First Look: The Magnepan .7 Speakers

Having spent a fair amount of time with the Magnepan MMG over the years, it’s a fun little speaker that can’t always rock. Change the program to jazz or vocal music, and you’d swear you are listening to much more expensive speakers. The spatial perspective of the MMG is incredible, feeling almost like you have a gigantic pair of headphones in the listening room. For $699 a pair, they are tough to beat.

The new Magnepan .7, at twice the price, is another high-end audio bargain of all time. Much more dynamic, with the ability to create a huge soundfield in a modest sized room, these speakers are so much more of what the MMGs offer, yet still reasonably priced. We’ll have more to talk about when our full review is finished, but after a few days of run in time, these little panels are nothing short of amazing.

Magnepans past are fairly power hungry, yet the .7s work with 60 watts per channel quite nicely. PrimaLuna’s HP Integrated and the Pass INT-60 offer excellent results, so whether you like tubes or transistors you can bask in the panel experience.

The holiday season is upon us. If you’re looking for a new pair of speakers, I highly suggest the Magnepan.7. My high-end journey started with a pair of MGIIs nearly 40 years ago. Even if you aren’t, zoom on over to your Magnepan dealer to see just what $1,395 buys. And for all of you complaining on internet forums about how high end sound is out of reach unless you have six figures to spend, here’s your solution.

Magnepan MMG Loudspeakers

While we shy away from audiophile clichés, the Magnepan MMGs are truly one of the best values in hi-fi. These days, $600 dollars will buy you a pair of speakers that are more than likely built in China and resemble toys that belong in a Happy Meal rather than your living room. Not so the MMGs.

In the past, Magnepan’s entry-level speaker was only available direct from the factory, keeping costs to the bone and dealer markup out of the picture, but now they will be on your dealers showroom floor. Equally generous, Magnepan allows for a very liberal trade-in during the first year (full purchase price in most cases) should you move up the ladder to one of its larger speakers. Product manager Wendell Diller points out, “We actually don’t get many pairs back. They usually end up in a second system or passed on to a family member.”

What the MMGs offer—quite possibly better than any product (save the new Rega Brio-R integrated amplifier) we’ve reviewed with a budget price tag—is a serious helping of genuine high-end sound. Properly installed, and matched to room and amplifier with care, the MMGs give you the best swig of champagne on a beer budget that you’re likely to encounter in high-end audio.

Setup and Amplifier Matching

I initially used the MMGs in my small living room (11 x 17 feet, 8 foot ceiling) with excellent results. Their light weight and small size makes them easy to experiment with different listening positions. At only 1.25 inches thick, the 14.5 x 48-inch panels weigh about 15 pounds each, so you can move them back up against the walls when not doing critical listening and bring them back out to proper position for serious sessions. Yes, imaging will suffers somewhat, but even against the walls, the MMGs can still be used for background music. They are available in off-white, grey, or black with natural, black, or oak trim. Back in black is the way I’d go.

Once the MMGs had about 200 hours of play, I broke up listening sessions into three distinct categories. The first utilized speakers with budget receivers that can be purchased used for under $100. The Pioneer SX-626, Marantz 2235, and a few other vintage 70s receivers I had on hand would not drive these speakers to any kind of realistic volume level without issue. At best, I kept going to Radio Shack for fuses; in one instance, I looked for my fire extinguisher. The Nakamichi TA-2A, featuring an amplifier section designed by Nelson Pass, proved the exception.

The next group featured the recently reviewed Croft Micro 35 preamplifier and a vintage Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier. The latter is a solid-state design, again with Nelson Pass’ STASIS topology, and can be procured for about $700 on the used market.  A number of other great power amplifiers that can be had for under $1,000 will also mate well with the MMGs, which respond as well to quality as quantity of watts. While only 50 watts per channel, the robustly constructed Rega Brio-R integrated did a splendid job driving these speakers. I did not have such luck with any of my lower-powered tube amps. This has always been my experience with Magnepans. Tubes yes; low power, no.

Finally, to probe what the MMGs were capable of delivering, I tried the Simaudio 600i and 750D CD player/DAC. The combination is 20 times the cost of the MMGs yet truly showed what the little speakers could do given superior source components. If you have electronics at this level and always wanted to sample the Magnepan sound, the MMGs will make for a good show; they certainly have enough resolution.

