- Energetic, punchy and detailed sound
- Incredibly compact
- Very well built
- Look rather odd
- Cost the same as more conventional rivals
- Not the most forensic sounding speaker
What is the Neat IOTA Alpha?
The Neat IOTA Alpha is a floorstanding version of the IOTA standmount speaker we reviewed in 2013. Turning a standmount speaker into a larger model is far from unusual – it happens all the time either at the outset of the design process or not that long afterward. What you see here is a bit less mainstream for a few reasons. When you look at an IOTA objectively, it doesn’t look like a prime candidate to be turned into a larger speaker. The unique form factor and general titchiness of the chassis doesn’t make it look like a dead cert to be anything else.
Take one look at the IOTA Alpha and you can clearly see that the resulting speaker is not a normal floorstander. If you were to tick off the attributes you might apply to such a speaker, the IOTA possesses almost none of them. The thing is though that when I heard a prototype pair at the Bristol Sound and Vision show back in February, the performance was so at odds with the speakers themselves that I have been pestering Neat ever since to get my hands on a pair.
Of course, the normal caveats apply to such a speaker. Unique attributes or not, the Neat costs as much as some rather larger and more ornate speakers and outside of the surreal world of the Bristol Show, it pitches into the fight as a featherweight in a field of heavies. Is this a speaker that genuinely competes or a peculiar engineering exercise?
The Neat is a two and a half way floorstanding speaker that at first glance looks like an extended IOTA. Both speakers share the same 100mm PP mid-bass driver and a 50mm ribbon tweeter – the only products in the Neat range to be so fitted. The drivers are arranged side by side rather than one on top of the other which reduces the size of the enclosure that they need. 100mm is far from the largest driver doing the rounds in speakers of this nature but the unit that Neat uses has a heftiness to its construction that enables it to deliver more extension than you might give it credit for.
Put the two products side by side though and it becomes clear that the Alpha is significantly different to its smaller ancestor. Where the IOTA is a parallel sided speaker with a rear port, the Alpha places the two drivers in an enclosure that is sealed from the rest of the chassis. The drivers themselves are then tipped back on a diagonal incline pointing them slightly upwards.
The reason for this is that the Alpha is truly tiny. Standing a mere 45 centimetres tall, it is smaller than some standmount speakers I have reviewed over the years. The ideal position when sitting listening to speakers is to be at ear level with the tweeter and, unless your preferred listening position is on a yoga mat or beanbag, this is impossible with the IOTA so Neat has angled the drivers back to add a little height to the performance. This is not that unusual a practise – Neat themselves fit upward firing supertweeters to their flagship ‘Ultimatum’ range of speakers but it is the first time I can remember it being added in the process of altering a speaker to become a floorstander. You might reasonably ask “Why is this necessary?” to which the reply has to be, do you know quite how small the Alpha is? Below is a picture for reference with a 12 inch LP for scale.
Given that the Alpha really is very small indeed and with the drivers you can see sealed away in an enclosure, the omens for decent bass response aren’t looking good. Happily, the Alpha has a secret weapon tucked away on the underside of the speaker. Neat has fitted a 134mm driver that fires downward and is tuned to augment the Alpha’s bass response. Getting downward firing drivers working correctly is a genuine challenge but Neat has considerable pedigree in this area – my own pair of Momentum 4i floorstanders uses a pair of downward firing drivers in an isobaric arrangement and does so extremely effectively.
To give this driver enough clearance to work properly, the Alpha is supplied with spiked feet that attach directly to the bottom of the cabinet that serve to anchor the speaker in place and ensure that the lower driver breathes correctly. A single, fairly substantial bass port serves to augment the bass further. Otherwise, the Alpha is entirely minimalist with just a single pair of sturdy speaker terminals for connecting them up.
Design and Build Quality
When I first clapped eyes on the Alpha at Bristol it was momentarily hard not to stifle a grin. Simply put, the Neat looks so odd as to be a talking point for people that clap eyes on it. The prototypes were finished in white like their compact standmount cousins and which gave them an even starker appearance. As you can see from the review samples, the decision has been taken to offer the Alpha in wood veneer finishes. I rather like the result but I’d be lying if the reaction from other people that have seen them has been mixed and my wife feels very strongly that they look like pedal bins. It might be fair to say that more conventionally handsome speakers exist for the money.
The caveat to this is that once in situ, you may not be able to see the Alpha at all. From my listening position, one speaker is totally invisible and the other pretty hard to spot. This is a bold move from a relatively conventional speaker manufacturer but it does make a considerable amount of sense. Not only does the Alpha have a small physical footprint, it can hide away in rooms in a way that most rivals can’t.
It is also extremely well made. Like the original IOTA, the Alpha feels solid and extremely well assembled. The wood veneering on the review samples has been done to a very high standard and the result is a speaker that does go a fair way to justifying its asking price. As a paranoid parent, I’d still like a grill for the drivers- although that delicate ribbon does have a protective guard to it.
