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Big sky sound from Neat’s compact Iota Xplorer

Little bro just got a bigger bro, for to kick the sand back at the skeptics.

Say what? Well according to Doug Graham, Sales Director at Neat Acoustics, the little Iota Alpha floorstanders were too small and weedy to be taken seriously…by some audiophiles. Novelty value, not real speakers. Never mind that they were seeded by the acclaimed original Iota, a diminutive shelf/desktop speaker with planar magnetic tweeter and optimized to work close to a wall. I heard the Iota first – king of where’s-the-sub – at a Manchester show. They had me at hello.

Aiming to build on the Iota’s success, Neat developed a floorstanding version – the Iotas Alphas – that took the original Iota and added a second bass driver underneath. The original section was angled upwards to compensate for the dwarf-like 45cm height. They launched to critical acclaim but, I sense, not a huge commercial success (they’re still current). Neat thought the form factor went down well though, so developed a bigger bro by upping the dimensions. That brings us to the subject of this review: the Iota Xplorer floorstanders.

They stand alone
Seen next to the Alpha in pictures, the Xplorers look really pumped in size – noticeably larger. Not in the flesh though. The Xplorer remain small by floorstander norms, looking up to many a standmount. My Harbeth C7s look enormous in comparison.

To wit, the Xplorers are a mere 74cm tall. Shallow too at 22cm deep. Width is a more typical 30cm. The overall visual effect is unconventional – think small Naim SBL – but I don’t think I’m the only one to appreciate something a little different.

As well as being small, the Xplorers work really well – nay best – close to a back wall. In my case 20 cm. Rear-ported, this is a surprising finding. I guess Neat didn’t read that rule.

My pair wore menacing black oak. Natural oak, American walnut, and satin white are also available. Fit and finish are good all round, as it should at an asking price of £3495. I preferred the sound with the small grills removed. They are easily re-affixed when the Neats aren’t in use.

Sensitivity is 88dB/W so flea power amps needn’t apply. Impedance is nominally 6 Ohms, never less than 5, so they’re not a difficult load in practice. A 60 watt Ayre AX-7e (£2750) drove them with ease.

In terms of positioning, the bigger neats do need some boundary proximity. Move them out and everything becomes undernourished. The speakers are symmetrical so you can have the tweeters on the inside or the outside. I chose the latter, which no doubt contributed to the bigger sound than ‘in’. Toe-ing the speakers in slightly brought dividends – instruments became better defined in the recording space. Even more so with a 12kg, 45x45cm concrete slab each speaker underneath – everything tightened up a bit. At £10.06 we can hang the expense.

Put all of that together and the Xplorers are a neat (groan) real-world solution, cohabiting peacefully with their owners and not selfishly dominating the living space. Which matters – a hi-fi system’s radio repair shop vibe is so nineties.

Hidden Talents
They may be borne of the Iota but the Xplorers have completely different drivers. Uppermost frequencies come from an Air Motion Transducer (AMT), a first for Neat. It looks like a ribbon tweeter but the technology is somewhat different – see Darko’s interview with HEDD speakers for more information.

Neat plays on home turf with Isobaric bass loading, already used to good effect in several of their more luxurious loudspeaker models. Think of it as buy-one-get-one-free (BOGOF) – a second hidden bass driver reinforcing the first. When designed well, the output is deep and crisp and even, not thunder and lightning.

In the Xplorer, isobaric loading is realized by Neat’s own P1-R2 170mm bass driver firing downwards from the speaker, with a second one above it, inside the cabinet and out of sight. The two occupy their own chamber that takes up much of the space in the Xplorer’s lower section – witness how high that rear port is.

Finally, a P1-R3 driver – from which Neat derived the P1-R2 – covers the upper bass and midrange. Both these drivers are used in Neat’s Momentum and Ultimatum ranges above the Iotas – no skimping there.

Montana sound
You might argue this doesn’t matter if the Xplorers don’t deliver. Fear not. First impressions were striking – and remained throughout. Think wide vistas and big skies. From my listening notes ‘huge image, hugely attractive’.

The soundstage is mountain wide and tall, underpinning every aspect of the sound to inform all types of music. Size matters. The isobaric bass loading must play a part in this. The better subwoofer demonstrations – REL comes to mind – show how good bass enlarges the soundstage even when there’s no obvious bass in the music. The Xplorers appear to confirm this without third party intervention.

Dentists rejoice as the Xplorers rattle fillings, stooping to 33Hz at -6dB. Ignore the numbers, the bass is impressive for a small speaker. The extra depth is distinctly noticeable on appropriate music, remaining controlled, not loose or boomy. Grace Jones, Lorde, Lizz Wright – all riotously good.

No doubt the accompanying Mytek Brooklyn+ DAC (£2000) and SBooster power supply (£300), fed by an Allo USBridge (£180) helped. A brief session with GoldNote’s updated CD-1000 CD player (€3800) as source confirmed the Xplorers’ characteristics.

All of which means the Xplorers sound bigger than they are – strong in the bass but not bass-strong.

The Xplorers are no one-hit wonders. Their clarity is another strong suit. Think crisp spring morning – sun shining, cloudless sky, the cold focusing your senses. You notice everything. The glistening spider web, the hi-hat cymbal, the drops of dew on the grass, subtle harmonies of backing singers. You also see the whole, how the detail builds the overall picture, whether sonic or visual. Micro and macro in harmony.

And like a British spring morning, we don’t so easily notice the Xplorers’ lack of warmth. Warm and rich, that’s for summer evenings. For Harbeths. Enjoy them another time. In neat hands we welcome our senses being heightened.

The Xplorers also avoid tipping into dry. Like the sun going down in spring, when fresh becomes cold. When detail becomes relentless, when joy is subverted. Some listeners like that palette, for me it’s a bete-noire. The Xplorers side with me.

Overall, the Xplorers deliver a big, detailed sound suiting all types of music. Unlike my Harbeth C7/2s that don’t rock out quite so well. True the Harbeths do delicate and refined better than the Xplorers. They’re also richer without falling into lush and loose. Ying and Yang, both excellent at what they do. Same playing field, same level of performance, different approach. Meanwhile the Klipsch Heresys are off abseiling somewhere.

If you want to hear the Xplorers at their best, dig out the title track from Queen’s Made In Heaven and turn up the wick. Pomp, majesty, gargantuan sound. Everything’s there with knobs on — just glorious.

Or head to Tidal for the Beatles cover albums from Manuel Barrueco and Milos Karadaglic respectively. Barrueco’s warmth contrasting with Karadaglic’s direct style. Both fabulous yet different. These differences are how I hear the Harbeths and the Neats.

Putting it to bed
Choose your partnering equipment carefully. The Ayre AX-7e balanced the clarity of the Xplorers nicely. Tubes would be interesting. The otherwise lovely GoldNote IS-1000 amplifier would probably give too clean a presentation. There’s nothing new in the need for choosing partnering equipment carefully but knowing that the Xplorers will show up even subtle changes – the concrete slabs, speaker cables etc.

My advice: don’t treat any of the Iotas as novelty speakers. And yet that’s what I did with the Xplorers at first – it’s that form factor. Look beyond their appearance and you’ll hear beyond it too. A niche product yes, but a well executed one. And one that appeals to both the audiophile and the aesthete – few manufacturers pull that trick off as effectively as Neat do here.

Further information: Neat Acoustics

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