MartinLogan Montage loudspeaker

This lapsed fan of electrostatic speakers finds it curious that, while MartinLogan is the predominant representative of this technology in the US, I had never auditioned an ML design in my home. I've enjoyed many Janszen tweeters, a KLH 9, an AcousTech X, Stax ELS-F81s, and I've dallied with Quad ESL-63s. But as dumb luck would have it, the first MartinLogan speaker to reach me, the new Montage, is a hybrid model.

Instead of a electrostatic driver, the Montage mates a pair of aluminum-cone electrodynamic drivers with a magnetically driven planar tweeter. The latter, which MartinLogan calls an ATF Transducer, measures 1.5" by 2.25" and consists of a lightweight film of polyethylene naphthalate film with an etched aluminum voice-coil, which is sandwiched between sets of neodymium-iron-boron magnets in a rigid steel housing. This fully push-pull arrangement is operationally comparable to ML's push-pull electrostatic drivers in its dipolar radiation pattern and in being driven over its entire surface. No external power source is required, but the tweeter's size means that it's crossed over to the midrange-woofers at 2.5kHz rather than operating over close to full range, as in ML's larger electrostatic drivers. On the other hand, the Montage's size, configuration, and finish will make more than a pair of them domestically acceptable in a wider range of homes, as required by multichannel systems.

Each Montage is a beautifully crafted column with a semi-elliptical plan cross-section sitting on a black base, with a front grille that extends higher than the main enclosure. This characteristic ML design motif covers both cone drivers, and allows the panel-mounted tweeter to radiate freely from both front and rear surfaces. A smaller screen covers the tweeter's rear. The enclosure's top surface slants down to the rear, and its curved back bears a nicely engineered black subpanel encompassing a tapered reflex vent and a recessed pair of connection terminals. The latter are the most finger-friendly terminals I've used permitting absolutely secure connections and disconnections without tools or strain. Spikes are provided as optional replacements for the metal pad feet that come mounted to the speaker's base.

(While the Montage's front grille can be removed by hand, the rear grille is secured by hidden screws. I found this out when one of my review samples arrived with a dead tweeter and MartinLogan sent me a replacement, along with full instructions for its installation. As it turned out, one of the original tweeter's leads had worked free in transit; reattaching it effected a complete cure. But I learned by handling the replacement unit that ML's ATF tweeter is surprisingly weighty and rigid.)

Although the Montage is relatively lightweight and easy to move around, positioning the pair of them took me longer than with most speakers because, above 2.5kHz, the ML operates as a dipole. This means that, in addition to all the issues that apply to conventional monopolar speakers, one must take special care with the speaker's relationship to the wall behind it, as well as the acoustical properties of that wall. A dipole's so-called "room-friendliness" is due to the cancellation of the front and rear waves at the speaker's sides. (Dipoles radiate minimal energy in the plane of the speaker.) In the case of the Montage, however, the fact that it potentially has fewer problems with sidewalls didn't change its interactions with the wall behind the speaker, and its monopole operation at lower frequencies excited important room modes.

I found that the Montage didn't like having any surface or large object near or, especially, close behind it. The AFT tweeter beamed quite a bit within 1–2' of the rear wall, though this was not a problem at listening distances of more than 5–6'. However, there was also a noticeable reflection of the rear radiation bounced from the upper surface of the main cabinet toward my ceiling, which is made of smooth, reinforced concrete. Ceiling treatment or, perhaps, a higher ceiling could fix this. I put a 1"-thick pad of soft, open-celled packing foam on the top of the main cabinet and the issue disappeared.

For all the controversy about whether or not speakers need to be broken in (ML suggests 30 hours for the Montage), the process was more a matter of my own adaptation and, in going to the Montages from the Revel Ultima Studios, psychological adjustment. (I did switch back and forth, and the distinctions were constant.) After more than 30 hours of speaker and listener exercise, the Montages made lovely sounds and produced a convincing soundstage. The crossover, set close to the human ear's most sensitive range, was pretty much inaudible, with a smooth transition from the monopolar mid-woofers to the dipolar tweeter—as long as I sat more than 2' from the speaker.

This is remarkable—many speakers are notably less successful even when they comprise only transducers of the same basic design. I could appreciate this particularly with female voices, both solo and choral, as the crossover region sits above their fundamentals and in the range of their overtones. An inadequate crossover will corrupt the identifying characteristics of individual voices. The Montage was just wonderful at avoiding this problem. Moreover, the purity and transparency of the highs rivaled that of electrostats as well as other competent magnetoplanar designs.

