Introduction - what is the ElectroMotion ESL?
The MartinLogan ElectroMotion ESL (and before we proceed any further, no, neither of these words has a space despite the second part of it being capitalised and if you find that an irritation reading it on the site, imagine what the Word document of it looks like) is a hybrid electrostatic speaker and the smallest such model in a range that goes up into the serious high end, with pricing, technology and dimensions firmly in the ‘whoa’ territory.
The ElectroMotion ESL isn’t at the ‘whoa’ level though. For sure, £3,500 is not inconsiderably expensive but it’s a price point where some glorious conventional driver speakers can be had. Why then, would you want to take a relative leap into the unknown with a pair of speakers that work in a completely different way to what you are likely to have been used to up to this point? Well, MartinLogan feels there are innate advantages to why they do what they do and, on paper at least, some of those arguments are rather compelling. Are they enough to ensure that this unusual looking speaker is something you might actively seek out to own? It’s time to find out.
Specification and Design
First up, let’s do a quick “pay attention 007” cover off of the electrostatic bit. The ElectroMotion ESL handles the bulk of the frequency response with an electrostatic speaker. This has no conventional diaphragm, magnet or any other components. Instead, it suspends a membrane with a conductive coating between two conductive grids. Power run through the grids excites the panel into producing sound. This is not the same as a planar magnetic driver, where current is applied to the membrane directly.
On paper, it’s a system with some considerable advantages. The membrane has virtually no mass so its response time tends toward the instant. It has no phase issues and - across the frequency response it operates - it is naturally time aligned. Electrostatics have a passionate following in some circles because they have qualities that are not easily replicated by more conventional speakers and naturally solve issues that require careful attention in dynamic drivers.
Of course, if the advantages were that clear cut, we’d have probably looked at an electrostatic before. Electrostatics are complex and expensive to make and the radiating area needed for the panel means that they’re never going to be small. Furthermore, even when you have veritable whopper, the bass response of that panel isn’t ever going to be equivalent of a dynamic model. The design of an electrostatic with the two grids also means that they require electrical power to function. This does not make them active though - an amplifier is still needed to power them but mains is needed in addition to that.
MartinLogan is best known for handling the bass issue with electrostatics in a distinctive way. The panel of the ElectroMotion ESL handles everything from 500Hz to 22KHz. Below that, a dynamic driver is used to fill in. This is an 8 inch long throw paper cone that sits inside a lower ported enclosure. It is important to stress that this is not a subwoofer - at least not in any conventional sense - because the frequencies it covers extend well past the subsonic. It’s also important to note that, while power is sent to the ElectroMotion, at this product level, the driver is passive and completely dependent on your amp to work (more expensive members of the family drive the bass driver actively). This means that the panel section ’only’ (we’ll cover this in a bit) needs to be 86 by 22cm in size which, by the standards of an electrostatic is pretty compact.
The presence of that bass driver does mean that the MartinLogan has bass extension that is beyond a conventional electrostatic speaker. The quoted low end roll off is 42dB at +/- 3dB which compares favourably with the entirely electrostatic Quad 2812 which quotes 37dB at +/- 6dB (and is both nearly twice as expensive and twice as wide). Basic frequency handling of the ElectroMotion is not dissimilar to a more conventional floorstander at the price. The quoted figure of 91dB/w also suggests they aren’t a challenging drive either.
They aren’t completely conventional to get up and running though and there will be some variables as to how odd you find them. The first is that ‘compact for electrostatics’ is a sequence of words that is like ‘diminutive grand piano.’ By the standards of an electrostatic, the ElectroMotion ESL is compact. Judged by any other standard, a speaker that stands a shade over 130cm tall is not compact. That driver chamber also means that the lower footprint of the speaker is over 40cm deep. In short, this is a speaker that needs a little room.
It’s also not a plonk and play device. The actual mechanics of positioning the ElectroMotion ESL is not that complex (and MartinLogan has a simple technique to help you) but unless a little care is taken with them, they won’t do their thing. There’s also the small matter of needing power. Each speaker is supplied with a wall wart PSU that powers the grids. Let me take the opportunity to dust off a superlative and state that these PSUs are the worst designed devices of their type I can remember seeing. The body of the PSU sits at ninety degrees to the socket. This means that in just about any arrangement of mains sockets, at least one of the PSUs will cover a second socket. As such, not only do you need to find two mains sockets you almost certainly didn’t need to before, you might realistically need to find four. Thankfully, the cords on the PSUs are fairly long so you can most likely make the necessary arrangements. A final gripe is that the speaker terminals are push posts rather than true binding posts but they do accept 4mm plugs.
It’s not all bad news though. The MartinLogan is a big speaker but because two thirds of it is opaque, it’s not anything as dominating as a conventional cabinet of the same height. It’s also extremely well made. The long frame sections on the outside of the panel are well finished and the lower cabinet section feels very solid too. The nature of the ElectroMotion ESL is that it feels more like engineering than furniture but it indisputably feels like quality engineering at the same time.
The MartinLogan is a big speaker but because two thirds of it is opaque, it’s not anything as dominating as a conventional cabinet of the same height
How was the ElectroMotion ESL tested?
The MartinLogan was used with a Chord Electronics Hugo TT2 and Mscaler combination connected to an SOtM sMS200 Neo streamer running as a Roon Endpoint from a Roon Nucleus server and an LG 55B7 OLED TV. An analogue front end of Rega Planar 10, Michell GyroDec and AVID Ingenium Twin turntables all connected to a Cyrus Phono Signature phono stage were also employed. These outputted to a Cambridge Audio Edge A integrated amp. Material used has included FLAC, AIFF, DSD, Tidal and Qobuz, along with on demand TV services and some vinyl.
