MartinLogan Theater and Ascent Loudspeaker Review

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Let's start with the name: in its transition from manufacturer of tweaky (yet utterly gorgeous) full-range electrostatics, to being the purveyor of the most successful hybrids ever, Martin-Logan has become 'company with a logo'. Yup, there's a squiggle on everything, a little flick of some designer's wrist which could be a stylised 'M', an attempt at conveying an artist at work.

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It's engraved into the tiny bit of framework visible at the top of the Scenario, in silver on the bottom of the Ascent's electrostatic panel, in raised silver below the Theater's tweeters and it's actually cut right through the base plate of the Theater's swivel frame. I bet there's even a key-fob, a polo shirt and a baseball cap. The company has made the leap to 'brand'...but I do wish they'd decide if it's Martin Logan or MartinLogan without the space. Either way, the hyphen has gone and the company is now worshipped by custom installers and interior designers. It's even part of the set on .

So what's that all about? Trivia at its worst? Uh-uh. While utterly eliminating the Bitch Wife From Hell factor, and while turning expensive hi-fi into something worth drooling over - in stark contrast to Lamm, for example - Martin Logan has also defied a specific law of high-end audio. It's the one which states that: With Success And Better Looks Comes A Mandatory, Inevitable Drop In Sound Quality. Not only have the ML products gotten prettier, they're sounding better than ever. And that is an achievement repeated nowhere else in the entire audio pantheon.

Example: the new Martin Logan Ascent and Theater are so utterly room-friendly that, despite being vastly larger than the Scenario and Cinema they replaced, my wife hasn't noticed the change. You could argue that it's because she is so indifferent to hi-fi. (Despite the audio riches to which she has access, she listens to a small Sony portable cassette radio which she schleps from room to room.) Or maybe she's in denial. Either way, they won me over, too, when I argued that I didn't anything larger in a 14x22ft lounge. The Scripts/Scenarios/Cinema worked nicely, thank you, and what could I possibly gain with something bigger? How quickly I pre-judged.

Immediately prior to the arrival of the Theater and Ascents reviewed here, Martin Logan's Gayle Sanders happened to be in the UK. He wanted to hear the Script/Scenario/Cinema package sounded in my room, and impressed as he was: full credit to Pedro at Absolute Sounds for being the finest set-up guy in Europe. Gayle suggested, when I balked at something larger, that 'the sound would open up a bit more without changing the character', the latter being something I cherish. Why? Because a Full Martin is one of those rare systems which is just as good at two-channel as it is at 5.1, .

Re-read that, because it touches on something underlining every anti-multi-channel debate heard since surround sound reared its head. It's one thing to have Brand X's main speakers in a stereo-only set-up with no other speakers in the room. But it's something else entirely to have them acting in stereo . Those of you familiar with my scribbles know that I have always felt that the 'second pair of speakers in the room causes brain damage' argument is pure bullshit, but I'm giving it lip service here because it's being used by the anti-home theatre brigade to prove this sorry-ass point: that you can't possibly have a surround system which works well for two-channel, simply because there are 'extra' speakers in the room.

Well, gang, maybe that just doesn't apply to panels or electrostatics, but to crappy box-type speakers manufactured by cynics who know that an A/B demo will destroy their chances. Think about it before you carry on fighting the future.

Whatever, I spent a lot of time listening just to the Ascents in stereo, even though they have taken over from the Scenarios in a 5.1 system. The Scripts went back to Absolute Sounds, the Scenarios became the new rear channel speakers, and - at the same time - it was felt that the Cinema centre-channel speaker should be replaced with the larger Theater. [See sidebar] The Ascent, coming in above the Aerius but below the new Odyssey, is smack dab in the middle of the ML range, and it only just qualifies as 'manageable' if you happen to be saddled with a BWFH: despite a small footprint of only 13x22in - and that 13in is the width - the Ascent is an imposing 64in tall. (Which further beggars belief that Mrs. K. failed to notice them...)