In my smaller room, the speakers ended up about six feet apart with very slight toe-in, and located about three feet from the rear wall for the best sound. If you are working with a room this size and can accommodate them, add a pair of 2 x 4 foot GIK 242 panels about 2 feet in front of the speakers. They absorb the first reflection from the sidewall and help expand the left-to-right stereo image beyond the speaker boundaries.

Room gain was my friend, offering slightly more bass in the smaller room. Still, I preferred the MMGs in my main listening room (16 x 24 feet) on the long wall. This kept the speakers well away from sidewall boundaries. The small amount of lower bass I lost in transition was well worth the expanded stereo image.

Prepare to Settle In

Foghat’s “Take It or Leave It,” from Mobile Fidelity’s edition of Fool for the City, painted a wide aural canvas. The rock classic spread out well beyond the speaker boundaries and revealed solid echo traits. Because they have enough mid-bass energy, the MMGs do a surprisingly good job with this type of music—provided there is enough power and you keep the volume reasonable. Another great example of the wide-stereo effect came courtesy of Chicago’s “Prelude to Aire” from Chicago VIII. Most percussive elements were again floating well beyond the speaker boundaries and possessed substantial depth. I also highly recommend Explosions in the Sky’s recent Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. Its ethereal soundscapes are full of minute details and reverb-drenched guitars that will bounce all over your listening room.

The MMGs really shine on music that has a slightly limited dynamic scale. Queue up your favorite minimally accompanied vocalist and hear the MMGs strut their stuff.  The Bad Plus’ “Nirvana” (from For All I Care) had an ideal balance of airy vocals and instrumental richness, with a slight touch of compression—a good thing in this case since it didn’t push the speakers beyond their capabilities. “Long Distance Runaround” from said album proved equally enjoyable, with great plucky acoustic bass riffs that played to the major strength of all Magnepan speakers: the ability to resolve mid-bass texture.   Vocalist Wendy Lewis’ voice hung between the speakers as the piano remained off to the right, with excellent decay. By not asking the MMGs to go terribly deep or play incredibly loud, I fooled a number of non-audiophile listeners that thought we were auditioning more expensive speakers. Of course, music lovers locked into traditional audiophile female vocal fare will not believe their ears, either. The MMGs amaze in the manner in which they disappear.

Switching to Genesis’ Lamb Lies Down on Broadway quickly revealed the shortcomings of the MMGs. When the first big synth bass riff kicks in on the title track, it simply wasn’t there. Whether you are listening to Pink Floyd or Eminem, you aren’t going to get deep bass. But the bass that you do get is very high quality. And that’s what makes the MMGs the most musically involving speakers I’ve heard for the money. To wit: Their performance with the Beastie Boys’ Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, on which they magnified many cool tidbits buried in the mix.

All types of panel speakers have been justifiably accused of providing a “one person” sweet spot. The MMGs are guilty as charged. However, the real limitation is that the sweet spot is more restricted in the vertical axis than in the horizontal. Much of this is due to the fact that the MMGs don’t have the sheer panel area of larger Magnepan models. I’ve experienced the same effect with smaller speakers from MartinLogan, so this is not endemic to Magnepan. But again, keeping the MMGs within their comfort zone provides stellar results.

Yes, your favorite box speaker may offer better off-axis performance, but it will not give you the gigantic soundstage and natural midrange offered by the MMG when you sit up straight in your listening chair. It’s a trade-off, but one I’d happily make for this level of resolution—and certainly, price. And the MMGs’ resolution impressed me the most. While it’s unlikely they would ever be used in this category, the speakers easily resolved differences between the $6,000 Simaudio i-7, $8,000 600i, $12,000 700i integrated amplifiers during last issue’s comparison test—an impressive feat for any speakers, much less a $600 pair.

An Auspicious Start to Any High-End Audio Journey

If you crave a high-quality music system on a tight budget, the anchor is no further away than Magnepan’s Web site. Played within their limits, the MMGs provide a rich musical experience that will hook you in your quest for better sound—just as the company’s products have done for many other audio enthusiasts.

