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Positive Feedback ISSUE 6
marten design Monk loudspeakers
as reviewed by Chip Stern
While I've always lusted after full range loudspeakers, inevitably I find myself returning to the coherence and spatial qualities inherent in the best two-way designs. Why? Because when it comes to room coupling, our eyes are often bigger than our stomachs. When auditioning large, full range, multiple-driver loudspeakers in a dealer's showroom, consumers are invariably so smitten by the sheer magnitude and dynamism of the experience that they neglect to factor in how well these megaliths will interact with the acoustics of their listening room. Great sound in an audition environment doesn't necessarily guarantee that the speaker of your (wet) dreams will couple to your room in a friendly way. No matter how much money you spend in search of that last octave or so of organ pedal, if the punishment doesn't fit the crimeif the bass frequencies are bigger than your roomyou're throwing your money away.
Some big speakers are way more room friendly than others, but discretion is the better part of prudence. You might experience all manner of suck-out and frequency cancellation due to reflections and what have you while your downstairs neighbors bear the brunt of your low-frequency lust. While you surely sacrifice something quite tangible in terms of mondo dynamic range and low-end extension, there's still something very satisfying, very dependable, very true about the performance of a good two-way, and something very magical about the best of them, be they floor-standing designs or mini-monitors. So imagine my pleasure when Dave Clark contacted me about weighing in with a second opinion on a set of new two-ways from Leif Mårten Olofsson and the folks at Marten Design, who shook things up at the most recent CES with the introduction of an all-singing/all-dancing, full range, floor-standing loudspeaker dubbed the Coltrane, to go along with a line that already includes, in order of ascending magnitude, the Monk, Mingus III, and Miles II models.
At $3500, the Marten Design Monks retail for roughly double that of my long term reference two-ways, Stereophile's co-speakers of the year for 2002-2003, the Joseph Audio RM7si Signature MkIIs. That's rather dear for a two-way, but you have to take into account the no-compromise quality of the Monk's internal components, beginning with its transducers. The woofer is a 7-inch C92-6 ceramic woofer/midrange from Accuton and the tweeter is a 1-inch T25CF soft dome design from the SEAS Excel series. Zalytron (www.zalytron.com), a Mineola, Long Island-based importer of components and kits for both professional and amateur speaker builders, sells the C92-6s for $198 each, and the T25CF for $135. When you consider that the Accuton driver is featured in the four-driver Kharma Grand Ceramique, which retails for around $40,000, while the SEAS is featured in the standard version of the three-driver Joseph RM33si Signature ($7500 in a standard finish), the retail pricing of this two-driver speaker seems slightly less daunting.
The Monk features a slightly taller, deeper cabinet than the Joseph RM7si Signature Mark II. It employs a rear-ported design compared to the front port of the RM7si, with a comparable sensitivity of 87dB/4 ohms (with a minimum impedance of 3.8 ohms), versus 86 dB/8 ohms for the Josephs (and a minimum impedance of around 7 ohms). The cabinet is built from 29 mm MDF, finished in cherry, and the angled front baffle appears to be made from a fairly substantial slab of wood, retrofitted onto the back cabinet at a slight angle. While it features an electrical first-order filter for the woofer/midrange and a third order filter for the tweeter (crossing over at 3000 Hz), it is not a time coherent design. Internally, the Monk features an array of polypropylene M-Caps, copper foil inductors, and metal oxide-free resistors from Mundorf, topped off by fancy WBT speaker terminals. The Monk's port resonance is tuned to 39 Hz, and Marten Design claims a frequency response of between 41-20,000 Hz +/- 3dB.
I found my Positive Feedback colleague Victor Chavira's comments about a veiled quality to the Monks' presentation rather curious, and suggest that the culprit might be a component or interconnect farther downstream, because my initial impressions of the Monks were of a very warm, clear, open sound with good low end extension, nice midrange layering, and a touch of top end sparklein a word, revealing.
Given that this speaker was designed to function as bookshelf monitor (albeit a rather large one), where proximity to a back wall optimizes bass response, I began my listening evaluations by auditioning the Monks in one of my secondary systems, built around the original version of the Linn Classik CD Receiver, still one of the greatest bargains in high end audio (now even better, since the current generation of Linn Classiks has had its suggested retail price reduced to $1500). The Classik gives you a musically accurate, highly resolved workhorse of a CD player, an excellent AM-FM tuner, and a decidedly dynamic 75-watt-per-channel integrated amplifier in an ultra-compact chassis that is only 3 inches high by 12.5 inches wide by 13 inches deepthe size of a notebook computersaving you a tidy sum in the AC cords and interconnects you'd be required to own with a separate tuner, preamp, power amp and CD player. One AC cord, a set of speaker cables and a pair of loudspeakers (such as the Linn Kans or their literal descendants, the Linn Tukans that I employ,) and you're good to go. I've gussied up the performance of the Classik with a set of the flexible new JPS Labs FX Superconductor Bi-Wire Speaker Cables, which were reviewed by Positive Feedback in a recent issue. Their top-to-bottom clarity, sweetly transparent midrange, smooth depiction of high frequency details, and excellent bass extension suggest the top-of-the-line attributes of the JPS Labs Superconductor 2 speaker cables (reduced in scale of course, compared to the endless depth of resolution and ultimate midrange layering of their much higher priced brethren).
