Neat Iota Xplorer | Stereo speakers | £3500
FOR Musical and entertaining; timing; dynamic expression
AGAINST This money can buy greater tonal purity
It’s fair to say that most hi-fi speakers are demanding house guests. Most we test intrude quite heavily into the living space, refusing to sound balanced when placed near rear or side walls, let alone close to a corner.
It’s as though the engineers, in the speaker industry as a whole, are so focused on getting the best sound under optimum conditions that they seem to forget that most people can’t devote a room solely to the hi-fi.
That’s why Neat’s original Iotas (£735) proved such a breath of fresh air when they were launched in 2011. They’re tiny speakers that could fit anywhere from a windowsill to a shelf, and still sound good. Sure, if you pamper them with proper stands and precision placement they perform even better, but the point here is that you don’t need to.
Their unfussy nature was successfully transferred over the floorstanding versions, the award-winning Alphas (£1385). These odd-looking boxes are barely tall enough to graze a knee, yet still manage to sound better than most conventional alternatives.
The latest members of the family, the Xplorers, are even more ambitious. Priced in premium territory, they have to couple the Iota’s friendly nature with the quality of performance of more overtly purist designs.
At first glance, the Xplorers seem to be just scaled-up version of the Alphas, but take a closer look and you’ll find the engineering more ambitious. It’s the isobaric bass arrangement that grabs our attention. Look at the base of the cabinet and you’ll notice one of Neat’s trademark 17cm drivers. What you won’t see is a second, identical driver mounted directly behind it inside the enclosure.
Used in an isobaric arrangement these drivers move in tandem, fooling the outer unit into acting like it’s mounted in a cabinet bigger than it really is. If done properly, such a design should give taut, extended bass.
The Xplorers are a 2.5-way design. While the deepest notes are taken care of by the twin downward-firing bass drivers, the combination of Air Motion Transformer (AMT) and 17cm mid/bass units on the angled baffle renders the rest of the frequency range. This top section is partitioned from the 74cm cabinet, and the two drive units work in a two-way infinite baffle arrangement.
Build quality is good, though not outstanding at the price. Neat is a far smaller company than the likes of B&W or KEF, and it shows. Neat’s products don’t tend to have the design slickness of such rivals even if they’re perfectly nicely made. There are four finish options – American walnut, Natural oak, Black oak or Satin white.
We find the Xplorers undemanding in use. At 87dB/W/m the sensitivity isn’t particularly high. We recommend an amplifier with a decent amount of grunt if you want to play music at high levels. But the impedance curve is friendly with a nominal value of 6 ohms and a minimum of just one below that. In short, these speakers are an easy load for any amplifier to drive.
We try a variety of amplifiers, from Rega’s Elex-R to our reference Gamut D3i/D200i pre/power with good results. The accommodating nature of the Xplorers means that, though they will readily show the differences between electronics, they don’t necessarily grumble with less capable choices.
Still, there’s little point in spending this much on a pair of speakers if you’ve skimped on the rest of the set-up. With that in mind we use our usual source components, consisting of Naim’s NDS/555PS music streamer and Clearaudio’s Innovation Wood record player (feeding Cyrus’s Phono Signature/ PSX-R2 phono stage).
It doesn’t take long to get the Neats singing. The company suggests starting with the speakers around 20cm from the rear wall and at least 50cm from the sides, and that’s pretty much where we end up. They’re single-wired, so there’s no fussing with two sets of cables.
We use the speakers with the AMT tweeters on the outside edge. There’s no harm in using them on the inside, if that suits your room and tastes better, though. It’s worth playing around with toe-in towards the listening position to fine-tune the solidity and spread of the stereo soundstage. But in no time we’re concentrating on the music rather than the set-up of our system.
That’s the point here. These Neats – like many of the company’s products – are about the music rather than the hi-fi. It means that if you’re after the last word in transparency or resolution, or even if you want the ultimate in tonal purity, we would point you in some other direction. The Xplorers, while perfectly capable in all these respects, prioritise the musical experience above the analysis of the recording.
We play Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring and are carried away by the passion and drive of the piece. The Neats capture the excitement wonderfully and deliver the music’s savage dynamic shifts with puppy-like enthusiasm. You don’t get masses of bass – these remain relatively compact boxes after all – but they deliver enough low-end authority and floor-shaking punch to keep us satisfied.
At first we wonder whether such short speakers could deliver a good sense of scale, but it takes just a matter of seconds to cast such doubts aside. Their angled drivers produce enough in the way of height to make the Xplorers comparable to good conventional alternatives. The stereo image itself is decently precise and layered, though it lacks the expansive nature of rivals from the likes of PMC and Spendor.
“The Neats capture the excitement wonderfully and deliver the music’s savage dynamic shifts with puppy-like enthusiasm”
But such rivals can’t match the Neats’ musical cohesion or the way they communicate complex rhythmic patterns. We listen to a range of music from Alt J’s This Is All Yours to a Nina Simone’s greatest hits compilation and the Neats sound right at home each time.
They have plenty of enthusiasm, and balance it with enough finesse to keep us happy. Alt-J’s set shows off the Xplorers’ ability to organise a dense recording while keeping the core emotions of the music centre stage, while Kanye West’s Yeezus gives the speakers a chance to put the spotlight on attack and punch.
With Nina Simone, we’re transported back in time. Simone’s voice has body and presence, and is delivered with all the passion it deserves. There may be four drive units at work here, but the sound is seamless.
We love these speakers. Though not perfect (what is?) these odd-looking boxes have a way of delivering the music that is truly spellbinding. If it’s all about the music for you, as opposed to absolute sonic transparency, give these Neats a listen. You won’t be disappointed.
VERDICT When hooked up to a suitably talented system, the Neat Xplorers are fabulously entertaining. We love them ■