MartinLogan Sequel II loudspeaker Sam Tellig
Act I, Scene One
"Finished version, I promise."
Gayle Sanders was reassuring the press about the $35k Statement at last summer's CES.
MartinLogan seems to run through revisions rather rapidly. For instance, no sooner had I settled in with the Sequel (which itself had undergone some major changes since first being introduced) than M/L announced the Sequel II. Drat! All those listening notes for naught.
Not quite. The original Sequels and the new Sequel IIs have much in commonsound as well as looks. Main differences are the bass enclosure and crossover point. On the original Sequel, the bass was ported and the crossover was at 125Hz. On the Sequel II, the bass enclosure is sealed and the crossover to the electrostatic panel is at 250Hz. The Sequel II can be bi-wired.
The speakers are visually striking. You can see through the Mylarno fabric sleeve to fuzzy up the sound. The speakers are literally transparent. Finish is topnotch. One of the pleasures of owning the Sequels is having friends come over and marvel at them. I think these speakers sell as much on looks as on sound.
When the Sequels first appeared, I thought they were a steal at $1995/pair. MartinLogan may have thought so, too: they've upped the price of the Sequel II to $2495a 25% hike, well in excess of inflation. Shows you what two and a half stars from HP can do. Our own Lew Lipnick liked the Sequels, too. That's okay, Lew. So did I.
During the two months or so I lived with the old Sequels, I rather liked themespecially at first, when I used the speakers with a B&K ST-140 amp. (The Threshold SA/3 and the Sequel Is seemed to bring out each other's bad points.) The B&K was not as tight in the bottom (tight-assed) as I like, but elsewise this $499 amp excelled with the speakersenhancing their sense of spaciousness and depth, and softening whatever tendency they may have had to turn brittle in the upper midrange.
Good piano recordings were particularly impressivea real sense of the instrument being in the room. There was a lot of "there" there, and the Sequels were particularly good at revealing the ability of different CD players to create a convincing sense of ambience.
Orchestral recordings were somewhat less successfully reproduced by the Sequels, I thought. (We're taking about the original Sequels, not the sequel to the Sequels, which I shall call the "Sequel-Sequels.") Tchaikovsky's Manfred, conducted by Riccardo Chailly, on London, was tough sledding. The speakers were dynamically restrainedit seemed like only so much sound wanted to come out, and no more.
Changing to the excellent Electrocompaniet AW100 amp improved things slightly over the B&K. With more amplifier muscle, the Sequels had deeper, tighter bass and more dynamic punch. But still I found there was an enervated quality about them, as if they could use a jolt of Geritol.
Moreover, I detected a brittleness, if not a brightness, in the upper midrange (the treble seemed a mite rolled-off, but that could have been a function of so much listening with the B&K). The sound was so clear, so sharply defined at times, that I wondered whether this was for real. For instance, on cellos, when the bow hit the strings, I sometimes heard almost a crackleas I say, a brittlenesswhich was somehow artificial: I've never heard the likes of it even close-up at live chamber-music concerts.
And the bass. I got a sense that the bass was somehow attached to the speakernot of the same quality as the midrange/treble, not as quick, not as clear or as clean.
When I heard that the Sequel-Sequels were coming, I sold off the old Sequels and eventually bought a pair of Quad ESL-63 US Monitors, which I wrote up in Vol.12 No.6.
My timing seems to be off with MartinLogan.
I got the old Sequels and they promptly announced the Sequel-Sequels. I got my Sequel-Sequels two days after my new Quads arrived. The speakers were left in my garage, squeezing out my wife's Toyota space. I needed to remove them fast.
A lightbulb went off inside my head:
Act II, Scene One
Lars has a van.
Could I cajole Lars into carting the Sequels away and breaking them in while I got to know my new Quads?
I didn't have to try. Lars was over in a flash, and soon the Sequel IIs were on their way to the villa of the happy Viking. With great glee, I helped Lars move his ESB speakers out of the way and we set up the Sequel-Sequels.
Lars has Krell KSA-80syou know all about that. The rest of his system consists of a Mike Moffat Deluxe CD player and a Mod Squad Deluxe Line Drive.
The sound with the Sequel IIs was not good.
