MartinLogan Descent Subwoofer 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Subwoofers
Written by Brian Kahn   
Thursday, 01 January 2004

MartinLogan is a company known for making high-end electrostatic speakers, a field which they have dominated for many years. Audio Revolution has reviewed many of their products over the years due to their value and competitive entry price into the true high end of music and theater reproduction. Up until recently, owners of MartinLogan speakers have been forced to find a subwoofer to complement their speakers from the other manufacturers. This all changed with MartinLogan’s much-anticipated release of the Descent subwoofer, which retails for $2,795.

MartinLogan spent approximately eight years in development of this offering. I recall seeing a prototype at least three years ago and was quite excited when I learned a copy of the finished product would be heading my way. The release of a subwoofer by MartinLogan is a significant step into new territory, as the electrostatic speakers the company is known for are notoriously difficult to blend with a subwoofer. This is due to the speaker’s speed and detail, traits not normally found in a subwoofer, whose primary job is to move large volumes of air, more brute force than a finesse job.

The question at hand: can the Descent keep up with the speakers it has been designed to complement?

MartinLogan didn’t invent electrostatic speakers. However, the company was the first to make them user-friendly and to supply full-range speakers in a reasonable size that would fit in contemporary homes. MartinLogan achieved this with their hybrid designs, combining the electrostatic panels with conventional bass drivers. This gave the speakers the detail and quickness we all love in the electrostatic panels, and the efficiency and impact of conventional drivers. The problem with this is that electrostatic panels are lightning fast as they have minimal mass, and conventional drivers can be slower, which can cause a blending issue. In early MartinLogan speakers like the famous CLS, you could sometimes hear a discontinuity between the high- and midrange frequencies and that of the low frequency due to this issue. Over the years, MartinLogan has corrected this and now have beautifully integrated hybrid electrostatic speakers. Yet matching someone else’s sub is a whole other issue. Arguably, with the launch of the Descent, it is an issue you no longer need to worry about.

The Descent is the first subwoofer and the biggest of the three subwoofers currently in MartinLogan’s line. Despite weighing 95 pounds, the Descent is only 21 inches high, 20 inches wide and 18.25 inches deep. When viewed from the top, this fairly compact package is shaped like a hexagon. It has six panels, three smaller and three larger. The three larger panels are set 120 degrees apart from one another, supporting a 10-inch aluminum alloy driver in each, with one facing forward. Above the forward-facing driver, hidden by the grille cloth, is a simple control panel with a four-position phase switch, power switch, a level control, a two-position low pass filter control, a level control and, lastly, a switch to control the illuminated “M” logo at the top of the grille. The small back panel hosts the connections, an IEC power cord receptacle, single-ended stereo inputs, balanced and single-ended LFE inputs and a single-ended output to loop to an additional subwoofer. The top panel of the Descent is interchangeable and is available in a variety of beautiful wood finishes. The whole package is compact and attractive enough to be mistaken for an end table, as it was by several visitors to my home. Even before I heard a peep from the Descent in terms of music and movies, it was earning a positive review from my girlfriend as it replaced the huge black box that had previously served the sub frequencies.

The Technology
There is no question that MartinLogan is one of the industry’s true innovators and the Descent upholds this tradition. In an effort to minimize unwanted sonic resonances that will color the sound of any speaker and, most notably, will cloud the sound of your sub information, MartinLogan has incorporated what they call “Balanced Force” technology into the equation. Three drivers are placed 120 degrees apart in equal phase. Because they are in exact opposition, the drivers essentially oppose each other’s forces, causing resonate cancellation. Additionally, this serves to make the cabinet stronger, as all forces work against one another.

This concept was born in MartinLogan’s $70,000 Statement E2 speakers. The Balanced Force configuration was found to reduce cabinet noise and bass smearing or fuzziness by giving the drivers a more stable and quiet platform for their operation. The wood utilized in the cabinet construction is an especially dense Canadian version of MDF known as Ranger Board. The end result is a very quiet and inert cabinet.

MartinLogan doesn’t stop there in making sure the drivers are accurately controlled. The amplifier is capable of 400 watts RMS with 800-watt peaks and is connected to the drivers through a servo circuit. The servo circuit constantly measures the actual movement of the drivers and compares their movement to the incoming signal, making the necessary adjustments to insure that the output of the drivers matches the signal. This is said to result in a three-to-tenfold reduction in distortion over a traditional dynamic driver circuit. The Descent has a rated frequency response of 20 – 150 Hz, +/- 3 dB.

