MartinLogan CLS loudspeaker Jack English part 4

But that bass...same old story. It was inconsistent in level at different frequencies, and overall lacked adequate power and body. The more I listened to the IIAs, the better I understood the decisions to include a woofer with the Sequel, Quest, and Monolith. The music simply lacked a sturdy foundation. The bottom, at times adequate, was all too often weak or missing. On balance, the speakers had superb "hi-fi" strengths but were tonally lightweight, with significant limitations in the bottom and a residual trace of glare in the upper midrange.

Over time, the speakers seemed to relax. This is a euphemistic description of what happened as the panels broke in. The bass, while never really becoming strong, definitely improved, adding much-needed body to the overall tonal presentation. This, in turn, altered my early impression of a lightweight sound to some extent. With respect to the Is, the IIA's bass was significantly improved in that it went deeper and was more clearly defined. While the IIAs had better bass than the Is, there was still not enough for most types of music. MartinLogan has fulfilled still another of its claims, but the bass performance of the IIAs, while improved, still falls short of what is needed in a full-range transducer.

The sensational strengths of the IIAs were abundantly obvious on certain types of music. An excellent example is the new-age beauty of Gabriel Lee's Seasons (Narada Lotus 61002). Using only an acoustic guitar, Lee paints a sonic picture of spring and summer with bright, light hues and voicings. The delicacy of each note and melodic line was pristine. The seamless nature of the tonal palette was retained intact. Lee's fingering was portrayed clearly and meaningfully. The transient speed was captivating. The IIAs just weren't there, leaving only the music in all its beauty.

Conversely, with other types of music, the IIA's weaknesses inhibited the performance. These shortcomings were all too obvious with recordings such as Art Zoyd's masterful score for Murnau's 1921 silent film classic Nosferatu (Atonal ACD 3008). For starters, this music is intended to be played loudly if it is to resemble the live experience. No matter how hard the IIAs are pushed, they simply can't achieve realistic volume levels. In addition, the music's terror and tension depend heavily on throbbing, powerful dynamic contrasts and a thunderous bass foundation. The IIAs lack the bass extension and requisite harmonic fullness to communicate these dark tonalities and effects.

The CLS IIA is indeed a better speaker than the original CLS I. For the most part, MartinLogan has effectively accomplished the improvements they claimed. The IIAs have better deep-bass extension, more realistic treble energy, a reduction of the one-note midbass character, a minimization of upper midrange/lower treble glare, and improved reliability. The amplifier/speaker interactions are different, though not necessarily better. The correct choice of amplification remains a critical variable in the IIA's performance.

More than any other product I have reviewed, the CLS IIA's overall performance is critically dependent upon the source material. With music that matches well with their strengths, the IIAs are stunning. With music that highlights their weaknesses, the IIAs are simply unacceptable. Since the major problems concern various aspects of bass performance, MartinLogan's decision to mate dynamic subwoofers with each of their other speakers makes very good sense. The CLS IIA desperately needs similar bass augmentation to be regarded as a full-range speaker.

MartinLogan has done its homework. The IIAs, in addition to the improved reliability and warranty, come well packaged for safety; are easy to set up once it is remembered that they are a mirror-imaged pair; have a first-rate manual; and are supported by an extensive dealer network.

The MartinLogan IIA is indeed a markedly improved speaker over the original CLS I. It now has a proven track record of reliability supported by a three-year warranty. Deep-bass extension has been improved; treble performance is more extended, although this depends on a correctly matched amplifier; the level of resonances has been somewhat tamed, virtually eliminating the one-note bass of the model I; and the upper midrange/lower treble glare has been diminished. While the IIA is more sensitive than the I, it is also a more difficult load, with an impedance curve that dips down below 1 ohm. Relative to the CLS II, the IIA has a slightly greater sense of immediacy and an even better resolution of detail through the upper midrange.

The IIA, like models I and II before it, has a state-of-the-art ability to unravel inner detail; a remarkable ability to handle transients; seamless top-to-bottom coherency; reasonably good dispersion (although they should be used on stands); and visual and sonic transparency which set them apart from the pack.

On the downside, the overall character of the IIA remains lightweight; deep bass is still attenuated; trebles are beamy; and both dynamics and ultimate loudness levels are restricted. When pushed to compensate for the lack of deep bass and restricted dynamics, the IIA can still sound somewhat hard and glary.

Taken alone, the MartinLogan CLS IIA is a perplexing speaker. In addition to its drop-dead looks, its bevy of strengths are at the leading edge of home music reproduction. On the other hand, it also has a set of weaknesses that are very difficult to accept over the long term. MartinLogan has dealt with the shortcomings by mating the CLS technology with dynamic woofers in all of their other speakers. Taken alone, the IIA is tragically flawed, yet enticing. If you listen to your music at moderate levels, are careful about selecting an amplifier, and tend to listen to smaller-scale works as opposed to orchestral or heavy metal, the IIA just might seduce you. If you're looking for a full-range, dynamically capable speaker, the IIA won't fill the bill.

It would have been easy to end my review with the last paragraph. It may appear to finish the story, but it doesn't really. The IIA simply has too many outstanding strengths to let it be. I will attempt to solve the problems of the IIA (without impinging on its impressive strengths) in a series of "Follow-Ups." Stay tuned.