More often than not, a high profile, high-priced and technologically advanced design is followed by simplified versions at lower prices, models that dilute the performance whilst slashing the purchase price. Not so with Marten: Their first model, the flagship Coltrane was followed by an even more ambitious project, the massive, four-cabinet Coltrane Supreme. Now comes the smaller and outwardly simpler Coltrane Suprano (although personally I think that ‘Favorite’ would have been a nicer name and maintained a greater sense of Coltrane continuity) and again, Marten have defied expectations. After all, the new model has all the outward indicators of a cost cutting, cash in design: fewer drivers, a smaller cabinet, less bandwidth. That is until you notice that the Coltrane Soprano still tips the scales at a far from inconsequential €40,000. Not much cost cut there then…
In fact, the rationale for this new Coltrane model is quite distinct and rather than offering a slice of Coltrane performance at a lower price, has more to do with delivering as much of the larger, three-way Coltrane’s performance as possible in the confines of a smaller room and a smaller cabinet.*
* Those wanting Coltrane bandwidth and dynamics in a more affordable package should look at the Bird, which while it might not seem to deliver much more on paper than the Soprano, is an easier load with a greater sense of scale and more expansive dynamics.
So, far from cutting costs, it employs the same carbon fibre/honeycomb sandwich for its boat-backed cabinet, the same stainless steel outriggers and Black Diamond Racing cones as the larger Coltrane. It also uses a diamond tweeter (in this case the new 26mm model from Jantzen), ceramic drivers for the mid and bass frequencies and a laminated MDF baffle. Indeed, in most important respects this is, quite literally, a chopped down Coltrane – and that’s no way to create a bargain, believe me. Despite the smaller size, most of the material costs are going to approach those of the larger model with only the driver complement pegged back. Meanwhile, building the beast and finishing it, packing it and guaranteeing it will also all cost pretty much the same as the larger Coltrane design. What savings there are come from the reduced driver complement and some detail changes. So why build a smaller version of the same thing, with less bandwidth to match the slightly lower price? Because it’s going to do a different job – one for a different listener with a smaller room.
As impressive as the original Coltrane is, there’s no escaping the fact that it’s a large loudspeaker that, whilst it’s capable of impressive performance in smaller rooms (largely due to its tightly controlled low frequencies), really blossoms once it’s given space to breathe. That sonically unobtrusive cabinet allows the speakers to disappear whilst the driver area delivers enough bandwidth for a real sense of scale. In contrast, listen to the Coltrane Soprano and whilst it shares the same lightness of touch and precise transparency that characterizes the Marten sound, the fact that this characteristic extends much lower in the smaller cabinet makes it even more tolerant of smaller spaces and closer boundaries.
But there’s other things going on beneath that familiar exterior that bear closer examination and point quite clearly to a subtly different blend of virtues in this design, virtues that also clearly separate the Coltrane Soprano from its larger namesake.
Let’s look at the detail. As mentioned above, the boat-backed, one-piece composite cabinet with its large, downward firing reflex port closely echoes the construction of the original Coltrane. Likewise the carefully shaped and beveled front baffle is unmistakable, although in this instance it’s formed from laminated MDF (veneered or high gloss lacquered) rather than the layered, solid wood employed in the larger design. Two slabs of differing thickness are used, with a damping glue in between to create a constrained layer and a baffle 56mm thick. The stainless steel outriggers and BDR cones are for more than just leveling and stability; they also optimize the distance of the port from the floor boundary. So far so similar: the real differences lie in the driver complement and crossover configuration – and in turn, the specific strengths and weaknesses that go with them.
Rather than the three-way, twin bass driver configuration of the Coltrane, the Soprano is a straight two-way design, both of the 7” ceramic-coned bass-mid drivers working across their entire range. The two circular cutouts in their diaphragms suppress the first break-up mode, helping their midrange performance and ensuring a clean transition to the high-frequency driver. This is a new design from Jantzen and whilst it can’t boast the 100kHz extension of the Accuton design used in the larger speaker, 55kHz is far from shabby. Tying this together is a hybrid first/second order crossover consisting of just three, extremely high-quality parts and hard wired throughout with Jorma cable.
