NEAT Acoustics Iota Alpha loudspeaker Page 2

The NEATs' wide-range resolution of touch and timing created something unique in my experience. With the right record, such as Tower of Power's Back to Oakland (LP, Direct-Disk Labs SD 16601), the Iota Alphas came viscerally alive, as keen as cunning cats, with deeply commanding rhythmic movement heard from nearly every instrument. The music seemed to lift off, at times providing emotional involvement that knocked me clean, cold, dead out! The Iota Alphas also played it nimble and extremely quick, with élan, guts, and gusto.

NEAT meets the Kuzma-Shindo team
My appraisals of audio components usually involve first listening to the review sample in my budget rig (Music Hall, Heed, Elac, Snell), then in my big rig (Kuzma, Shindo, DeVore). What works well in the smaller, nearfield rig generally sounds even better in the big rig, depending on ancillaries, etc. I followed this procedure for the petite NEATs, but for some reason they ended up in the big rig sooner than usual. Given the Shindo Haut-Brion's power-output spec of 25Wpc, I half expected the 86dB-sensitive Iota Alphas to poop out, as had Trenner & Friedl's 82dB-sensitive Suns. Man, was I ever wrong.

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People sometimes ask me what music I listen to when evaluating audio equipment. That goes back to my earlier statement about my audio running buddies: Steve Cohen, of Manhattan audio dealer In Living Stereo, recently turned me on to Kraftwerk's Tour de France (2 LPs, Astralwerks/Warner Bros. 791203). This set, recorded in 1983 but not released until 2003, sounds as contemporary as anything by the likes of Brandt Brauer Frick, FKA twigs, or artists of the EDM, footwork, and techno genres. The growling, nearly monosyllabic vocals and layered synthesizer squalls were both riveting and calming via the Iota Alphas, creating a locomotive of globe-circling beats and warm, even luxurious sound. Tour de France provided as good an argument as any for the Iota Alpha's brilliant design. Not only did the NEATs retrieve these discs' oceanic bass in unexpected fashion, they greedily resolved the subtle microdynamics of individual synths and percussion, to form a thick weave of tones, textures, and nearly subsonic aural elements. And they imbued this hi-rez tableau with remarkable oomph. The tiny-tot Iota Alphas rescued Kraftwerk's music from the grooves and arranged it in, at times, hyperreal fashion—as if the music were a painting and I was viewing its rich colors, bold strokes, and energetic contrasts.

"Diane," from Miles Davis's Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (mono LP, Prestige 7200), is a frequent presence on my turntable platters, and the Iota Alphas opened a new window on this classic, recorded in 1956. By now, I'd identified one of the Iota's constants: superb movement and flow, regardless of the music. It had that sweet rhythm in spades, which I could hear in bassist Paul Chambers's chugging walking lines, Davis's ethereal trumpet purr, and, most identifiably, in the big cymbal beat of "Philly" Joe Jones. A master of both rhythmic propulsion and snare-drum fireworks, Jones could "swing you into bad health," as the saying goes. The NEATs brought his grand pulse and rudimental pyrotechnics to the fore. Hearing Jones switch between two different ride cymbals to accompany different soloists was a thrill via the NEATs. I'd never heard these changes rendered so acutely or so agreeably. As I focused on one ride, its long circumference was apparent, the cymbal sounding both huge and well-focused in the mono mix, changing color and definition as Jones changed the position of his stick for each solo. This was a major revelation, and something I've heard with no other speaker.

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Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (LP, Angel EMI 35430), was equally revelatory. The NEATs projected both the music's somber flow and its playful curiosity, outlining each instrument with stupefying clarity. This was no etched, tipped-up, nonsensically airy sound, but music reproduction that was fully present, tactile, and meaty. Instrumental tones were rich and saturated for such small speakers. The NEAT's sound was very coherent from top to bottom, its planar-magnetic tweeter's treble smoothly integrated with the midrange and bass notes. Pictures was rendered as a large, living and breathing, very dynamic and very rich orchestral feast. The NEATs resolved the beautiful textures of individual instruments in an extremely intimate way, and from pp to ff. And far from sounding small or lopped off, the NEATs' soundstage sometimes rose as high as the top of my chest-high equipment rack.

With the closing of Manhattan record store Other Music, fans of avant-garde electronic music are feeling the pain. I suppose online vendor Boomkat fills the void, while lacking Other's personal touch. One artist I happily discovered at Other Music is FKATwigs and her sole full-length album, LP1 (LP, Young Turks YTLP 118). Her vocals are ribald blends of moans, groans, and abbreviated grunts, her music an electronic cosmos all its own, its tugging beats and fractured bass patterns recalling the sexual dread and violence of Scarlett Johansson's femme fatale in Under the Skin, a sci-fi horror flick all heat, pulse, and sonic delirium. The NEATs framed Twigs's sonic sorcery in wavelike synthesizer contortions, death-spiraling dub bass, and precise rhythms carved in space. I was again surprised that such a small box could deliver such sounds.

