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- MartinLogan Wireless Ensemble Bravado Loudspeaker
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Wireless loudspeakers are propagating at a remarkable rate. The first appeared in the 1990s, and received music signals from the source components via RF. But they sounded pretty awful, and didn’t catch on. The next wireless speakers used Bluetooth, which have gradually become better as Bluetooth’s codecs have improved, from SBC to aptX to the new aptX HD. Lately we’ve seen a proliferation of wireless speakers that work via Wi-Fi; these are easy to implement, as most people’s homes now have a wireless network. Apple, Google, and Amazon are the latest and biggest players in this market, with voice-activated products that also play music.
Even with such monster tech companies dominating the wireless niche, there’s room for high-end speaker manufacturers to offer potentially better-sounding alternatives, and now MartinLogan has gotten into the act with their Wireless Ensemble, a line that comprises three soundbars, two speakers, a power amplifier, and a preamplifier. The subject of this review is the Bravado ($699.95 USD each), a single-box “stereo” speaker that uses DTS Play-Fi or Apple AirPlay.
The Bravado weighs 7.5 pounds and is about the size of an ideal bookshelf speaker: 10.12”H x 6.8”W x 5.6”D -- ideal because these dimensions represent the minimum speaker interior volume that can produce enough bass to enjoy most music without requiring a subwoofer. But the Bravado isn’t the usual rectilinear box -- its sides are curved to make it visually interesting. The speaker surface is covered in a black or white fabric sock, with a flat top panel of Walnut or Gloss White.
The rear panel has a 3.5mm analog input jack for a portable audio device. Although most people would want to use the Bravado wirelessly, an Ethernet connection is included. Below that are two USB ports, Type-A and Mini Type-A, for service and update only. MartinLogan provides an RCA jack for connecting a subwoofer if you want to turn this speaker into a full range system. There’s also a three-way Position switch for designating the speaker as a Left, Stereo, or Right speaker. The Left and Right settings are used if you have two Bravados and want to use them as a conventional stereo pair, which is done through DTS Play-Fi. There’s also a two-pronged AC power jack.
The operating controls are in a single column on the Bravado’s side panel. At top is an LED that blinks during setup or if the speaker can’t connect to the wireless network; once locked in, it glows steadily. Below that are buttons for Power, volume + and -, Mute On/Off/ARC (see below), and, at the bottom, an Input switch. Once the Bravado(s) is set up, you probably won’t need to use these controls -- you can perform most of these operations through DTS Play-Fi.
Each Bravado has a 5” aluminum-cone midrange-woofer and two 0.94” x 1.0” Folded Motion Tweeters. Each FMT consists of a piece of super-thin, lightweight film folded like an accordion. Sound is produced when the folds are squeezed together and pulled apart by the magnetic fields of powerful neodymium-iron-boron magnets. According to MartinLogan, the FMT performs to similar levels as their electrostatic speakers while occupying much less space. Although there are two tweeters and a Stereo setting of its Position switch, and a single Bravado is claimed to produce some semblance of a stereo soundstage, the tweeters are located close together on the speaker’s baffle. Such close proximity can’t produce proper aural images, let alone a stereo soundstage, so don’t expect a single Bravado to provide the usual hi-fi experience. Each Bravado contains three class-D amplifiers to power its three drivers, specified at 50W nominal for the midrange-woofer and 25W for each tweeter.
The Bravado’s specified frequency response is an impressive 45Hz-23kHz, +/-2dB -- numbers difficult to achieve with the usual combination of amp and speakers. MartinLogan seems to have done the trick by designing the entire signal chain, from DAC to amps to drivers, and using digital signal processing to tailor the frequency response.
You can stream from your iPhone or iPad through either AirPlay or the DTS Play-Fi app. I don’t use AirPlay because my music library is on a NAS and I haven’t set it up through iTunes. I have a lot of devices in my home -- an iPad, an Android tablet, and a Windows laptop, to name just three -- and DTS Play-Fi is seamlessly compatible with all of them. The app is also compatible with streaming music services such as Tidal, Spotify, and Amazon Music. For my listening sessions, I used DTS Play-Fi’s Music Server feature and streamed from my NAS to the MartinLogan Bravado.
