AudioQuest NightOwl

MARTINLOGAN Masterpiece

Renaissance ESL 15A Speaker Review

Renaissance ESL 15A represents a major evolution in electrostatic design.

PRICE


$12,499.99 - $13,749.99

THE HIGH NOTES


  • Motion Tweeter Technology
  • State of the Art Components
  • Huge and Effortless Soundstage

Company & Product Overview

MartinLogan chose an interesting name for their latest high-performance speaker lineup. To our minds, the term “masterpiece” conjures up an incredible work of art or musical composition that has stood the test of time. Masterpieces are rare and come from a very artistic mind that uses items available to everyone like paint, canvas, or musical notes, to create something truly spectacular.

The MartinLogan Masterpiece Renaissance ESL 15A is, to our ears, a great example of an audio masterpiece as it uses some ingenious concepts to reproduce music in a way that will delight your senses from the first moment you hear them. Gayle Martin Sanders and Ron Logan Sutherland started MartinLogan over 3 decades ago with a revolutionary electrostatic speaker. We doubt they had any idea the company would be able to deliver a product like the 15A that is just such an audio masterpiece.

If you are not familiar with the term electrostatic speakers, they use a very thin and lightweight diaphragm sitting between charged panels. The world’s first electrostatic speaker was the Quad, which was introduced almost 7 decades ago.

Electrostatic speakers have some inherent design advantages. The diaphragm is far lighter than any other type of speaker material and there is far more surface area. However, this type of panel can not produce the lowest frequencies and create a very tight audio “sweet spot” where if you move your head out of this spot, the high frequencies roll off and sound muted. And, most electrostatic speakers can not play loud at all.

This did not stop audiophiles from loving them as the critical midrange where most music lies, just sounds so sweet and effortless. Since there is no cabinet, there is virtually no coloration added to the sound. On a great recording, if you sat dead center between a pair of electrostatics, it sounded like the musicians were floating out in front of you. For many, this sound was musical nirvana and most music lovers added subwoofers to their systems to enhance the bottom end.

MartinLogan’s goal has always been to push electrostatic technology to the limit, to improve the dispersion and power handling, and to enhance the bottom end capabilities of their electrostatic speakers by carefully blending them with more conventional woofer designs.

The Masterpiece series is their latest attack on the best sound from electrostatic designs. The subject of this review is the Renaissance 15A.

Design & Build Quality

When you see a MartinLogan electrostatic speaker for the first time, you notice you can see right through the main driver. Like all of the MartinLogan electrostatic speakers, the 15A uses their patented Curvilinear panel which gives it a very cool look. The panel crosses over to a large enclosure for the dual 12” woofers which provide super deep bass. They will definitely make a statement in your room as they are almost 6’ tall, 16” wide, and about 29” deep.

The great part is, you can customize the look to fit your space. The Curvilinear panel comes in a powder-coated graphite grey finish but the woofer cabinet can be had in a variety of finish options. At their regular price, you can get gloss black, walnut, or cherry. Upgraded automotive paint options are available for an upcharge and those include Arctic Silver, Desert Silver, Meteor Grey, Rosso Fuoco, Cordoba Red, Deep Sea Blue, and Basalt Black. Or you can go for the MartinLogan premium option where you can choose your own paint color.

Most of the models in the Masterpiece series have both a number designation and name. When you think of most masterpieces from the art world, you think of the Renaissance time period. We love the name MartinLogan chose for this speaker, the Renaissance 15A. It certainly is an audio masterpiece from both a build quality and design standpoint. No matter what options you choose, the fit and finish is just spectacular. These are all hand-built by skilled craftsmen in their Canadian facility and are sold as matched pairs. You’ll know the second you start pulling these 140-pound speakers out of the box, they are just made unbelievably well.

Features & Technology

The 15A is loaded with all kinds of great technology to deliver a sound that is amazingly life-like. Of course, when you have a speaker that is almost 6’ tall, that certainly helps deliver that big sound that makes it feel like the musicians are standing in front of you.

