MartinLogan ElectroMotion ESL Loudspeakers Reviewed

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There was a time when you could walk through Circuit City or other major electronics retailers and see speakers similar to MartinLogan’s ElectroMotion CLS on display alongside all of the traditional cones-in-cabinets speakers. These days, though, there’s a good chance that a young first-time homeowner could look at the company’s latest entry-level hybrid-electrostatic loudspeaker (i.e., a large, translucent electrostatic panel mated with a powered subwoofer below) and not even recognize it as a speaker. Enter the MartinLogan ESL (buy at Crutchfield)

MartinLogan’s history dates back to its founding by Gayle Sanders and Ron Sutherland in the early 1980s . Their CLX electrostats—which stood nearly six feet tall, over two feet wide, and had nearly no bass output—were nonetheless among the most game-changing designs in the history of audio. While nearly impossible to integrate with a subwoofer and difficult to get the full stereo effect of without sitting perfectly still, the MartinLogan CLX had a number of advantages as well, such as extremely low distortion, excellent phase response, and an open and airy sound that drew many a Boomer and Gen-Xer into the audiophile hobby back in the day.

What Makes the MartinLogan ElectroMotion ESL Speakers Special?

Of course, speaker design has advanced quite a bit since the 1980s, and MartinLogan has gone a long way toward retaining the unique advantages of electrostatic panels while reducing their downsides. As such, the ElectroMotion ESL isn’t just a scaled-down, cheaper version of its legendary forebear. Some of the differences include:

  • A narrower curved electrostatic panel that broadens the sweet spot, making the speaker a better fit for multiple listeners. The electrostatic panel is still dipolar, meaning that it projects sound forward toward the listener and backward toward the wall in equal measure, so it sounds big and deep, while also minimizing side-wall reflections (and as such reducing the size of the sweet spot). So it has pros and cons, but nothing sounds quite like it.
  • A smaller footprint that makes them easy to integrate in nearly any room, from a dedicated listening room to a TV room or even a bedroom (assuming the footboard doesn’t get in the way).
  • Meaningful bass performance that makes a separate subwoofer optional. You might still want a sub if you watch lots of movies with big explosions, or if you’re an organ-music or EDM fan. But it’s far from necessary, given that the Electromotion ESL’s built-in powered woofer digs pretty deep (a satisfying 42Hz, which is about the frequency of the lowest note you can play on a bass guitar).
  • The MartinLogan Electro Motion ESL can actually be driven by a somewhat modest AV receiver. The electrostatic panel is still pretty difficult to drive—meaning it has pretty big dips in impedance that require your amplifiers to deliver a lot more current when things get loud. But rather than having low impedance in the bass frequencies as most traditional speakers do, the biggest current draw here is in the very highest frequencies. do You’d still do better feeding them with a best on a dedicated amp with lots of current and a beefy power supply, but it’s not an absolute necessity if you’re building your first sound system.

Why Should You Care About the MartinLogan ElectroMotion ESL Speakers?

  • These speakers sound unlike any speaker you’ve ever heard, unless of course you’re already familiar with electrostats (which fewer and fewer people are these days).
  • They’re pretty affordable as far as audiophile speakers go, which may make them part of a great starter setup (either in a stereo music system or flanking a UHD TV), and while they may not be the speakers you keep for years and years, they just might be. Every audiophile needs to live with a pair of electrostats at least once.
  • These speakers are definitely a conversation starter. Anyone who comes into your home is going to want to know what they are and why you bought them, which will not only lead to some good conversations, but also some impromptu listening sessions.
MartinLogan ESL speakers reviewed by Jerry Del Colliano
Here’s a front and back view of the MartinLogan ESL speakers.

Some Things You Might Not Like About The ElectroMotion ESL

  • Despite improvements in this department, the MartinLogan ESLs are not ideal for a home theater system, especially if you watch movies with multiple people spread out on the sofa. They sound their best in a stereo setup designed for one or two people at most.
  • The MartinLogan Electro Motion ESL speakers sound their best when placed a few feet away from the wall behind them. Granted, that’s true of most speakers, but it’s borderline necessary with these. That’s something to consider if you live in tight quarters. It’s no reason not to audition them, but you’ll want to make sure they work in your room.
  • These speakers are designed to be sat in front of and listened to. They’re not appropriate for background listening, especially if you get up and walk around the room.

Listening to the MartinLogan ElectroMotion ESL Speakers…

On the hit “Walk of Life” from Dire Straits’ iconic Brothers in Arms (CD resolution AIFF 1440), I got a chance to hear how the MartinLogan Electro Motion ESL speakers could present a wide, fun and open sound. Vocals were well-centered, with background vocals sounding beautifully layered. The carnival-like organ danced out into the room, and the bass-line was balanced and tactile even without the benefit of a separate subwoofer.

On a slightly more modern track “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams (CD quality AIFF 1440) — I turned the volume up a bit to test the retro-disco vibes and the low end. So how is was the bass? Not bad. In fact, it is very good. When I got up to adjust my seating position, though, the stereo image fell apart. That is just the nature of ESL speakers, and MartinLogans are far better in this respect than many panel speakers. In a good listening position, though, Pharrell’s vocals sounded open and present in the room in a way you might not get with traditional speakers.

