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Reviewer: Edward Barker
Analog: Scheu Premier II with Schroeder DPS arm and Allaerts MC1B MK II cartridge, Cartridge Man Conductor air bearing, Eminent Technology air brearing, Garrard 301 (custom plinth) with Hadcock 242 SE and Music Makers models 2 & 3; Systemdek Transcription with Mission 774 and Empire MC100 VdH; Thorens 320/150/Shure ED75; Audiomeca Model 3 uni-pivot; Koetsu Urushi; Sansui 719 Tuner
Phonostages: Tom Evans Groove Plus; Lite Audio Valve by Nich Wilsher DIY, Garrard Missing Link II, Gram Slee Era Gold Mk 5 [on extended loan]
Digital: Copland CD 288 with Pacific Microsonics HDCD chipset.
Preamplifier: Canary 803 four-box preamplifier with NOS valves, Rogue Audio Model 99 [on loan]
Amplifier: Rogue 150 Monoblocks with Siemens EL34s; Rogue 88 Magnum; BBC AM84A Monoblocks restored & recapped, Beard 100, Siemens Klangfilm monoblocks, various Yamaha and Rotel transistor amps
Speakers: Mårten Design Coltrane Altos; Living Voice OBXR2 [on extended loan], Isophon open baffle project, horn project with TAD 4001s/Coral 501s/401 Le Cleach horns by Martin Seldon
Ancillaries: Clearlight Audio NFT cabling; Silver Arrow mains, Diy shelves made from layers of birch ply with Clearlight Audio RDC cones, Clearlight Audio RDC cones under Garrard and Scheu Motor, Teres turntable battery power supply, Duende Criatura Valve Rings, Feickert Audio Turntable Protractor, Audio Magic mini stealth power condtioner, Living Voice Mystic Matt
Review Component Retail: $24,000/pr
|One day early last year, three stalwart audiophiles saddled up and set off from their homes in search of that secular Grail: the Ultimate Speaker. They rode out across many lands and rowed over many seas, plowed through storms and hallucinated through heat-crazed deserts, until eventually they knocked up against the edge of the Arctic Circle, where, in the pretty town of Gothenburg/Sweden, they found a young man who was indeed building such a thing. He'd been at this crazy dream of his since the age of 12 and there was a buzz about among aficionados that he might just have pulled it off. It was called the Mårten Design Coltrane. The speaker wasn't the size of three apartment blocks. It wasn't carved out of Easter Island Granite. In fact, it didn't really look like the Ultimate Speaker at all. By the next day, one of them signed as UK distributor and the others placed their orders with him on the spot. Two ordered full Coltranes while I made the nod on the diminutive smaller brother, the Coltrane Alto, the subject of this review.
Gothenburg by the way is another brilliant place for audio tourism and the general kind as well. It's actually a Gulf Stream-warmed port and here's a short piece sketching the flavor of the place - scroll down till you see Gothenburg. We had a full-on magical time chatting to exotic students in the late night bars (the girls there seem to wear brightly colored turbans instead of hats). We ended up taking 50's style trams to get downtown. You get reindeer burgers served on boat-shaped porcelain, too. It's that kinda place.
So anyway, some months later, we learned that our Coltranes were finally making their way down from Sweden. Was I nervous? You bet. After all, it's one thing to hear a speaker in a strange room in a distant land, quite another to bring them home paid for in advance. And we had committed truly absurd sums for the privilege. So, a buzz at the door, a van outside. Four boxes. One of those days.
So I tell myself, calm yerself down, get a cuppa tea, steady yer nerves, open that cardboard and hey, presto. There they are, these gleaming, lush, carbon fibre, half sculpture/half alien creatures lying beached in their boxes. Wow. I took them out, bolted the stainless steel stands to the cabinets and with some considerable trepidation, fired 'em up. And?
|And I started to think. "Are you totally insane? After all, you live with the Living Voice OBXR2 which is a work of art among speakers and everything you could want." "Yes, yes, yes, I know. But what about the journey, what about the Ultimate Speaker? Isn't that what you wanted to find?" And that's true. It's perfectly natural to think one has found enlightenment and then turn around a few years later and have another look about. Specifically, the questions I had in my mind at the time were: "Is there anything out there significantly better than the OBXR2 so that I'll have to let those go" and the second, "I know there's more bass out there. Do I need it?" These were the questions that the Coltrane Altos were being asked. How did they respond?