As with other DTS Play-Fi devices from MartinLogan, to set up the Bravado you first connect it to your network, wirelessly or via Ethernet, using the DTS Play-Fi app. The Bravado also includes the awesome Anthem Room Correction (ARC) software, from MartinLogan’s sister company Anthem, which can be set up using a laptop or smartphone. (ML and Anthem are sister companies of Paradigm Electronics, which is owned by ShoreView Industries.) Having installed ARC on a Windows laptop, you then place the included non-calibrated microphone at five positions around your main listening position. At each position in turn, the program sends frequency sweeps through the speaker(s) and records the resulting frequency-response curve. After all five sets of readings are taken and crunched, ARC calculates a correction curve to upload to the Bravado. You can also adjust settings, such as the corrected frequency-response range (up to 5000Hz) and the room gain (bass boost). The alternative to using a Windows laptop is to use the ARC Mobile app and a smartphone, using the phone’s built-in mike. That routine doesn’t allow you to then tweak the settings, but it’s much faster and more straightforward.
After running ARC at the five mike positions, I looked at the Bravado’s corrected frequency response. It was flat from about 200Hz to 7kHz, above which it began to roll off. There was a bump centered at 150Hz, and a gentle rolloff below that. My measurement of the Bravado’s in-room response failed to get down to the 45Hz promised by MartinLogan, but it was still a respectable 65Hz at -2dB. From such a small enclosure, this is really good bass response.
With the Bravado placed about 10’ directly in front of my listening seat, I sat down and ran it through its paces. One thing that was frustrating with DTS Play-Fi was trying to get into the app’s Critical Listening mode. At this setting, you can natively play high-resolution 24-bit/96kHz or 24/192 signals without downsampling them to 16/44.1. But I found that if I didn’t select it as soon as I’d launched the app, I lost the Critical Listening button. To use that mode again, I had to switch from my iPad to my Android tablet.
The first thing that struck me with the Bravado was its prominent lower midrange. In “Wherever I Go,” from Mark Knopfler’s Tracker (24-bit/192kHz FLAC, Verve/HDtracks), his voice was clear and warm, and Ruth Moody’s voice was clear and ethereal. When they sing together, the sound through the Bravado was well balanced, and I never got a sense that one voice dominated the other. The sax and guitar on this track didn’t sound aggressive through the Bravado, which they do through some other speaker systems. The Bravado’s prominent lower midrange also helped acoustic pianos sound particularly good. When I listened to Chantal Kreviazuk play her concert grand’s lower keys in the title track of her In This Life (16/44.1 FLAC, Pheromone), individual notes sounded distinct, warm, and realistic.
At times I wished for more immediacy in the treble. Listening to “Keith Don’t Go,” from Nils Lofgren’s Acoustic Live (16/44.1 FLAC, Capitol), I didn’t feel as involved as I do with speakers that have more aggressively tuned highs. With my reference system -- a NuPrime IDA-16 integrated amp and Wharfedale Diamond 220 speakers -- I sit up and take notice as I imagine watching Lofgren’s masterful fingering. Through the Bravado, his plucking sounded a bit vague. I don’t entirely fault the Bravado’s FMT tweeters -- I’ve heard a similar tweeter in other speakers from MartinLogan, and found those speakers very involving. It’s understandable that ML would tune the sound in this way -- more aggressive highs could be distracting in the casual listening for which the Bravado is most likely to be used.
The Bravado provided just enough bass response that I didn’t feel the need for a subwoofer for casual listening. When I played “You Look Good to Me,” from the Oscar Peterson Trio’s We Get Requests (16/44.1 FLAC, Verve), there was adequate bass -- I could hear the individual notes as Ray Brown plucked his double bass. Of course, these notes are more prominent through a full-range system, but the Bravado made it an enjoyable listening experience. However, listening through the Bravado to something like “Within,” from Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (24/88.2 FLAC, Columbia/Qobuz), I did miss the lowest octaves. Just for fun, I hooked up a Paradigm Monitor Sub 8 subwoofer to the Bravado’s subwoofer output. Then I heard this track’s strong foundation of synth bass, which the Bravado hadn’t managed on its own.
