Martin Logan ESLs

Wolrd-Class (ESL) Elecrtostatic speakers
Truth In Sound

Our Vision Statement
To be the best-in-class global provider and marketer of audio/video entertainment products with profitable growth through innovation, new product development, continuous improvement, acquisition and brand building.

Our Mission Statement
We develop and market innovative, industry-leading audio/video entertainment products of exceptional performance, value and quality. Our focus is on continuous improvement and excellence in collaboration with our customers, employees and suppliers, while maximising shareholder value.

In the early 1990's MartinLogan released the world's first electrostatic center-channel and on-wall surround-channel speakers, establishing MartinLogan as a major player in the emerging home theater market. It was during this time in the early 90's that some of MartinLogan's most beloved classic electrostatic speakers were introduced, including the Aerius, SL3, Quest, and Cinema.

MartinLogan's most ambitious product to date began to take form in 1997. The resulting 2000-pound Statement e2 loudspeaker shocked the audio world and today is still considered by many to be the apex of no-holds-barred loudspeaker design. The innovative design and engineering behind the Statement e2 fueled the next generation of MartinLogan electrostatic speakers (not to mention ML's first non-electrostatic product). Released in 1999, the Prodigy electrostatic loudspeaker incorporated much of the design and engineering knowledge gained during the Statement project. Prodigy in turn inspired an entire new generation of electrostatic products including the Odyssey, Ascent, Aeon and Theater. All the while sales and distribution continued to expand.

What followed was one the greatest challenges ever faced by MartinLogan engineers - the design of MartinLogan's first non-electrostatic product. In 2001 the legendary Descent subwoofer (featuring servo-control and BalancedForce technologies) took the market by storm establishing MartinLogan as a major player in the growing subwoofer market.

In 2003 Design Series was launched. MartinLogan's high-end pedigree and years of design know-how allowed the design and engineering team to produce this increasingly smaller and more affordable line of speakers without sacrificing the quality and performance that the MartinLogan name has come to represent.

Now firmly established as a loudspeaker 'technology' company (not just an 'electrostatic' company) MartinLogan ventured where few high-performance speaker companies dare to tread... inside of a wall. The Voyage and Passage in-wall loudspeakers (released 2004) challenged the entire audio industry by releasing in-wall speakers with true high-performance sound.

Reviews

Reviews

The affordable EMotion-X electrostatic towers delivered the detailed, lifelike sound I know and love.....
Al Griffin

AT A GLANCE:
Excellent performance with music and movies
Perfect Bass Kit for sub eases setup
Compact electrostatic center speaker (optional)

THE VERDICT:
MartinLogan’s ESL X tower speakers deliver delicacy and detail—along with serious dynamics. A new, more compact electrostatic center speaker sweetens the deal.

EXTENDED REVIEW: as a member of Generation X, I sometimes get paranoid about being target-marketed when I see a product name appended with an “X”—for instance, MartinLogan’s new ElectroMotion ESL X speaker. I, for one, would be an easy target: An eX-MartinLogan owner, I’m very familiar with the detailed, almost eerily present sound that the company’s hybrid electrostatic speakers deliver. Consider me a fan.

Why did I move on from my MartinLogans? Adaptation to change, mostly. The big A/V console I had custom-built to accommodate my oversize MartinLogan center-channel speaker suddenly felt like it was overwhelming my space. I also thought that dynamic speakers might be a better fit for the mostly rockmusic diet I was consuming. After I made the switch, however, I would often become wistful when I thought of my old system.

Which brings me to the matter at hand: the ElectroMotion ESL X tower and ESL C center speaker. If these represent some kind of attempt to lure me back into the MartinLogan fold, it’s a compelling strategy. The ESL X tower is the new top model in the company’s entrylevel ElectroMotion series of electrostatic speakers, just above the ESL. According to MartinLogan, the ESL X provides better power handling than the regular ESL model, courtesy in part of a larger electrostatic transducer (the thin-film diaphragm that is positioned between perforated metal stators; that’s what moves to create the sound in an electrostatic speaker). Also contributing are dual 8-inch woofers (both housed in a ported enclosure). At 59 inches tall, the ESL X also has a 7-inch height advantage over its little brother.

The ESL C takes the same Curvilinear Line Source (CLS) electrostatic transducer technology found in the ESL X and combines it with a 1 x 1.4-inch Folded Motion tweeter and dual 5.25-inch woofers. Unlike the company’s previous center speakers that incorporate CLS, the woofers are inside the cabinet in an opposing arrangement that MartinLogan calls CenterForce. Their combined output emerges from the front baffle via a single slot. The benefit to this design is that it enables the use of a sizable electrostatic panel within a relatively compact enclosure—one you won’t need a custom-built A/V console to hold.

For those unfamiliar with the Folded Motion tweeter that accompanies the electrostatic panel, it’s MartinLogan’s variation on a planar magnetic driver with an accordian-folded diaphragm, based on concepts originally developed by Oskar Heil in his Air Motion Transformer and now found in a variety of both high-end and inexpensive speakers.

ML has been using this tweeter for years now in its non-electrostatic Motion line because, they say, its wide surface area and dispersion, low distortion, and fast transient response most closely resemble the characteristics of a true electrostatic speaker in a traditional passive driver. In this case, the CLS panel handles the midrange duties from 600 to 3,400 hertz, and the tweeter handles the high frequencies above that point. That’s different than the towers, whose CLS panels, by virtue of size, are able to reproduce frequencies up to the top of their range.

The final component of the system MartinLogan sent me was the company’s Dynamo 1500X subwoofer, a sealed-cabinet design with rounded edges and a sleek, satin black finish (you’ll have to pay more for high-gloss piano black). This was previously reviewed in the November 2015 issue by my colleague Mike Trei as part of a MartinLogan Motion system. Surprisingly compact for a sub containing a 15-inch woofer, the Dynamo 1500X features removable feet to permit installation with the woofer arrayed in either a downward- or forward-firing orientation. For the latter case, MartinLogan also provides a black mesh speaker grille to conceal the driver on the sub’s front. The 1500X is powered by an internal 650-watt RMS amplifier (1,300 watts peak) and is compatible with the company’s Perfect Bass room correction feature (which requires the optional $100 Perfect Bass Kit). It offers both line-level stereo and LFE inputs (RCA and XLR) and provides an LFE bypass mode. A signal sensor automatically turns the subwoofer on and off, and there’s also a trigger input to switch power via a 12-volt connection from an A/V preamp or receiver.

Setting Up and Breaking In 

MartinLogan warned me in advance that the ESL X towers would require at least 100 hours of break-in time. I was surprised to find how on-target that estimate was. After I had fed the speakers music nonstop for almost a week, the sound eventually transitioned from too crisp to a more relaxed presentation that was much easier on the ears. At first, I listened to a pair of towers alone, and then later introduced the Dynamo 1500X for subwoofer-enhanced stereo. My final step was to whisk the whole kit over to my home theater, where a second pair of ESL X towers served as surrounds in a 5.1 system.

Like other MartinLogans I’ve used, the ESL X proved mostly unfussy about placement. Electrostatics have a dipole radiation pattern in which sound emerges from both the front and back, so they shouldn’t be pushed right up against a wall. I positioned the speakers about 2 feet out from the front wall and 11 feet apart, toed them in slightly toward the center seat on my couch, and got a well-focused stereo image. Along with hooking up the usual speaker cables, each ESL X comes with its own low-voltage power supply that has to be connected to AC power. The power supply energizes the electrical grid in which the diaphragm is sandwiched. That’s nothing new for electrostatics, but the need to run an extra power cord to every speaker may be a deterrent for some. The 1500X, meanwhile, ended up about 1 foot out either way from the room’s left corner, where it sounded, well, not great.

Perfect Bass Forever 

Usually, this would be the point where I would start a painstaking subwoofer-placement regimen, shifting it around and playing test tracks until I found a favorable spot that resulted in smoother bass. Instead, I unboxed the Perfect Bass Kit (PBK) that MartinLogan sent me.

The PBK consists of a calibrated mic and mic stand plus a pair of long USB cables that you connect to your computer and PBK-compatible MartinLogan subwoofer or speaker. After downloading a Windows application from the company’s support site, you place the mic in your main listening seat and click a button that triggers a sequence of sweep tones. After you take measurements at a few other spots in the room (up to 10 maximum), the data is compiled to create a frequency response curve. The PBK app then compares that with a target response and, lastly, generates EQ correction curves, which are uploaded to the subwoofer. Once done, my system’s bass was, if not Perfect, then significantly cleaner-sounding than before.

Clearing Out Clutter 

When I listened to the stereo pair of the ESL X towers alone, a 96/24 HDtracks download of the Brad Mehldau Trio’s interpretation of Paul McCartney’s “My Valentine” was smooth, spacious, and well integrated from top to bottom. The cymbals and brushed snare came across as crisp but without extra sizzle, and the wide-open presentation extended well beyond the boundaries of the speakers. Details like the impact of mallets on the piano strings could be clearly heard, especially when the performance shifted midway into an extended piano solo.

I switched to a Tidal HiFi stream, Weyes Blood’s “Do You Need My Love,” and the ESL X towers revealed greater density in this track than I had experienced previously with other speakers. The reverb-touched voices and mellotron-like keyboards sounded pillowy and lush. Layers of instruments and background vocals were rendered individually, making busy sections like the keyboard solo in the fadeout sound clear rather than cluttered.

Sub-Mersion 

I added the Dynamo 1500X subwoofer to the system and set the crossover in my Anthem AVM 50 preamp to 50 Hz—an adjustment I settled on after some listening trial and error. I played both tracks again so I could gauge the effect of the sub on the towers’ performance. With the Mehldau, I could better pinpoint the location of the bass during a solo, and the instrument sounded more full-bodied and resonant when it hit the lowest notes. On the Weyes Blood, the sub provided a solid bass foundation, one that let me push the volume loud without causing the sound to become more lean.

The most dramatic contribution that the 1500X made with music came when I played “Us and Them” from an SACD of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. The stereo towers alone had displayed excellent depth with this track, while lending clarity and focus to David Gilmour’s lead vocals. During the explosive choruses, however, the bass would become recessed, which caused the sound to come across as dynamically limited. Adding the subwoofer brought back the dynamics: The wailing vocals in the choruses displayed much-improved bloom, and the bass sounded solid as opposed to the recessed presentation I heard when listening sub-less. I could also play the track ridiculously loud without hearing congestion in the lower-midrange/upper-bass region.

Dodging Bullets 

After transferring the speakers to my home theater, I positioned each of the ESL X towers being used as surrounds about 3 feet from the left and right corners of my couch, respectively, and ran the PBK setup routine again to EQ the subwoofer’s output for the new space. I then inserted a Blu-ray of Hell or High Water into my Oppo player and held on for the ride.

