Martin Logan ElectroMotion ESL Speaker REVIEW

$4999

5 Stars

Gary Steel loves Martin Logan speakers. He loves that the brand is now available again in NZ. He loves the incredibly nicely priced ElectroMotion ESLs. Below, he blathers on endlessly about them, like a man newly smitten.

martinlogan-electromotion-esl4I WAS FIRST smitten with a pair of Martin Logan loudspeakers in 2005 when I was editing the now defunct hi-fi/gadget glossy Tone. As you can imagine, I got to hear a lot of primo gear, but it was a pair of Martin Logan Prodigy speakers that really took my fancy.

We had them set up in the company boardroom, which was far from the ideal testing environment, but they sounded incredible. At this point, I knew nothing about Martin Logan, although I always had a soft spot for electrostatic speakers, having owned and thrashed the living hell out of a pair of Dalek-like ESS Heil Air Motion Transformers back in the 1980s. I was simply overwhelmed by the clarity and heft and “widescreen” capability of Martin Logan’s Prodigy, one of the company’s earlier attempts at a hybrid electrostatic/conventional woofer speaker, with the panels handling the highs and mids and the woofers taking over the low bass. I never even dreamed of owning a pair of these however, because the asking price, from memory, was around $20K. Hey, back then, I was still rattling round in a rusty 1980s Barina.

Somehow, I never got to hear another pair of Martin Logan speakers during my reign at Tone, and the American company’s products had a sadly very low profile in New Zealand, possibly due to the fact that their distribution here was being handled by Oceania, a company that in people’s minds is all about PA rigs for live concerts rather than high end home listening. But shortly after my tenure at Tone ended in early 2010, I noticed that Oceania were getting rid of a bunch of Martin Logan speakers at an insanely low price. It turned out that ML had decided to withdraw the brand from the tiny NZ marketplace, so its former importer was sell off remaining stock. I picked up a hybrid of a hybrid: a 2007 active speaker called the Purity, and it changed my world. With their own, on-board Class-D power amps and rather robust bottom end, the Purity suited my needs perfectly (at the time at least). I knew they were fairly lowly in the Martin Logan scheme of things, and that I’d get a far more spiffing performance from something that cost as much as a deposit on a house in Grey Lynn, but for less than $5K, I was astounded at what I was hearing, and I’ve never been able to face the idea of owning conventional cone speakers since. [Read my raving review of Martin Logan’s Purity speakers here].

martin-logan-electromotion-els5It seemed unjust that Martin Logan speakers were no longer available here however, so I almost frothed at the mouth when I found out that the brand was to be made officially available again in our fair land. Then one day, a speaker turned up at my house. It was a Martin Logan ElectroMotion ESL, but sadly, just one speaker. It turned out that both speakers had been delivered to the wrong address on the other side of town, then somehow separated and deposited in different warehouses. But you probably don’t need to know that, or the several weeks it took for the courier company to get the speakers from one address to the other, or the name of the courier company.

Set Up & Form Factor

IMG_1872The important part is that eventually, both lonely speakers were reunited and I got down to the task of manhandling them out of their respective boxes and setting them up. Actually, that was surprisingly easy. Early Martin Logan speakers were behemoths, partly because the electrostatic panels need a wide, tall radiating surface so that the sound wasn’t all beamed out at a narrow listening point. Over the years, the company has continued to refine the process, and the ESLs turn out to be remarkably light, easy to get out of the box, and a one-person, five-minute job to set up. It helps that the whole panel is feather-light, and unlike conventional speakers, this lightness is not seen as a negative. [Check out the YouTube videos here of the extraordinary manufacturing process of Martin Logan’s panels, if you have an interest in that kind of thing].

Even though it’s clear from photographs of the ElectroMotion ESLs that they’re an aesthetically pleasing speaker, you’ve really got to see them in the home environment to understand how different their visual imprint really is. Visitors to my home frequently gasped with wonder when confronted with the 34-inch tall electrostatic panel, which is so see-through that it virtually disappears when you sit and gaze at them. They’re an elegant-looking speaker, and identifiably Martin Logan, and I was lucky enough to test the high gloss black version ($5999), which adds an extra layer of slickness to the presentation.

The Sound Of Music

Not Gary Steel's lounge.
Not Gary Steel’s lounge.

As soon as I fired them up I recognised a familiar sound: a signature sound that is remarkably free of the usual ‘character’ blemishes of conventional tweeter/driver speakers. This might unleash a storm of opprobrium in the Witchdoctor forum, but I find that with conventional speakers often it’s the very characteristics that fans hail as great that ultimately let them down, because they’re throwing a personality on music that already has its own personality. Martin Logan speakers don’t have a personality – they’re empty vessels waiting to reveal the true sonic characteristics of whatever music you throw at them. They don’t sweeten up poor-sounding recordings, and if something is over-compressed, it can hurt. But when you hear something that is beautifully engineered and mastered, you really know about it.

