Review: MartinLogan EM-ESL, EM-C2 and EM-FX2 Speakers

“But is it a real MartinLogan?” I wondered to myself as I read the press release for the ElectroMotion ESL tower speaker that had come through my e-mail. Even though the company recently launched a line of affordable conventional speakers, I still think of MartinLogan as a maker of large electrostatic speakers costing many thousands of dollars. The EM-ESL, though, costs just $2,195 per pair. Yeah, that’s still expensive, but in the context of the company’s other electrostatic speakers, the EM-ESL looks like a bargain.

So what’s wrong with it? Nothing you can see from the surface. “It’s made in China,” you’re thinking. Nope — Canada. “It has junky parts,” you’re thinking. Nope — it uses a real electrostatic panel and a decent-looking 8-inch woofer. With the exterior presenting no easy reason to dismiss the EM-ESL, we’re left to actually having to listen to the thing and see if it’s any good.

Although the EM-ESL looks exotic, it’s actually a fairly basic two-way speaker. The core of the design is a transparent electrostatic panel that reproduces midrange and treble. Below 500 Hz, a fiber-cone woofer takes over. A port on the bottom reinforces the bass. Snazzy new spring-loaded terminals allow connection of bare speaker wires or banana plugs.

You can use the EM-ESL as a stereo pair, of course. To expand your pair of EM-ESLs into a 5.1 or 7.1 system, MartinLogan offers the $799 EM-C2 center speaker and the $649 each EM-FX2 surround speaker, both of which incorporate a larger version of the Folded Motion tweeter originally used on the company’s Motion series speakers. The EM-C2 combines one tweeter with dual 5.25-inch woofers. The EM-FX2, designed primarily for wall-mounting, has a 6.5-inch woofer that fires straight out and two tweeters that fire at 45° angles to the woofer in order to create more diffuse, natural-sounding surround effects.

The EM-ESL puts out decent bass on its own, with rated response down to 42 Hz. Yet just to be sure I’d get enough bottom, MartinLogan also sent along a Dynamo 1000 subwoofer to help out. The $999 Dynamo 1000 is a compact cube containing a 12-inch woofer driven by a 500-watt amp. When I saw the Dynamo 1000 next to the EM-ESLs, my first thought was that the tiny sub might need the EM-ESLs’ help in the bass more than they need its help. The $119 SWT-1 wireless kit converts the Dynamo 1000 to wireless for those who can’t or don’t want to run a line-level cable from their receiver to their sub.

Setup

There’s one big difference between the EM-ESL and most other speakers: Each one has a power supply that has to be plugged into the wall. The power supply charges the conductive transparent diaphragm inside the electrostatic panel. I found the spring-loaded speaker terminals annoying, making for a difficult connection with bare wire and a less-than-secure-feeling connection with banana plugs. But it all worked in the end.

Electrostatic panels are dipolar; they emit sound forward and backward. To get the best, most spacious sound from them, I placed them so that each panel was 40 inches out from the wall behind it. I also removed the absorptive foam that I usually place on that wall to improve the room’s acoustics; dipolar and bipolar speakers tend to sound best in a live room without absorptive treatment on the walls.

I placed the EM-C2 on a couple of short stands and used big blobs of Blu-Tak to point it up a bit. The EM-FX2s went on 30-inch-high stands on the sides of the room, with the speakers directly to my right and left sides. The Dynamo 1000 went into my “subwoofer sweet spot,” the place in my room where a single sub sounds best from my listening chair.

I drove the EM-ESLs with my Krell S-300i integrated amp and the EM-C2 and EM-FX2s with my AudioControl Savoy multichannel amp. I used the Krell’s home theater bypass mode so that it drove the EM-ESLs sans subwoofer in stereo; the sub, center and surrounds kicked in only for surround sound.

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