MartinLogan CLS loudspeaker Jack English part 3
For this review, I used the ideally suited Audio Research Classic 150 monoblocks (reviewed in Vol.14 No.11). These amps are in the upper recommended power-rating band and have no difficulty with the speaker's low-impedance load. (They offer output taps available for loads as low as 1 ohm.) Other equipment included the Versa Dynamics Model 1.0 LP player; Benz Micro MC-3 phono cartridge; CAT SL-1 Mk.II preamp; Magnan Type Vi, XLO, and ARC interconnects; Micromega CD-f1, Esoteric P-2, and Theta Data CD transports; Theta DS Pro Generation II processor; Kimber KCAG and XLO digital interconnects; and Cardas, MIT, TARA, and ARC speaker cables.
The remaining claims will be the crux of this review. Have the folks at MartinLogan simultaneously improved both bottom and top without sacrificing anything in between? Although not claimed by MartinLogan, is the CLS IIA more dynamic, with better bass and less glare? We shall see...
The CLS IIAs can be unpacked, set up, charged, and playing within minutes of their arrival. While the resultant sound is far from optimal, it nonetheless clearly indicates this speaker's strengths. I began my serious auditioning with Constance Demby's Sacred Space Music (Hearts of Space HS 11010-2). The CLS IIAs were a great match for her primary instrument, the hammered dulcimer, due mainly to their ability to handle both the attack and decay sides of the transients. There is nothing slow or sluggish in the sound. The IIAs maintain the model I's reputation for speed, being unsurpassed in this regard. The very lightweight diaphragms likely play a major role in the speaker's remarkable transient speed.
Equally obvious was the overall openness of the presentation, a wide and deep soundstage set back between and behind the speakers, with excellent retrieval of ambient information. There were certainly no box-like colorations anywhere. These are the impressions I would expect anyone to form in a quick A/B comparison or audition—the CLS IIAs are fast and open; no sounds are slowed by the drivers or trapped in nonexistent boxes. In many respects, they reminded me of my first audition of the Dahlquist DQ-10s. And no matter how many times you've seen the transparent panels of the MartinLogans, they remain visually stunning. Their physical characteristics always reminded me of one of their sonic strengths—that oft-debated phenomenon of transparency.
Of course, Constance Demby's sparse music provided few sonic challenges. More of the IIAs' sonic performance was evident using the ethereal-sounding Julee Cruise's Floating into the Night (Warner Bros. 25859). The trebles were indeed open and extended. Treble extension was directly attributable to the proper choice of amplification. I was somewhat surprised with the treble performance, given the gradually diminishing frequency-response curves included in the owner's manual. In particular, the percussive strikes and lingering decays of cymbals were very natural. The IIAs were clearly superior to the Is with respect to treble extension, as claimed.
The saxophone was satisfyingly rich and warm, Cruise's vocals sweet and delicate. Most captivating was the integrity of her voice. Every note, every overtone was cut from the same cloth. This is a key strength of the IIAs: top-to-bottom coherency. Of course, with all of the overdubbing, Cruise's voice does often get larger than life. Since that's what's on the recording, that's what the IIAs delivered. On the downside, the deep bass simply wasn't there, and the midbass was somewhat light. The overall impression of bass performance was somewhat akin to waves washing up on the beach. Depending upon frequency, sometimes the bass was there, sometimes it wasn't.
Detail resolution, again a strength of the original model, was superb. In fact, detail resolution with the IIA was superior to that of the II. Every instrument, every effect, and even every gain setting was abundantly obvious. In the song "I Remember," there is an interweaving series of complex sounds which were all clearly unraveled. Descriptions like "fast," "clear," and "coherent" only begin to describe some of the IIA's strengths. Like its predecessor, the IIA displays state-of-the-art resolution of inner detail.
The IIAs sounded great with such great recordings as John Handy's Excursions in Blue (Quartet Q-1005CD, distributed by Bainbridge). Most of this recording consists of naturally recorded jazz with bass, piano, drums, and sax. Here again, the strengths of the IIA dominated. Cymbals were fast and clear, although there could have been a touch more sparkle in the uppermost trebles. Brushes were clear. The piano got a bit sharp, but not hard, during loud passages, especially in the upper registers. This was a significant improvement over the glare found in the original Is, although it hasn't been exorcised entirely. Once again, the sax was rich and full, with adequate bits of bite as appropriate. There were abundant cues of real people at work: fingers hitting keys, depressing pads, plucking strings. The stunning detail resolution of the IIAs was captivating.
However, if I stood up, the tonal balance shifted significantly. This was a problem identified by JA that has not been corrected in the IIA. The CLS IIs do some wonderful things in the area of soundstaging, but they do suffer with respect to vertical dispersion. If you stand up, you lose a great deal of the top end. If you only listen to your music while seated, this really doesn't matter. If, on the other hand, you don't, this can be a significant irritant. The solution is simple. Raise the speakers 18" inches or slightly more off the floor. MartinLogan now offers a dedicated stand to do exactly this. When the speakers are raised off the floor, you can listen from either a standing or seated position.
I tested this assumption originally with a couple of cinderblocks. While seated, two other changes become obvious. First, the overall soundstage was raised higher off the floor; I looked up at, instead of down into, the stage. Second, the overall bass performance was improved, becoming slightly cleaner and tighter. As there was no deleterious effect from this change, I strongly recommend using some form of stands with the CLS IIAs. In addition to those from M-L, stands are available from Arcici, Underground Sound, and SimplyPhysics. For most real-world listening situations, the IIAs will perform better if raised off the floor.