MartinLogan Impression ESL 11A Hybrid Electrostatic Loudspeaker

What’s in a Name?

Equipment report
Martin Logan ESL 11A
MartinLogan Impression ESL 11A Hybrid Electrostatic Loudspeaker

The Curvilinear ESL panels
This needn’t require a lot of verbiage because, with one exception, the curvilinear ESL panels perform the way I described them in my review of the Montis. First, they do an astonishing job of projecting height, so that well-recorded vocalists and instrumentalists really are presented with an extraordinary sense of life-sized realism. Second, MartinLogans are renowned for their clarity, transparency, detail, and dynamic range, and these new ones are no exception, not least, I think, because the panels are freed from having to produce the lowest frequencies and also because the room correction pays dividends further up the frequency band. Third, they produce a fabulously wide and deep soundstage. Big music such as large orchestral-choral works and nineteenth-century operas become quite thrilling in the sense of projected size and scale. Those of you who get off on soundstaging that extends beyond the boundaries defined by the speakers are going to love the Impressions.

This last, however, is a not without a penalty. The rationale behind the curved panels is to overcome the high-frequency beaming of most panel speakers. And to some extent this works surprisingly well, not so well as the omnidirectional Muraudio ESLs, but those who find Quads of any vintage entirely too directional will find these more satisfactory or at least much less unsatisfactory. The sacrifice, however, is less precise imaging. One member of my listening group was driven crazy by the Impressions in this regard (and also by other MartinLogans) because he felt that things never occupied a precise and defined place. I personally feel he is overreacting here. I like precise imaging but I don’t have a fetish about it, and while I’m aware of what my buddy is talking about, I didn’t find that it much impaired my enjoyment of the Impressions. But he does have a valid point: There’s always a very subtle vagary about the positional placement of solo instruments and vocal soloists within the soundstage. (See Robert E. Greene’s review of the Sanders Model 10e in Issue 276 for some reasoned speculation about the effects of a curved panel.)

This leaves me with only one additional matter. Perhaps the thing I liked best—indeed, loved—about the Montis was its tonal balance, which I described this way: “ever so slightly forgiving in the 2k–4k region, and above a mild sloping response. Together these characteristics are neither gross nor obvious, and do not manifest themselves as coloration or a significant deviation from overall neutrality. The effect is rather more like a shift in perspective from, say, row A–G to H–P. This means that with recordings that are far too closely miked, which is to say most recordings, the Montis will actually sound more natural in ways that a literally accurate speaker will not. If I were to search for a thumbnail characterization, I’d say its tonal character is reminiscent of what in the old days used to be called ‘New England’ sound: essentially neutral, uncolored, smooth, civilized, maybe a bit polite. But with one huge difference: No ‘New England’ speaker I’ve ever heard was ever capable of a presentation as full of life and vitality as the Montis, able to scale instruments to life size and bring the room as alive with music. And no such speaker ever sounded as open and free from a box as this one.”

In the Impression 11A, however, a distinct Yang character has replaced the Montis’ lovely Yin personality with a presentation that is crisper, sharper, more forward, and, depending on the recording, even a bit aggressive. There’s also an impression of glare, a subtly “shouty” quality that, again depending on the recording, can be rather pronounced and never entirely disappears. Allow me to call upon an obviously flawed recording to indicate more clearly what I’m talking about here. Bernstein’s first recording of Appalachian Spring [Sony] is notoriously bright. Over speakers that are a bit recessed throughout the presence region and that do not rise above that—the Montis or Harbeth’s wonderful SuperHLP5plus—the recording still sounds bright but is listenable. Over speakers that are essentially neutral—my reference Harbeth Monitor 40.2 or Quad 2805 ESL—the recording sounds as excessively bright as it is, indeed, almost fierce, but remains tolerable. Over the Impression the fierceness really takes over and it becomes a recording I don’t especially want to listen to—a pity inasmuch as this remains the best performance and interpretation of the piece that I know (I was glad to have McIntosh’s superb new C52 preamplifier, with its seven bands of equalization on hand for review, so I could tame the recording).

As I say, that recording is flawed, but it illustrates the issue. In case you think I’m relying on what we all know is sometimes notoriously unreliable audio memory, I should point out that the review pair of the Montis are now owned by a couple who are industry professionals, live nearby, and are very close friends: Rarely a month goes by that I don’t get to listen to those speakers two or three times. As in all judgments like this, we’re dealing with matters of taste and I must emphasize that these new Impressions are very much in line with the trend of speaker sound these last twenty years, the kind of sound that a lot audiophiles, not to mention speaker designers, seem to like. There is no gainsaying the fact that all the typical ML virtues are here in abundance. So if you’re tempted—and there is a great deal to like about these speakers assuming the tonal balance appeals to you—an audition is mandated.

Specs & Pricing

Type: Hybrid electrostatic floorstanding loudspeaker
Driver complement: 1 XStat CLS electrostatic transducer panel (44" × 11"); dual 8-inch Powered Force Forward woofers with dual 275Wpc amplifiers and 24-bit Vojtko DSP Engine
Frequency response: 29–23,000Hz ±3dB 
Recommended amplifier power: 20–550 watts
Impedance: 4 ohms, 0.6 at 20kHz
Dimensions: 60.75" × 11.9" × 27.4"
Weight: 90 lbs.
Price: $9995/pr.

2101 Delaware St.
Lawrence, KS 66046
(785) 749-0133