We often seek that perfect speaker, but at some point we should realize that the perfect speaker is dependent on the room in which it will be located. Some rooms just can't facilitate the speaker we relish, nor will it sound the way we imagine. So the goal should be to choose the best speaker for the specific room, and sometimes that means in-ceiling and/or in-wall speakers, also known as architectural speakers.
I happen to have a challenging room in my home that is also the most active room: the family room. A few years back, I did have a freestanding speaker system--the Totem Dream Catcher 5.1 system--connected in this room, which is a fantastic entry-level product. However, the form factor did not sit well with the wife, nor was I able to locate the right front-channel speaker in an adequate location. I wondered if an in-ceiling and in-wall system could satisfy my sonic demands while maintaining the interior-design requirements of my better half.
MartinLogan is probably known best for its electrostatic speakers, but the company has adapted some of its technology for the architectural speaker category, offering no less than four different product lines. The latest line, which is called the Stealth Architectural Series, is MartinLogan's most sophisticated flagship offering, and it consists of the round Vanquish in-ceiling speaker ($1,399 each, shown above) and two rectangular in-wall models: the Axis ($1,149 each) and the Edge ($1,699 each). All of these models utilize Folded Motion XT tweeters, which employ thin-film technology to achieve low distortion in the upper frequencies. Additionally, the entire Stealth line benefits from bezel-less frames that are incredibly solid, one-piece aluminum units that house the black-aluminum, high-excursion bass and midrange drivers and components. Lastly, all of these models can be used for left, center, right, or surround applications, depending on your scenario.
Crossovers are made with polypropylene and low-DF electrolytic capacitors and custom wound inductors. It's all tied together by 16-gauge, high-purity copper wire on a double-layered, extra-thick circuit board. Thermal and current protection is included to preserve your investment. This caliber of detail and refinement is not typical of most architectural products.
Since my family room has proven to be such an acoustic challenge for me, I chose this room to give the MartinLogans a chance to prove their worthiness. For this review, I installed a 7.1 system consisting of five in-ceiling Vanquish speakers for the left, center, right, and surround back channels and two Axis in-wall speakers for the surround channels located in the back side walls. MartinLogan also sent along the BalancedForce 210 subwoofer and an Anthem MRX 510 AV receiver to round out the 7.1 system.
The Vanquish has to be one of the most unconventional in-ceiling speakers I have ever seen. First, it is enormous, coming in at 14.4 inches in diameter, requiring a 13.1-inch diameter cutout for installation. While the overall shape is round, the aluminum speaker baffle is "A" concave shaped, protruding into the ceiling cavity, providing an angle to direct the tweeter and midrange drivers (one on each side of the ribbon tweeter) toward the listening position. On the opposing side of the baffle is one eight-inch aluminum driver, which points the bass frequencies partially in the opposite direction of the midrange and high-frequency drivers and partially down-firing toward the floor. Additionally, the Vanquish has two switches on the face of the speaker that allow you to contour the output of the midrange drivers, based on the location of the speaker, by focusing sound toward the listener while minimizing sidewall reflections. The switches tell the speaker which location the speaker is being used for--left, center, or right, for example.
Worth pointing out is the dressy paint finish of the exterior, a trait most other in-ceiling speakers lack. MartinLogan intentionally painted this elaborate baffle design in an attractive glossy black, providing you the option to leave the magnetic and paintable metal grill off. This would indeed provide an interesting look for the right decor. My first impression of this speaker, while looking at it with the grill off, is that of a Darth Vader mask. While that may not sound attractive at first, it gets my Badass award. If you were planning on creating a Star Wars themed theater room, you should really take a look at the Vanquish, which could also be used as an effects speaker in an elaborate Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, or Auro system.
The Axis in-wall speaker (right) is more traditional in appearance, and it consists of the same Folded Motion ribbon tweeter found in the Vanquish, with one 5.25-inch bass driver on each side of the tweeter. Due to the fact that this speaker can be used horizontally or vertically, the tweeter has the ability to be repositioned so that it retains a vertical orientation. Also, one of the two 5.25-inch drivers reproduces a larger frequency range, with more midrange response, and is intended to be installed closer to the listener's ear. The Axis includes a high-gloss frame insert, which really shows the high-end level of these speakers and provides the option to display them with the grills off.
