Take a naturally creative and inventive person, give them a consuming interest, and present them with a related problem. Then sit back and watch the magic happen.
The story of American engineer Jim Winey and his invention of planar magnetic technology is more poetry than prose, full of fateful moves and impeccable timing. His company Magnepan, now a HiFi industry staple, has grown and evolved while remaining rooted in its original mentality.
Photo: The Audio Beat
The date was 1966, and the setting was Jim's family farmhouse in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. As an engineer working for industrial giant 3M, he'd been putting his industrial engineering degree to good use. 3M found he had a knack for developing efficient processes, and put him to work in that role throughout his tenure. Still, as destiny would have it, he was working on a project applying adhesive film to soft flexible magnet material at this time.
A deep connection with music and an interest in the budding HiFi audio hobby (then primarily a DIYer's affair) led him to a chance encounter with electrostatic speaker technology, which was a new and exciting way to make sound. His friend, Bill Johnson, owned a HiFi store and invited Jim over for a demo. This would be the same Bill Johnson who would go on to create Audio Research, one of HiFi's most legendary electronics brands.
Built by Ron Toews of RTR, the new speakers floored Jim with their ability to recreate a live performance more convincingly than he'd ever witnessed. They weren't perfect – the problems with early electrostats included bandwidth and volume limitations and the tendency to arc when driven too hard. And don't forget about the high-voltage energizer circuits that needed to be plugged into AC for the panel to make sound.
But the extraordinary things that the new electrostatic speakers could do stuck in Winey's mind, and the way they accomplished the feat was getting his gears turning. Then, an idea struck. Electrostats use charged stator panels as electromagnets on either side of the vibrating inner film. What if he built a similar speaker using permanent earth magnets?
Assuming he could get the resistance of the wires on the film to resemble a speaker load, the idea seemed possible. Back at the farmhouse, Winey cobbled together a small prototype using 3M's magnetic tape, and a small strip of mylar stretched over pencils. He hooked it up to his Dynaco tube amplifier; amazingly, it made sound!
From then, he devoted his free time to making more prototypes, and the size of the panels grew, eventually into multi-panel arrays. It soon became clear that the passive magnetic speaker's potential was sky-high and that if he didn't pursue the audiophile speaker dream with it, someone would.
Bill Johnson had been an enthusiastic influence in Jim's life before he developed his new "passive magnetic" panels, and Bill encouraged Jim in his early work. Audio Research even distributed the first models from Magnepan before the budding brand could build its own traditional dealer network.
The HiFi world is lucky that two things happened during this time. First, 3M let Winey take his invention and start his own company. After all, it relied on 3M technology and came about partly because of his training there. But he had a friend in the company who ensured Winey could secure a release of the intellectual property, which was surprising because rights to an earlier invention of Jim's were retained by 3M despite it being developed off-hours.
Second, Jim was receptive to early advice and help from Johnson, who sold Winey's speakers and marketed the brand in the early days.
The overarching factor pushing Magnepan forward was Winey's desire to perfect this new technology to compete in the audiophile speaker market.
Years into the game and with several models already under Magnepan's belt, a visit to a premier dealer sparked another major innovation of Winey's.
Jim and early marketing director Wendell Diller noticed that a dealer had added external tweeters to the large Tympani panels on display. On the plane ride home, Winey was already hard at work designing a perfect Magnepan tweeter in the form of a long, corrugated ribbon.
Ribbon tweeters existed, but not at the size and length that Winey implemented, which made the characteristic dispersion traits more like a line source than a point source, and of course, retained the figure-8 dipole dispersion pattern of the larger panels. The line-source ribbon tweeter was added to the next-generation Tympani IV speakers and would become a staple in the Magnepan lineup.
Winey's new ribbon tweeter would be the best possible mate to his planar magnetic panels. It had a speed and transparency that matched the mylar to a T and thus was born Magnepan's trademark marriage of large ribbon and planar magnetic panels.
Winey's innovations didn't end there. The evolution to a "quasi ribbon" design created a more efficient and better-performing panel, which now features in every Magnepan speaker. Whereas earlier versions of Magnepan panels used very thin wire adhered to the film sheet to form the voice coil, the quasi-ribbon design would bond a thin metal ribbon directly to the mylar.
