I've just reviewed in back-to-back issues the two most resolving audio components I've encountered in more than 25 years of full-time audio writing. Those products are the MartinLogan Neolith electrostatic hybrid loudspeaker in the January issue, and the Constellation Reference Series linestage and power amplifiers that grace this issue's cover.
The Neolith isn't perfect (no loudspeaker is), but in terms of the sheer amount of musical information presented to the listener, MartinLogan's flagship is in a class by itself. No musical detail, no matter how small, escapes the Neolith's resolving power. Similarly, the Constellation Audio Altair 2 and Hercules 2 electronics are exceptionally detailed and transparent. The very fine micro-structure of an instrument's timbre, the ethereal tail-ends of reverberation decays, the sense of air surrounding a hi-hat, the transient zip of percussion, the changing harmonic structure of a piano's strings as the note or chord decays into absolute silence — these are what the Constellation electronics — uniquely — bring to the listening experience.
One might think that the combination of the Neolith loudspeakers and Constellation electronics would be too much of a good thing—a recipe for clinical analysis rather than engaging musical intimacy. One might also expect that the Neolith would be more "musical" if driven by "softer-sounding" (e.g., tube) electronics that added a bit of warmth and roundness. Or that the sound would be "better" if the Constellation electronics drove a more "forgiving" loudspeaker that tempered the Constellation's razor-sharp rendering of transient information.
But can a hi-fi system ever have too much resolution?
That we would think to ask such a question reflects a general misconception of what resolution is. To be fair, unless you've heard real honest-to-goodness resolution — and not the etch, brightness, and transient hype that often passes for resolution — it's impossible to appreciate its transformative effect on the listening experience. Resolution has for a long time been conflated with threadbare timbres, exaggerated transients, de-saturated tone color, and an absence of warmth. The last iota of information is ruthlessly laid bare, degenerating into sterility and resulting in rapid listening fatigue.
That characterization is true of products that attempt to sound highly resolving without really delivering resolution. These products hype transient leading edges, are tipped-up in the treble, add a metallic sheen to timbres, and try to impress with sonic fireworks rather than by revealing musical nuances. As they say in Texas, "Big hat, no cattle."
But a hi-fi system that delivers real resolution sounds nothing like that stereotype. In fact, higher resolution renders greater tonal saturation, warmth, and instrumental body by virtue of revealing the timbral micro-structure, which only contributes to a sense of realism and life. Instrumental textures simply sound more like the real thing when the system accurately portrays the instrument's harmonic and dynamic structure in all its finely textured glory. Unfortunately, it's these low-level signal components that are the most fragile and easiest to lose. Resolution is shaved off in every stage of the chain, from tonearm resonances, to electronics, to the mechanical structures in transducers. It takes extraordinarily skilled design to create products that deliver true resolution.
But isn't resolution way down the list of what matters most in hi-fi? Once you get the macro-elements right — accurate tonal balance, extension at the frequency extremes, low distortion, wide dynamic range — resolving the finest signal components seems like a mere trifle to some. My recent experience with realizing greater and greater resolution in my own system, aided in part by clean AC power and vibration control, suggests that resolution vaults the communication between musician and listener to a new level.
Paradoxically, the finer the detail the greater its contribution to realism, and with that realism comes a deeper immersion in the music. In fact, a truly resolving system sneaks up on you during a listening session. At some point you snap out of an altered state and realize just how captivated you've been. This spell-like sense of being in the presence of the real thing is induced because the brain is working less hard to decode the sounds—the high-resolution system has done most of the work for your brain, allowing you to focus on musical meaning. Second, the system reveals to you aspects of the sound and of the performance that you never knew were there. This phenomenon is particularly powerful when listening to records that you've heard hundreds of times over years or decades. You start listening to a record you thought you knew intimately only to discover nuances of musical expression that change your appreciation for the album. This discovery of newfound musical expressiveness, coupled with the deeper involvement, is nothing less than transformative.
That is what resolution is all about, and I'll take as much of it as a hi-fi system can deliver.