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Magnepan 3.7i Upgrade and System Woes and Woo-hoos!

01-20-2015 | By Scott Robertson | Issue 77

Magnepan 3.7i

(Including… deep breath here!... notes on the ModWright KWA 150 Signature Amplifier and LS 100 Preamplifier; the eXemplar T105 two-box tubed universal player; the Rogue Audio R99 Super Magnum Preamp and Rogue Audio Medusa Hybrid Vacuum Tube Amplifier; the Blue Circle BC30X1 Powerline Conditioner)

When I reviewed the Magnepan 3.7 and Bass Panel DWM speakers last year (see Issue 71), I was so impressed with both the sound and the value that I bought them. A few months later, Magnepan announced an upgrade, the 3.7i. Of course I wanted to know about the upgrade—what was Magnepan upgrading, and what did it sound like? Magnepan's only comment on their website was 'you can hear the difference'. Was it worth $500? I asked Magnepan's Marketing Manager Wendell Diller about the 3.7i upgrade, but his only response was for me to listen to them myself and offered to upgrade my 3.7s. How could I say no?

While the 3.7s sound amazing (best sound for the dollar by a wide margin, in my humble opinion) with great source components and ample amplification, they were still very enjoyable even with my modest Integra DTR7.1. When the upgraded 3.7i speakers arrived, I connected them to the Integra DTR. Unfortunately, my initial enthusiasm met with disappointment. The 3.7i speakers with the Integra just did not sound as detailed as the 3.7 version. My initial fear was that I lost a magical pair of 3.7 speakers; that maybe the discrete components in the crossovers had been identically matched and provided an extra special degree of spatial resolution. Trying to apply more volume triggered the amp protection circuit, something that had never happened with the 3.7. Of course Magnepan recommends that its customers use a high current amplifier that can drive a sustained 4 ohm load. So while I can understand the Integra going into protection mode (especially with a pair of DWM Bass Panels wired in parallel), it was still disappointing since it worked with the 3.7s. Clearly the 3.7i upgrade requires more current than the 3.7. Time to up the game.

Magnepan 3.7i

The only visual indication of the 3.7i upgrade is the then model name on the name plate.

Enter ModWright Instruments KWA 150 Signature Edition amplifier and LS 100 Pre-amplifier, paired with the eXemplar audio T105 (eXemplar's tube modified Oppo 105). I had not heard ModWright equipment before, but its reputation as high-value-for-the-dollar seemed like a good match for the Magnepan 3.7i speakers. Once the equipment warmed up, from the first track on Melody Gardot's My One and Only Thrill I knew this was not just a good match, this was a great match! The KWA 150 Signature Edition drove the 3.7i speakers and DWM Bass Panels with ease. Maggies need a lot of current to provide good bass, and the KWA 150 Signature Edition did not disappoint. Now I could focus on what the mysterious 3.7i upgrade was all about.

ModWright LS100

ModWright LS100 Pre-amp does not illuminate the fancy top vents as the KWA 150 SE Power Amp does.

The Magnepan 3.7 provided an immersive sound stage with highly detailed sound. The 3.7i keeps all the strengths of the 3.7 while improving spatial separation and widening the soundstage. The mid-range also seems to benefit—voices have more depth. The overall combination of the tube eXemplar audio T105 digital player, the ModWright LS 100 Preamp and KWA 150 Signature Edition Amplifier with the upgraded Magnepan 3.7i speakers provided vocals that not only hung in the air, they also had improved depth and resolution. The sense of the recording studio (back wall reflections) was convincingly reproduced. The rendering of quiet passages also seem to be improved—the 3.7i upgrade does a better job of disappearing and placing you right with the band, the orchestra, the piano, or the soloist. Listening to Michael Buble's I Feel Good CD, the ModWright KWA 150 Signature Edition provided very good bass control, imaging, resolution, timbre, and well balanced vocals – not forward, not subdued. The saxophone on “Quando Quando Quando” was just fantastic.

I was curious how much of the great sound could be attributed to the eXemplar audio T105 tubed Oppo 105 player, so naturally I swapped out the eXemplar audio version with my standard Oppo 105. The difference was dramatic—the eXemplar audio T105 has a little higher output signal compared to an unmodified Oppo 105, so a little volume compensation was necessary. Overall the T105 was much more listenable—female vocals were more engaging, more intimate. Tubes are known for producing a warm, smooth sound. The T105 does this while also providing a more detailed and defined sound stage. I have to say that the standard Oppo-105, which is wonderful for the price, sounds compressed compared to the eXemplar Audio T105. The improvement is not subtle, like so many high-end tweaks or modifications. The T105 tube stage makes a definitive improvement to the sound.

eXemplar T105

eXemplar T105

The eXemplar T105 - a tube modified Oppo 105 with separate tube power supply.

Unfortunately my time with the ModWright equipment was all too short—Dan Wright of ModWright was kind enough to lend me the equipment for a few weeks before it needed to be shipped out for a show. Exit the ModWright preamp and amp, enter Rogue Audio.

