Time was, not so very long ago, that the ne plus ultra of American high-end audio was embodied in the imposing shape of massive, four cabinet speaker systems like the Infinity IRS and Wilson WAMM. That thinking survives today in the shape of the Nola Exotica Grand Reference (a speaker with a name as portentous and nearly as imposing as its appearance) and various equally enormous models from the likes of Genesis and Avalon. But the advent of more manageable systems such as Wilson’s Grand Slamm, the Isis and a host of alternatives from the likes of Hanson, Wisdom and others has left the four-tower format looking unwieldy and something of an audio dinosaur, even if its sonic scale remains unchallenged. The high-end map of America has been redrawn, these behemoths inched gently aside and into a darkened corner that the spotlight seldom reaches, their place centre stage taken by svelte middle-weights that cost (and demand) considerably less.
So, if four-box speaker systems have really had their day (and let’s face it, the potential market for these products is probably already saturated) why would a boutique European speaker brand tread this well-worn design path so long after the fact? For, on the face of it, that’s exactly what Marten have done in producing the Coltrane Supreme, a four-box, multi-driver speaker system with all the hallmarks of those classic American monsters. Take one look at the pictures (and the price tag) and it’s like watching old newsreel: you can see history repeating itself right before your very eyes. Indeed, on the basis of the visual evidence it’s an inescapable conclusion – but that doesn’t stop it being wrong. Look a little deeper and you’ll appreciate subtle but important differences that make this both a European and very much a Marten design.
For a start, the Coltrane Supremes are an awful lot smaller than you’d think, and appear smaller still. Secondly they use infinite baffle loading for the majority of their range, reflex loading for the bass, in stark contrast to the open-baffles and sealed box bass of speakers like the Infinity IRS and Nola EGR. They’re also conceptually simpler than those massive speaker systems of yore, with far greater consistency between driver types, and significantly, a dedicated bass amplifier to drive and integrate the low-frequencies. So, if they’re smaller and simpler, how come they cost so much? The answer to that is also simple; the technological and material content of this system is sky high. In fact, once you start adding up the driver costs alone, you start to wonder how the company arrived at the purchase price. Add in the rest of the physical details outlined in the sidebar and you’ll be sending them a calculator.
But as visually and physically daunting as these speakers undoubtedly are, it’s nothing compared to the challenge of simply listening to them. Where do you start? What do you play? What should you expect? The secret is to remember that this is just another loudspeaker. They need to do the same job and be judged in the same way as any other. Put aside the physical presence (and the massive price-tag that constantly hovers in your subconscious) and ask yourself whether you like what you are hearing. And that’s where it gets interesting…
Remember what I said about the mid-band? Now, given the massive investment that Marten have made in reproducing this critical range, what better place to start. Hard to do when confronted by these massive cabinets, so think laterally – turn out the lights! Remove the visual cues and you’ll instantly realise what these speakers are all about. In a blacked out room these speakers simply disappear, visually and sonically. Instead, they’re replaced by a seamless soundscape, a threedimensional acoustic space if that’s on the record, a sonic collage if it’s come out of a multi-tracked studio. Play Townes Van Zandt’s achingly poignant acoustic rendition of ‘Waitin’ ‘Round To Die’ from the Heartworn Highways soundtrack and you’ll hear Townes and his guitar, right in front of you; but you’ll also hear the frontroom outside of Austin where the song was taped, a friend of his neighbour sat in the far corner who intermittently sings along, the neighbour’s dog out in the yard, the warmth of the company, the relaxed feel of the setting. Townes is life-sized and solid, sat over his guitar, which also has a natural weight and body, that combination of attack and warmth that’s so easy to recognise but so hard to capture on a record. The vocal isn’t exactly a classical delivery, and nor is the phrasing, with the occasional almost spoken line interrupting the rhythm, but it is astonishingly natural and utterly, captivatingly believable, the event and the song simply unfolding before you.