I powered up the Classik with a new Acoustic Zen Gargantua II AC Cord, which has all the harmonic detailing, elemental transparency, deep resolution, and mellow liquidity of the original, but with significantly enhanced bass response and transient speed. Thenjust to keep things in scale (after all, the Gargantua II lists for $1488)I switched to the new $350 Acoustic Zen Tsunami Plus, a remarkable value that mirrors most of the more expensive cord's attributes, which, while perhaps lacking in ultimate liquidity and detail, has tremendous midrange clarity, bass extension, and transient speed. The Tsunami Plus was then daisy-chained into my 20-amp dedicated line via the midwifery of a 12-foot run of JPS Labs' Power AC Outlet Center, which was plugged into one of the analog outputs of the new Monster Cable HTPS 7000 Home Theatre Reference PowerSourceTM (reference the GEARHEAD section of an upcoming issue of JazzTimes for my abridged thoughts on this fine product, in a musical instrument context).
This secondary system (in tandem with either a pair of the Linn Tukans or Joseph RM7si Signature MkIIs) was mounted 33 inches above the floor, on top of an old Sunn Concert Bass Cabinet, which rests on casters and is 30 inches wide, just enough to place the speakers (with a touch of overhang) adjacent to the Classik, on a set of large PolyCrystal Cones. Ideally one would want more separation between the speakers, but this is the reality-based secondary reference system I employ behind my computer rig, to remind me of how a high end audio system might actually get to live out its days in the real world, with inhabitants who count themselves lucky to have a single room to shoehorn their entire life into, let alone a dedicated listening room with which to enjoy the total immersion experience of a perfectly aligned system (as I am lucky enough to enjoy in my adjacent room).
Before adjourning to the reference system, I began my evaluations by comparing and contrasting the $1799 RM7si Signatures with the $3500 Monks on my Linn Classik system. The Monks were placed approximately one foot from the back wall, as suggested on the Marten website, to fill out their bass response. I halfway expected the Monks' bass response to be somewhat on the plump side, but was straightaway taken by the focus, detail, and clarity of their presentation. Employing a trio performance of "Afro Blue" from the superb live-to-DSD recording of Roy Haynes' Love Letters (Eighty Eight's/Columbia), there seemed to be more harmonic information present in Christian McBride's bass and Haynes' drums on the Monks, and perhaps a touch more distinction between individual images, though the guitar seemed a touch more forward and euphonic, even as the bass and drums seemed to recede to the back of the soundstage in a more laid back manner than the Josephs. And while the leading edge of bass transients seemed more punchy and vivid on the Rm7si Signatures, I perceived the bass as more embodied and detailed on the Monks. This was especially striking during Haynes' brush solo on "How Deep Is The Ocean," where his big hits on the floor tom seemed to carry more weight and low-level detail than the Josephs. Again, the bass seemed firmer, faster, and more forward on the Josephs, but comparatively weightier, more detailed, tonally embodied, and laid back on the Monks. There was nothing tubby about the bass on the Monks. They were quite easy to drive with the Classik, and offered a nice, musical balance of warmth, midrange embodiment, and transparency, with the extra touch of detail and refinement you might expect from loudspeakers employing such pricey drivers.
