MartinLogan Motion 40 and Motion 30 Review

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When MartinLogan’s ultra-low-priced Motion Series first dropped on the audio scene in 2010, its variation on Oskar Heil’s esoteric Air Motion Transformer was something of a curiosity in the audio world—a promising experiment from the past that had only, in the past decade or so, seen a bit of resurgence in ultra-high-end speakers from Europe. Which is to say that, for most American consumers, the folded transducer was something entirely new and different. Of course, not so new and different that the—ahem—unique stylings of MartinLogan’s Motion speakers went unnoticed. They were curvy and plastic and unlike just about anything we’d ever seen, and it was a look you either loved or hated.

Of course, since then a number of manufacturers, from GoldenEar to Emotiva, have made the Air Motion Transformer, or some variation thereof, a lot more commonplace. Maybe that’s why MartinLogan’s Motion Series has been undergoing an incremental transformation to more traditional looking speaker cabinets. Or maybe it’s just MartinLogan working through the growing pains of trying to figure out exactly what a more budget-oriented MartinLogan speaker should look like. Either way, compare the new Motion 40 tower to the original Motion 12, and on looks alone you’d have trouble believing their the work of the same manufacturer in the same decade. The Motion 12 was all curves and slants and tight-fitting fabric. The Motion 40 is all high-gloss monolithic wood (or piano black or white) finish, with magnetic metal grills. The former relied on paper cones and a dipolar midrange driver; the latter sports aluminum cones (one mid and two bass drivers each) and a pretty conventional-looking driver array, with a rear-firing bass port.

All of which, of course, results in a very different-sounding speaker. I still have a pair of Motion 12s on hand, so when my pair of Motion 40s arrived for review, I tried them both out with the same Bob Carver Black Magic 20 tube amplifier for comparison’s sake. But really, there isn’t much of a comparison to be made. Aside from the singular sonic characteristics of the Folded Motion Driver, the two have very little in common. For one thing, the Motion 40s interact with the room behind them to a far lesser degree. The bass port near the bottom of the speakers still means you do need to pull them away from the walls a bit, but positioning is far less tricky than with the Motion 12, and certainly far less so than the pair of MartinLogan Purity hybrid electrostats I usually use in my two-channel setup.

Furthermore, the frequency response from bottom to near-top is much less distinctive with the Motion 40s as compared to the Motion 12s. By that, I mean they’re flatter, more even-keeled, more neutral, with no particular emphasis on any particular frequencies.

That’s a good thing. A seriously good thing.

Ironically, the more neutral, natural bass and midrange of the Motion 40s ends up drawing even more attention to the incredible low-distortion high-frequency performance of the Folded Motion Driver, which became immediately apparent when I cued up Bon Iver’s “The Wolves (Act 1 & 2).” The Motion 40s did an incredible job of conveying the incredibly deep soundstage, while also teasing apart the multiple dubs and overdubs and over-overdubs without destroying the unity of the mix. The way the cacophonous percussion breakdown at the end of the track positively leapt out of the speakers into the room itself was downright haunting. In fact, the soundstage as a whole seemed to define its own space with little regard for where the speakers were actually placed in the room.

The Motion 40s’ ability to penetrate the air of the room leads to all sorts of revelatory listening experiences. Example: Andrew Bird’s “Fake Palindromes” is one of those songs I know note-for-note, tone-for-tone, and I’ve pumped it through every speaker I’ve reviewed in the past four years or so. But I’ve honestly never noticed the way the strummed guitar in the intro steps way out in the mix—in three-dimensional space—and then recedes once the second violin kicks in. The effect of listening to the song through these speakers is a really nifty spatial do-si-do that draws you into the music in a way so many speakers simply can’t.

And it isn’t just the spatial imaging qualities of the Motion 40s that make them stand out; that even-keeled tonal balance I mentioned before really makes the speakers a delight with any type of tunes. Bass is meaty and rich when it needs to be, midrange is luscious and thick when called upon to be so, but the overall tonal soundscape is really determined by the music, not the speakers.

In fact, it wasn’t until I got around to cueing up Björk’s “Army of Me” that I felt the 40s needed any help in the bass department, which was fortuitous, since that realization coincided with the arrival of MartinLogan’s Motion 30 center speaker, and a move from the home office two-channel setup to the home theater.

