MartinLogan Ascent and Theater Loudspeakers 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Floorstanding Loudspeakers
Written by Brian Kahn   
Sunday, 01 July 2001

The MartinLogan Ascent ($4,195 per pair) and Theater ($2,595) loudspeakers are part of the latest lineup from veteran electrostatic speaker manufacturer MartinLogan. The Ascent replaces the older SL3 in the MartinLogan product line and incorporates trickle-down technology found on the ungodly expensive $70,000 per pair MartinLogan Statement E2 and the more sensible $11,000 per pair MartinLogan Prodigy speakers.

The Theater is MartinLogan’s top-of-the-line center channel speaker. The Theater is the replacement for the Logos center channel and accompanies the Cinema to complete MartinLogan’s center channel speaker lineup.

The Ascent shares the new aesthetic design of the Prodigy speakers. The ESL portion of the speaker is detached from the woofer and slightly forward from the cabinet. There is also a small red led light visible through the bottom of the panel’s grille. The bottom border of the grille features a small, attractive stylized silver M. Other than the above, the Ascent is aesthetically similar to past MartinLogan speakers and comes with a wide variety of trim panel options to suit nearly every interior.

The Ascent is fairly large at 64 inches tall, 13 inches wide and 22 inches deep, weighing in at 72 pounds. The driver array simply consists of a 48-inch visually transparent line source electrostatic panel and one 10-inch dynamic bass driver. The given frequency range is 35 Hz to 22 kHz. The speaker is bi-wireable.

The Theater has a convex horizontal design, featuring an electrostatic midrange panel flanked by two six-and-a-half-inch drivers, one on each side. The high end is augmented by a center-mounted vertical pod of three one-inch tweeters. This center-mounted pod is directly in front of the apex of the midrange panels and has the M logo on its bottom. This tweeter design is said to control high-frequency dispersion over a wide horizontal axis.

The Theater is also quite large, compared to many other high-performance center speakers, measuring 43 inches wide, 10.5 inches high and 11.5 inches deep, weighing 57 pounds. This is a very serious center channel speaker. The Theater speaker comes with thoughtfully designed mounts, which allow the speaker to be wall-mounted or placed on the floor or other horizontal surfaces. I utilized the floor/television set top mount. This also has the sexy "M" logo, which here is actually cut into the steel bottom of the mount.

Two-Channel Setup
I listened to the Ascents in a two-channel music system, as well as in conjunction with the Theater speaker in my multi-channel home theater system. My music system includes a Pioneer Elite PDR-19RW digital front end, driving one of several power and preamplifier combinations used in this review. While listening to the Ascents, I used the Conrad Johnson Premier 17LS preamplifier driving the Conrad Johnson MF2500 amplifier or the B&K Components ST1400II amplifier. I also tried listening to the Ascents using various integrated amplifiers. I found the subwoofer often unnecessary for music listening, as the Ascents frequency range extended fairly low.

I experimented with ASC’s tube and studio traps during my review of the MartinLogan speakers. The traps are often placed at the point of first reflection to control side reflections and improve imaging. I have noticed that the side reflections are fairly minimal in my room, so I used the traps a bit differently. I placed the studio traps behind the Ascents with the reflective side forward. The tube traps were placed flanking the speakers to form a horn type effect.

I noticed that the studio traps allowed more flexibility with placement of the speakers, which has long been a point of concern for electrostatic speakers. The studio traps control the dispersion of the rearward emanating energy and help to provide a deep and wide image that is less dependent on room characteristics. The tube traps are normally utilized to control reflections or bass loading. The traps also have another use with electrostatic speakers: horn loading. Electrostatic speakers have long been criticized for lack for their lack of dynamics. I found that the new Ascents do not suffer from this malady nearly as much as their predecessors, but I nonetheless experimented with horn loading the speakers. With the tube traps placed in a horn-loaded configuration, I found that the speakers became slightly more dynamic, almost as if the amplifier was switched for a more powerful unit. I think that this setup will be particularly useful for those with large rooms and or lower-powered amplifiers.

I moved the Ascents around a bit and ended up with them positioned approximately eight feet apart, two feet from the back wall and slightly toed in. I found this position gave me the best blend of bass and imaging.

The Music
As discussed above, I was able to utilize a wide variety of power and preamplifiers with the Ascents. It became clearly evident that the Ascents were revealing enough to easily discern between different components and reveal their sonic colorations. The Ascents, while much easier to drive than past MartinLogan loudspeakers, benefited from a powerful amplifier. The 240-watt-per-channel Conrad Johnson amplifier brought the Ascents to life in a manner that the lower-powered amplifiers and integrated amplifiers could not manage to achieve. To the Ascents’ and the integrated amplifier’s credit, the Rotel RA-1060, Bow Technologies Wazoo and Magnum Audio IA170 were all able to drive the Ascents fairly well at reasonable volumes despite their fairly low power ratings. However, to get the most out of the Ascents, top quality electronics, including a powerful, high-current amplifier, are deserved and will provide great rewards. Accordingly, my review relies heavily on my notes from my critical listening session utilizing the Conrad Johnson Premier 17LS and MF 2500.

