I admit it, I've always been more of a traditional AV enthusiast who appreciates the value and performance of using traditional floorstanding loudspeakers for my front channels, as opposed to the super-thin on-wall speakers that are all the rage these days. Sure, like most others, I was stunned by the sound quality of Wisdom Audio's LS4 speakers when I first heard them and saw them displayed, flush mounted on a wall. But I always felt that better value could be had in a number of traditional floorstanding speakers. I constantly wondered why any serious AV enthusiast wouldn't be willing to give up a little floor space to get far better sound at a far better price. It wasn't until recently, when my wife and I discussed the idea of selling our home, that I began to understand the importance of keeping your living-room floor space clean. Having a traditional home theater setup can destroy the intent of an open floor plan by cluttering that open feel. For those who want better-sounding speakers but also want to minimize the clutter that large speakers can bring, on-wall speakers are a great solution.
On-wall speakers are a new focus for MartinLogan, a company that has traditionally have been famous for its electrostatic speaker designs. From a technical standpoint, electrostatic designs are not ideal for in-wall or on-wall use. As dipole speakers, electrostats will radiate equal energy to the front and rear of the speakers, so it is usually best to allow an electrostatic speaker sufficient space behind it. The recent introduction of MartinLogan's entry-level Motion Series speakers combined a folded-motion tweeter with traditional cone midrange and woofer drivers. With the success of this new speaker design, MartinLogan decided to purpose it for on-wall usage with the new Motion SLM (which stands for slim) and SLM-XL speakers. For review today are the Motion SLM-XL speakers, the larger of the two, priced at $699.95 each.
When the speakers got here, it was a bit of a surprise. I thought MartinLogan had forgotten to send me one of the speakers, as the package was much smaller than what I'm used to getting for one standard floorstanding speaker. And what about the pedestal stands I requested, since it wasn't feasible for me to tack these onto a wall based on my living-room configuration? As it turned out, the package had two slim compartments and everything was neatly packed inside: two speakers, two pedestal stands, wall brackets, etc.
Each speaker measures 34.1 inches tall by 6.4 inches wide by 1.45 inches deep. The speaker has a rated frequency response down to 100 Hz, which is no small feat of engineering given how thin the speaker is and how small the drivers are (in general, the easiest way a speaker designer can provide big bass is to have big drivers in a big box – just look at how big the really great subwoofers tend to be). Driving the midrange and bass sounds are dual four-inch paper cone drivers with four equal-sized passive radiators to further reduce the amount of energy released to the back of the speaker so that they can be wall mounted (where there is no space in back to release any energy). The high frequencies are taken care of by the one-inch by 1.4-inch folded motion tweeter, which is the pride and joy of the Motion Series line.
The setup instructions were easy and self-explanatory, and it was a breeze to maneuver the nine-pound speakers into the pedestal stands provided. The one thing I noted was the included drywall screws. Unlike many heavier wall-mounted speakers that need to be securely mounted to studs, the MartinLogan SLM-XLs are so light that you can safely place them wherever you like, not limited by where the strongest weight-bearable studs are. If you find a stud, great; if not, just punch a hole in the drywall and use one of the provided drywall screws.
For amplification, I used my Crown XLS-2500 amplifiers, driven by my Parasound Halo JC2BP preamp with the Oppo BDP-105 running all music and movie source material. Handling the bass was my SVS PB-13 Ultra reference subwoofer.
Click on over to page 2 for the Performance, the Downside, Comparison and Competition and the Conclusion . . .
MartinLogan's stated purpose for these speakers is to replace the ones employed in modern flat-screen TVs that are generally substandard. So I started with some TV watching, and queuing up the first few episodes of season four of Game of Thrones (HBO) was very telling. I first played the opening theme song (which is now so familiar to most that there is even someone who put together a video of goats singing the song) with my subwoofer turned off, to see what the speakers could do on their own. One gimmick employed by many manufacturers of smaller speakers is to artificially boost mid-bass and upper-bass response in an attempt to conceal the speaker's limits in producing the lower frequencies. I was delighted to find that MartinLogan stayed true to its audiophile standards. Whatever the SLM-XL could not do in frequency response, it just didn't try to fake that it could. While some of the bass notes on the viola solo lacked the depth and fullness that you would hear through a full-range speaker, it rolled off gently without the slightest hint of any artificial boosts anywhere in the bass region. I then replayed the opening song with my SVS PB-13 Ultra enabled, using my Oppo to cross over the sub starting at 100 Hz where the SLM-XLs cut off. The bass blended seamlessly and naturally with the MartinLogans, which is a testament to the speakers, as they will not sound out of place being paired with a great subwoofer.
