MartinLogan ElectroMotion ESL Speaker System Page 2
The big advantages of the electrostatic technology as implemented by MartinLogan are the low moving mass of the diaphragm and dipole radiation over a large frequency range. At first listen—for me, anyway—the sound of the EM ESLs seemed a little bright. Not harsh, but with a tad too much boost in the high frequencies. This perception didn’t last long, though, because what originally seemed like an overemphasis in the upper range turned out to be an extraordinary level of detail and clarity. On Tab Benoit’s Medicine disc, the music hangs in the air like the calls of crickets and owls during a humid night on the bayou. There are few speakers at this price that can so clearly define each instrument and place Benoit’s leathery voice in space in such a way that you feel almost as if you were sitting in front of the band while they played a live set. When I listened to Gregory Alan Isakov’s “Light Year” (This Empty Northern Hemisphere), I perceived an especially wide soundstage that extended beyond the speakers with pinpoint placement of drums to the far left, Isakov’s voice slightly to the left, one guitar almost in the center, and another guitar to the right. It’s almost eerie the way the guitars and vocals never seemed to touch the ground. Likewise with Clare Torry’s wailing voice on Pink Floyd’s classic, “Great Gig in the Sky” from Dark Side of the Moon.
I was more than a bit concerned when it came to setting up the system for movies because I wasn’t sure that the EM C2’s Folded Motion XT tweeters would be able to keep up with the airy nature of the EM-ESLs. The fact that the EM C2 had an obviously different tonal balance when I began setting the speaker levels using the test tones in my Anthem AVM 50v surround processor didn’t fill me with confidence, either. Another thing I noticed during setup was the dramatic difference in each speaker’s sensitivity. However, it turned out that in most respects, the EM C2’s oh-so-important center-channel performance made for an ideal blend with the EM ESLs. In 300, for example, when the councilman approaches Queen Gorgo at the entrance to the palace, the light, crackling sounds of a fire extend far to the right, while the low-but-crisp dialogue was anchored in the middle. Voices through the EM C2 also blend in well during the scene in which attacking Persian ships are destroyed by a storm that rages across the front and into the rear. More to the point, when called upon to create a seamless wall of sound, the surround rose to the occasion. In The Day the Earth Stood Still (the 2008 why-did-they-do-it remake with Keanu Reeves as the enigmatic Klaatu), there’s an excellent smooth and unbroken panning of sound after Gort appears and blasts a deafening, shrill tone that accompanies the shutdown of everything electronic in the movie (except, unfortunately, the cameras).
To that end, while the EM C2 performed extremely well in the system, I came away with an extra-special regard for MartinLogan’s EM FX2 surrounds. I’ve reviewed very few surround speakers that could so convincingly create a coherent, continuous surround field. In Black Hawk Down, during the initial insertion of Army Rangers by helicopter, I heard bullets whistling in every direction. At one point, a chopper flies across the rear from right to left with pitch-perfect localizability. In 300, during the scene in which King Leonidas looks out of his palace window after his disastrous visit with the oracle, the sounds of the room ambiance and crickets outside seemed to extend well beyond the walls of my home theater room. The EM FX2s are simply spectacular.
The Dynamo 1000 excelled at enhancing both music’s two-channel bass floor and movies’ dynamic effects. I couldn’t discern any degradation in sound quality using the built-in wireless receiver and optional SWT-1 transmitter. However, there were times when random RF interference (a notoriously obnoxious attribute of my home) caused the Dynamo 1000 to burp or grumble. This could happen regardless of whether the SWT-1 was on or off, or even if I had connected the Dynamo 1000 to the AVM 50v using a good old-fashioned RCA cable. MartinLogan says this is a rare problem that can most often be solved by placing the sub in a different spot in the room, although this obviously limits the benefits of being wireless. (I had trouble finding an interference-free spot in my room.) MartinLogan also told me that a newly updated Dynamo 1000w fea-turing a redesigned, lower-interference built-in wireless module should be available by the time this review appears in print. I hope so, because the Dynamo 1000 is a great match for the EM ESLs—with or without cables.