A period of extended critical listening in my main reference system was in order before arriving at final conclusions. By way of introduction, my reference system is very, very heavily tweaked on the back end, with an ear towards achieving the highest possible level of resolution by cleaning up the electricity to the nth degree before a single component is even plugged in. Because my 12' W x 20' L x 10' H reference listening room is devoid of convenient outlets, and the 20-amp dedicated lines are in the adjacent room, I employ a 25-foot run of the JPS Labs Kaptavator Outlet Center to the base of a massive wooden table just behind my double-tiered PolyCrystal amp stand and loudspeakers. In the center of this low-slung table I have stacked, from top to bottom, an Equi=Tech Q650 Balanced Power System, a Monster Cable AVS 2000 Automatic Voltage Stabilizer, and an Equi=Tech 2Q Balanced Power System. (If you want to ascertain my thinking as to the technical background, sonic attributes, and musical performance of these revolutionary power productswhich are most definitely NOT LINE CONDITIONING DEVICESyou'll have to purchase a copy of the June 2003 issue of Stereophile, where my formal evaluation will appear.) The Equi=Tech 2Q is plugged into the Kaptavator Outlet Center with a 20-amp/Hubble plug version of the JPS Labs Aluminata AC Cord (in my experience the ultimate power cord for any high-current application), and my Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300 power amp is plugged into the 2Q with its own 20-amp Aluminata. The AVS 2000, which has its own massive, hard-wired power cord, is plugged into the Kaptovator Outlet Center, and the high resolution Equi=Tech Q650 is plugged into the AVS 2000 with an active-shielding equipped version of the Synergistic Research Designer's Reference2 AC Cord. I then plug two 15-foot runs of Kaptavator Outlet Centers into the Q650, one into the analog output, and one into the digital output, which I extend onto the side wall where my dual PolyCrystal Equipment Racks are located, so all of my front end/low current devices are plugged into the AVS2000/Q650.
I employ Acoustic Zen Silver Reference II Interconnects (for their sweetly-voiced purity, liquidity, and resolution) and Gargantua II AC cords throughout the front end, which is presently comprised of a Rega Planar 25 turntable (with Rega RB600 tonearm and Grado Statement Master cartridge), a Rogue Audio Stealth phono preamp, a Marantz PMD430 portable cassette player/recorder, a California Audio Labs Delta transport/Alpha 24-bit/96kHz vacuum tube DAC, a California Audio Labs CL-20 DVD/CD player, and a VTL 5.5 vacuum tube preamp. Both the RM7si and Monk speakers were mounted on 24-inch-high PolyCrystal stands, placed roughly seven feet apart and roughly two to three feet from the side wall. Whereas I positioned the Josephs about five feet from the rear wall, I found that the optimum placement for the Martens was a little less than four feet from the back wall. Final tweaking was accomplished with a combination of EchoBusters Bass Busters and Absorptive Panels and a trio of Argent Room Lenses, all of which allowed me to control reflections and fine tune soundstaging width and depth relative to my listening position, which was eight feet away with the Josephs and roughly six to seven feet away with the Monks. I attribute these differences in placement to the innate qualities of projection and presentation these loudspeakers first revealed in the Linn Classik system. As I've already noted, the front-ported Josephs, with their aluminum cone woofer/midrange drivers, have a little bit more speed and presence than the Monks, and a more forward presentation. Perhaps the front-ported design also imparts more of an upper midrange emphasis, which led me to experience their sound as a little bit punchier. By contrast, the Monks seemed to have more weight and body, with a touch more tonal refinement and more warmly illuminated images.
Both sets of loudspeakers were gloriously detailed and open in their depiction of acoustic space, and it is here that I felt as if I were really beginning to experience the full measure of the Monks' musicality. I was halfway anticipating a tradeoff of bass for soundstaging when I set up the Monks in my main room, but if anything, the quality of the bassin terms of harmonic complexity, dynamic detail, and transient responsewas greatly enhanced relative to the depth of field. In listening to the title track from drummer Pete LaRoca's classic Blue Note recording, Basra, I was impressed by the overall balance and the firm depiction and illumination of individual images within an organic presentation that was very flattering to a jazz quartet. The drums had good weight and presence while the cymbals maintained their percussive bounce with exceptional harmonic detail and complexity, though thankfully without the kind of zizzzzy sibilance and italicized edge that can peel your eyelids right off of their sockets. Again, the bass had the kind of weight and detail I like, nicely illuminated within a sweet, clear soundstage without obtruding on the other instruments. I would say that in the right room and system, up to a moderate level of loudness, the Marten Monks rate a serious audition for someone who listens to a lot of acoustic jazz. I found their perspective of this music damn near ideal.
For larger, more wildly dynamic gestures, the Marten Monks hold their own, up to a pointthat point being a reasonable expectation as to how hard you are planning on pushing a pair of speakers and how much sound you require to fill an acoustic space. Looking to realign the parameters of your rib cage or to explore the outer reaches of the Environmental Protection Agency's decibel level limits? Look elsewhere, Pilgrim. However, if your goal is to achieve an intimate, full-bodied portrayal of music over a wide variety of acoustic styles, stick around. Having said that, one evening when I tossed a whole mess of rock recordings at the Monks, I found them musically very satisfying, if not completely convincingconvincing as in an authentic portrayal of concert venue dynamics and volume levels. Still, when I tossed on "My Generation" from the superb double-CD set, The Who: Live At The Isle of Wight Festival 1970 (Columbia/Legacy), I was impressed by the Monks' low-frequency extension, and by how these modestly-proportioned boxes seemed capable of delivering an honest 40 Hz, which really fleshed out the details in Pete Townsend's expansive guitar orchestrations while giving John Entwistle's Fender Precision Bass and Keith Moon's double-bass-drum kit a believable spirit, presence, and (here's that word again) weight, even though the speakers didn't convey the visceral forward thrust and punch that dedicated rock listeners look for in loudspeakers. The laid back nature of the bass didn't quite represent rock with that level of conviction, but you could make out everything quite clearly, and Roger Daltrey's vocal presence was visceral and clearly articulated.
