Small speakers generally sound small - don’t they?
IntroductionSpeakers are an area of audio design where technical changes have had an undoubted effect but the rules of the game haven’t changed significantly in decades. Speakers are mechanical engineering and while amplification had a game changing moment with the arrival of the transistor and source equipment changed from mechanical design (turntables) to electronics (digital), the speaker is still a balancing act of materials and just as importantly size.
As a Canadian war hero, who spent his life cast as a Scotsman famously said “You cannae change the laws of physics!” and with speakers at least this much remains true. The size of the drivers used and the cabinet they are placed in has a direct bearing on the amount of air that a speaker can move and as a result this tends to define the bass performance. There are certain tricks available to get more bang for your buck out of a small driver - increasing the distance it can travel and tuning the output via a port but after a while these start to have other adverse effects - not least on the sensitivity of the speaker. You can get amazing amounts of low end energy out of a small driver if you force a grillion watts up them but this rather defeats the object of a compact system.
The latest attempt at bending (if not actually changing) the laws of physics comes from Neat Loudspeakers. At first glance, this Durham based concern doesn’t look like the obvious candidate to build a great tiny speaker. The company’s other offerings look conventional enough and some of them are hardly what you would call small either. There are some omens that Neat might be the company for the job though. Although many Neat speakers look normal enough, they are rather more radical than you might give them credit for. Neat is one of the few companies to work with isobaric driver arrangements where pairs of drivers are placed in series to augment their low end response and as a result they have considerable experience in making drivers work in small spaces. Even so, their IOTA standmount is very titchy indeed - can this pint pot deliver a quart of sound?
DesignThe IOTA is interesting in that it shares very little direct DNA with the rest of the Neat range. It would have presumably been easier to have taken a speaker from the Motive range and try to shrink it further but instead the IOTA is effectively a clean sheet design. The drivers used are not seen anywhere else in the Neat range and while the cabinet makes use of the same technology used in other Neat speakers, it looks and behaves differently to the other members of the family.
The mid bass driver is a 100mm polypropylene unit that is designed to offer a very long throw thanks to a large ferrite magnet and a specially designed suspension system. In design terms it shares some commonality with the unit used in the larger Motive range but is smaller than the ones used there. Where the IOTA really deviates from the Neat norm is the tweeter. Neat generally uses dome tweeters (and indeed dome supertweeters in the flagship Ultimatum models) but the IOTA is fitted with a ribbon tweeter. This is a 50mm magnetic ribbon that Neat selected to offer the best performance from this relatively small cabinet.
The use of this tweeter has an unusual side effect on the design of the IOTA. The tweeter is designed to be mounted vertically and at first glance, this means it looks for all the world like Neat has mounted it on its side. The position of the badge is a clue that all is not what it seems. The IOTA is designed to be placed on its ‘side’ (although given the badge and the placement of the speaker terminals, it is clearly the ‘bottom’ in this case) which means the IOTA looks a bit peculiar in comparison to most other speakers. The cabinet itself is an MDF unit that is internally damped and braced and this means that although only 2.6 litres in volume, each IOTA weighs a fairly substantial 3kg.
Around the back, the IOTA comes fitted for single wiring and has a usefully sturdy pair of terminals to achieve this. The other significant feature is the bass port. This is roughly the same size as the bass port you might find on a ‘normal’ standmount but on the IOTA it is a substantial part of the rear cabinet that is venting to the world. The port itself is behind the tweeter rather than the midbass driver, presumably to aid the port tuning in the small amount of space available.
Aesthetically, the IOTA doesn’t look exactly like the rest of Neat family but they do look rather smart in a business-like sort of way. Wood veneering is not hugely practical at this price so the IOTA’s are available in a variety of colours. Satin black and white are the standard options but blue, red and yellow are also available. The review samples were white but were it my money, I’d be after a red pair. At the Munich show earlier in the year, Neat boss Bob Surgeoner had a pair of the larger Motive 2’s finished in a very fetching shade of pink so if you ask nicely and hand over the folding, you could possibly have other colours too.
The IOTA is a slightly curious proposition value wise - the list of speakers available for the same money that are larger and more superficially impressive is very long but the Neat makes more sense when you see them for real. This is a small speaker but one that has been designed and engineered with considerable care and attention and that makes use of very high quality components. It is also built right here in the UK and this is something that will usually cost more than doing so in the Far East but equally is something that deserves our support. I think that offering grilles as at least an option might be welcomed (although the delicate ribbon at least has a guard) and some form of traction for the underside of the speakers would also be good.
