I told @jamesh I’d post a review of my new M700s, so here’s where things stand. First, let me say thanks to James for all of his help in my decision to get these instead of the S300, and in working with me on making it economically feasible. I didn’t think this purchase would be possible, and I’m grateful to him for helping me make it work.
So - I’ve had my M700s for a few weeks now, and wanted to give my detailed, if layman’s, impressions. A warning – this will be a bit long.
As of this writing, they have just over 200 hours on them, and I’m afraid if you want a description of how they’ve changed during that burn-in, you’ll need to look elsewhere – I don’t have the data to document the effect since I didn’t have the chance to listen closely right out of the box. The first couple of weeks I had them, while I was occupied elsewhere by work and preparing for a vacation, I kept them running very low with a disc player that was set on repeat. I only had one chance to do any detailed listening, and only on a couple of albums, at around the 75 hour mark. Then, at about the 150 hour mark, when it was time to leave town, rather than leave everything powered up while away for two weeks, I opted to shut it all down. After returning from vacation I set them running again, and today they broke the 200 hour mark, which seems to be the magic number for a lot of folks, so I sat down today to do some critical listening and form an overall impression.
I won’t bury the lead here anymore than I already have – I love these things and I’ll be keeping them, and sending in my trades. Before I get into specific music examples, I’ll start with some general characteristics I’m hearing across the board. First, as detailed as my last amp was, there is a level of detail with the M700s that I’ve not heard before. It’s easy to boost high frequencies to give the impression of greater detail, at the cost of accuracy and increasing the chance of fatigue, but this isn’t that. I’m not hearing the least bit of boost, etchiness or stridency in high frequencies. The system is nowhere near overbright. If I had to guess, again from a purely layman’s point of view, I’d attribute it to a combination of increased apparent resolution and a lower noise floor (and maybe headroom – more on that in a minute). I’m not kidding when I say sound is emerging from a silent, pitch black background. It’s allowing me to hear better ambience, decay and texture/timbre of sounds. Anything low-level is right there to be heard, all with a very natural sounding acoustic signature.
Second, the headroom these things provide, at least in my system (700 wpc into my Maggies’ 4-ohm loads), creates an audible characteristic I’m having a hard time articulating, other than to say the sound is “effortless.” I mentioned this in another thread as “ease of presentation.” I never considered any of my previous amps to be straining, but the smoothness and natural detail of this sound gives the impression that these things are taking everything I throw at them in stride, without breaking the least bit of a sweat. I know I’m failing at describing the effect, so I’ll just say it contributes, in a big way, to making everything sound much more “real.” I’ve read about this in reviews of other equipment, but never quite got it. I do now.
Timbral accuracy is spot-on – instruments all sound like they should, with no exaggeration anywhere in the frequency spectrum. Bass is definitely there, but in lifelike quantities, and well-controlled. Highs are extended without any harshness. Instrumental separation is fantastic, and imaging is precise and unwavering, with a sound stage that’s deep and wide.
I’ll be mentioning audible “texture” in the music examples below. I don’t know of another word that’s better at describing this one aspect of what these amps deliver. I believe it’s a real thing, though when I mentioned it once to Magnepan’s Wendell Diller as we listened to the piano solo in “Take Five” through his 30.7s, he looked at me blankly and said, “‘Texture’ – I don’t know what that means.” For me, it’s part of timbre, and describes the ability to hear auditory clues at what I call the “edges” of the sounds. It may be nothing more than increased ability to hear sonic details, but for me it’s one of the things that makes a sound seem real. You hear these things in live music, though I’ll admit they’re most easily heard with acoustic instruments in an unamplified environment – the hair of a bow as it grabs a string and first sets it vibrating, the woodiness of an upright bass being plucked, the slight roughness you can hear at the very start and end of a sung note, as the singer first projects the note, and then cuts it off, or when a horn player begins and ends a note. It’s a real thing, and it gets lost in a lot of recordings and/or playback systems. When I hear it, my brain identifies it as a real sound, with body and dimensionality and weight. I know, I’m failing again in my description, but I don’t know how else to explain it.
Here are a few of the things I’ve been listening to, and more specific impressions each has given me, through these amps:
The August – Thistle, Sparrow, and the Tall, Tall Grass (CD)
This Chicago-based band may not even be around any longer, and their albums are now hard to find, which is a shame. This was their 2nd or 3rd record, and it’s a great recording. The music is rock with a country tinge, and all the sounds on it have a decidedly “real” quality, whether the vocals, guitars (acoustic and electric), or drums. Imaging is rock solid. There’s a degree of “air” around each of the sounds that’s very much like the real thing. The M700s bring all of those qualities out in spades.
Bruce Cockburn – “Gavin’s Woodpile” from In the Falling Dark (CD)
This song, featuring one acoustic guitar and a single unadorned vocal, has precise, stable imaging, and the guitar in particular is very detailed. You can almost hear the shine of new strings on it. If you’re careful not to overdo the volume, the guitar and voice have just the right size/scale to make you think they’re in the room with you.
