GREATEST VALUE: MartinLogan ElectroMotion ESL System ($5290)
Though priced just a couple of hundred dollars above the lower limit for this class, you’d never know it from this system’s sophisticated sound. A true story will illustrate our point. During the review process a guest listener heard the ElectroMotion ESL package and asked its price. “About $5290,” we replied. “Oh, that sounds like a pretty reasonable price for the main speakers, but what I meant to ask was how much does the whole system cost?” “$5290 is the price for the whole system.”
You get the picture. What makes this sort of reaction from listeners possible is MartinLogan’s brilliant decision to build a relatively affordable high-end system by combining not one but two sets of complementary hybrid loudspeaker technologies.
The main speakers of this system, which give the system its name, are the ElectroMotion ESL hybrid electrostatic floorstanders, which combine tall, thin, electrostatic tweeter/midrange panels with lower cabinets housing ported dynamic (piston-type) woofers. The ElectroMotion ESL’s are the least costly hybrid electrostats that MartinLogan makes and they sound—in two words—sophisticated and revealing. Indeed, they sound like significantly improved versions of one the best-loved MartinLogan speakers of all time: namely, the Aerius i hybrid electrostats. The ESL’s give the system its distinctively clear, smooth, and highly resolved sound. The center channel and surround speakers of the system use different, though no less compelling, hybrid technologies, marrying fast, responsive, and efficient Heil-type tweeters with small but potent dynamic mid-bass drivers. You might expect, as we at first did, that their would be voicing discontinuities between the electrostatic and Heil-type drivers that are combined in this system, but in fact they blend beautifully, while saving customers the potentially high costs of using electrostatic drivers in all channels. Rounding out the system is MartinLogan’s robustly made 500-watt Dynamo 1000W subwoofer, which offers plenty of low-end clout, yet without making the sound in any way sluggish or muddy. If you want a near $5000 home theater system that sounds as if it could cost (literally) thousands more, MartinLogan’s ElectroMotion ESL rig is the one.
BEST COMPACT SOLUTION: Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference Strada System ($6964)
When first you see the Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference Strada System, you’ll be struck by the sleek, futuristic and decidedly compact appearance of the Reference Strada satellites upon which the system is based. Indeed, your first instinct might be to dismiss it as a mere “lifestyle” product designed to look good while not necessarily sounding very good. But after a few minutes of listening to your favorite musical and/or cinematic program material through the system you will know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that this system sounds far better, and much, much bigger, than it looks. And that, in a nutshell, is what makes the Reference Strada system so cool. As it turns out, there is nothing arbitrary about the system’s space-age styling; everything that looks a bit unorthodox in this system does so for reasons that are directly related to sound quality and to innovative engineering. For example, each Reference Strada satellite features two carbon fiber mid-bass drivers housed in enclosures that look a bit like stylized, sci-fi “barbells.” The small but extremely beefy enclosures are made of solid metal and thus are incredibly strong, rigid, and resistant to unwanted resonance—especially so in the case of the sphere-shaped mid-bass driver housings found at the ends of the “barbells.” In between those spheres you’ll spot Anthony Gallo’s signature CDT tweeter—a cylinder-shaped device that offers, picture this, a whopping 180 degrees-plus of horizontal dispersion and that requires no crossover components whatsoever! Even the insides of the Reference Strada’s are special, in that they are stuffed with Gallo’s proprietary S2 damping material, which has the very unusual property of making the drive units behave as if they were loaded into much larger enclosures than, in fact, they are. Completing the system are a pair of Gallo’s 300-watt, cylinder-shaped TR-3 subwoofers, which look—and yep, there’s a sonic metaphor here—very much like small depth charges. Put all of these elements together and you’ve got a package that looks like a compact lifestyle system, but that offers a downright huge and enveloping sound and that produces eerily compelling, three-dimensional surround soundstages. Better still, you get a speaker system that offers bank vault-like build quality and that sells for a tick under $7000, yet could easily pass for one carrying a five-figure price tag.
GREATEST OVERACHIEVER: Magnepan Magneplanar On-Wall Surround System ($6675, Magnepan components + $2800, high-quality third-party subwoofer)
Connoisseurs of fine loudspeaker system the world over will tell you that, whether you are listening to music or to movie soundtracks, the acid test for performance boils down to one simple question: can the system fool you, at times, into thinking the sounds you are hearing are the real thing—and not just an entertainment system trying to mimic reality.
If you believe, as The Perfect Vision does, that the does-it-sound-like-the-real-thing test is the toughest of all benchmark challenges, then know this: few systems at any price can equal the Magneplanar On-Wall Surround System’s ability to create moments of breathtakingly convincing realism. A small example may help illustrate our point. During our review tests, we played a movie soundtrack for a guest listener where the stone ceiling of a cavern, which is supported by rickety wooden beams, is on the verge of collapse. The perspective of the very well recorded soundtrack is such that you hear the beams creak, groan, and then violently snap from an apparent location behind the main listening system. When we reached this point with the Magneplanar system in play, our guest literally jumped out of her chair, spun around with a genuine look of wide-eyed fear and panic in her eyes, and then very slowing sighed and said, “Ohhh, I guess that loud ‘craack’ was just in the soundtrack… right??” People, let me tell you that you don’t get that kind of raw, visceral, immediate and almost involuntary reaction with just any old surround sound speaker system. It takes a great system, and one capable of great realism, to evoke a response like that. It is also a sonic feat that the Magnepan rig pulls off, both on music and movie soundtracks, with singular grace and ease. What makes this all possible is Magnepan’s signature quasi-ribbon-type, planar magnetic technology, wherein conductors are embedded upon thin, membrane-like driver diaphragms, which in turn are suspended within a carefully structured grid or array of magnets. When an audio signal is applied, the entire diaphragm surface responds, moving forward and backward to produce sound. Unlike most loudspeakers, the large membrane-like drivers require no enclosure boxes at all; instead, they are suspended from large open frames and radiate sound both forward and backward. Two big parts of the secret to the realism of “Maggies” (as their fans call them) are that A) the drive surfaces are incredibly light and responsive, and B) there are no speaker boxes to create typical boxy-sounding colorations or distortions. In short, there’s less to get in between you and the sound of the real thing. Our review system consisted of four Magneplanar motorized on-wall speakers (which fold flat against the walls when not in use), a Magneplanar center channel speaker, two Magneplanar woofer modules, and a very high-quality third-party (JL Audio) subwoofer to handle the lowest frequencies between about 20 Hz – 40 Hz .The system has a lot of elements and requires careful set-up and final tuning, but the results more than justify the time and effort invested. If you want a speaker system that can help you suspend disbelief and buy into the reality of what you’re hearing, look no further.