MartinLogan Masterpiece Renaissance ESL 15A loudspeaker Page 2

PoweredForce Forward Bass is what MartinLogan calls the technology used in the Renaissance, and it differs from the system used in my BalancedForce 212 subwoofers in a couple key ways. First, the ELS 15A's woofers face front and back instead of to each side, as in the BalancedForce. ML claims that using proprietary, horizontally opposed, drivers in this way "reduces the destructive reflected energy from your front wall (the wall behind your speakers), resulting in easy placement for clean, pure, powerful bass response." Second, the Renaissance's cabinet is deeper from front to back, and slopes down slightly at the rear, compared to the larger, flat-topped, more squarish BalancedForce.

I'd previously bought MartinLogan's Perfect Bass Kit, or PBK ($100), for my BalancedForce subs, and consider this combination of software and USB-connected microphone a must-have if you buy those or any of the new Masterpiece models, for which MartinLogan now makes available the new ARC-2 software. The microphone and ARC-2—the latter unfortunately available only in a Windows version—allow you to take measurements at several seating positions, then correct the bottom-end response for room anomalies. You can run each speaker through the test separately, or wire them together with an Ethernet cable and calibrate them as a pair.

117mlren.side300.jpgI calibrated Renaissance ESL 15As as a pair, and the process went smoothly. In fact, it was so easy that I did it again, just to see how consistent the results might be. The graphs matched almost perfectly. This done, you can export the results as a handy pdf showing the uncorrected, target, and corrected response curves below 500Hz for each or both speakers. But remember: ARC-2 has no effect on the response of the speakers' electrostatic panels.

Two sets of feet are supplied with the ESL 15A: pointy and dangerous, and flat and friendly. In some situations, such as expensive hardwood floors, pointy and dangerous won't do (unless they sit on solid metal pucks)—but where they'll work, use them. I generally use flat feet to set up and position speakers, but always switch to the pointy version to lock 'em in long term. The idea is to prevent any subsequent micromovements from blurring the soundwaves as they're launched from the panels and woofers. For every action (speaker diaphragm pushing air forward) there is a reaction (speaker wanting to rock back a nanotad). You want to minimize those reactions.

I initially positioned the new speakers in the same places I'd had the Prodigys: 10' 8" apart (measured at the front/center) and slightly toed in. With minimal tweaking, I was pretty happy. I kept moving them around for the next week or so, but they at last ended up only a couple inches from where they'd begun: symmetrically positioned 4' 8" from the front wall, 6' from the sidewalls (again measured from front/center of the panel), and 12' 6" from my listening seat.

There were several ways I could evaluate the Renaissance: straight out of the box, or with ARC-2 applied, and with or without the addition of my BalancedForce 212 subwoofers. In the end, I did all of my serious listening without subs but with ARC-2 applied. For fun, once in a while I added the subs back in, for reasons explained when we get to Yello.

I initially ran through a few standard test tracks, then landed on a bootleg of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" that had been artfully remixed in a modern studio from the raw eight-track stems. The Led Zep remix begins with Robert Plant shout-singing, a cappella, "You need coolin'"; then, for the second verse, just bass and drums join in. The guitars finally appear after the middle drum solo and then the full mix runs all the way to the end, when everyone starts laughing and the whole thing breaks down. It's a powerful mix, with Plant's very human-sounding voice hung clearly in the middle of the room at head height. I could feel him straining at the mike, and when the kick drum and bass hit, it felt like a rocket taking off. Once everyone was playing, the image was huge, articulate, and satisfying.

With the last 10 years' worth of refinements between my Prodigys and the ESL 15As, I expected a new MartinLogan sound. I was surprised to be overwhelmed with the same familiar image of the band: big as a house, grinding away. In other words, I was distracted by the big, fabulous sound I love. It would take me a while to tease out the Renaissance's subtle improvements over the Prodigy.


After the new speakers had been running in the system for about 200 hours, I brought the Prodigys back into the room for some comparisons. I ran through a grab-bag of 24-bit/192kHz PCM tracks from Who Can I Be Now? [1974–1976] (Parlophone/Rhino), the new set of high-definition remasterings of David Bowie's recordings of the mid-1970s. The sound quality is all over the place, so I picked six tracks from across the spectrum and literally swapped the speakers in and out several times, running my playlist through each and working up a sweat as I schlepped the things around.