When Ron Sutherland and Gayle Sanders were doing their first experiments on electrostatic panels, they found a way to produce deeper bass and create more audio output than before. However, their larger, groundbreaking design was still limited on dispersion with the same type of narrow sweet spot all other panels had at the time. The story goes, it was during a late-night brainstorming session, the two of them had the brilliant idea of making the panel curved in the horizontal plane.

They first displayed this at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1982 and called it their CLS panel. This panel won a CES Design and Engineering award and the orders started coming in. To this day, MartinLogan uses what they call Curvilinear technology in all of their electrostatic panels.

When people first started buying MartinLogan speakers they paired up a variety of subwoofers with them to add that last bottom octave. The design team soon realized the performance would be better if they designed a system with integrated woofers made to be a perfect match to the panel. The 15A is one heck of a great example of this type of matching as the tech used for the dual 12” drivers mates them up perfectly to the electrostatic panel.

Let’s look at the other great tech inside the Renaissance 15A.

MicroPerf Stator Technology

MartinLogan MicroPerf Stator design 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 the optimum level of tension on the diaphragm. The result is even faster, cleaner sound than electrostatic panels of the past.

Controlled Dispersion Sound Radiation

Any music lover probably knows that sound bouncing off the ceiling, walls, and floors arrives at our ears in a different time domain than the direct radiating sound. Interestingly, the sound bouncing directly off the wall behind the speaker seems to improve the sound, which is why some high-end speakers have a rear-firing tweeter. However, the reflected sound from the side walls blurs the image, reducing what could be a great three-dimensional 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 detrimental effect of sidewall reflections. Almost all of the sound comes directly at you from the main wave and the rear reflected wave with almost no sidewall reflections.

Many horn-type speakers also share this same type of radiation pattern where the dispersion is controlled by the horn. Controlled dispersion, like you find in the 15A is one of the tricks to making it seem music is floating right in front of you. And float it certainly does with the 15A. It uses a panel that is 46” tall and 15” wide to give you 690 square inches of radiating surface area. Big sound is an understatement!

AirFrame Blade Construction

The early MartinLogan electrostatic speakers had pretty large frames to hold the panel in place. Since the sound of an electrostatic speaker is so pure, you have to make sure the method you use to mount the panel does not color the sound. The MartinLogan engineering team has been constantly improving the mounting method and has developed what they refer to as AirFrame Blade frames.

It took a lot of experimentation to develop but what they came up with is an aerospace-grade aluminum alloy that is narrow in the front and tapers to a point in the rear. This design yielded the least amount of resonance and distortion, plus it adds a very cool look to the speaker.

What was really interesting is the fact this design also improved the efficiency of the panel itself.

PoweredForce Forward™ Bass Technology

PoweredForce Forward bass technology is the result 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.

The bass cabinet has 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 the dual 12” aluminum cone phase-time aligned woofers you get incredibly fast and detailed bass from the 15A.

To have full control over this great woofer system, the 15A comes with two woofer power amps that can produce up to 1000 watts peak power for each of the two drivers. These guys get all the way down to 22 Hz at 3db down which is just awesome for the relatively compact box. If you want incredible bass but don’t want to add additional subs to your system, these are a great option as they can fill virtually any room with powerful and deep bass.

The large panel with these fast woofers also give you a far more sensitive speaker than most electrostatics with a sensitivity rating of 92 dB. That means dynamic passages will just explode in front of you but you’ll also hear those tiny micro-level changes to volume that draw you deeper into the performance.

Vojtko Crossovers

The final, but very important component in a speaker is the one you do not even see. The 15A uses MartinLogan’s Vojtko crossover design. A speaker crossover is the component that splits up the incoming signal and directs the bass to the woofer and the rest to the panel. This may seem quite simple but it is actually quite difficult to design a crossover that does not alter the sound. The MartinLogan engineers actually go so far as to listen to different brands of the same value of components to select the ones that not only measure great but sound the best. The Vojtko design gives the 15A exceptional components and a level of fine-tuning most speaker manufactures don’t even think about.

