With apologies to Malvina Reynolds, that little paraphrased ditty runs through my head every time I survey the landscape of Bluetooth and AirPlay speakers on the market.
"There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same."
I'm not saying there aren't exceptions, of course. I'm merely saying that this is the general temperature of the water into which MartinLogan dips its toes with its latest statement: its first wireless speaker, the Crescendo.
Take out the LED status light on the front, the Bluetooth and WiFi antennae within, and of course all of the modern connections on the back (the Ethernet port, the USB port, the digital/analog aux jack), and the Crescendo would look right at home in Don Draper's office, with its gorgeous piano gloss or walnut veneer cabinet and its striking mix of curves and angles. One need only remove the front grille to reveal another wholly modern component of the Cresendo: its pair of Folded Motion tweeters, borrowed from the company's Motion Series loudspeakers. Interestingly, the tweeters are toed out, at what I would estimate is roughly a 30-degree angle. The result of this is a wider soundstage with more stereo separation than you'd normally get from a pair of tweeters located a mere 10 inches apart. Between the tweeters lies a single 5x7-inch woofer providing monophonic bass and midrange frequencies.
Bass is further enhanced by a pair of down-firing tuned ports, just inside the Crescendo's metal stands. The down-firing ports have the interesting effect of making the Crescendo in some ways less dependent on placement than other similarly priced ported wireless speakers (I'm thinking specifically of the Audio Pro Allroom Air One), but in other ways actually more so. By that I mean that the Crescendo doesn't interact strongly with surfaces behind or beside it, so it sounds pretty much the same a few inches from a boundary as it does three or four feet out in the room. However, I quickly discovered that it interacts pretty strongly with surfaces below it, and the consistency of those surfaces has a huge impact on the bass output of the speaker.
Click over to page 2 to begin the audition, plus High Points, Low Points, Competition and Comparison and Conclusion . . .
I started out the auditioning process in my home office, with the Crescendo placed on a stand I built myself out of fiberboard and packed with stuffing to make it as inert a platform as possible for preamps and turntables. That turned out to be exactly the wrong spot for the Crescendo. Bass was pretty weak overall, and even the addition of a subwoofer didn't really rectify that. The speaker sets itself apart from the bulk of its competition by including not only a subwoofer output but also a crossover for said subwoofer output. Press the subwoofer button on the back, and the Crescendo directs frequencies below 80 Hz to the sub out, taking a bit of the load off of its own woofer, which normally extends down to about 50 Hz.
The problem with my initial setup, and again this is totally my fault, is that with the Crescendo sitting on such an acoustically inert surface, its own bass output didn't blend well with the subwoofer at all. So, in a track like Grateful Dead's "Box of Rain" from American Beauty (Rhino), Phil Lesh's bass line, which spends most of the time in the 100- to 140Hz range, kind of got lost in the mix: too high for the sub to generate, too low for the Crescendo's woofer to reach. And even the Bass+ button on the remote didn't help much.
I discovered the nature of the problem, and the solution to it, entirely by accident. I was moving some things around in my office to try to find a different location for the Crescendo when I picked up my cheap old beater acoustic guitar: as its neck touched the top of the speaker, those low frequencies that were lacking before practically exploded into the room. And that, as they say, changed everything.
So, I moved the Crescendo to a more typical countertop, and with that the speaker truly came to life...so much so that I no longer really felt the need to attach a subwoofer (except in those rare occasions when the urge struck me to listen to some Björk or Beastie Boys). The subtle effects of the Bass+ button (found on the remote only, not the front-panel controls) were appreciated with pretty much every style of music.
