Home Electronics: Best of the Best Audio Equipment: MartinLogan Descent

  • Ken Kessler

The most significant new product of the past year is a component regarded by many as a mere add-on, not a primary part of the audio chain. However, the role of the subwoofer has shifted from accessory to necessity because of a decade’s worth of multichannel, home cinema sound evolution. Dolby and DTS 5.1-channel surround technology have significantly changed our perception of what was thought of as just a highly specialized speaker covering only the lowest notes in the spectrum. MartinLogan’s Descent has transformed the subwoofer’s contribution from merely adding weight to a performance into playing a major part in the overall sound.

The Descent will operate with almost any high-end speaker. The overriding design consideration, though, was that it had to complement MartinLogan’s own electrostatic hybrids. The stipulation made the design an even greater challenge than creating a subwoofer for conventional loudspeakers, because subwoofers use conventional cone-type drivers. These drivers have the same sonic character as the conventional drivers in most speakers. With electrostatics, though, the behavior differs in nearly every area of sound reproduction, and the Descent had to reflect this by delivering cleaner, faster, and more open sound than do most subwoofers.

Because MartinLogan has spent the better part of two decades working with hybrid systems—electrostatic panels for the middle and high frequencies and a cone woofer for the bass—the Kansas-based company has more experience than any other in combining the two technologies. The Descent thus exhibits an unusual ability to blend with the primary speakers, a dexterity that will counter any argument about the impossibility of matching subwoofers to main speakers. The Descent’s designers were so intent on creating a perfect match not just with the system, but also with the room, that they incorporated an extra user-adjustable control for dialing in the correct phase.

Inside the 95-pound, six-sided Descent are three 10-inch, metal-coned woofers and a 400-watt amplifier. The package is so well controlled and adaptable that it can operate in small rooms, even with tiny satellite speakers, yet it is powerful enough to provide the levels needed to serve home theaters seating 15 or more.

With an eye (and ear) to the future, MartinLogan has announced a “baby” version of the Descent that is about 20 percent smaller. The scaled-down technology will please users who prefer multiple subwoofer arrays or simply something less imposing than the Descent’s 22 x 20 x 19-inch frame.

Despite its adaptability and power, the Descent’s greatest contribution to home entertainment may not be its sound at all. Unlike other, typically Cubist and plain, or even ugly, subwoofers that are available, the Descent’s styling is stunning. Case in point: Upon spying the Descent for the first time, a woman who despises the presence of any audio component in her home asked, “Where did you find that gorgeous coffee table?”

MartinLogan, www.martinlogan.com

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