The Bravado could play loud without strain. When I cranked up “Girl’s Got Rhythm,” from AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (16/44.1 FLAC, Atlantic), my 12-year-old son ran downstairs to see if his old man was partying. Again, if you’re a serious bass head, you’ll probably want to add a subwoofer; but for casual listening, the Bravado should play loud enough.
A few wireless sound systems have come through my listening room lately, and the best matches to the MartinLogan Bravado have been Axiom’s AxiomAir N3 and Paradigm’s PW 600.
The AxiomAir N3 ($799 each) was my first experience of a serious wireless sound system. This speaker has a very different shape from the Bravado, and is more similar to MartinLogan’s Crescendo X tabletop system. It has two 1” titanium-dome tweeters, one at each corner, and much farther apart than the two tweeters on the Bravado. This allows a single AxiomAir N3 to produce a semblance of stereo imaging, especially in the nearfield. The N3 also has two 6.5” aluminum-cone woofers, which allow it to go deeper in the bass than the Bravado. With AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” I recall hearing a heavier bass line through the Axiom than through the MartinLogan. I also noted that the Axiom’s tweeters are less revealing than I’ve heard from other Axiom speakers, just as the Bravado’s are when compared to the FMTs in other MartinLogan models. Features that make the AxiomAir N3 worth considering are that it can be powered by an optional battery and that it has Bluetooth connectivity, which allow it to be used in remote areas such as a park or beach.
The biggest difference between the two systems, however, is the Bravado’s use of DTS Play-Fi vs. Axiom’s open streaming architecture. With the Axiom speaker, I was able to stream with apps other than Axiom’s, which would recognize the N3 on my network and readily stream to it. Those same apps can “see” the MartinLogan Bravado on my network, but can’t stream to it. With my other apps I can create playlists, which I can’t with Play-Fi. Finally, the AxiomAir N3 can play 24/192 files without a lot of fuss, which can’t be said of DTS Play-Fi.
The Paradigm PW 600 ($599 each), essentially the Bravado’s sister model, is very close to it in size and identical in weight. The two models really differ only in their drivers -- the PW 600 has two 1” S-PAL dome tweeters and a 5” S-PAL woofer. Using DTS Play-Fi, I could easily and quickly switch between the two, which made for nearly seamless comparisons.
When I switched from the MartinLogan Bravado to the Paradigm PW 600, the speakers sounded similar; however, their reproductions of the midrange and treble differed. The PW 600 sounded like my Wharfedale Diamond 220 speakers, with extended highs. This made listening to Nils Lofgren’s guitar playing in “Keith Don’t Go” a more exhilarating experience. However, Lofgren’s voice sounded weightier through the Bravado’s more pronounced midrange. In short, the PW 600 had a leaner sound, with more extended highs; the Bravado had a fuller midrange.
As with the Bravado, imaging was nonexistent through a single PW 600, unless I put my nose right up to the speaker, between the two tweeters. I don’t think that will matter to buyers of either, as DTS Play-Fi makes it easy to add another speaker for a true stereo array and convincing imaging. I had two PW 600s on hand and had a great time listening to them in stereo -- they sounded as good as a two-channel pair, with pinpoint imaging and depth. I suspect that two MartinLogan Bravados would sound similarly great.
Wireless speakers have come a long way from the early days of having to use noisy, interference-prone RF signals. Now, through your home Wi-Fi network, you can easily set up a speaker in any room and stream music to it -- all you need is a wall outlet. MartinLogan’s Bravado is a handsome, good-sounding example of just how far things have come. It’s a well-thought-out, compact marvel suitable for small rooms and ideal for casual listening -- and you can always add another Bravado, for a small, superb-sounding system that will allow you to wirelessly listen to music in true stereo.
. . . Vince Hanada
- Speakers -- AxiomAir N3, Paradigm PW 600, Wharfedale Diamond 220
- Subwoofer -- Paradigm Monitor Sub 8
- Integrated amplifier -- NuPrime IDA-16
- Sources -- Netgear ReadyNAS Duo V2 network attached storage with Minim server
MartinLogan Wireless Ensemble Bravado Wireless Loudspeaker
Price: $699.95 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
2101 Delaware Street
Lawrence, KS 66046
Phone: (785) 749-0133