Martin Logan Masterpiece Series Speaker Comparison

When you hear the word “masterpiece” you might normally think of a famous work of art. What makes a masterpiece is usually when you take something fairly common, let's say paint and canvas, and use skills and imagination to come up with something remarkable.

MartinLogan’s Masterpiece Speaker Series is in our minds just that, an audio masterpiece in the way they have used some very unique concepts and designs to reproduce music in a way that will captivate you from the first second you hear them playing. The MartinLogan Masterpiece Series is the culmination of what Gayle Martin Sanders and Ron Logan Sutherland started over three decades ago with their first electrostatic speaker that rocked the audio world at the time.

For those of you who may not be familiar with electrostatic loudspeakers, they have actually been around for over 65 years when the Quad electrostatic was introduced. Unlike conventional speakers, in simple terms, electrostatics use a super-thin diaphragm that sits in between charged panels that cause the diaphragm to move.

The advantages are the diaphragm is far lighter than any other type of speaker material and you have a whole lot more surface area. The disadvantage is that an electrostatic panel can not really produce deep bass and most designs have limited dispersion, so if you are not in the sweet spot, you don’t hear all of the high frequencies. Also, all of the early electrostatics were very limited in the volume output they could produce.

For decades though, audiophiles have loved the sound of electrostatic speakers as they have this sense of pure effortless sound with zero coloration from a speaker cabinet or the speaker driver itself. If you have never heard the way great electrostatics can float music right in front of you, it is quite the musical experience. Over the years, MartinLogan has become the clear leader in electrostatic speaker technology with the constant innovations in their speaker technology to overcome all of the inherent disadvantages of electrostatic speakers.

Their new Masterpiece lineup can produce deep bass, plays to concert levels, and no longer has that one sweet spot where you must sit for great sound. They truly are an audio masterpiece!

In today’s article, we thought it would be fun to go over the best sellers in their Masterpiece series. We will not be talking about the 100K Neolith or the 30K CLX, although a lot of the great tech in the new models came from the development of these state-of-the-art speakers. Today, we will go over the Renaissance ESL 15A, the Expression ESL 13A, the Impression ESL 11A, and the Classic ESL 9A. These range in price from around $25,000 to $6,500 a pair. We will also briefly go over some home theater add ons to the Masterpiece collection.

First, we’ll discuss the technology they all share, which is actually quite a lot, then get into the differences between the models and give you some insight as to which might work best for your system. As we said earlier, electrostatics have a large panel, so if you are looking for a small bookshelf or desktop speaker, you can probably stop reading. These speakers are not small by any means. However, if you want to learn about some of the best sound on the planet, let’s dive in!

Technology the Masterpiece Models Share

When Gayle Sanders and Ron Sutherland were doing their early experiments on electrostatic panels, they had discovered a way to produce deeper bass and more output than any previous electrostatic, but their large, new design was still limited on how it dispersed the sound. It was late one night that the two of them came up with the idea for a horizontally curved panel.

When they introduced this at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1982 they called it their CLS panel and it won a Design and Engineering award. To this day, MartinLogan uses Curvilinear technology in all of their electrostatic panels.

Back in those same early days of MartinLogan’s success, audiophiles who loved the sound were mating up all kinds of different exotic subwoofers with their panels to create a sound system capable of reaching down to the lowest tones while still giving that clear electrostatic sound. It was not too long before the team at MartinLogan decided it would be best if the subwoofer was fully integrated with the speaker system and we began to see MartinLogan electrostatic speakers have built-in bass drivers.

Most of the technology the Masterpiece speakers share are improvements overtime on these concepts of how to overcome any limitations of an electrostatic speaker. Let’s take a look at the more important ones you’ll find in all of the Masterpiece series.

MicroPerf Stator Technology

This tech has been developed over time which allows the new CLS XStat panels to have almost twice the exposed electrostatic surface that produces sound as other electrostatic panels of the same size. With electrostatics, you have to hold the panel between a charged grid. MartinLogan developed what they call ClearSpar™ spacers that keep a perfect level of tension on the diaphragm. Not only does this design yield great results, but it also makes the MartinLogan panel “see-through” which adds to their allure.

Controlled Dispersion Sound Radiation

Unless a speaker is playing outside atop a flagpole with no walls, floor, or ceiling, those surfaces have a huge impact on the way sound arrives to our ears. When sound bounces off side walls and the ceiling before it reaches our ears, those late arrival sounds blur the sound arriving directly from the speaker itself. Interestingly, sound that bounces off the back wall seems to enhance the overall audio effect.

