One unavoidable truth of high-end audio shows is the price tags attached to gear often seem to come from a parallel universe where a can of soda costs fifty bucks. After a while, speaker systems with five-figure MSRPs start to seem reasonably priced, especially when they meet or beat what you just heard from a six-figure pair in the room next door. In that context, MartinLogan’s Renaissance ESL 15A speakers ($25,000/pair) came across as a veritable bargain when I demoed them at AXPONA 2016.

MartinLogan speakers are easy to identify thanks to their monolith-shaped enclosures that envelope a transparent electrostatic transducer capable of transforming electricity into sound waves. Thanks to the rather extreme surface area to mass ratio of the mylar membrane, the transient response exhibited by MartinLogan speakers is exceptional. The main catch with electrostatic speakers is they are not very good at handling deep bass, which has led to hybrid designs such as the Renaissance ESL 15A that add woofers to the mix.
Past MartinLogan hybrid designs were greeted with mixed reviews, namely complaints that the bass coming from the dynamic driver (or drivers) did not integrate seamlessly with the electrostatic panel. With the Renaissance ELS 15A, MartinLogan has found a recipe for success. What I heard at the show was seamless, powerful, and even profound. Every track I heard came through with a clarity that is equaled by very few systems at the show. Granted, the usual electrostat caveat applies—you must sit in the sweet-spot to get the best effect—but that's true for many 2-channel audio supersystems.
The MartinLogan Renaissance ESL 15A speaker system with Anthem Room Correction.
Ultimately, the reason the ESL 15As succeed is each speaker gets its own dedicated dual-opposed subwoofer with built-in ARC room EQ (Anthem Room Correction). It’s rather akin to the approach I take with my sound systems an always recommend to anyone looking for a maximum performance out of their speakers—add subs and use EQ! What it boils down to is dual subs plus DSP equals better bass. MartinLogan noted that going forward, new (more affordable) models will be introduced that use the integrated dual-opposed powered woofer approach but at lower price points.

Each Renaissance ESL 15A includes a 12" dual-opposed bass module (i.e. subwoofer) that serves as a pedestal for the electrostatic panel. Each driver gets its own 500-watt amp, so a pair of towers comes equipped with 2000 watts of bass-making power right off the bat. The result is a frequency response spec of 22 Hz to 21 kHz +/-3dB—rarefied territory for a 2-channel audiophile speaker system than (only) costs as much as a Toyota Camry—as opposed to the Bugatti and Lamborghini-priced systems found in other rooms.

I can’t say much about the McIntosh gear powering the system except to note that the MC1.2KW monoblock amps featured the largest power meters I have seen on any amp, truly impressive. With over a kilowatt going to each speaker, there was no shortage of power. As far as I could tell, distortion and noise were below any threshold that would matter.

The defining moment of the demo was when I heard Bob Dylan playing harmonica on "Man in the Long Black Coat" and thought to myself: "Wow, that sounds like he’s really in the room." There's no mistaking Bob's harmonica, it's as good a point of reference as any I know of. Sara K’s voice on "Hobo" was full of emotion that was amplified by the system’s transparency—the ESL 15As passed the female vocals test with flying colors. "Acoustic Alchemy" by Take Five brought it home with dynamic drums, harmonious horns, bountiful bass, and great guitar.

Bravo to MartinLogan for adopting an approach to bass that aligns with the experiences of so many AVS members. Subwoofers combined with room EQ offer the best hope of quickly and easily taming some of the peaks and dips in bass response that are caused by room interactions. Hopefully the Renaissance ESL 15A will spark a revolution in high-end audio, bringing to an end the thinking that results in the gargantuan full-range passive speaker systems system that—in my humble opinion—do not handle deep bass as deftly as the Renaissance ESL 15As.

Click here to check out more reports from AXPONA 2016.