Anthem Room Correction

One of the challenges with any audio system is the impact the room has on the sound. So one of the big advantages of these speakers is that they have built-in room calibration capability. At Audio Advice, we are big fans of Anthem audio components. One reason is their room correction system. You may not be aware, but the same family who owns Anthem also owns MartinLogan and they all share this great room correction calibration software called ARC (Anthem Room Correction). There are numerous room correction systems on the market and we feel ARC is one of the best, if not the best on the market. Even if you have a good-sounding room naturally, don’t underestimate the incredible improvement you can get from using ARC to even out the natural nodes and modes in your room. Once you’ve calibrated your speakers, ARC just makes the bass sound so much faster and open, which means it blends even better with the electrostatic panel in the 15A. One thing to note is that the speakers don’t come with the ARC microphone kit (which is a little comical given the price of these speakers), so be sure to get the kit if you are going to set these up yourself.

Performance

These 140-pound large speakers should have the back of the speaker at least 12” 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!

We recently bought a pair of black gloss 15As for our Raleigh showroom. Our team set them up in our high-performance room with an Audio Research stack. The room is just over 20 feet wide and 14 feet deep. Through the setup process, we ended up with the speakers about 18 inches off the back wall, 9 feet apart, and a little over 10 feet each from the main listening chair. This room has hosted many incredible speakers, including Wilson, Vandersteen, B&W, and many other top speakers so we have a very good sense of how it should sound.

We tested multiple sources including Vinyl, CD and high-resolution music streamed via Roon. The first thing that really jumps out at you with these speakers is how easily they fill the room. Because electrostatics are superb at reproducing string and other acoustical instruments, we started with a listening session from Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. As you might imagine, the sense of space and the precise reproduction of every instrument is stellar on these speakers. If you close your eyes, you will believe the strings and symphony are sitting right in front of you. Through the quieter passages, you’ll hear the bows cutting across the strings and when the entire symphony and Timpani drums come in, the power of these speakers and the dual 12” woofers is simply astounding.

We tested a totally different track called "The Real" from a Canadian group called Busty and the Bass. If you want to really hear your system rock, try this song. This song opens with horns, upfront vocals, and deep bass that only builds with more and more instruments. The 15As image the vocals perfectly in the middle while placing each of the horn instruments across the stage. In the slower and softer keyboard parts of the song, you will hear every micro detail. Then you’ll feel the room fill as it builds into the chorus.

We then changed genres completely to "This is Me" from The Greatest Showman. This song opens very softly with nothing but Keala Settle’s voice and soft keyboards. You’ll find that the 15As are just fabulous with vocals. The one thing we really looked for in this cut as it builds is the ability for the 15As to seamlessly transition from the electrostatic speakers to the 12” woofers. Historically this has been where electrostatics have struggled. We have to say that MartinLogan really nailed it with these. They have truly achieved an incredible feat maintaining the speed and resolution of electrostatics while bringing in terrific midrange and bass. Every instrument and the harmonics across the frequency spectrum truly sing on these speakers.

It’s probably obvious at this point that we really loved these speakers and plan for them to live in our high-performance room for a long time. So, what’s not to love about these speakers? Well, the first is the price. At $25,000 these are very expensive speakers. If you are on a budget, it just does not matter how great these sound, you may not be able to afford them. The second item is that the speakers are powered, which brings lots of great advantages but also means that you have to provide electrical power to each speaker. There are some rooms where this is not easy. Finally, if you have a very small listening room, these speakers may be overkill and you should look to the 13As which are very similar but slightly smaller and with 10” subs vs 12” subs. If you are loving the concept of getting MartinLogan Masterpiece speakers but are not sure if you’ve got the funds for the 15As, check out our review of the entire Masterpiece series lineup where we compare and contrast the ESL 9, 11As, 13As, and 15As.

If you are the type of person who loves music and it brings you incredible joy and happiness, then it's worth putting the price of these speakers into perspective related to the cost of vacations, luxury homes, and luxury vehicles. Because these speakers are also visually stunning, the other buyer we find of these speakers is a luxury buyer who has worked hard to make money but wants the best sound and matching look these bring.

Like many high-performance products, we've also produced a super detailed setup and Tips and Tricks guide for the entire line of Masterpiece Series speakers that we send out with all purchases. It covers placement, room acoustics, and calibrating the speakers using ARC Genesis. If you are considering these speakers or trying to figure out which ones are best for you, give us a call, chat with us, or swing by one of our North Carolina showrooms.

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