Game of Thrones is great because, as a political thriller, there is plenty of dialogue with great dynamic range, including male and female voices that range from small whispers in quiet medieval halls (where leaders of factions plot together against their enemies) in one scene to large battle cries from entire armies in the next. In a full 5.1-channel home theater system, dialogue is usually handled by the center channel; but, with a 2.1-channel system, a "phantom center" is generated on the source side by careful stereo mixing at the studio for accurately imaging dialogue. This also requires at the reproduction end that the speakers produce very good spatial imaging, and that's one thing that the SLM-XLs do very well. All the dialogue was centered smack dab in the middle of the screen. In fact, height imaging was astonishingly accurate. In a scene where Tyrion Lannister (played by the four-foot, five-inch-tall Peter Dinklage) negotiates with his patriarch father, Tywin Lannister (played by the six-foot, three-inch-tall Charles Dance), you could very accurately picture two actors standing side by side near the center with one voice significantly taller than the other. This was truly impressive, and unexpected. This is the type of imaging I've heard and expect from MartinLogan's flagship CLX and Summit X speakers, but I did not expect it with their sub-$1000 Motion lineup, least of all from the on-wall products within that line. In fact, the older MartinLogan Aeon i electrostatic speakers, which I happily owned for many years, could not do this. MartinLogan has come very far on the technology front indeed.
Voices sounded natural and clear. The high-frequency range sounded truly transparent, much like a MartinLogan electrostat, courtesy of the folded motion tweeter. In the final scene of episode three "The Lion and the Rose," where the much hated and sadistic child king Joffrey Baratheon is poisoned to death at his own wedding reception, you can clearly hear all his throaty squeals as he sputters and suffocates, while the screams of his mother and other onlookers surround.
For movies, I chose a lighter, less macabre selection: Frozen (Disney) on Blu-ray was really a treat. Here the music, effects, and dialogue were all handled equally well. Overall the experience was engaging and lots of fun. The tonal character of the speakers lean toward warm, much like I would say for MartinLogan's ESL speakers. So it was with Idina Menzel's vocal solo as Princess Elsa in the "Let it Go" sequence. Menzel's voice came across with great dynamics and body as it ran through the loud and soft portions. Compared with my reference (and much more expensive) Salk speakers, the MartinLogans could not tease out the very last details on some of the more subtle parts. For instance, the snow falling from her hand to the pile on the floor had just a little more fluffiness in the sound and the piano accompaniment in the music sounded a little grander, richer, and more realistic through the Salks. But at less than one twentieth the price, the MartinLogans held their own quite nicely. Sonically, you get even more bang for the buck with the Motion 20 and 40 floorstanding speakers, but as the category implies, you have to give up floor space for that.
The imaging was just as precise with movies as it was with TV shows. But with the higher-resolution Blu-ray audio, I did notice an additional welcome benefit: MartinLogan specifically designed the dispersion characteristics of the speakers so that you can use a third SLM-XL speaker, tilt it horizontally, and use it as a center channel (you can even get two and put one on the top and bottom of your screen if your processer/receiver allows for a dual center-channel configuration). A nice by-product of the dispersion design is that you get an unbelievably wide soundstage. I literally crouched in different positions across my living room to test. Of course, my usual sweet spot still sounded the best, but the movie experience was very enjoyable from multiple positions across the room. This is very refreshing because a lot of speakers geared toward a more-audiophile audience that focuses on music reproduction first have a very narrow sweet spot – it sounds phenomenal sitting in that one chair in the center of the room, but pull up a chair next to that position and everything from imaging to dynamics and detail just drop off to become unbearable.
I did notice some limitations in the SLM-XLs' output at higher volumes. I have a really big room, and it wasn't surprising that dual four-inch drivers placed in a cabinet that is less than two inches deep could not generate quite enough sound pressure to give that "my whole room is fully filled with sound" feeling. But I assure you, it improves by multiples over whatever speakers come included with your flat-screen TV; in most smaller or mid-sized living rooms, the MartinLogans would be more than adequate in this regard.