Not a lot. At the time, they sounded polite and pretty constricted. Like an embarrassed guest. It turns out they needed a bit of running in. And I can confirm that. They need to be run in for a year. That's right. For a year. One entire friggin' year of your life. I swear I'm not making this up. I even paid for this privilege, remember? Had I reviewed them even six months ago when they were starting to limber up, the review would have read along the lines of "you know when you make one of them catastrophic mistakes? Well, this wasn't one of them but it wasn't a party neither."
|In fact, the distributor's pair of Coltranes are going back to Roy Gregory of HiFi+ to be re-reviewed because he had them when they'd only been run in for 3 months only. Everyone from Roy on over sez they simply aren't the same speaker. This is partially going to be due to the massive crossovers but a lot of it is down to the Ceramic Thiele/Accuton drivers. Ditto for the Kharmas,|
|apparently. On the subject of Roy Gregory, it appears he was seriously smitten by the Coltrane Statements at CES and is soon going to be making his own pilgrimage up to Gothenburg to have another look-see. Me? I think Mårten head honcho Leif has gone stark raving bonkers and dived right over the top. Just because there are crazies in the Far East who want to spend £150K on a speaker doesn't mean one has to spend one's time indulging them. Okay, so each 2-inch diamond midrange costs £10,000 but what I'd really like for Leif to be looking at is concentrating on getting more efficiency from his speakers. But that's me being a gripe.
Back to the Altos and fast-forward one year. What do they sound like now? Wait a second. Have I mentioned my existential beliefs? In my expert opinion, one of the main purposes and designs of the universe is to evolve various types of music and to co-evolve things capable of appreciating it. Okay? And it turns out you need speakers to do this at home. If you're an audiophile, make that good speakers. How would you go about doing that?
How about this for a recipe? Make the cabinet out of a single monocoque pure carbon fibre construction. Bolt the cabinet to a stainless steel plinth set on three wide cone feet under which you put carbon fibre Diamond Racing feet plugs. Allow for the speakers to lean back slightly and for its degree of lean (its timing coherence) to be altered via raising and lowering the rear footer. Place the tweeter and midrange so they fire from the front to keep the front baffle as narrow as possible; place the bass unit so it fires downwards from the bottom of the monocoque speaker body. Garnish with some very serious crossover work indeed and what you'll get in the end is a small speaker that can, and indeed will if asked, project the musical equivalent of the Sistine Chapel right into your listening room. Yessir. Am I exaggerating? A bit. But let's leave the appraisal for later.
|Make no mistake, the boat-tail shape of the chassis is pretty unusual and the taper from top to bottom ensures that there are no parallel surfaces at all. Then take a look at the drivers: the famous Accuton/Thiele ceramics. Mårten Design is one of a very few speakers builders who uses a full complement of Accutons across the audible range. Others like Kharma and Avalon don't use their bass units. And there are audible benefits to using Accutons in the bass. When successfully integrated, the qualities that make these drivers special extend seamlessly all the way down the spectrum. The crossovers in a three-way system are pretty critical and it's good to see that Mårten takes them very seriously indeed. Hand-wound inductors and Mundorf capacitors for example. This attention to detail stretches to the biwired WBT binding posts, which connect to the drivers via the astonishingly expensive and high-tech Jorma Design cabling, something designer Leif Olofsson chose after initially specifying Valhalla. A single port fires cleverly down through the stainless steel tube. Know what though? I don't like the WBT posts' position. They insert from below. If you have heavy cables, they will fall out. Sure you can hook up some safety wire but I end up putting the connectors through the horizontal holes.
