A new speaker from Bob Surgeoner at Neat is not an everyday occurrence. Unlike the increasing number of manufacturers who feel a marketing necessity to churn out new models with alacrity, this County Durham company spends hundreds of hours listening and honing new designs before releasing them. Each new concept must prove itself in a variety of different room acoustics and systems before being signed off for production. The result of these listening sessions govern the tuning and voicing stages, almost to the exclusion of other criteria, Neat don’t rely on computer modelling and measurement they rely on human ears.
Before we begin, I have a confession. Historically (and I’ve been involved in hi-fi reviewing and publishing since 1988 and professional audio from 1983) I have not been a huge fan of Neat designs. There were a raft of models, which just didn’t resonate with what I expect from a high-end transducer; they had far too much personality of their own to my ears. That opinion changed sharply though when, at one Munich audio show I became transfixed by the sound of the little Iota Alpha. Here was a competent design creating much more from a small enclosure than physics would suggest was possible.
On this occasion the editor had taken delivery of the latest design from Teesdale and thought I might like a listen. He wasn’t wrong. We set up the tall, elegant Orkestras in my modest-sized but well-damped listening room and immediately began to enjoy the sound and become immersed in the presentation. The new concept joins both Ekstra and Ministra at the top of a three-model range while drawing on design elements from the Ekstra and Ultimatum XL6.
Cut-away diagram of the Orkestra on its side showing the sealed mid and treble section and the two bass drivers in isobaric configuration
Neat’s founder and designer is a musician, self-taught but a musician nonetheless. And this usually bodes well in loudspeaker development, often in stark contrast to brands begun by marketing dorks or entrepreneurs with little or no ‘feeling’ for audio reproduction. Bob has spent most of his life playing music in a variety of different styles from blues and jazz to rock, country and bluegrass. Since childhood, he’s also followed a parallel interest in electronics – probably the perfect combination for creating great-sounding speakers.
In essence, the Orkestra is a sealed two-way on top of a vented subwoofer in a 2.5-way design. That’s to simplify it too much though. The infinite baffle top box contains a true 75mm ribbon tweeter and Peerless 170mm drive unit handling bass and midrange. Below this compartment is a reflex ported enclosure containing a pair of those 170mm drive units in an isobaric configuration. These handle only the very low bass frequencies. Between the two sections is a minimalist crossover employing first- and second-order slopes. The network components are of ‘audiophile quality’ and all hard-wired, with point-to-point connection rather than a printed circuit board. The idea here is to maximize integrity. Neat use a mix of high-voltage polyprop capacitors and low-loss air-cored inductors. These are fed to a single pair of connection terminals, although a bi-wire/bi-amp option is available to order.
The first impression of the cabinet is that it has a small footprint for a 103cm high loudspeaker which is just 22cm wide: taking up less space, in fact, than my stand-mounted BBC-style monitors. The review sample is in a modern, even Scandinavian natural oak. Options include American walnut, black oak and a satin white. These are fairly easy to drive with an 8 ohm impedance and 88dB/2.38V sensitivity. The drive unit combination gives a quoted -3dB response of 20Hz to 40kHz and this was quite believable during extended audition. Having a low-Q port enables these boxes to work relatively close to the rear wall when required although I found greater refinement in a more free-space location.
A listening period of several weeks with the Orkestra as my main speakers, allowed for extensive auditioning across a wide range of material. My faithful Hegel H190 integrated amp/streamer/DAC did the business and I never felt the need to seek more power given the relatively benign load presented by the speakers. I’m sure my neighbours would agree that this speaker plays loudly and cleanly at high SPLs. Those bottom-firing bass drivers mean that overly-thick carpet should be avoided.
By chance, the first notes I heard were of Bruckner and his Locus iste from an archive BBC Radio 3 recording which was replacing live Choral Evensong. This rendition of the unaccompanied 48 bar sacred motet was spine-tingling via the Neats: the reverberant acoustic of the recording venue beautifully portrayed while the choir’s voices came through with such neutrality, without any of those horrid traits that often mar poorly-designed loudspeakers. Here there was no sibilance nor chestiness, there is no nasality and the voices were clear, crisp and clean.
