MartinLogan Montis and StageX Speaker Review
Montis MSRP: $9995 Pair
StageX MSRP: $3295 Each
Available at your Authorized
by Wayne Myers
When Home Theater Shack owner Sonnie Parker first received his new pair of Montis speakers from MartinLogan, he sent me an email reporting that he had quickly set them up, guessing at the best location and angle for two-channel listening in his home theater, plugged them in, sat down to listen, started up some music, and found them sounding so great he about cried. He listened to them for hours on end almost without touching that initial setup over the next few weeks until I arrived to evaluate the Montis and the accompanying MartinLogan StageX center channel speaker for this review.
When I first heard the MartinLogan Montis, I instantly understood what he meant. Everything about their presentation was just downright impressive. That was the first of two times that I would get chills over the next few days while working with Montis and StageX speakers.
The MartinLogan Choice
The MartinLogan Montis are third from top of the list of MartinLogan's high-end Reserve ESL line of hybrid electrostatic loudspeakers. Logic almost dictates that Sonnie would end up favoring a speaker from this line.
Electrostatic speakers are representative of the dipole panel speaker model which, by virtue of the large radiating surface area and extreme light weight involved, is inherently low in distortion and very quick to respond to input. The resulting clarity and snappy response are easy to fall in love with and hard to give up once you are used to them. Sonnie was already a MartinLogan user, and therefore a fan of these characteristics.
In a recent listening session with full-range panel-type speakers, where the entire audio range from upper-mids down to bass frequencies was handled by the single panel (there is usually a separate tweeter panel section), we found that with high-volume bass tones, the accompanying higher frequencies were briefly distorted as a result of the extreme panel excursions involved. They basically "fuzzed out" when the big bass note hit. Knowing this to be a potential problem with all but the largest full-range panel designs, a hybrid model becomes the natural choice. With a hybrid panel speaker, low frequencies are handled by a conventional cone woofer or woofer/low-mid driver and the remaining range of frequencies is handled by a single panel. The panel is never bothered by those pesky low-frequency excursions so its work involves only small movements and its output remains clean even at high volumes. A hybrid electrostatic was the natural choice for Sonnie after that experience with the full-range panel.
The final big factor leading to the Montis choice comes from Sonnie's exposure and addiction to a deep, detailed soundstage. Attainment of such a soundstage invariably requires an off-axis listening angle. With most panel speakers, directivity is so high that off-axis listening is prohibited by high-frequency rolloff. MartinLogan's curved electrostatic panel design, a true single panel with a seamless continuous curve (they are the only speaker company to offer this to my knowledge) relaxes that directivity enough to allow an off-axis Listening Position (LP) for a deep soundstage with only minimal high-frequency rolloff.
A fine point, but worth mention, is that some hybrid panel designs have crossover points approaching 1 kHz. This can be problematic for great imaging. I have found, with 2-way and 3-way designs, that the best imaging almost always is found with the ears level with the midrange driver (even if off-axis horizontally), the range of frequencies from 300 to 3000 Hz or so being critical for fine imaging. With much of the midrange coming from ankle level, Image Clarity is likely to suffer. MartinLogan's crossover points are wisely set lower, varying from 500 Hz for their smallest hybrid panel to 270 Hz for their Summit X, with the Montis crossover at 340 Hz.
Meeting all of these requirements with a loudspeaker able to handle the home theater duties in a room the size of Sonnie's Cedar Creek Cinema leads one directly to the high-end MartinLogan Reserve line. Enter the Montis. The MartinLogan StageX center channel speaker, also a curved-panel hybrid electrostatic design, is a natural match to the Montis.
MontisThe MartinLogan Montis is a hybrid electrostatic loudspeaker design with its XStat™ CLS™ (Curvilinear Line Source) curved electrostatic panel mounted on top of a sealed chamber enclosing a single cone woofer/low-mid driver. The tall panel slants backward slightly, a design point which on the surface seems unnecessary, other than perhaps to reach a higher tier of seats in a home cinema setting. Measurements indicate a frequency response sweet spot well below the center of the panel. Whether by good fortune or by design (probably the latter), the swept back angle helps project from that sweet spot to appropriate listener ear heights.
The design includes a 24-bit Vojtko™ DSP engine to extend the low-frequency response of the 200-watt-powered 10-inch front-facing aluminum-cone PoweredForce™ Woofer, which delivers frequencies from the bass limit of 29 Hz up to the midrange crossover at 340 Hz. The crossover employs a proprietary Vojtko™ topology for low distortion and seamless driver integration.
You can see right through the panels, a fact that never ceases to delight those unfamiliar with the technology. "Where is the speaker?" they will ask. The tall, slender, elegant looking panel transducer covers 497 square inches.