The overall effect of the speaker is slim and superbly elegant. There's a touch of the Great Gatsby. They look like they cost a fortune and there's a touch of a bygone era to them, what with the deep shine of the carbon fibre and the luster of the wood trim (available in four different woods - cherry, oak, maple and birch). Oddly for a speaker of this quality, the other two feet are not adjustable so leveling them is almost impossible without using shims. Are we crazy here? These speakers cost £14,500 and you can't level them? I hope Mårten Design will look at this issue urgently. They do provide small jumpers of Jorma Cable issue for those preferring to single wire. The speakers themselves don't have grilles but the Accuton drivers sport metal grills to protect the vulnerable ceramic membranes. Both mid and high drivers also have Bybee filters though to contain costs (what?) the Bybee on the bass unit had to be been dispensed with.
|The speakers are designed to be extremely room-friendly and so they prove. They can be placed close to walls and because of the wide dispersion of the Accuton drivers, placement is much less critical than I'm used to with the Living Voices. Fact is, they can be successfully fired either somewhat toed-in or almost flat. A lot will depend on the room size and shape itself. The main issue of course is bass integration and overhang. With a driver flat to 27Hz, bass is going to be a real issue in any room. If you place the speakers at points that divide the room in thirds, you may well find that bass reinforcement gets out of hand. Naturally, any speaker with serious bass is going to create problems in some rooms but the wide dispersion of the other units should mean they are more room-friendly than most.
So having taken a tour of some of the outstanding features, let's take a peak at the downsides. The first and most important to me is that these non-boxes are only 87dB efficient, with a load impedance dipping to 3.9 ohms. In practice this means that we can completely forget a lovely 20-watt amp like my BBC monoblocks. 60wpc? Those work but frankly, we want more. 150 watts is more like it so I was forced to move from the Rogue 88 or 90 to the 150s. Given how big a fan I am of the Rogue Audio stereo amps, this was something of an effrontery. Anyhow. At first I tried the 150s using Siemens NOS EL34s, but I ended up clipping those too and even using KT88s presented a potential issue. Don't say you haven't been warned.
|So how do my Ultimate Speakers sound? After proper run-in, the Mårtens want to involve us in the experience of being at these players' feet. They want us to be utterly involved, swept away by the performance. Calling them Coltranes is no boast. Turn the volume up and it's like being confronted with not music as such but the experience thereof. These are some of the most involving creatures I've ever come across. My life with them revolves around listening at low levels during the day where frankly they are fine but thankfully nothing like the astonishing creatures they become later in the evening with a drink and the volume cranked up. It's like, "shall we go to a Crosby Still Nash & Young concert?" And that's what happens. After two sides of a record, you come away stunned and emotionally drained. Don't even think about putting another record on until you've digested, lived through and absorbed what just happened. You can of course. It's like watching a double feature. But what it ain't is watching TV. You're living about as close to what the artists are hoping to give you as I can think of, barring (and sometimes even exceeding) actually being there.
Even on CD, the speakers immediately reveal an exceptional level of purity, both on a timbral/tonal level and another stemming from definition, rendition of detail and dynamics. John Williams' interpretation of Villa Lobos' Five Preludes [Sony Classics] reveals every nuance of fingering and is so resolved there is no question you can hear his own emotions as they are transmitted through the guitar. The minute hesitations, the subtle shifts of timing and fingering, even a distant influence of Kodo in his playing. Spectacular.
|With the exception of the big Coltranes in terms of integration of bass and lower bass with the rest of the spectrum, this is the best I've come across. It's not just a question of sheer speed, tautness and delicacy; not just the issue of reproducing harmonics in the bass and lower mids; over-egging or under-egging the pudding. There is no exaggeration but instead, bass comes across believably and it's clearly audible that any slowness or soft edges are there only because an instrument actually plays bass that way. Anyone interested in what's possible as far as bass reproduction goes should make a big effort to hunt these speakers down. You won't be disappointed. Yes you can get more (though I can't imagine what you would do with it) but purer and truer? I'd be amazed. The success of the carbon fibre chassis at reducing colorations and the inherent qualities of the driver itself produces bass that is agile, taut yet naturally expansive and large. This means not just great extension but also how the harmonics of the lower mids and mids themselves are rendered. There is a plethora of statement speakers that sport little integration between the bass and mids - where the bass appears semi-detached at best. The Mårtens are among the finest examples of base integration I've come across and the effect is magical.