First, though, a word about the Motion 30, physically speaking. Although it’s just as well-constructed as the Motion 40s, just as refined, with the same gorgeous MartinLogan binding posts (a huge upgrade over the original Motion Series posts), this thing is shockingly small. Like, tiny. Cubic inch for cubic inch, it takes up half the space of my trusty old Infinity Interlude il36c center speaker, and weighs a little more than half as much. Upon pulling it out of the box, I thought to myself, “Self, there’s no freaking way this thing is going to be able to keep up in the main home theater; we might have to move the system to the smaller secondary theater in the bedroom.”

But with the Motion 40s already in place and wired up to my Anthem D2v processor and A5 amp, I figured I’d at least give the Motion 30 a chance to reveal its size limitations in action. Assuming that The Amazing Spider-Man on Blu-ray would bring it to its knees, I fired up the disc and waited for the whimper that never happened. Amazingly, with even the most action-packed sequences, the Motion 30 never suffers due to its size, and in fact it holds its own with center channels way, way larger. Dialogue clarity is fantastic, integration with the rest of the system is simply superb, and dispersion is (almost) perfect.

I add that parenthetical simply because, in my case, having bought a TV stand designed to hold my nine-inch-tall center channel, the 6.9-inch-tall Motion 30 ended up sitting a little low, which necessitated a bit of padding under the front to angle it up a bit. I’ve always used similar padding for past Motion centers, but less for the angling effect and more to isolate them from the furniture because of resonance. That’s definitely not the case with the Motion 30, though; despite its size, and despite the volumes I was pumping through it, it remained incredibly inert throughout my testing.

That’s fortunate, because much like their predecessors, the Motion 30 and Motion 40 really come into their own at higher volumes. The downside to that is that you really have to be careful with these speakers, because their distortion-free output at ludicrous SPLs means you really need to use your head, not your ears, to adjust the volume, because the edginess that usually clues you into the fact that things are getting dangerously loud simply isn’t a factor here.

That really hit home for me when playing “Black Page #1” from the Zappa Plays Zappa DVD—a hard-hitting, polyrhythmic percussive piece that I normally use to demo the incredible transient response of my MartinLogan Purity electrostats. The Motion 30 and Motion 40 perform positively brilliantly with the piece—explosive, lightning quick, authoritative—with the help of a pair of Paradigm SUB12s and a Sunfire SubRosa flat-panel subwofer, all of which blend beautifully with the MartinLogans, and Anthem Room Correction had no trouble dialing in a crossover point low enough to avoid the weird sonic disconnect between speakers and subwoofer that often plagues smaller satellites. But man, you can really crank these things to the point where eardrum damage is imminent without even realizing it, if you’re not careful. That, I think, is the main difference between these and MartinLogans ESLs—aside from the obvious differences between point sources and line sources and the vastly decreased dependence on positioning. Whereas the Purity ESL sounds amazing and dynamic at any volume, but really prefer sane listening levels, the Motion 40 and 30 are really at their best when cranked, and finding that sweet spot between optimal performance and subjective tinnitus may be a concern for some listeners.

The thing I love most about the Motion 40s and Motion 30 in my surround system, though—in addition to the fact that they match up beautifully with my Infinity il40s surrounds, despite the obvious fact that they’re not timbre matched, as well as the fact that their spaciousness really does an amazing job of bridging the gap between front and rear soundstages, even in a 5.1 setup—is how revealing they are, without being punishing. By that I mean they really shine a light on the difference between high-resolution downloads from HD Tracks and the variable bitrate MP3s I have in my collection, without making the latter unlistenable. Even recordings of really iffy fidelity—like Girl Talk’s All Day—are still a joy to listen to, but the difference between a new lossless rip of Grateful Dead’s American Beauty CD and the same album in 96/24 from HD Tracks is immediately obvious. The Motion 40s especially do an amazing job of delivering the increased dynamics and superior high-frequency sparkle of the high-res download, yet managed to do so without making the CD rip sound bad in the slightest. That’s an impressive trick, to say the least.

The Motion 40 and Motion 30 also pass with flying colors a new subjective listening test I’ve been cooking up, which I call the Bruno Doorbell Test. Initially, I planned this as a pass/fail test, based on whether or not Bruno barked when a doorbell of sufficient verisimilitude rang during a movie or TV show. With some speakers, he merely looks at the TV and woofs grumpily, as if he knows someone is trying to fool him. With others, he bar-bar-bar-bars all the way to the front door. After having seen the effects of a few doorbell rings pumped through the Motion 40s and 30s, though, I’m thinking I need to adjust this to a more nuanced scale than merely pass/fail, because a ding-dong through these things sends him into fits of apoplexy that take minutes to come down from.

So needless to say, I love them, especially for the price. Bruno, though? He’s seriously hoping MartinLogan sends a truck to pick them up soon, price be damned.

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