Perhaps one acid test for surround sound systems is to see if they can make even familiar movie soundtracks seem fresh and new. It’s a test the ElectroMotion ESL system passed with flying colors on the soundtrack for Inglourious Basterds. There is a certain horrific fascination that comes with watching the opening scenes of the film as SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz) visits the French dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet), to track down information on French Jews from the region thought to have gone into hiding from the Nazis.
At first Col. Landa seems polite to a fault, indeed almost solicitous of LaPadite’s good will. But as the polite back-and-forth exchange unfolds the conversation takes a turn toward darkness as Landa explains, in a fearfully amiable voice, how he earned the nickname, “The Jew Hunter.” As Landa explains things (with the twisted logic only an SS officer could evince), he is good at hunting Jews because he can “think like them” and because he understands them to be desperate, inventive, tough, survival-oriented animals much like rats—animals that we all instinctively dislike. And then, as quiet pastoral farm sounds are faintly heard in the background, the scene shifts from the bizarre Jews-as-rats analogy to take on a more sinister, threatening tone as Landa explains that he thinks some Jewish families may be in hiding with their Gentile neighbors, and then fixes LaPadite with a penetrating gaze and asks in a cold, steely tone of voice, “You are harboring enemies of the state, are you not?”
Realizing he is caught and that he has put his own family in jeopardy, LaPadite’s eyes brim with tears as he swallows and softly answers, “Yes.” The horror reaches a fever pitch as Landa asks—in English so that the hiding Jewish family will have no warning—if the Jews are hiding beneath the floorboards of the farmhouse. LaPadite nods to indicate that they are, and Landa, pretending to welcome LaPadite’s daughters back into the house, beckons for his henchmen who promptly spray the floors of the home with machine gun fire, killing all but one of the Jewish family members hiding below.
Several characteristics of the Electro Motion ESL system really bring this scene alive. First, their unfailing ability to faithfully retrieve even the smallest details works powerfully in this scene, so that, for example, we hear the threatening sound of the German motorcade coming up the road from afar, even before we see them onscreen. Similarly, the MartinLogan’s capture the myriad small sounds that represent the fundamental peacefulness of the French farmhouse—very faint sounds of a breeze outside (which diminish even further when a window is closed), or the gentle, pitch perfect sounds of cows lowing on the grassy hills outside. Even basic domestic sounds, such as the sound of a cork stopper being pulled from a bottle so that the Colonel can be poured a glass of milk, sound dead accurate—neither exaggerated nor artificially understated.
But the real genius of the ElectroMotion ESL system becomes apparent as it tracks the ultra-subtle shifts in tone in Landa’s voice, as he goes from seeming charmer, to storyteller, to unhinged storyteller, to Germanic administrator seeking data, on through to taking on the coldly threatening tone of a maniacal SS bully (but one with an outward show of manners). I can’t speak for you, but when I heard this scene through the MartinLogans I experienced a chill and thought to myself, “I’ll bet this is precisely what the voice of evil sounds like.” Most speaker systems don’t inspire such thoughts, because they just can’t evoke sufficient levels of realism for me to suspend disbelief. But through the EM-ESL system, the scene positively gave me the creeps.
And then, to make the horror complete, Landa decides to turn the farmer’s home into a slaughterhouse before his very eyes. The crazy merriment in Landa’s voice as he invites the “ladies” of the house back inside is unnerving through this system, as is the ensuing racket as Landa’s gunmen open fire, shattering forever the peace and stillness of the home. If you’ve bought into the myth that electrostats cannot play loudly, the sheer violence of this scene, and the fierceness with which this system recreates the sounds of the machine gun fire, will change your mind in one terrifying instant. Again, compelling realism—whether reproducing soft sounds or very loud ones, is the hallmark of the EM-ESL system.