With simpler music selections that perhaps have one singer and just one or two instrumentals as accompaniment, vocals were clear. However, with music selections that had more going on, you did notice that some things were missing. I threw in one of my favorite jazz recordings, Wynton Marsalis' Marsalis Standard Time Volume 1 (Columbia, SACD). Imaging and soundstage height and width were flawless, as they were with movies. However, I did find the soundstage to be a little flat. For instance, with my Salks, I find the piano accompaniment to sound about six feet behind Marsalis' trumpet position in a projected space. I didn't get as much of a 3D picture with the SLM-XLs. Instrumentals always sounded very clean, but they weren't quite as polished as many of MartinLogan's more music-minded speakers, especially in the midrange. For instance, piano sounds lacked a little of the crispness and richness. Marsalis' trumpet, at some of the higher pitches, sounded exceptionally transparent and lifelike, without ever sounding too bright or metallic – owing, I'm sure, to the prowess of the folded-motion tweeters. On some of the muted trumpet notes and other parts of Marsalis' trumpet solos that dig lower into the midrange, though, tones became flatter, a little more veiled, lacking that brassiness that makes it sound more like a real trumpet.
The restricted bass plays the most obvious role in limiting the SLM-XL speakers. With little usable output below 100 Hz, you really need a subwoofer to get a meaningful home theater or music experience – hopefully it's a very competent one like my SVS PB-13 Ultra that, with decent bass management somewhere in your system, can blend in your bass with your other speakers.
The second downside would be SPL output. At normal TV, movie, or music volumes in a smaller or mid-sized room, the speakers perform beautifully. But if you intend to have a fully immersive theater experience at THX-recommended sound pressure levels in a large, cavernous space, then these speakers are not for you. Then again, at $699.95 each, there aren't a lot of speakers in the same price range out there who would be up for that challenge.
A more realistic limitation would be in suitability with amplification. With a stated sensitivity rating of 94 dB at 2.83 volts per meter, these speakers will be relatively easy to drive with a wide variety of good amplifiers or receivers. But its nominal impedance is stated at four ohms; while the manufacturer claims that the speakers are compatible with four-, six-, or eight-ohm amplifiers, compatible and optimal are two different things. I would venture to say that optimal performance would be had by pairing these speakers with a receiver or amplifier that is stable and flat down to four ohms, the nominal impedance of the speakers.
Finally, the SLM-XLs are not intended to be dedicated speakers for stereo listening, and I don't recommend them for an audiophile looking to get every last detail out of their music.
Comparison and Competition
At their price range, the MartinLogan Motion SLM-XL speakers have very little competition. Sure, if you're just looking for better sound, you will find plenty of good options for speakers in a more traditional form factor. Within MartinLogan's own Motion line, there is the Motion 15 bookshelf or the Motion 20 floorstanding speaker, but both are larger and heavier, and you will find them far more difficult to blend inconspicuously into your home décor.
For $3,000 per pair, the Widom Audio Insight P2s will give you better sound, with greater clarity, detail, and bass extension. But they are more than twice the price and weigh four times more, as well. Technically, the P2s are "in-wall" and not "on-wall" speakers, which means that either you will need to count yourself among the very handy or need to hire someone to help you mount the speakers by cutting into your drywall. If you are open to in-wall configurations, MartinLogan has quite a few options in that category, too.
The Vienna Acoustics Schönberg speakers give an astounding performance and look the part as well but, at $4,000 per pair, are significantly more expensive than the SLM XLs.
If you have room for it, a traditional floorstanding speaker will almost always be able to give you better sonic performance across the board. The MartinLogan SLM-XL speakers handle music fine, but for a true audiophile experience, I would recommend a (sonically) better speaker like the Motion 40 or one of the ESL speakers. That said, at under $700 each, weighing a mere nine pounds, and being less than two inches deep including the bracket when mounted against the wall, the Motion SLM-XL speakers are the best-sounding on-wall speakers I've heard at or anywhere near their price. The speaker's versatility for use as a center channel and/or surround – as well as its ability to be placed on the wall, desktop, or floor – make it a superb value. If you are looking for a great pair of low-profile speakers to match with your flat-panel TV, you owe it to yourself to take the SLM-XLs for a spin and see if they're right for you.