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MartinLogan Expression ESL 13A hybrid electrostatic speaker Review

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Toe-in and listening

MartinLogan recommends that a flashlight be shown on the panels from the listening position to optimize toe-in. It’s easy and it really makes a difference. What I recommend additionally is to put a small piece of Post It Note or other mild adhesive tape on each panel about 3 inches from the inner edge of each panel. I used a ruler to measure the distance. The tape makes it very easy to determine whether the amount of toe-in is identical when the flashlight is used for each speaker.

I initially used a speaker placement similar to what I had used with my Montis so that any differences heard were not being affected by changes in room acoustics. Even right out of the box and without use of the ARC room equalizer I was stunned by what I heard. My only expectation was that the Expression would sound better than the Montis. My initial impression was that the differences was so great I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t matter whether I was listening to an older CD or a new DSD recording the difference was dramatic. Even on older recordings, all of the horns had more of a raspy buzzing sound, violins had more of a sheen; oboes sounded more like oboes, cellos had more of a warm sound and on lower cello notes it felt like I could hear the bows going across the strings. The imaging and detail were vastly improved and there was greater naturalness and clarity.

The Expression also puts out a lot more volume than the Montis and the bass was improved. When listening at normal loudness, loud passages were significantly louder than I had remembered them on the Montis. Most recordings were liverier and dynamic. I am assuming that some of the increase is in part due to the panels having 20% more surface area.

Every soloist or section of an orchestra seemed to be on steroids and jumped out at me. I can’t emphasize enough the difference—it was much more than the Expression being a little louder. The best analogy is the color saturation control on a TV. In prior listening, saturation levels were set at normal. For the Expression the saturation level was turned way up and caused everything to stand out and be much more noticeable—what you would expect from a much more expensive speaker. Although a very good speaker, the Montis I traded in, like most speakers in its price range seems relatively flat compared to the Expression. I would note that the Montis was one of the best speakers in its price range.

With the MartinLogan Expression I began to hear things I had not been aware of. For example, the piano in Jewish Cello Masterpieces Richard Locker Leggero Records’ Bruch Kol Nidre became more prominent and was 8 feet long, almost as long the distance between the speakers. On the Montis the piano was less prominent and seemed smaller, not as warm and rich in tone.

Old recordings now seem to come to life. For the first time I could enjoy almost every older recording I owned. The improvement was significant. Older CDs no longer sounded flat and dull. Imaging and clarity were significantly improved and the instruments had greater realism and dimensionality. When I listened to Dvorak’s Czech Suite Op39 on the Naxox label, I heard the different sections of the orchestra on Antoni Wit Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra clearly for the first time. It was as if a spotlight was being shined on the section that was playing. Instruments sounded more natural, detailed and richer/fuller. For the first time I was enjoying the CD rather than being a passive listener.

Imaging of most CDs was vastly improved through the Expression. I could close my eyes and tell exactly where a soloist or section of the orchestra was located. This occurred with almost any CD I listened to. For example, on the EMI Dvorak String Sextet with Sarah Chang and members of the Berlin Philharmonic, I could easily differentiate each of the players. On the Montis the recording sounded somewhat dark and the players were hard to differentiate at times.

Recordings were also much clearer. For the first time I could understand most of the words being sung on the EMI CD of Felix Mendelsohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Neville Mariner, without referring to the text in the CD album.

I also noticed that the sound stage was larger on some recordings. The improvement was easier to hear on early stereo recordings which only used 3 microphones. At times the sound stage was about 2 to 3 feet beyond the speakers and about 7 feet high on RCA Living Stereo SACD of Heifetz playing Sibelius Violin concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

At 6 Watts as measured by amps wattmeter most recordings sounded very loud in my 14feet by 23 feet listening room which has an 11-foot ceiling. Remember, the Expression has electrostatic panels which are normally hard to drive. Most non-MartinLogan panels require high wattage amps.

Setting up ARC (Anthem Room Correction)

ARC software calibrates your speaker to deliver a flat bass frequency response of 24 Hz to 300+ Hz. ARC “compares your room to optimal response curves that account for spatial anomalies” and corrects them with a built in equalizer.

To use ARC you need to buy a $100 PBK (Perfect Bass Kit) that contains 2 USB cables, a microphone stand and a calibrated microphone. I would also recommend purchasing an Ethernet cable long enough to connect the two speakers, so that both speakers are calibrated at the same time.

The first step in using ARC is to download the ARC software from the MartinLogan site. Unfortunately the manual (one page in English) that came with my ARC kit contained incorrect information about which program to download to a laptop —you must use the ARC program not the PBK program. The latest ARC version as of November 2016 is ARC-2 Software v1.3.4351. As part of the process the serial number of the calibrated microphone is entered. For most people I recommended using the so-called automatic ARC program rather than the manual program that is part of the download.

