In recent months, we’ve reviewed a number of smart home speakers focused on music streaming. Though it’s great to have smart functionality in what would have otherwise been relatively mundane Bluetooth speakers, we were frustrated by what felt like arbitrary limitations on their functionality. Also, though services like Spotify and Tidal can stream high-quality music files, those speakers’ sound quality was necessarily limited by their small form factor. That’s why we were immediately excited when speaker veteran MartinLogan offered us a chance to review their Forte wireless streaming amplifier. Though speakers are not included, the Forte is free of those artificial limitations, and almost without compromises.
MartinLogan is one of the recognizable names in home hifi. Located in Kansas, they’re best known for their electrostatic loudspeakers — we recently had the chance to hear a set of their $15,000 Expression speakers and were amazed by the sound emanating from speakers that are paper-thin and nearly transparent. The Forte is a surprising departure from the company’s aesthetic; it’s an all-black, plastic box barely bigger than a college textbook. Except for the company’s name in a tiny font on top of the case, there’s almost no branding on the Forte.
In fact, the only bit of flair we could find was a single red rubber foot on the bottom of Forte; clearly, MartinLogan intends that this device not be the center of attention, but rather fade into the background, letting the music (and, probably, your speakers) take center stage. We don’t really find any fault with the Forte’s build, except that the grade of plastic used makes it feel a little cheap, especially compared to all-metal devices like the substantially less expensive Harman Kardon Invoke. Still, the Forte is small enough to use almost anywhere and, except for the center portion of the bottom part of its case (a heat sink), remains cool when in use.
The front of the Forte features five buttons — power, source select, mute, volume up, and volume down — and a status LED that indicates when Wi-Fi is connected. Around back are two sets of beefy five-way speaker wire binding posts, an Ethernet input, Wi-Fi setup button, analog inputs, and a subwoofer output. Inside the Forte is a Class-D amplifier capable of outputting 100 watts RMS per channel into 4 ohms (200 WPC peak and 50 WPC into 8 ohms). The Forte will enter a low-power standby state when not in use but, thankfully, will turn itself back on when streaming starts. Though not as powerful as the Class-AB Schiit Vidar we recently tried, the Forte sounds great and had no problem driving bookshelf speakers like the KEF Q300 and MartinLogan’s own Motion 15. At almost $600, we expected MartinLogan to put a competent amplifier in the Forte, but that’s not what makes the Forte special. What makes the Forte interesting is its connectivity.
The Forte can be connected to a home network using either Ethernet or Wi-Fi. Connecting the Forte via Ethernet was predictably simple although, with no visual interface, Wi-Fi setup from an iOS device or computer wasn’t exactly intuitive: we had to reach to the back of the Forte, hold a button, wait for tones, release the button, wait for its front LED to flash, wait for the iOS Settings app to discover the Forte, then go through the pairing process. However, once it’s set up, the Forte works. The Forte immediately became available as an AirPlay streaming device for iOS and macOS and any computer running iTunes, although streaming system audio from a PC requires the Windows version of the Play-Fi software. Using the free DTS Play-Fi iOS app, it was possible to connect to virtually every major (and some minor) streaming service, including Spotify, Tidal, Pandora, and Amazon Music.
The Play-Fi app allows you to manage multiple Play-Fi streaming devices independently, control volume, and switch streaming services on the fly. It all works as intended; Spotify discovered the Forte as a ‘connected device’, though it appears that the Play-Fi app was forced to run its own separate instance of Tidal to make the connection work. It’s worth noting that micro-adjustments to volume become difficult when streaming — AirPlay supports 30 volume steps, but the iOS interface cuts that in half, which can result in large volume jumps when using the Forte’s powerful amplifier — a more granular volume control would have been helpful. Also, be warned that the Forte is really not suitable for video, as AirPlay seems to add a two-second delay when streaming.
In addition to this core functionality, the Forte can scale to meet the needs of more demanding users. The Forte can handle streaming of files up to 24bit/192hkz resolution. From the Play-Fi app, groups of speakers can be managed in zones or even surround sound configurations. Perhaps more importantly, however, the Forte comes bundled with everything you need for room correction, including a calibrated USB microphone. Room correction is accomplished using software from Anthem, with MartinLogan’s sister company, called “ARC”. Though the desktop version of ARC is only compatible with Windows at this time, there is also a free iOS app that can be used with ether a special calibrated microphone or the iPhone’s internal microphones.
The room correction process is easy enough: the ARC app connects to the Forte, then instructs the user to stand in five places around the listening area while frequency sweeps are played (loudly) through the speakers connected through the Forte. ARC then creates a DSP profile to compensate for the aspects of room that would otherwise interfere with intended speaker frequency response. Once complete, the DSP profile is uploaded wirelessly to the Forte. The effects of the room correction process are easy to test by toggling the profile on and off from within the ARC app, and advantages are undeniable – in our room, uncorrected sound was noticeably boomier, with a boosted lower midrange. Activating room correction brought the sound closer to the more desirable flat response. Room correction can be accomplished with other devices and software, but we love how MartinLogan has made it possible with nothing more than the iPhone and the Forte.
The MartinLogan Forte is an impressive device. It’s one of seven models in MartinLogan’s wireless device lineup, each with its own set of features. Though we would have liked the inclusion of Bluetooth in the Forte, and it could be improved with a better volume control and more straight-forward setup interface, this is an extremely competent streamer and amplifier combo in a small, discreet package. Even the inclusion of standard analog inputs is something we didn’t fully appreciate until it was taken away — in light of our recent experiences with frustratingly-limited streaming speakers, we were delighted by how flexible the Forte can be. The Forte won’t replace your home theater receiver, but for home music playback we think the Forte’s mix of quality amplification and broad connectivity easily justifies its price.
Note: we’ve updated the review since original publication with some corrections received from MartinLogan.
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