NEAT Acoustics Iota Alpha loudspeaker Herb Reichert June 2016

Herb Reichert auditioned the NEAT Iota Alpha in June 2017 (Vol.40 No.6):

My girlfriend, bb, and her garden friend Casey were hanging on the bed in my room as I installed NEAT Acoustics' diminutive Iota Alpha floorstanding speakers. Casey said, "Herb, what kind of speakers are those? They look like lawn dwarfs."

I told her to shush her smart-ass mouth. "These are serious British-made high-end audiophile speakers—and they cost $1995/pair!"

Then bb chimed in: "I like them! . . . better than all those other speakers you have. These don't dominate the room. They leave space to move around. If their wood finish matched the floor, they would just vanish into the floor. Then, if I wasn't playing music, I could push them back against the wall."

"That's a very good point," I said. "I'll quote you in my review."

A few hours later, I realized that maybe you can't just move the Iota Alphas around like that. Not unless you mark the floor so that you can put them back precisely where they sound best. In Ken Micallef's review of them in the February 2017 issue, he said, "The Iota Alphas were the most difficult speakers to position for optimal sound quality that I've ever had. . . ."

As bb and Casey raved about the beauty of Georgia O'Keeffe's handmade clothes on display at the Brooklyn Museum, I set the 19"-tall Alphas about 7' apart and 24" from the front wall. Remembering what John Atkinson had written in his See Measurements section accompanying Ken's review—"an 8 ohm rated amplifier would have no difficulty driving the Iota"—I attached them to the 8-ohm taps of a 35Wpc PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium power amplifier.

Then I put on Tom Waits's Mule Variations (CD, Epitaph 86547-2) and sat cross-legged on the floor. All the way through "Cold Water," I kept moving around. I couldn't decide how high my ears should be, or how far from the speakers. No matter how or where I sat, it felt wrong. Stereo imaging was vague, and the lower midrange and upper bass (80–200Hz) were conspicuously absent, making Waits's dark, whisky-smoked voice sound bright and high-pitched. Not acceptable.

Reviewer anxiety dominated my next two days. I moved the Iota Alphas again and again—right, left, forward, back—until they ended up exactly where Ken had said to put them: "14" from the front wall and 95" from the listening chair"—and 5' apart, with their tweeters on the outside. I also discovered that the Iotas sounded more tight and meaty when connected to the PrimaLuna's 4-ohm taps.

Finally, Tom Waits sounded more like himself. Bass was a bit fluffy, but above middle C (262Hz), the Iota Alphas produced finely wrought, transparent sound—even at 90dB and louder! "Get Behind the Mule" was reproduced strongly and effectively—Waits's voice seemed almost perfect in tone, as did Smokey Hormel's guitar and Charlie Musselwhite's harmonica. But with "Cold Water"—and several classical piano recordings—I kept thinking something was still a little amiss between 80 and 200Hz.

It was time to let Robert Silverman's New York Steinway D, well recorded by John Atkinson et al, tell me if my ears were lying. I played Beethoven's Variation 22: Allegro molto, from Beethoven's Diabelli Variations (CD, Stereophile STPH017-2). Right away, I felt better. Left-and right-hand piano octaves seemed equally balanced. Musicality, clarity, and boogie were obviously the Iota Alpha's strongest virtues. But something in the crossover region between the Iota's downfiring woofer and 4" midrange driver still attracted my attention. I pulled out Editor's Choice Sampler & Test CD (Stereophile STPH016-2) and took a few measurements.

JA's Fender bass guitar in track 1 sounded surprisingly tight and real. Likewise, Carol Wincenc's flute in the Mozart Quartet in D, K.285 (track 3), sounded enjoyably breathy and true to life. "Dual-Mono Pink Noise" (track 18) showed me how the position of my head mattered. The warble tone tracks showed the Iota Alphas to be almost ruler flat between 250Hz and 10kHz. But, lo and behold, there it was: just as in JA's quasi-anechoic response, a narrow, 6dB peak at 100Hz. The 50-100Hz octave was up maybe 3dB, and at the other end of the audioband the tweeter was already losing power by 10kHz.

