Mårten Design Coltrane loudspeaker Page 2
There's a brassy-sounding big-band album by Ella Fitzgerald, arranged and conducted by Bill Doggett, called Rhythm Is My Business (LP, Verve V6-4056)—a great title, and a perfect description of one of the Mårten Coltrane's strongest suits. Get it optimized and you have a speaker that's fast, tight, and bristles with transient energy and detail, yet one that takes enough time to let the harmonic overtones develop. Rhythm and pace are the Coltrane's businesses—hardly surprising, given the designer's swinging musical tastes.
The Fitzgerald album can sound congested, hollow, and watery if a system can't sort out from the actual sources the boxy reverb that bathes her voice and the brass. The Coltranes separated the threads brilliantly, delivering as focused and three-dimensional an Ella as I've heard from this record. She appeared with great solidity and three-dimensionality between the speakers, the biting brass well behind, while the reverb applied to both her voice and the brass section was presented clearly as a separate element that didn't interfere with the main vocal and instrumental events. That takes great powers of resolution and stop/start speed.
UMG recently issued a new set of hybrid SACDs. Some, such as Herbie Hancock's gorgeous-sounding Gershwin's World (Verve 80001379-36), have been remixed for surround sound, but the one I grabbed first was John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman (Impulse! 80001126-16), remastered by Rudy Van Gelder in mono and stereo on the SACD and CD layers. I'm very familiar with it, having many stereo vinyl pressings and the original Impulse! CD.
Van Gelder ran both full-track and two-track recorders for the original recording session, but the mono tape had gone missing until recently; as his new liner note points out, in the new age of stereo madness, those original mono mixes were often thrown out. There was plenty of tape hiss on the mono mix, and it sounded convincingly smooth—as analog tape hiss should—but below it was a perfectly rich, smooth, coherent, focused mix of Hartman's velvety voice, Coltrane's tenor sax, and the rest of the quartet, which includes McCoy Tyner on piano. Especially notable were both the extension and nimble control of Jimmy Garrison's bass and the effortlessness and appropriate sparkle of Elvin Jones' brushwork.
In mono, the presentation pulsed and floated transparently and effortlessly between the speakers. As Hartman moved up and down through his vocal range, the Coltranes delivered his voice consistently sized, coherent, and utterly believable (though the original recording quality is anything but ideal), while revealing the touch of reverb that subtly tracks his voice. If you want to know why there's a mono revival underway in the analog world, and why mono jazz albums from the 1950s fetch bigger bucks than their stereo counterparts, check out this disc. But buy it for the music: Hartman was a mesmerizing, honey-throated, refreshingly restrained vocalist; the backing band wasn't half bad either.
The Coltrane's rhythmic agility and transient snap had me pulling test discs out night after night. One impressive performance led to another, as it does with any great piece of audio gear. The 45rpm edition of Dave Brubeck's Time Out (Columbia/Classic) demonstrated the speaker's musical grip, its smooth, detailed high-frequency extension, and its spectacular yet effortless resolution of musical detail without added etch, grain, glare, or brightness. "Snap" did not come at the expense of body. While the speaker emphasized attack, it did not shortchange body, so cymbal strokes had nice stick pop, plus crackle, shimmer, sizzle, and chime. You'll like the way well-recorded cymbals sound through the Coltrane.
The Coltrane was not afraid of placing 3D instruments both forward of the baffle plane and, when appropriate, way behind. Joe Morello's cymbals on the Brubeck disc rang convincingly, yet never sounded hashy or splashy. This tweeter managed to be ultrafast, detailed, and extended, and at the same time supple and smooth. If a recording was brash or bright, the Coltrane let me know but didn't confuse extension and resolution with brittleness or edginess. Next to the tweeter in mbl's 101E Radialstrahler (reviewed in the October 2004 issue), Accuton's diamond dome could be the smoothest, fastest, most resolving, most extended tweeter you're likely to hear—yet it was never in my face, and never sizzled or beamed.