SetupThe IOTA’s have been in the house for a while and as a result have been used for a number of tasks and with a huge variety of electronics ranging from fairly inexpensive stereo amps, all the way through to £4,000 of Yamaha A-S3000 integrated - which they are currently running off while I write this review. They have been used on Soundstyle Z60 stands, plonked unceremoniously on shelves and worktops and with every flavour of cable from runs of Chord Epic that cost more than the IOTA’s do to stuff that is literally bell wire. As a result of the different situations the speakers have been used with a wide variety of material including lossless and high res FLAC, Spotify, music composition software, vinyl and music composition software.
Sound QualityThere is much to like about the IOTA but before we cover that, a small confession. I am a big fan of Neat speakers and have been for a few years now. The pair of Momentum 4i’s I use now, didn’t even feature on my radar of available options until a pair showed up as part of a system for review. They left significantly large an impression on me that there was a certain inevitability to me buying my own pair - earning some considerable grief from my wife in the process who assumed that I was going to use that money for a honeymoon. The Momentum’s simply find more joy in music than most of their rivals and the good news is that - in a shrunken form - the IOTA does the same thing.
Joy is not an objective term and neither would I have the faintest idea of how to measure it but it might be best explained by the following. When I listen to the ESI active speakers, the performance they put in is genuinely excellent with detail, tonal accuracy and a superb soundstage. They are a superb example of intelligent loudspeaker design and I judged them to be a best buy because of what they can do. When I play the same pieces on the IOTA, there is an indefinable sense of life and emotion that the Neat’s bring to the music that is something beyond the accurate portrayal of the recording - although rest assured, the IOTA is impressively real sounding too.
Neither does the IOTA sound small either. There are limits of course. If you live for the output of Trojan Records, played at the sort of levels you feel in your digestive system, the IOTA is not the speaker for you. The bass output is pretty much done by 60Hz even allowing for roll off and this is something that is shown up when you listen to the IOTA back to back with larger speakers. As most listening is not comparative though the IOTA’s are astonishingly capable of masking their size. Part of this stems from the incredibly detailed and lively midrange. The IOTA reproduces voices with an exceptional reality and genuine sense of scale. As a result of this they lock your attention on parts of the frequency response that they excel at and manage to sneak the more limited areas under the radar.
The soundstage and overall presentation is also very impressive. The placement of the IOTA with the tweeter outside of the midbass driver seems to add a width and slight sense of surround to the portrayal of music that means that even larger speakers can be felt to be ‘beaming’ the sound at you by comparison to the Neat. Listening to Little Feat’s Feats don’t fail me now on vinyl is incredibly immersive and there is a real sense of the placement of the performers and their relationship to one another. This allows the IOTA to make full use of their wonderful tonality and realism that they possess.
After a fairly long period with the IOTA, the performance has me almost completely won over but there are factors to the performance that need to be taken into account. The Neat is a small speaker but it isn’t an automatically perfect match with small electronics. Neat has made every effort to keep the IOTA as easy to drive as possible but while the laws of physics can be bent, they won’t break and at 84dB sensitivity, the IOTA needs a reasonable amount of power and current to work at their best. When using a white noise test tone, the IOTA needs a significant amount more gain from an amp to reach a 75dB test tone than the Mordaunt Short Mezzo 1 does.
This matters in part because the IOTA’s really come on song at higher listening levels and this is going to take a fair amount of power. Partnering the IOTA with cheaper electrics with less rigorous current delivery is unlikely to show them or the source equipment at their best. The IOTA is aimed squarely at somebody assembling a system with limited space but out of extremely good quality electronics- they aren’t an automatic pick up for a cheaper system.
- Superbly engrossing musical performance
- Flexible in placement terms
- Very well built
- Need a fair amount of power to perform well
- Inevitable limits to bass output
- Some rivals offer better perception of value on paper
Neat IOTA Standmount Speaker Review
The IOTA is a speaker that has some abilities and attributes that are truly exceptional for a speaker of any size and if you don’t need giant swathes of bass in your life, they would still be worth auditioning simply for their incredible musicality and tonal accuracy. The fact that they are as compact and unfazed by placement as they are is extraordinarily impressive. This is a speaker that will turn a space, however small and compromised into a genuine listening room.
The reason they do this is because of the level of enjoyment they bring with a huge variety of music extends beyond raw competence. I’ve had access to a great many speakers in the time that the IOTA’s have been here but I have often chosen to listen to them in preference to larger and superficially more capable speakers because they are a genuine pleasure to listen to with a capability far beyond their relatively small size. This is a demonstration that careful attention to the basics can result in a small speaker with a huge capability to entertain. The only catch now is that I’m starting to wonder what five of them might do for my AV system…
Value For Money6
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