Dead, lifeless, lacklustertake your pick. Dynamics were lacking. So was the superior sense of spaciousness I had achieved with the old Sequels in my listening room. The top end, too, seemed rolled off, like the sound of a more conventional speaker when you've blown a tweeter. Dull.
On the plus side, the bass seemed better integrated with the electrostatic panel than on the original Sequelsclearer, cleaner, quicker.
But heck, give it time. Let Lars sufferthe man described (by his Swedish editors) as a "super-audiophile" should be willing to live with a certain amount of hi-fi angst. As I know from viewing Ingmar Bergman films, Swedes are really into angst.
Time did not improve things. After a week, the speakers still sounded as dull, lackluster, lifeless, and non-dynamic as they did when we first set them up. As Lars lamented, "Every recording sounds the same. The sound isn't very forceful. There's a lack of energy. The speakers do not come to life."
"You mean you don't want to trade in your ESBs?" I asked.
"The ESBs are staying," said Lars, more firmly than usual. "I know you say you think otherwise, but the ESBs are damned good speakers. At least they don't sound anemic, like these MartinLogans."
Our friend Lou joined us for a listen, and he, too, more or less concurred with our findings: the Sequel-Sequels, at least in Lars's lair, were a letdown.
"Let's ship 'em back to Santa Fe," I said, knowing full well what would happen next.
"I'll take them for a week or two and give them a listen," volunteered Lou, with almost Boy Scout enthusiasm.
"We can load 'em up in Lars's van...if he doesn't mind," said I.
"No, I don't mind. I would like to hear them at Lou's house, to settle things in my own mind. After all, I'm going to write these speakers up for Sweden."
I nudged Lou. "All of Scandinavia hangs on Lars's every word."
"I think Lars's room has a lot to do with the way the speakers sound," said Lou, perceptively.
It was true. Lars's room had been "treated"wrecked might be a better word. Lars had covered two windows behind the speakers with acoustical panelsI'm sure his wife, Wendy, loves them. He's also installed two ASC Tube Traps in the front corners, behind the speakers. The sound coming from the back of the speakersthe Sequels are planars up on top, don't forgetwas apparently being sucked up by the acoustical panels and the Tube Traps.
Act II, Scene Two
Lou's listening room is better than mine. Or Lars's. Cathedral ceilings, and just the right amount of "liveness" in the room. No nasty standing waves.
Lou gets excellent sound from a pair of modified Acoustat 2+2s driven by a pair of Croft 105Wpc output-transformerless (OTL) tube amps, probably the only pair in North America.
The Sequel-Sequels benefited from the change from Lars's lair to Lou's lounge. But, to all three of us, dynamics still seemed reined in. The music lacked power and punchthere was little sense of excitement. I think the quality that was missing is what the Linnies call "slam." What's the opposite of slam? Slim? Yes, that's what the Sequel-Sequels seemed: slim. I'm talking about a hollowed-out quality to the sound.
I put on Neeme Jäarvi's recording of the Shostakovich Symphony 10, on Chandos, second movement, as cruel a test for the Sequel-Sequels as I could imagine.
Neeme and his band of Scots were hot to trot, but the speakers did not want to open up and let it rip. The effect was to rob the music of its emotional power.
I had brought over a couple of solid-state amps, including the PS Audio 100C. Could the Sequels' squeezed dynamics be traced to the output-transformerless tube amps, which can't swing much current into low-impedance loads?
The PS Audio could push the Sequel-Sequels moreno doubt about that. But still the sound seemed restrained, hollowed out and rolled off on top. When we cranked up the volume, the sound sort of bunched up and dynamic shadings were diminished, if not altogether eliminated. As Lars had said earlier, "Every recording tends to sound the same."
Don't go putting the PS 100C on the Sequelsit's a marriage made in hell. With my Quads, too, I found the amp hard, dry, brittle. When people speak disparagingly of typical solid-state sound, this is what they're referring to, I think. An amp like this can really make a tube believer out of you.
Back to the Sequel-Sequels.
Not one of us was sufficiently impressed to want to spend more time with the new Sequels. Lars was sticking by his ESBs. Lou was holding on to his modified Acoustat 2+2s. And I am not about to call it quits with my Quads.
I sent the Sequel-Sequels to Santa Fe. You can read JA's report on them in the August issue.
At the Chicago CES, I ran into Gayle Sanders in the hallway at the Krell/MartinLogan room.
