Every year product life cycles in the consumer marketplace grow ever shorter. On the audio side, the latest and greatest receivers become yesterday's news faster than you can say "HDMI 1.4."
Speaker companies show a little more restraint and "refresh" their lines every few years, but even then new models rarely demonstrate actual performance improvements over the previous generations' models. Speaker manufacturer Magnepan doesn't play by those rules; it invests years of development in each of its models before introducing a new speaker. It has to sound better—a lot better—than the outgoing model before it's released to the world.
And not just in the opinion of the designers. New-model Magnepans undergo extensive "blind" listening tests with a wide range of audiophile and non-audiophile listeners (the listeners don't know whether they're hearing the old or new model). The new speaker must consistently score better than the old model before it goes into production.
When I first heard the Magneplanar 1.6 back in 2008 I said it was the best under-$2,000 speaker on the market. Incredibly enough it was 10 years old at the time! The Magneplanar 1.6 has stayed in production for 12 years, but now it's about to be replaced with the new Magneplanar 1.7.
Magnepan, based in White Bear Lake, Minn., builds nothing but panel (boxless) speakers. Not only that, Magnepan designs forgo conventional dome tweeters and cone-type woofers. As I pointed out in my August 14, 2008, blog that's why the company's Magneplanar 1.6 speaker mostly avoids sounding like a speaker. The speaker earned the top position in my Top 10 greatest audiophile speakers blog earlier this year.
The new Magneplanar 1.7 is also a flat-panel design, 64.5 inches tall and a mere 2 inches thick! The new speaker looks a little more contemporary, thanks to its aluminum, wrap-around edge molding. The old model was a two-way design, with a 48-inch-tall aluminum ribbon tweeter and a 442-square-inch mid/bass panel. The Magneplanar 1.7 is a three-way design, with a woofer, tweeter, and super-tweeter. The super-tweeter comes in around 10,000 hertz and is said to produce wider dispersion and better-resolved treble than the Magneplanar 1.6 did.
The other big difference is the Magneplanar 1.7 is a "full-range" ribbon design. The ribbon terminology refers to the way the woofer, tweeter, and super-tweeter drivers incorporate thin-film aluminum foil mounted on a Mylar substrate, suspended in a magnetic field. Conventional tweeters and woofers are "driven" in the center or edge by a voice coil, so the surface of the tweeter or woofer is free to deform its shape as it makes sound. The Magneplanar 1.7's woofer, tweeter, and super-tweeter's entire surface area remains under full control by the signal it's reproducing, so it can't change shape. Translation: it sounds clearer and more lifelike than cone and dome driver designs.
The Magneplanar 1.7 is the first full-range ribbon speaker from the company, and it may be the only such design currently on the market (Apogee Acoustics started making full-range ribbon speakers in the 1980s and went out of business in the 1990s).
I'm using "perfect" in the sense that Magnepan speakers sound less like speakers than any box speaker you're likely to hear that sells for less than $10,000. Down sides? Magnepans need to be partnered with powerful amplifiers, they're picky about speaker placement, and they usually need to be placed a good 3 feet away from the rear wall. The new speaker probably will be just as demanding. I will be among the first to review the Magneplanar 1.7 in 2010, so I'll let you know if it's truly an advance over the Magneplanar 1.6.
The Magnepan 1.7's suggested retail price starts at $1,995 a pair.
Magnepan and Canadian electronics manufacturer Bryston have something special planned for CES 2010. The two brands will be demonstrating new products at T.H.E. Show at the Pink Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, and consumers are welcome to drop by.