Holly Cole Trio – “Girl Talk” and “Slow Boat to China” from Treasure 1989-1993 (CD), and “Everybody Loves Somebody” from Holly (HD Tracks 24/192 download)
All of these tracks exhibit excellent, almost tactile upright bass and solid vocal imaging, the latter especially good on the HD Tracks download.
Thompson: Suite for Oboe, Clarinet & Viola; Peter Christ (LP & CD)
Wonderfully bright (engaging, not glaring) woodwind sounds in a very real sounding environment.
David Grisman and Tony Rice – “Turn of the Century” from Tone Poems (CD)
Slow tempo duet that provides lots of opportunity to hear the kind of aural textures the amps are capable of reproducing, whether the attack of picks on strings, timbre of mandolin and guitar, or decay and ambience.
Heart – “Blues Medley – Mother Earth/You Shook Me” from the original unauthorized issue of Magazine (LP)
If you play this loud enough, you hear the guitar amps buzzing, and I swear you can feel the heat of a midsummer outdoor concert. It’s like you’re there, swatting mosquitoes.
Debussy: Sunken Cathedral (La Cathedrale engloutie); Jackson Berkey (CD)
Solo piano recording on the old American Gramaphone label. One of the best piano recordings I have, with great, clear sound all the way across the frequency spectrum. The M700s really bring out the low registers especially well. The album was recorded at a pretty low level, but the gain of the M700s bring it to life, still against a perfectly black background.
Liszt: Transcendental Etudes; Claudio Arrau (SACD)
The amps really bring out the best in this great piano recording, reissued on SACD by Pentatone. The overall sound is gorgeous, but the frequency extremes really get your attention, as they’re almost tactile. Bass resounds realistically, and high notes have that pronounced hammer sound that lingers in the air, making it clear that the piano is a percussion instrument.
Cantus – “Shenandoah” from Let Your Voice Be Heard (CD)
Recorded by Stereophile’s John Atkinson, this album has a sound that is startlingly real. Cantus is a men’s chorus that originated years ago at St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota. Their performances are largely a cappella, though there is some accompanying instrumentation on a few of the selections on this record. Some of their works can get a little dense, in terms of simultaneous vocal lines, but the M700s make all of the vocals stand out clearly from the others. It makes this album sound glorious.
Kris McKay – “Wish You Were Here” from Echoes of Pink – a Pink Floyd Tribute (iTunes ALAC download)
This is a nice, fresh take on a classic, but the thing that makes it really stand out, especially through these amps, is the sound of the drums. It’s a spare production, which makes the snare and the kick drums easily heard, and the M700s make them sound real, from the vibration of the snare springs to the sudden, violent (but controlled) air movement from the kickdrum strike. You hear this and can’t help but think, that’s what a drum set sounds like in real life.
I can go on and on with these, but I’ll leave with one more – “Happy Cake” from acoustic guitarist Eric Skye’s Slow Moving Dog (CD)
Skye produces consistently real-sounding albums, and this is a prime example. From the tone and texture of the guitar to the prominent, but real, bass, to the percussive overtones of the drums, these amps make this record come alive. All of the amp qualities I’ve tried to describe come together on this one. It’s like the ensemble is in the room with you.
That’s all (!) I’ve got. If after wading through all of this, anyone is interested in more, especially classical, which got short shrift in this write-up, I’ll be happy to oblige. I also didn’t get much into harder rock, though I can tell you these amps kick ass on “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’” from the Stones’ remastered Sticky Fingers, or the dynamic punch in Guster’s “Ruby Falls” (a music critic once said that Coldplay could learn a thing or two about dynamic contrast from Guster).
CONTEXT (it’s everything): to better understand my opinions of these amps, here’s a brief bit about me and my hi-fi history. I’m in my mid-60s, and I’ve been into audio for over 45 years, and music my entire life, playing trumpet, bluegrass banjo, acoustic guitar and piano. After starting out for a couple of years with a mainly Pioneer component system in the early ‘70s, my hi-fis have gotten better, though they’ve always remained modest (these amps are my biggest splurge yet). My amp journey began with a GAS Son of Ampzilla, replaced by a B&K ST-140, then an Emotiva BasX A-300, and now the M700s. Preamps were GAS Thalia, Apt Holman, Adcom GFP-710, and now a PS Audio SGCD. Speakers were Maggie MG-1s, Cambridge Soundworks Ensemble 2s, Meadowlark Audio Kestrel 2s, and now Maggie .7s (with a Hsu sub). Current analog source is a VPI Scout with an Ortofon 2M Bronze, through a Channel Islands Audio PEQ-1 Mk II preamp with upgraded power supply. Current digital sources are Bluesound Node 2i, Rega Planet 2000 used as a transport feeding coax to the SGCD, and a Marantz SA8005 SACD player. Cables are a mix of LAT International, Morrow Audio, Kimber and Audioquest. Power is through a dedicated circuit in my listening room, with PSA high-current receptacles in the wall. The M700s are fed through a PSA HC Ultimate Outlet, and the SGCD and source components (except the turntable motor) are powered by a PSA P500 regenerator.