A landmark speaker to mark British brand Neat’s 30th birthday is something to celebrate as they launch a new version of the popular Petite compact. I like celebratory products and was excited when Neat announced a special-edition of its shoebox-sized Petite two-way to mark the company’s anniversary. The product has special memories for me because it was first revealed at the 1990 Penta hi-fi show, an event organised by Hi-Fi News during my first year with the magazine. At the event a year later the new mini was formally launched and we gave it a glowing review.
Neat Acoustics began life as a humble high street audio shop, based in Darlington, County Durham. Trading as North Eastern Audio Traders, founder Bob Surgeoner saw a need for a small musical speaker and 18 months later had created the Neat Petite I remember how the market welcomed it enthusiastically and remarked on how it had been developed with listening taking priority over measurement, which was quite radical at the time. This was criticised by rivals as trial and error design, but the result was truly entertaining and my memories are of a speaker with which to enjoy rather than analyse music. It was a new concept then, but their timing was superb and they had an uncanny knack of delivering dynamics with aplomb. Audiophiles loved them and sales took off.
Several iterations have emerged during the intervening years, with even a floor-standing version created. To mark Neat’s landmark, a brand new and strictly limited-edition of the legendary bookshelf design was created in 2021, the Petite 30. Such was its success that the Petite Classic has followed in quick succession “to meet customer demand” using the same drive units but a new crossover network.
The Classic has the same compact dimensions as the original Petite, complete with native contours although the drive units and crossover have all been changed for a new two-way reflex design intended for stand-mount use.
Housed in the British-made cabinet are a 150mm mid/bass unit, sourced from SB Acoustics and with a mineral filled Polypropylene-cone unit. This crosses over at 3.8kHz to an Air Motion Transformer tweeter from American specialist Dayton and having a radiating area of 30 x 40mm and a quoted upper frequency of 22kHz. In true Neat fashion, the minimalist crossover is hard-wired with first-order LF and second-order HF filtering, using low-loss air-core inductors, high-voltage polypropylene capacitors and audio-grade resistors.
To the rear are a single pair of binding posts and not one but, rather unusually, two reflex ports. The small one is tuned to 35Hz with low Q, the larger one is a broader sweep, centred on 70Hz. As standard, the larger diameter port is blocked with a foam tube and a suggestion that it be removed for use in “some larger rooms” to improve bass performance. Cabinet finish options are satin white or textured black, and there is no option for grilles; something many of us discard anyway.
Initially, at least, I found the Petites one of the most frustrating loudspeakers I have ever had through my hands. A combination, perhaps, of room acoustics and associated electronics meant that I struggled over several week to achieve a sound that I was content with. The moral is: if, at first, the sound is not right, don’t give up.
Stands proved something of a nemesis for the tiny Neats, at least to begin with. Failing with my lightweight, wooden TonTräger stands, Editor Kennedy kindly loaned me a pair in Neat’s preferred style, 60cm mass loaded steel ones from Custom Design. Yet the sound was still rather thin and the soundstage compromised over what I am used to. A solution was found by accident; I bent down to pick something off the floor and my ears were treated to a much-improved soundscape. Clearly, in my room, 70cm tall stands were the answer rather than the 60cm recommended by Neat. Problem solved? Well, yes and no.
Things were indeed much better but still not ‘right’ and not to the level I expect from a £2,000 speaker. My attention then turned to those rear ports since there is quite a difference between their tuned frequencies of 35Hz and 75Hz. I know this is all related to cabinet volume but I felt that they just could not both be right. I was experiencing some unpleasant chuffing from that small 35Hz port
A little bit of trial-and-error resulted in my using the foam bungs to block the smaller ports, and opening the larger ones. This is probably a case where I simply prefer the sound that’s now generated and/or it better matches my room acoustics. Then I remembered how reflex boxes fall off at 24dB per octave (as opposed to 12dB for closed boxes), so quite a steep roll-off, and we need to take into consideration the physics of impulse response as well. Acoustics is a complex business.
Happy with the output, I settled down to listen and have to say that I then lived with the sound on a daily basis for several weeks, thoroughly enjoying the Petite Classic’s qualities.
With those 35Hz ports blocked, and the minimal cabinet volume, I wasn’t expecting seismic bass; neither am I used to it from my BBC-style monitors which are far more about midrange and treble. That said, while there was no extreme LF extension, the lows were pleasantly tuneful and I was particularly pleased with the bass response from movie soundtracks. Every loudspeaker has a trademark sound, something to remember it by. For the Petite Classic this is their ability to make listening to music fun, clearly a hallmark to be cherished. As with those first Petites, the Classic retains the pace, rhythm and timing abilities; again something rather lacking in my usual monitors.
These qualities mean that, while appearing externally rather bland, the sound is able to not only grab the listener’s attention but, more importantly, hold it. Lengthy listening sessions ensued and I found myself enjoying entire albums when I had intended to listen to a single ‘test’ track to assess the speaker’s ability. That in itself speaks volumes about the product’s quality.
The output generated is not as warm, friendly even, as I am used to from my BBC-style speakers, and the Petites are barely half their price. There’s no deep, rich bass either; but none of this matters. The windows won’t rattle, the neighbour’s floorboards won’t vibrate but the timing is just spot-on, sublimely so at times. Astonishing from a speaker of these diminutive proportions and this price-point.
That AMT tweeter deserves special mention for it’s the model’s high spot in my opinion. Neat has done a lot of work to perfect ribbon tweeter implementation, and that’s clearly paid off here. The treble is fast, as we might expect, but also extremely detailed and highly revealing. I did think it might be a bit bright, but it certainly never tended towards harshness nor become shrill. I was just swamped with detail and HF refinement. I am a daily user of Neat’s Iota Alpha and have them sited either side of my TV, so know just how good those tweeters can be.
Midrange quality is something I am especially critical of, having spent my early years in front of BBC mixing desks and mighty monitor speakers. Here, I am pleased to report, the Classics excelled themselves and I enjoyed hours of speech-based material. Vocal realism was superb, certainly so for the size and price of the units. Integration to that delightful treble was also first-rate as that crossover, minimal as it may be, works as designed.
Some small speakers sound enormous but have other defects. The Petite Classic does not try to pretend that it’s a mighty floorstander; soundstage was generally confined to between the cabinets’ outer edges, but none the worse for that since what it does produce, it does with quality.
Designer Bob Surgeoner is a musician and that becomes obvious listening to his speakers; they communicate a composer’s feeling so well, almost regardless of genre. So, I sit back to wallow in rock courtesy of Dire Straits’ Private Investigations (Money for Nothing) one minute and then equally enjoying the British vocal ensemble Voces8 in the next. So adept is the speaker that it’s equally at home re-creating drama from BBC Radio 4 where there’s no danger that it will be troubled by any boxy coloration, annoying sibilance or aggravating nasality.
This is a fiercely competitive areas of the market, with mainstream brands opting to design small speakers in the UK but manufacturing in the Far East to meet key price-points. Neat eschews that idea and it’s refreshing to have a British loudspeaker in more than just name, manufacturing being in County Durham and the cabinet hailing from Essex.
The Petite Classic is something special, and manages to combine competent engineering with superb manufacturing standards while generating a highly entertaining and extremely involving sound.
For sheer enjoyment and involvement, the new Petite is able to not only match but surpass the original, helped by advancements in technology and the glorious implementation of that AMT ribbon. Classic by name and classic by nature.