MartinLogan Neolith Electrostatic-Hybrid Loudspeaker

The Sword in the Stone

Equipment report
Martin Logan Neolith
MartinLogan Neolith Electrostatic-Hybrid Loudspeaker

Not surprisingly, the Neolith was stunningly fast, reproducing transient information with lifelike speed. It wasn’t just transient leading edges that were faithfully portrayed, but also trailing edges. That is, sounds started and stopped with equal precision. As a result, the music had a sense of life and verve, with no smearing of dynamic inflections. Little things, like the edge of a drumstick gently tapping on a cymbal, were so vivid and alive they stood out from the mix. Percussion was simply sensational—the timbales on the outstanding Mobile Fidelity reissue of Santana’s Abraxis, for example, sounded like they were in the room with me. The snare drum that drives the martial rhythm of “Mars” from The Planets (Mehta, LA Philharmonic, LP reissue) was astonishingly crisp and precise, cutting through from the back of the soundstage. Hearing the Neolith’s reproduction of this piece gave me a greater appreciation for the orchestra’s rhythmic precision. Acoustic guitar was particularly well served, with notes seemingly jumping out of thin air, without inducing the fatigue of box speakers that achieve apparent transient speed by way of an unnatural emphasis on transient leading edges. The way that the guitar’s string caused the air inside the instrument’s body to resonate and then decay was revealed with crystalline transparency.

The treble was exquisitely detailed, filigreed with an ethereal delicacy. The Neolith resolved the fine micro-dynamic structure of cymbals, a violin’s upper harmonics, tambourine, and saxophone with no trace of the grain, etch, or metallic flavor often heard from box speakers. Listen to the cymbals on the 45rpm Analogue Productions reissue of Dave Brubeck’s classic Time Out and you’ll hear a full measure of treble energy and vitality without the sense of tension that most dome tweeters produce.

One of the knocks against planar loudspeakers (including electrostatics, planar-magnetic drivers, and true ribbons) is that, while fast and detailed, they don’t deliver the same dynamic force and impact behind transients. Drum sticks hitting drum heads, for example, don’t have quite the transient pop they have with full-range dynamic speakers. This shortcoming can be exacerbated in hybrid systems in which bottom-end dynamics, reproduced by cone woofers, call attention to the planar’s dynamic shortcomings by juxtaposition. The Neolith goes a long way toward dispelling the notion that planar transducers lack force. The Neolith supplied plenty of impact and weight behind transients, perhaps by virtue of the panel’s size; nonetheless, it didn’t pack the punch of the best cone speakers. That said, I never felt something was missing on any type of music.

As impressive as all the characteristics I’ve described are, and as important as they are to musical communication, what really sets the Neolith apart is its resolution. By resolution I mean the Neolith’s ability to convey everything that’s going on in a recording, from instrumental timbre, to the separation of individual instrumental lines, to micro-dynamic shadings, to the puff of air around image outlines, to transient information, to the space in which the recording was made. All is laid out in ravishing detail. The Neolith was particularly adept at clearly resolving every instrumental line, even within the most complex passages. I was continually amazed to hear previously buried instrumental parts in familiar music with such vivid clarity. The intricate horn arrangements of Gordon Goodwin in his modern interpretation of big band music, for example, were suddenly much more intelligible. The Neolith “de-homogenizes” the music and, in doing so, allows much more of the musicians’ intentions to be revealed.

Because the Neolith is so high in resolution, it will reveal every single aspect of the signal feeding it. It’s a microscope on your front end, amplification, AC power, cables, and vibration isolation. No sources or amplifiers are “too good” for the Neolith; an investment in top-quality sources and electronics won’t go to waste. With the Constellation electronics driving the Neolith, I heard the most highly resolved musical presentation I’ve ever experienced. The Constellation electronics are unbelievably transparent and detailed, qualities that combined synergistically with the Neolith to reveal even the finest bit of musical information. You may think that this combination may be too much of a good thing—at some point resolution degenerates into mere clinical analysis. But that wasn’t the case. Every increase in transparency in my system resulted in hearing more musical expressiveness, creating greater engagement with and immersion in the music. There was no trace of etch or coldness, and no longing for a less detailed, more “musical” rendering.

None of this would matter if the Neolith’s cone-woofer bass had ruined coherence by calling attention to the discontinuity between it and the electrostatic panel. But it didn’t. Rather, the front-firing 12" woofer, which handles the transition from the panel to the 15" rear-firing driver over two octaves from 60Hz to 250Hz, smoothly integrates with the panel and produces a sound that is truly consistent from top to bottom. Even the low bass sounds “of a piece” with the midwoofer and the panel.

You look at the massive rear-firing 15" driver, along with those two huge ports, and think that there’s no way that it will blend seamlessly with an electrostat. But it does. The Neolith’s low bass isn’t as hard-hitting, taut, and defined as that of some of the best box speakers, but the glorious mids and treble more than make up for this. Plus, the combination of the two woofers and the massive panel allows the Neolith to play any type of music, at any listening level, with utter ease.

As you can see, I greatly enjoyed my time with the Neolith. They delivered hour after hour of sheer musical delight, across a wide range of music and styles. But perhaps the most memorable experience I had with them, and one that speaks volumes about the Neolith’s fundamental attributes, was when I called up a rip of a straight-ahead jazz CD I had engineered (Confirmation by the Chiz Harris Quartet) live to two-track. The Neolith brought out specific aspects of the sound, including the golden burnished timbre of Conti Candoli’s flugelhorn, the woody body of the doublebass, and the rich detail of the cymbals. Listening to this recording through the Neolith was revelatory; I was clearly hearing things that I had never heard from any other playback system. But beyond these specific improvements, what really struck me was how the Neolith conveyed the live feel and energy of spontaneous music-making, as it actually happened at the session. Seconds into the first track I experienced a frisson of excitement as the memory of the session was suddenly brought back to vivid life by the Neolith. The recording was supposed to be the Chiz Harris Quartet, but Chiz invited his friend, the great trumpet player Conti Candoli (of the Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, and Tonight Show bands), to drop by the studio to listen in, if he had some spare time. Candoli not only showed up, he brought his horn. Without rehearsal with Candoli, the group (which included Supersax member Jay Migliori on tenor) launched into ten-minute-plus free-flowing renditions of be-bop classics such as Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation.” The impromptu contribution of Candoli, the improvisational nature of the music, the talent of these veteran musicians, and the live-to-two-track technique contributed to the feeling of raw musical energy captured on tape. I’ve used this recording for years in evaluating equipment, but I’ve never before felt as vividly transported back to the original musical performance as I did when listening to it through the Neolith.

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