The end result of combining a smaller cabinet with the two-way configuration is a speaker that delivers the same 89dB sensitivity as the Coltrane and gives up 7dB of low-frequency extension (along with the cut at high-frequencies). But the news is a long way from all bad: smaller and easier to accommodate, the two-way configuration with its simpler crossover is also significantly easier to drive. In comparison to the larger Coltrane, the rated impedance rises from four to five ohms, which may not sound like much, but an increase in the minimum value from 2.7 Ohms to 3.6 Ohms is definitely significant when it comes to drive time. The other big difference is in the bottom-end voicing, which whilst leaner and less obviously powerful than the Coltrane, is wonderfully transparent and surefooted. Combine that with a little welcome room reinforcement and the result offers surprising musical scale and stability from such a compact cabinet.
Use the Sopranos in a large room and they don’t sound authoritative or commanding. Detailed, precise, focused and incredibly quick to be sure; just a little on the cool and lean side to offer the sort of substance and wallop that comes with from a real musical foundation. The orchestral fireworks that enliven the Enigma Variations are certainly impressively sudden, but the full-on tuttis don’t have that grounded feel, that reach right down to the floor feel, that massed brass and heavily bowed strings should really deliver.
Now move them to a medium to small space and hear them blossom. They are the complete opposite of the Coltrane in that regard. The extra reinforcement from the room fills out the body and bottom end, Nimrod really gets to puff out his chest now, the seamless soundstage and cavernous acoustic making the far end of the listening room simply disappear. Of course, it’s an acoustic trick, and comparison with larger, more fulsome designs will quickly reveal a lack of absolute bottom end texture and transparency, a vague rumble where the surface of the stage should be, but that doesn’t stop it being immensely impressive and enjoyable.
And you know what? I won’t tell anyone if you don’t, because the vast majority of listeners will never notice. They’ll be too busy marveling at the scale and dynamic range emanating from such unassuming boxes – and given a smaller listening space I’d be among them.
But there’s more to the secret of the Soprano’s success than a carefully weighted low-end balance. It’s not just a case of what it gives you, but how it gives it to you too. One of the problems with any speaker this clean and this revealing is that those strengths can quickly become a double-edged sword if there’s news you’d rather not hear. The Soprano’s greatest strength is the way it manages to keep those attributes firmly on the positive side of the balance sheet, a feat it achieves largely I suspect, as a result of its incredibly simple crossover design. There’s a genuine lack of restraint or intrusion in the sense of musical flow, with voices and instruments easily able to traverse the crossover region without fracturing or stumbling in the process. It’s this that gives the speaker its lucid agility and, whilst I don’t have the virtue of having the two side by side, I also suspect that this is one regard in which the soprano actually betters the larger Coltrane, despite that speaker’s dedicated midrange driver. It’s not a question of continuity per se; more one of musical freedom and expressive range, aspects at which the Soprano excels.
Reaching for “the man” to make the point could be considered a bit of a cliché, so how about a bit of Miles instead, and Sketches Of Spain. Just listen to the fluidity and freedom of Miles’ lines, the plaintive, stretched out, sinuous melodies that he places, note by unforced note over the muted instrumental backing. Listen too, to the detail and crisp attack of the percussion, but more importantly, the way all those taps and clacks and rattles lock into the music, adding to the atmosphere rather than distracting from it. This level of integration and dynamic nuance are actually harder to achieve, their absence easier to expose, with the measured sparseness of a track like this than with some up-beat frenzy. Just listen and marvel to the way the track grows in density and complexity while Miles’ horn grows almost imperceptibly to keep pace and proportion, always centre-stage, always riveting your attention.
