MartinLogan Neolith Electrostatic-Hybrid Loudspeaker

The Sword in the Stone

Equipment report
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Floorstanding
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Products:
Martin Logan Neolith
MartinLogan Neolith Electrostatic-Hybrid Loudspeaker

I must commend MartinLogan for producing what is the most useful, informative, and easy-to-understand owner’s manual I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s a model of clarity and comprehensiveness.

Before I get to my listening impressions, it’s worth considering the manifold virtues of an electrostatic-dynamic hybrid loudspeaker. The first is the fact that nearly the entire frequency range (250Hz–22kHz, in the Neolith’s case) is reproduced by a single transducer, with no crossover within that range. This means there’s no discontinuity between disparate drivers, and no crossover in the critical midrange frequencies. Second, the electrostatic panel’s diaphragm is extremely light. The diaphragm in the Neolith is just 12.7 microns thick, or about one-sixth the diameter of a human hair. Low mass means low inertia, allowing the diaphragm to respond quickly to transient signals, and to stop equally quickly. Compared with a conventional driver’s cone, voice coil, voice-coil former, surround, and the glue holding it all together, the electrostatic speaker’s diaphragm is virtually massless. The diaphragm’s excellent transient fidelity is not merely the result of its lightness; the diaphragm is driven uniformly over its entire surface area. And that surface area is massive—more than 1000 square inches in each Neolith. A large radiating surface area means the excursion (how far the diaphragm moves back and forth) is proportionately lower for a given sound-pressure level, and presumably, that much more linear. Also, keep in mind that an electrostatic panel is a push-pull device, with one stator pushing the diaphragm while the other is pulling. It all adds up to a recipe for coherence, resolution, transparency, and transient fidelity.


Listening
The Neoliths settled into my system quite easily, with a minimum of tweaking. After rolling them out of their massive crates and into position, we (two MartinLogan representatives and I) removed the casters and put the Neoliths on furniture sliders to dial-in their final positions. Next, the spiked feet were installed. After a bit of listening and experimenting with the distance control and the bass-level adjustment, we settled on a flat bass setting. The bottom end was just a little over-full at the flat setting, but I found the sound preferable to the lighter-weight presentation of the -4dB setting. The back of the enclosure was 53" from the wall behind it. Toe-in angle was minimal to moderate.

I drove the Neolith with my usual sources (see Associated Components), and alternated between the Constellation Audio Altair 2 preamplifier and Hercules 2 mono power amplifiers on one hand, and the Soulution 725 preamplifier and 701 mono power amplifiers on the other. Both amplifiers are powerhouses (1100W into 8 ohms for the Constellation, 600W into 8 ohms for the Soulution), and neither had a problem with the Neolith’s half-ohm impedance at 20kHz.

If the goal  of high-end audio is to create in your home the impression of hearing actual instruments, with all their vividness, life, detail, and dimensionality intact, then the Neolith must surely come close to achieving that goal. This loudspeaker reproduces instruments and voices with staggering immediacy and realism. It strips away the mechanical artifice of most other loudspeakers, leaving behind a palpable impression of instruments floating in space. The sense of transparency, of hearing though the playback and recording chains to the original musical event, is revelatory. The Neolith seems to pull off this magic trick effortlessly, as though such legerdemain were simply part and parcel of its nature. Moreover, it doesn’t do this on occasion, with specially selected discs; rather it brings music to life over a huge range of recordings, good and bad.

For instance, I love the album Sunflower by vibraphonist Milt Jackson, accompanied by Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Billy Cobham, and on some tracks a chamber orchestra playing arrangements by Don Sebesky. Unfortunately, the sonics on this album are poor; the sound is closed down and “hooded,” particularly on the piano. Although the Neolith laid bare this recording’s flaws, it also laid bare the extraordinary musicianship that makes this disc such a standout. The speakers truly disappeared in every sense of that word, providing an intimate window on Hancock’s funky Rhodes work that underpins the track “People Make the World Go Round,” the gorgeous juxtaposition of the chamber group’s woodwinds, reeds, and strings with Hubbard’s trumpet lines on the title track, and the way Jackson explores a melody from all angles in his brilliant solos. Sitting in front of the Neolith made me feel like an eavesdropper on spontaneous musical creation.


The Neolith was simply sensational with well-recorded voices. One of my references is Jennifer Warnes’ The Hunter [Impex LP] and the track “Somewhere, Somebody.” Her voice wasn’t being reproduced by two electromechanical contrivances; she was standing directly between the speakers. Forget about box coloration, driver discontinuity, and cone break-up—this is as pure and unadulterated as music reproduction gets through the midrange. Not only was Warnes’ voice unencumbered tonally and dynamically, the sense of vivid presence and palpability was astonishing. This tangibility was magnified by the tendency of the Neolith to sound a little forward and assertive in the midband, with a fully fleshed-out brilliance range. This is not a laid-back, reticent-sounding loudspeaker. The Neolith doesn’t, however, sound “skeletal” in the way that some electrostatics can; neither is it overly warm and saturated.

As focused and intimate as the Neolith was reproducing an unaccompanied voice, it was just as expansive on big music. Those two huge panels present certain instruments and ensembles with a magnificent grandeur and scale that small loudspeakers, no matter how good, simply fail to convey. The amazingly recorded piano on Bruce Katz’s New-Orleans-inflected Crescent Crawl [AudioQuest LP] had a power, weight, authority, and sense of size you just don’t get from most box speakers. The sheer physicality of left-hand piano lines and crashing chords brought to life the piano’s size and majestic power. Large ensembles and full-sized orchestras were well served by the Neolith’s “bigness.” This sense of size wasn’t just conveyed in conventional terms by width and depth (although the Neolith has those qualities in spades), but also by the size and power of instruments and ensembles. The Neolith’s 6'-plus height contributed to a soundstage that extended higher than that of most speakers.

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