Even before it makes a sound you'll know something's up. For one thing, you can literally see through the top two-thirds of MartinLogan's gleaming new electrostatic speaker, the Purity. The Matinee center speaker is just as visually daring, but the Fresco i surrounds and Abyss subwoofer are more demure. No, make that elegant—MartinLogan definitely has a knack for crafting some of the best looking high-end speakers on the market. And as a textbook example of form following function, they sound as good as they look.
FEATURES That doesn't exactly come as a shock to me—MartinLogan burst onto the audiophile scene with a run of innovative designs in the early 1980s. The company has not rested on its laurels; instead of the usual tweeter and midrange array, the Purity's translucent electrostatic panel produces middle and high frequencies (above 450Hz), leaving bass duties to a pair of 6.5-inch woofers. The Purity also has its own built-in 200-watt Class D switching power amplifier.
So while the svelte floorstander can be hooked up with speaker cables, M-L recommends using the Purity’s line-level RCA input (only possible if you have an amp/preamp setup or an A/V receiver equipped with "pre-out" jacks). With this connection scheme the receiver’s amplifiers will power only the center and surround speakers, allowing the receiver to play louder with lower distortion. That's very cool. Oh, and I should mention that the Purity's unusually high (4000 ohm) impedance—that’s not a typo—makes the speaker super easy to drive if you can't take advantage of the line-level input.
Since the Purity's electrostatic panel radiates sound from its front and rear surfaces, it must be placed at least 30 inches away from the wall behind the speaker for the best sound. M-L recommends experimenting with placement, and I agree. Like most high-end speakers, the Purity needs to be placed with care so it can fully bloom. There's one other catch. though: the Purity’s sound is very directional—so when you stand up or move to one side of the room, the treble detail fades away. For an excellent overview of how electrostatic speakers work, visit www.us.martinlogan.com/technology/technology.html.
The Matinee center speaker is a hybrid electrostatic design that also incorporates a high-quality dome tweeter and a pair of conventional woofers (it’s nowhere near as finicky about placement as the Purity and sounded fine on a shelf under my TV). Unlike conventional speakers, the Purity and Matinee must be plugged into AC outlets to keep their electrostatic panels fully charged (and to provide power to the Purity's onboard amplifier).
While I used a pair of Frescos as rear surround speakers, they can also be used as front left, center, and right speakers. Instead of conventional drivers, the Fresco has two Advanced Thin Film (ATF) panels—one for treble and one for midrange—in addition to a pair of small woofers. (The ATF panels are designed to closely mimic the sound of M-L's electrostatic panels.)
MartinLogan’s Abyss subwoofer combines a 12-inch driver with a 300-watt amp and sports a couple of unusual features. In addition to the standard line- and speaker-level inputs, it has a subwoofer output that makes it easy to hook up multiple subs (using more than one sub helps produce smoother and more even bass throughout the room in addition to…uh, producing more bass). The Abyss is a down-firing design, but if you need to place it inside a wall unit or cabinet, you can reorient it so the woofer faces forward (it comes with a four-legged stand).
The Matinee and Abyss finish options are limited to black, but the Purity is available in vinyl wrap dark cherry or black. The Frescos come in black but custom finishes are available.
PERFORMANCE Spider-Man 3 sounded dangerously realistic. Especially in that scene where a crane operator loses control of a massive steel girder and it smashes through a nearby skyscrapers' steel and glass exterior—ouch! And when the giant Sandman spews a blizzard of sand, the sensory onslaught of fine-grained detail was amazingly lifelike, thanks in large part to the Fresco surround speakers. The DVD packed quite a wallop, but the MartinLogan ensemble sounded wonderfully refined on Christopher Young's orchestral score. The strings had the sort of natural, sweet tonality I associate with high-priced, high-end speakers.
After Spidey exercised the system's home theater muscles I took things down a notch and settled in to watch the final episode of the Sopranos. The brooding tension was palpable and, during the last few minutes of the controversial final scene, I felt like I was in the diner with the Soprano clan—I could almost smell the onion rings. With the lights off I forgot all about the five MartinLogans and I was totally in Tony's world.