Voices too, are handled with assured and easy grace. Sinatra’s familiar tones and phrasing are unmistakable, "Nice And Easy" summing up the Soprano’s delivery perfectly – and exceedingly enjoyably, the balance between Francis and the perfectly poised arrangements effortlessly captured and projected into the room. From the careful muting of the brass to the absolute clarity with which you can hear the percussive quality of the piano, the layout of the band, Sinatra’s relationship to the mic and the way he moves for emphasis in his phrasing, the Sopranos deliver exactly the kind of natural intimacy and focused stability that make performances so much more convincing. You can hear the way that the instruments are being played, the way that Sinatra works both his voice and the mic – but rather than screaming, “Look, look at me – look at all the detail I’m revealing”, the Martens integrate that information into a more real whole. This isn’t detail for detail’s sake in the style of some, super-etched speakers; this is simply allowing more of the signal through and making more sense as a result.
Time then to step back a little and take stock. What we have here is a two-way speaker of compact dimensions that works in smaller rooms and delivers a sound of tremendous precision and insight; sounds like a classic mini-monitor. It even suffers from the classic mini-monitor trade-off of dynamic against harmonic resolution; the laws of physics pretty much dictate that you can have one, the other but not both, with the Marten sacrificing warmth and richness for transparency and micro-dynamic definition. But to less of an extent than you might think, especially if you really dial in the set-up and sit a little closer than you might expect – on the points of an equilateral triangle is about right. And that’s an important point because in many ways it sums up this speaker.
Yes, appearances can be deceptive; the Soprano looks like the bigger Coltrane but isn’t. Nor does it look like what it is, which is one of the best (and most expensive) mini-monitors in the world. Actually, let’s make that mini-ish – because the beauty of the Coltrane Soprano is that it delivers all the strengths of the best mini-monitors with significantly less compromise. It images with the best of them – but delivers a significantly larger and more defined acoustic space. That’s because it’s got more bandwidth and tons more dynamic range – a performance that it delivers with gusto, resulting in real musical impact, drama and dynamic contrast, without needing a direct connection to the National Grid. It takes up no more space than the high-zoot stand-mounts and leaves them all – without exception from what I’ve heard – comfortably in its wake; Transparency AND scale, rather than one at the expense of the other.
The rub – and there’s always a rub – is the price. That’s ameliorated to some extent by the Soprano’s more modest power demands. 100 really good Watts will do it – 200 and they fly! A quality integrated and a decent, well weighted front-end and you’ll be away. I had a high old time with the VPI Classic running into the Burmester 032 amplifier, whilst the fluid grace of the Crystal Dreamline was the icing on the cake. That’s not exactly a heavy bill given the ticket on the speakers but it is a system that sings – and goes staggeringly load with considerable grace in a smaller to medium sized room; should circumstances and the Devil demand, of course.
At this price, with a little more space you could run the Avalon Indra. A little more again and you might get away with the Crystal Arabesque, both speakers which can do the bandwidth, dynamics and harmonics thing better and bigger (or at least with even greater subtlety) than the Coltrane Soprano. But both need more system as well as more room and I don’t know anything that comes close in performance terms to the Marten once the walls close in. Expensive yes, but for the listener who demands and will cherish its unique blend of strengths then I suspect that price will become secondary. Despite appearances, is this the best mini-monitor in the world? Probably…
Marten Coltrane Soprano Loudspeaker
Type: Two-way reflex loaded loudspeaker
Driver Complement: 1x 26mm Jantzen diamond dome, 2x 180mm ceramic cone bass/mid
Crossover: 1st/2nd order
Bandwidth: 27Hz – 55kHz ±2dB
Impedance: 5 Ohms nominal
Dimensions (WxHxD): 310 x 1120 x 400mm
Weight: 36kg ea.
Finishes: Gloss black with baffle in Oak, Cherry, Maple, Walnut or Piano Black
Price: 40,000 Euros
Tel. (46)(0)31 20 72 00