A single knob on the back of the cabinet allows for +/- 10 dB adjustment of frequencies below 100 Hz. Custom 5-way binding posts are also on the rear panel, but spaced wider apart than the normal dual-banana standard (common with high-end speakers, but still a minor complaint). The electrostatic panel requires a bias voltage, so an AC power cord attaches to each unit, also powering the internal DSP and woofer power amp. The 58-pound weight is mostly in the base cabinet, woofer, and electronics.
Sonnie chose the Black Ash finish for his pair of Montis. Dark Cherry and Black Cherrywood finishes are also available. The panel itself only comes with a standard flat black/gray finish. Adjustable feet include either rubber tips or sharp spikes if desired to improve imaging. We did not find it necessary to employ the spikes. The feet can also be individually adjusted for leveling purposes. Cloth covers are included for protection.
The 91 dB sensitivity level allows for quiet listening with a fairly small amplifier. But seasoned electrostatic panel users will advise the availability of plenty of power. The electrostatic design acts like a capacitor at high frequencies and the speaker impedance drops clear down to 1/2 Ohm at 20 kHz. The recommended amplifier power range is from 20 watts to 500 watts. All factors considered, I lean towards the choice of a power amp specified to provide 500 watts into a 2-Ohm load for high-volume listening.
StageXThe StageX is a 3-way center-channel loudspeaker. It consists of two 6.5-inch aluminum-cone woofers each with a small sealed chamber, a single XStat™ CLS™ (Curvilinear Line Source) curved electrostatic panel, and a single folded-motion tweeter. The mounting assembly allows easy vertical tilting of the assembly for optimum aiming at higher seating rows in a home theater setting.
The crossover design uses Vojtko™ topology for optimum driver integration. Connections include custom 5-way binding posts and a bias voltage connection to a small external power supply. Available finishes are Black Ash (Sonnie's choice), High-Gloss Piano Black (watch out for reflections from your movie screen), Natural Cherry, and Dark Cherry.
Associated Review Equipment
- OPPO BDP-105 Universal Player
- Onkyo PR-SC5509 Processor
- Emotiva XPR-5 Amp
- Behringer EP2500 Sub Amps
- MartinLogan Motion 12 Rear Surrounds
First impressions are indeed powerful. I got chills when I first sat down to the MartinLogan Montis at Sonnie's Cedar Creek Cinema. He had recently discovered a new favorite test track and treated me to Cassandra Wilson’s Strange Fruit.
I loved the spare, strange, spacious sound of that small-ensemble track instantly. There is a single dark trumpet, located somewhere out in left field, treated with a deep but localized reverb effect, a sassy Dobro lap guitar up close on the right, played with slide in a stabbing, percussive style, a looming stand-up bass extending from cellar to attic, and Cassandra's big alto-tenor voice crooning on about strange fruit and southern trees. These four sounds solidly filled their assigned spaces, yet there were wide empty areas between them and the Montis rendered the emptiness as stark as deep space before the Big Bang. The soundstage from the Montis in this initial setup was very forward, very in your face. Imaging was big and solid, almost massive. The overall presentation from the Montis was compelling, almost as though Cassandra herself had materialized to deliver a sharp slap on the cheek just to make sure we were paying attention.
Wish You Were Here
A few words about imaging, which I sometimes like to call Image Clarity, a more descriptive term. I am used to thinking in terms of sharp, tight Image Clarity being preferred over broader, larger image sizes. My experience has been that larger images seems softer, vague, less substantial, less convincing. There are those who say they find a larger image more convincing because it is closer to the size of the actual instrument recorded. This turns out to be more a result of mic choices and techniques in the studio than anything else, and a tighter image is usually more naturally representative of modern microphone recording techniques.
The imaging coming from the Montis at this point, however, was large and very solid and substantial. I was quite taken aback by it, wondering if larger imaging might be a characteristic of the Montis in general. By coincidence, I have a pair of MartinLogan EM-ESL speakers at home in the review process, little brothers to the Montis, and know them to be capable of very sharp imaging. So, while figuring the Montis to be able to produce sharp Image Clarity, this big-bodied imaging had its own appeal, and I just went ahead and had fun with it.
One might also wonder if such a large transducer area would tend to produce a softer Image size, but this is not necessarily the case. A wide panel with a highly consistent radiation pattern should be perceived as a point source. As we would later find out, very tight Image Clarity would be available with the Montis depending on placement and angle.
I listened to a number of tracks during this first session, and enjoyed the up-front presentation. The amount of detail being delivered almost made the senses spin with confusion and excitement at the same time.