As we all know, there's details and then there's detail. The kind that interests me gets me more involved in the music as an artistic event rather than an exercise in microscopy. Having a relatively resolved system, I'm not really looking for new details nor really expecting them. So it comes as a surprise to hear the quality of Red Garland's piano on Cooking with the Miles Davis Quintet [Prestige 7094]. I've never heard a recorded piano sound anything like real life. And this one doesn't much either. Yet for the first time I can hear the distinctive way in which the piano's hammers are hitting the string and recognize that the hammers are covered with densely packed soft padding. It's such a distinctive sound in real life, audible most clearly in the upper mids. Nothing else I've heard has resolved that piano note more closely. And it's important because it adds to the precise nature of the piano's percussive qualities and thus to the all-important suspension of disbelief we all crave. It's the kind of difference that relates directly to musical involvement, between your feet tapping and stretching for a newspaper. Once you've lived with these speakers, many others will sound a bit clouded in one or other area. And then when you start to take this quality of bass for granted, a lot of speakers with big reputations will end up sounding wrong or bloated or lite.
When you go to a concert, be it a classical quartet, a jazz trio, a rock band or Elvis at Las Vegas, it's different from being at home. I don't mean in terms of sound quality. In fact, I remember going to David Gilmour Acoustic at the Royal Festival Hall and the sound quality was terrible. All the instruments where amplified and the sound came out of speakers suspended 100 feet above ground. Yet the evening was unforgettable because it was an experience. That's why we go to concerts. They become experiences. You get to place, there's people, you get to the characters of the performers and how they interact, the colors of the venue. You are much more involved than sitting at home listening to a buncha boxes. It becomes an event you've lived, an event you've participated in.
|When well set up and playing at closer to natural volume, that's something like what the Coltrane Altos do. I'm not suggesting they sound 'live'. I'm suggesting a distinction. They get you closer to the event so you feel -- you're tricked into feeling -- that you're in the recording studio or the church or the jazz club. You feel not so much a detached listener sitting at the mixing desk (in the way some of the professional stuff does, or the clinical British school of say dCS or SME) but instead a living breathing member of an audience who is reacting with all her senses to the experience.
The other night I was listening to Sinead O'Connor. And the thoughts going through my head were not the usual bunk of reviewer's mindset aka "those cymbals could be crisper, bass is well articulated but wandering a bit to the left, wonder if the sound engineer heard that." Instead, it was something along the lines of "this is so Sinead, there hasn't been anything like it since that early concert before she became famous and she was this raw outraged little girl with a stunningly pure voice" and then the Prince song, "no wonder it made her famous, she sings like she really does mean it, and she means exactly every word she sings." Like the Living Voice OBXR2, these speakers are really good at revealing the whys of the music, the why-we-listen stuff.
|And they do this by being completely at the service of the music. They never show off. You only realize their incredible speed when you notice the dynamics on a snare, the way its harmonics shoot out into the room lightning-fast and take your breath away as they should. In fact, the Mårtens' drive and timing is out of this world.|
|Beyond that, there is exceptional purity to high notes. Guitars like Larry Carlton's aren't etched but have an astonishingly seductive presence. The notes seem to appear in a three-dimensional space in front of the speakers, with unrivalled nuances and expressiveness. The purity is difficult to describe because I don't have any references at hand, no useful comparisons or metaphors. But I can tell you about the effect. It's incredibly involving. The music has an opiate-like effect, insinuating itself into the hidden bits of one's consciousness.
Early on in this review/ownership, I was asking myself if I needed more bass than the resident OBXR2 and if the Alto did turn out to be a better speaker. You might remember that I did a serious rave on the Living Voice and it's a feeling I still have. I've been lucky enough to live with both of these superlative creatures for a year. So what's the upshot? Well, there are no easy answers. I hope I've described the differences clearly enough for readers to make up their own minds. For me, the experiential scale that the Mårtens evoke contrasts with the subtlety and artistic integrity that are hallmarks of the OBXR2. One thing I do know is that they are both truly great speakers and that it's been a life-enhancing ride to be able to live with 'em.
In the end though, what did I really learn? I guess it's that good piece of equipment will not just reproduce but wants to recreate an experience. A great piece of gear allows you to go on a journey and explore the whole universe and medium of music in all its most mysterious and fascinating forms. As you might have guessed by now, in my opinion the Mårten Design Coltrane Altos are one of that select and rare group. They sweep you so close into the music that you'll find you start really enjoying a much wider musical palette than you previously imagined possible. Kodo? You bet. Super-decadent fin-de-siècle French symphonies, the kind that never end? Fantastique! James Blood Ulmer's crazed avant-garde jazz guitar? Bring him on. It's like they're saying, "Hey, have you checked out this experience?" I can't think of a higher compliment than that.