Mark Henninger auditioned the new $80,000 electrostatic speaker system from Martin Logan; did the experience live up to his expectations?
I first saw Martin Logan's Neolith at CEDIA 2014. It was on display, but there was only one, and it made no sound. That was okay—a trade show like CES or CEDIA is not the best place to audition high-end audio equipment. Typically, a combination of inadequate acoustics, rushed set up, improper listening position, and an abundance of background noise make it difficult to know if a sound system is performing to its full potential. An acoustically treated listening room, as you often find at a high-end audio dealer, can effectively mitigate those problems. That's why I was excited when Martin Logan extended an invitation to demo its new flagship electrostatic speaker system at Overture Ultimate Home Electronics in Wilmington, Delaware.
At CEDIA 2014, a single Neolith sat silent.
The listening room at Overture is a sanctuary for the appreciation of sound. Tubular bass traps and other acoustical treatments surrounded the system, resulting in a relatively damped acoustical space—when I clapped my hands, I heard very little reverb.
Visually, the Neoliths dominated the scene; you'll never mistake them for any other speaker. Each electrostatic panel measures 22" x 48", and the speaker's design incorporates two woofers. There is a front-firing 12-inch driver in an acoustic-suspension (sealed) enclosure as well as a rear-firing 15-inch driver in a ported enclosure. As a result, Martin Logan claims that the Neolith's bass response extends down to 23 Hz. Combine that with a rated efficiency of 90 dB and 1300W power handling, and you have a speaker that is close to full range. For the record, I define "full range" as 16 to 20,000 Hz—with enough dynamic headroom to reproduce that range with gusto.
A view of the rear-firing, 15" ported woofer.
Overture used Spectral audio components and MIT speaker cables to run the Neoliths. A SDR-4000SL Master CD Processor ($19,000) fed its signal to a DMC-30SS Series 2 Preamp ($12,000). A pair of Spectral DMA400 monoblock amplifiers ($14,000 each) provided power. Notably, the Neoliths support bi-wiring, but not bi-amplification. Heavy-duty jumpers provide the option to attenuate bass by 0db, 4dB, or 8dB; the speakers I heard used the 0dB setting for full bass output.
Extremely heavy-duty jumpers allow for performance tweaks.
Martin Logan's reps kicked off the demo with an explanation of the rationale behind creating such a rarefied speaker system. According to the company, the Neolith is a statement-level speaker in the same vein as its predecessors, the Monolith and the Statement E2. It represents the culmination of 30 years experience making electrostatic speakers, and it is directly aimed at a particular type of audiophile: someone who is well-heeled and (typically) wants to use separate amplification. As a result, it is an entirely passive design. The rep said exactly what I was thinking: taking a completely passive approach is not necessarily rational, but it is an appropriate choice when considering the mindset of an audiophile who "wants nothing in the way of their music."
The rep mentioned that the Neolith's $80,000/pair price "fell where it may" and reflects the pragmatic costs of building such a speaker on a per-order basis. By the way, if you want a pair, the waiting period is 6-8 weeks from when you place your order—and that's after the production facility is operating at full speed. You do get to choose from seven color options.
Samples of the Neolith's seven standard colors.
The President of Overture, Terry Menacker, handled the audio demos. Before he played any music, Terry discussed the provenance of the tracks he chose, and that he would play tracks for which he was present at the performance, recording, and/or mastering session—tracks with which he was deeply familiar. I heartily agree with that approach, although it turned out I was not familiar with any of the tracks he played. That's typical for high-end demos; my musical taste does not lean toward classical and folk music—which is precisely why I brought my own music to play. As an aside, when I mentioned I'd like to hear some Jay-Z, one of the Martin Logan reps concurred. Alas, that did not happen, even though I had The Black Album on CD.
A view of the source, a $19,000 Spectral SDR-4000SL Master CD Processor.
The first sounds to come out of the Neolith were sublime. The track, "Run With the Devil" from the album There's a Time by Doug Macleod, is quite minimalistic—it's a voice and an acoustic guitar. The huge electrostatic panels produced a thoroughly convincing soundstage with speed and accuracy that made for a very detailed listening experience. Because high-frequency sound is directional, there was very little interaction with the already acoustically dead room. The limited dispersion resulted in a narrow sweet spot—but oh how sweet it was. If you get your head in the right place, a complete 3D audio illusion unfolds before you. Despite their impressive size and exotic sports-car looks, the Neoliths have more in common with a motorcycle: It's pretty much a solo experience, although you can bring another person along for a ride—if they sit behind you. The Neoliths are not speakers that you listen to while sitting off to the side, which often happens at audio shows; you have to put yourself in the exact spot where they work their magic.
As we got further into the demo, Terry played "Requiem: Pie Jesu" from Rutter: Requiem/Five Anthems. It's a fantastically engineered recording, and it includes several 16 Hz organ notes (which I'll discuss in a moment). The track provoked goosebumps, which was a good sign. The sense of space and depth created by the Neolith was a compelling audio illusion.
I picked up the habit of identifying the songs I hear during demos, and snapping a photo like this one.
However, it turns out there was something missing in the Neolith's rendition of the recording: those 16 Hz organ notes. I didn't find that out until I got home and played the same track on my own system, which extends down to 16 Hz. I'm not criticizing Martin Logan here; the speaker's specs say 23 Hz is the bottom. The thing is, 16 Hz (aka low pedal C) is a real note, with real instruments that can play it, and real compositions that use it. So in my view, the Neoliths could benefit from the addition of a subwoofer or two. Of course, I understand that subwoofers might be anathema to the sort of audiophile who would object to actively powering the Neolith's built-in 15-inch woofer.
As the demo neared its conclusion, I asked Terry to play my track "Return of the Dub King
." Because I created the track, I'm intimately familiar with how it should sound, and what my intent was as an artist. It was one of the most fascinating listening experiences I've ever had. My first feeling was one of relief; the mix sounded very much the way I expected it to. The resolution of the Neolith is breathtaking.
Nevertheless, as the track progressed, I noticed that the bass seemed weak. Once again, the 23 Hz floor became an issue that limited my listening experience. Unlike the "Requiem: Pie Jesu" track, I was aware that the Neolith's rendition of my composition was missing visceral ultra-deep bass. When the track was over, nobody asked me if it sounded the way I thought it should, and I did not bring it up. Overall, the speakers' performance was impressive enough; nitpicking the demo on the spot seemed unnecessary, especially since Martin Logan was honest about the speaker's specs and bass capabilities.
As it happens, the Neolith demo occurred on the same day I set up my first Dolby Atmos system at home. The coincidence added a novel complication to my experience, because it turns out Atmos provides an accurate yet spacious sound that I found at least as impressive as what the Neoliths achieved. In fact, the Dolby Surround function in Atmos, which expands 2-channel music into immersive audio, did a better job of emulating church-like ambiance than the Neoliths could pull off. Simply put, I found it more believable and enjoyable to listen to the same track played through Atmos than through a six-figure, 2-channel audiophile rig. Additionally, and just to add a heaping helping of heresy to my observations, I'd like to note that I bought my copy of the track on iTunes—and yet it sounds fantastic played through a system that cost about 5% of the Neoliths' price tag.
I understand why Martin Logan built the Neoliths—they make a statement—and I certainly don't begrudge anyone who has the money to spend on such excellent speakers. If price were no object, I'd own a pair, and I'd add a few subwoofers to bring my overall system response down to 16 Hz, because the Neoliths really are fantastic-sounding speakers.
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