Neat Acoustics Iota
Desktop loudspeakers: the term suggests tacky, plasticy confections produced alongside tacky, plasticy computer accessories. Not the type of transducers you would want anywhere near your precious music collection. Oh, no, siree! Recently, though, several well-respected loudspeaker manufacturers have taken to producing models designed for desktop use. And why should they not? Most of us spend far more time sitting at our desks than we do sitting in front of our hi-fi systems. Why, then, should we be obliged to listen to low-grade audio merely because we are not in the room that houses our hi-fi? And, if truth be told, while nobody can beat the computer industry on savage pricing, it isn’t in the same league when it comes to matters of producing high audio quality…
My office conveniently houses a couple of NAS drives and the network connections to my music room and the internet, and so makes an ideal place from which to administer my music network. To do this effectively, I need a fine quality audio system on my desktop. To this end, I have a Naim UnitiQute streamer/amplifier installed next to my desk. This feeds whatever speakers I happen to have on my desktop usually through a pair of TelluriumQ Blue loudspeaker cables. It also supplies Internet Radio and amplifies the beeps and farts from my desktop computer, which is useful for listening to YouTube and the like. I also have my Cambridge Audio iD100 iPhone dock and charger hooked up to the Qute. It is a congruous set-up: if it is on my desk and it makes a noise, that sound emerges through the ‘Qute and desktop speakers.
One of those well-respected loudspeaker manufacturers to have taken to producing models designed for desktop use I just mentioned is NEAT Acoustics. The last model the company launched was the impressively enormous, Ultimatum XL10, a £15,000+ floorstander. The model under consideration here is the £650 Iota. This is a decidedly smaller loudspeaker: it is designed specifically for situations in which size – or lack thereof – matters. The design exploits boundary reinforcement and so requires placement close to a wall or, in my situation, on a desktop, which provides some bolstering of low frequencies. Suitability to bookshelf placement, and a supplied pair of matching single-pillar stands, also meant the Iota could be used in my music room as well as my office.
The speaker is a two-way, bass reflex design, housed in a high quality, 2.6litre, internally damped, MDF enclosure. The main drive unit is a close relative of that in the Motive range: a 100mm Polypropylene cone with a ferrite magnet assembly. The tweeter is a 50mm vertical planar magnetic ‘ribbon’ unit. NEAT says that this unit is critical to the design because it lends the whole speaker its essential character and musical integrity. “In this context,” continues NEAT “the tweeter’s strengths of superb dynamic contrast and accurate tonal colour are well matched to those of the main drive unit.”
NEAT considers the Iota ideally suited to the currently en-vogue all-in-one streaming products. I am inclined to agree: despite is low-ish sensitivity figure of 84dB/1 Watt, the speaker worked well in my office powered by a 40 Watt Naim UnitiQute, and would easily deliver volume levels that most people would find uncomfortable. I imagine that it would equally well accompany the Linn Majik DS-M and comfortably outperform the Majik 109 speakers, which I have to say I did not especially enjoy when I reviewed the Linn system recently. I parked the Iotas on Partington Topper cones to elevate their baffles slightly, and connected them with TelluriumQ Blue speaker cables. The speakers are designed for horizontal placement either with their HF units innermost or outermost, the latter being the configuration I preferred and adopted.
These baby NEATs – their maker refers to them as “Super-Micros” – have that wonderful ease of communication that makes their larger siblings so special: the Iotas may not have the dynamic compass or bandwidth of speakers like the Ultimatum XLS or XL6, but their voicing and character, all be they slightly reduced in scale, remain comparable. They sing just as fluently and persuasively, and the nuance and subtlety they convey is outstanding for a tiny ‘desktop’ speaker.
The performance of the Iota truly belies the diminutive proportions of the loudspeaker. Instruments and voices are not miniaturised but appear as full-bodied and as solid as you would expect from any reputable desk-top monitor. In truth, the performance exceeds what one might expect from such a design: not only does the Iota tell you what the musicians are doing, it also lets you know whether they are having fun doing it, and, if so, to what extent. These little boxes will put a smile on your face every time you play a worthwhile album: Alison Krauss & Union Station’s “Paper Airplane” never failed to transform me into a blissed out hillbilly with its peerless Bluegrass playing and its poignant harmony stacks lead by Krauss’ flawless and superbly integrated vocals. By goodness, that girl’s voice is divine… and the Iota will show you graphically just how poignantly she can sing, with every breath and utterance painstakingly yet gracefully conveyed.
There is obviously no real bass fundamental action going on here but you don’t miss it… You do not listen and think “Didn’t there used to be a double bass on this track? Where has it gone?” There’s a credible facsimile of bass present. The Iota’s brilliant voicing convinces you that you are not losing out anywhere. It’s the embodiment of that ‘big’ sound from a tiny speaker cliché. If you listen to Keith Jarrett, for example, he still plays a concert grand piano and not a £60 Fisher Price, Laugh & Learn Baby Grand. I began listening to his Carnegie Hall Concert to pass a few moments while printing some boring accounts reports. An hour later I realised just how long I had spent at my desk enjoying his playing: it definitely wasn’t the profit and loss sheets that had put a smile on my face.
