Home Theater On the Plains

Lawrence, Kansas, about an hour's drive west of Kansas City, is an unlikely spot to start a loudspeaker company. But it's the home of Kansas University, and in 1979, former KU students Gayle Martin Sanders and Ron Logan Sutherland (now you know the origin of the MartinLogan name) teamed up to design and build electrostatic speakers.

Gayle Sanders has since relocated to California, but is still associated with the company, which remains in Lawrence. The home theater shown here, first published in the May 2000 issue of the Stereophile Guide to Home Theater, was a featured attraction in Sanders' Kansas home. The theater was envisioned from the start as a no-holds-barred installation. Built into a basement, the open, 25'x 45'x14' space opens to the outdoors at ground level (thanks to a steeply sloping lot.

But turning the unfinished basement into what you see in the photos was no simple task. Load-bearing walls had to be removed, and the resulting long, unsupported length of the space required the installation of a 45-foot, two-ton steel I-beam to support the house above. Decorator and designer Tracy Stearns, who was primarily responsible for the room's final look and detailing, shored up the center of this beam with another I-beam—a decorative column visible in the photos.

No outside home-theater installer was involved in the system. Gayle Sanders himself assumed that chore, leaning on his industry contacts for advice. Key among these in the early stages—defining the optimum room shape and topology—were Art Noxon of ASC and Bruce Brisson of MIT. Later, Art Montes of Definitive Audio in Seattle came on board to help with the final system implementation.

The walls of the room consist of a double layer of Sheetrock separated by a layer of Decidamp, a damping material marketed by ASC. Resilient channels separate the walls themselves from the staggered studs. These two features help isolate the area from the room's heating and air-conditioning system. That system is separate from the system that serves the rest of the house, and is further isolated by absorptive lining in the air ducts.

The back of the room remains relatively live, acoustically. The front is more damped, but the front wall is still essentially reflective, to complement the speakers' dipole radiation pattern. The most interesting acoustic feature of the room is a "cloud" that hangs above the front speakers. This is a solid, curved structure with a minimum height of 10 feet, its concave shape acting as an effective diffuser. (At least, it seemed to be effective. The only way to tell for certain would be to rip it out and listen without it—a limitation of all such permanent acoustical treatments!)

At the heart of the sound system itself are the MartinLogan Statements—immense, $70,000/pair panel speakers that anchor the left and right front channels and are the company's most ambitious effort to date. The Statements are as physically imposing as they come: large electrostatic panels cover most of the audible range, eight dipole-configured 7-inch drivers per side handle the 50-200Hz range, and the separate sub-bass towers each have eight 12-inch drivers. The center-channel is MartinLogan's Logos. The side and rear surrounds are pairs of ML Stylos and Script speakers, respectively (since replaced by newer models).

A pair of Krell FPB 600 power amps (600Wpc into 8 ohms) drive the Statements. One of these stereo amps is used for each channel and operates in a bi-amp mode to drive the woofers and main towers, respectively (the crossover between the electrostatic panels and the mid driver arrays remains passive). The active crossover contains two-position equalization for the subwoofer. A 5-channel Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier drives the center and surround channels.

On the video side, a Runco DTV-980 Ultra projector, driven by a new Faroudja DVP3000 video processor, fills a 100x54-inch Stewart Videomatte 200 Microperf screen. Originally, the center speaker was located behind the screen, firing through the latter's perforations. But Sanders didn't like what that did to the sound of the speaker—and who better to judge the result than the speaker's manufacturer? The center-channel was moved to below the screen.