With only minor limitations, the MMGs communicate musical fundamentals like nothing else in their price category. The only downside? They require careful attention during setup to sound their best, and their high resolution will reveal shortcomings in the rest of your system. However, on many levels, that’s what high-end sound is about. And the rewards far outweigh the minimal effort required to get the MMGs sounding their best. To put it another way: The MMGs deliver the goods better than any other speaker I’ve experienced at this price.

Magnepan MMGs

MSRP:  $599


Analog Source Rega P9    Denon DL-103R   Avid Pulsare phonostage
Digital Source Simaudio Moon 750D
Amplification Simaudio Moon 600i
Cable Audioquest Columbia

Magnepan 1.6

Ninja-1With Magnepan introducing their new 1.7 to replace the 1.6 that has been a staple of their line for about 15 years, many loyal Magnepan owners are probably asking themselves if they should make the move and upgrade to the latest. Knowing how slow Magnepan is (or perhaps cautious and conservative) with upgrades; there is certainly some promise on the horizon for this new speaker that will now feature a “quasi ribbon” driver for the bass panel as well. However, the original 1.6 is still a solid speaker with a lot of life left in it and let’s face it, who wants to sign up for shipping a hundred pounds and going through the audiogon hassle, right?

This hesitance by Magnepan to offer constant product updates is what has kept their resale high. A quick glimpse at Audiogon reveals that a used pair of 1.6’s can still command $1,200, though this will probably drop now that the 1.7’s are hitting the market. Considering a new pair would only set you back $1,699 at your local dealer, even if you paid retail, this is unheard of value.

But, audiophiles are like terriers, always sniffing around for something newer and better. I’m going to stick my neck out and guess that there are going to be a lot of used 1.6’s on the market for the next year or two and they will probably be a lot less than $1,200. Let’s face it, how many of you really want to deal with shipping these monsters, right? What if you could just easily improve what you already have, or perhaps score a great used pair of 1.6’s locally from someone who has lobsters in their pants, itching to buy 1.7’s?

Those of you that have 1.6’s are infinitely familiar with the speakers strengths: a big, big soundstage and exceptionally good upper bass performance along with perhaps the best coherence in the Magnepan line because they are only a two way speaker. The 1.6 also has its weaknesses, primarily the huge power requirements, limited dynamics and a haziness to the overall presentation compared to an electrostatic.

Pros and cons weighed in, if you have enough amplifier power, the Magnepan 1.6 is still one of the best values in high-end audio. But, there’s plenty of room for improvement, as we shall see.

Typically, I am not a fan of modding gear, but in a case like this where the basic engineering of the product is so robust, that swapping a few carefully chosen parts for ones of considerably higher quality, while not disturbing the original design ethos can take the product to a much higher level, I’m ready to get out the soldering iron. And that’s exactly what this mod does.

Enter the Ninja

Sean at the Skiing Ninja can take you to the next level of Magnepan performance, with his crossover upgrade. Taking the crossover out of the panel itself solves a few issues. No longer pinched by space requirements, the small external crossover abandons the relatively inexpensive parts used in the stock crossover and replaces them with copper foil inductors, Sonicap capacitors and a point to point wiring scheme. A pair of these gorgeous little boxes will only set you back $595 and is plug and play. Ninja-2

You will need to do a little bit of brain surgery, but you should be able to have the crossovers swapped in about an hour for both speakers. If you’ve never modified a piece of gear, you might be a little queasy about taking a pair of diagonal cutters to the crossover networks in your 1.6’s, but trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

The Ninja crossovers arrive in a tidy little box that is about 8 x 8 x 3 inches and can be ordered in a range of colors. I went for basic black and that worked just fine. You will have to remove the black panel that contains the fuse holder to get at the crossover inside. Of course this will void your warranty, but I’m guessing by now your speakers are out of warranty anyway. I also chose to abandon the original bi-wiring concept of the speakers, which I always felt was another weakness, requiring the pain of more banana plugs. Granted, many Magnepan owners swear by the bi-wiring method of connecting them, but the Ninja approach works much better and is much easier to attach decent speaker cable to.