Watching the movie, I was quickly reminded of the benefits that electrostatic speakers bring to home theater. Ambient sounds like wind blowing through the trees in the rural Southwest landscape and the rolling of truck tires on a lonely road came across in vivid detail. Dialogue was well served by the ESL C center, which brought clarity to the muted mutterings of Sheriff Marcus (Jeff Bridges). It also delivered clear dialogue over a wide arc: I could shift over to the far side of my couch, and voices still sounded natural.

That said, the ESL C center wasn’t an exact timbral match with the ESL X towers when I listened to pink noise generated by my processor in setup mode. Sitting directly on axis, I noticed that high frequencies were more elevated through the ESL C, though the disparity lessened when I shifted over one or two seats. The same effect could be heard on dialogue, which sounded “hotter” when I sat directly front and center. Given the center’s use of the Folded Motion tweeter for its high frequencies, it’s not unreasonable to expect some discrepancy between the two speakers. However, this mismatch didn’t prove to be a problem when I watched movie scenes where sound effects pan wide from front right to front left. For instance, there’s a scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring where Arwen, carrying Frodo, flees on horseback from the Ringwraiths. Here, the pounding of hoofbeats and the howling of the wraiths had a consistent envelope as the group raced across the forest (or more specifically, across the three speakers adorning the front of my room).

Hell or High Water weaves music—mostly outlaw-type country, but also a menacing score by rocker Nick Cave—into many scenes, and the towers’ crisp rendering of it helped draw me into the tale of bank-robbing brothers on a mission to save the family ranch. The system also held up well during violent action sequences, such as one where the brothers are shot at by a security guard and gun-toting townsfolk (the story is set in Texas, after all). As the action exploded in the confined space of a bank lobby, the sound of fired shots had a powerful envelope. This was one scene where I literally felt the contribution of the Dynamo 1500X sub, which successfully conveyed the explosive, full-bodied report of the handguns. The system’s reproduction of bullets bouncing off the walls and ceiling also conveyed the authentic sense of being stuck in the middle of the mayhem.

Sound Off 

For me, auditioning this ElectroMotion ESL X speaker system was like going home again. The affordable (by MartinLogan standards) electrostatic towers delivered the detailed, lifelike sound I know and love, and the solid foundation provided by the Dynamo 1500X subwoofer enabled them to reach dynamic heights I hadn’t previously experienced in my days as a MartinLogan-phile.

Adding greatly to this system’s appeal is the Perfect Bass Kit, which makes it easy to get sound with a well-integrated low end. For only $100 extra, it’s a no-brainer. And the ESL C—which, unlike earlier hybrid electrostatic center-channel speakers, is designed to fit into standard A/V consoles—is an exciting addition to the company’s portfolio. After living with this MartinLogan system for a few weeks, I’m now more wistful than ever.
........ Al Griffin

The MartinLogan ESL 11A is a world-class speaker. It is revealing, accurate and has the huge soundstage one expects of a dipole radiator. The speaker can sound good with modest source components, but to hear it at its best, use the highest-quality
Glen Young

Summary: tThe MartinLogan ESL 11A is a world-class speaker. It is revealing, accurate and has the huge soundstage one expects of a dipole radiator. The speaker can sound good with modest source components, but to hear it at its best, use the highest-quality sources and amplifiers that you can provide.

The ESL 11A speakers give a revealing insight into the recording that you’re listening to. Were the microphones overloaded during the recording process? Some Dean Martin recordings were. You’ll hear it through the MLs. Did the recording engineer try to get tricky at the mixing console? You’ll know it. Is the recording compressed for radio play? Is the bass boosted for effect? Is the treble bright? Every one of these recording aspects can be readily heard with the MLs. So if you’re a listener who prefers that your stereo system make everything sound good, be aware that the MLs are not going to editorialise for you – what the speakers get is what you’ll hear – no tricks – no sweetening – nothing hidden.

The MartinLogan speaker company has been in business since 1979. Currently based in Lawrence, Kansas, the company is renowned for its classic designs like the all-electrostatic Curvilinear Line Source (CLS). But the two things it is best known for are its hybrid speakers and their unique dispersion characteristics.

Electrostatic speakers have traditionally been known for their transparency and accuracy, but since the panels tend to be large, their treble dispersion is narrow – an effect known as “beaming.” ML has overcome this by producing curved electrostatic panels that do not beam in the treble.

Electrostatic speakers have also traditionally been known for their inability to produce the bass of conventional cone speakers. Other companies have tried hybrid designs using cone bass and electrostatic midrange/treble, but the crossovers have usually been audible with the bass sounding slower and heavier than the higher frequencies.

Through the use of new technologies and dedicated engineering, the ML speakers have mostly eliminated the audible disconnect between cone bass and electrostatic higher frequencies. How successful have they been? Read on…

Design

As mentioned previously, MartinLogan does two unusual things with their ESL 11A speaker. First, the Curvilinear Line-Source technology allows far broader dispersion in the treble than the usual panel speaker and second, the hybrid, self-amplified cone bass section allows them to carefully control the transition between the bass and the rest of the frequency range.

The CLS technology is a mature, proven and reliable innovation that to the best of my knowledge, is unique to MartinLogan. It works well, and supplies up to 30 degrees of horizontal midrange and treble dispersion. The electrostatic panel is curved, bowing outward at the front and centre so that all midrange and treble frequencies are dispersed broadly.

At the 300Hz crossover, multiple low-pass filters are used to prevent audible overlap between the electrostatic and traditional cone parts of the speaker. Because the electrostatic panels (a membrane just 0.0005 of an inch thick) have far less mass than the woofers, overlap would tend to blur the sound. The 300Hz crossover frequency is one that the ear is highly sensitive to, and any blur there would be immediately noticeable. But by using filters in this way, overlap is reduced and so is the blurring.

The two woofer cones provide both direct and reflected sound that is intended to blend better with the electrostatic panels’ dipole radiation pattern. Having the woofers adjacent to the floor allows not only for better coupling but it also avoids the strong first reflection that happens when woofers are elevated above the floor.

Using an internal amplifier to power the woofers further enhances control and allows the main audio amplifier a much easier drive. The bass frequencies that require high current are being serviced by the speakers’ internal amps. In effect, the main amplifier need only reproduce from 300Hz on up. That makes this hybrid speaker FAR easier to drive than a conventional full-range model. During some of my listening, I drove the ESL 11A’s successfully with a pair of 15-watt, mono-block tube amplifiers.

The transparent electrostatic panel is far less conspicuous than you might think, and these speakers easily blend into most home decors. And finally, they are available in a variety of colours

My review pair was in black with lovely walnut bass bins. ML has made a very smart design choice here and one that I wish other manufacturers would emulate. Around the bottom of each bin is a roughly three-inch high strip of black metal alloy. It protects the woodgrain finish from the assaults of vacuum cleaners. That short skirt prevents the veneer from being marred by repetitive household cleaning. Well done!

MartinLogan claims several advantages for their speaker design:

Curvilinear Line Source (CLS) Transducer – Since the beginning of audio, achieving smooth dispersion has been a challenge for all speaker designers. Large panel transducers present unique difficulties because the larger the panel, the more directional the dispersion pattern becomes. By curving the horizontal plane of the electrostatic transducer, a controlled horizontal dispersion pattern could be achieved.

Generation 2 Diaphragm – The electrostatic diaphragm employs a coating applied to the polymer surface at an atomic level using a plasma bonding process. A proprietary conductive compound is driven into the surface of the polymer film in an oxygen free argon chamber. This process allows extremely uniform surface resistivity characteristics, an optically transparent surface and a nearly massless diaphragm. As a result, no discharging or arcing can occur.

MicroPerf Stator – This reveals more open playable area in each panel, offering increased performance from even more compact stat panels. It is significant to note that the ML transducer supports the bandwidth and dynamics associated with traditional electrostatic panels nearly twice its size.

Vacuum Bonding – Two insulated high-purity carbon steel stators along with a proprietary plasma bonded diaphragm and ClearSpar spacers are fused into the curved geometry with an adhesive whose strength exceeds that of welding. The process guarantees uniform diaphragm tensioning and extremely precise construction tolerances, resulting in linearity and efficiency.

AirFrame Technology – The panels are joined to their speaker cabinets using extruded aluminium. This provides rigidity without obstructing the playable surface or interfering with the dipole sound radiation pattern.

Powered-force Forward Bass Technology – Low-frequency equalisation, integrated into Powered-force technology, allows calibration for optimal room integration. In traditional speaker systems, the reflected low-frequency energy from the wall behind the speakers recombines with the energy projected forward causing booming and/or lean bass. ML’s two horizontally-opposed, phase-timed drivers are said to reduce the reflected energy.

Anthem Room Correction (ARC) Technology – An optional ARC box features a calibrated microphone that measures the woofer’s output in the room, comparing it to optimal response curves. The advanced DSP adjusts the speaker’s output to accommodate the room’s unique acoustics and the speakers’ locations in the room.

Setup

The speakers arrived as freight on a pallet. Even after removing the two boxes from the single pallet, this is NOT a pair of speakers that should be moved, unpacked or set up by one person. For this reason, MartinLogan dealers have set up and delivery services available.

I got the boxes home, then consulted the owner’s manual for unpacking instructions. The cartons are thoughtfully marked with “open other side” text that coaches the owner in the right direction. But the manual’s instructions for how to unpack consist of a graphic and a single sentence, “Unpack and set up the speakers.” Nevertheless, I got it done, then plugged them in so they could charge and stabilise.

The owner’s manual for the 11A’s recommends starting with the rear of the speakers placed approximately two to three feet from the wall behind them and the edges of the electrostatic panels at least two feet from the side walls. The listening distance should be further than the distance between the speakers themselves. Of course nothing is perfect, and I had to start with my speakers about a foot and a half from the rear wall. Fortunately, they seem to work fine there and imaging was great.

Note that the more damping material you have on the wall behind the speakers, the closer you can get away with moving the speakers to the wall. Heavy drapes or a tapestry would be ideal, but I used some commercial two-inch thick audio absorber pads.

The owner’s manual also recommends aftermarket power cords. Why the supplied power cords are considered substandard isn’t mentioned, nor why aftermarket cords should be needed for a ten-thousand-dollar product. I had some heavy-duty 12awg IEC cords in my parts bin, so I used those and left the ML cords in their boxes. I also tried some lighter gauge cords without any apparent reduction in performance.

The tilt of the electrostatic panels can be adjusted to provide the best imaging regardless of seating height. I found that the out-of-box tilt was perfect for my couch.