After hooking up the speakers to the laptop with the USB cable and placing the microphone in the listening “sweet spot,” the ARC program is ready to use. A total of 5 listening spots are used—the listening sweet spot and the remaining 4 in a circle around the sweet spot. Note: using the Ethernet cable allows the program to calibrate the left and then the right speaker without switching the USB cables to the other side.

The first step is called Calibration. The program determines if the laptop is connected to the microphone and speakers. This process is not as seamless as I’d like as the program often had problems recognizing the microphone. MartinLogan has confirmed that this can be a problem. I had to unplug and reconnect the microphone from the laptop and/or try a different USB 2.0 port. This problem should have been corrected prior to release of the Expression. The program then produces a low frequency sweep tone. This is done for the 5 different microphone locations.

The remaining steps are designated Target, Calculate and Upload.

Do not change the Target parameters (Lo Pass+500Hz, HiPass=1st order, HiPassFreq=17 MinEQ=15, MaxEQ=400 Level=0). Somehow the parameters were altered in my download and negatively affected the low end bass produced.

Unfortunately the current ARC program and manual are not as user friendly as MartinLogan claims.

In my opinion, the manual needs to be redone to better reflect the current ARC program rather than the PBK subwoofer version. The graphs should be outputted in pdfs or jpeg formats. There should also be an option to manipulate the dB scale shown as well as which curves should be included in the printout or saved file.

As it takes at least 100 hours for the Expression to break in, I would recommend using the ARC program at 10 hours, 50 hours, 100 hours, 200 hours and then once or twice a year.

17 Responses to MartinLogan Expression ESL 13A hybrid electrostatic speaker Review

  1. Gerry says:

    I’m surprised you are getting such good highs with a McIntosh amp. The problem with having a speaker that goes to 1 ohm at higher frequencies is that an amplifier with output transformers can’t impedance match at that frequency so power transfer is reduced. It was true that as each bigger amp was put in place the response improved but not enough. For me the sound never really opened up so I gave up on McIntosh at 300 watts per channel and moved on to a very good direct coupled amp. With my C2300 pre-amp there is excellent transparency and air yet it is never harsh. I will also say that if I was not retired I would buy these speakers for the room correction add-on.

    • Robert Schussel Ph.D. says:

      Like most men who are older/above 45 I have some roll off in the higher frequencies which may help explain why the Martin Logan Expression seems to have good highs for me.
      Also having all pure silver power cords, interconnects and speaker cables gives the system detailed and clean highs. I have used pure copper cables in the past but never enjoyed them as much as my WireWorld pure OCC silver cabling.
      Maybe getting older is the key to a better sounding system?

      • Gerry says:

        Although, at 66, (I have just had my hearing tested – excellent, particularly considering all the rock concerts attended) I do know that I can’t really hear much above 10KHz. That is based on my playing a disk that sweeps through the frequencies from 20 Hz through 20 KHz. Still the lack of air and high frequency detail that was missing with the McIntosh amps totally stopped me from enjoying my system. That said, the mid-range and bass were wonderful.

        • Robert Schussel Ph.D. says:

          What McIntosh amp did you own?
          I have been in contact with both McIntosh and Martin Logan. McIntosh’s technical person feels that when amps have a problem driving Electrostatics it is tube amps which tend to put out a higher voltage and lower current as opposed to solid state amps that put out higher current and lower voltage. The Martin Logan project manager told me that they have no evidence that McIntosh amps have problems driving their speakers. I would note that Martin Logan has used McIntosh amps to demonstrate their CLX electrostatic speaker.

          • Gerry Martan says:

            Wow, I just stumbled across this again after a long time. In answer to the question, the first amp was a 90 Watt per channel tube amp followed by the 402 and then a pair of 501s. With a transformer in play the output follows the impedance curve of the speaker so an 8 ohm tap driving a 0.5 ohm load would see reduced power transfer. A transistor amplifier with tremendous current reserves would overcome that obstacle to a degree and I will admit that with each increase of power the highs did improve somewhat but it would be stupid to spend the money for a 1 KW McIntosh when a high quality 200 watt per channel direct coupled amp worked so well. That said, I see that the newer amps do have 1 ohm taps which would obviously help but will have a minor detriment to the midrange. Now that I have a speaker with a benign load across the frequency range I am toying with the idea of getting one of the newer McIntosh power amps. I do miss my ML speakers but the wife is happier.

  2. Alan N says:

    I just recently upgraded from the legacy Summits to the Expression 13A’s, and your review is spot on! Adjusting “rake angle” really has significant effects. Of note, I previously purchased the Summit X leg assembly from ML ($500+), and they are fully compatible with the Masterpiece series. They allow adjustments from 11° backward to 1° forward tilt. I’m currently using a 3° rake angle with my Expressions (vs. the default 5°). I don’t know if ML still sells the Summit X leg assemblies separately, but definitely worth checking, if you want to experiment with a wider range of tilt than the default legs offer.

    • Robert Schussel Ph.D. says:

      I couldn’t agree more with your comments about the rake angle. Martin Logan understates the difference that can occur when the rake angle is changed.

