Marten Coltrane 3 loudspeaker Page 2

One record I've been wowing visitors with lately is David Murray's Spirituals (LP, DIW-8042), recorded by the great engineer Jim Anderson at the late Phil Ramone's A&R Studios, in New York, in January 1988. In "Amazing Grace," Murray explores much of his tenor saxophone's range, braying high and digging down deep, as bassist Fred Hopkins plucks the depths and drummer Ralph Peterson Jr. rumbles and explodes on toms. Pianist Dave Burrell, almost buried in the mix, mostly plays blocks of pounding gospel chords to cut through the clamor. This track—and, indeed, most of Spirituals—sounds like the greatest Saturday Night Live end-of-show cast reprise, ever. This astonishingly great, almost violent recording demonstrated all of the Coltrane 3's finest attributes: its speed and responsiveness, and the unerring tunefulness and impressive vitality and clarity of its bottom end. You need to hear the opening bass lines of "Blues for My Sisters (For Barbara and Michelle)" to really appreciate the Coltrane 3s' solid, muscular, cleanly delineated bottom octaves. They're addictive, and through the Martens they produced stomach-clenching pressure waves I hadn't thought were possible in my room.

I've been playing the Modern Jazz Quartet's European Concert (2 LPs, Atlantic SD 2-603) almost since its release, in 1960. I've always loved Percy Heath's bass lines in Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," but half a century ago they were difficult to hear through my parents' system. When my folks got Acoustic Research AR-2ax speakers (I lobbied for that), Heath's playing finally had some weight. Then I got the idea to move the speakers onto shelves in a pair of closets on my bedroom's short wall: the bass was, of course, overwhelming—but fun. Once, as I played that song, my father called for me. When I didn't hear him, he marched into the room and broke the record over my head.

That pretty much broke whatever fragile bond I had with my father. Fortunately, Atlantic had also released the album's two discs separately, so I could reunite the set. The Coltrane 3's rendering of this record was, in some ways, the best I've ever heard it. This was due in part to the unrivaled bass performance of the Swedish Analog Technologies tonearm, but also to the Marten speaker's exceptional reproduction of attacks, sustains, and decays. This concert (or concerts) was recorded in what sounds like a medium to large hall with its own set of reverberant characteristics. The room reverb can swallow the bass lines and produce a warm bloat that obscures bass transients and constrains rhythmic drive; the Coltrane 3s were better at unraveling that bottom-end information than any other speaker I've had in my room.

Right to the Top
Once, on Facebook, contributor Steve Guttenberg posted the question "What's your favorite tweeter?" My response: "The one that best matches the woofer." I wasn't being facetious. The speaker market is replete with speakers that have speedy, transparent tweeters; unfortunately, the woofers partnering them often stand no chance of keeping up. The usual result is unquestionably spectacular high-frequency response, but with audible discontinuity with the rest of the audio band. Sometimes, the designer tries to hide the problem by limiting the speaker's bottom-end response.

In my review of the original Marten Coltrane, I wrote: "While getting the bass locked in lessened the diamond tweeter's overbearing personality, I had to toe the speakers out more than usual (the tweeter axes now crossed farther behind my listening position) to both open the soundstage dimensions and create a smooth, sweet, but still wide-open high-frequency presentation." JA's measurements produced a response curve showing a somewhat suppressed midband, a boosted presence region, and a slightly recessed mid-treble. Overall, I found the original Coltrane "a bit bright and spotlit on top, slightly lean on bottom." Toe-in was critical, and I ended up using the Jorma speaker cables, which, to a degree, attenuated the tweeter's somewhat aggressive top end.

The Coltrane 3's tweeter proved audibly less sensitive to toe-in, and this time, the more open-sounding Wireworld Eclipse 7 and TARA Omega Evolution SP speaker cables produced an overall better balance than did the Jormas. The new diamond tweeter was less beamy than the old, yet was at least as fast, airy, and resolving. I described the original tweeter's personality as "overbearing." Though the new tweeter was more of a smoothie, it left little room for bright-sounding recordings, from which it could still produce sizzly results.

But unlike the woofers in the original Coltrane, Marten's new woofers are fully capable of keeping up with the Coltrane 3's tweeter.

