MartinLogan SL3 Loudspeakers 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Floorstanding Loudspeakers
Written by Bryan Southard   
Sunday, 01 March 1998

In the eye of the beholder
My first encounter with MartinLogan electrostatic loudspeakers came years back. Like most newcomers to this genre of speaker, I greeted them with amazement. I found the sheer glamour of this futuristic speaker to be simply awesome. The SL3s have a retail price of $3,400 for the standard black or natural oak trim. They stand 64 inches tall and are a sleek 13 inches wide. The basic construction of this hybrid loudspeaker consists of a side- supported perforated panel, which you can see right through. The electrostatic panel sits atop the integrated low-frequency speaker enclosure. Connection options include hand-tightened bi-wire posts with banana plug inputs.

The reason to be passionate about this unique speaker is its electrostatic technology. Simply explained, the lower mid- range through the top octaves are created by taking two pieces of perforated steel, then sandwiching a thin film of clear conductive plastic between them. The electrostatic field is created by receiving the musical signal to the speaker, then dividing it into two equal signals of opposite polarities, providing one to each side of the panel. When energized, the plastic film moves and produces sound.

This technology has been in some level of existence since the late 1940s. Several engineers had a hand in the original electrostatic concepts, a design that entered the production market in the late 1950s. All of the early production models, although possessing very good qualities, had limitations. These drawbacks included limited volume, arcing and damage to the driving components. It was not until 1978 that Gayle Sanders, then managing a high-end audio retail store, began to assemble a team of engineers to explore the possibilities of producing the first practical hybrid electrostatic speaker. By hybrid, I am referring to the integration of MartinLogan's electrostatic panels to its conventional low frequency drivers.

The MartinLogan SL3 loudspeaker is capable of delivering an extraordinary amount of detail. A phrase that comes to mind when trying to best describe the sound of the MartinLogan SL3 loudspeaker is "a moment of clarity." When I first heard the SL3s, I was moved by the differences I heard between this hybrid electrostatic, and conventional speakers. I heard amazing detail and sonic clarity, but the thing that caught my attention was the soundstage that this speaker was capable of creating. The SL3s have imaging ability that is second to none. A lot of speakers image, and many image very well, but it won't take long for you discern the difference in the level of imaging that the MartinLogans are capable of. They recreate the air in the recording flawlessly and with tremendous detail. The MartinLogan midrange is pure and void of the boxy colorations many conventional speakers can have. When listening to Harry Belefonte's "Return to Carnegie Hall" (RCA Victor), I was taken with the reality of the ambience in this wonderful recording.

There are some great speakers that seem to bring the band into your listening room, but very few can emotionally take you to a recorded performance. The SL3s are in this rare class. Soundstaging at this level can become extremely addictive. I started migrating toward those recordings that best recreated the live experience, abandoning many of my studio standards. I found myself yearning for the adventure of the live performance, something that the SL3s provide when fed a well-rounded diet of good recordings.

I had heard industry whispers that the MartinLogans didn't rock and roll very well. That is a definite misconception; they will rock. SL3s might lack some of the slam and dynamic fullness of selected conventional speakers, but are capable of supplying considerable punch when supplied with good rock recordings. I tested them with Yes' "Rhythm of Love" from Big Generator, and found the bass to be very tight and well-integrated with the electrostatic panel. A realistic concern about any hybrid speaker is the possible separation or a discontinuity between the bass and its upper octave source. MartinLogan SL3s are the best example of integrating mixed transducer technologies I have yet heard to date.

The Magic Disappearing Act
When set up properly, the SL3s will disappear for you, sonically as well as physically. The SL3s require very precise placement to operate at optimum performance. Like most speakers, many factors effect the speaker's ability to perform. I found the SL3s somewhat friendlier to position than many conventional box speakers. Okay, to a point ...

Given optimum flexibility for system and speaker placement, you can position these speakers, short of a couple dozen small adjustments, in just a few minutes and have them performing like champs. However, since many of us do not have the luxury of a special room for listening, I recommend that you have the ability to place the SL3s approximately 40 inches from the front wall. In addition, the use of ASC Tube Traps at the first reflection points of both the front and side walls yielded considerable imaging benefits.

MartinLogan supplies their speakers with spikes for speaker support and the best cabinet grounding. As tweaky as it sounds, I found that Black Diamond Racing's carbon fiber cones/Round Things made a very noticeable improvement to my SL3s.

The Downside
The MartinLogan SL3s will expose the very best in any recording, and for that matter any equipment. On the reverse side, they will also expose the flaws in both your recordings and your equipment, down to your last cable. I find that nearly all well-recorded music lends itself wonderfully to these speakers. However, there is an acclimation period with the SL3s stunning reality and accuracy that other, less resolute speakers pleasantly mask.

When considering MartinLogan SL3s, be sure to have plenty of amplification to drive them. Although not inefficient at 89 dB sensitive, they are not necessarily the easiest speaker to drive, either. SL3s seem to perform at their best with when lit up by a moderately powered amp. I recommend a minimum of 100 or more watts of solid power to drive SL3s to their potential. I use tubes to power my SL3s via an Audio Research VT 100 with great success.

SL3s perform best in small-to-medium rooms and will lose considerable dynamic impact when placed in very large areas. These speakers will also give you best results when positioned off the wall several feet with a somewhat near-field listening position.

Can I use the SL3's in my Theater?
Can you ever! The SL3s' ability to accentuate extraordinary levels of detail in your movies make them a choice with few competitors. Movies come alive. Effects as simple as raindrops become engaging elements of the movie. I was taken by the life that these speakers injected into movies. One must consider the MartinLogan Logos ($1995), or Cinema ($1295), for a center-channel speaker, as it can be extremely hard to blend conventional speakers with electrostatic drivers. MartinLogan also has a host of speakers for your rear channels ranging from their Scenario ($1995) to the lesser expensive and diminutively sized Scripts. I have yet to hear a better and more exciting home theater sound system than one consisting solely of MartinLogan loudspeakers.

The MartinLogan SL3s are speakers that can reproduce the live experience better than any speakers that I have yet heard or even imagine. I think that they are an excellent choice for anyone looking for the very best in detail and sonic clarity. I have used the MartinLogan SL3s as part of my reference system for a couple of years now. I made my decision based on the SL3s' uncompromising clarity and their ability to disseminate the finest of sonic details in music. My MartinLogan SL3s are a component of my reference system that I rarely consider upgrading. Every time I consider another loudspeaker, I am confronted with the reality of wondering how I would live without the resolution and excitement of my SL3s.
Manufacturer MartinLogan
Model SL3 Loudspeakers
Reviewer Bryan Southard

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