As to break-in, the manual advises, “Our woofers require approximately 72 hours of break-in at 90dB (moderate listening levels) before any critical listening. The break-in requirements of the crossover components (and, to a lesser degree, the stator) are equivalent.” My three days of irritating noise were done before critical listening began.

Note that ML does not provide bi-wire terminals. So all your fancy bi-wire speaker cables are only “half usable.” The single terminals are fine, though, and I used mine exclusively with banana plugs. Some high-end manufacturers (including the late, great Jim Thiel) have stated that there is no significant audible advantage to bi-wiring, and that they don’t include it on their products. Martin-Logan obviously agrees.

The manual also provides instructions on use of the Anthem Room Correction or ARC. This is an optional package that electronically removes room peaks and corrects for left/right imbalances. Since this was not included with the review sample, I can’t comment on it

The manual also includes a good discussion of room acoustics and acoustical treatment. Spikes are included with the speaker that are fine for carpet, but would readily damage wooden or vinyl floors. Fortunately, the pre-installed feet provided by ML are rubber hemispheres, and I used those.

The lower midrange and bass frequencies (below 300Hz) are handled by the ML’s internal amplifier:

The two 8-inch long-throw woofers (front and rear) reproduce the low frequencies:

Mid-bass can be controlled by a switch (-2dB/Flat/+2dB), and the low bass by a dial (plus or minus up to 10dB). These can be used to fine-tune the speaker to the room.

In Use

One of the first things that I noticed about the MLs is that I had forgotten how clean and extended an electrostatic midrange/treble could be. I’ve lately owned and listened to a wide variety of very high quality cone-and-dome speakers, including the Axiom Audio M100 and the Tekton Pendragons. Both of these conventional designs have excellent treble. But the ESL 11A speakers are in a whole different universe.

I have come to think of these speakers as “amplifier debunkers.” Whatever the amplifier sends these speakers comes right on out. A substandard amp has absolutely nowhere to hide. An amp with a slightly-recessed midrange (I had one of these on hand – a Class-D pro power amp) is revealed as having not only the glassy midrange but also the less-than-dynamic, rolled-off treble that one might expect from a pro amplifier.

For part of my listening, I used a historically popular tube power amp, the Dynaco ST70. My amp came to me modified, and has a very slight midrange/treble glare. This glare is but a slight irritant when used with less revealing speakers, but the amp’s shortcoming became painfully obvious when played above background levels through the Martin Logans. This had nothing to do with the electrostatic technology either – I’ve noticed the glare of this particular amp through both of my cone-and-dome Axiom and Tekton speakers. But the transparency of the MLs made it even more obvious.

One great-sounding pair of mono-block amplifiers that I found for the MLs are a pair of Heathkit EA-2 amps that I modified (from monophonic integrated amplifiers to monophonic power amplifiers) myself. They put out about 12 watts per channel. The superiority of these amps was painfully obvious, and on almost any music. And although below the recommended wattage for the MLs, the Heathkits played more than loudly enough for my ears. These were tied for my favourite amplifiers for these speakers.

My other favorite amplifier, and one that made the MLs really sing, was the new Cary Audio SI-300.2d (Secrets review coming soon). This solid-state integrated amplifier with onboard DAC showed its quality even on these very-revealing speakers.

I wanted to try another pair of amplifiers with the ESL 11As – a pair of solid-state mono block units with a significant amount of Class-A power. But unknown to me, their bridged design made it unsuitable for impedances below two ohms. The 11A speakers fall to 0.6 ohms at 20KHz.

And this brings up a warning – ensure that your amplifier can handle low-impedance, reactive loads before hooking up the ESL 11As. If you have any doubts, check with the amplifier manufacturer and/or MartinLogan. Incompatible amplifiers are relatively rare, but the cost of amplifier repair or replacement can be considerable.

The MLs never sounded bad, even with the most modest of amplification, but they definitely revealed the sound quality of the source and amplifier feeding them. A good upstream source/preamp/power-amplifier will be well worth the money. This isn’t always the case – some speakers are low-resolution enough that they can sound their best with any group of electronics. Lesser amplifiers won’t sound any worse with the MLs, but due to the high transparency of the speakers, good sources and amps certainly justify their cost.

Associated equipment used for this review: 

  • MacBoook Pro running JRover Media Center 22
  • Red Book CD collection ripped in WAV format
  • Oppo BDP-105 used as a DLNA (Ethernet) DAC
  • SACD discs played via the Oppo
  • Schiit Gungnir Multibit DAC
  • PS Audio PCA-2 solid-state preamplifier
  • Dynaco ST70 tubed power amplifier (modified from stock configuration by previous owner)
  • Heathkit EA-2 tubed amplifiers (converted to mono-block power amps only)
  • Unnamed pair of solid-state mono-block amplifiers (too unstable for speakers)
  • Crown XLS-1000 Class-D pro power amplifier
  • Cary Audio SI-300.2d integrated amp with built-in DAC
  • Interconnects from Audioquest, Emotiva, BlueJeans Cable, and others
  • 12awg IEC power cords from Parts-Express
  • Speaker cables from BlueJeans, Nordost Flatline, Straightwire Symphony SC, and others

So how do the MartinLogan ESL 11A’s SOUND? 

It’s harder to describe than you might think. The speakers, with their bipolar radiation pattern, demand a symmetrical room. Any unavoidable right-to-left imbalance must be compensated for (but imperfectly) via a balance control. It is possible however, that the Anthem Room Correction (ARC) could provide more effective correction. My advice is that if you’re going to spend the money on these speakers, make sure that you have a symmetrical room to put them in. Fortunately, my room is symmetrical from left to right, and the speakers imaged wonderfully there.

As mentioned before, the owner’s manual also recommends that the backs of the speakers be a minimum of two to three feet from the wall behind them. This means that the speakers will NOT be inconspicuous. They’re not small to start with, and being so far forward into the room space makes them even more prominent. The placement requirements make these speakers an impediment to using them in many multi-purpose rooms. Don’t buy these to shove against the wall in your living room. The speakers need a dedicated listening room and preferably a BIG one. Now that said, I found that with judicious adjustment (and by using the included bass controls) I could get away with the speakers being as little as one foot from the wall behind them. This is not a recommended placement, but it can work. Having ATS Acoustics absorbers on the wall behind the speakers definitely helped by making near-wall placement more feasible. Without the absorbers, the strong rear-wave reflection would have blurred the sound. My auditioning was done with the speakers anywhere from one to (more of the time) two feet, and occasionally three feet from the wall behind.

The ESL 11A’s can sound anywhere from lean to boomy, depending on the adjustments of the mid-bass & low-bass trims on the speaker. Remember that its internal amplifier is reproducing everything below 300Hz. But the drive signal is coming from the source amplifier at speaker-level, not line-level from a preamp-out. Therefore, the character of the source amplifier is maintained from midrange to bass, and there is no discontinuity where the 300Hz crossover occurs. Starting with all switches & dials at their zero positions, I ended up needing no bass boost in my room. Keep in mind that for larger rooms, MartinLogan does offer two speaker models with larger woofers – the Expression ESL 13A and the Renaissance ESL 15A. And for smaller rooms, the Classic ESL 9 is also available. The 11A worked fine in my room and delivered very smooth bass response.

The MLs are as clean and transparent as you’d expect from an electrostatic speaker. No cone and dome speaker I’ve ever heard can compare. The only negative, if you want to think of it as that, is the bipolar radiation pattern of the ML creates a more generous but slightly less precise image than does a point-source radiator (such as for example, the Thiel 3.7). If an analytically precise image is your Holy Grail, then perhaps the MLs aren’t for you.

The MLs sound ethereal and completely divorced from their physical positions. For example, when a cymbal or bell is struck, the sound seems to float over the orchestra exactly as it does at the symphony hall. This is HIGHLY unusual and the MLs do it perfectly. Other percussion instruments are similarly well-reproduced – think drumsticks, rim-shots, xylophones, and cow bells.

It’s fair to say that I spent a LOT of time listening to the ESL 11As. Many recordings revealed different aspects of the speakers’ performance. I listened to the following selections (among others):

Treble
I’ve spoken before about the veracity of cymbals, bells and percussive sounds through the ESL 11As, but the four cuts that I thought exhibited their treble performance best included:

Summertime by Janis Joplin (with Big Brother & the Holding Company). The brushed cymbals and light taps sound like a real drum kit right in your living room. Many speakers have difficulty with treble. To my ears for example, Klipsch Heritage speakers get the brass right, but lack some of the overtones that should be there. B&W speakers on the other hand, miss the brass and sound too “tizzy.” The ESL 11As get both the brass and the ringing overtones just right.

Cyril Neville’s album, New Orleans Cooking, contains the cut Tipitina. Again, in my room, the cymbals hit exactly the right balance.

The Journeyman album by Eric Clapton has the chestnut Pretending. Percussive sounds seemed to jump from the mix and were extremely airy without being too tizzy.

And Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me To The Moon never sounded better with its drumstick introduction and the amazingly well-recorded band with percussion sounds that swell and dip.

Midrange
The midrange is where the voice lies. Get the voice wrong (many speakers do) and no matter how great the rest sounds, the speaker’s a failure. The lovely ESL 11As get voices right all the way from the bass to the soprano.

One of my guilty pleasures is Balkan Beat Box. Their Blue Eyed Black Boy album has the cut Dancing With The Moon. I like the video, and have found that I enjoy listening to the audio as well. The singer is a tenor, and despite the fact that no vibrato is employed, the tone is as natural as I’ve heard.

David Clayton Thomas’ baritone is displayed on the Blood, Sweat and Tearsalbum by the cut Sometimes In Winter. Both the roughness and the texture of the voice are on display, and the voice never sounds as if the singer is moving back and forth from the microphone with differing frequencies as it does on speakers with uneven midrange response. The comment I can make is that with the ESL 11As, the singer sounds as if he’s in the room with you. Nice.

From the Chris Isaak album Heart Shaped World comes the undeservingly less-than-famous Blue Spanish Sky. Chris can sing all the way from baritone to falsetto – and never sound funny doing it. His voice never sounds artificial on this track, despite the wide vocal frequency range. The ESL 11As make it sound as if a real person is singing in the room, and when the trumpet comes in at the end of the song, it is sufficiently ethereal-sounding to make your hair stand up.

The live performance of Seven Bridges Road by the Eagles shows the resolving power of the ESL 11As. Some speakers blur the voices so that you hear the harmony, but not necessarily the individuals that are singing. With these speakers, there is sufficient resolution to pick out each individual line and still appreciate the harmonic interplay.