Do the MartinLogan ElectroMotion ESL Speakers Speakers Hold Their Value?

MartinLogans ESLs do hold their value nicely and you should expect that to be the case with the ElectroMotion ESL’s too. Can you keep the boxes? If so, they will sell from or with ease when or if you ever want to make a change. And again, you may or may not. Some people love them, some people hate them, and some people love spending a few years with them before settling down with something a little more traditional. There are other speakers in the $2,000 realm that are so esoteric and so poorly marketed that you are likely to lose your ass if you try to turn them around on the secondary market. That isn’t the case with the MartinLogan Electro Motion ESLs. They are going to be a solid, blue-chip investment.

Let’s Talk About the Competition for the MartinLogan ElectroMotion ESL Speakers

  • Magnepan speakers from Minnesota are an audiophile favorite and rely on somewhat similar panel technology, but they’re even more difficult to drive (meaning they may ask for more current than the amp in your mainstream AV receiver can deliver), have a more constricted sweet spot, and look downright unfortunate. The company’s popular Model 7 speakers are a little less expensive at $1,795 per pair, but don’t even think about using these Maggies in a home theater if you like it to rock. Even soft rock. Yacht rock. You get my point.
  • MartinLogan has any number of speakers in their Motion speakers that use a folded tweeter that gives you some of the open and airy sound of a MartinLogan ESL without actually employing a large ESL panel. As such, they look a lot more like what you’d think a speaker is supposed to look like. The Motion 40i at around $2,200 per pair is a good comp in this neighborhood.
  • If you’re feeling less adventurous and want to stick with traditional dynamic speakers in the $2,000 per pair range, you’ll find a lot of great offerings from blue-chip brands and audiophile companies the likes of Texton Designs, SVS, and RSL. Listen to some of the good traditional dynamic speakers first before making your investment. If you fall in love with the unique MartinLogan sound as so many of us have over the years, you might find something crucial missing with even the best dynamic speakers, even if they are a little more accurate and versatile on the balance sheet.

Final Thoughts on the MartinLogan ElectroMotion ESL Speakers…

Years ago, I bought my 75-year-old mother some MartinLogan speakers and Anthem electronics (buy an STR Preamp (at Crutchfield) or MCA225 Amp from Crutchfield) to power them, and she absolutely loves the whole setup. But I think they hold just as much appeal for millennials who loves music (who doesn’t?) and wants to invest in something a little more meaningful and experiential on which to do their listening. They have great value, a unique sound,and are a true gateway to the journey that is the audiophile hobby. Again, even if they end up not being the right speaker for you, I bet you won’t regret the time spent with them.

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Bill Kilpatrick

Having owned them, I found myself unimpressed. The electrostatic portion of the speaker is all that matters. The woofer is a ported little box that gives you impressive performance for its size but otherwise mediocre bass. It is no substitute for a subwoofer. It is not even a substitute for a decent woofer of some actual size. It’s more of a magic act, one of providing some bass from such a skinny box, though the box needs to be positioned out from the wall and hopefully over a hard surface rather than carpet. A 15″ woofer in a cube-shaped box blows it out of the water.

As for the electrostatic portion of the speaker, it excels in clarity, as long as you’re sitting in its limited sweet spot. But time hasn’t been kind to estats. The gap between them and conventional tweeters has been progressively shrinking to the point that you can now get a folded ribbon tweeter that dazzles and rivals an estat but at a fraction of the price and with a smaller footprint. You don’t need a transparent see-through frame to downplay the presence of a driver that is three feet long – not when a folded ribbon tweeter is barely a few inches long.

MartinLogans are a status symbol, a lifestyle product like Apple or Bose. You get pride of ownership of such an expensive product – and the illusion of great sound from nothing. But you could get better sound and pay a lot less. Having built better speakers for a fraction of the cost, I sent the MartinLogans back. If these are out of your price range, take comfort in the knowledge that better sound is actually more affordable.

Last edited 10 months ago by Bill Kilpatrick

The ESL doesnt have a powered 8″ driver…it is passive.

Stephen EBITDA

I agree with the reviewer. My ML Ascents were great, unique in the clear sound they provided, and are still churning decades later, tho now for my son. Bumped up their bass with a Grotto, but that’s perfectly usual.

Sweet spot was marked, but trade-off was walking into a pair of headphones.

Looking to downsize, I now have Ohm Walsh 3000s…in Rosewood! (If you want to experiment, don’t be half-a**ed.) They’re fine and certainly let me walk around, but I do miss the crisp MLs now and then.

Stephen EBITDA

Thanks, Jerry. Tough sell since I’m pretty happy with the Ohms, but is the ML model new enough to still be in a store for a test?

BTW, I assume you like the Samsung Frame(s). Great TV and I make abundant use of the art subscription on my 75”. It’s amazing how many devices that remote can control (CEC & my deliberately leveraging the hub, I suppose). And the way its hub and ports are separate from the TV is worth the price of admission alone.

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