I allowed the Ascents to break in for a few days in an unused bedroom before listening. Upon placing the Ascents into my system, I noticed a sense of dynamics that was previously missing in my ownership experience with other MartinLogan products. I also noticed that the Ascents were much more room-friendly, allowing for a wider variety of placement. The Ascents even include a switch to attenuate the bass. I left this switch in its flat setting.

I generally found the Ascents to provide a large and deep soundstage with a neutral tonal balance. The electrostatic transducer blended well with the woofer, despite the high cross-over point of 280 Hz. I did not notice the bass phasing problems Bryan Southard noted with the Prodigy speakers in his recent review, but the Ascent does not utilize the same woofer system technology as the Prodigy nor are our rooms similar at all. The Ascent woofer played cleanly and with enough extended lows to alleviate the need for a subwoofer, unless percussion and pipe organs recordings with low bass information are played often.

The Ascents were wonderful in creating a large, solid soundstage. While listening to Bill Berry’s For Duke (Realtime Records), Harry Belafonte’s At Carnegie Hall (Classic Compact Discs), Robbie Roberton’s Robbie Robertson (Mobile Fidelity) and St. Germain’s Tourist (Blue Note) I had a sense of being in front of a large live stage. Many speakers can portray a strong, realistic soundstage with a small ensemble or solo performer, but struggle with larger presentations. The Ascents had no problem with either.

While listening to smaller, more intimate performances, such as Elvis Presley’s Elvis is Back (DCC Compact Discs) and Holly Cole’s It Happened One Night (Metro Blue), the Ascents continued to impress with their detail and solid imaging. I noted that the imaging and placement of sound sources was not quite as precise as the recently reviewed Final 0.3s, when the Final’s were toed in and the MartinLogans were properly set up. However, with the Finals in that position, there was some tonal imbalance. Tradeoffs. The Ascents easily and accurately portrayed the intimate soundstage and vocals of these performers. I was especially impressed with the detail and clarity of the acoustic bass in the Train Song cut. This particular track has quite deep and detailed bass, which came across with a detailed sense of solidity.

I continued to explore the Ascents lower end with Crystal Method’s album Vegas (City of Angels), Paula Cole’s This Fire (Warner Brothers) and Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope (Virgin), and more specifically, the tracks "Busy Child," "Tiger," and "Go Deep." The Ascents had no problems at the lower end, missing only the lowest of frequencies. The roll off at the low end was smooth and I had no problems with bottoming out or other woofer-related anomalies at any reasonable (or even unreasonable) volumes. The bass remained quick and detailed with a remarkably fast leading edge, blending well with the fast electrostatic transducer.

Multi-Channel Setup
I also utilized the Ascents in my theater system, along with the Theater center channel speaker. The remainder of the system includes the following components: B&K Reference 30 processor, M&K MX-350 subwoofer, MartinLogan Scenarios, Sony DVP-CX850D DVD player, Pioneer Elite DV-38A DVD-Audio player, Pioneer CLD-704 Laserdisc player, Outlaw Audio amplifier, three McIntosh Laboratories MC602 stereo amplifiers, Monster Cable power conditioning and line level cables and AudioQuest speaker cables.

I was a bit concerned with the MX-350’s ability to keep up and blend well with the MartinLogans. I set the subwoofer and processor to the THX reference settings and experienced no problems. When listening closely, I could discern which sounds were coming from the subwoofer and which were from MartinLogans, but the blend was smooth enough to where this was never a problem. There are also rumors of the impending introduction of a MartinLogan subwoofer utilizing three drivers and much of the technology found in their top-of-the-line Statement E2 speakers.

I set the ASC studio trap behind the Ascents. As in the stereo system, the tube traps were placed in the corners to even out the bass response. The Theater was placed on top of a speaker stand to bring the top of the speaker to just under three feet off the ground. I angled the rear Scenario speakers outward at a nearly 45 degree angle, which provided an enveloping rear channel effect due to the dispersion pattern of the electrostatic design.

Multi-Channel Listening
I originally started off with the Outlaw Audio amplifier and all was good. I received the McIntosh MC602’s and placed them into the system. The MartinLogans were rewarded by their massive power (600 watts per channel), as well as enhanced sonic characteristics. I also experienced a significant improvement in the sound quality when I switched to the AudioQuest speaker cables. Specifically, I utilized Gibraltar cables in the front and CV-4’s in the rear. The front left and right were bi-wired. The AudioQuest cables, after a long break-in, were smooth, extremely neutral and further enhanced the Ascent’s dynamics. With speakers as revealing as these, the astute listener will both hear any imperfection in the signal path and reap the rewards of any upgrades therein. I found the cable upgrade to provide significant and worthwhile sonic benefits.