Music Hall Heeds the NEATs
Moving the Iota Alphas into my nearfield rig, I placed the speakers 12" from the front wall and 85" from my listening chair, toed in until I couldn't see their side panels. In this setup, bass notes, acoustic or electronic, had a decidedly softer presentation than with the Shindo amplification—unusual, in that the solid-state Heed Elixir integrated offers practically twice the Shindos' power. But once again the NEATs pulled off their trick of super-high resolution joined to excellent top-to-bottom coherence, good tonality, and as deft a touch with timbre and speed as I've heard from any small speaker. Upper-treble notes were smooth, pungent, fast, and airy. Though low-bass notes had soft rather than crisp attacks, midrange and upper-bass notes were rendered with good speed and depth, and with the same organic, visceral touch that had stood out with the Shindos.

Returning to Kraftwerk's Tour de France: Upper-frequency synth notes sounded rather papery, and bass notes were softer than with the Shindos, but the Iota Alpha's resplendent characteristics of high resolution, strong timbre, and naturalness remained. The NEATs projected a 3D image that practically detached itself from the plane described by the speakers' front baffles, rendering a dense yet spacious soundstage. "La Forme"'s head-tripping beats and ear-candy suppleness were allied to deep, punchy electronic bass notes, completing an exceptionally coherent sonic picture.

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The Heed-NEAT's depiction of Pictures at an Exhibition was nowhere near as dense and tonally pure as through my Shindo separates, but retained similar poise, rhythm, and tonal coherence. I can go and on about the many brilliant qualities the NEATs brought to this orchestral favorite. During what I like to call the "death-march section," in which snare drums create dramatic buzz-rolls as the instruments playing the main theme rise in volume and intensity, the scale and pacing and dynamics were as accurate and clear through the NEATs as I've heard. They created a thrilling view into the orchestra, in which each instrument was given its own space and distinct clarity within the whole.

In Miles Davis's recording of "Diane," the instruments of his first great quintet gave up all their secrets via the NEATs. Philly Joe Jones's snare-drum punctuations were presented with exacting depth, and Davis's trumpet was the Prince of Darkness incarnate—pungent, rich, sleek. Jones's ride cymbal was reproduced with great depth and space while sounding somewhat removed from the rest of the band. When the soloist changed, from Davis to John Coltrane, so did the sound of Philly Joe's ride cymbal: from tight and dry to shimmering. I heard the occasional arid or papery-sounding note, but overall, the music was presented with plenty of body, richness, and depth.

Finally, the NEATs brought FKA Twigs's electronic presence to me via my smaller system. The top end exhibited the same arid quality—even a slight nasality. This was more surface sheen than any upper-frequency deficiency, and may simply have been the sound of the recording itself. Electronic music can provide a good balance of power, low-end grunt, and surreal sounds, but I've yet to hear one dubstep, EDM, or intelligent dance music (IDM) record that presents a true soundstage, as compared to a good orchestral or acoustic jazz recording. On most electronic records, the production values are consistently in your face, and that's true of FKA twigs's LP1. Its dub bass was woozy and soft, but with refined upper-air resolution of vocals and synthesizers. The NEATs did a fantastic job of re-creating all of twigs's drama and pounding, depth-charge power, and left me wanting for nothing.

Conclusions
What qualifies a breakthrough loudspeaker design? I'm aware of speakers from Meadowlark and Spica—two companies that are no longer with us—that had sharply sloped baffles, but none as small or as floor-hugging as the NEAT Iota Alpha. And various omnidirectional speakers have used downfiring woofers, but without garnering huge popular success. The Iota Alpha is a freak—a heroic-sounding speaker that looks like it shouldn't, an overachieving mighty mite. It combines open, extended, grain-free upper frequencies with lucid midrange performance while delivering bass notes of all shapes and sizes that were consistently extended, and surprising in their drama.

Take a quick look at Stereophile's October 2016 edition of "Recommended Components," in the October 2016 issue—speakers costing about $2000/pair aren't exactly MIA. This hotly competitive zone includes (all prices per pair): Technics' Premium Class SB-C700 ($1699), Bowers & Wilkins' 683 S2 ($1650), Monitor Audio's Silver 8 ($2000), Revel's Performa3 M106 ($2000), and ATC's SCM7 v.3 ($1749).

I'm sure that all those fine products would give the NEAT Acoustics Iota Alpha a serious run for its hi-fi dollar. What the Iota Alpha has going for it is exceptional resolution and high-frequency extension, solid midrange performance, and exceptional reproduction of the low end for a box of its size. But the little Iota Alpha's biggest achievement is the pure physicality and refined force of its sound. Record after record, I felt I was hearing not only new information but, to a lesser degree, a new performance. NEAT's planar-magnetic tweeter is revealing to a T, but Bob Surgeoner's triumph lies in negotiating an alliance of frequency-range coherence, natural tonalities, and convincing dynamics. That's not only neat—it's highly recommended.

COMPANY INFO
NEAT Acoustics Ltd.
US distributor: High Fidelity Services
2 Keith Way, Suite 4
Hingham, MA 02043
(781) 987-3434
ARTICLE CONTENTS

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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