The Iota produces a credible and crisply defined stereo image that is not restricted in its width or depth by the speaker enclosures. This and its timbral integrity make it really accommodating for jazz fans: it is perfect if you want Chet Baker’s glorious, trumpet playing the Mr B album sweetly to accompany you while you work. Michel Grailler’s piano and Ricardo Del Fra’s bass both sound as complete and sonorous as they would on any full-sized loudspeaker. It is Baker’s horn that mesmerizes, though, sounding mellow yet simultaneously powerful even when he barely breathes through the mouthpiece. The smoothness of his playing, even after he had had to develop a new embouchure having had dentures fitted, is captivating. Subtle musical detail is fluently and readily conveyed by the Iotas. There is no sense of forced transparency about their presentation: it is strikingly natural and such detail flows with astounding lucidity, just as it does with the company’s larger models. The dynamics of this tiny loudspeaker are amazing and are especially impressive at the lower end of the scale playing quietly yet in a highly revealing fashion with disdainful ease. In fact, they significantly impressed a visiting horn-player because, as he observed, one judges a trumpeter’s skill by how he plays quietly – because playing softly is far more taxing than playing fff. The way the Iota reveals timing information is another strongpoint: the precision with which notes stop and start highlights the way Baker and his band play off one another and trade chops and lines for maximum effect.
The Iota’s dexterity with acoustic instruments and recording spaces affords the speaker an empathy for classical recordings, too. The polish and finesse of the drivers ensures the faithful recreation of instrumental timbre: in particular, this is noticeable with violins, which have attack and bite but are never reduced to sounding raw or steely. When a section of the orchestra plays there is also a tangible impression of the volume of air above that part of the orchestra being energised.
The Iota has the knack of focussing the listener’s attention on the strong points of any particular piece of music. I, for example, am especially keen on James McMurtry’s wonderfully lyrical song-writing and, when listening to “Just us kids” noticed that the speaker seemed to shine an intense light on his lyrics, bringing out the humour, insight and perception in every one of his skilfully crafted phrases. This happened without any artifice, so I suspect that the speaker’s overall clarity and dynamic accuracy simply allowed my brain to focus easily on that particular aspect of the recording.
In short, no matter what sort of music you enjoy and, provided you have a decent front-end and amplifier, the Iota will communicate its message as well as or probably better than many a larger loudspeaker can manage.
Finally, a note for the fashion-conscious desktop audiophile: the Iota is available in two Standard finishes, Satin White and Satin Black. It can also be supplied in Flame Red, Zinc Yellow and Ultramarine Blue.
Subsequent to this review I spoke to the designer of the Neat IOTA, Bob Surgeoner about the speaker:
MS: Without giving away your trade secrets, how did you create the illusion of a full-range portrayal of a piano and bass from such a tiny enclosure?
BS: The brief for the IOTA was to produce a genuine musical experience from as small an enclosure as possible. With all Neat designs, it’s an iterative process based on listening to music and making changes to every aspect (drive units, crossover, tuning, cabinet) based purely on what we’re hearing, until music sounds as meaningful as we can make it.
The tuning of the cabinet is particularly important here. There is little in the way of genuine low frequency fundamentals from the IOTA, so the tuning is a psychoacoustic device to guide the listener to the conclusion that there is more going on than is actually there. This tuning also imparts body and richness to the overall balance, so that the presentation has a much greater solidity than one might expect.
MS: The Iota impressed me with its brilliant vocal articulation. Is that a result of using the ribbon tweeter?
BS: The IOTA certainly owes much of its organic portrayal of the human voice to this tweeter. The choice of tweeter has always been very important in Neat loudspeakers, as we believe that it defines the character of the whole speaker and gives it its voice. Although the tweeter in the IOTA looks like a ribbon, and sounds like a ribbon, it is actually a planar magnetic area-drive unit, similar in principle to the super-tweeters used in our Ultimatum series speakers.
The IOTA is actually made from very high quality components which wouldn’t be out of place in speakers costing several times more. The only compromise being the size of the cabinet, and it turns out that this limitation really confers at least as many benefits as drawbacks.
MS: Just how simple is the crossover? It does not sound as if there is one there at all.
BS: Part of the challenge with the IOTA was to fit the crossover components, in a suitable layout, into the available internal space. The crossover is a three element design, plus damping and attenuating resistors. Most Neat crossovers are variants of this format. There is a first order filter feeding the bass/midrange unit, using a physically very large LCOFC air-cored inductor. The tweeter signal is supplied through a second order filter using just a polypropylene film capacitor and a LCOFC air-cored inductor. So the crossover is simple in principle, but the execution proved quite tricky in this instance.