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.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...