There are some things that are rarely seen in the wild, like the white lion or the snow leopard. High-end audio similarly has its own infrequently encountered species, but a major show is a good place to go looking for them.
I’d been hearing reports this year about MartinLogan’s new flagship electrostatic loudspeaker, the Neolith, but I’d not personally put eyes — or ears — on one. But in the rarified altitude of the second floor of the Denver Marriott Tech Center, I came face to face with the imposing beasts.
When I walked into the Musical Surroundings/Audio Alternative room at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I noticed lush tropical greenery creating a canopy that was hanging out from the corners of the back wall. Even so, the tangle of leaves and branches couldn’t obscure the 6-foot-tall, 385-pound Neoliths. The speakers were making no attempt to blend into their surroundings, either, as they were finished in a bright red.
The Neoliths ($80,000 a pair USD) are a full 35 percent larger than MartinLogan’s Statement E2s. The new model represents a renewed assault on the state of the art from the veteran company, which in recent years has been increasingly developing smaller, lower-cost models. Those compact electrostatics sought to bring MartinLogan’s midrange magic to lifestyle buyers, but to achieve maximum resolution with panels, the more surface area, the better.
The Neolith doesn’t shrink from this challenge. In fact, it has one of the largest electrostatic radiating surfaces MartinLogan has ever made (22 inches wide and 48 inches high), and that includes early efforts like the imposing Monolith.
Coupled to that huge panel is the beefiest low frequency unit in ML history. It contains a front-firing, 12-inch woofer that operates from 60 Hz to an adjustable 250-400 Hz, as well as a rear-firing, 15-inch driver that goes from 60 Hz down to 23 Hz. Both cones are cast aluminum with large voice coils to keep up with the speed of the panel.
The design of the enclosure also seeks to add rigidity and dampen vibrations. The housing is made from a phenolic resin polymer, and features support arms to stiffen the panels.
Since the strong suit of electrostatics is their handling of vocalists, I started with one of my favorites, Ella Fitzgerald. On two vinyl cuts, “Black Coffee” and “Angel Eyes,” the immediacy of the singer’s voice was extraordinary. The Neoliths allowed the listener to fully appreciate Fitzgerald’s mastery of pitch, tempo and breath control.
To see how the Neoliths fared with a lower register, I listened to Johnny Hartman croon Rogers and Hart’s “I Could Write a Book.” The large panels created a huge soundstage for Hartman and highlighted his superb phasing and ability to slide smoothly to resonant low notes.
The Neoliths, though, did more than just bring Ella and Johnny into the room. The piano on the demo tracks, especially, sounded as authentic as I’ve heard. In addition, MartinLogan seems to have made the right choices with the bass unit. The Neoliths, I believe, do the best job of any ML transducer yet in integrating deep, tight and fast bass with the electrostatic panel. And, I say that as a listener who has owned three pairs of ML speakers, including a previous flagship.
MartinLogan speakers traditionally have been a good match for well-designed tube components. Musical Surroundings paired the Neoliths with a front end of Audio Research gear, including the Ref 750 SE monoblocks ($66,000 a pair USD), Ref 6 line stage ($14,000 USD), Ref CD9 CD player/DAC ($13,000 USD) and Ref 3 phono stage ($14,000 USD). The Ref 750, by the way, supplies 750 watts per channel. The Neolith, however, is rated to operate on as little as 20 watts.
Other equipment in use when I visited included a Clearaudio vinyl setup, made up of the company’s Master Innovation turntable in black lacquer ($29,400 USD), TT-M1 tangential tonearm ($32,350 USD), Olympus stand ($13,400 USD), Goldfinger Statement cartridge ($15,000 USD), Statement clamp ($1,000 USD) and Outer Limit peripheral record clamp ($1,350 USD). Cable was from MIT.
As more audiophiles hear the Neoliths, I expect the speakers’ numbers to increase in a wide variety of habitats around the globe.