More: Audio Formats
By the usually breakneck standard of reviewing products, I’ve had an unusually generous two weeks listening to the MartinLogans before I put finger to keyboard. That time has been fruitful because it has been long enough to highlight where these curious speakers can come unstuck but, more importantly, has also given them time to shine. And, make no mistake, when they shine they positively glow.
First, let’s talk about soundstage. I don’t think there’s anything I’ve tested below £5,000 that combines scale with the ability to disappear from the musical image it creates as well as this can. With many pieces of music, it simply isn’t there, as sonically transparent as it is visually. Continuing to marvel at the slightly unlikely magnificence of exile the duet between Taylor Swift and Bon Iver, the ElectoMotion ESL brings scale to this track in a way that can make most conventional speakers seem like detached headphones. The clever bit is that this is never diffuse or vague. The placement of all the critical parts of the music is so utterly self-explanatory as to be something that the brain accepts as correct and it’s almost as if it gives it no further thought.
But there’s a wrinkle to this correctness that makes for a unique experience. The MartinLogan is tall. Furthermore, as it doesn’t neatly divide into drivers and the output is even across the panel, it does height in a way that very little else at the price can. Now, here’s where the caveats creep in because this height doesn’t always improve music. With the standard tonality test of Consequence of Sounds by Regina Spektor, there is a slight but inescapable sense that Spektor is rather taller than she should be.
Switch to the newly released John Williams in Vienna though and the ElectoMotion ESL is transcendent. There’s apparently an Atmos mix of this but I’m going to wager that Logan owners simply won’t care. As a means for truly unpacking and letting an orchestra let rip, it’s untouchable. The on paper arguments about transient speed are largely academic but hammer the Jurassic Park main theme out through them and the absolute lack of anything ‘in the way’ will almost certainly delight.
We’re not done there either. The tonal accuracy of the ElectroMotion ESL is a genuinely outstanding. The Chord duo into the Edge is an accurate, low distortion source and the effect of partnering it with the ElectroMotion ESL is superb. Importantly, the moment that the conventional driver is involved, this doesn’t change. What you hear is unquestionably very close to the real deal. The other aspect of that bass driver is that the 42Hz quoted roll off is incredibly safe. In room, there’s at least another 10Hz of output before appreciable roll off and this extra oomph complements the scale on offer brilliantly.
So, beyond a little wayward height, they’re perfect then? Depending on what you need from a speaker, they might genuinely be but it’s only fair to mention that there are some issues too. Some of these are electrostatic issues, some are MartinLogan issues and one is subjective. The first is that if you exceed the operating ‘comfort zone’ of the ElectroMotion ESL, it becomes unhappy fairly quickly. Like every electrostatic design I’ve tried, it won’t ‘go loud’ with the same effortlessness as a conventional box speaker. It becomes strained and unhappy and, as a result, not terribly enjoyable. To be clear, this is the smallest speaker of this type MartinLogan makes and it’ll run with room filling verve but the (much) smaller Focal Kanta is happier running high SPLs than the Logan that towers over it.
The Focal also hints that while I consider the ElectroMotion ESL to have very good integration between the two drivers, it won’t do ‘fast’ like a well sorted conventional speaker will. Hammering my way through the genre defying but absolutely brilliant Eastern Flowers by Sven Wunder, there’s the slightest lag to the low end that isn’t present with the Kanta No1 (although the Focal doesn’t have anything like the bottom end of the ESL. At the other end of the scale, the Focal also suggests that the upper registers of the MartinLogan, while tonally beautiful and effortlessly refined, don’t quite pick up on the detail that the beryllium dome can.
There’s a party piece to the ElectroMotion ESL though that probably goes unnoticed by many owners. Having used one negative superlative in this review, let’s finish with a good one. For TV and film use, this is the best stereo speaker I’ve ever tested for AVF. Not ‘among the best.’ The. Best. That scale, tonality, transparency and height means that everything I’ve watched on the TV while the Logans have been here has been an absolute treat. If you need a pair of stereo speakers to handle this as much as music, you need to look at these because they are transcendently brilliant at it.
For TV and film use, this is the best stereo speaker I’ve ever tested for AVF
- Simply outstanding scale and cohesion
- Impressively forgiving
- Very well made
- Very clearly defined performance envelope
- Not the most ballistic speaker going
- Annoying mains adapter design
MartinLogan ElectroMotion ESL Hybrid Electrostatic Speaker Review
Should we be surprised that a speaker built to a design rarely seen anywhere else is not completely conventional in looks or behaviour? No. The MartinLogan ElectroMotion ESL is constructed in a manner that overcomes some but not all of the quibbles that many people have with electrostatic speakers. It is still idiosyncratic though and there have been times in the period they’ve been here that I’ve looked to more conventional speakers to deliver the qualities I was looking for.
The thing is, there were far fewer of these moments that I might have expected and they were balanced by other moments where the MartinLogan was so sublimely good as to have me questioning why I’d go for anything else. This is a review where the scores and badge must be seen as a pointer only because, for quite a few people, once they’ve heard these, no shouty box is ever going to work for them. The ElectroMotion ESL is a singular speaker and it isn’t perfect. It is sufficiently special though it earns our enthusiastic Recommendation and, for many people, it might something a lot more profound than that.
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