As enjoyable as it was, the soundstage was missing qualities that we had experienced with other speakers in that room, and Sonnie wanted to go questing for greater soundstage depth.
The Quest for the Perfect Soundstage
The better part of a day was spent in search of that deeper soundstage - not that it was so hard to find, but we were being super picky about its qualities. The first move was to simply turn the speakers to widen their listening angles - smaller toe-in angle for greater off-axis listening angle. The result was imaging that was very mushy and vague. Sonnie had tried this once and decided not to go further. This time we went well beyond that point to a much wider angle (less toe-in), and the soundstage deepened appreciably, with much sharper imaging. The setup was worthy of being documented, and we sampled a number of tracks there, but there was still a quality we were not satisfied with, and that was the Depth Acuity of the soundstage, the sense of precision placement from front-to-back.
The Montis progressively made their way closer to the front wall of the room, with different angles tried at each stop along the way. The small stage at the front of the room has been an impediment to this type of position testing in the past. Since our last speaker evaluation get-together in November, Sonnie had removed sections of the stage where the front left and right speakers would stand so they could come within a foot of the wall, certainly as close as would ever be needed.
As we approached the wall, the soundstage was being pushed further away from the LP, which Sonnie liked, but I also felt that as it moved further away it was becoming shallower again, as though it was being compressed against the front wall of the room. And the Depth Acuity we were seeking seemed still to elude us.
In an effort to get a better grasp on the variables we were working with, we moved the speakers back to the starting point. My sense was that a more open listening angle (more off-axis, less toe-in) gave nice depth of soundstage, but upper-mid frequencies were lost that were needed for the Depth Acuity I was after. Sonnie's sense was that if the angle closed down too far, the soundstage moved forward with the “in your face” quality and the depth he was seeking was lost. So we were trying to find a compromise angle that satisfied both of those requirements.
Ultimately we did find that angle, and it ended up being the final resting place, not to be confused with graveyard terminology, for the Montis speakers in the room so far. Measurement plots shown later were all taken with this setup, unless otherwise indicated:
- Speaker plane (between front center points) to ear plane = 69 in
- Speaker spacing center to center = 108 in
- Speaker plane to front wall = 85 in
- Speakers to side walls = 60 in
- Toe-in = 15 deg
- Listening Angle = 21.5 deg off-axis
Part of what made this a tedious process was that physical measurements were taken at every point along the way. We were being careful to ensure that the speakers were symmetrically placed within the room. We verified the dist aances from the side walls, from the front wall, and from speakers to LP, and verified symmetrical off-axis listening angles - all of this over and over. We also ensured the two speakers were leveled properly for proper vertical angle relative to the LP. That was done once, assuming it would not change as we moved the speakers around.
We ended up following MartinLogan’s advice for setting symmetrical toe-in angles. This involves using a broad-beamed flashlight pointing straight forward from the listener’s chin, and, without moving the head, looking left and right at the flashlight’s reflection point - a short vertical line - on the electrostatic panels to be sure they are visually the same distance from the inner panel edge (we counted panel perforations to be sure). The success of this method also requires that the listener’s head is precisely centered between the speakers. Visual reference points beyond the speakers were located so that even a fraction of an inch off-center head location could be detected.
No doubt some readers at this point are thinking, “Are you kidding me? These guys are nuts!” No argument that all those measurements seem a bit over the top, nor about our being nuts, partly about exceptional sonics and willing to go to crazy lengths to achieve them. Experience setting up panel speakers has shown that, because of their more directive nature, small errors in placement can make it difficult to get the kind of Image Clarity and soundstage we favor. Reports by seasoned panel speaker users tend to verify the need for this kind of obsessively tedious attention to detail.
The final result, once we found it and shaved the last fractions of inches from errors of measurement, was just what we had hoped for and we felt that none of the time getting there had been wasted. You only have to do all of that moving and measuring once, then mark reference points carefully, and from there it is all fun listening time. It is worth the effort if you are nuts about magnificent sound like we are.
The point of all this in relation to the MartinLogan Montis electrostatic speakers is that they are second to none in their ability to produce a stunning soundstage with sharp, precise Images and deep open space in between. As previously mentioned, the size of the electrostatic panels would work against us if there was any imprecision involved. It is a testament to the engineering & consistency of production of the Montis that their frequency response and dispersion characteristics are exceptionally consistent and well-controlled, making our desired results possible.
Another setup fine point: Watch those rear reflections. You have to pay attention to where all that rear-projected energy is going. The front wall of the Cedar Creek Cinema room breaks up the rear waves from the Montis nicely. Huge subwoofer cabinets are set at 45 degree angles facing corner traps, and have dissipation panels covering their broad backs. Impulse diagrams in a later section will show the panels’ rear waves to be dissipated in this room.