Very illuminating: While confirming that, overall, the Renaissance ESL 15A's tonal balance—uncolored and honest from the lower midrange up—was similar to the Prodigy's, extra detail and midrange clarity were audible in almost every track. For example, in "Fame," the pulsing, strummed acoustic guitar at the beginning was easier to pick out from the background with the Renaissance. It didn't sound brighter, just more tactile. Image size and depth were close enough to call it a draw, but track after track revealed a subtle but important change: The new speaker was simply more articulate, letting me pick out details even more easily than before. It made it easier to listen and get involved in the music.

Near the end of my listening, Yello's new album, Toy (Polydor), was released. I grabbed a copy of the 24/48 download and cranked it up. Filled with ear candy galore, the album is a master class in creating a spectacular digital audioscape, with plenty of real (male and female) voices layered in among the electronic textures to make this an instant audiophile classic.

In "Electrified II," the subterranean pulsing bass is accompanied by an array of electronic effects scattered around the soundstage, which the Renaissance pushed out to my large room's walls and beyond. Then Dieter Meier's crazily unhinged, deep-throated baritone entered to rattle the room. There's no tougher test of a speaker's ability to untangle a complex bottom end than a track like this, and the ESL 15As presented a wonderfully clear picture of each and every part of it. It's as if you could solo any track in the mix you wanted to hear by sheer listening will.

And here was where ARC-2 shone. I switched it off and played the track again. The midrange and top end remained the same, with imaging for miles, but the bass lumped up and homogenized enough to drain "Electrified II" of its drama. I turned ARC-2 back on and then, on a whim, fired up my subwoofers with their own ARC circuits switched in. Whoa! This wasn't ruler-flat bass response, but what fun!! Everything down below snapped back into focus, but now there was an extra force of nature let loose in the room.


Buena Audio Social Club
We have a great audio club in our area, so I posted a notice on our Meetup page inviting 12 members over one Sunday afternoon to hear the Renaissance ESL 15As and do some comparisons. I wanted their comments and, more important, their differing perspectives. (I'd lived with the ESL 15As for two months when the guys trooped in to listen, but right away, they noted things about toe-in and top-end detail that I've been paying attention to ever since.)

We compiled a six-song playlist from tracks the members had brought along, ranging from the obligatory female singers (Melissa Menago, Marilyn Scott) to classical (pianist Ivo Pogorelich) to modern (Beastie Boys, Dead Can Dance, Dire Straits). After an hour playing only those, we freestyled for another couple hours with different tracks. First up were the Renaissances and our six tracks. That done, we marked the speakers' positions with tape, moved them out, set up the Prodigys, carefully matched their volume levels to the ESL 15As' with SPL meters and pink noise, then played the same six tracks again. We then repeated this entire process several times.


After a couple swaps, the club members began to settle in. Many said they liked the sound of the new speakers better after a couple rounds than the first time they'd heard them, when some had thought them a bit too bright. Member E.J. Sarmento, Big Cheese of electronics manufacturer Wyred 4 Sound here in Atascadero, California, suggested toeing in the Renaissances at an angle a bit less acute, which we did. Alan Johnson then said that he preferred the sound from several feet behind the main listening position; others preferred the sweet spot. Alan thought that "maybe pushing the speakers closer together" would make him happier, which we also tried, with varying response from members.

Dan O'Connor has Prodigys at home, and drives their ESL panels with VTL tube amps. He felt that the Renaissances' top end "is so detailed [that] I'd like to hear them with tubes. I liked the sound of the new speakers better, especially the second time through. There's a level of transparency that's not there with the Prodigys." At this, several members nodded in agreement. Doug Tuthill noted that, after some adjustments, "there now seems to be some congruence here about those extra little bits of detail, those little things: that they're nice!"


"What I really love about [both] these MartinLogan speakers is how they start and stop so fast," said member and former audio dealer Jim Moyer. "Very speedy, very fast. When I hear that snap of a string or drum, bang, it's right there, like real life. When it stops, it doesn't hang a bit, like some dynamic speakers. But I do like that the Prodigy is a little softer on top." At this, E.J. suggested that the Renaissances might sweeten a bit with more break-in: "I believe 80–90% of our criticisms will change with more break-in. I think they need another hundred hours."