Bass
I sometimes like pipe organ and synth music – and the 11As can do that; energising the room even without subwoofers! But a great speaker must also maintain both pitch and resolution in the bass frequencies. Many can’t.

For a bass slam not to be missed, play Malaga by Armik. When the initial notes are struck the 11As energise the entire room with bass while still maintaining pitch. Something that FEW speakers can do.

With the Atlantic Brass Quintet’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, the tuba notes are fat and have great body – sounding just as a real tuba would.

The classic Baroque and Blue from Claude Bolling’s Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano disc provides acoustic bass in a well-recorded venue. With the 11As, I hear the initial pluck of the string, the tone of the note (with clarity) and the decay. What these speakers do that many others can’t, is separate the bass from the other instruments and provide it with its own tone, pitch and definition.

I also enjoy the Haydn Symphonies The Clock and London by the Orchestra of St. Lukes, directed by Sir Charles Mackerras. There are timpani, brass and string bass, all of which are particularly tactile through the 11A speakers.

Imaging

The very finely recorded Western Standard Time CD by Asleep At The Wheel contains the classic Hot Rod Lincoln. This was a studio album, and its clarity shows. Ray Benson’s voice and guitar work should be front and centre, and with the ESL 11As, that’s exactly where it is. The music swirls, but the imaging is clear.

Clay Jones’ Mountain Tradition CD contains the cut Under the Double Eagle that should put the guitar in your room, and at the centre. The ESL 11As do just that, and with amazing verisimilitude – if you can’t close your eyes and hear the guitarist in your living room, then something’s wrong.

The vintage Season of the Witch by Donovan should sound so present that it’s spooky. This is another cut that should raise the hair on your neck. The ESL 11As deliver on the “virtual reality” of this song.

The country classic, Golden Ring by George Jones & Tammy Wynette is yet another example of a studio recording that conveys great presence. Try it and see!

The imaging of the 11A speakers also does holographic things with recordings in Q-Sound (Madonna’s Immaculate Collection, and Roger Waters’ Amused to Death to name but two). The broad, immersive image works well and some sounds actually seem to come from behind the listener.

Note that I haven’t listed any of the four above attributes (treble, midrange, bass or imaging) as the best. This is deliberate. The ESL 11As are so well balanced that I can find no specific acoustic weaknesses. Few speakers that I’ve ever heard are so balanced. And in a word, I’d say that “balance” defines them just fine. You want to know what you get for ten-thousand dollars that lesser speakers don’t have? That’s it – balance. These speakers are somewhere between very good and great at every level. Less-expensive speakers can rival or even surpass the Martin Logans in one category, maybe even two – but nothing I’ve heard for less can match them in every aspect.

On The Bench

The ML’s bass audibly extends to about 25Hz in my room. Is this an artefact of the source amplifier or the speaker? To find out, I ran a low frequency sweep using an integrated amp. Results were measured via Galaxy Audio Check Mate SPL meter – IEC 651, Type II – A-weighted. The microphone was placed one meter from the front of the speaker and 29-inches off the floor (approximate centre of speaker from top-to-bottom). For measurements, the speakers were placed two feet from the back wall. Bass results are averaged between right & left, and between three sweeps of each speaker to eliminate outlying data:

BASS
Since bass measurements (particularly in-room) are difficult, don’t attach too much significance to the above data. I think that most of the variation is due to room effects.

I also used a full-spectrum pink-noise sweep using locations as in the bass sweep except that Real-Time Analyser software was used. For this, flat weighting was used rather than A-weighting. Using the Cary Audio integrated amplifier, 1/3-octave results are as follows – again, results are averaged between the right & left speakers:

FULL-RANGE
MartinLogan doesn’t publish impedance, phase-angle or frequency response curves for this speaker. However, they do state that their impedance dips significantly at higher frequencies. This low impedance, (0.6 ohms at 20KHz) with a corresponding increase in phase-angle suggests that amplifiers that aren’t stable into low impedances shouldn’t be used. But in practice, I found that the speakers seemed perfectly happy with a wide variety of amps (with only one exception). Now if you want auditorium levels from the speakers, then more attention should be paid to amplifier power capacity and low-impedance stability.

MartinLogan’s online FAQs recommend an amplifier that doubles in wattage between eight and four ohms and again increases its wattage at two ohms. This would seem to eliminate most amplifiers from consideration – but unless you push the volume limits, this advice can have some flexibility. Most high-quality amplifiers of tube or solid-state design should work fine provided that they are stable at low impedance.

Transformer coupled amplifiers, tube or solid state, seem to do best with the Martin Logans. I notice that the majority of Best Buy stores demo their MartinLogan speakers using autoformer-coupled McIntosh amplifiers. Pro amplifiers that are designed to be stable into two-ohm loads also can also drive the speakers loudly without any problems. But I wouldn’t want to hook these speakers to an inexpensive AV receiver or to most bridged amplifiers due to the speakers’ impedance and reactance challenges.

Summary

The MartinLogan ESL 11A is a world-class speaker. It is revealing, accurate and has the huge soundstage one expects of a dipole radiator. The speaker can sound good with modest source components, but to hear it at its best, use the highest-quality sources and amplifiers that you can provide.

The ESL 11A speakers give a revealing insight into the recording that you’re listening to. Were the microphones overloaded during the recording process? Some Dean Martin recordings were. You’ll hear it through the MLs. Did the recording engineer try to get tricky at the mixing console? You’ll know it. Is the recording compressed for radio play? Is the bass boosted for effect? Is the treble bright? Every one of these recording aspects can be readily heard with the MLs. So if you’re a listener who prefers that your stereo system make everything sound good, be aware that the MLs are not going to editorialise for you – what the speakers get is what you’ll hear – no tricks – no sweetening – nothing hidden.

Conclusions

These Are Excellent Speakers That Come At A Highish Price. But If You Want Something In The Outer Limits Of What’s Possible In Speaker Technology, Then These Are Relatively Inexpensive Within Their Peer Group.
......
Glen Young

The MartinLogan Masterpiece Classic ESL 9 is an incredible bargain.
Roger Kanno

SUMMARY: The MartinLogan Masterpiece Classic ESL 9 is an incredible bargain. It’s very revealing of source components, and requires a good amplifier to sound its best -- but what high-end speaker doesn’t?.....the Classic ESL 9 should reward you with amazing sound quality comparable to that of many speakers costing twice or even thrice its price. After listening to and thoroughly enjoying the nearly flawless performance of the Classic ESL 9s in my system, I can’t imagine living without them.

EXTENDED REVIEW: The last two MartinLogan components reviewed by the SoundStage! Network were the BalanceForce 212 subwoofer, on this site, and the relatively conventional Motion35XT loudspeaker, on SoundStage! Access. They proved so good that each received a Product of the Year award. However, as most audio enthusiasts know, MartinLogan is best known for their electrostatic loudspeaker (ESL) models, most of which are hybrid designs that combine an electrostatic panel for the high- and midrange frequencies with a conventional dynamic woofer.

I’ve long admired MartinLogan ESLs for their elegant sound and equally elegant looks, but when ML introduced their economical Motion line of dynamic speakers with Folded Motion tweeters, I worried that the days of high-end ESLs from MartinLogan might be numbered. I needn’t have -- they continue to produce several lines of hybrid ESLs, including their current flagship, the Neolith.

For those who don’t have that much money to spend on a pair of Neoliths but who still want a high-performance hybrid ESL, ML’s Masterpiece line now comprises seven models, including four floorstanders below the Neolith, the most expensive. The latest Masterpiece, and the subject of this review, is the line’s least expensive model: the Classic ESL 9, is a relatively affordable price.

Not your father’s electrostatic

The Masterpiece Classic ESL 9 sits below the Impression ESL 11A. Unlike the other Masterpieces, the Classic ESL 9’s built-in woofer is passive -- all of the others have powered woofers and include the Anthem Room Correction (ARC) system. Although it’s the smallest floorstander in the line, the Classic ESL 9 is nevertheless 59.8”H and weighs 78 pounds. Most of its height is accounted for by the electrostatic panel, which itself is 44”H x 9.2”W and has a radiating area of 405 square inches. The speaker is widest and deepest at the bottom: the woofer enclosure measures 10.4”W x 25.4”D. The speaker’s woofer box comes in three standard finishes -- Gloss Black, Walnut, or Dark Cherry -- and the frame of its electrostatic panel has a textured, matte-black finish. (In addition to the standard finishes, the other Masterpiece models are available in a choice of seven premium finishes.)

The AirFrame Blade, MartinLogan’s name for the panel’s frame, is an extrusion of aluminium alloy that ML claims is ultra-rigid -- and indeed, it felt extremely solid, as did the woofer enclosure. The Curvilinear Line Source (CLS) electrostatic panel is, as its name suggests, curved to provide better dispersion. The perforations in the stators -- the metal grilles on either side of the thin, transparent diaphragm of polymer -- are made using ML’s MicroPerf technology, which is claimed to expose twice as much of the diaphragm’s surface area as the holes in traditional electrostatic stators. In the woofer enclosure are two drivers with 8” aluminium cones: one each on the front and rear panels, positioned asymmetrically -- the rear cone is placed slightly higher. In the rear of the woofer enclosure is what ML calls an “ultra-low turbulence” slot port, and both woofer grilles are removable. The electrostatic driver is crossed over to the woofers at 380Hz by MartinLogan’s high-quality, Vojtko-voiced crossover, which includes polypropylene capacitors, air-core coils, and low-DCR, steel laminate coils.

Depending on the floor surface, the Classic ESL 9 can stand on spikes or plastic feet (both are provided), and has two sets of five-way binding posts, for biwiring or biamping. A wall-wart DC power supply is supplied for the electrostatic diaphragm; each speaker needs to be plugged into an AC outlet.

A little hard work goes a long way

Compared with other speakers I’ve had here, positioning the Classic ESL 9s to sound their best proved a bit fussy. Following MartinLogan’s instructions for toe-in angle, I was able to get the speakers to image accurately with little effort, but found that their bass response was quite sensitive to positioning. Moving the speakers a few inches toward or away from the room’s front wall resulted in noticeable differences in the low frequencies. When I positioned the ESL 9s with their front panels in the same plane as I usually have other speakers in my room, the midrange clarity was stunning but the bass was a little thin. Pushing them back about 6” resulted in bass that was full and rich, but somewhat lacking in definition. When I’d zeroed in on just the right positions for optimal bass response, the rear panels of these relatively deep speakers were a little less than 2’ from the front wall.