Between a Wall and an Inconvenient Place
For all their magnificent looks and enthralling sound, the EM ESLs have a trifecta of idiosyncrasies that might make them unsuitable for some home theaters. For example, to sound their best, the dipolar electrostatic panels need to be a relatively large distance away from the front wall. MartinLogan recommends using 0.618 times your room’s ceiling height as the formula for finding an optimal distance from the center of the curved panel to the wall behind the speakers. In my case, with my room’s standard 8-foot-high ceiling, the distance was around 59.3 inches—or just shy of 5 feet into the room. Considering my Samsung plasma is mounted on the wall, that location creates a considerable amount of basically unusable floor space between the screen and the speakers. You can calculate the distance from the side walls by dividing the width of your room in inches by 18 and then multiplying the quotient by 5. In my room, that put the center of the panels a little over 46 inches away from the side walls. This placement turned out to be just about perfect from a sound standpoint, especially after I angled the speakers in a couple of inches and then adjusted the rake angle (the amount of front-to-back tilt) by extending the front spikes about half a turn in order to lift the placement of vocals for two-channel music listening.
Of course, once they’re your speakers, you can place them anywhere you like. MartinLogan suggests, though, that you keep the EM ESLs a minimum of 24 inches away from both the front wall behind the speakers and the side walls. From an aesthetics standpoint, 24 inches in front of the plasma on the wall should be acceptable to most people, so I moved them back to see what kind of sacrifice in sound you’d have to make to appease the floor-space gods. With movies, the first thing I noticed was that the seamless, 360-degree soundfield that the EM ESLs, EM C2, and EM FX2s created separates ever so slightly into a front and back soundfield. RPGs that, with the original speaker placement, frightened the crap out of me as they flew over my head now sounded a bit less convincing—still very good, but not the stunning experience they were before. Musically, the EM ESLs (again, while still being very good) lost some of their life and spaciousness.
Another aspect of the EM ESLs to consider before you bring a pair home is that electrostatics present a notoriously difficult load for amplifiers, with impedance that may drop down below 4 ohms when the speaker is fed certain frequencies. That’ll put some serious, if not impossible, demands on your typical budget A/V receiver, and maybe a few mid-priced models. You’ll ideally want at least a solid high-end AVR or a separate power amp—I used a Sunfire Cinema Grand—if you’re going to electrostatisfy your home theater. [Ed. Note: The EM ESLs did indeed dip to about 2 ohms at their lowest impedance; see HT Labs Measures.]
The third point to be aware of is that, traditionally, electrostatic speakers don’t generate the kind of high sound-pressure levels that a more conventional dynamic loudspeaker of this size might do. While I never found the EM ESLs wanting in this regard in my modest-sized theater, I can definitely say that this isn’t the speaker for you if you have a large room and are looking for concert-level volumes.
Sound Worth the Sacrifice
A wise man once told me, “Every loudspeaker is a collection of compromises.” (He also advised me to never pull someone’s finger when asked to.) MartinLogan’s electrostatic speakers are classic examples of this maxim—the one about compromises, not the finger-pulling—and the ElectroMotion ESL is no exception. The sound of the ESL is blissfully light and sweet and offers a near-transcendental listening experience. It’s that rare gem of a speaker that sparkles with a luster that becomes more and more enticing the longer you listen to it. Combined with the EM C2, EM FX2s, and a Dynamo 1000, it makes one of the finest-performing, most entertaining, drool-worthiest $5,000 home theater speaker systems you can buy, if you’re willing to make the room placement compromises necessary to make the system sound as God intended it to. If not, it’ll still sound great, but you’ll be cheating yourself out of something exceptional that not many people in this world ever get the chance to experience. It’d be like putting ketchup on a perfectly done cut of Kobe beef. Not everyone is up to the challenge of a fantaselectrostatic speaker. If you are, the ElectroMotion ELS system is the least expensive way to join an exclusive (and very ecstatic) club. Awesome job, MartinLogan! Now I hate you even more.