The Descent was easy to set up in my home theater. I physically placed the unit close to the front wall, between my MartinLogan Theater center channel and Odyssey right channel. I connected the Descent to my theater system’s processor via its single-ended LFE input. I adjusted the level using the processor’s test tones and a sound pressure level meter.

For those who are mortally afraid of instruction manuals, MartinLogan has a quick set-up card that you will find hanging off the front panel. Less than a minute’s worth of reading will provide you with enough information to get the Descent up and running. While it is not necessary, I strongly recommend reading the well-written owner’s manual, as it gives good advice about placement and settings.

I let the Descent break in for a few weeks before I began my critical listening. This wait was particularly difficult, as I was anxious to hear what effect the Descent would have on my system’s performance in the lower registers.

I began with some brute force tests for the Descent by placing the latest Bond flick in my collection, “Die Another Day” (MGM Home Entertainment), into my DVD player. The opening scene has some explosions that were detailed but didn’t necessarily shake the rafters. I thought about adjusting the level, but when the hovercraft chase scene concluded, I realized this was unnecessary. There were some low-frequency effects in the chase scene that left no question that the Descent, in addition to being detailed, could shake things up.

Exploring more bombastic explosions that subwoofers are so often called upon to reproduce, I moved to a clip from a movie used in my Odyssey review, “Heat” (Warner Home Video). The armored car robbery scene at the beginning of the movie features an explosion ripping off the roof of the armored car. There was a huge amount of detail in the bass region and, to my surprise, there was no lack of overall clarity caused by the Descent. The most prominent change I noted with the addition of the Descent was increased dynamic range; the Descent had no problems with low-frequency reproduction without compression at either high or low volume levels.

I then fired up another DVD in the player, “Finding Nemo” (Walt Disney Home Entertainment). The scene where Marlin and Dory meet Bruce the shark contains some powerful but detailed bass. The movement of Bruce’s fins resulted in deep and detailed bass at lower relative volume levels. The Descent’s ability to reproduce these sounds spoke highly of its ability to viscerally recreate lower frequencies without having to turn up the volume. Of course, the Descent was more than up to the task of handling the relatively high volume explosions that followed a few minutes later without any signs of strain or effort.

Satisfied that the Descent could easily handle the LFE duties of the movies, I was looking forward to seeing how it would fare with music. I listened to the Eagles’ song “Hotel California” from the DVD Hell Freezes Over (DTS – Image Entertainment). The drums in the first minute of the song were extremely tight, detailed, deep and powerful. I honestly can’t remember this piece ever sounding or feeling better. The bass lines were well integrated between the Descent and the Odyssey, with no smearing of image or detail.

I then listened to another recording that I used in my review of the Odyssey system, Lyle Lovett’s Joshua Judges Ruth (DTS). The second track, “Church,” has lots of deep and detailed bass that can overload lesser subwoofers and result in a blurry mess. In reviewing my listening notes, the Odyssey system was very articulate with this track, yet with the addition of the Descent, there was much greater extension and impact without loss of detail.

The Downside
One concern is that the connections and controls on the Descent may not allow it to integrate as well with all systems. With stereo-only systems, the lack of high-level inputs may be a hindrance, as there are many high-end integrated amplifiers that do not have a preamplifier output.

One concern about the Descent is that it shares a price point with subs (Revel and Velodyne) that have more advanced features, such as room correction and equalization. These features help solve the problem of room integration, which is the single biggest issue in making a subwoofer sound great in a system.

The MartinLogan Descent was worth the wait for all the MartinLogan owners who have been yearning for a completely integrated system. Although many have purchased subs to complement their electrostats, you can hardly do better in matching the quickness and tone of the Descent. It incorporates a well-thought-out design and comes dressed in a stunning package. I suggest that all MartinLogan owners who are the least bit frustrated with the match they are receiving from their current sub venture out to their retailer to give the kid a try. In the time I had the Descent, it make my MartinLogan package sing. At nearly $3,000, the Descent is not a cheap piece, but then again, neither were the MartinLogan speakers that it augments. I personally applaud MartinLogan for providing a synergistic solution for the many owners of their speakers. Those who own ML speakers know they have some of the most detailed and sweet midranges in the business; now they can know the sub bass as well.
Manufacturer MartinLogan
Model Descent Subwoofer
Reviewer Brian Kahn

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