Vertical Sweet Spot Study
An additional study was completed taking frequency response measurements every two inches up the height of the panel to find its area of most consistent frequency response, the vertical sweet spot for the panel. I had first done this on the MartinLogan EM-ESL being reviewed back at home and was surprised to find it was well below the center line of the panel.
The Montis was tilted forward so the panel stood vertically straight up and measurements were taken at a distance of 18 inches in front of it. Here is the entire family of curves for the Montis.
After a somewhat tedious process of sorting through groups of adjacent curves, it was seen that there are potentially two vertical sweet-spot zones for the Montis, the main, larger one between 28 in and 36 in up the face of the panel from the floor, and another between 38 in and 44 in up from the floor.
It is doubtful that there is a perceptibly different sound between these two regions of the panel, but keeping the LP located perpendicular to the center of one of these zones will provide the best Image and soundstage stability with LP adjustments for comfort.
Picking the larger and lower of the two, the panels should ideally be angled so that a line perpendicular to the 32-in-high center line of that area aims straight at ear height at the LP. Placing the flat backside of a laser distance meter against that line on the front of the panel gave us a perfect alignment indicator. Our Montis were already angled properly, and the curves below show the consistency with height variation at the listener position.
A Loudspeaker or a Tool?
As a listener, my idea of the possibilities for using a pair of speakers has changed a lot in recent years. The standard equilateral triangle with on-axis aiming was mildly satisfying for many years. Then began the period of experimenting with placement and angle to optimize Image Clarity and soundstage, essentially “getting the best out of a pair of speakers.”
With the MartinLogan Montis, I found myself thinking less in terms of having speakers to optimize and more in terms of having a pair of sophisticated audio transducer tools to work with. The key characteristics of the electrostatic panel:
- A single transducer that performs with:
- Extremely low distortion, as the panel does not handle low frequencies and movements are very small.
- Excellent frequency response.
- Excellent phase linearity.
- Effortless high-SPL capability.
- Virtual-point-source precision.
- Near-perfect matching between speaker pairs.
- Perfect time alignment through the midrange and high frequencies because, well, there is only one transducer doing all the work.
- Ultra fast responsiveness. There is almost no mass to be moved, so the panel starts instantly when called upon and stops just as quickly. With the Montis, the concept applies to low frequencies, too. The sealed woofer/low-mid speaker that covers up to the 340 Hz crossover point is over-damped - meaning fast response where a cone speaker in a sealed box is concerned - with low-frequency response extended through DSP tuning.
- The high directionality, resulting in reduced room interaction, inherent in a dipole panel speaker. But not too high - the curved panel unique to MartinLogan’s design provides enough dispersion to allow off-axis listening angles where desired. That dipole directionality also gives the user a very good idea where sound from the panel will be traveling -- the rear wave from the panel contains the same amount of energy and the same directionality as the front wave. The strength of that rear wave means it must be dealt with carefully, which some may see as a downside, but its inherent directionality makes it easy to see the path it will be traveling and allows a little room treatment to go a long way.
Many listeners will choose to stick with the standard on-axis orientation for the MartinLogan Montis speakers and will attain a very nice soundstage, although it will have little or no depth. With this orientation, frequency response will be quite flat.
A slight downside of using an off-axis orientation to get a deeper soundstage is slightly drooping high-frequency response above about 4 kHz. I have worked with different speakers in a similar configuration with that high-frequency droop, knowing it was there, and not minding it, considering it to be a small sacrifice for the soundstage being experienced. Some listeners might be more annoyed by that droop. For others, the rolloff will be about what they are already used to with popular target curves. We all have our preferences.
So why not use a little EQ to lift those high frequencies and flatten them out again? What would be wrong with using a properly applied filter to compensate for that rolloff?
There was a time when such a notion would be grounds for lynching among those claiming to be serious listeners. I believe that day to be long gone, although there will always be some who will be horror-stricken by the notion. Back when the only ways to achieve it involved methods that were either imprecise or added significant amounts of noise or distortion, there would have been more reason for that kind of reaction. Nowadays there are so many ways to apply precise equalization with imperceptible signal degradation that to avoid equalization on principle becomes exactly that -- a matter of principle and nothing more. I appreciate a minimalist signal path as much as the next fellow, but when there is reason to do otherwise and no downside, I can be practical about it, too.
Those of you who know Sonnie personally know that he is all about practicality. If there is, to his ears, an audible upside, and no audible downside, just do it. And his ears, while only being put to test in the critical listening arena for a couple of years now, are getting pretty good at catching fine detail.