Winey always used aluminum for his voice coils to help bring the total DC resistance of the speaker up to traditional speaker levels and the impedance along with it. Had he used copper, very few amps in existence would be able to drive them.
Crossovers in Magnepan speakers have traditionally used first-order slopes, which perfectly fit the speakers' strengths. Gentle, 6dB-per-octave filters ensure minimal phase disruption across the frequency band to go along with the characteristically stable impedance.
Winey made an amplifier's best friend in a speaker capable of see-through transparency and a staggering sense of realism. And one that, besides the obvious need for wattage and current, relaxed the demands on amplifiers versus frequency, allowing something of an "even playing field" and letting the amplifier's character shine through.
Over the years, Magnepan improved its models with better adhesion processes, thinner film, better magnets, and sturdier frames. Still, compared to many other speaker brands on the market, Magnepan speakers' look and feel have remained relatively consistent throughout the decades. Winey's original design was so good that fairly minimal improvement has been necessary to keep pace with the rest of the HiFi world.
It's a niche application for a niche market. Audiophiles who have gone deep down the Magnepan rabbit hole know that a properly installed Maggie system will continue to improve as the electronics improve, up to an incredibly high degree. It says a lot about the purity of the design and the genius of Mr. Winey, as does the company's continual adherence to his original pricing philosophy and staunch support of traditional dealers.
Jim's sons now carry the founder's vision into the modern market, each holding an essential role in the company. Longtime marketing director Wendell Diller still represents the brand to the audiophile community. Magnepan is a Winey-family-owned business, and Diller is the face of the company – its chief evangelist for nearly half a century.
Wendell's "road shows" are legendary. They've offered audiophiles a chance to hear the latest and greatest from Magnepan without requiring flights or hotels.
Wendell and his wife Galina took the multi-paneled 30.7 mega Maggies on the road to all of the company's US dealers in 2019. Most recently, the team started a new tour featuring Magnepan's two latest additions: the popular LRS+ budget panel and the intriguing, not-yet-released UBS woofer column. The "+" is an improved version of the über popular LRS mini Maggies. The UBS is a shallow triangular column designed to live along (and acoustically load) the sidewalls. It's as much a throwback to the original Tympani bass panels as it is a new concept.
Longtime audiophiles will remember the magic The Absolute Sound editor Harry Pearson stumbled upon when he mated the high/mid element from his Infinity QRS system with the large bass panels of his Tympani 1-D system from Magnepan. He created a franken-system which he dubbed the QRS-1D and wrote about enthusiastically. Click here to read a few words on the system by the man himself.
What the Tympani bass panels did better than the original QRS woofer array was mate with the speed and low distortion of the electrostatic and planar upper in a way that breathed reality into the listening experience. This full dipole setup showed that using a traditional cone driver in a box to support a dipole planar top end was too great a compromise. The bass might be more fulsome, but the timing didn't match like it would with a dipole panel making the bass.
The UBS can pair with any dipole speaker, even adding something to the presentation of the massive 30.7 reference system from Magnepan. But the specific LRS+ pairing is meant to prove that you don't need to sacrifice a lot of room space to get an incredible dipole experience.
The combo made waves already this year at the Montreal Audio Fest – take a look at this video from Thomas & Stereo: https://youtu.be/K2a1Lfoa1Ec?t=92
Where Magnepan goes next is unknown, but if the past 50+ years are an indication, they'll continue to develop new ways to fit planar magnetic dipole technology into everyday lives. They'll try to grow that niche crowd incrementally. We can expect steady, if slow, improvement to the overall process and technology, but we're also in for some surprises if the quasi-throwback UBS is any indication.
One thing is for sure. This family-owned and financially-sound American manufacturer will be around for a long time, offering new generations of audiophiles the unique Maggie experience and opening ears to the magic of planar magnetic dipole sound.
Talk to our experts today if you're curious to hear what all the fuss is about. And remember – you can save on any new products at The Music Room by trading in your used gear. Fill out this form to get started.