Retailing for $6,495 per pair, the MartinLogan Classic ESL 9 is the smallest and least expensive offering in the company's Masterpiece Series (a line you may recall from Brian Kahn's review of the Expression ESL 13A a few years back). Like its siblings, the Classic ESL 9 shares a similar, albeit smaller 9.2-inch by 44-inch electrostatic panel, which MartinLogan calls the XStat CLS. A gentle curve built into the panel allows for an expanded sweet spot, avoiding the beaming effect of flat electrostatic transducers. The electrostatic panel in this case is framed by the company's AirFrame Blade, and like most MartinLogan ESLs features a hybrid design, with the electrostatic panel responsible for midrange and higher frequencies, while an in-cabinet woofer system is responsible for delivering the bass frequencies, which full-range electrostatic panels of any reasonable size often have a hard time reproducing.
Unlike most hybrid ESLs, the Classic ESL 9 is a fully passive speaker, meaning the two 8-inch woofers--one front firing and one rear-firing--are not powered, which allows MartinLogan to save a little cost on this model, but it also makes the speaker a little lighter at 78 pounds each and easier to manage if you ever need to move them around. I swapped out the Classic ESL 9 pair with my Salk Signature Soundscape 12 speakers as the front left and right channels in my home theater system. Power came from a Krell Chorus 5200XD amplifier with an Anthem AVM 60 serving as the preamplifier. All cables and interconnects were Wireworld.
First, I queued up Al Di Meola, Paco De Lucia, and John McLaughlin's live album, Friday Night in San Francisco (Philips, SACD). I love using this recording, because the combination of flamenco and acoustic guitars makes for a great torture test on accuracy and a speaker's ability to resolve the differences between similar but distinct sounds. The fact that the three guitarists are seated in left, center, and right stage positions, and should sound that way, is also a great check on how the speaker images.
The Classic ESL 9 performed in spades. I could clearly hear the three artists positioned across the soundstage, and was impressed with how three-dimensional that soundstage sounded. Accuracy on the Classic ESL 9 is second to none, as the speakers clearly depicted the different nuances between the sound of the acoustic and flamenco guitars as each of the artists took turns showcasing his soloing skills. The acoustic guitars had a metallic sheen to them and I could hear the rigidity in the strings, along with the rich resonance of the wood with some of the chords.
Compared to my Salk speakers, the high velocity striking of the bass strings sounded less dynamic; missing was a little bit of that punch that I am used to hearing. However, as the thin film on the Classic ESL 9 has much less inertia than a traditional cone driver, the speakers gave me a closer sense of the plucky bouncing texture of the nylon strings on the flamenco guitars than most speakers would.
Switching over to some female vocals, I loaded up David Guetta's album Nothing But the Beat (Virgin/EMI CD) and played the song "Titanium" featuring Sia on vocals. This song played completely in the Classic ESL 9's wheelhouse. It truly shined with the Techno/EDM vibe of the music. Sia's voice was holographic, giving no hint that it was coming from the speakers. It was like being in a club with an expansive field of sound around me.
Without the benefit of a powered subwoofer, the bass notes did lack a little punch. But paired with my SVS PC-13 Ultra subwoofer, it sounded completely different. I found the crossover sweet spot for my room setup to be 60 Hz. At this point, bass was very even in the room and sounded authoritative. As the Classic ESL 9 was now relieved of duty for the lowest frequencies, midrange sounded richer and more robust.
Next I moved on to some classic rock with Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion" from Toys in the Attic (Columbia, CD). The Classic ESL 9 delivered fully on Steve Tyler's gritty, throaty screams. And the band singing in harmony sounded just sublime. With this, and other rock samples I listened to, I did feel the speakers were just a tiny bit reserved, missing a little of the energy and dynamics that I've heard from speakers like, for example, sister company Paradigm's Persona 5F speakers.
With that said, clarity and transparency were truly second to none. It sounded like I got an unobstructed view staring down the microphone and experiencing Steven Tyler's vocals up close and personal.
I rounded out my listening session with some video. The Classic ESL 9 served as the front left and right channels, with a MartinLogan Theater i center channel, and my Bowers & Wilkins CM6-S2 speakers for surround left and right, all supported by the SVS PC-13 Ultra subwoofer. I fired up the Netflix app on my Sony UBP-X1000ES 4K Ultra HD player and queued up the final episode of Stranger Things 3. I love watching video with electrostatic speakers for the front three channels. Because of the transparency of the speakers, I was never distracted from engaging with the scene because of sound coming out of some box. When the actors spoke, it sounded just like they were in the room. Sound effects were phenomenal, especially in the final fight scene between the kids and this season's big baddie. As the kids hurled fireworks at the monster, the explosions and monster shrieks were holographic and enthralling.
Comparison and Competition
For those who like the sound of electrostatic transducers, Magnepan would be the natural competitor. Though based on a different technology, ribbon and electrostatic speakers are both dipole speakers utilizing a low-mass, thin-film diaphragm and share some similar sonic characteristics. Priced similarly to the Classic ESL 9 at $6,395 per pair, the Magnepan 3.7i competes in this space. From past experience listening to Magnepan speakers, I feel you lose out a little on dynamics and transparency with them, and you do hear the speaker a bit more. In addition, since the Maggies are two feet wide by nearly six feet tall, not every room can accommodate a pair.
If you don't want to sacrifice on dynamics, you may want to stick with traditional cone driver designs. KEF, with its Uni-Q concentric tweeter/midrange design makes for a very transparent speaker, though not quite to the level of a MartinLogan electrostat. The dispersion on this one is both wide and deep, for those that entertain regularly and want everyone in the room to have a great listening experience. The KEF R11, retailing for $5,000 per pair, would be a strong competitor.
The GoldenEar Triton One.R speaker reviewed here also comes to mind. At $6,000 per pair, price is comparable to the Classic ESL 9. The One.R's use of a folded ribbon tweeter will give you some of the same transparency and character in the treble frequencies. With its powered woofers, of course, the One.R has a serious advantage when it comes to deep bass output.
Finally, within MartinLogan's own line, stepping up to the Impression ESL 9 at $10,000 per pair gets you that powered woofer section with better bass extension. It also will get you ARC (Anthem Room Correction) built-in. A step down to the Electromotion ESL-X speaker for $4,000 per pair gets you similar technology (electrostatic panel plus dual passive eight-inch woofers), albeit with a smaller panel that may not accommodate as large a room. In addition, the Classic ESL 9 has upgraded aluminum cone woofers compared to the paper cone woofers found on the ESL-X. That being said, it is a savings of $2500, which is nothing to scoff at.
The Classic ESL 9 is not a perfect speaker but for a realistic, transparent listening experience with a truly expansive soundstage, you would be hard pressed to find a substitute at its price. And with a decent subwoofer or two for support, you will not be missing anything in terms of bass output even for the most demanding home theater applications. For anyone who understands the general character of an electrostatic speaker and gravitates toward that sound, the Classic ESL 9 is a must audition. To put my money where my mouth is, I bought my review pair.
• Check out our Floorstanding Speakers category page to read similar reviews.
• MartinLogan Expression ESL 13A Floorstanding Speaker Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Visit the MartinLogan website for more product information.