A speaker so good it doesn't sound like a speaker

Magnepan's 1.7 flat-panel speaker is being hailed by the audiophile press as a landmark design, one of the greatest speakers of our new century.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read
Magnepan's new 1.7 flat-panel speaker is supermodel skinny and tall. Magnepan

I've probably listened to and reviewed a thousand speakers, and truth be told, the majority of them never sound like live music. They sound like speakers.

The "problem" with box speakers is that you're always aware the sound is coming out of a box, but Magnepan speakers don't have a box. And they don't have dome tweeters or cone midrange or woofer drivers, either. Magnepan technology is radically different than what you find on box speakers, so the 1.7's sound "floats" free of the speakers themselves.

The new Magnepan 1.7 ($1,995 per pair) looks a lot like the model it replaces, the 1.6, which was regarded by many of the world's high-end audio critics, including me, as one of the greatest less-than-$2,000 speakers on the market. The 1.6 stayed in the line for more than 10 years, and I have every reason to believe the 1.7 will be a standard bearer for just as long. And speaking of value, Magnepan also offers a factory-direct $599 (per pair) panel speaker, the MMG. The technology isn't as advanced as the 1.7's, but it's miles ahead of any other $599 speaker I can think of.

The 1.7 panel is 64.5 inches high, 19.25 wide, and just 2 inches thick. Magnepan builds all of its speakers in White Bear Lake, Minn., and almost all the 1.7's parts that aren't fabricated in-house are sourced from U.S. suppliers. I reviewed the 1.7 for Tone Audio magazine, where you can read the complete review.

The 1.7's technology is unprecedented for Magnepan; the speaker is the company's first "full-range ribbon" design. It's also worth noting that what makes a well setup pair of 1.7s so special isn't just something that only dyed-in-the-wool audiophiles would notice; pretty much anyone with ears will immediately grasp what's going on. Their box-free sound is astonishing.

Bass? I know some folks think you "need" to use a subwoofer with Magnepan speakers, but I retired my sub when I started using the larger Magnepan 3.6. The 1.7's bass definition is a marvel, capable of revealing textures and nuance like no cone woofer can. The 1.7's low-end extends to the mid 40 Hertz range, that's pretty deep, but I'm not claiming the skinny speaker has the impact of a big dynamic speaker or sub. With the 1.7 you hear the bass, but you never feel it in your gut. No speaker is perfect, and no one speaker will ever please everyone.

Don Byron's ravishingly beautiful "Bug Music" CD displayed the 1.7's sweet tonality. Byron's big, brass band sounded effortlessly alive, without a hint of glare or edge; the 1.7 doesn't accentuate detail, it just plays what's on the record. Each instrument sounded remarkably more like itself, and each one had a 3D solidity that few box speakers anywhere near the price of a 1.7 can muster.

I've been listening to a lot of reggae music lately, and I loved the way "The Harder They Come" soundtrack LP's juicy rhythms goosed the 1.7's bass panels to new heights of ecstasy. The speaker sounds great at soft, late-night volume, but it really comes to life turned up fairly loud.

Which reminds me: Magnepan speakers are all power hogs, so figure at least 100 watts per channel, but the more the merrier. The quality of the watts is also crucially important, so I can't imagine the 1.7 sounding remotely good with a receiver. One more thing, the speaker may be only 2 inches thick, but it needs a lot of space around it to sound best. Figure on placing it 24 to 36 inches away from the wall behind it.

The 1.7 is the best-sounding audiophile speaker on the planet for less than $2,000, and if Magnepan sold it for double or triple that price, it would still be a steal.