For much of my listening, I drove the Classic ESL 9s with a Bryston 4B3 power amplifier connected to an Oppo BDP-105 universal BD player used as both DAC and preamp. I also used my reference Anthem Statement D2 surround-sound preamplifier-processor and Statement M1 mono power amplifiers, as well as an Anthem MCA 525 five-channel power amp. I played a few discs in the Oppo, but my main source component was an Asus VivoBook X200MA laptop computer running Windows 10 and foobar2000.

We’re not in Kansas anymore

Although the MartinLogan Classic ESL 9s required a bit more effort to set up in my room than most other speakers, it was worth it when those efforts were rewarded with phenomenal sound quality. The midrange was ultraclear, revealing details in recordings that I’d never heard before, and the highs were equally clean, and never harsh. The bass was also very deep and fast-hitting, without bloat.

“Rock You Gently,” the first track of Jennifer Warnes’s The Hunter (SACD, Sony 10073), is a densely recorded track that can sound congested through systems that can’t sort out its multiple layers of synthesiser and percussion. Through the Classic ESL 9s, not only were the many complex rhythms cleanly reproduced, but Warnes’s pristine voice soared above them with stunning authority and clarity. Her voice was slightly forward on the soundstage, with massive drum beats and synth chords placed precisely behind it, filling most of the stage with sound. “Somewhere, Somebody” is a more straightforward recording of bass, percussion, and male and female voices, and the transparency of sound from the Classic ESL 9s was breathtaking. Every syllable sung and breath taken by each singer was smoothly and perfectly reproduced in space before me and contrasted with the quick articulation of the bass, everything emerging from an absolutely noiseless background. The low frequencies in “Way Down Deep” exhibited excellent definition and pitch specificity, and each drumbeat had a very fast attack followed by a prolonged, wavering sustain -- even the very deepest notes were easy to differentiate from one another.

The Randy Newman Songbook (24-bit/88.2kHz FLAC, Nonesuch/HDtracks) is a wonderful collection of acoustic performances by singer-songwriter Randy Newman of 55 songs from his extensive catalog. For the most part, the closely miked Newman is accompanied by only his piano, and recorded with little ambience -- the sound is very direct and present. The palpability of his voice in “I Love L.A.” accentuates the delicious irony of his words, and the piano, though confined to a relatively narrow space between the speakers, sounded ultra-solid and dense. In fact, in an instrumental version of “When She Loved Me,” originally performed by Sarah McLachlan on the soundtrack of Toy Story 2, the deep thumps of the pedals and the piano’s lower register gave the instrument a presence so visceral that I could feel it as much as hear it. The Classic ESL 9’s pristine reproduction of the raw, genuine sound of these minimally processed recordings enabled me to really connect with these songs.

And if it’s palpable voices you crave, I can’t recommend strongly enough Adam Cohen’s We Go Home (16/44.1 FLAC, Rezolute Music). A longtime favourite of Doug Schneider’s, this album took me a while to warm up to, but it’s a real keeper, and has become one of my essential reference recordings. The lightly plucked guitar strings and Cohen’s tactile voice at the beginning of “Song of Me and You” made me instantly take notice of the Classic ESL 9s’ midrange clarity, and their ability to reproduce the singer’s voice to sound as if he were standing there in my room. There was just enough force behind the vocals, and ease in the sound of the strings, to let this music flow effortlessly. Cohen’s melancholy, languid singing in “What Kind of Woman” was even more palpable -- and although this is an acoustic album, the bass was well served on cuts such as “Love Is,” both piano and drums hitting hard and fast.

I thought the Classic ESL 9s would easily beat my reference speakers, KEF’s R900s, in terms of throwing up a wide, utterly transparent soundstage populated with ultra-sharp images. But when I switched back to the KEFs, they fared quite well in comparison. The MLs did let me more easily pick out the image outlines of the instruments in “Misguided Angel,” from the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session (16/44.1 FLAC, RCA) -- and even though Michael and Margo Timmins’s voices were closer together than they’d been through the KEFs, they still managed to sound more distinct through the MLs. But while the MLs produced more precise images, the KEFs could present a deeper soundstage that gave a better sense of what it might have been like to have been there in Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity the night of November 27, 1987, when this album was recorded. But with their more precise imaging, the ML speakers made it easier for me to form a mental image of these musicians huddled around a single mike, as I’d seen in a photograph taken during the recording session.

The ML could also dig deeper than the KEF. The very deepest bass in “Rock You Gently,” from the Warnes disc, was definitely less pronounced through the KEFs, making its sound seem a bit lightweight in comparison -- it was missing the song’s subsonic foundation. The KEF’s lack of subterranean bass on this track tended to make Warnes’s voice more prominent in the mix -- which was not a bad thing, as even the MLs couldn’t match the KEF’s ultrasmooth, ultra-refined midrange. In songs that have plenty of good but not super deep acoustic bass, such as Adam Cohen’s “Love Is,” it was harder to tell the difference between the two speakers -- but I still give the nod to the Classic ESL 9, which sounded slightly faster and tighter.

Like any high-performance speaker, the Classic ESL 9 needed a capable power amp to sound its best. While it sounded very good with Anthem’s MCA 525 five-channel amp, which pumps out 225Wpc, it established a wonderful synergy with the dual-mono, 300Wpc Bryston 4B3, whose iron grip locked images into focus and controlled the bass of the speakers’ four passive 8” woofers. In fact, the MLs sounded so good with the Bryston amp and Oppo BDP-105 that fellow SoundStage! Network writer Vince Hanada proclaimed this combination the best-sounding he’d ever heard in my room. I tended to agree with him -- until I hooked up the Classic ESL 9s to my Anthem Statement D2 surround-sound processor and M1 amps and ran Anthem Room Correction. I usually don’t run that software with speakers I’m reviewing -- I like to hear what the speakers can do on their own, and make comparisons with other speakers working in the same way. Also, I was a little wary of how ARC might deal with the ML’s electrostatic panels, which radiate sound to front and rear -- but thought it might be able to improve the bass a bit. I gave it a shot.

Well. Not only did ARC tighten the Classic ESL 9’s bass, it cleaned up the speaker’s already crystalline midrange, and made the transition from upper bass to lower midrange absolutely seamless, resulting in a totally smooth and coherent sound, from the deepest bass to the highest highs. That coherence was at once crystal clear yet very solid. The opening, screeching guitar riff of “White Wedding (Part 1),” from Billy Idol (24/192 FLAC, Capitol/HDtracks), tracked precisely across the soundstage, and the sound had a specificity that I hadn’t experienced before in my system. The lead and backing vocals were very distinct from each other, and the pulsing bass line was easier to follow -- the bass guitar sounded gloriously big and bold, and each whack of the kick drum punched me solidly in the gut.

Adele’s voice is mixed very prominently in “Hello,” from her album 25 (16/44.1 FLAC, XL Recordings) -- through the Classic ESL 9s it certainly didn’t sound subdued, but neither was it exaggerated when I played this track at room-filling volumes. In fact, it soared beautifully, with just enough crispness to convey Adele’s amazing vocal power -- a slight vibrato conveyed her feeling, but never lost its composure or exhibited any extra sibilance. The piano in this track starts out fairly slowly and restrained, but when the chorus kicks in just over a minute later, it pounds like a sledgehammer. The depth and weight of the piano were astounding through the Classic ESL 9s, with a rock-solid image of the instrument between the speakers, and the rest of the room absolutely locked into the low frequencies. Some might argue that the sound lacked a little warmth, but I found it extremely neutral, and its overall lucidity and weight were astonishingly good. Adele’s voice was even more palpable in “Remedy” and “When We Were Young,” but I couldn’t stop listening to “Hello” -- through the MartinLogans, there was an amazing balance to the sound that made listening to this power ballad an absolutely thrilling experience every time.

A masterpiece destined to be a classic


The MartinLogan Masterpiece Classic ESL 9 is an incredible bargain. It’s very revealing of source components, and requires a good amplifier to sound its best -- but what high-end speaker doesn’t? Taming its ample bass will require careful positioning and/or a very good room -- or, in my case, good room-correction software such as Anthem Room Correction. If you can provide one of those, then the Classic ESL 9 should reward you with amazing sound quality comparable to that of many speakers costing twice or even thrice its price. After listening to and thoroughly enjoying the nearly flawless performance of the Classic ESL 9s in my system, I can’t imagine living without them.
. . . Roger Kanno

If you have the opportunity the Expression is well worth auditioning. It has dramatically altered the price one pays for performance. As I said I never thought I could afford speakers this good on my budget.
Robert Schussel

SUMMARY: The MartinLogan Expression ESL13A is a game changer. I have heard better speakers but they are significantly more expensive than the Expression. I never thought I could afford a speaker with this level of performance. The Expression 13A is competitive with speakers in the US30K+ price range.
Even without ARC (room correction) the Expression is a major advance over the prior MartinLogan Summit X. No other speaker in its price range I have ever heard offers its imaging, dimensionality, naturalness, clarity, resolution of fine detail with a frequency response from 24Hz to 23,000Hz +/- 3 dB.
I have been a skeptic of room equalisation/treatment as I had never heard much of a difference.MartinLogan’s software and built in digital processor (ARC) made me a convert. I had never realised the number of large peaks and nulls in my listening room which had been adversely affecting my listening experience. Significant bass was being sucked out of the room and a peak was producing significant bass boom. With ARC the bottom end became much more prominent. The bass boom was removed or barely noticeable, yet the clarity, detail, imaging, naturalness as well as the dimensionality of the soundstage was significantly improved.
If you have the opportunity the Expression is well worth auditioning. It has dramatically altered the price one pays for performance. As I said I never thought I could afford speakers this good on my budget.

EXTENDED REVIEW: starting my review of the MartinLogan Expression ESL 13A hybrid speaker, I feel it is important to know about me, my biases and why I purchased an expensive speaker that no one in the public including most dealers had seen/heard.

I am a retired Market Researcher who enjoys listening to classical music. All of my current equipment including interconnects, power cords etc. were purchased by phone, sight unseen, based on the recommendations of a high end audio dealer. For my SACD player, I chose it based on a review. I prefer solid state equipment as it is easier to maintain and in my opinion, produces a cleaner sound that is closer to what is recorded. Yes, I can appreciate a good tube system but many are too soft and warm for my taste.

My pet peeve is reading reviews of solid state equipment, including CD players, by writers who have a clear preference for vinyl and tubes.

I was an early adopter of the MartinLogan Montis 5 years ago. In the past year I improved the Montis’ performance by adding ASC Tube Traps, then moving the Montis farther from the side and front walls, and placing the speakers’ panels more perpendicular to the floor. With the exception of the Tube Traps the changes I made also significantly increased the amount of bass boom heard on some of my CDs.

