The result is that few loudspeakers sound realistic in the upper registers. In my experience, only one has ever made a struck cymbal sound like the real thing—the MBL 101 E (reviewed by Jonathan Valin in Issue 154). The MBL also sounds pretty damn realistic throughout the rest of the frequency spectrum, too—and with the right recordings and proper electronics can cast a scarily three-dimensional soundstage perceptible from anywhere in the room. But the MBL is too exotic, too big, and, with its required associated electronics, too expensive for most music lovers. At $10,000 in standard finishes, the MartinLogan Summit offers a satisfying blend of realism, musical seductiveness, high performance, and accessible, contemporary styling to a wider swath of the market.
As with most loudspeakers, positioning is critical. I started with the Summits in the same spots where the Montana EPS2s had stood, a tad under eight feet apart at the inside edges and with the back of the bases a few inches from the front wall. From 13 feet away, there was a hole in the middle that toe-in couldn’t cure. With the aid of Soderberg and MartinLogan dealer and custom installer Carlos Shelton, I found the optimum position was about 28" out from the front wall, with the speakers six-anda- half feet apart at the inside edges and with almost no toe-in, in a room that is lively but not reverberant and that does not support standing waves.
With three very experienced guys, determining the optimum setup took a couple of hours. The Summits sound better closer together than most dynamic designs of similar height, and in some rooms might perform better with a bit of toe-out. The screw-in feet enable some back/front tilt that could be helpful with nonstandard seating heights. As shipped, the speakers are optimized for normal seating, where ear level is approximately the upper third of the panels. Imaging and focus don’t lock in from elsewhere, although the Summits sound fine off-axis.
With electronics from Lexicon and Balanced Audio Technology, the Summits sounded softer than they did with the Halo gear, with a soundstage that was deeper than it was wide, probably attributable to the mellifluous effects of the VK-31SE’s tubes. I was delighted to discover that the Summits can infuse cymbals with a realistic metallic ring without adding that quality to vocals. Adam Nussbaum’s drumming near the end of Patricia Barber’s “Summer Samba” [Nightclub, Premonition Records] proved a fine demonstration of this. Michael Arnopol’s virtuoso bass playing in all of Barber’s recordings was superbly realistic, from the delicate plucking sounds of fingers on strings to the woody resonance of the instrument’s body. Attack and decay in the lower registers were excellent, with little overhang or drone.
With its -3dB low-frequency rolloff at 24Hz, the Summit can go far lower than most speakers of comparable size, but it can’t reach earthquaking, bowelsof- the-earth levels like giant loudspeakers that drop below 20Hz. Still, its woofer section would make a respectable subwoofer if marketed separately. Its fast, tight, articulate low-end output is really quite amazing given the cabinet’s relatively small dimensions. I didn’t notice any upper bass or lower midrange anomalies despite the 270Hz crossover point. Bass-heavy recordings like Chris Isaak’s San Francisco Days [Reprise] were immensely satisfying.
But lots of speakers have great bass and top end. It’s the midrange where the Summits excel. MartinLogan has taken classical electrostatic midrange magic to entirely new levels with this speaker. Every recording I threw at them came back at me with irresistible seduction. From roughly recorded rock classics like Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Susie Q” [Chronicle, Fantasy] to old-school soulful jazz like Ike Quebec’s “The Man I Love” [Ballads, Blue Note] to driving funk like Candy Dulfer’s “Lily Was Here” [Saxuality, Arista] to passionate readings of classical warhorses like Sarah Chang’s interpretation of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 [EMI], the Summits pulled at me like heavy magnets. Inner detail with all recordings was superb. The separation of voices on Leonard Cohen’s Ten New Songs [Columbia] was unearthly, as was the dynamic interplay of guitars and percussion in Strunz & Farah’s Latin instrumental “Coracol” [Americas, Mesa]. The Summit’s speed and dynamic attack were among the best I have ever heard.
The Summits played as loudly as I could reasonably want to push them without exhibiting any of the misbehaviors common to earlier electrostatics— everything from dynamic compression at loud levels to severe distortion to arcing and sparking (an old, old pair of Quads pushed way past their limits). I didn’t try to push the Summits into the red zone or force them to howling-at-the-moon, total-distortion, frat-party levels. Because another review project interfered with the use of my projector screen, I didn’t get the chance to try them with demanding movie soundtracks, although I did watch a few films with a 50" Vizio HD plasma display between them, an arrangement that would make a great home-theater system for most folks. (Dialogue and sound effects in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 Hamlet had stunning clarity.) Slender audio and video panels have a natural aesthetic harmony.