However, when I tossed on Pierre Boulez' fantastic new version of Mahler's Symphony No. 3 (Deutsche Grammophon), featuring mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter and the Vienna Philharmonic, that was a horse of a different fire department. I was quite taken by the warmth, clarity, and detail the Monks' ceramic bass/midrange driver conveyed, and on this performance the weight and laid back character of the bass presentation played very much to the strengths of orchestral music and the portrayal of (in this case) a very believable acoustic that was both dry and distant yet richly textured and extremely dynamic. Boulez' reading of the opening movement might strike some as a tad deliberate in its use of a slower, more reflective tempo to wring the romanticism out of Mahler and suggest a more forthright modernist viewpoint, with a greater emphasis on the rhythmic underpinnings of these masterful orchestrations. However, the Monks brought out so much inner detail and such refined levels of ambient nuance that the music enveloped me and drew me deeper and deeper into the conductor's very personal interpretation of this massive, complex work.
Where the Monks really shined, to these ears, was in the way they enhanced and illuminated Von Otter's vocal presence amidst a gaggle of instrumental details. There was both a sense of individual distinction and a feeling as to the vocalist's organic connection to the orchestra as a whole. And while the Accuton bass/midrange drivers and SEAS tweeters combined to lend a sense of brilliance and inner detail to the overtones of this mezzo-soprano's voice, the overall character of her voice was warmly involving. This point was driven home in my auditions of much more intimate vocal recitals, such as the Dog Yummies Reference Audiophile Disc Hall of Famer, Night Songs (Decca) by Soprano Goddess Renče Fleming and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Fleming's vocal range is really quite astounding, particularly her descents into a rich lower register that suggest jazz mistress Sarah Vaughan and make her swooping forays into the top of her range all the more vibrant and electrifying. I was most impressed by the manner in which the Monks portrayed both the range and nuance of her instrument on Debussy's "Mandoline," where they floated a very live, convincingly centered image that was richly textured and dynamically open against the oddly distant perspective of the piano. I thought that the Monks tracked the harmonic and dynamic modulations of Fleming's phrasing with exceptional warmth and ease, revealing layers of inner detail while giving me a real sense of how the voice originated in her diaphragm and came up through her throat to be subtly manipulated by her mouth, lips and teeth. I felt as though I were witness to the very furnace of creation, as a sound was formed and fashioned into something emotionally alive.
In conclusion, while recognizing their limitations as a full-frequency delivery system, I greatly enjoyed my conjugal visit with the Marten Monks. The weight and harmonic detail of the bass and the layering and clarity of the midrange was most satisfying, on a range of music that would suit the type of listener who wants to build a system around a highly resolved two-way in a moderately sized listening environment. The sonic signature of the Accuton bass/midrange driver certainly piqued my curiosity about how such transducers might behave in a full range system, such as the Marten Miles II loudspeakers.
By way of a caveat, I would suggest that listeners looking to drive the living piss out of their system consider other options when auditioning the Monks. When pushed really hard, it was a bit unsettling to see the Accuton cones bouncing around so dramatically inside their little protective cages, and while these drivers have, to these ears, a warm, clear character, and a reasonable degree of oomph, I'd suggest a degree of rectitude when pouring on the volume. While not particularly edgy or analytical, it's fair to say that listeners with leaner-sounding electronics might find them somewhat on the bright side of the sonic spectrum. As such, careful system matching is in order. While I didn't experience the veiling or compression intimated by my colleague, when I pushed the Monks really, really hard, there was a palpable degree of glare, which suggested the possibility that I had pushed the drivers into the realm of cone breakup, and that optimum resolution was best maintained by discretely backing off on the volume. I found that I could push my RM 7si speakers much harder, and that they had a punchier sound, but when I stayed within sensible limits, the Marten Monks delivered an intoxicating degree of detail, refinement, frequency extension, and soundstaging depth in the nearfield domain, and could be counted on to provide a full, richly layered musical signature when not called upon to fill too big a space with too much sound. Chip Stern