In conversations with a dealer he mentioned the significant improvement he heard with the new MartinLogan Renaissance ESL 15A, which has 15-inch wide electrostatic panels and two 12-inch woofers, and which costs US$25K. The Renaissance comes with a built-in Anthem Room Correction digital room equaliser that can reduce bass boom. I told the dealer that if a less expensive version of the ARC-equipped 15A came out, I would buy it. A few days later I got a call from the dealer telling me that MartinLogan was now accepting preorders for two less expensive versions. Both new speakers would have built in room equalisation — the Expression (13-inch wide panel and two 10-inch woofers) which is the replacement for the Summit X, and the Impression (11-inch wide panel and two 8-inch woofers) which replaces the Montis. The prices of the new speakers at $15K and $10K the pair, respectively were not increased from the prior models. Because production was just starting, no auditions were possible. I gambled and went with the somewhat more expensive Expression.

MartinLogan Expression 13A

The MartinLogan Expression is a completely new 61-inch tall hybrid speaker which replaces the MartinLogan Summit X. From the front the Summit X and Expression look similar but from the side the Expressions woofer enclosure is longer and more rectangular. The top section of the Expression consists of a slightly curved electrostatic panel in an ultra-rigid frame, about 44 inches tall and 13 inches wide. The rigid frame also runs along the bottom of the woofer enclosure. The 13-inch panel is 2 inches wider with 20% more surface area than the one in the Summit X.

The Expression’s curved panel allows for better dispersion of the high frequencies. Inside the panel is a sheet of “Mylar like” material .0005 inch thick that is coated to be conductive. According to MartinLogan, the improved coating allows the panel to be charged with static electricity between closely spaced stators. The panel/diaphragm can trace delicate sonic details with precision as the “Mylar like” material has little inertia compared to cone speakers. Instead of having crossover points that results in discontinuities in the sound, the Expression’ panel operates over an exceptionally wide frequency range. The claimed frequency response of the Expression is 24Hz to 23,000 Hz +/-3dB with a single crossover at 300Hz. On paper the frequency response of the Expression is similar to that of the prior Summit X.

Connected to the panel are two 10-inch aluminium long throw woofers in a cabinet, powered by two 300-watt class D amplifiers. The back-facing woofer is covered by a metal grill. This allows the two horizontally opposed, phase timed drivers (Powered Force Forward) to work together to reduce the reflected energy from the front wall, resulting in “easy placement for clean, pure, powerful bass response.” On the back of the woofer enclosure, near the bottom are two controls — a 75 hertz bass level control (+/- 10 dB) for room acoustics optimization and a 150-250 hertz mid bass control (-2dB,0,+2bB). There are also switches for floor lighting and turning on/off room equalisation (ARC). USB and Ethernet connectors are used to connect the Anthem Room Correction with software residing on your PC or laptop

Changes made

MartinLogan completely redesigned the Expression, such that it should be thought of as a speaker. Significant changes include:
• More robust power supply.
• All electronics are mounted on a metal plate located on the bottom of the woofer enclosure. The plate can be removed by unscrewing six bolts. For the prior models you had to be a contortionist to get the boards out.
• The panel frame and woofer frame are significantly stiffer to prevent microscopic vibrations which can degrade the sound.
• The woofers have been redesigned “and optimized specifically for the needs of this speaker.” “The design matches the Electrostatic panel and the power amplifier to achieve optimum performance.”
• The woofer enclosure has forward and back facing woofers. The Summit X had one forward and one down firing woofer. The Expression enclosure is larger and more rectangular than the old enclosure. Both woofers are in sealed chambers and are phase timed (Powered Force Forward Bass) to reduce reflected energy from the font wall. MartinLogan states that this uniform frequency response results in “realistic bass effects you can feel.”
• The two class D amplifiers for the two enclosed woofers have been upgraded to 300 watts each.
• Binding posts have been improved to prevent eddy currents and vibration.
• Electronic crossover point is now 300Hz instead of 270Hz. The improved electronics and components are said to enhance mid-range clarity. The Expression operates as a true dipole speaker down to 300Hz.
• The Anthem Room Correction uses downloaded software to drive a built in digital processor that corrects lower frequency room anomalies. In many listening rooms there are significant room interactions, resulting in peaks and nulls. ARC measures the low-frequency sound output in a listening room with a calibrated microphone and compares it to optimal response curves. Correction are made so that the speaker output is essentially flat from 24Hz to 300Hz. To prevent overdriving the built in woofer amps, the total amount of correction available is about 6 dB. The microphone kit and cables to run ARC are sold by MartinLogan 
• The bass control has been altered. Bass control is now ±10 dB under 75 Hz. Previously, the control had been from 25Hz to 50Hz. A new mid bass control was added. Mid-Bass: (150Hz to 250Hz) with 3 options –2 dB, 0 dB, +2 dB.

Compared to the Expressions’ “Mylar like” panel, its woofers have significant inertia and cannot react to changes in the signal as quickly. In addition, the radiation patterns of the woofer and panel are very different. MartinLogan claims to have solved this problem by using an electronic/passive hybrid crossover at 300 Hertz’s with 24 bit DSP processing to mate the woofer and panel and thus eliminate discontinuities. With the Expression, you get an electrostatic speaker that supposedly delivers pure clean, natural sound above 300 cycles with very low distortion and bass down to 24 cycles with the woofers. The company claims that most speakers, especially cone speakers, in the Expression’s price range produce significantly more harmonic distortion.

The MartinLogan Expression is able to generate high sound levels compared to other electrostatic speakers as the stators are closer to the charged Mylar like material than other brands of electrostatic speakers. The panels were also designed to have twice the radiating area of a traditional electrostatic panel of the same size. From my experience, very loud sound levels were obtained with 6 to 60 watts as measured by my amps wattmeter. The Expression is rated at 91 dB sensitivity and a nominal impedance of 4 ohms. However at 20,000 Hz the impedance drops to .5 ohms. Thus, the speakers may not sound crisp with some tube amplifiers in the higher frequencies.

My Equipment

McIntosh 601 Monobloc’s 600 Watts per channel
Krell Phantom III preamp
Esoteric K01X SACD player
PS Audio P5 Power Conditioner
MartinLogan Expression (13a) Hybrid Speakers
All cabling and power cords are OCC 99.99999% pure silver made by Wireworld.
Power Cords (Platinum and Gold Electra 5 squared)
Speaker Cables– Gold Eclipse 6
Interconnects—Gold Eclipse 6
Listening room - 4’x23’ with 11’ ceiling. The 23’ back wall has a 13.5’ opening

Setting up

If you plan on keeping the box the Expression comes in, you will need a second person to hold the box when trying to pull the speaker out. That person is also required to lift the speaker when trying to remove it from the Styrofoam that protects the speaker’s base.
While every room is different, I would recommend MartinLogan’s suggestion that the back of the Expression woofer enclosure be at least 2 feet from the front wall and if possible the speaker be 3 feet from the side wall. I have not experimented but MartinLogan claims that the speakers can be placed as close as one foot from the front and side walls.

Changing the angle of the panels

One area I disagree with MartinLogan is the angle of the panels the Expression comes with. The speakers seem to be set up to be optimal when a person is listening standing up, but I think that most people are concerned about optimising the sweet spot when sitting in a chair.

In a discussion with a MartinLogan employee about my prior Montis, he suggested making the panels more perpendicular to the floor to increase the width of the sound stage. The Expression manual also mentions experimenting with the angle. For both the Montis and the Expression, adjusting the panels more perpendicular to the floor by a few degrees increased the clarity, detail and loudness at the listening position. The biggest difference from the Montis is that the Expression seemed less prone to be being boomy when the angle was decreased. It is worth experimenting with the angle of the panel.

Toe-in and listening

MartinLogan recommends that a flashlight be shown on the panels from the listening position to optimise toe-in. It’s easy and it really makes a difference. What I recommend additionally is to put a small piece of Post It Note or other mild adhesive tape on each panel about 3 inches from the inner edge of each panel. I used a ruler to measure the distance. The tape makes it very easy to determine whether the amount of toe-in is identical when the flashlight is used for each speaker.

I initially used a speaker placement similar to what I had used with my Montis so that any differences heard were not being affected by changes in room acoustics. Even right out of the box and without use of the ARC room equaliser I was stunned by what I heard. My only expectation was that the Expression would sound better than the Montis. My initial impression was that the differences was so great I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t matter whether I was listening to an older CD or a new DSD recording the difference was dramatic. Even on older recordings, all of the horns had more of a raspy buzzing sound, violins had more of a sheen; oboes sounded more like oboes, cellos had more of a warm sound and on lower cello notes it felt like I could hear the bows going across the strings. The imaging and detail were vastly improved and there was greater naturalness and clarity.

The Expression also puts out a lot more volume than the Montis and the bass was improved. When listening at normal loudness, loud passages were significantly louder than I had remembered them on the Montis. Most recordings were livelier and dynamic. I am assuming that some of the increase is in part due to the panels having 20% more surface area.

Every soloist or section of an orchestra seemed to be on steroids and jumped out at me. I can’t emphasise enough the difference—it was much more than the Expression being a little louder. The best analogy is the color saturation control on a TV. In prior listening, saturation levels were set at normal. For the Expression the saturation level was turned way up and caused everything to stand out and be much more noticeable—what you would expect from a much more expensive speaker. Although a very good speaker, the Montis I traded in, like most speakers in its price range seems relatively flat compared to the Expression. I would note that the Montis was one of the best speakers in its price range.

With the MartinLogan Expression I began to hear things I had not been aware of. For example, the piano in Jewish Cello Masterpieces Richard Locker Leggero Records’ Bruch Kol Nidre became more prominent and was 8 feet long, almost as long the distance between the speakers. On the Montis the piano was less prominent and seemed smaller, not as warm and rich in tone.

Old recordings now seem to come to life. For the first time I could enjoy almost every older recording I owned. The improvement was significant. Older CDs no longer sounded flat and dull. Imaging and clarity were significantly improved and the instruments had greater realism and dimensionality. When I listened to Dvorak’s Czech Suite Op39 on the Naxox label, I heard the different sections of the orchestra on Antoni Wit Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra clearly for the first time. It was as if a spotlight was being shined on the section that was playing. Instruments sounded more natural, detailed and richer/fuller. For the first time I was enjoying the CD rather than being a passive listener.

Imaging of most CDs was vastly improved through the Expression. I could close my eyes and tell exactly where a soloist or section of the orchestra was located. This occurred with almost any CD I listened to. For example, on the EMI Dvorak String Sextet with Sarah Chang and members of the Berlin Philharmonic, I could easily differentiate each of the players. On the Montis the recording sounded somewhat dark and the players were hard to differentiate at times.

