I've been busy! Lots of listening. Also the main system has now moved downstairs to the living room.
Also I wrote this.
The Sanders Magtech is a Class A/B power amp designed specifically to drive electrostatic speakers. Rumour has it that Martin Logan and Magnepan use the Magtech for their show demos, though they like to keep it hidden in case people find out about Sanders, who manufactures his own excellent ESL speakers!
It has 20 output transformers to supply the voltage that ESLs crave. (The theory behind the design is documented in this unusually informative white paper
.) It also has an innovative regulated power supply which means it can produce massive power whilst barely getting warm. It produces 500W/channel into 8 ohms, compared to the D400s 400WPC into 6 ohms. It nearly doubles its power as impedance halves: 900WPC into 4 ohms. It’s a beast.
It looks like one too. No Parisian chic here. Just a solid, boring black box. Slotting the Magtech into my system felt like returning to a bygone era. The manual warns of a switch-on thump from poorly designed preamps: so always switch the preamp on first! And if you want to switch out the preamp/DAC and change over the speaker cables, don’t even think about doing so until at least two minutes after you’ve turned the Magtech off. That electricity sure hangs around a while.
For the shoot-out I ran three set-ups as follows:
1. Sonos Connect (W4S mod) > D400 > ML Montis
2. Sonos Connect (W4S mod) > D400 (pre-outs) > Magtech > ML Montis
3. Sonos Connect (W4S mod) > Audiolab M-DAC (“Toy” mod) > Magtech > ML Montis
In the context of the whole, the difference between Nos 2. and 3. was negligible.
This is all about power, the right kind of power. I expected the Magtech to sound big and a bit crude. Just a bigger version of the Montis sound. How wrong I was!
Hearing ESLs sing properly is a kind of epiphany. (It is nearly Christmas, guys!) The first shock is the delicacy. Devialet owners know all about delicacy. The swift gliding of notes into and out of consciousness; the contrast of sound and silence. Driven by the Magtech, the Montis produce an ethereal sound. Timbres are perfectly defined. Listening to choral works is a revelation: the massed voices resolve into individuals, each identifiable by its different tone and timbre. Instruments become more real, more present. The same trick happens with orchestral music: layer upon layer of sweet and easily distinguishable timbre. And at the same time as the elements are resolved, the music becomes easier to follow. Musical phrases ebb and flow. Again and again I found the word “lyrical” coming to mind. I know some people have been put off MLs by what they experienced as a screechy top end at high volumes: trust me, the top end of the Montis, driven by the Magtech, is liquid honey.
Phrasing also depends on dynamics. Here the Magtech was obviously a couple of notches above the D400. Proper dynamics create bounce and drama. The Magtech makes a great job of quiet and delicate passages, and then a sudden orchestral crescendo hits you in a huge wave. Some people think ESLs don’t do loud. Sorry, they do. Really loud. Crushingly loud. The full 500W. And no audible distortion.
The package is completed by a remarkably vivid three-dimensional soundstage. This was always an acknowledged strength of Martin Logans. Americans do love their soundstage to be tall and deep. Again it’s orchestral music that reveals the genius of the ML line-source sound. (I’ve never really understood the preference some people have for point-source speakers.) The height of the soundstage somehow adds to the sense of depth. Violins and cellos down at the front. Woodwind and brass further back. Timpany right at the rear. Hearing becomes vision. With eyes closed you can see exactly how an orchestra is configured.
Much of this the D400 also does well. And if truth be told, the Dev has an energy and speed that maybe the Magtech doesn’t quite match. Maybe. It’s just that the Magtech has stolen the Dev’s best lines; where you expect the Dev to be supreme – transparency, delicacy, bass oomph – the Magtech is actually better.
I really wasn’t expecting this £3.5K power amp to be so darned good. The past two days have been nothing short of shocking. I’ve been smiling ear to ear. And looking forward to many hours of joy.
There's a third episode, if you can bear it.