I started by installing the front three Vanquish in-ceiling speakers. The room measures 12 feet across the front, with a front-to-rear depth of 14 feet. Unfortunately, the media niche is to the far left of the room, as opposed to the desired dead-center location. As a result, I had to locate the center speaker off center to the room, since it is necessary to locate this speaker above the monitor. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Due to this unfortunate circumstance, the front left speaker and center speaker are located very close to one another, which completely contradicts common sense, as well as the instructions provided by the manufacturer. While I agree with MartinLogan's directive, in the real world, perfect symmetry is not always possible. I installed the surround back monitors in the ceiling as close to the back of the room as possible; however, various plumbing hardware prevented optimum placement. Luckily (as described earlier), the MartinLogan speakers are directional in nature; the drivers don't fire straight down. So, I directed their upper frequencies toward the back wall. My point here is that concessions must be made in real-world situations, when working with installed speakers, with hope that the outcome will be successful.
Installation of the Vanquish speakers can be challenging since they are big and heavy (16 pounds). Standing on a ladder, holding the speaker with one hand while simultaneously driving the screws that lower the C-clamps with the other hand, made for one sweaty and nerve-racking experience. The only reason I was successful is MartinLogan's magnificent removable handle, which allows you to grasp this beast in the middle of the speaker without damaging the drivers. I was so appreciative of this handle, I found myself muttering my gratitude to the designer during the installation. Without this feature, there is no safe way to install these behemoths single-handedly. Even with a second set of hands, the handle is beneficial. Before tightening the speakers all the way down, I carefully rotated them to aim the tweeter to the best listening position.
In retrospect, it would have made sense to choose a smaller in-ceiling speaker for the back surround channels. These channels don't require the sophistication that the Vanquish offers, so I could have used one of MartinLogan's other products from alternative lines like the ElectroMotion EM-IC or EM-R. Not only are these speakers much less expensive, but they may allow for a more optimum mounting location due to their smaller size. Given the limited audio information directed to surround back channels, I would think this change could go unnoticed.
The Axis was a pleasure to install in the rear sidewalls. As I mentioned earlier, the Folded Motion XT tweeter can be repositioned by the user to maintain a vertical position. All I had to do was gently pry the tweeter housing off the main speaker unit, give it a quarter turn, and reinsert the four peg legs. Also, I had to be cognizant of which of the two bass drivers is the extended bass driver to ensure proper installation. I actually installed one of the Axis speakers upside down in error, but removing and reinstalling it was easy.
I connected all speakers, as well as the BalancedForced 210 subwoofer, to the Anthem MRX 510 receiver. A Sony BDP-BX650 Blu-ray player was connected as the main video source, and I used a MacBook Pro, streaming digital music from Tidal, for music demonstrations. I also streamed movies from both Netflix and VUDU, through the Blu-ray player or through my Sony LCD smart TV.
I broke in the speakers for several days, then I began critical listening with Adele's new song "Hello" from her latest album 25 (XL Recordings). I immediately noticed that the speakers imaged exceptionally well. While the sound was emanating from a higher place, it was not originating from the ceiling--it was more like a sonic image hovering in the balance of the room. There was a clear center image, and the overall sound extended beyond the physical location of the speakers. The soundstage was very large, with more depth than what one would expect from such a system. The midrange was good, but the bass was thin, causing the desire to push the volume higher.
I moved on to the song "Take Me to Church" by Hozier, from the album of the same name (Ruby Works). Vocals sounded clear and detailed, portraying the artist's tough voice wonderfully. The dramatic mood of the song was well communicated by the Vanquish speakers. But again, there was a lack of presence in the bass and perhaps lower mid-bass range. With a few changes on the Anthem receiver, I engaged bass management and directed frequencies of 80 Hz and below to the MartinLogan subwoofer. I repeated those first two songs and experienced a whole new dimension of sound; the system came alive, filling the necessary voids. Even mid-bass from the Vanquish improved.
Lastly, I listened to Aaron Neville's take on "Everybody Plays the Fool" (RCA Records). Aaron's voice sounded warm and balanced with exceptionally natural tones and clarity. Instrumentation was silky smooth with no edginess. The overall sound was not in-your-face, nor was it overly relaxed. It was just right.