      Most of my listening is in a chair in the sweet spot. Even a two degree change which sounds insignificant made a significant improvement in the way my Montis and now my Expression sounds. If someone owns a Martin Logan hybrid speaker I would encourage them to experiment with the rake angle.

      Thanks for the heads up about the leg assembly. I plan to contact ML after the holidays and see if they still offer them. I will let everyone know what I find out.

      • Robert Schussel Ph.D. says:

        Here is the reply I received from Martin Logan regarding the Summit X leg assembly.
        “The Summit X had special feet to adjust the rake. These will not fit the Expression. The feet included with the Expression offer significant rake adjustment”.

        • Alan N says:

          Hah! I just stumbled upon this review again, and noted ML’s erroneous information. Not sure who you spoke to at ML, but the Summit X leg assembly is most definitely compatible with the Expressions (and presumably the Impression, and Renaissance models as well). I’m still using them, but recently switched back to a 5° backward rake angle, as we replaced a heavy wool rug in our family/listening room with a very thin one, and the upper mids and highs became a bit “screechy.” The additional 2° backward tilt eliminated that issue. Amazing how that slight adjustment makes so much difference!

  3. kc says:

    Enjoyed the review. Long time stat fan (acoustat 2+2’s and Beveridge 2sw being notable speakers I longed for but could not afford). Purchased ML reQuests in 2001 and upgraded to my current Summits in 2008. Love the summits and like the other poster if not retired I would seriously consider this model based on your and Stereophile’s Mr. Iverson’s & Atkinson’s experience with the room correction on the bass response. Love Esoteric spinners and having a KO1X on the front end must make for some fantastic listening. Happy Holidays!

  4. Dan says:

    Excellent review! I personally own a pair of Ethos. Did you by any chance listen to ESL11A or Ethos? I want to upgrade to ESL11A and I am curious what improvements I would hear. Based on your review I already have a pretty good idea from extrapolation but maybe you heard them in person.

    • Robert Schussel Ph.D. says:

      I have not heard the ESL11A but did speak to a dealer that I trust who felt the 11A is a significant improvement over the Montis it replaces.
      You will hear a better integrated bass,better imaging and highs. What is tricky to predict is how much difference the room equalization program (ARC) will make in your room. In my case the difference was huge. I would urge you to try to audition the 11a before spending $10K.Make sure its exactly what you are looking for.

  5. Ron Cornelius says:

    McIntosh amps with output autoformers will certainly follow the speakers impedance just like any direct coupled transistor amp. They are all rated to be down 3dB at 100KHz so you should be fine.

    • Robert Schussel Ph.D. says:

      Thank you for the information. what you said seems consistent to the information I provided to Alan. Neither MartinLogan or McIntosh officials felt the speakers lower impedance at 20KHz would be a problem/issue

  6. PJ Lett says:

    I own the 11-a which in their own right is a nice improvement Obove any past ML venture
    Top to bottom better integration and parts quality. That being said the 3 capacitors that go from the mid Bass above 300 hz and mid high frequency panel .i upgraded the 3 stock capacitors to the new Clarity CSA capacitors and a Mundorf supreme , then bypassed .33uf with the Excellent Fostex
    Capacitors. This Loudspeaker sings more coherent then even the 15A .these capacitors a a true step up
    A true world class speaker to complement the Seamless Bass.

  7. GJW says:

    Great review. Very thoughtful detail in comparisons to the previous generation. I’ve been a long time fan of Martin Logan having owned the CLS (hooked me into electrostats), Quest, and lastly the Summit X. Along the way I’ve owned a number of box speakers but always came back to Logans. Various amps have been in and out along the way including McIntosh. Amp choice has a profound effect on the sound. Logans quickly reveal the amp’s ability to handle dynamic load impedance to the extreme. Autoformer based McIntosh amps can sound wonderful if properly mated with the correct autoformer tap and speaker cable. This can mean using my ears not necessarily matching the published speaker impedance with the autoformer tap. Which autoformer tap did you use for your evaluation?

  8. Dennis M Brennan says:

    Perfect Review. I own the Montis, and tested a few amps with the Montis and other Martin Logans as well. I find the Vintage Krell amps with getting them re-capped is the best I’ve heard. I have 3 Krells and currently using a Krell KSA-200S. The authority of the Krells and the Class A presentation is something I just love. Also, me and many others like to have a Pair of REL subs sitting next to the Logans. The RELs add another dimension to the music and the REL S series hooked directly to each channel on the Krell speaker outputs for a true stereo sub experience is quite the finished product for me. My only next step a few years from now is to get the Expression 15A or 13A model used. Just thought I would mention the Krell amps and REL subs for the Martin Logan speakers. Even a Magico Q5 Demo used the RELs to lift up the whole body of the music. I’m so happy with my system now, that going any further at this point would be selfish on my part. But maybe one day….. some 15As would be nicc.

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