Based on the great results of the tube eXemplar audio T105 digital player and the ModWright LS100 Preamp, I was really looking forward to hearing Rogue Audio's tube R99 Super Magnum Preamp and Medusa Hybrid Vacuum Tube Amplifier, still paired with the eXemplar Audio T105 digital player. I was sure that this would be great, right out of the gate!

Rogue<br /><br /><br />
			Audio tube R99 Super Magnum Preamp and Medusa Hybrid Vacuum Tube

Rogue Audio's tube R99 Super Magnum Preamp and Medusa Hybrid Vacuum Tube Amplifier

Once again, though, I was met with disappointment at first. The Rogue Audio gear sounded two-dimensional—once again the sound stage lacked depth. The Medusa Hybrid Amp has tubes with a solid-state output stage rated at 200 W into 8 ohms and 400 W into 4 ohms. Surely the Medusa Hybrid Amp could source enough current for the Maggie 3.7i speakers!

Rogue<br /><br /><br />
			Audio's tube R99 Super Magnum Preamp and Medusa Hybrid Vacuum Tube

Like the eXemplar T105, the R99 Super Magnum tube pre-amp has an external power supply.

Rogue<br /><br /><br />
			Audio's tube R99 Super Magnum Preamp and Medusa Hybrid Vacuum Tube

I consulted the Editor-in-Chief of Positive Feedback, my good friend Dr. David Robinson. He thought that there was a real possibility that I needed to address the question of AC line filtration in my listening room. He therefore put me in touch with Toby Boydell, Marketing Rep for Blue Circle Audio. Toby was great—he spent quite a bit of time with me on the phone explaining the benefits, and limitations, of the Blue Circle Powerline conditioners. Toby sent me the BC30X1 Powerline Conditioner to try in my system, but he warned me that the effectiveness of line conditioning depends on the initial quality of the power—noisy power into my system should have a noticeable improvement with Blue Circle Audio's Powerline conditioning, whereas with quality input power, the benefit might be less noticeable. I live in a neighborhood of single-family homes built about 15 years ago, so I assumed the power system to our neighborhood would be pretty reasonable.

Apparently I was wrong. You can learn a lot of things along the way, when you do reviewing.

Blue<br /><br /><br />
			Circle BX30X1

The Blue Circle BC30X1 is an always-on powerline conditioner with no controls or switches (the center illuminated circle is not an off/off switch ;-).

Blue<br /><br /><br />
			Circle BX30X1

The back of the BC30X1 has six filtered outlets and two balanced power outlets (balanced power outlets are not recommended for high current components - like amps 😉

Toby was careful to set my expectations low, telling me the best way to judge the effectiveness of Blue Circle Audio Powerline conditioners was to put them in my system and forget about it for a while, then hear the difference when I took it out of my system. I also considered that both the eXemplar audio T105 and the Rogue Audio R99 Super Magnum had their own separate power supplies, so I really did not expect much, if any, improvement in the sound.

Once again, my expectations were wrong, but this time it was a very pleasant surprise!

The sonic improvement from the Blue Circle Audio BC30X1 Powerline Conditioner was immediate. The soundstage, definition, and rich, fulfilling vocals I had come to expect from the Maggie 3.7i speakers driven by the ModWright preamp and amp were back! Back, yet different… the additional tube stages of the Rogue Audio equipment were evident in the overall smoothness of the sound across the range. While I missed the ModWright's spatial precision, bass control, and detailed rendering of each instrument and singer, the Rogue Audio tube R99 Super Magnum Preamp and Medusa Hybrid Amp were now a real treat. Vocals were again rich, drawing me into the music. Even at higher volumes the music was never harsh or fatiguing. Symphony music sounded like a music hall, with the Medusa able to produce compelling tympani drums on Telarc's Carmina Burana. Again, the Maggie 3.7i speakers became invisible (quite a feat for speakers that are 6 feet tall and 2 feet wide!), producing a wider and more defined soundstage than the 3.7 version.

Now that the system was dialed-in, my friend Dr. David Robinson stopped by with a few SHM SACDs to hear on the 3.7i Magnepans. High-quality SACDs are where the improvements from the 3.7i upgrade really shine. Magnepans are sonic instruments of precision—the magic of the full-length ribbon tweeter with the quick response membrane thin panels lend themselves to very accurate, very detailed music reproduction. The 3.7i upgrade seems to better marry the midrange and ribbon tweeter, while improving the precision of the soundstage. The 3.7i panels need quality input—plenty of current for instantaneous movement and control of the six foot panels, and plenty of resolution from quality source material. Every piece of the system matters, and the reference quality SHM SACDs David brought demonstrated that fact.