We decided to equalize the Montis using Audyssey MultEQ Pro along with the MultEQ XT32 in Sonnie’s Onkyo PR-SC5509 Preamp. It would be easy to A-B compare the results with the non-equalized setting. The final result, which reflects some minor subwoofer integration work after I left, are shown in measurement plots below. Downright impressive on paper, but how did they sound?
In the introduction to this review, I said there were two points where I experienced a moment where the heart swells up a bit and you feel like something memorable is taking place. That is how I felt at this point in the process with Audyssey MultEQ applied.
The resulting soundstage was wide, deep enough to completely fill the room from LP to front wall and beyond, excellent Depth Acuity, the frequency response was silky smooth with extended highs clear to 10 kHz -- the smoothness of the response helped keep it from seeming overly bright. This was attained using four Audyssey mic measurement points: center of head, then 6 inches left, then 6 inches right, then back to center of head (we usually use a tight 8-point pattern, but this gave results we were happy with).
Could the same effect be accomplished with parametric equalization? In an experiment using foobar2000, the George Yohng VST Wrapper, and Reaper’s ReaEQ Parametric EQ VST, all free downloads, using only two bands of parametric EQ applied equally to both channels - a peak filter cutting back a boxy-sounding resonance at 350 Hz and a 5 kHz high shelf boosting the treble to nearly flat - essentially the same sound was obtained. Sonnie said he could not tell the difference in a brief A-B comparison.
No doubt there are those who would judge any equalization approach to be flawed for serious listening purposes, and would even, with opportunity to hear the results, allow themselves to be swayed by pre-bias and claim they could hear some horrible side-effect. But anyone who heard the result as we did, and listened with honest, unbiased ears, would have a hard time finding the sound to be anything but stellar, in my assessment absolutely worthy of being counted among a handful of top listening experiences.
One experiment with Audyssey’s Dynamic EQ for bass boost brought about an interesting result. In certain passages, it caused some drifting Images in the soundstage. At first, Sonnie thought I was making it up, and we had to put it to an A-B test. While it was not a horribly destructive effect, it was there and easily detectable on certain test tracks. Cassandra’s voice on Strange Fruit, slightly left of center in the mix, drifted toward mix center as her voice trailed off at the end of certain phrases. And on The World's Green Laughter, by the B-52’s, the nonsense male vocalizations from the right of the mix danced around instead of staying in place as they should have. So my recommendation was to stay away from Dynamic EQ for two-channel listening, and Sonnie was ultimately able to get the excellent bass response shown without using Dynamic EQ. It is a picky matter for those picky about their imaging. But when voices start wandering across the soundstage on different notes, I have to set a firm boundary for my purposes.
The critical part played by the Montis speakers in all of this was their ability to deliver all the energy needed to fill that room with squeaky-clean, super-responsive energy with well-controlled frequency and phase response so that only minimal equalization was needed, all with point-source precision and dispersion that allowed for an enviable soundstage with little special room treatment. The notion that a lesser speaker could have been used instead with more extensive equalization and given the same result as the MartinLogan Montis speakers has not been our experience in that environment, and we have tried. I have heard over a dozen different worthy speaker pairs carefully set up for best performance in that room, all potential candidates to fulfill the role the Montis now occupy, and can tell you that none came anywhere close to performing like the Montis. A few might be said to do as well in one category or another, but the Montis were truly firing on all sonic cylinders, and have set a high standard to be met in the future.
Unless indicated, measurement plots were taken with the setup indicated in the “Quest for Soundstage” section above.
Our final setup for the Montis gave us the frequency response shown by the red curve below. We are far from being able to tell from simple measurements alone when we are close to achieving the desired soundstage and Image Clarity. The frequencies from 300 Hz to 3 kHz contains critical localization information, with sharp localization logically requiring strength in the 1 to 3 kHz “presence” band. I believe the relative weakness in that band in the intermediate position (blue) may have contributed to the lack of distinct depth localization and acuity at that setup.
Average of Left & Right speakers (which were tightly matched), 6th octave smoothing.
Here Audyssey MultEQ is applied. The StageX center channel with subwoofer (blue), is beautifully integrated using techniques taught by Mark Seaton of Seaton Sound. The movie target curve gives the sharper rolloff above 4 kHz (blue & red), while the music target curve keeps the highs stronger to beyond 10 kHz (lt green, dk green). Bass response is strong to 40 Hz without subwoofers (dk green), to below 20 Hz with subwoofers (blue, red, lt green).
We could easily switch Audyssey MultEQ on and off (gold). With music, I enjoyed each for its own character, Sonnie clearly preferred Audyssey MultEQ on.