But forget my anxious-reviewer mishegas. All those technical observations—and a lot more critical listening—showed me exactly how the Iota Alphas were delivering lively, tuneful, reasonably accurate reproductions of music that were bigger and stronger than I ever would have imagined: Every one of the 14 musical tracks on Editor's Choice was reproduced with obvious verity. Now I felt I had to hear how they could handle difficult recordings. And at this point I replaced the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium amp with First Watt's J2, a 25Wpc solid-state power amp, driven by the Pass Labs HPA-1 headphone amplifier-line stage.

It would be fair and wise to judge your hi-fi system entirely by how it reproduces the voices of Barbara Hendricks and the women of the Paris Chorus, with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Paris Orchestra, in the supremely delicate filigree of Debussy's La damoiselle élue (LP, Deutsche Grammophon 2531 263). Debussy based this early, Wagnerian-styled work on "The Blessed Damozel," a romantic poem by the 19th-century English poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The narrative presents the ecstatic post-death voice of Rossetti's preternaturally beautiful mistress, Elizabeth Siddal, who was famously the muse of the entire Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, as she laments that she cannot enjoy heaven while her lover is still on earth.

Any audio component that comes even close to delivering the full poetic and mystical essences of this spacious and evocatively textured work is worthy of every audiophile's attention. Well, folks, the Iota Alphas came more than close. They expressed all its delicacy and romantic charm. While they placed the chorus in its proper place, they seemed to struggle with defining or outlining the voices of individual singers. The focus was slightly off.

Apprehending the full vision of La damoiselle élue requires a sharp lens. In an attempt to retrieve every last iota of instrumental and choral detail, I experimented with toe-in—and discovered that KM was also correct about toeing in the Iotas until I couldn't see their side panels from my listening seat. Even so, clarity of aural image was not a strong point of these speakers. Nor could the soundstages match in size those thrown by my Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a ($2200/pair) or KEF LS50 ($1500/pair) speakers—especially in terms of height.

An Experiment in Brit-fi
Suddenly, I had an urge to hear how the NEAT Iota Alpha would compare to the two other British speakers just mentioned: the KEF LS50 and Falcon LS3/5a.

With that beautiful Debussy recording, the KEF LS50s couldn't match the fey, romantic charm of the Iota Alphas—but in turn, the Alphas couldn't match the KEFs' tangible solidity and more accurate tone. Staring into the space between the stand-mounted LS50s, I "saw" a more life-size, more corporeal Barbara Hendricks. The choir had more detail and mass.

When I played "Cold Water" from Mule Variations through the LS50s, I could feel Tom Waits in front of me—he had weight, and his body stood almost at his proper height. That never happened with the NEATs. Compared to the Iota Alpha, the KEF LS50 is a he-man audiophile speaker that delivers some bass punch, big soundstages, and Cartesian-graph imaging.

All you folks who want sound reproduction that's accurate to the source need to hear a 12"-high audio magnifying glass called the Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a: Down to about 100Hz, it will give you a high-resolution aural picture of whatever is on the recording. On Mule Variations, Waits's voice seemed 100% perfectly toned. In "Pony," his guitar sounded almost real, and his pronunciation of "po-nay," and the way John Hammond's harp bit into the air, made the Iota Alphas sound vapid, the LS50s thick. Unlike the NEATs or KEFs, the Falcons were hyper-detailed and extremely cinematic—they made "What's He Building?" into a psychedelic horror-movie vision.

Conclusions
These three Britspeakers reproduce music very differently; which you might prefer will come down to your personal taste and domestic requirements. To my taste, NEAT Acoustics' Iota Alpha delivered the most generally attractive musical presentation of the three. It was always smooth and easygoing; it did pace, rhythm, and timing better than most speakers; and, best of all, it communicated charm and poetics in a unique and satisfying way.

After all this, it's more apparent than ever that Ken Micallef is not only a good writer but an astute audio reviewer; and I see the NEAT Iota Alphas as being very good, quasi-audiophile, set-them-up-once-and-forget-them, Herb-and-bb-live-happily-ever-after loudspeakers.—Herb Reichert

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COMMENTS
mrkaic's picture

As far as I know, this is the first review of Neat speakers that includes measurements. I wonder why.

To my knowledge Neat designs their speakers mostly by ear. This approach does not seem very scientific to me and the poor measurements here are likely the outcome of this process.