If the Sonus Faber Stradivari Homage is on the rich, velvety, voluptuous side of musical accuracy, the Coltrane was on the leaner, faster, more detailed side, with pinpoint three-dimensional imaging, holographic focus, and sensational though compact soundstaging. For instance, the Mårten's presentation of "Sweet Black Angel," from the German Electrola pressing of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, was nothing short of amazing—the acoustic guitars had tremendous visceral presence, texture, and elasticity, while the woodblock "popped" with utmost round clarity well back in the soundstage. The marimba in that track can easily get buried, but through the Coltranes it was both clarified and appropriately woody-sounding and three-dimensional. The Mårtens managed to be ultrafast and full-bodied at the same time, though they were more about content than context.
The only area where the Coltranes were somewhat disappointing was in the lower octaves—but not so much in terms of extension as of control and, ultimately, believability. Bass was never sloppy or bloated. If that were the case, the speaker's tightly focused midband and highs would have meant that its overall presentation would have fallen apart. Rather, I occasionally heard generic "bass" instead of a clearly defined musical instrument—as if the speaker were slightly underdamped, or the thin, rigid enclosure's resonant frequency hadn't been sufficiently tamed. But if forking over $50,000 is on your musical horizon, take that observation with caution; this could have been a function of how the Coltranes coupled to my room.
My Favorite Things
What I liked best about the Coltrane was its effortlessness at all volumes, but most notably when I played the pair of them quietly. Then, they managed to delineate small-scale level changes with remarkable dynamic breadth. Cranked up really loud, they maintained their composure and transparency, the tweeters never registering any hard, edgy, or glassy objections, the woofers showing no signs of dynamic compression. What they did with Classic Records' edition of Muddy Waters' Folk Singer (Chess/Classic) was staggering—they delivered Waters' voice with believable body and perfectly drawn sibilants, and the acoustic guitar with rich body and attack—yet floating above was that old tape's hiss. I've heard other highly regarded speakers deliver the music spiked with brightness, yet missing the hiss!
Equally impressive were the Coltranes' macrodynamic scaling, holographic imaging, and vivid three-dimensionality. Play something like the three-LP box of Neil Young and Crazy Horse's all-analog Greendale (Vapor/Classic) and you'll hear a drum sound as close to live as you're likely to hear from a pair of speakers. Nor are you likely to get a more vivid sensation of hearing Neil Young singing in your listening room than you can through the Coltranes, which are more about bringing the event to you than about bringing you to the event.
Like Karl Rove, the Mårten Design Coltrane is about attack, attack, and more attack. Its ability to reproduce the piano's transient attack was among its most notable achievements, and it did so without producing a glassy or tinkly sonic aftertaste or shortchanging the instrument's rich harmonic structure. Its other strong suits are clarity, focus, transient snap, resolution of low-level detail, image three-dimensionality, and, especially, transparency.
Those who don't respond to the Coltrane's sound might find it a bit drab or lacking in richness, romance, and bloom. Maybe so, but it does give you the straight poop. It doesn't produce the most expansive soundstage $50k can buy, and some other speakers might offer greater dynamic slam and sheer sonic shock value, but the Coltrane's compact size makes it a great fit in a room of modest size.
Then there's the issue of bass. The Coltrane's bottom-end extension is formidable, but in my space at least, it was a bit loose; sometimes, there was a one-note rolling roundness that announced "bass" rather than the specific instrument producing it. That could be the way the speaker couples with my room, but it's something worth listening for, lest the impressive weight divert your attention until it's too late.
That caution aside, and taking into account the critical care with which you must choose associated components, including cables—and, of course, the speaker's high price—the Mårten Design Coltrane is the real McCoy. I have a Jones for it. If it didn't cost so much that I'd need a Garrison to guard me if I paid with cash, I'd consider buying a pair. Or a quartet, for that matter.