MartinLogan’s Curvilinear Line Source (CLS) Electrostatic Panel is gently curved but designed to send very little sound to the sides, thus reducing the blur from sidewall reflections. Being electrostatic, they are a true dipole speaker which means they radiate to both the front and back which then gives us that nice rear reflection enhancement of depth.

Controlling the dispersion pattern is not only limited to electrostatic designs, as most horn-type speakers have a similar characteristic. Many designers feel controlled dispersion is one secret to recreating that magical musical experience in the home.

AirFrame Blade Construction

Designing a great curved panel in the lab with ideal characteristics does you no good if you can not mount it in such a way that the mounting does not interfere with the sound. The first MartinLogans had pretty large frames around the panels, but as time and engineering moved on, they have developed a way to hold the panel that is almost invisible called their AirFrame Blade construction.

The frame itself is made from an aerospace-grade extruded aluminum alloy. On all of the Masterpiece models, you’ll notice the frame is very narrow in the front while the sides taper to almost a triangular point on the rear. The MartinLogan engineers modeled many different shapes to come up with one that reduced any distortion caused by vibration or resonance that at the same time had the least amount of impact on the radiation characteristics of their CLS panel.

When they compared the new AirFrame Blade design to the same panel in their older design, they noticed better imaging, more low-level details, and even the efficiency of the panel improved some as it is held much more rigidly by this new frame design.

And not only does it enhance the sound, but the AirFrame Blade design just looks cool as all get out! No one ever walks up to a MartinLogan Masterpiece model and says it looks plain!

PoweredForce Forward™ Bass Technology

PoweredForce Forward bass technology is actually the combination of two MartinLogan innovations. First, their PoweredForce design helps them get some pretty massive amounts of bass energy from a relatively small enclosure. The other tech, ForceForward, reduces the interactions of the room to give you smoother bass.

They do this by having two separate woofer enclosures under the electrostatic panel. The panel is mounted to the front of the enclosure which is pretty small from side to side, but fairly deep. By using advanced crossover techniques with phase-time aligned woofers you get super accurate and articulate bass from their woofer system.

This is really a pretty interesting idea and has a lot more tech than you might think at first glance. MartinLogan has carefully calculated the depth of the bass cabinet to work best with the size of the drivers used. This is why the cabinets get deeper as you move up in the Masterpiece series. With a single woofer firing forward, some frequencies are still going to reflect off the rear wall and arrive at a different time to our ears. MartinLogan uses the two sealed woofers firing in opposite directions to compensate for this.

The bass sound you hear from a MartinLogan Masterpiece is super fast with a lot of energy. Of course, it needs to be fast to keep up with the lightning-quick electrostatic panel and we feel this tech helps their woofer system blend better than any separate subwoofer. Another advantage is, you can place the speakers closer to the rear wall than you might think for an electrostatic design.

Vojtko Crossovers

The hidden gem in any speaker is the crossover. This is the group of electronic components that direct signal flow inside a speaker. You never really see one unless you take the speaker apart, but it's super important. MartinLogan has always believed in using the finest parts in their crossovers which they call Vojtko-voiced. Designing a crossover is somewhat like fine-tuning an engine. The engineers first layout design, then test different parts that have the same electrical specifications but from different vendors, to find the ones that sound the best.

MartinLogan Masterpiece also have the advantage of only needing a crossover between the electrostatic panel and the bass drivers. Since the panel covers both the midrange and treble, there is no need for a more complex crossover design, assuring seamless signal flow.

When you get the crossover right, the blend between drivers in a speaker is seamless and you get a greater sense of effortlessness and transparency from the speaker. One listen to a Masterpiece, and you’ll know the Vojtko crossovers live up to their legacy.

JBL HDI Port

AC Power Required

In addition to a speaker wire connection, bear in mind that all of the Masterpiece models need to be plugged into a wall outlet to provide power to the panel and in the case of most models, the built in amplified bass system. With most modern homes, outlets are everywhere but just bear this in mind so you are not surprised when you have to add a power cord to a speaker.

The Masterpiece Models

We will go from bottom to top in this brief overview to explain the tech and audio advantages you get as you move up in the lineup. We do have to say, all of the Masterpiece speakers sound just spectacular and in most cases, it will come down to your budget and room size.

JBL HDI Port

Classic ESL 9 Floorstanding Speaker

The smallest model in the Masterpiece lineup still stands at five feet tall and a little over two feet deep, which will fill up most small to medium-sized rooms with amazing fast sound.