"How are you doin' with the Sequels?" Gayle asked, real friendly-like.
"Oh, fine, fine," I said. What was I going to dotell him I had foisted them off on Lars, Lou, and then John Atkinson?
Then I heard the Sequel IIs in the Melos roomwith George Bischoff's glorious TM-90ST tube amplifier. As I reported last month, this was some of the best sound of the showand from a pair of speakers I had given up on.
Any brittleness in the upper midrange was greatly attenuated by the tubes. The bass had a richness and warmth I did not remember hearing either at Lars's lair or at Lou's lounge. True, the speakers would not play all that loudly before the TM-90ST amplifier started to clipand this was just a small hotel roombut the overall sound was excellent: good tonal balance and transparent, too. It was even better, I thought, than the sound of the MartinLogan Statement over in the Krell room. Gone were not only the brittleness and hyperdetail (which I heard with the Statement), but also a certain cold, sterile quality I had objected to.
So what to make of the Sequel IIs?
Given the right amp and the right room, these speakers can sound marvelousopen, airy, detailed, transparent, even somewhat dynamic, if the room isn't damped down. Perhaps the Melos tube amp, like the B&K ST-140, added the requisite amount of richness in the bass.
But amps like the B&K ST-140 and the Melos seem not to drive the speaker sufficiently wellnot enough power before they poop out. It may take something like a pair of Krell KMA 160s to drive the Sequels and achieve strong dynamic performance.
Stu Wein of Music and Sound Imports says he gets excellent music and sound from his Sequel IIs, but he has them 6' away from the back wallso he doesn't have Lars's problem. Stu is also driving them with a super high- current Electrocompaniet AW250 amp, which has to help. I hear, too, that the Audio Research Classic 60 is also a good match for the Sequel IIs.
The other day, Roy Hall was schlepping around to stores peddling his new Creek 5050 integrated amp. He walked into a MartinLogan dealer.
"Ha!" cried the store owner (or something to that effect). "Another [expletive deleted] British integrated! Let's see if we can blow it up!"
The dealer put the Creek on the Sequel IIs. Cruelly, he cranked up the Creek, as Roy Hall cringedthis being the only sample of the amp he had: Roy would be up the creek if it crapped out, and that would have been a critical, even a crippling or a crushing blow. But the Creek didn't crack, crash, or crumble. While this was going on, Roy just turned the other creekI mean cheek.
Roy credits the Creek's being current-limited. Fineyou wouldn't expect high currents in a Creek, would you? That takes a river.
Too bad I wasn't there. I don't know what the Sequel-Sequels sounded like cruising on the Creek. Roy crows that the dealer was so crazy about the Creek he bought three of them to sell to you.
But with the other small amps I triedsolid-state or tubethe speakers seemed to suck away, to drain the power of an amplifier. I strongly suspect the Sequel IIs are a demon to drivealthough I can't say that I have heard of the Sequels actually blowing up an amplifier.
The Sequel IIs are capable of lots of detail and spaciousness. They are also quite capable, I found, of being dynamically underwhelming, brittle in the midrange, and strangely artificial sounding. What you may have here, then, is a speaker whose electrostatic midrange and treble sound best on tube amps, but whose crossover and bass driver demand the real muscle (current) of a hefty solid-state amp.
What you may also have here is a speaker which tries to do too much for too littleelectrostatic technology, high-tech look, see-through midrange and treble, enough bass to please a rocker or a Telarc freak. It's an honest, maybe even something of a heroic effort. But when you do thistry to please everyone, and at a popular pricewhat you can end up with is something which fundamentally misses the mark: gets this or that aspect of performance right, but doesn't quite succeed as a whole.
It's so frustrating. There are things which the Sequel IIs do so very well: spaciousness, detail: the presentation of subtle, sometimes extraneous recorded sounds which help convey the illusion of "live." Live and dead at the same timethat's a contradiction, I know.
If you're captivated by the spaciousness and detail of the Sequel IIs, consider the MartinLogan CLS IIs: the difference in price isn't that great. Because the CLS IIs try to accomplish lessnot so much bassthey may actually do more.
When George Bischoff, of Melos, demonstrated his tube gear using the new Sequel IIs, he called them "a godsend." I would call them something of a mixed blessing.Sam Tellig