Saying goodbye to the fuse felt a little scary, but again, the sonic gains outweigh the slight bit of protection the fuse offers. Just make sure you have plenty of clean power on tap… Once the old crossover is removed and the new one in place, via four spade lugs you are ready to roll.

A sonic revelation

Those big teflon capacitors will take about 500 hours to sound their best, so out of the box you will only notice a slight improvement in focus and midrange clarity, but at the 200 hour mark, the speakers sound like a blanket has been lifted from them, and they will improve steadily until about the 500 hour mark. To be sure I wasn’t just a victim of the placebo effect, I borrowed a friend’s stock 1.6’s so a direct comparison could be performed. Fortunately, the 1.6’s are pretty easy to move back and forth.

The improvements are substantial, but I found the biggest gain was in the midrange clarity. Now the 1.6’s were getting more into the electrostat range, with that haze in the original speaker a thing of the past. Playing your favorite vocal tracks will really bring this home. When listening to Johnny Cash’s “Delia’s Gone” from American Recordings, he goes from singing in the other room on the stock speakers to slightly in front of them, with much better separation between Cash’s vocal and his acoustic guitar. Same thing with John Hiatt on the title track of Slow Turnin, Hiatt’s voice comes right out of the mix where it had been somewhat buried in the past.

Though not quite as dramatic, as the capacitors break in, you will notice an even better blend between the woofer and tweeter panels, giving these speakers a higher degree of coherence. They sound a lot more like Quad 57’s (albeit much more robust ones) now in terms of the “midrange magic.”

As a result of this the mid/tweeter ribbon driver is less pronounced than in the past, giving everything from the midrange up less grain. It’s readily apparent, but having the originals handy made it that much easier to discern. Your favorite violin or piano disc should expose this immediately. I used the new disc from The Jung Trio on Groove Note records, Dvorak Trio in F Minor, Op. 65 and was amazed at how much more realistic the violins sounded, again thinking about my Quads while listening.

I had an equally satisfying experience when going through my favorite Keith Jarrett albums. The piano took on a more natural texture, with more nuance than before. It was much easier to hear the hall size when listening to the Sun Bear Concerts, thanks to an increase in low level detail, letting the piano’s notes fade off into the background with finer gradation than before. Again, a quick swap back to the stock speakers put things in perspective right away.

Last but not least, there is more texture in the lower bass region and even the upper bass speed is improved. The speaker just sounds faster overall with more bass weight and attack. A quick frequency sweep did not reveal the panel going any deeper, but the bass sounded more natural throughout the range. No, you still can’t play Snoop Dogg convincingly with the Ninja mods, but I’m guessing that isn’t why you bought Magnepans in the first place. Those of you that live on a steady diet of female vocal music will be spellbound by this increase in performance.

More of what you love with no guilt

Whether you’re a long term 1.6 owner who would like more performance, or someone who cashes in on the wave of people trading up to 1.7’s, the Skiing Ninja modified 1.6’s are a fantastic speaker, offering incredible performance at a bargain price. I wouldn’t be surprised if these even outperform the new 1.7’s. Ninja-3

The Ninja mod builds on all the strengths of this speaker and has no drawbacks. Using the modded speakers with my reference McIntosh MC1.2KW’s, they consistently held their own in a six-figure reference system as long as I was listening to music that played to their strengths.

I can’t think of a better upgrade to a system based on a pair of these speakers for anywhere near $600. If anything, once you get the Ninja crossovers in place, you might be looking for a better/bigger amplifier to take advantage of the increased resolution. And cool cat that he is, the Ninja gives you 60 days to audition the mod with a money back guarantee. I can’t imagine anyone sending these back.

Highly recommended.

The Skiing Ninja Magenpan 1.6 mod

MSRP: $595


Analog Source TW Acustic Raven TWO turntable w/SME iV.Vi arm, Dynavector XV-1s cartridge and Nagra VPS phono preamp with VFS platform and Red Wine Audio Black Lightning power supply.

Digital Source Naim CD555

Preamplifier Burmester 011

Power Amplifier McIntosh MC1.2KW monoblocks

Cable Shunyata Aurora interconnects, Shunyata Stratos SP speaker cable

Power Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim power conditioners