The ESL 9 uses a 44” by 9.2” panel with 405 square inches of radiating surface area. The bottom of the cabinet houses two 8” cast basket laser designed aluminum cone woofers using their PoweredForce Forward bass technology. The two woofers are capable of producing bass down to 34 Hz which is very respectable for a dual-8” design and it is also super fast.

You will want a helper to move these around, along with all of the other models as these weigh almost 80 pounds out of the box. We find they sound the best with the front of the speaker roughly 3 feet off the back wall and slightly angled in towards your listening position. Since they are fairly sensitive at 90 dB, we suggest you think about better power in an amplifier over more power. MartinLogans are all very revealing and will easily show off the advantages of a better amplifier.

They can also run quite well on the better home theater receivers if you are thinking about a complete MartinLogan home theater system.

  1. MartinLogan Classic ESL 9 Floorstanding Speaker MartinLogan Classic ESL 9 Floorstanding Speaker
    $3,249.99

Impression ESL 11A Floorstanding Speaker

When you take the jump to the next level, you get what we feel is a great technology developed by MartinLogan’s sister company Anthem. Anthem Room Correction is one of the best methods we have ever encountered for fixing issues caused by the room. You use a special microphone and software to measure the room and the software corrects for low-frequency issues. Starting with the ESL 11A and up, all of the Masterpiece models have Anthem Room Correction (ARC) on board.

This means all of these also have a built-in amplifier for the dual woofer system. We do have to give MartinLogan a little grief here though. When you buy an Anthem receiver for as little as $1399, you get the ARC kit (which costs $99) free. Why they make you buy it extra on a $10,000 speaker and up does not make sense to us. Come on guys, put it in the box!

In any case, ARC takes the great PoweredForce Forward bass technology and makes it even better.

With the ESL 11A, you also get a larger panel that is 44” by 11” with about 20% more surface area than the ESL 9 at 484 square inches. The speaker itself is only about 1” taller than the ESL 9 and about 2” deeper.

With the onboard amp and slightly bigger cabinet to match with the larger panel, bass drops down deeper in the ESL 11A to 29 Hz and you get a sensitivity bump up to 91 dB which is starting to get into the range of efficient speakers, pretty amazing for an electrostatic speaker which in the past were notoriously very inefficient.

Moving to the rear of the speaker, starting with the ESL 11A you get some legendary WBT binding posts. This is a specialty company that has been around for decades, known for its incredible connectors. Yes, there is a niche market for this! They are made from gold plated pure copper and even damped to prevent vibrations. You’ll be able to use even the stoutest speaker wire connection with the WBT plugs as well.

MartinLogan could have used the same plug as the ESL 9, but this just shows you how much they care about getting the best possible sound. The rear of the speaker also has a bass level control knob and a midbass level switch to allow you to fine-tune to your room. You’ll also find the ARC mini USB connector and on/off switch on the rear.

With its built-in amp, the ESL 11A can fill up just about any sized room except for a very large one with a big sound. Voices will float seamlessly right in front of you while you feel super fast, impactful bass. They're over 5ft size also means the musical soundstage in front of you is almost lifelike in size. The ESL 11A gives you all of the best the Masterpiece series has to offer in their most affordable and compact package and for most music lovers will be the best choice for the money.

  1.  MartinLogan Impression ESL 11A Floorstanding Speaker MartinLogan Impression ESL 11A Floorstanding Speaker
    $4,999.99 - $5,499.99

Expression ESL 13A Floorstanding Speaker

If you take all of the tech in the ESL 11A and make it bigger, that sums up the ESL 13A!

You move up to a larger panel that is 13” wide by 44” tall with 572 square inches of radiating area. The woofers and their cabinet get bigger to match up to the larger panel with 2 10” cast basket drivers and a larger amplifier to drive them. They are physically about 2” wider and about an inch taller than the ESL 11A and weigh a bit more at 103 pounds. You will definitely want to have a helper to move these around.

At $15,000 a pair, the ESL 13A is one serious speaker capable of filling up just about any sized room, yet they are the same great high sensitivity of the ESL 11A at 91 dB. Bass reaches down to a very impressive 24 Hz in the ESL 13A. You’ll want to pair these up with a very good electronics stack as they are very capable of revealing the differences between good and mediocre amplifiers.

The larger area panel gives them an even more effortless and bigger sound than the other two models, putting you even closer to that elusive sound of musicians in your room. We like to place these about 38-40” off the rear wall to get the best soundstage, so bear that in mind when considering them. But if you want to stay under $20K and get the amazing sound of MartinLogan, the ESL 13A is worth every penny.