Left or Center speaker (left & right were tightly matched), 3rd octave smoothing.
The Montis frequency rolloff with our off-axis setup is gentle and steady. Correction with parametric EQ was easily accomplished using a single high-frequency shelf filter for high-frequency flattening and a single peak filter to tame the “boxy” peak at 350 Hz. The medium-wide peak between 1kHz and 2 kHz was left unattenuated because of its importance to Image Clarity.
Left speaker, no Audyssey MultEQ, without & with minimalist parametric EQ correction, 6th octave smoothing.
Montis distortion is below 0.5% from 100 Hz to 1 kHz, below 1% to 10 kHz, and 2nd harmonic contribution, generally considered the most audible and annoying, stays below 0.5%. Woofer/low-mid driver distortion stays below 1% through the useable range.
Left speaker, no Audyssey MultEQ, 6th octave smoothing.
Montis step response shows all ringing components to die out within 2 to 3 cycles, very fast. The strongest component corresponds to the low-frequency limit, and even that component is only slightly slower to die out. All this indicates an exceptionally responsive delivery.
The example curve shows a reflection which could be disruptive to good Image Clarity. The second curve shows the rear wave from the Montis in Cedar Creek Cinema to be well dissipated.
The StageX Music setting overlaid curves (3) and Movie setting overlaid curves (5) show the sound quality variance to be inaudible as the StageX is tilted higher or lower to reach different rows of seats. Left/right off-axis variance is very small in the left and right front seats, farthest off-axis.
StageX distortion is below 1% to 1 kHz, below 1.5% beyond, and 2nd harmonic contribution stays exceptionally low.
StageX step response indicates very quick responsiveness.
I enjoyed listening with Audyssey MultEQ on and off, each for its own qualities. With Audyssey on, the frequency response was studio-control-room flat, beautifully and brutally truthful at once, and livelier than might be expected for being so flat.
Frequency Response, Bass Extension
Frequency Response, Bass Extension
I have rarely heard better. The Montis completely disappeared, Image Clarity was sharp and rock-solid, Depth Acuity precisely defined. While I enjoyed the character of the unequalized setup, there is enough imaging information contained at higher frequencies by the applied equalization that I had to favor the EQ for the edge it put on the Image Clarity.
Imaging and Soundstage
Imaging and Soundstage
The Montis are capable of searing volume, even in a larger room like Cedar Creek Cinema. The large electrostatic panels move air effortlessly. There was never any sign of distortion from them. The hybrid design helps assure those low distortion numbers by keeping panel excursion to a minimum.
Dynamics and Headroom
Dynamics and Headroom
The woofer/low-mid driver was called upon to deliver all the bass it could without subwoofer help. The overdamped nature of the sealed-box design helps control the excursions by that driver and protect from bottoming-out conditions.
Nickel Creek, Reasons Why - This was studio-control-room-quality sound, very flat and accurate, truthful and still very much alive. I have sometimes heard speakers flattened with EQ and it felt like the life had been squeezed out of them. The small amounts of speaker coloration that give a speaker its individual voicing can be so beguiling. Flatten it with EQ and we are sometimes disappointed. “Aw, now I have to listen to the music.” With a little patience, the more truthful presentation settles in and we can find ourselves appreciating the music with newfound clarity.
Ah, but there is more to the story. The above seems to apply consistently in a setup with a flat (no depth) soundstage. A deep soundstage is affected in the opposite way by flattened frequency response. The high-frequency rolloff - from the off-axis listening listening angle that helped produce the deep soundstage - gets boosted and Image Clarity is often enhanced to the point of soundstage POP and SIZZLE. The result can be nothing short of breathtaking.
That very transformation occurred with Audyssey MultEQ applied to our Montis setup - the EQ-flattened response had its own liveliness even with its honest flatness. The muted strums and plucks of the mandolin had never sounded more balanced and clear in the mix. Their intimate quality was moved forward like they contained some secret that they had never before been able to reveal, and the equalized Montis were the first to coax it out of them.
The B-52's, Ain't it a Shame - NO Audyssey: The darker quality of the sound and soundstage made the song seem a bit muddled to me at first. I was getting used to the back-and-forth contrast of switching Audyssey MultEQ on and off, but sometimes that contrast left a strong impression like this.
WITH Audyssey: The sheen on Cindy’s vocals was so glossy smooth. I have heard this song on many speakers, and this was how it was meant to be heard. One of my main imaging test tracks, that sheen was like a fine coating on her voice, more like a fine stain ingrained in its vibrations, no smearing whatsoever.
