MartinLogan Quest Z loudspeaker Page 2

Sonic Impressions
Young DO (that's Daniel) settled onto the sofa next to me for what was really his first exposure to the Quests. He liked them immediately, and in a big way: "Better than the Sound-Labs!" he quipped, referring to the Sound-Lab A-1s that had recently vacated the reference room.

What a first impression! Was this true? Were the Quests, at a third the price, indeed superior to the A-1s? That observation stuck in the back of my mind, and for the next several weeks I digested its significance. You know, young DO was right—in some respects the Quests were better than the A-1s.

We were listening to Harry Belafonte (Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, RCA 6006-2-R), and it was clear that while the width and depth of the soundstage were well-portrayed, the soundstage opened up more than it did with the A-1s. The impression of hall decay and low-level detail was clearer. It was easier to immerse oneself in the acoustic of Carnegie Hall via the Quests. We both found it easier to transport ourselves into the original space and mood of the event. We laughed at and applauded Harry's infectious humor.

Eric Clapton's Unplugged (Reprise 45024-2) was another example where the magic of the moment and the honesty of the music were communicated more effectively. Our feeling that the Quests offered heightened soundstage transparency remained constant throughout the evaluation period. The resolution of hall ambience was uniformly excellent, and, combined with a wealth of low-level detail, gave me the strong impression that I was peering at my favorite records through a high-powered microscope.

These differences in transparency and resolution between the two speakers very likely had a lot to do with the room itself. The A-1s, being such large planar radiators, involve more of the room simply because their rear-radiation pattern is harder to break up, at least in smaller rooms. So they yield a stronger reflected-sound signature that obscures some of the original ambient information and fine detail.

In common with other planar speakers, the Quest eclipsed box speakers in the portrayal of image size. In my experience, painting a convincing illusion of instrumental outlines with concert-hall realism is best accomplished with planars. The pinpoint localization sought by many minimonitor aficionados is an artifact that doesn't exist in the concert hall, and I find it distracting. The end result is akin to watching a bunch of tiny people crowding onto a stage with toy-sized musical instruments.

The basic problem with box speakers is, I believe, their inherent inability to reproduce musical instruments with the proper surface loudness. Practically speaking, there's no such thing as a point source of sound. Every musical instrument has a sounding board or body which contributes sound power. A piano, for example, puts out a lot of power, but it radiates over a large area. Surface loudness is defined as the ratio of sound power to surface area, and would appear to be responsible, at least in part, for the impression of size. Because a planar has a large radiating area, it can duplicate the surface loudness typical of a piano. A typical box speaker, however, has to squeeze the piano through an 8" cone. The fit is poor and the resultant surface loudness is all wrong.

Through the Quests, the spatial impression of a singer standing in front of me—or the proportions of a piano occupying real estate within the soundstage—were extremely believable, surpassing, in this respect, all box speakers I have heard.

Just as important was the Quest's ability to maintain a realistic image size over the entire spectral range of an instrument. Many box speakers cross over from a 6"–8" cone to a 1" tweeter in the low treble. In the crossover region, the woofer/midrange output is beaming like a flashlight (because the diaphragm size is approaching the wavelength the unit is reproducing), while the tweeter exhibits wide dispersion. These differences in dispersion appear to contract and expand the image size as the instrument's overtone structure moves through this region. Because the Quest speaks with one voice through the midrange and treble, and because dispersion is controlled by its curvilinear panel, image size remains stable with frequency.

The Quest proved capable of fleshing out dynamic contrasts from soft to loud, and from loud to very loud. Of course, this ability depended strongly on the front-end and partnering amp. Every improvement in the front-end was clearly revealed by the Quest. In no way was it the weak link in the chain. As the dynamics of the front-end improved, the Quest was able to keep up. It proved to be of reference quality in its ability to readily resolve preamp and cartridge differences. Not only was the delicate bloom of harmonic textures preserved, but the force and impact of a loud-to-very-loud crescendo were left undiminished. It was possible to cleanly reach peaks in excess of 100dB at the listening seat. (The amplifier had to be capable of delivering at least 100W into a 4 ohm load; otherwise it simply ran out of steam and clipped.)

In terms of tonal balance, the Quest was not entirely accurate. The extreme treble was extended and transients were delineated effortlessly and cleanly. But in the mid-treble—from about 3kHz upward—the sound was a bit laid-back and too polite. The effect was natural, in the sense that it would be a balance one would experience from the rear of a concert hall. While it wasn't something that bothered me, it was noticeable. The upper registers of female voice lacked brilliance. Trumpet (eg, Baroque Duet with Kathleen Battle and Wynton Marsalis, Sony SK 46672) sounded a bit too rounded and lacked proper bite.

More serious was the paucity of weight in the upper bass, in the octave from about 80–160Hz. This was most evident in the reproduction of double bass. The harmonic content of the instrument's lower registers is quite high, but the Quest failed to fully flesh out the body and weight of the double bass. Rather than sounding full and intimidating, a closely miked double bass sounded as if it had gone on a diet. Mind you, I'm not complaining about the deep bass, or even the midbass. The Quest sounded subjectively flat to about 30Hz in my listening room. And with the right amp, the quality of the lower octaves was quite detailed and defined. It was just that there was not enough output through the upper bass, which slighted any music with a strong bass foundation. The Quest routinely sounded lean with orchestral music and jazz, and was no match in this respect for the opulent-sounding A-1.

Amplifier choices
Over a period of several months, I used the Quests with amplifiers as different in design as the Fourier Components Sans Pareil OTL and the Classé 700 monoblocks. This speaker showed a remarkable degree of latitude in accommodating all comers. The best traits of each amp were highlighted. It was not very fussy, except in the areas of power output and bass definition. Tubed amps, in general, excelled in re-creating a palpable soundstage, but failed to exercise tight control over the bottom octaves. Considering the lean balance of the speaker, it's hardly permissible to sacrifice bass control. The best bass performance by a tubed amp was turned in by the Jadis JA-200. The solid-state Classé 700s did a fabulous job in tightening up the bass and effortlessly revving the Quest to full volume. Of course, if you're extravagant enough, you might want to consider bi-amping with tubes on top and transistors on the bottom.

Summing up
The MartinLogan Quest Z's midrange is absolutely world-class: as pure and transparent as anything out there. The upper octaves are well-integrated in character and speed with the mids, but even with the presence-contour switch in the +2dB position, I felt the highs to be a bit recessed.

The Quest's integration of the dynamic woofer with the panel is quite successful. The woofer doesn't intrude into the lower midrange (as it often does with hybrids, muddling hall ambience and low-level detail). However, I could have used quite a bit more upper bass.

But even with its not-altogether-accurate tonal character, I would like to make it known far and wide that I have intensely enjoyed this speaker. Everyone who heard the MartinLogan Quest Z in my reference room walked away impressed with its inherent musicality. This is one enjoyable speaker! It's bound to make a lot of friends. In its price range, it would be first on my shopping list. If you've never experienced the joys of a good planar speaker, here's your chance. M-L has made the transition from boxes to electrostatics as easy as possible. Now you can have your dynamic bass extension and impact, while tasting the formerly forbidden electrostatic fruit. Buckle yourself in and get ready to experience a new frontier of musical pleasure.

P.O. Box 707
Lawrence, KS 66044
(913) 749-0133