Recordings were also much clearer. For the first time I could understand most of the words being sung on the EMI CD of Felix Mendelsohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Neville Mariner, without referring to the text in the CD album.

I also noticed that the sound stage was larger on some recordings. The improvement was easier to hear on early stereo recordings which only used 3 microphones. At times the sound stage was about 2 to 3 feet beyond the speakers and about 7 feet high on RCA Living Stereo SACD of Heifetz playing Sibelius Violin concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

At 6 Watts as measured by amps wattmeter most recordings sounded very loud in my 14feet by 23 feet listening room which has an 11-foot ceiling. Remember, the Expression has electrostatic panels which are normally hard to drive. Most non-MartinLogan panels require high wattage amps.

Setting up ARC (Anthem Room Correction)

ARC software calibrates your speaker to deliver a flat bass frequency response of 24 Hz to 300+ Hz. ARC “compares your room to optimal response curves that account for spatial anomalies” and corrects them with a built in equalizer.

To use ARC you need to buy a PBK (Perfect Bass Kit) that contains 2 USB cables, a microphone stand and a calibrated microphone. I would also recommend purchasing an Ethernet cable long enough to connect the two speakers, so that both speakers are calibrated at the same time.

The first step in using ARC is to download the ARC software from the MartinLogan site. Unfortunately the manual (one page in English) that came with my ARC kit contained incorrect information about which program to download to a laptop —you must use the ARC program not the PBK program. The latest ARC version as of November 2016 is ARC-2 Software v1.3.4351. As part of the process the serial number of the calibrated microphone is entered. For most people I recommended using the so-called automatic ARC program rather than the manual program that is part of the download.

After hooking up the speakers to the laptop with the USB cable and placing the microphone in the listening “sweet spot,” the ARC program is ready to use. A total of 5 listening spots are used—the listening sweet spot and the remaining 4 in a circle around the sweet spot. Note: using the Ethernet cable allows the program to calibrate the left and then the right speaker without switching the USB cables to the other side.

The first step is called Calibration. The program determines if the laptop is connected to the microphone and speakers. This process is not as seamless as I’d like as the program often had problems recognising the microphone. MartinLogan has confirmed that this can be a problem. I had to unplug and reconnect the microphone from the laptop and/or try a different USB 2.0 port. This problem should have been corrected prior to release of the Expression. The program then produces a low frequency sweep tone. This is done for the 5 different microphone locations.

The remaining steps are designated Target, Calculate and Upload.

Do not change the Target parameters (Lo Pass+500Hz, HiPass=1st order, HiPassFreq=17 MinEQ=15, MaxEQ=400 Level=0). Somehow the parameters were altered in my download and negatively affected the low end bass produced.

Unfortunately the current ARC program and manual are not as user friendly as MartinLogan claims.

In my opinion, the manual needs to be redone to better reflect the current ARC program rather than the PBK subwoofer version. The graphs should be outputted in pdfs or jpeg formats. There should also be an option to manipulate the dB scale shown as well as which curves should be included in the printout or saved file.

As it takes at least 100 hours for the Expression to break in, I would recommend using the ARC program at 10 hours, 50 hours, 100 hours, 200 hours and then once or twice a year.

Listening with the Anthem Room Correction

Due to the significant bass boom in my room, two audio engineers told me that I should try to correct as much of the boom with room treatment as possible before trying digital room correction. However, my wife was opposed to installing acoustical tiles on the walls and ceiling due to the way they might look. Despite only having two tube traps in my listening room, I decided to try out the Expressions built in ARC room equaliser.

I had always felt that my prior Montis didn’t produce enough bass. Below is output from the ARC software for the Expression on the right side of my listening room. The PURPLEline is the uncorrected room response and the GREEN line is the ARC corrected room response for the woofer. The BLACK line indicates the ideal frequency response which tends to be hidden by the corrected room response line. As can be seen from the graph, ARC was able to produce a much flatter frequency response.

Right Speaker ARC Printout (uncorrected and corrected frequency response) for my listening room

It seems that a lack of a solid bottom end was primarily due to my room and not the speakers. The graph shows a bass deficiency below 50 cycles with a large dip at 45 cycles. ARC enabled the speakers to produce a significantly flatter base response.

While the bass boom was significantly decreased I could still hear some boom on some of my CDs. Without the ARC correction the bass boom during the first few minutes of the 1st movement on EMI’s Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto, Evgeny Kissin’s piano was overpowering most of the LSO. With ARC on, the boom was significantly reduced and the other parts of the orchestra could be heard. I would be willing to bet that significant anomalies exist in most listening rooms unless there is significant room treatment.

What the frequency correction did was to improve the clarity and naturalness of CDs as well as provide a much improved bottom end.

I suspect that the improvement heard will vary significantly depending on one’s listening room.

When listening to Reference Records Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Eji Oue), the drums were significantly louder and the bass was deeper and remained clean even at high levels. At 300 watts per channel, the prefab fireplace in the common wall started to rattle with the added bass from the room correction.

Prior to the room correction most pianos sounded dry. With ARC most pianos sounded warmer and richer, more detailed; in some cases the hammer striking the string cold be heard, yet none of the clarity and detail was lost.

One of the more interesting examples of the room correction was a significant reduction of a loud thump in Brilliant Classics Volume 2 Orchestra Sinfonia di Roma Respighi’s Poema Autunnale, conducted by Franceso La Veccchia . Without room correction, at 58 seconds a loud thump is heard on the left side where the solo violinist was located. With ARC on the thump was greatly reduced while the orchestra and soloist were more detailed, sounded fuller and warmer.

Another good example of what the Expression could do with ARC is PentaTone SACD Tod und Verklarung with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg conducted by Marc Albrecht. I had previously felt that the SACD was not well recorded compared to most PentaTones SACDs. With ARC, on kettle drums were much more pronounced and deep, there was a dimensionality that had been missing and the concertmaster solo was richer and sweeter. I can’t emphasise enough the dramatic improvement that I heard.
….Robert Schussel

MartinLogan has hit a home run with the Expression ESL 13A. This speaker improves upon the traditional MartinLogan strong points of transparency and detail....The Expressions are capable of doing the illusive, transporting the listener to the performance.
Brian Kahn

PERFORMANCE  - 4.5 / 5  STARS
VALUE  - 4.5 / 5 STARS
OVERALL - 4.5 / 5 STARS

MartinLogan introduced its Masterpiece electrostatic line about two years ago with the flagship Neolith speaker. A year or so ago, the Masterpiece line expanded with the Renaissance ESL 15A. Just a few months ago, MartinLogan introduced the two latest models in the Masterpiece series: the Expression ESL 13A and the Impression ESL 11A. While the Impressions would technically be the closest model to my MartinLogan Summits (which had a base price of that same amount a decade ago), I opted to review the Expression ESL 13A instead.

"ESL" stands for electrostatic. Electrostatic transducers are what MartinLogan is best known for, and the current Masterpiece ESL lineup is the pinnacle of many years of ESL development. The speakers are technically hybrids, as everything below 300 Hz is handled by more traditional cone woofers--in the case of the ESL 13A, a pair of powered 10-inch aluminium cone woofers handles the lower frequencies.

The 13-inch-wide by 44-inch-high (572 square inches) electrostatic panel is curved to provide wider dispersion of high frequencies, which tend to beam when reproduced by bigger drivers. MartinLogan's Generation 2 Electrostatic panel material consists of a conductive coating on a very thin sheet of plastic film, which is suspended between a pair of micro-perforated XStat panels with the help of ClearSpar spacers. The new panel material is said to increase conductivity, improving the impedance curve. The Micro Perf stators (the metal screens that sandwich the transducer) now have smaller holes, but many more of them to almost double the panel's effective area. A complete description of the technology can be found on the MartinLogan website. The technologically inclined among us may be fascinated by the engineering details; but, for the end user, the effect is a panel that is transparent both visually and audibly.

ML-ESL13A-sub.jpgThe Expressions also feature significant advancements in the bass section. Hybrid ESL speakers are best known for their panels, which means their cone woofer section is often overlooked. Recognising that a system is only as good as its weakest component, MartinLogan did not do that with the Masterpiece Series. Each of the all-new twin 10-inch aluminium cones is housed in its own chamber and driven by a 300-watt Class D amplifier, which is controlled by a 24-bit Vojtko Digital Signal Processing engine that optimises the low-pass filters, equalisation, and limiting. The PoweredForce Forward Bass technology uses phase shifting to control the interaction between the woofers and is said to minimise the effect of the front wall by directing the energy forward and making for a smoother bass response.

The ESL 13A, with its 572-square-inch panel, weighs in at 103 pounds and measure 61.5 inches high by 13.4 wide and 27.5 deep. That's only slightly wider and taller than the Summit and Summit X speakers, which have smaller 497-square-inch panels. The Expression ESL 13A is seven inches deeper, and these speakers do need to be placed a couple of feet from the front wall to perform their best. The metal "AirFrame" that surrounds the panel is finished in a black powder coating with the vertical members extending in uninterrupted, clean lines from the top of the speaker all the way to the bottom. From the side, the AirFrame appears to turn back, going around the bottom of the woofer cabinet to form a skirt or base that lifts the wood finish high enough to protect it from vacuum cleaners. Overall, the front panel is nicely integrated with the cabinet, whereas on the prior generations the panel and cabinet looked like two completely separate components.

My review pair came finished in a nice dark Cherry wood, but there are a wide variety of finishes to choose from, including some of your favorite automobile paints. Ferrari Rosso Fuoco, anyone? When it comes to pure aesthetics, I do not care much for the new shape of the woofer cabinet, as it lacks the stylish angles and upward facing light of the Summit Series. While the flat perforated metal grille in front of the woofer is the same as that in front of the ESL transducer (absent the curve), it looks a bit incongruous.

Lastly, the ESL 13A has a light that comes on when the speaker is powered on; if you don't like it, there's a switch on the back that can deactivate it. 

The Hookup

When I opened each large speaker box, I found the speaker ensconced in a protective cover and sitting on a foam tray, making it easy to slide the speaker into place. I then lifted it and let my son slide the foam tray out from underneath. The user manual has a discussion and recommendations regarding room placement. I ended up placing the speakers 42 inches from the front walls and 78 inches inches apart. I played with the speaker angle for a while and ended up needing very little toe-in to get the best imaging.

In light of the powered woofers, it should not come as a surprise that the ESL 13A has only a single pair of WBT five-way binding posts and cannot be bi-wired. I used a single pair of Kimber Select speaker cables to connect to a pair of McIntosh MC501 amps, being used with a McIntosh C-500 preamplifier. A PS Audio DirectStream DAC/network player served up the music from either audio files stored on my NAS drive or discs played on my Oppo BDP-95 player. The ESL 13A has a nominal impedance of four ohms, but it drops to .7 ohms at 20 kHz; so, I also tried the amplifier section of the tremendously powerful, high-current Krell FBI. Both were able to drive the Expressions without any problems.

