Gramophone Dreams #5 Page 2

It did. With the Hegel driving the .7s, wired in parallel with a DWM bass panel (2 ohms average impedance below 200Hz, 4 ohms above), every type of music was delivered with ease and rock-steady confidence. But the Hegel H160 driving the .7s also delivered a big surprise. I always knew that Magnepan made nice-sounding speakers, but I'd never heard any Magnepans that I thought did delirious boogie or fierce, driving, forward momentum. That was always my main complaint about them. Well, the Hegel and Magnepan .7s proved me totally wrong. Think speeding trucks. Think twin-engine freight trains motorvating downhill. Think dance like a butterfly, strike like a hammer.

The Hegel-Maggie marriage was solid, productive, always lusty, and especially fond of solo-piano recordings, giving the instrument a weighty but balanced sound in the lower and upper registers. With every recording, I thought, Who needs more than this?

Vinnie Rossi LIO
Vinnie Rossi's new LIO integrated amplifier ($3280; review in the works), while outputting only 25Wpc into 8 ohms, seemed exactly what Diller was talking about. The LIO is a high-current, class-AB, MOSFET amplifier that, Rossi says, allows for "very strong direct-current delivery" into speaker loads that dip below 8 ohms. According to him, the LIO "cranks out current for stable power output of up to 65 watts per channel into 2 ohms."

Driving the Magnepan .7s without the DWM woofer, the LIO sounded supersweet, tautly detailed, and fantastically musical—but when the music got going extra strong, the LIO-Maggie pairing became a little limp. At low volumes, I could swim easy in the warm, colorful space of the music, and big classical orchestras and solo guitars retained most of their scale and texture. In fact, the Rossi LIO showed me just how spectacularly the Magnepans could play at low volumes. At higher volumes, however, it was clear that the LIO was not a perfect match.

Simaudio Moon Neo 340i
I've used Simaudio's Moon Neo 340i integrated amp ($4600, review underway) on and off for at least nine months. I love it. Always grainless, dynamic, and blatantly invisible, it has become my reference for what a high-quality contemporary integrated can do and should be. It took perfect hold of the Magnepan .7s in a way that made it abundantly clear that this $1400/pair loudspeaker has not been compromised by its price. Music was presented in the rich, refined manner of a Moët Cuvée Dry Impérial (1943).

Rogue Audio Sphinx
The Rogue Audio Sphinx, my ongoing reference for extreme quality at extreme low price ($1295), played ridiculously well with the Magnepan .7s and their DWM bass panels. Bass, boogie, and transient response were better than with any other amp I tried with the Maggies. The midrange was fully fleshed out and exquisitely textured. Highs were open and free of anything but tact, grace, and elegance. This was a system for playing any kind of music, including Janis Joplin, Léo Ferré, and pipe organist E. Power Biggs.

The first black disc I tried through the Sphinx's phono stage stunned me like a Taser: Charlie Haden's The Ballad of the Fallen, with Carla Bley and Don Cherry (LP, ECM 1248), seemed disarmingly big, robust, vivid, and extremely tactile. Bass was authentically toned. The midrange was more recessed and noticeably less transparent than with the Simaudio Moon 340i, but also more textured. Most important, presence, weight, and body were the best I've experienced in my Bed Stuy bunker. These Maggies did slam, and this record revealed some startling jump factor that I'd never known was there.

Speaking of jump factor, the Rogue Sphinx does in fact double down into 4 ohms, to 200Wpc, and always gets a firm but loving grip on whatever speaker I connect it to. The Rogue-Maggie combo played Led Zeppelin's II (CD, Atlantic 82633-2) absolutely effortlessly—with measured 100dB peaks! I have never enjoyed this disc more. The .7s boogied and swung better than any Magnepans I could remember. And you know what? Against all those screaming vocals and bass-drum thunder, the Magnepans also played gently and gracefully, preserving all of Zep's bluesy, lullaby qualities.

Listening to the Animals' version of "The House of the Rising Sun" (7" 45rpm, MGM K13264), I realized that the Rogue Sphinx is a lot better than I said it was in my first-ever Stereophile review, in the August 2014 issue. Listening to Brian Eno and David Byrne's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (LP, Sire SRK 6093) through the Rogue-Maggie combo was so exciting, so intense, so inexpensive that I have no choice but to steal a description from a Facebook friend: "It was like having sex in the back seat of a stolen car!"

The Goldilocks Conundrum
Without one of the optional DWM bass panels, the .7s could occasionally sound a little bass shy—but the microdetail, transient attack, transparency, and soundstaging were always spine-tingling, so I could usually ignore it.

Typically, when I first switch from a planar dipole back to a conventional box speaker, I experience bewilderment and disappointment. That didn't happen when I replaced the .7s with the KEF LS50s. Right away—and again—I was impressed by how wonderfully the little LS50s play music. To their credit, the LS50s did not sound more boxy or small or less detailed than the Maggies. The KEFs gave me slightly deeper and even more powerful-sounding bass. But—compared to the Magnepan .7s, the LS50s' midrange and lower treble sounded thicker and significantly less transparent, and their treble less extended and refined. The LS50s image extremely well, and a lot better than most speakers—but not as extremely well as did the Magnepan .7s.