While watching Gladiator (DVD, 6.1 DTS ES, Dreamworks), I was impressed by the seamless integration among the speakers. I especially noticed this with the cranking of the catapults in the opening battle scene. This seamless integration is also evident and important every time a speaking character crosses the screen. Without this integration, the character would sound like a different person, depending on their onscreen location.

The MartinLogan’s detail and transparency pay off with movie soundtracks, as well as with music. With the MartinLogan 5.1 system, I was able to hear details without congestion, despite a busy and complex background. While watching Saving Private Ryan (DTS, DVD, Dreamworks), the complex and busy battles scenes can easily get congested.

During the dialogue-dominated scenes, the tonal accuracy and balance of the speakers throughout the listening area became apparent. I listened to these scenes while sitting in several positions and achieved similar results in all of them until I was significantly outside the boundaries formed by the left and right speakers. Despite seating position and positions of onscreen dialogue, the voices remained consistent in tone and timbre. I believe this also assisted with the system’s ability to portray solid imaging that corresponded with the video.

The MartinLogan system remained detailed and well- integrated throughout many movies and listening sessions. The dynamic range was sufficient but not excellent, with the Outlaw Audio amplifier (165 watts per channel), but the range seemed unlimited with the McIntosh MC602’s. I recommend a high-quality, high-powered amplifier for theater duty to accurately portray the wide dynamic range in today’s movies.

The MartinLogan Theater is the most detailed center channel I have had in my system. I never found myself turning up the center channel volume in order to hear dialogue. I was initially concerned with the dispersion angles of the MartinLogans but found no problems in listening. The sound remained consistent, regardless of the listening position.

I also listened to quite a variety of 5.1 audio through my MartinLogans. I started with several DTS discs, The Eagles’ When Hell Freezes Over (DTS/Geffen), Lyle Lovett’s "Joshua Judges Ruth" (DTS) and Toy Matinee’s self-titled DVD (DTS). The MartinLogan 5.1 was stunning with its incredible amount of detail and accuracy. This is one of the few systems that can do both stereo and surround sound. The DTS discs were all rendered with great detail and realism. I found all the attributes I noted while listening to the Ascents in my stereo system to exist here as well.

Lastly, I received a DVD-Audio disc just before deadline. I played the Blue Man Group’s self-titled DVD-Audio disc (Virgin Records) and was shocked at the increased detail available through this format. The extreme musical detail of DVD-Audio on an all-5.1 MartinLogan system is like injecting 110 octane fuel into a race bike. The performance boost is so strong that it can knock you out of your seat. DVD-Audio discs like The Blue Man Group best demonstrate this MartinLogan system’s strengths of detail, accuracy and integration.

The Downside
The speakers are large and a proper setup requires more room than conventional speaker designs do. The speakers themselves, especially with the many optional trim panels, are attractive and will likely fit in to just about any décor. Unlike that of the Prodigy speaker, the Ascent’s woofer enclosure is a flat black. While not necessarily beautiful, it works well in a theater room where light reflection is a concern. The real problem with your interior designer (wife, girlfriend, etc.) arises when you incorporate the ASC products as well. While the ASC products provide definite sonic improvements, they will most likely not fit your décor.
Besides being large, electrostatic speakers require careful placement to achieve optimum sound quality. Proper placement of electrostatics may be difficult in tight quarters.

Lastly, as Bryan Southard noted in his Prodigy review, electrostatics must remain plugged in and the woofer grilles are on the flimsy side. The grilles on the Ascents have held up fine so far, and as long as you do not repeatedly remove and replace the grille covers, or place the Ascents in a hazardous area where the grilles are likely to be called to provide protection duty, they should be okay for the duration.

The MartinLogan Ascents, when properly set up and paired with high-quality electronics, will provide detailed, transparent and accurate sound in both stereo and multi-channel systems. The imaging is solid and the soundstage large on nearly every piece of music played through the Ascents.

The MartinLogan Theater center channel could be considered relatively expensive, but it is well worth every penny and should be considered mandatory for those with MartinLogan front speakers. The Theater excels at portraying dialogue with clarity and intelligibility. I also found, after a great deal of experimentation with positioning, that my MartinLogan Scenarios ($1,995 per pair) created an enveloping surround sound field as rear speakers.

At their price, and based on the fact that the MartinLogan Ascents and the Theater center speaker can both excitingly capture the live energy of a live musical event while at the same time playing back surprisingly dynamic but hyper-detailed movie soundtracks, I made the investment and bought the speakers. Along with my MartinLogan Scenario speakers, which I will use for rear speakers, I am now set for future technologies like DVD-Audio, SACD with a 5.1 speaker system that captures details that many speakers costing many times more – glare over. The MartinLogan Ascents are not just strong performers in their price category – they are my new reference loudspeakers.
Manufacturer MartinLogan
Model Ascent and Theater Loudspeakers
Reviewer Brian Kahn

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