New sensations: The radically different Magnepan .7 speakers
The Magnepan .7 redefines the state of the art for affordable high-end speakers.
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.
Jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald was right there, singing ever so sweetly between the two Magnepan .7 speakers. The sound was startlingly realistic, and somehow the .7s were doing a better job conjuring a full-bodied human voice than a lot of much more expensive speakers I've reviewed over the last 18 years.
This kind of scale and presence is something you can only get from a nearly 5 foot tall speaker like this, and while the .7 may be statuesque, it's a downright skinny 1.25 inch-thin (31.7mm) panel design. Not only that, most high-end speakers have round dome and cone drivers; the .7 doesn't. Lurking behind the cloth grille is a thin-film, 44-inch tall (1,117mm) tweeter, and a huge 8.5-by-44-inch (216 x 1,117 mm) mid/bass driver. While box speakers project sound forward, the .7 radiates sound from its front and rear surfaces. No wonder the .7 sounds like no box speaker you've heard. Magnepan has been refining this technology since the early 1970s and builds all of its speakers in White Bear Lake, Minn.
It's also a great "quiet" speaker -- you can enjoy the .7 at very low volume and still hear oodles of detail. One night I listened to Miles Davis' extra funky "On the Corner" album and was amazed by the sound of the percussion instruments. For example, this speaker reproduces the metallic sparkle and shimmer of cymbals far more realistically than most speakers using dome tweeters. The clarity was incredible, even at a hushed, late-night volume. Details and textures abound -- the sound of Miles' trumpet and the "On the Corner" rhythm section were fully present. With Aphex Twin's deliciously palpable electronica the .7 speakers again unraveled the densest of sounds, which floated free of the actual locations of the panels. With Magnepans, music at home sounds more like live music.
To sound their best, the .7 speakers must be partnered with a high-quality integrated amplifier, perhaps an NAD, a Rotel, or the one I used for a lot of this review, the Peachtree Nova65SE amp. The .7, like every other Magnepan I've tested is fussy about placement. It sounds best only when it's three or more feet away from the wall behind it, but the .7 is light enough to be easily pushed up against the wall when you're not listening. It's a 4-ohm speaker, available with aluminum, cherry, natural, or black hardwood side trim; with off-white, black, or gray fabric grilles.
The .7 sounded better and better as I upgraded amps from the Peachtree Nova65SE to the Bel Canto REF500S, and then to the Pass Labs XA100.5 amps; the differences were improved solidity and body to the sound. Treble details were clearer, the bass went deeper and was fuller. Still, the basic character of the sound is consistent across all of the amps. One of my audiophile pals is getting great results with his .7 speakers with the affordably priced Rogue Sphinx integrated amplifier I reviewed here in 2014.
Magnepan also sent their DWM flat-panel woofer with the speakers. It's just as thin: the DWM is 1.25 inches (31.7mm) thick, and it's 19.5 inches high and 22.5 wide (495 x 571mm). All of my listening comments up to this point refer to my experiences using the .7 speakers without the DWM, so unless you crave a lot of bass or your room is huge, you'll probably do fine sans the DWM. Like the .7, the DWM radiates sound from its front and rear surfaces. Bass definition, articulation, and "speed" are superb; there's no flab or mud down there.
The DWM isn't a powered subwoofer, so it lacks volume, crossover, or phase controls. You hook up the DWM to the same amp that's driving the .7 speakers by doubling up (piggy-backing) the cables using banana plugs. To fine-tune the DWM's volume, you insert resistors into specially designated connectors on the DWM's rear panel. If that sounds like a hassle, it is -- but once you have it just right the DWM/.7 combination is spectacular. Your Magnepan dealer will be a big help getting the most out of the .7 and DWM.
Of course, you could add a subwoofer for less money than the DWM, but it won't blend anywhere near as well with the .7 speakers. The DWM's bass is super clear, just like the .7's.
The other catch with using the DWM is, your amp should not only be rated at least 100 watts per channel, it must also handle very low-impedance, under 4-ohm speakers. That rules out most receivers and many integrated amps. If you're not sure if your amp can do that, check with the manufacturer. The Rogue Sphinx integrated amp I reviewed here a few years ago will do quite nicely. The .7s, without the DWM, are much easier to drive, but you should still go with the best amp you can get. I love what the DWM brings to the sound, but I could live with the .7s without the DWM woofer.
Priced at $1,395 per pair, the .7 isn't cheap, but for a made-in-the-US, audiophile-grade speaker, it's incredibly affordable. It's more transparent than any box speaker you can buy for double or triple the .7's MSRP. They can play loud, but the bass, even with the DWM woofer, lacks the feel-it-in-your gut impact of a large box speaker. Take the .7 on its strengths -- hyper transparency, natural sounding bass, midrange and treble, and spacious imaging -- but if you want to party, the .7 and DWM probably won't cut it.
While writing this review I heard a pair of .7s at a friend's apartment, in a small, 11-by-12-foot (3.3 by 3.65 meters) room. The sound was beautifully balanced, so any lingering doubts that Magnepan speakers only sound best in larger rooms disappeared. The .7 may in fact be the ultimate speaker for audiophiles seeking maximum transparency in small rooms.
Of course, some folks can't live with large panel speakers, and they will be happier with a small, high-end stand mount monitor speaker like the KEF LS50. It's terrific, but it sounds awfully small after you hear the Magnepan .7. The SVS Prime tower speakers sound bigger than the LS50, but the Primes are still no match for the .7 for producing closer to life-size music in your living room.
In the US, Magnepan .7 prices start at $1,395 per pair. The UK price (inclusive of VAT and freight) starts at £1,590, while in Australia they're AU$2,590. The DWM woofer runs $795 in the US, £990 in the UK, and AU$1,295 in Australia.