For movies, I started with my standard pod-race scene from Star Wars Episode 1. The pods circled my room with precision. Even channels six and seven were contributing well, creating a fantastic effect. The Vanquish continued to image the sound in the middle of the room. The presentation was superior to the Totem Dream Catcher 5.1 system that once resided in my family room, even though they had the benefit of being freestanding speakers.
I moved to the movie Furious 7, and the Lykan Hyper Sport sky-rise jumping chapter. The characters Brian and Dom jump the Lykan Hyper Sport racecar through two high-rise towers. Crumbling statues, shattering glass, and twisting metal joists cycled through my room, putting me smack in the middle of the action. It was hard not to get consumed by the action and theatrics, but I had to move on.
The movie Avatar was next, advancing to the Ikran Initiation scene where the Avatars actually fly these wild pterodactyl-type creatures that they refer to as Ikran or Banshees. The Stealth speakers really showed off their capability here. I could swear there was wind blowing in my family room from the fluttering wings of the banshees. The overall size of the soundfield was large and compelling.
The only criticism of the Vanquish/Axis combo that I could identify is the lack of bass and perhaps midbass ability without the assistance of a subwoofer. I suspect, with open-back speakers like these, that results can vary wildly based on installation limitations. For example, in my room, the ceiling joists run parallel to my front wall. Therefore, the front left, center, and right speakers share the same air cavity between the same set of joists, causing interaction between speakers. Of course I installed insulation around the speakers, as instructed by the manufacturer, but I doubt that would solve the problem completely. If I had the wherewithal and time, I could have built solid wall barriers within the joists; but, as you can imagine, this would not be easy. If this were a pre-construction situation, of course you'd have options. Alternatively, if the joists ran from front to rear, each speaker would receive its own joist bay and perhaps less interaction between speakers would exist, allowing for more bass response. So, it is entirely possible that the lack of bass could be resolved in a different installation--or by adding a good subwoofer, as I did.
Comparison and Competition
There are many architectural speakers on the market today. Listed here are a few speaker models that intrigue me with their design, quality, or perhaps value.
As an alternative to the Vanquish in-ceiling speaker, MartinLogan's sister company Paradigm offers the Sig-1.5R-30 v.3 ($1,000). These speakers use technology from Paradigm's highly regarded Signature Collection floorstanding speakers.
Revel offers the C763L ($750), which has a similar appearance to the Vanquish in that it is a large, round frame to hold various drivers, but the Revel frame has an integrated enclosure.
The Triad Silver/6 monitor is an MDF-enclosed ceiling speaker ($1,450). I have had the opportunity to audition this one, and it is impressive.
The Sonance LCR1S ($1,250) is another enclosed in-ceiling option at a similar price point to the Vanquish.
Finally, the PSB C-LCR ($799) is another enclosed option. Stay tuned on this model, as I will be performing a review on this speaker in the very near future.
In regards to the Axis in-walls, there are many competing models, as this is a more common design. Paradigm's SA-LCR 3 ($1,375) from the Reference Collection comes in at a similar price point to the Axis. The PSB In Wall W-LCR2 ($799) is a consideration, as it has a similar driver configuration as the Axis. Lastly, Sonance has an in-wall offering at a similar price point as the Axis, named the LCR1 ($1,250). I could go on indefinitely, as there are no shortages of this type of in-wall speaker, but the models listed here, in my opinion, offer a similar level of quality and engineering as the Stealth line.
The MartinLogan Stealth line of architectural speakers impressed me. Their build and component quality is significantly high. It is obvious that much thought went into the design of these speakers, and the results are ultra high-end. MartinLogan has created a quality product that will provide a proud sense of ownership. When coupled with the BalancedForce 210 subwoofer, the sum performance was greater than any one speaker's individual achievement.
I used to avoid my family room, opting for my reference Vienna Acoustic and NAD combination, located in another room. However, thanks to the addition of the Vanquish and Axis speakers, I now find myself wanting to watch movies in the family room. I would highly recommend this product if you are considering an architectural speaker solution for your space.
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