I had a pair of Neats, but sold them when I could not find any reviews that included measurements (there was a lot of subjective reviews, but I don't care about those). I simply cannot trust equipment that is not thoroughly measured and it seems that I made the right decision.

Scliff's picture

It's a shame to be so hung up on something so irrelevant as measurements.
If I like the way a component sounds, that's all I need or care about.

mrkaic's picture

It is a shame to be so hung up on something so irrelevant as subjective impressions. If I like the way a component measures, that's all I need or care about.

johnnythunder's picture

Bad food may measure well but may taste like shit. A $5 dollar bottle of wine may measure better than a $50 bottle but tastes like shit. You can have your Consumer Reports level of audio quality but most of us will be very happy listening first and worrying about measurements later. Stereophile is a perfect blend of sometimes corroborating the sound quality of a component based on measurements or telling you to ignore it. We are human beings listening to art. The essence of that is subjective. To deny it or to knock it in others is folly.

mrkaic's picture

Pompous and Rigid?! Is that supposed to refer to me? It is sad that you cannot refrain from insulting me because we don't agree.

Anton's picture

That is the strangest post I have ever seen.

"I had a pair of Neats, but sold them when I could not find any reviews that included measurements (there was a lot of subjective reviews, but I don't care about those). I simply cannot trust equipment that is not thoroughly measured and it seems that I made the right decision."

If, by chance, you happened by them while your system was on, how did you think they sounded?

mrkaic's picture

That is the strangest post I have ever seen.

What a compliment, many thanks. :)

But seriously, I did listen to them and did not like the sound. That is why I started looking for measurements. After not finding any, I ditched the Neats and never looked back.

Anton's picture

You didn't like what you heard, so why would measurements matter?

What if you had liked them, but didn't like the measurement?

Your ears don't rule?

mrkaic's picture

What if you had liked them, but didn't like the measurement?

I would get rid of them, of course. I would feel victimized by poor engineering and/or manufacturing. A component that does not measure well has no place in my home.

Your ears don't rule?

No, please see the answer above.

Pedro's picture

Most magazines don't take measurements of gear they review like Stereophile does, so it's hardly a surprise that this is the first review of these speakers with scientific measurements. But the same can be said about loads of gear, I'm sure...

mrkaic's picture

I agree, measurements are hard to find. I suppose some of the reasons might be cost, lack of expertise by reviewers, or resistance by subjectivist reviewers who seem to be the ruling class of the audio world.

Pedro's picture

Most magazines are just snake oil sellers. Without measurements and any kind of scientific approach they can sell everything they want, including stupid stuff like very expensive cables (even directional ones - ahaha) and so forth.

avanti1960's picture

the complete story of how a speaker will sound but they are hardly irrelevant, especially measured frequency response.
That +5db peak at 100Hz is something that turns me off because I know what it sounds like.
Since this speaker was especially sensitive to room position it would have been interesting to see response plots at some different positions, perhaps getting rid of that peak (if possible).

hhi92010's picture

This looks Old School, I like it!

romath's picture

You wrote: 1) "But once the Iotas were fully broken in, they ended up 14" from the front wall and 95" from the listening chair in my larger room..." and
2) "Moving the Iota Alphas into my nearfield rig, I placed the speakers 12" from the front wall and 85" from my listening chair..."

85", i.e., 7'1" is near field?? You've got to be kidding. The Quad (active) speakers on my desktop, an arm's length away, are near field. And really, other than the room and associated electronics, what makes 7'1" and 7'9" fundamentally different? Very strange.

corrective_unconscious's picture

I'd like to have some definitive reason for it to do so, as a matter confidence in the design staff.

My hearing can vary hour to hour, just as my resting pulse, my attention span, my visual acuity, my lucidity, my testosterone levels, my mood, my digestion, and so on, can. Having basic measurements, especially ones that look at least within the realm of standard, can provide a nice baseline for any subjective impressions. An example is "bad" pair matching over a limited frequency range - measurements will find that flaw faster than my ears will in most instances, I'm sure.

will1's picture

With about 30 hours of run in (Neat recommend 200) and going straight to the positioning suggested here I can't wipe the smile off my face. Powered by a Naim Nap100 and a Cambridge Azur 851n I challenge anyone to find a more enjoyable listen for the money. The mid range is a joy and the treble is stunning. You can rattle the walls but still enjoy at a sensible volume if you have neighbors.

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