Derived from the Prodigy, which in turn is the offspring of the Statement E2, the Ascent is very much a part of the third ML generation. The first was the full-range line, still alive via the CLS IIz. The second, evolutionary range? Models like the still-current Aerius and ReQuest. But the Statement's babies are taking over, and the Ascent, by virtue of size and price, looks set to be the best-seller in the line, and virtually a replacement for the SL3. And it's a perfect example of current ML thinking.

Within the Ascent's upper frame is a true curved electrostatic panel measuring 4ft tall, with dispersion of 30 degrees. It operates above 280Hz, which some might argue is a high crossover point for a hybrid, but that is to undervalue ML's expertise in this area. (Until someone corrects me, I firmly believe that the Kansas-based company has sold more ESL hybrids than any other make on the planet.) Augmenting the ESL element, in the base/bass unit which acts as a stand on adjustable spiked feet, is a forward-firing 10in long-throw/high-excursion woofer with a high-rigidity cone. It operates down to 35Hz, and combines with the ESL to provide the Ascent with a sensitivity of 90dB/1W, with an impedance of 4 ohms.

As is the wont of a certain breed of audiophile, the Ascent - unlike the Script and Scenario - can be bi-amped or bi-wired. The back of the non-resonant chamber is fitted with two pairs of the most sane binding posts I've ever seen, but the review sample didn't come with bridging links and I wanted to use them single-wired. This has nothing to do with ML meanness; it's forbidden in CE territories for whatever moronic reason the Belgian-based scum cooked up to torment speaker makers. Thus, I inserted Transparent's bridging links, which have ML approval. f they didn't, Karen Sumner would beat up Gayle Sanders. Also found on the back of the Ascent is a rotary marked 'Bass Control', which attenuates the bass by 3dB if the user feels there's too much low level energy in the room; I used them in the 'flat' position.

Read more about the performance of the MartinLogan speakers on Page 2.

HTR Product Rating for MartinLogan Theater and Ascent Loudspeaker Review

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As ever, the speakers have looks beyond reproach. The upper segment boasts the party-piece see-through element in a gloss-black perforated section, the rest is all matte-black, while the sides are fitted with easy-to-swap wooden trim inserts to relieve the sombreness. Choices include various types of oak, cherry, anodyne-dyed woods, maple, walnut - you'd be hard-pressed not to find a match for your décor. A particularly nice touch is a tiny red LED only just visible through the lower section of the 'cage' when signal is being received. Appreciated would be a subtle pilot light somewhere to let you know that the Ascents are receiving power from the mains. Maybe they could light up the 'M' in pale blue? Oh, and they need at least 24 hours powered up from cold before they sound their best; I leave them plugged in at all times.

Gayle wasn't kidding when he said I could just drop in the Theater and the Ascents without having to re-tune the Lexicon MC-1 processor's settings. Aside from Pedro changing the setting for the rear speakers from 'large speaker' to 'small', which resulted in greater impact, everything - including relative levels - remained as before. The rest of the system included my early Region 1 Pioneer DV-414 DVD player and the Region 2 Pioneer DVL-919E 'combi' player, Acurus and Marantz power amps and sources including Sky via Panasonic set-top unit, a braces of VCRs and an old Trio LO-1T tuner. Also used for A/V was the sturdy, dependable REL Strata III - my system's true workhorse.

Fed a selection of 'audiophile' discs, including a number of gilded CDs and 96/24 specials from Classic, the Ascents were put through their paces in stereo fashion with the other amplification channels shut off - not just muted. What the Ascents brought to the table above and beyond the Scenarios was a sense of grandeur, regardless of the type of music, and it's not just applicable to orchestral works. (Or A/V swagger, for that matter.) Sonically, texturally - it was the same clear, clean and uncommonly open sound I expect from all electrostatics, but with the puzzling bonus of even more real bass...and no obvious transition from cone to ESL.

This is the area where cynics expect ML to fail, and yet it's where ML proves again and again that miscegenation works. The sheer weight imparted by a 10in driver, below the gossamer glory of an ESL: it speaks volumes for ML's audiophile-component-laden crossover network, attention to detail and sheer experience to make the transition point impossible to detect. This is due in no small part to the way the company has dealt with the differing dispersion characteristics of an electrostatic panel and a forward-firing cone; the curved upper section is no accident, and the system is utterly free from hot seat sadism.