The ESL 13A has tone controls in the way of a +/-2dB mid-bass switch and a +/-10dB bass control (under 75 Hz), which I left in their flat positions for most listening. I listened to the Expressions for a couple of weeks before running the Anthem Room Correction software. Did I forget to mention that these speakers have ARC built in? The inclusion of an RJ-45 port on the back of each speaker allows you to connect an Ethernet cable and run the software one time to set up each speaker.

Performance

The speakers were already broken in when I received them, but I still played them for a week or so before doing any serious listening. I had adjusted the toe-in with a flashlight per MartinLogan's recommendation (the light reflected off the panel about a third of the way in from the speakers' inner edges).

I was straightening up my listening room and came across Jennifer Warnes' album Famous Blue Raincoat (CD, Private Music), so I listened to the track "Bird on a Wire." I heard loads of detail. The voices and strings sounded as they should, and the bass notes were solid and pretty well defined. However, the imaging was really vague--nothing was solidly positioned, yet I know that this track provides solid images carefully placed around the soundstage. Dipole speakers have the benefit of reproducing a spacious soundstage that goes well beyond the speaker locations, but this is usually at the cost of razor-sharp imaging. That said, I remained optimistic that the Expressions could produce a better-defined soundstage. I rotated them outward until, when I shined a flashlight on the panels, the reflection point was only two to three inches from the inner edges. The reward was huge, as the imaging improved dramatically. Vocals, drums, and the triangle were all reproduced as distinct, well-placed images, providing a sense of presence that would let you believe that the musicians were in the room.

I then ran the Anthem Room Correction software, which only adjusts the response of the woofers. I paid particular attention to the drums when I listened to the track again. The drums had more weight, and the initial impacts were more solid and defined.

Next I tried an audio track with crisp, electronic bass notes to test the speed of the woofers: Kraftwerk's "The Robots" from the album Minimum Maximum (DSF file, Parlophone UK). This has deep synthesized bass notes with fast attacks that the Expressions had no problem reproducing with both strength and enough speed to keep up with the mids and highs. I played this track at a variety of volumes up to the point where it was beginning to be uncomfortable, and I heard no signs of dynamic compression. Similarly sized conventional coned driver systems may be able to play louder and with more dynamic range, but this will likely be theoretical for most--the Expressions will have more than enough dynamic range for most situations.

Wanting to take full advantage of the ESL 13As' speed and detail, I listened to the Living Stereo recording of Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 (24-bit/176-kHz AIFF, from HDTracks.com). The MartinLogans are fully equipped to take advantage of the great amount of detail captured in the recording and preserved in this high-resolution file. Individual instruments were easy to pick out of the recording. The Expressions reproduced a large and detailed soundscape spread out before me, going beyond the bounds of my listening room, even more so than the B&W 800 D2 towers that I usually use in this room. The pipe organ's bass notes were visceral yet delicately detailed in their decay.

The Downside

The speakers automatically go into standby mode when they are not in use. As a result, when you first play music, it can take a note or two before the speakers turn on.

Traditionally, some listeners find ESL speakers to be on the thin or bright side and lacking dynamics compared with similarly sized speaker systems with traditional drivers. Many new ESL speakers sound bright when they are brand new, but that tends to diminish as the speakers break-in. I suspect the perceived "thinness" has more to do with the speed and transparency of the ESL transducer rather than any dips in frequency response. The higher, 300-Hz crossover point adds some fullness in the lower midrange at the cost of a bit of detail. Speaker design is all about compromise, and I think this was probably a good one, especially with the increased clarity of the PoweredForce Forward Woofers.

The new crossover has also helped blend the ESL panels and woofers. If you listened to a hybrid ESL speaker a decade ago, the detailed and fast mids and highs would have sounded like they came from a completely different speaker than the lows. That has changed dramatically, and the blend, while still discernible to the "golden eared," is very smooth and does not disrupt a homogenous soundstage.

Room placement issues could be a deal breaker for these or any other dipole speaker. Dipole speakers radiate energy both forward and backward, which causes sound energy to be reflected off the front wall. If the speakers are placed far from the front wall, there will be a lack of reflected information, and the soundstage will suffer. If the speakers are too close to the wall, not only will the reflected sound be too close in time to the forward sound wave (causing smearing), but the bass waves may create a null. In short, these speakers are more room-placement dependent than most, so be sure to try these speakers in your room before purchasing. 

Conclusion

MartinLogan has hit a home run with the Expression ESL 13A. This speaker improves upon the traditional MartinLogan strong points of transparency and detail and adds a much improved bass section to create a well-rounded, great-sounding speaker. The Expressions are capable of doing the illusive, transporting the listener to the performance.

The Expressions require careful positioning to reproduce what I will call, for lack of a better term, "audiophile" imaging quality. While many speakers need careful positioning in order to sound their best, they can provide pretty good sound with the most basic positioning efforts. The Expressions, like any other dipole or other highly "room interactive" speaker will require more careful and specific positioning. MartinLogan's PoweredForce Forward Bass Technology and ARC will provide you with more leeway than prior generations, though. Despite the speakers' powered woofers, they will still require a powerful and stable amplifier due to their impedance curve; lesser amplifiers will work, but there will be some sacrifice.

These speakers are extremely transparent and detailed, so you will need to make sure that the rest of your system is up to par. Any weaknesses upstream will not be hidden. This may sound daunting, but careful setup and system configuration up front will yield many hours of listening pleasure for years to come.

Having listened to several generations of ESL speakers over the past 15 to 20 years, I found the new Expression ESL 13A speakers to be a significant step forward. The greatly improved bass technology makes positioning the speakers without sacrificing bass performance much easier to do, and the improved panels somehow manage to squeeze out even more details from the music than prior iterations--the combination of which is a detailed and transparent speaker that gets out of the way of your music.
........ Brian Kahn

Even the twins favourite show Paw Patrol sounds amazing in the theatre with the Illusion. Pretty much everything down there from sports to movies have had a massive upgrade!
Joe Rod

SUMMARRY - I had once said in another Review, "With an outstanding image and now even more immersive sound there truly is no reason ever to pay for another movie ticket..." I must have had a pretty good crystal ball because now with the Illusion and Impressions we have the ultimate movie immersion experience at home. And high cost movie tickets and popcorn does not apply...

EXTENDED REVIEW: MARTIN LOGAN ILLUSION ESL C34A & IMPRESSION ESL 11A REVIEW

Coming from an already "pretty dang good" front section using Martin Logan's Theos and Centre Stage X we always felt we were hearing what we considered ultimate sound. Well, fast forward a few years later and now we get their new Illusion center and pair it with their new Impression fronts. First we got the Impressions (had to wait on our Illusion) and by changing the setting to phantom centre on the McIntosh 160's set up menu we were off and running. Testing Pacific Rim 4K first the surround and of course fronts were pretty intoxicating. Of course it's hard getting used to the main dialogue coming out of the front speakers. The Impressions with two-channel audio were very impressive. I would have to say they are the best front speakers I have ever had and they are probably not all the way broken in! 

Jump ahead a couple weeks later and I am bringing in the Illusion. And let's start off by saying it is one heavy centre speaker. It weighs without the box about 90 pounds! After it was hooked up I went straight to one of my favourite narration openings with Darkness Falls. It was incredibly clear and in our faces like it was coming from someone directly in front of you in the room. I included a short video clip (below) to try and give you an idea of the clearness and inflection in his voice but it definitely does not do it justice. Not even close.

Martin Logan describes both types of speakers as:

Impression ESL 11A The Immediacy of Exceptional Audio
The Impression ESL 11A is part of the Masterpiece Series. It features a dual 8-inch woofer system, with ARC-honed performance, for a perfectly blended low-frequency response. The groundbreaking integration of this woofer array and MartinLogan’s signature 11-inch wide XStat CLS transducer, coupled with a powerful dual amplifier section, delivers an expressive and dynamic audio experience. It's an experience of pure audio pleasure. 

The Ultimate Centre Channel Loudspeaker
This ambitious new centre channel blurs the line between performance and reality by combining the unflinching accuracy of a 34-inch wide XStat™ CLS™ electrostatic transducer with the detailed imaging capability of dual Folded Motion XT tweeters. Additionally, four laser-engineered 6.5-inch aluminium cone woofers, driven by 250 watts of clean amplification with on-board Anthem Room Correction (ARC) technology, anchor the image to your screen and deliver massive cinematic impact.

We ordered the speakers in Deep Sea blue. Our commitment to that colour became apparent when we had Sherwin Williams match it and we painted the walls the same. Jaclyn (my Wife) also painted the ceiling black again. She has become quite the expert little painter! Pics below of her work...

Actual specs are below but what I can tell you from our experiences the better the sound the more likely you are to have the ultimate movie immersion! The centre channel has always been the single most important speaker during a movie. It is said that about 80% of the soundtrack comes out of it. Never skimp on it! And having terrific fronts to go along with it make it that much better. I have never used the term "life changing" to describe a piece of Audio Video equipment. The Illusion and Impressions have done just that in our home theatre. 

Even the twins favourite show Paw Patrol sounds amazing in the theatre with the Illusion. Pretty much everything down there from sports to movies have had a massive upgrade!

Final Thoughts... It's hard to imagine how just by changing your fronts and center out how much of a difference it could make. Every source be it DirecTV or Blu-ray has a resounding effect. My favourite comments from ML are, "The Illusion ESL C34A is timbre-matched to our flagship Masterpiece Series speakers to create a white-knuckle home theater experience of skidding car chases, blitzing battle scenes, or even intimately whispered dialogue within a seamlessly coherent surround-sound environment, making the Illusion ESL C34A the perfect centre of your Masterpiece home theatre." I will say that nothing has ever been able to ring more true! We find ourselves wanting to watch our favourites from our library. The Oblivion test with Tom Cruise chewing his toast and saying thank you for his coffee has never been more clearer. Same for Sicario when Emily Blunt is whispering to herself after a hot shower to stay calm. Her breathing and words have astounding clarity. Vin Diesel's sexy voice (my Wife's words not mine) has never been so deep and distinct. I had once said in another Review, "With an outstanding image and now even more immersive sound there truly is no reason ever to pay for another movie ticket..." I must have had a pretty good crystal ball because now with the Illusion and Impressions we have the ultimate movie immersion experience at home. And high cost movie tickets and popcorn does not apply...
....... Joe Rod