Old School

Martin Logan CLS

I’ve spent the last couple of years immersed in MartinLogan speakers.  I started with the Vantage, moved up to the Summit, made a sidestep to the new Spire and now have their flagship, the CLX, in my listening room.  But my enthusiasm for MartinLogan started many years ago with their other famous flagship, the CLS.  It began in a shopping mall in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a girlfriend who wanted to go shoe shopping.  As I still complained while being dragged into the targeted shoe shop, I spied a HiFi store in the corner of my field of vision and my viewpoint suddenly changed. “Take as much time as you need, babe…”

I can’t remember the name of the store, but I remember those speakers.  In the upstairs loft where they kept the good stuff, were a complete Levinson system with an Oracle turntable.  They were having a slow day and the salesman took pity after my narrow escape from shoe shopping. “My girlfriend goes in there and I’m done, man!”  he said as we traded evil girlfriend stories. He dropped Synchronicity on the Oracle, and about five seconds into “Tea in the Sahara,” I was under their spell. An Acoustat 2+2 owner at the time, I was blown away by how open these speakers were compared with mine.  Shortly after returning home, I had a pair of CLS’s of my own.  But I had an advanced case of audiophile nervosa and after about a year, I sold them to move on to a giant pair of ProAcs.  After all, I could always get another pair, right?


For whatever reason, my local dealer never seemed to have a pair in stock and everyone who had a pair of CLS’s held on to them for dear life or wanted about double what retail used to be. So I went back to my dealer and picked up a pair of ML’s newest speaker, the Aerius.  “I told you not to get rid of the CLS,” the salesman said as I peeled off the hundred-dollar bills.  The ML’s were great speakers, but the CLS was something special. After the Aeriuses went away, my non-evil girlfriend (now my wife) would quip as I agonized over the latest speaker du jour, “I really liked the sound of those MartinLogans. Why don’t we get another pair of those?”  And by this time, I didn’t even have a great room for panel speakers.

I used to rationalize my lack of insight by saying such things as “They weren’t that great.”  Or, “They didn’t have enough bass.” Or, “I can’t play Zeppelin on them really loud.”  You’ve been there.  But you know what it’s like to let that one special thing get away; it always gnaws at you.

All good things come back around, eventually.

The Vantage rekindled my interest in MartinLogan speakers and after moving up the line to the Summit and a little sideways to the Spire, I knew the CLX was also going to be just as special.  As you will see from my review on page xx, these are indeed phenomenal speakers. However, out of respect for MartinLogan and the CLS, I had to go back and revisit the former classic.  Going back to something you once really loved can be a mixed bag. It’s like going to your high school reunion to see if your old girlfriend is still hot.  Chances are high that you will end up disappointed. This time it would be a good meeting, though.

Thanks to Rich Kent from the MartinLogan Owners forum, a pristine pair of CLS’s were only a couple of hours north on the I-5.  Rich let me have a Sunday to listen to his system and get reacquainted with these old friends.

They still won’t play Zeppelin super loud, but neither will my LS3/5a’s.  That’s not the point.  Rich has his mated with a MartinLogan Depth sub and it is a sweet combination.  After some serious listening, I knew they were everything I remembered and then some.  That signature transparency and upper bass clarity that comes from a full range panel is there in spades, and the CLS throws a very wide and deep soundstage.  The CLS was not quite the one-person speaker as I once thought (chalk some of this up to Rich’s setup abilities), but you still would never mistake them for cone speakers.

These days if you can find a pair of CLS’s for sale, they are right around $2,000 for a pair.  As Rich said, “Hey, I bought these for 1,500 bucks and got a new pair of panels from MartinLogan for another $900.  Where are you going to get sound like this for $2,400?” I couldn’t agree with him more. The one comparison I would draw between the CLS and the CLX is that the CLS feels as if you were about 15 rows from the stage and the CLX is much more immediate and dynamic, as if you were in row 3.  But the virtues of a big, transparent sound are still there with the CLS, and this is a speaker that I could live with very easily.  You would never guess that this design is 25 years old.

CLS’s are rare on the used-speaker market, partially because this speaker was so far ahead of its time and because MartinLogan still supports the CLS, so again, no one wants to get rid of them.  That’s right, you can still buy replacement panels for a pair of CLS’s.  Try that with your favorite speaker from a boutique builder.

The CLS started out in production in 1984, with a number of product changes from the II, to the II a, finishing with the IIz that ran until late 2002.  There were a number of incremental changes along the way, but the majority of them were aimed at making the speaker easier to drive, as the first ones had an impedance perilously close to one ohm.  Personally, I think reports of amplifiers going up in flames were overblown; I used a Krell KSA-50 with mine and had excellent luck. MSRP went from $2,995 for the first models to $4,595 for the final CLS IIz Anniversary Editions that went out the door.

When you find a decent pair that someone wants to get rid of, they usually are going for somewhere between $1,500 and $2,500.  The electrostatic panel had a life of about 10 years, so should your panels need replacement, they are available and cost about $1,000 with shipping.  If you have an amplifier that is up to the task, these are still quite amazing speakers.