Brian Kahn is the longest tenured writer on staff at HomeTheaterReview.com. His specialties include everything from speakers to whole-home audio systems to high-end audiophile and home theater gear, as well as room acoustics. By day, Brian is a partner at a West Los Angeles law firm.
MartinLogan introduced its Masterpiece electrostatic line about two years ago with the flagship $80,000/pair Neolith speaker. A year or so ago, the Masterpiece line expanded with the $25,000/pair Renaissance ESL 15A. Just a few months ago, MartinLogan introduced the two latest models in the Masterpiece series: the $15,000/pair Expression ESL 13A and the $10,000/pair Impression ESL 11A. While the $10,000 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 aluminum 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.
The 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. Recognizing 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 aluminum 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 optimizes the low-pass filters, equalization, and limiting. The PoweredForce Forward Bass technology uses phase shifting to control the interaction between the woofers and is said to minimize 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.
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 midbass 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.
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 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.
Comparison and Competition
Sticking with similarly priced floorstanding speakers, other great options include B&W's new 803 D3 ($17,000/pair). With the latest-generation 800 Series speakers, B&W has moved away from Kevlar midrange drivers, which Brent Butterworth reports has improved the midrange, making it more transparent. I have spent a lot of time with the prior-generation B&W 800 D2s, which have a similar tweeter: if you are a fan of extended and detailed high frequencies, they should be on your must-audition list.
Jerry Del Colliano recently reviewed a pair of Focal Sopra N°2s ($13,995/pair), which he reports as having extremely precise imaging. Neither of these speakers has the powered woofers or room correction, so you will need to keep this in mind when considering amplification and placement.
On the less traditional side, MBL and Meridio omnidirectional speakers can offer similarly large soundstages; and, with proper setup and in the right room, they can also produce sharp imaging. Unfortunately, the price points on these speaker lines tend to be somewhat above the Expressions reviewed here.
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.
• Check out our Floorstanding Speakers category page to read similar reviews.
• MartinLogan Stealth Series Vanquish and Axis Speakers Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Visit the MartinLogan website for more product information.