Nor did there seem to be any imaging anomalies associated with the transition from the monopolar woofers to the dipolar tweeter—just a spacious soundstage notable for its depth and ample width, extending just beyond the speakers themselves (though the height seemed a little less generous than I'd hoped for). The harmonic balance across the spectrum was pretty good, but the Montage was just a bit more forward than I was used to.

This tendency of dipole radiators to "throw" sound into a room made for some spectacular listening experiences. Small jazz combos, in particular, were remarkably lively. Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith's Yo Miles! Sky Garden two-channel SACD set (Rune 191/192), which is fast becoming one of my standards for definition of instrumental sounds, was recorded with a fixed microphone array direct to DSD as the musicians played live in various combinations. The Montages were great at defining both the characteristic sounds of the individual instruments as well as their distribution in space, almost as if my room was an extension of the studio.

Low-level bass was surprisingly extended for such small drivers in such a compact enclosure. Time and again, with the lowest octaves on piano recordings I was amazed at how the Montage provided a swift kick in the lower bass, even though it's specified down to only just below 50Hz. But this bass felicity was sacrificed when the Montage was pushed to play much louder and/or more complex instrumentation. They didn't complain—power handling was never an issue—but rather became gruff, with a lower-midbass emphasis that overwhelmed the taut extension at the very bottom.

I blame this on the cabinet and port. "Way Down Deep," from Jennifer Warnes' The Hunter (CD, Private Music 01005-82089-2), did indeed go way down deep at moderate levels, with substantial air movement at the rear port and only moderate vibration from all surfaces of the main enclosure. If I turned up the volume to the point where it impressed my friends, the port volume increased a bit but the cabinet vibrations rose in alarming proportion, accompanied by a loss of that delightful bass definition. I didn't remove either mid/bass driver to see how the cabinet was made, but it doesn't matter. Whether a matter of materials or of assembly, no speaker enclosure should vibrate like this unless the design brief is to have the whole thing act as a sound source.

This meant that listening to most recordings of Mahler was out, along with most recordings featuring electric bass—the Montage amplified that instrument out of proportion. I tried Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony's new SACD of Mahler's Symphony 2, but the bass was off-putting. Of my other Mahler discs, I enjoyed only the lighter textures of Philippe Herreweghe and the Ensemble Musique Oblique's recording of Schoenberg's arrangement for chamber orchestra of Das Lied von der Erde (CD, Harmonia Mundi HMC 901477), and Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Philharmonic's lovely Symphony 4 (CD, Sony Classical SK 48380). In Das Lied, the Montages threw a beautiful image of a small ensemble playing with delicacy and precision. Balances between voices and instruments, as well as among the instruments, were quite natural. In Symphony 4, the Montages revealed the presence and beauty of Barbara Hendricks' voice just in front of a very large orchestra spread widely and deeply behind. Clearly, within their limits, the Montages could be open and transparent—but those limits were all too easy to hit.

As best I can remember, the similarly priced Paradigm Reference Studio/60 v.3 speaker, which recently shared the same system—see my December 2004 review—could rarely do what the Montage did best: inspire in me little chills at those moments of clear realism. However, the Paradigm was equally neutral at high and low SPLs, and was consequently easier to live with over the long term.

MartinLogan rates the Montage at 90dB sensitivity and recommends a maximum input of 150W, but the best performance I got from it was with the Classé Omicron monoblocks or a bridged Bel Canto eVo6. These power amplifiers are capable of prodigious outputs, but they also have grippingly tight bass control. With the McCormack DNA-1, rated at 185Wpc, the Montage made the Jekyll/Hyde bass transition at the upper end of the normal listening range I mentioned earlier, forcing me to temper my touch on the volume control. I also restricted my listening to chamber music and acoustic jazz combos—anything scored lightly and transparently. The Montage did a bit better with the Sonic Frontiers Power-3 monoblock. The discipline of pure muscle and high damping factor may be what the Montage needs to keep it well-behaved.

I have two opinions of the MartinLogan Montage.

On the one hand, it is a compact and handsome speaker that, with the right amplification and source material, can present a seamless response, a wide and credible soundstage, and accurate reproduction of voices and instruments.

On the other hand, the Montage exhibited an upper-bass emphasis when driven moderately hard with music of any significant weight. Although this is a flaw in an otherwise compelling design, it should be correctable without starting over. For now, fans of Mahler and heavy metal should stay away; devotees of Diana Krall, the Emerson String Quartet, and Oscar Peterson can love the Montages just as they are.

2101 Delaware Street
Lawrence, KS 66046
(785) 749-0133