relatively speaking: in many areas of sound quality and especially in those where it's strong, the 1.7 provides plenty of evidence of how flawed many other designs are or can be. The 1.7 is so good at what it's good at that what it's less good at becomes by and large irrelevant.

When I worked for the UN, those documents were considered best, which were "comprehensive and well balanced". That's exactly what the 1.7 is. I saw less comprehensive and less well balanced documents, which were more brilliant but the UN wasn't the best platform for them. I know better loudspeakers than the Magnepan 1.7 but for its price (3000e) its performance level is really remarkable.


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