On the other hand, despite Gayle's comment that the overall character of the Ascent would show a familial relation to the Scenario, the Ascent seemed much more warm and fuzzy (in the good sense, not the bad), which is unsurprising when you consider that Gayle is the probably industry's soppiest romantic. The sound via two-channels was edge-free with no propensity for causing listener fatigue, and the left-right/front-back spread was huge and seamless. You could wallow in what goes on inbetween.

All of which worked to great effect when the Theatre, the Scenarios and the REL kicked in. Steve Harris, who had heard the previous system and was suitably impressed, remarked that the arrival of the Ascent and Theater had transformed - no, raised the system to a whole 'nuther level. Even though the encircling capabilities were already wholly convincing, the Ascent/Theater version added more fill, a greater sense of image height and far better positioning. I can only imagine what a 6.1 version with a Cinema at the back would do to .

And for the purists among you? The finest illustration of the all-encompassing Martin Logan package came not from Hollywood blockbusters but from a live music program: the overused (but deservedly so) Eagles' DVD. Both the DTS and the pure, 2-channel PCM tracks were tried, and both demonstrated their own sets of merits; clearly, a live gig benefits from discrete audience sounds. Steve was visibly impressed - remember, this guy only just accepted that there's life beyond mono 78s - and agreed with me that PCM stereo through the right processor is probably all we ever needed. Yeah, high-end digital sources through the Logans was good: enough to make you wish that SACD and DVD-A would just go away.

I saved the best for last. Until just before writing the review, I hadn't checked the price of the Ascent. I always try not to, because I don't want price influencing my listening sessions; keep it until the end, and your responses to the sound are more pure. To my absolute delight, the speakers cost over a grand less than I had guessed: 3897 per pair. Categorically, I had assumed a minimum of 5000. They're still not cheap, but I reckon they massacre comers within 1500 either way. Rest assured, I don't even want anything more, however much the Prodigy or the Odyssey might add to the formula. The Ascent is simply 'right', across the boards.

And then there's the styling...

Absolute Sounds, 58 Durham Road, London SW20 0DE. Tel 0181 971 3909, FAX 0181 879 7962

SIDEBAR: Martin Logan Theater Centre-channel Speaker
'Theater' is the name of the company's new flagship centre-channel, replacing the Logos and coming in above the Cinema. Unlike the latter, which uses an ESL panel in a concave curve, the Theater's ESL element is convex. Instead of the Cinema's pair of flanking 5.25in bass units, the new speaker sports a brace of 6.5in units. And where the Cinema features a single 1in dome tweeter operating above 3.5kHz, the Theater features three, mounted in a vertical arc in the centre module, and crossing over from the electrostatic at 3kHz. Note that in both of Martin Logan's centre-channel designs, the woofers operate up to 300Hz.

In addition to costing more - 2498 versus the Cinema's 1498 - the Theater is much bigger and much heavier. Whereas the Cinema occupies a tidy space of 10x33.5x10.5in (HWD) and weighs 28lb, the Theater takes up an imposing 13x43x11.5in (HWD) and weighs a serious 57lb. But there is a wee bonus: the swivel bracket, which also allows for wall-mounting, is integral with the Theater; a similar fitment for the Cinema costs an extra 450. My advice? If you were going to buy a Cinema and a bracket at 1948 in total, you have the space, save up another 550 for the Theater.

It's better in every area, especially its dispersion characteristics and sound spread. The locating of mid-positioned sounds is more precise, the three tweeters create a larger 'window' and, as a result, it does better than any other centre channel speaker I can name what a centre speaker should do: provide clear dialogue regardless of the conditions established by the movie. This was most noteworthy in situations such as the final battle in , when the system had to cope with bombastic music, battle sounds the most convincing spread of rain since . And yet even the sotto voce dialogue was clear and audible. I thought the Ascents transformed my home theatre set-up, but, on reflection, the Theater actually deserves much of the credit.

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