MartinLogan SL3 loudspeaker Page 4

Bob Harley is fond of citing Frank Zappa's "The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution" (from Sleep Dirt, Rykodisc RCD 10527, CD) as an acid test of bass resolution, so I thought I'd give it a whirl. Bob's right. Not only does the sound of Patrick O'Hearn's acoustic bass require an uncolored transducer capable of deep, deep response, it also serves as the propulsive agent of the piece. If your system isn't capable of passing on to you a recording's pace and swing, then "The Ocean" just lies there. With the SL3, the bass was punchy, well-defined, and propulsive, while Zappa's guitar and Terry Bozzio's drum and cymbal work really benefited from the transient speed of the electrostatic drive element. Most of all, the three were working in unison—O'Hearn most emphatically did not lag behind the others. In fact, he was pushing them along; the song's momentum is all O'Hearn's, and that's the way the SL3 played it.

At WCES '97, Mesa Engineering's Srajan Ebaen sat me down and played Suerte, by Pedro Aledo and Abed Azrié (L'empriente digital ED 13029, distributed by Harmonia Mundi). I was entranced by this strange disc, which celebrates the "surge of mystifying energy that traverses the body in the musical moment," as the liner note has it. Azrié sings in Arabic in a calm, deep baritone, while Aledo sings in Spanish in a high, penetrating tenor. The songs are poems from the 11th-century Arabian-Andalusian flowering of arts, and celebrate that unique culture's fascination with love and beauty—all set to sinuous, exotic, multirhythmic music that borrows from flamenco, European, and Middle Eastern traditions. The fluid rhythmic structure changes constantly, and the musicians are accompanied (and egged on) by a rich background of hand-claps, castanets, dancing feet (a zapateado is credited), and shouted "encouragements" (tatyib). Several days after I returned from Vegas, I discovered that Srajan had mailed me a copy of the disc, which I had already determined to search out (and which I strongly encourage everyone to do).

Coming home to the SL3 speaker system, I thought I'd play Suerte while cooking dinner. I kept getting pulled out of the kitchen by the sensation that there were people in my living room. Fair enough—I took the disc off and returned to it after dinner, when I was prepared to listen more attentively. But even with my attention fully engaged, I was stunned by how realistically the musicians were present in the room via the SL3s. When Carmen Alvarez began to dance, I immediately knew not only that it was a woman dancing (!), but also everything about the size of the room she was in, the placement of the musicians and the other palmistas (clappers), and the weaving of Azrié as he sang. I know that all of that is extra-musical, but I cared about it because of the intensely musical presentation of the song itself, much of which seemed to result from the incredible accretion of detail. Spatially, tonally, rhythmically—I had no complaints whatsoever.

Many electrostatic speakers can handle small ensembles, works of constrained dynamic range, or the presentation of the leading edges of transients—that's what they're good at, after all. So I played Mahler's First in the wonderful Peter McGrath recording featuring James Judd and the Florida Philharmonic (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907118, CD). I had to turn the sound up quite a bit to energize the room realistically, but that didn't faze the SL3 a bit. The stormy cymbal crash that introduces Stürmisch bewegt (the final movement) rang forth decisively, full of brassy color and HF clang. When the brass and woodwind choirs took up the movement's theme, the hall was filled with a gloriously burnished sound that contrasted superbly with the hushed strings' reiteration of "Frère Jacques" and the first movement's central theme. And at the finale, the timpani, tam-tams, and bass drum just thundered—I could hear the soundwave crash against the walls of the hall—while the brass, winds, and strings built to a heroic D-major crescendo again and again. Could the SL3 handle big orchestral works? Oh man, I'd say so.

The best is the enemy of the good
As enthusiastic as I am about the Martin-Logan SL3, I urge potential buyers to consider a few warnings. First, since they radiate unimpeded acoustic energy to both front and rear, they will interact with your room far more than more conventional designs. If your room lacks uniform frequency dispersion, as mine did, you either need to fix it or look elsewhere.

Second, I would pay a lot of attention to room size in matching these speakers to an appropriate amplifier. My room's extremely high ceilings required that I drive the speakers hard to achieve realistic levels for full-scale orchestral works. This meant that high-powered or high-current amplifiers—such as the Plinius SA-100, or the Krell KAS or Full Power Balanced 600—were required to control the speakers and energize the room. In a smaller listening room, such as my erstwhile Brooklyn apartment, I'm convinced that smaller amps like the C-J Premier Eleven would have worked just fine.

Actually, you need to be extremely careful in matching the SL3 to a system, period. While not inexpensive, the SL3 is one hell of a lot of speaker for $3500, and it will tell tales on any upstream component that's not doing its job. At the very least, mate it to a superior front-end.

But fed a first-rate signal, the Martin-Logan SL3 should deliver a first-rate response. It is transparent (sonically and, to a great extent, visually) and detailed, but capable of spectacular tonal color and impact. I never tired of playing music through these reliable performers, and that state of affairs is rarer than you'd think. And, while they required effort in placement and component matching, they repaid my efforts by mirroring every improvement I made in the system or the room. While some people may prefer a speaker that demands less from them, these speakers are designed for those who demand nothing less than the best from their speakers.