The biggest difference between these two extraordinary loudspeakers was, first and foremost, the question of amplification. The KEF LS50 is easy to drive, and plays well with a wide range of low- to medium-priced amplifiers. It's fine with my 22Wpc Line Magnetic tube amp. The Magnepan .7, on the other hand, requires a current-generating machine like the Hegel H160 or the Rogue Sphinx. But—one of the most beautiful things about Jim Winey's design is that it's not a cheaper (ie, compromised to meet a low price point) version of their flagship model—it's just a smaller version. All the way through my listening for this review, I speculated that the .7 might simply be the "just right" Magnepan size, and in no way a compromise. Therefore, an aspiring audio perfectionist might feel it reasonable—might even feel entitled—to spend bigger money on a superlative amp. I also listened to the .7s driven by Pass Labs' XA100.5 monoblocks ($16,500/pair). I felt I was remote viewing in Valhalla!

The second difference was in the bass. I could very happily live with the Magnepans sans basse supplémentaire. But I really love my Charlie Haden and Manuel De Falla and Wendy Carlos and Philip Glass with the DWM panels. The DWMs hand off to the main speakers at 200Hz, which is deep into the region of male and female voices. That makes positioning the DWMs slightly tricky, potentially labor intensive—and entirely worth the effort.

I encourage all interested parties to begin with a pair of .7s alone. Move them closer to you and farther from the front wall until you like the tone quality. Toe them in so that their tweeter axes cross at the tip of your nose. Adjust the distance between the speakers and the positions of the tweeters (along the speakers' inside or outside edges) to suit your needs for instrumental weight, treble delicacy, and soundstage size.

After you've gotten the .7s zeroed in—ie, when the tone is right and the imaging is laser tight—be prepared to change those positions again when you add the DWMs. With the DWM, positioning is all about getting right the hyper-important 60–300Hz region. I recommend beginning with the DWM panel about 1' behind or 1' in front of the main drivers, then rotating the woofer on its own axis—which simultaneously adjusts level, power, and crossover frequency. Be prepared to hear substantial changes in tone and transparency by moving the woofer (and/or the main speakers) as little as 2". When pianos and voices sound right—you got it.

The moral of this story is . . .
The Magnepan .7 costs $1400/pair. The Rogue Audio Sphinx costs $1295. Throw in some AudioQuest Type 4 speaker cables ($124/10' pair) and a pair of AQ's Golden Gate interconnects ($68.99/meter pair) and you have a complete, made-in-America, very audiophile-grade, stereo for less than $3000 (not including source). Add one DWM bass panel ($795) and you're still under $3700, but you're experiencing big, punchy, unbelievably refined reproduction of music. Add a Pioneer PLX-1000 turntable ($699), a Shure SC35C ($75) cartridge, and a Schiit Bifrost ($349) or Halide HD ($499) DAC, and you have full-tilt, stupid-good, play-your-tunes-with-all-the-big-boys, major pro-style audio system . . . for under $5000! By the standards of high-end audiophiles, that's borderline Class A sound at only a few clicks above curbside-junk prices.


GBouillon's picture

Do you have a recommandation for a DAC with wireless features or a streamer to go with the system that you mention at the end of the column (Magnepan .7 + Rogue Audio Sphinx)?


rimu's picture

Rogue Sphinx really shines the most driving low-impedance speakers and playing older records like Lez-Zep II. Under these conditions it's crazy good and crazy value and difficult to beat for almost any other amp below $4000.
Under different circumstances it may perform not-so-good or even very poor. Take a high-impedance tough-to-drive speaker like ATC SCM40 and Rogue Sphinx will sound like an underpowered $300 entry-level amp. Take a better record with plenty of detail and Sim Audio would show that it's a class up from Rogue in head to head comparison. Sphinx just doesn't resolve that well.
The build-in phono stage is decent. Definitely far from great. Also Rogue is very noisy and has one of the most basic looks in mordern hifi.
Reading your reviews, it seems that you love tube sound and prefer it over solid-state. And Rogue Sphinx does sound like tubes despite being a hybrid. So maybe the right thing to say about Rogue would be something like: its the cheapest and most straight-forward way to get hifi tube sound? To me it would be a much more honest description of Sphinx's merits, rather than implying that it's just the best amp out there, class A, on par with $5000 components without any pitfalls.
Sim Audio and Hegel would do fine with way more different speakers and music, not to mention nice things like make, remote control and dead-silent noise floor - well justifying their respective prices. And even Moon Neo 340i and H160 would struggle to be considered borderline class A. High class B maybe.
Bottomline: I agree that Rogue Sphinx is an outstanding component at its price, great value and recommended to audition from many. But let's be fair: it does have its shortcomings and it's far from class A.