Of course, ARC is an optional extra, which means if you decide not to go for it, the Vojtko DSP system acts as a conventional active crossover to integrate panel and subwoofer. This used to be one of the sticking points of MartinLogan – in that many could hear the point where the stator ends and the bass cabinet begins – but careful installation takes this point of inflexion to inaudibility. Familiarity helps here, too; live with a pair of Impression ESL 11A for a week or two (with or without ARC) and even the most rigid of box speaker enthusiasts will struggle to wonder what all the ‘integration’ fuss was all about. In many cases, you’ll just hear a loudspeaker unless you are either really sensitive to that crossover point or have something to prove.
Set-up in any loudspeaker is important, but in an electrostatic design, it’s crucial. Fortunately, MartinLogan’s manual is extremely comprehensive, discussing both the basics and the fine tuning of installation. In essence, let the speakers run-in for a few days to loosen up the bass driver, during which time you should only perform a rough installation (this was academic for me, as the review speakers had already long passed this point). Position the speakers between about two-to-three feet from the wall in front of the listener, and two feet from the side walls. Now place the hot seat at least twice the distance between the loudspeakers, at the apex of a symmetrical isosceles triangle. Toeing in is also discussed, including the flashlight trick (if you hold a torch under your chin and point it at the loudspeaker, it should illuminate the inner third of the panel). Once 72 hours or so of playing have passed, apply these same installation techniques with greater precision., paying great attention to the tilt of the loudspeakers to get the optimum tonal balance, imaging, and bass response (when the ARC system is not deployed, you can also adjust midbass and bass level, but these will be overridden when Anthem comes to town).
Spending a lot of time installing the loudspeakers to the best of your ability is not undermined by ARC; in fact, a good installation makes ARC’s work slightly easier. ARC only works on low frequencies, and does not make distance compensation for poor placement. The Impression ESL 11A is still going to need to be a good couple of feet from the rear and side walls, and you are going to need to be around twice the distance from the speakers as the speakers are from one another, but it’s surprising how much bass influences overall sound.
Correctly fettled, this is a truly wonderful loudspeaker. There are prodigious amounts of bass on offer in rooms appropriate to the speaker size and that, coupled to the exceptional level of detail that has long been a MartinLogan signature, make for a loudspeaker that just sings a siren’s song to you. Moreover, it’s surprising just how much of the top Neolith and CLX performance seems to have trickled down to these coherent and - above all - fun loudspeakers. I’ve long considered MartinLogans to be all about the imaging, for good reason. But with the Impression ESL 11A, it’s all about the music, too. This isn’t just a cerebral sounding loudspeaker, made for trying to hear what kind of rosin is used by the principal violinst. If you want deep-tissue analysis of your music, the Impression ESL 11A can do it well, but you get to enjoy a touch of heads-down boogie, too. I ended up listening to the live version of ‘I’m Tore Down’ from Jeff Healey’s final album, Mess of Blues[Roughhouse]. This is not a subtle track of filigree detail (although it’s extremely dynamic and unprocessed); it’s pure guitar blues at its finest, and that finest is reproduced perfectly here. This is not an album that delivers great spiritual insights (except possibly the ones that come in a six-pack), but highlights any dryness or absence of ‘mojo’ in a system. And trust me, these speakers have got mojo!
The addition of ARC processing is, as you might have imagined, dependent on the room. At its best, it either does almost nothing to the sound or makes the most of a bad room. If its influence is more subtle, it might be best going native without the room correction, but a surprising number of rooms are nowhere near as good as their listeners imagine, and ARC acts well to show just how much more can be had from good speakers. I found that ARC gives the bass more clarity, definition, and depth, at the expense of a touch of refinement and pace. It’s not a significant trade-off, however, and the overall benefits often outweigh any minor shortcomings to the performance.