  1. MartinLogan Expression ESL 13A Floorstanding Speaker MartinLogan Expression ESL 13A Floorstanding Speaker
    $7,499.99 - $8,249.99

Renaissance ESL 15A Floorstanding Speaker

When you think of most masterpieces from the art world, you think of the Renaissance time period. We love the name MartinLogan chose for their top of the line Masterpiece series speaker!

While they are a $10,000 jump in price over the ESL 13A, they are a whole lot more speaker. They stand at an impressive almost six feet tall and with the larger bass enclosure are about 30” deep. The panel goes to 46” by 15” with 690 square inches of radiating surface area. To match the 15” wide panel, MartinLogan uses 2 12” aluminum cone woofers with an amp capable of 1000 watts peak for each independent bass driver. Sensitivity jumps up to 92 dB and you get deep bass down to 22 Hz. That is spectacular!

The Renaissance makes you feel like performers are literally standing in front of you. While it's not quite as big a sound as their $100K Neolith speaker, it is pretty darn close and at ¼ the price is pretty amazing. The larger panel is even more effortless than the 13A which lets you hear even more micro details of the music.

These 140-pound large panels will need to be at least about 40 inches off the back wall and slightly toed in towards your listening area. It should go without saying, you want to pair them up with the best stack of gear you can afford, although, like the others, better power is more important than a ton of power.

This is an electrostatic that can give you the full dynamic impact of a symphony orchestra yet reveal the slight draw of breath as a singer pauses or the subtle brushstrokes of a cymbal with a realism that makes you think the concert is in your room. Are they expensive, yes, do they deliver unbelievable sound, heck yes!

  1. MartinLogan Renaissance ESL 15A Floorstanding Speaker MartinLogan Renaissance ESL 15A Floorstanding Speaker
    $12,499.99 - $13,749.99

Home Theater Options

Center Channel Options

Illusion ESL C34A Center-Channel Speaker
The ESL C34A is one of the most serious center channel speakers on the market today. When they created it, MartinLogan wanted a model that could pair perfectly with even the Renaissance ESL 15A, yet give every listener in a large home theater room great clarity.

They wound up using two of MartinLogan's XT Folded Motion tweeters with a huge 34” wide electrostatic panel for the midrange. Four 6 ½” aluminum woofers round out the bottom end.

If you are adding all this up in your head, yes, the C34A is substantial and designed to sit on the floor. It's almost 3 feet wide, 2 feet deep and about 2 feet tall with an angled up design.

The woofers have their own power amp built-in which means the Anthem Room Correction also works with them.

The ESL C34A is as seamless a match as we can think of for the Masterpiece series and if you want the best possible sound for home cinema it's a perfect blend for your main MartinLogans.

  1. MartinLogan Illusion ESL C34A Center Channel Speaker MartinLogan Illusion ESL C34A Center Channel Speaker
    $6,999.99 - $7,699.99

Focus ESL C18 Center-Channel Speaker
The ESL C18 is more of a conventional center channel you could place on top of a cabinet or mount on a wall but is still substantial in size. It uses one Folded Motion tweeter coupled to an 18” wide CLS panel for the midrange with 2 6 ½” aluminum cone woofers. The total width is about 43” with roughly 9” of depth and height.

We feel this model is the best value as you get a perfectly matched CLS panel to team up with your main speakers which creates a seamless transition as the sound pans across the front soundstage.

  1. MartinLogan Focus ESL C18 Center Channel Speaker MartinLogan Focus ESL C18 Center Channel Speaker
    $3,499.99 - $3,849.99

Surround and Atmos Options

MartinLogan has recently launched a Masterpiece CI series with several possible options for surround or Atmos speakers. You could also choose from models in the ElectroMotion, Motion, or any of the architectural models using the Motion tweeter for a good pairing. Please feel free to contact us for the best models to match up to your system.

Overall Recommendation

The pure, clean sound of electrostatic speakers has been the dream of music lovers for decades. There is just nothing like their totally effortless presentation. The MartinLogan Masterpiece series represents the pinnacle of this type of speaker system. The combination of all of their three decades of audio engineering results in a line of products whose performance is even better than the sum of all their high tech. They certainly achieve MartinLogan’s goal of truth in sound!

MartinLogan speakers are owned by many of the experts at Audio Advice, giving us the hands-on experience to help find the best match for your system, room, and budget. While the larger models in the line do need a pretty good-sized room to perform their best, we can work with you to see which model will fit best in your room.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this brief overview of the MartinLogan Masterpiece series and look forward to answering any questions you may have via email, phone, or chat.

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