Yes, I've drunk the Kool-Aid for years. But even though I'm pre-primed to like electrostatic-panel speakers, I'd never found a one-stop solution I could live with. Now that a MartinLogan active subwoofer endowed with ARC-2 has been successfully mated to an XStat panel, anyone serious about big, full, accurate sound reproduction can start here. Unconditionally recommended.

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emcdade's picture

Absolutely gorgeous. I love that they sloped the woofer cabinet to the back, it reminds me of a Range Rover roof-line. It really is a nice touch to get away from a boxy look that dual opposed woofers demand.

I'm a bit jealous but thankful this line has arrived, as with current models on closeout I snatched up a pair of Montis at a very steep discount!

After seeing that in room frequency response I'm going to be very tempted put some EQ in my chain, and it looks like Dirac will have to be my weapon of choice since it can EQ from say 200hz on down and leave the mids and highs alone.

Are you keeping them John? After seeing that FR plot I don't think you're going to do better if you want ruler flat!!!

Jon Iverson's picture
Don't have the money for them at the moment. But if I did, yes I would buy the Renaissance and replace the Prodigy. And keep the extra subs just for fun.
brenro's picture

I've been dying to see a review of these speakers and this is a very good one. They acquitted themselves well but I'm having a hard time seeing twenty five thousand reasons to part with my Prodigies.

ctsooner's picture

JA interesting measurements on this beautiful speaker. Over the years of reading your measurements, I have noticed when the speaker under test was a panel type (Martin Logan, Magnipan , MBL) or horn loaded, the waterfall plot has a lot of hash in the foreground. I've always wondered if this sounds anything like singing in the shower or using the echo effect on a Karaoke box being a lot of delayed energy, quite even in frequency for quite some time. Thanks for putting in the effort to measure speakers because it is quite rare today and I enjoy seeing how they correlate to their sound.

ottablue's picture

Very nice review!!! Have a question on BASS. The Renaissance speaker has Frequency Response 22–21,000 Hz ±3dB with double 12" woofers and older model Summit X has Frequency Response 24–23,000 Hz ±3dB with double 10" that is only 2 HZ difference!!! So would I expect very similar bass? Will I still need subwoofers with Renaissance speakers since with Summit X I don't FEEL (lack of tactile presence) much bass thus using 2 subs!! Thank you.

tejastiger61's picture

Jon .. A million thanks for your effort.. and review. My only wish is that you had documented your effort with a I-phone(or device of your choice)and let the general public.. see with a video (what a few snapshots that will barely show) the muscle and doe ray me, required to enjoy these fine ELS15A's.
I am begging you to document the re-boxing of these whoppers. And the effort required just to send them back. It is after all is said and done "only fair" to would be purchasers to see what they are getting into coming and geauxing It will prove my theory that yawls job is not all ooh's and ahhhh's .. it is hard work at some point.. or the other.

Oh yea how much is the shipping cost..?

BruceW's picture


I think you got that part wrong. During the "Prodigy era" I believe several models had signal sensing to power off the bias on the panels.

"Prodigy manual
page 22 FAQ
Will my electric bill go ‘sky high’ by leaving my speakers plugged in all the time?

No. A pair of MartinLogans will draw about 5 watts maximum.
There is some circuitry to turn off the static charge when not in use; however, the actual consumption will remain close to the same.

The primary purpose of the sensing circuitry is to prevent dust collection on the electrostatic element."

Speaking of transparency, I found when I by passed the woofer crossovers and used a much steeper (24 db/octave) slope to get the woofers out of the way, transparency up leveled dramatically.

By passing all the passive components to the stats made a further dramatic improvement.

Bruce's picture

I have (had for years) a surround 5.1-setup consisting of Martin Logan (ML) Ascent front, ML Stage center, ML Abyss sub and ML EM-FX2 in the back. Now I an thinking of upgrading my (old) Ascents to either ML ESL 13A or ESL 15A (very interesting reading this review!). I am also thinking of using a stereo solid state amplifier from McIntosh together with ML, but my Hi-FI shop says this is not a good combination. Do anyone have a comment on this?