I was a lot more curious about the sound of the EM-ESL in stereo than I was about the 5.1 system, so I hooked up my Pro-Ject RM-1.3 turntable and NAD PP-3 phono pre to the Krell and let fly with my latest vinyl acquisitions from L.A.’s Amoeba Music.
The first few bars of “Court and Spark” from Joni Mitchell’s classic album of the same name told me right away that I was in for an exciting stereo presentation; the piano seemed like it was echoing off of phantom surfaces much higher than my listening room’s 8-foot ceiling. As the album’s arrangements got denser and more complex, the sound got even bigger. “Car On a Hill” filled my room with the sounds of Court and Spark’s top-notch L.A. studio musicians in a way that was dramatic, yet somehow totally natural. The ultra-precise, pinpoint imaging I hear from the best traditional cones’n’domes speakers wasn’t there, but I heard a more compelling and satisfying sense of ambience than I’m used to.
My jazz sides sounded just as great through the EM-ESL as Court and Spark, maybe better. Mudfoot, by 1980s-era avant-jazz group The Leaders, kept my butt stuck in my chair for several listenings. The grand piano, under the delicate touch of Kirk Lightsey, spread out across the right half of my room while Chico Freeman’s bass clarinet sounded spookily lifelike, as if it were hovering right over the dormant center speaker. When alto player Arthur Blythe joined the fray, I was stunned by how well this $2,195/pair speaker reproduced every little detail of his horn’s sound; I felt I could almost distinguish the separate contributions of the bell and the soundholes. I’ve listened to Blythe on zillions of systems in the last 20 years, and this was way up there with the best I’ve heard.
Electrostatics don’t have a good reputation as rock speakers, but when I dropped the needle on Regatta de Blanc from the Police, the EM-ESL eagerly tore into it, capturing the insistently pumping, never-quite-replicated rock/reggae groove of bassist Sting and drummer Stewart Copeland. Andy Summers minimalist guitar lines sounded enticingly ethereal, thanks to the ’stats’ giant soundstage. Same with my standby reference cuts from Steely Dan, Toto, and James Taylor. I did note a very slight emphasis in the upper midrange on a few voices, but I can’t think of a full-range speaker in this price range that doesn’t at least slightly color vocals in some way.
What’s that, you say? The Police and Steely Dan aren’t really rock? OK, tough guy, how about black metal band Sacrilegious Impalement? Is that rock enough for you?
Anyway, the MP3 of Sacrilegious Impalement’s “March of Doom” (from the Black Metal – Metalhit Free Download Series on Amazon, and yeah, that’s “free” as in “free,” so check it out) showed the EM-ESL’s limitations, but not in a way that I expected. I anticipated hearing bass and lower-midrange distortion when I cranked up the EM-ESLs, but instead the sound just got brighter and a bit shrill. Same happened when I played the ultimate heavy metal reference cut, Mötley Crüe’s “Kickstart My Heart.” With a dynamic (i.e., cones’n’domes) speaker, this usually means the woofer’s giving up before the midrange driver and tweeter, but I got the same result even when I plugged in the Dynamo 1000 and set the crossover so the EM-ESLs weren’t playing anything below 80 Hz. Clearly the electrostatic panel is this speaker’s weakest link when it comes to cranking.
So while you can play rock on these, you can’t rock out with 'em.
Relative to the EM-ESL, the EM-C2 and the EM-FX2 sound slightly bright and trebly, which creates some pros and some cons. The 5.1 presentation sounds vivid and exciting, and the tonality of these speakers nicely complements the sound of the EM-ESL. Surround effects, like the bugs buzzing around in the tiger attack scene in Apocalypse Now, seemed extra-realistic—the sonic equivalent of Technicolor. But voices sounded somewhat thin through the EM-C2. Morgan Freeman’s baritone, which is deep and rich enough to earn him zillions of dollars doing voiceovers, sounded more like an average guy’s voice when I played the DVD of Driving Miss Daisy, and Dan Aykroyd’s voice sounded slightly shrill. So to me, these speakers are for music-oriented listeners to add to the EM-ESLs for occasional movie watching, not for those whose priority is home theater.
The EM-ESL’s 8-inch woofer does a nice job with music, but movie soundtracks overwhelm it, so adding the Dynamo 1000 to reproduce the LFE track from 5.1 material was wise. S+V’s Dan Kumin already auditioned the Dynamo 1000 in his Motion Series review and I concur with his generally positive assessment. I’ll add that for a plain l’il black box 12-incher, it has pretty impressive deep bass capability. But I’ll also add that the recent onslaught of super-affordable megasubs makes the Dynamo 1000 look pricey.
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