Even my favorite tunes played through the Crescendo sounded quite unlike I've ever heard them before, and there are a couple of reasons for that, actually. Firstly, and perhaps less significantly, there's a bit of a boost in the upper midrange frequencies, somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000(ish) Hz. That has the effect of pushing vocals and guitars forward in the mix and giving them a bit of extra sizzle. However, the more pronounced deviation from the norm, for me, comes from the fact that there's only a single mid-bass driver, while the tweeters deliver quite nice high-frequency stereo separation from even five or six feet away. A track like Delaney & Bonnie and Friends' "Comin' Home," from the album D&B Together (Columbia), which shoves Eric Clapton's smoking hot guitar licks all the way into one channel and Delaney Bramlett's rock-solid rhythm guitar into the other, doesn't quite come off that way on the Crescendo. The guitars and vocals stay pretty much locked to the center of the mix. And yet, because there's such nice separation from the tweeters, it doesn't sound monophonic at all. You don't get a big, wide, tangible soundstage, but you do get a nicely open, expansive sonic soundscape, especially during the song's very vocal outro.
"The Wind Cries Mary" from The Jimi Hendrix Experience's Are You Experienced (Reprise Records) makes for another interesting listening experience via the Crescendo. Through a dedicated two-channel setup or headphones, Jimi's voice is panned hard left, the guitar is mixed in the center, and Noel and Mitch's bass and drums are panned hard right. Through the Crescendo, though, it sounds as if the song were mixed by a sane human being. Mind you, the vocals still lean left, and the drums leans right; but, given that the midrange and bass frequencies are locked to the center, the mix is more of an amicable separation than a full-blown divorce.
Skip a few albums forward in Jimi's oeuvre, though, and "1983... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)" from Electric Ladyland exhibits all of its wonderful out-of-phase spaciousness and trippy swirling aural ambience just fine.
The MartinLogan Crescendo is a gorgeous wireless speaker system that sports an undeniably sexy '60s vibe.
The toed-out Folded Motion tweeters go a long way toward creating a wide, spacious sound from such a relatively compact enclosure.
Rare among wireless speakers is the fact that it not only has a subwoofer output but also includes a sub crossover (at 80 Hz).
Connectivity options are numerous, including Bluetooth, AirPlay (via WiFi or Ethernet), DLNA (ditto), USB (which also charged my iOS devices), analog, or optical digital.
When placed on a countertop or desk, the Crescendo delivers rich, wonderful bass, even without a sub.
The fantastic remote control is on another level entirely than the cheap credit card or hockey puck you normally get with wireless speakers, even at this price.
If you're planning on placing the Crescendo on a granite countertop, you might be disappointed with its bass. It relies on down-firing tuned ports and resonance from whatever surface it's placed upon to achieve optimal low-frequency performance.
Stereo separation only comes into play with frequencies above the crossover point, at 3,600 Hz.
At nearly 26 inches wide, the Crescendo is a little larger than some people may like in a portable speaker.
The WiFi antenna adds a weensy bit of noise. For optimal clarity when listening via AirPlay, an Ethernet connection is preferable.
Comparison and Competition
At $899.95, the MartinLogan Crescendo Premium Wireless Speaker System explores pretty much the same price territory as efforts like Bowers & Wilkins' A7 and Audio Pro's Allroom Air One, both of which come in $100 less. In terms of styling and connectivity, I like the Crescendo much better than any of the competition. Sonically, it's a toss-up for me between the B&W and the MartinLogan, although they're very different-sounding speakers. The A7 is more polite and refined, whereas the Crescendo is more dynamic and fun. The Allroom Air One, by contrast, is a little too fussy in terms of placement for my tastes, even if it does offer better stereo separation across the entire listening spectrum.
For more comparisons, please visit Home Theater Review's Audiophile Bookshelf and Small Speakers page.
The one word that keeps coming up time and time again in my notes for the MartinLogan Crescendo is "fun." The slightly forward upper midrange might not be to everyone's taste, and it certainly wouldn't be my preference in a proper hi-fi stereo setup, but it gives the speaker a distinctive gusto that I like. Listening to old Grateful Dead bootleg soundboard recordings through the Crescendo is particularly a hoot, since its sonic profile tends to give vocals and guitars an extra little kick.
Likewise, when you get it placed on an appreciably excitable surface, bass performance is also, well, "fun." I could dig through my thesaurus for a more eloquent adjective, but those three letters sum up my experience with the speaker better than any others could. It's nicely dynamic, it's gorgeous to look at, and despite all of the nits I could pick about it, I'm going to seriously pout when I have to ship it back to the manufacturer.