Called away for a Zoom call, as one so often is nowadays, when I returned Radio 3 was in the midst of Handel’s Sound an Alarm (from his oratorio Judas Maccabeus). Here the sensitivity of this stirring call to arms was masterfully portrayed across a wide and detailed soundstage which has depth and height to create not only an enjoyable performance but one which so involved the listener. I found this to be one of the Orkestra’s main attributes: listener involvement and enjoyment, along with a sublime HF response which just seemed to go onwards and upwards beyond the limits of human hearing. Waiting, in anticipation, when the trumpets and drums were introduced, at the latter part of the tenor solo, the Neats executed the mix so skilfully, likewise with the rhythmic, repeated chords in the harpsichord accompaniment. Already I was enjoying what these boxes could achieve and so it continued with Chopin’s Scherzo No.4 Op 54 in E Majorsince piano can be such a tell-tale sign of how well a speaker has been engineered. This is where Bob’s credentials as a musician, knowing what real live instruments sound like, really comes into its own. The presentation was so lifelike as to be believable and brought the performance into my listening room. For me, there is no higher accolade to award a loudspeaker. The final piece in this session was Monteverdi’s Eightieth (and last) Book of Madrigals from 1638. This was a real high on which to end my first listening session as I felt the emotions of the work transferred to my private space in such a convincing manner as to bring a wide smile to the face.
I should mention that, after about 10 days of really enjoying the Neats, I suddenly realised that they had lost their magic: the previously pinpoint imaging was awry and the soundstage nowhere near as wide or deep as it had been with the luscious three-dimensional rendition diminished . After some head scratching I realised that the cabinets had been moved during vacuuming; from previously slightly toed-in (as initially placed by mere instinct) to straight ahead (as I use my BBC-style monitors). So, while positioning of the Orkestra is not difficult, placement can clearly affect the performance so time should be taken in each new setting to make sure it is right.
During our brief session together, the editor and I had sampled an array of more rock and pop-orientated music (including snatches of bass-rich tracks played by BBC Radio 1 and Radio 1 Xtra), and I know he had great success in his own listening room using such repertoire. I enjoyed a lengthy session of my own beginning with an array of female vocalists including material I know well, such as Belinda Carlisle’s Access All Areas, Alf from Alison Moyet and Tracy Chapman’sCrossroads: all revealing a much more neutral presentation than might have been the case from the speaker’s components had the design not been as accomplished. In each case I was able to revel in a midrange showing both solidity while retaining the artists’ passion. The Orkestras proved how muscular they could be with material including something I know Neat play at hi-fi shows, Kraftwerk’s Autobahn with a taut, almost dry bass much deeper and more controlled than I was expecting and dynamic in an understated way. That ribbon tweeter came into its own with a hugely revealing presentation showing plenty of top-end bite.
Rhythm there was a plenty, timing was generally very good and I had no problem toe-tapping to a raft of tunes from Avenues and Alleyways (Christie), Supertramp live and Tina Turner strutting her stuff in Simply the Best here this performer’s talents shone through, stirring the soul, so long as those cabinets were toed-in slightly lest that hugely believable image begin to collapse.
The biggest surprise came when using the Orkestras either side of my wide-screen TV as I’d not appreciated the low-frequency detail in many trailers, commercials and theme tunes (such as that re-worked for the final series of Minder) even though I’d heard them many times before and through a variety of speaker systems. Such was the ability of the twin bass drive units (one hidden behind the visible one and downward-firing under the speaker’s cabinet) working in a compound bass-loading principle. The engineering effectively doubles the size of the actual LF enclosure whilst ensuring bass control since both drive units receive the same signal and in the same phase. This is not easy to get right and, indeed, I confess to having heard many attempts at isobaric loading which have gone horribly wrong during my tour of audio shows around the globe.
Enjoying the Orkestras for so long, I began to wonder why other designs do not combine a true ribbon tweeter with isobaric bass loading, complex though it is to accomplish correctly. Indeed, while Neat themselves have toyed with true ribbons in prototypes for a while, it is only recently (with the introduction of the Ekstra) that they’ve been incorporated in the final design. And that’s a pity given the extraordinary quality they can produce.
The ribbon tweeter, combined with the isobaric bass loading, makes the Orkestra a speaker of supreme ability. This level of engineering prowess comes at a price, and more so because it is both designed and built in the UK rather than in some Far Eastern shed. Both these techniques have to be not only understood by the designer but also masterfully executed, as they are here to the enormous benefit of the listener. I have always felt an isobaric approach preferable to a transmission line design and Neat have confirmed this in the Orkestra.
We have a lot of enclosure in the design but yet it manages to be free of cabinet coloration and boxiness. It also produces a wonderfully detailed bass response without becoming overblown when fairly near the wall, as can be the case with poorly engineered standalone subwoofers. Here we have decent levels of good old-fashioned bass slam when it’s needed, to add to the overall presentation and not swamp it. There is speed and agility in the LF response which is rarely heard from a box of these proportions. The high frequencies are to die for, thanks to that not inexpensive pure ribbon tweeter, with exemplary treble response without a hint of sibilance. This is not, nor does it pretend to be, a studio monitor: it does not strip down the performance to reveal it layer by layer for analysis. Instead, what the Orkestra does is produce a wonderfully involving sound conveying the emotions of the recording and sucking the listener in to the whole with a homogenous, three-dimensional presentation from a wide range of sources across a variety of repertoire to bring the recording alive in your home.