Midrange Finesse
Because the original Coltrane's midband was slightly suppressed, the speaker lacked the creamy midrange some listeners crave. While the Coltrane 3's midband was similarly uncreamy, its mid-frequency fill was more substantial, which produced a far smoother, richer tonal balance overall.

As I described it in 2005, the original Coltrane's sound "tended to carve away adjacent space, leaving images free to float in dramatic three-dimensional relief. The Coltrane's musical grip was firm and well-controlled from the midband up, and while it didn't sound etchy or bright, the presentation was revealing of every flaw that preceded it in the recording and reproducing chains."

The Coltrane 3 was far more chameleon-like: it was far better able to get out of the way and let the recording assert itself. Just when I thought that perhaps the speaker's midrange was slightly recessed, I'd put on something like k.d. lang's Ingénue, on LP (Sire WX-465) or CD (Sire 26840-2)—and I wouldn't want any more or less midband expressiveness or resolution.

The speaker's neutral reproduction of massed and solo strings well suited my listening tastes. If I wanted more warmth and bloom, I'd do so at the front end—it wouldn't take much. But in my system, driven by the solid-state darTZeel NHB-458 monoblocks, the Coltrane 3s left me satisfied and convinced with every listen. However, if you're obsessed with Quad electrostatic speakers, nothing produced by Marten—or any other maker of moving-coil speakers—will be likely to make you switch.

A Singular Purpose
Looking back at my review of the original Marten Coltrane, I'd say that Leif Olofsson's design goals have not changed. What have changed are the technologies available to him, which now allow him to better achieve those goals.

In that review, I described the Coltrane as "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." That also describes the sound of the Coltrane 3—and the 3 is better at all of it. Like the original Coltrane, the 3's overall sound was effortless, and remarkably similar at SPLs high or low, especially in terms of resolution of fine detail and bass dynamics—though the new woofers are far better at it.

The Coltrane 3s also produced holographic, pinpoint images, both in front of and behind the baffles, as appropriate—but as I said of the original Coltranes, the sizes of these aural pictures were "more about bringing the event to you than about bringing you to the event." I wrote that last observation a few years before I heard the largest loudspeaker models from Wilson Audio Specialties in my room, after which that distinction became more obvious. As with the similarly sized (42.5" tall) Vandersteen Model Sevens, the overall width and height of the Martens' soundstages didn't compare with the Wilson Alexandria XLFs' widescreen, floor-to-ceiling presentation.

However, the driver outputs of the Wilson Alexandrias and, to a lesser extent, the Vandersteen Sevens are physically time-aligned by means of stepped enclosures. In my opinion, in terms of sound, this allows for instrumental layering and an apparent bafflelessness that no "slab" speaker can duplicate, regardless of degree of baffle rake or meticulousness of crossover design. Granted, not everyone cares about this aspect of spatial performance. And clearly, the Coltrane 3s could do some things the big Wilsons couldn't. One is more like a nimble sports car, the other is more like a roadster. I enjoy both.

A loudspeaker's measured performance is one thing. The fun of listening to it is another. Regardless of how well a pair of speakers might measure, if you're not having fun listening to music through them, what good are they? I'm sure the Marten Coltrane 3s will measure well—and better than the original Coltrane—in every parameter. More important, they provided 100% listening pleasure and musical satisfaction, every time. Their reproduction of every musical genre was completely convincing in terms of tonality, texture, and dynamics. They provided a full-frequency-range experience, and resolved all the fine detail anyone paying $100,000 for a pair of speakers is entitled to.

But remember the Coltrane 3's sensitivity of 88dB/m/2.83V: to really sing, they'll need a lot of power. While the Wilson Alexandria XLFs rarely need more than a few watts to fill the room with high SPLs, during the Martens' time in my system, the peak power meters of my darTZeel NHB-458 amps regularly went into 100W territory, and often higher.

Thanks to improved technology and an additional decade's worth of experience, Leif Olofsson has probably taken his design as far as it can go. Whether or not you want to go there too will be a matter of personal taste. But with all previous problems resolved, this new, larger Coltrane is almost twice the heft of the original and costs twice as much. I'd say it's almost twice as good.

US distributor: Sound Advice
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eriks's picture

Time for some bass traps Michael, and judicious application of DSP! I have a small listening room and have enough bass to pulverize kidney stones when asked for it. :) Those in room graphs are crying for TLC.