Not only does the Alpha have a small physical footprint, it can hide in rooms in a way that most rivals can’t
How was the IOTA Alpha tested?
The Neats have been placed on either side of my Quadraspire QAVX rack with a slight degree of toe in. Partnering electronics have included the resident Naim Supernait 2 integrated amplifier but also the Steljes Audio ML30HD integrated amplifier. Source equipment has been a Naim ND5 XS streamer with XP5XS power supply and an Avid Ingenium Twin turntable with Cyrus Phono Signature phono stage. Material used has inclused lossless and high res FLAC, Tidal, Spotify and plenty of vinyl.
The Neats arrived for review at the same time as the Sonus faber Venere S which represents the largest speaker I have tested for AVForums, so it is fairly apt that I took them out to replace them with the smallest (floorstander). Even though I had heard the Alpha atBristol, there is still a degree of trepidation to sitting down to listen to a pair of speakers you can barely see.
And do you know what? After five minutes listening to Aha Shake Heartbreak by the Kings of Leon, your brain performs the cerebral equivalent of a shrug (I concede that brains are bereft of shoulders) and accepts that while the Alpha probably shouldn’t work, it does. I’m still in possession of a pair of the original IOTA standmounts which are used for testing and when placed on stands and used in A-B comparisons to the Alpha, the floorstander simply doesn’t sound like it’s broadcasting from significantly lower down. I don’t know how Neat has done it but done it they have.
The next stumbling block to overcome is the bass. A pair of 134mm bass drivers is useful but doesn’t sound like a recipe for gut shaking low end. Judged in absolute terms, the Neats don’t sound as powerful as some more conventional speakers at the same price but they sound bigger and more powerful than you might reasonably expect. They are perfectly capable of producing bass that is felt as well as heard and Neat’s claim of 33Hz doesn’t seem too outlandish if a degree of roll off is presumed at such a figure. The short summation is that the Alpha does not appear to be at any meaningful disadvantage to more conventional speakers at a similar price.
Having established this, it is perhaps more important to point out that the Neat sounds absolutely excellent. Like other products from the company, what really makes the Alpha stand out is the way that it sounds so effortlessly together as a speaker. The integration of the three drivers is utterly seamless and trying to second guess the point where the 100mm driver hands over to the ribbon is largely impossible. This gives the Neat the ability to take pretty much any piece of music you can think of and deliver it in such a way as to never be the story, simply the means of retelling it.
If you stop having fun and sit there dissecting the Alpha’s performance, you are left with the conclusion that a fair bit of its ability stems from the sheer effortlessness that it can relay the audible spectrum. While I imagine that the in-room response is not ruler flat – Neat designs rarely are – the performance feels absolutely even and this means that the Alpha is a wonderful partner for pretty much anything you throw at them.
The unplugged album that came with the live Nine Inch Nails And all that could have been has a version of Something I can never havethat is simply Trent Reznor singing at a piano. Halfway through the track, Reznor simply switches his voice from a gentle murmur to full belt massively increasing the volume of the rack. The Neat simply absorbs this huge spike in energy and captures Reznor’s voice with absolute conviction, including the overload to the microphone and the echo off the walls of the room he is in. The way this speaker handles the things regarded as serious challenges for speakers – vocals, pianos, strings etc. – is utterly unflappable. Quite distinct from its size, this is a seriously accomplished speaker.
If you are looking for a device that shows you exactly what your partnering equipment is up to, this probably isn’t it though. The Neat – rather commendably it must be said – will deliver most of what it is capable of and, provided that you have sufficient power to work with the 86dB sensitivity and four ohm impedance and the 30 watts of the Steljes ML30HD were enough for this, the Neat will do what it does with considerable enthusiasm. I have long been of the opinion that I don’t want my home audio delivered with forensic attention to its flaws but I am very aware that for a significant number of people, such an ability is what they seek. In this case, the Neat probably isn’t the speaker for you. This argument over absolute fidelity versus listening pleasure will run and run so work on the principle that the Alpha comes down on the side of joy without throwing accuracy to the wind.
It is also a very fine partner for vinyl. The smoothness and refinement of its top end is tempered with enough energy to mean that analogue never sounds rolled off or lacking in punch. Where the Neat really scores is that it is seriously hard to provoke into harshness or aggression even with poorer recordings. This also means that when a spot of compressed listening is required via either internet radio or Spotify, the Alpha has you covered.
What really makes the Alpha stand out is the way that it sounds so effortlessly together as a speaker
For many people reading this, there will be no need in their domestic lives to resort to a speaker that is 45 centimetres tall and that can hide almost out of sight in plain sight. These abilities are unusual but often superfluous. The most extraordinary thing about the Neat IOTA Alpha is that despite looking like it first needs to overcome obstacles of its own design, it can genuinely go toe to toe with rivals at a similar price while taking up half the space they do. This is a speaker that delivers everything I have come to expect from a Neat product, simply shrunk down to a bare minimum. The result is a truly outstanding loudspeaker that you need to hear if you are shopping at this price point.