Nickel Creek, Ode to a Butterfly - NO Audyssey: Very alive, a bit “in your face.” The fiddle had a silky brightness, the lower mandolin notes and guitar picking a more urgent realism even with the off-axis coloration. The mix was very alive and lively.
WITH Audyssey: The mix was tamer, more even, the Studio Experience again, still alive but more refined.
The B-52's, Good Stuff - NO Audyssey: I loved the vocal harmonies, the way the voices combined and worked together in the natural soundstage.
WITH Audyssey: This felt like a truth experience, like Kate singing on truth serum, lots of beautiful, smooth highs. “Kiss you nice,” the vocal quality is sharp, kissed and tingling, excited. The walking bass line was especially clean, crisp and tight. The track was almost enticing, making me wish there was a way to be trapped in the room with these speakers, these tracks, no way they could get old sounding this good.
Usually the Audyssey soundstage seemed very natural and relaxed. But once in awhile it seemed to contain a tension that I did not hear without Audyssey treatment.
The B-52's, Revolution Earth - NO Audyssey, WITH Audyssey: I switched back and forth several times, allowing a little settle time for each change. The conclusion? “I LIKE BOTH!” Both listening modes sound great with this track. Stronger bass line without, richer harmonics with. The bass feels stronger, more solid, more alive without, the snare drum WHACK is bigger and more joyful with, a happier whack if there ever was one.
After the settle time for each switch, I did not want to change back to the other mode. Each had its own way of revealing detail, each was equally representative of the music being played.
The B-52's, The World's Green Laughter - WITH Audyssey: There is so much crispness about this track, it is simply yummy.
The B-52's, Vision of a Kiss - WITH Audyssey: The bass has depth and a funky snap.
NO Audyssey: The tone is pulled back, the soundstage deeper and more relaxed with this track.
WITH Audyssey again: So much ENERGY!
Tower of Power, Fanfare, You Know It - WITH Audyssey: The brass just sizzles.The percussion has a slap with a silky richness.
Scott Davies, Rachmaninoff, Variations on a theme of Corelli - NO Audyssey: Without, the sparkle was definitely missing from the Overs piano, making it seem dull and withdrawn.
WITH Audyssey, the lid is open and the instrument’s unique tonality is on display -- you witness a rounded sparkle with each hammer strike, like the instrument’s sound generator is partly string and partly a bell.
Joni Mitchell, California - WITH Audyssey: The guitar strums and picks are deep and crisp and even, no darkness here. Joni’s vocal resonance is well controlled, round but never too big.
Melody Gardot, Baby I'm a Fool - WITH Audyssey: Melody’s voice, the orchestra, the guitar, all have a depth and richness without excessive resonance, a balance where thick and light coexist without conflict.
Radiohead, 15 Step - WITH Audyssey: The left guitar is a good two feet to the left of the speaker. The speaker is not in evidence from the sound, other than the fact the sound would not be there without it.
Muse, Knights of Cydonia - WITH Audyssey: This track was turned up to the sizzle point, louder than I ever listen without hearing protection, which of course means never for critical listening. There was no evidence of the Montis getting tired or feeling strained in the slightest.
Simply delightful. With the Montis, there are no hidden secrets or zingers to avoid, no feeling of having to hold back in some area for fear of over-stressing. They give and give and always seem to have more to give, a bottomless reservoir of clean, balanced sound energy to call upon as needed.
Overall Listening Experience
Overall Listening Experience
2.1 Music Evaluation
Cassandra Wilson, Strange Fruit
Yello, Solar Driftwood
Talking Heads, Take Me to the River
Spyro Gyra, Breakfast at Igor's
Melody Gardot, Baby I'm a Fool
The lowest notes from the standup bass on Strange Fruit go down to 50 Hz. Sonnie's subwoofers picked up those lowest tones nicely, adding a solid bottom to this new favorite test track. In Sonnie's room, the sealed Montis get a little peaky and uneven before they roll off at 45 Hz. With our soundstage requirements, we did not attempt to find a setup that would flatten out their lower bass range -- their advertised cutoff of 29 Hz indicates they should go lower if positioned for it. With our Audyssey tuning getting us down to 40 Hz and subwoofers available to go lower, we were satisfied with the natural Montis bass response going down to 45 Hz. This was adequate for our two-channel purposes, and always played tight and clean.
When we heard the subterranean sonic depths in Celsius with the subwoofers active, we had new appreciation for their capability with electronic tracks containing slab-shaking tones like these.
Additional tracks like Take Me to the River, Breakfast at Igor's, and Baby I'm a Fool reinforced our appreciation for the lowest bass and drum fundamentals being evened out by the subwoofers. Our final session with the surround mix of Wish You Were Here would also contain some surprise bottom-rattling bass frequencies that I did not know even exist in that work.
