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MartinLogan Expression ESL 13A hybrid electrostatic speaker Review

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Listening with the Anthem Room Correction

Due to the significant bass boom in my room, two audio engineers told me that I should try to correct as much of the boom with room treatment as possible before trying digital room correction. However, my wife was opposed to installing acoustical tiles on the walls and ceiling due to the way they might look. Despite only having two tube traps in my listening room, I decided to try out the Expressions built in ARC room equalizer.

I had always felt that my prior Montis didn’t produce enough bass. Below is output from the ARC software for the Expression on the right side of my listening room. The PURPLE line is the uncorrected room response and the GREEN line is the ARC corrected room response for the woofer. The BLACK line indicates the ideal frequency response which tends to be hidden by the corrected room response line. As can be seen from the graph, ARC was able to produce a much flatter frequency response.

Right Speaker ARC Printout (uncorrected and corrected frequency response) for my listening room

It seems that a lack of a solid bottom end was primarily due to my room and not the speakers. The graph shows a bass deficiency below 50 cycles with a large dip at 45 cycles. ARC enabled the speakers to produce a significantly flatter base response.

While the bass boom was significantly decreased I could still hear some boom on some of my CDs. Without the ARC correction the bass boom during the first few minutes of the 1st movement on EMI’s Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto, Evgeny Kissin’s piano was overpowering most of the LSO. With ARC on, the boom was significantly reduced and the other parts of the orchestra could be heard. I would be willing to bet that significant anomalies exist in most listening rooms unless there is significant room treatment.

What the frequency correction did was to improve the clarity and naturalness of CDs as well as provide a much improved bottom end.

I suspect that the improvement heard will vary significantly depending on one’s listening room.

When listening to Reference Records Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Eji Oue), the drums were significantly louder and the bass was deeper and remained clean even at high levels. At 300 watts per channel, the prefab fireplace in the common wall started to rattle with the added bass from the room correction.

Prior to the room correction most pianos sounded dry. With ARC most pianos sounded warmer and richer, more detailed; in some cases the hammer striking the string cold be heard, yet none of the clarity and detail was lost.

One of the more interesting examples of the room correction was a significant reduction of a loud thump in Brilliant Classics Volume 2 Orchestra Sinfonia di Roma Respighi’s Poema Autunnale, conducted by Franceso La Veccchia . Without room correction, at 58 seconds a loud thump is heard on the left side where the solo violinist was located. With ARC on the thump was greatly reduced while the orchestra and soloist were more detailed, sounded fuller and warmer.

Another good example of what the Expression could do with ARC is PentaTone SACD Tod und Verklarung with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg conducted by Marc Albrecht. I had previously felt that the SACD was not well recorded compared to most PentaTones SACDs. With ARC, on kettle drums were much more pronounced and deep, there was a dimensionality that had been missing and the concertmaster solo was richer and sweeter. I can’t emphasize enough the dramatic improvement that I heard.

Final thoughts and comments

The MartinLogan Expression ESL13A is a game changer. I have heard better speakers but they are significantly more expensive than the Expression. I never thought I could afford a speaker with this level of performance. The $15K Expression is competitive with speakers in the $30K+ price range.

Even without ARC (room correction) the Expression is a major advance over the prior MartinLogan Summit X. No other speaker in its price range I have ever heard offers its imaging, dimensionality, naturalness, clarity, resolution of fine detail with a frequency response from 24Hz to 23,000Hz +/- 3 dB.

I have been a skeptic of room equalization/treatment as I had never heard much of a difference.
MartinLogan’s software and built in digital processor (ARC) made me a convert. I had never realized the number of large peaks and nulls in my listening room which had been adversely affecting my listening experience. Significant bass was being sucked out of the room and a peak was producing significant bass boom. With ARC the bottom end became much more prominent. The bass boom was removed or barely noticeable, yet the clarity, detail, imaging, naturalness as well as the dimensionality of the soundstage was significantly improved.

If you have the opportunity the Expression is well worth auditioning. It has dramatically altered the price one pays for performance. As I said I never thought I could afford speakers this good on my budget.


Copy editor: Laurence A. Borden

18 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.

  9. Hank says:

    Thanks for a great and objective review of the 13As. I too am a classical music fan, and prefer solid state gear over tube. Using acoustic music (classical especially) is the only way to truly determine the accuracy of an audio system…so thanks for doing just that! I have many of the RCA Living Stereo SACDs that you referenced. The bass response graphs are a big help too.

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