The EMs were different in several ways to my Purity, however. Firstly, the radiating surface of the electrostatic panel is 40 percent larger than that of its spiritual predecessor, the Aerius, and considerably larger than that of the Purity. In fact, one of the weaknesses of the Purity is the need to sit (not stand) exactly in the sweet spot – if you’re even a little bit to the left or right, the sound gets a bit smudged. Don’t get me wrong, that small sweet spot is one of the best sweet spots I’ve ever encountered, but it does make music listening a pretty lonely sport. The Purity also has two options for listening: sitting or standing. The speaker has a swivel on the bottom that you adjust depending on preference. If you have it on ‘sitting’ position, then if you happen to be standing, or want to get up for a dance around the room, you completely lose all the treble. The EMs have sorted that problem, the sweet spot has become much wider, and you even get a semblance of full frequency sound if you’re a private dancer like Ashley Kramer.

The sound is also noticeably more detailed (something I would have thought impossible) and less edgy, although I’m putting that phenomenon down to the power amp: the Purity has powerful on-board Class-D amps that drive the speakers with grace, precision and a good amount of heft, but there’s an ever-so-slight “aluminium in a blender” effect on some music that’s a tad unpleasant. I drove the EMs mostly with my lovely Perreaux Audiant 80i, and the sound was sweet as. The fact that I could drive them perfectly well with an 80 watt amp proved another point: that famously power-hungry electrostatic speakers have evolved to a point where they’re now rather efficient. I also matched them with a lovely valve-hybrid Vincent SV-237 integrated amp, and Lambert’s fabulous new The Full Force Class-D power amp monoblocked, adding to its tube The Control pre-amp. As I reported here, the EMs really sang with the new Lambert gear: so much so that I found myself revisiting old musical favourites just to enjoy the extra texture.

The back end.
The back end.

While it might be tempting to assume that any Martin Logan electrostatic speakers will benefit sonically from the warmth of valves somewhere in the setup, I would encourage any potential purchasers not to make that assumption, and to mix and match components with no prejudices to find those that really sing together. The speakers certainly lacked for nothing on the Audiant 80i, and if anything had a touch more detail than the Lamberts, if a little less sense of timbre.

The one thing that disturbed me was the comparative lack of bass. Thing is, I use the Purity speakers without a sub because the two 8-inch drivers put out a great deal of low, grunty bass. Because they have so much low bass, I can also position them out in the room, quite far from the back wall, which intensifies the amazing wide-screen effect MLs are so famous for. By contrast, the low end of the EMs benefits from closer proximity to the back wall. It would be wrong to say that the EMs with their single 8-inch driver and passive downward-firing radiator were deficient in bass (in fact, they frequently rattled my window-frames), but it’s just not dub-low, and therefore, fans of electronic music are likely to be a bit disappointed. Having said that, it actually makes sense. It would be difficult to match a subwoofer to my Purity speakers without annoying glumpy crossover, while the EMs are tailor-made for the addition of a sub, and their rather incredibly good quality-to-price ratio means that even with the expense of a sub, they still represent excellent value for money.

I found the EMs coped well with a diverse range of music, and their dynamic range and supra-natural 3D sound imaging was phenomenal on Blu-ray playback, as well. My only slight disappointment was with the occasional hard rock record, like the recently remastered Led Zeppelin catalogue. They’re pretty decent remasters, but the EMs really exposed the thinness of some of the original overdubs, which will have required a good deal of compression to boost the signal. While that can sound forceful and larger than life on a crappy car radio, it doesn’t translate so well to full frequency, forensic Martin Logan speakers. Which is not to say that the Led Zep sounded bad, just that they do make obvious those kind of deficiencies in recordings. The EMs were however, right at home on anything acoustically-based (I had extended sessions with that great jazz-based Aussie group, The Necks, and a short love affair with Holly Cole), and the sheer level of detail in electronic tracks by the like of Brian Eno, Monolake, Flanger and International Observer really demonstrated that Martin Logan ability to present a sound image that is more like a huge screen than simply sound coming out of two directional speakers. I’ve said it before, but is there another speaker brand that resolves stereophonic sound imagery with as much pin-point accuracy? The answer: surely not.

Conclusion

I’m a bit of a bass-hound, so if I was in the market to purchase a pair of Martin Logan’s ElectroMotion ESLs I would add a sub, but in truth if I had the cash, I’d go for one of the company’s bigger (and reputedly even better) speakers. That said, these floorstanders are gobsmackingly good, and have the kind of beautifully detailed sound image that a hi-fi seeker-of-audio-truth could easily end up forking out 20 to 30 grand for.

They look great (for those who care about such things) and if you’re willing to throw in a bit more you can get the ever better-looking piano lacquer version. But the truth is that they sound even better than they look. Unlike some nicely priced brands that promise a tantalising glimpse at high end hi-fi, in just about every way these ordinarily priced speakers have a sonic profile at least three or four times their asking price. I urge anyone who hasn’t heard a pair of Martin Logan speakers to do so. Just make sure you’re sitting in the sweet spot. You’ll never want to leave. GARY STEEL

www.martinlogan.com

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