As for the Montis and the StageX, their ability to smoothly integrate is a key to their success, and the measurement curves above illustrate how nicely that worked out.
While other models in the Reserve line come with a passive radiator or a second woofer driver, the Montis is the single-driver, sealed-cabinet model of the group. But no aspect of its performance that we witnessed or measured indicated that a Montis owner would be getting shorted in bass capability. The 10-inch aluminum cone woofer, sealed cabinet, 200 watt amplifier drive, and DSP enhancement work together to give the Montis a respectably solid bottom end. And the +/- 10 dB adjustment below 100 Hz gives the user more flexibility in integration with available subwoofers where desired.
Home Theater Evaluation
We watched the Riddick Blu-ray and the StageX finally had its opportunity to show off. The mix was solidly anchored by the StageX. We noted, as we did on several occasions, our appreciation for the result of emphasizing center channel and subwoofer integration. While dialogue never approaches subwoofer frequencies, center-of-screen action can and does, and these days even growls and laughs and punches and vocalizations often end up getting deep low-frequency enhancement for effect. The StageX and its 69 Hz low-frequency limit meshed well with Sonnie's subwoofers, and that front-and-center anchor point, easy to overlook, received our appreciation and praise at key points during the movie.
I occupied numerous sitting and standing positions in Cedar Creek Cinema during the movie, and was impressed by how well the StageX was able to project dialogue throughout the room. The StageX manages to stay neutral while providing just enough emphasis to ensure that dialogue is crisp and clear. Not a word was lost during the movie.
The tuning of the Montis made them seem almost a little standoffish in movie mode. At one point I wondered why they were not providing a more forward presentation. But when just thinking about the movie and not about speakers, nothing was lost or ever seemed subdued or held back, so it might have just been my expectation that a brassier home theater sound might be in order.
All in all, the Montis and StageX worked together to provide an exceptionally transparent home theater experience.
5.1 Music Evaluation - Stuffed Mushrooms
Decades ago on a business trip, in a little Italian restaurant in Dallas, I was convinced to order the stuffed mushroom appetizer, disappointed that the one I had selected was not available that day. Those four little stuffed mushrooms rocked my senses, and I have been searching for good stuffed mushrooms ever since, trying to duplicate that experience.
Back to the present day... A final listening treat for me was with the Montis and the rest of the system in surround mode, subwoofers engaged, and an hour with Pink Floyd’s 2011 surround mix of Wish You Were Here. It was playing when I walked into the room my final evening with Sonnie. After a few minutes I felt like experimenting and put on a couple of other surround mixes I had brought with me. Those mixes seemed congested and cluttered by comparison, so I went back to Wish You Were Here and played the album in its entirety from the beginning.
Superlatives quickly wear out their welcome in reviews like this, and are generally best avoided altogether. However, I would be negligent not to report, hearing that music over the Montis speakers and StageX center, perfectly integrated and set up in that room, how totally blown away I was by the experience, stuffed mushroom style. At least in this case I know where to go to get another fix.
In particular, the integration of the StageX center channel and subwoofers caught my attention again as being seamless and well balanced. A StageX stacked directly on top of a single subwoofer cabinet could not have been more precise.
The saxophone stood out as sounding perfectly and beautifully natural. David Gilmour’s lovely Stratocaster tone was also perfect.
I was very pleased with how well the Montis and StageX worked together to provide a seamless soundstage for this kind of mix. The Montis, especially as we had them set up, were capable of generating a marvelous, huge soundstage, but the center-of-mix sounds would here be directed to the center channel. With many surround systems, the center of a 5.x mix seems small and limited compared to centered 2.x mix sounds. In our case, the Montis and StageX worked together exceptionally well, and the span of the mix from left through center to right had a spacious continuity throughout.
The MartinLogan Montis Hybrid Electrostatic Loudspeakers, at $9,995 per pair MSRP, can rightfully be expected to perform exceptionally as stereo music listening speakers, and they do. Mated with the StageX center channel speaker, they can form the heart of a smashing fine home theater system. I can report without reservation that these speakers are excellent choices for either type of duty.
Downside? As with all dipole panel speakers, their directional nature calls for a little more attention to detail. For most, that will mean an extra half hour to finalize positioning, a miniscule price to pay for the performance gain. For critical listening at any significant volume level, amplification that can deliver high power into extremely low loads is called for.
The user who wishes for a quick setup will get very good results. And the user seeking audio perfection will find few loudspeaker “tools” to work with like the Montis at anywhere near the price range that are more likely to please.