Music from the '80s never sounded better—it was almost a surprise that music I grew up on over the radio and cassette tapes could sound so good! Listening to Tears for Fears, Songs from the Big Chairon SHM SACD was like hearing it for the first time, only better! The clarity and soundstage were simply fabulous. My initial disappointment at under-supplying the 3.7i Maggies was replaced with 'why would you even consider doing that?'—indeed, it is past time to retire the aging home theater integrated amp with high fidelity, high current equipment. We listened to The Police Zenyatta Mondatta, Peter Paul and Mary, In The Wind, a variety of '80s hits from Legends: Crank it up, and The Sopranos: Peppers and Eggs, Music from the HBO Series. As much as I loved the 3.7 Maggies, they had never produced a soundstage as wide and detailed as the 3.7i upgrade.

Is the 3.7i upgrade from Magnepan worthwhile? I think most people would assume the answer to be 'of course'. Indeed, with the right components the answer is a solid 'yes', but I will have to upgrade my admittedly aging integrated amp to realize that 'yes'. That is not to say that I was hearing anywhere near the quality of sound my former Magnepan 3.7 speakers were capable of producing, but it was still the best the Integra DTR 7.1 had ever sounded. That pairing is no longer viable with the upgraded Magnepan 3.7i.

The Magnepan 3.7i with the ModWright LS 100 Preamp and KWA 150 Signature Edition Amp was fantastic. I love music detail—the subtle nuances of individual instruments; the width, depth, and precision of the soundstage; voices that hang in the air with their own sense of presence in the room; satisfying bass (which is not easy with Magnepans)—this was what the ModWright preamp and amp delivered with the Magnepan 3.7i and the eXemplar audio T105 player. This system showed what the Magnepan upgrade to 'i' was all about, and it was definitely worthwhile!

The surprising initial disappointment of the Rogue Audio R99 Super Magnum Preamp and Medusa Hybrid Vacuum Tube Amplifier demonstrated the importance of power line conditioning, which was something I had not taken very seriously until this experience. The Blue Circle BC30X1 Powerline Conditioner significantly improved the sound from this system. With the Blue Circle BC30X1 in place, the Rogue Audio equipment also proved to be a great match with the upgraded Magnepan 3.7i. The sound was highly detailed yet smooth from top to bottom. The soundstage extended well beyond the speakers, with a fantastic sense of depth. There was no harshness in female vocals. The sound from this system was not fatiguing—from James Taylor to Sarah McLachlan, America to The Beatles, Carl Orff's Camina Burana to Mozart, this was sound I thoroughly enjoyed for hours at a time. Of course the depth of the sound stage and engaging vocals was also directly attributable to the eXemplar T105 player. As mentioned above, the eXemplar T105 stood head and shoulders above the standard Oppo 105 (and I like the Oppo 105!). I congratulate both Oppo in providing an outstanding audio value in the Oppo 105 and eXemplar in adding their wonderful tube stage to take the 105 to a new level of high fidelity.

Is the upgrade to the Magnepan 3.7i a no brainer? It really depends on your system. The Magnepan 3.7i is a demanding and highly revealing speaker. Yes it is a noticeable improvement over the 3.7 and remains one of the best audio values anywhere, but it also raises the bar for the rest of the equipment in your system. My experience showed that the 3.7i demands more current than the 3.7, but this should not be an issue if you meet Magnepan's recommendation of a high current amp capable of driving a sustained 4-ohm load. So the key word to this review is 'system'. Your system will only sound as good as its weakest link, whether it is the speakers, amp, preamp, DAC, tubes, cables, recording, or even AC power!! The bottom line is the Magnepan 3.7i is a noticeable improvement over the 3.7 and a true value for the money, but don't neglect the rest of your system!

Magnepan 3.7i loudspeakers
Retail: USD $5995 (Upgrade from 3.7, USD $500)

ModWright KWA 150 Signature Amplifier
Retail: USD $8995

ModWright LS 100 Preamplifier
Retail: USD $3750

eXemplar audio T105 tubed two-box universal player
Retail: USD $4750

Blue Circle BC30X1 Powerline Conditioner
Retail: USD $2495

Rogue Audio R99 Super Magnum Preamp, USD $2,995 (line stage)
Retail: $3595 with the phono option

Rogue Audio Medusa Hybrid Vacuum Tube Amplifier
Retail: USD $3995

1645 Ninth Street
White Bear Lake, MN 55110

ModWright Instruments, Inc.
21919 NE 399th Street
Amboy, WA 98601
[email protected]

Rogue Audio, Inc.
PO Box 1076
Brodheadsville, PA 18322
[email protected]

Blue Circle Audio
RR2, 806226 Oxford County Rd29
Innerkip, Ontario
Canada N0J 1M0
[email protected] for sales and [email protected] for information

eXemplar audio LLC
2909 95th Drive, SE
Lake Stevens, WA 98258
[email protected]

Speaker Cables

JENA Labs Twin 3 braided speaker cables, 8 Foot Pair
Retail: USD $1280

[email protected]


Audioquest Diamondback Interconnect

(949) 585-0111
[email protected]

[All photographs and processing by Scott Robertson.]