250 miles north of London, near where the Yorkshire Dales meet the North Pennines, is the delightful Teesdale town of Barnard Castle. The town’s largest employer is the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKlein. With a team of just six in its own factory, one of Barnard Castle’s smallest employers is Neat Acoustics. Six people including the boss is fairly typical for mid-sized loudspeaker makers, but Neat is not a typical loudspeaker maker. It may sound like cliché, but Neat is truly born out of sheer music making passion, the kind that is almost unheard of in the audio industry.
Five of those six workers in Bob Surgeoner’s factory are practicing musicians, and the one exception is Chris, who is learning to play the guitar, at the tender age of 65. “It was a co-incidence that all of us play. When we went looking for staff, they just happened to be musicians themselves.” Discussion in the factory gets animated whenever music is discussed, music is a constant companion in the factory, and while we were at the factory, almost a third of the workforce clocked in and out early because they were performing at a gig later that evening in Newcastle. This was not an atypical day. The walls of the factory are festooned with musical instruments (not as objet d’art, working instruments used both by Bob in his other life as a folk musician, and in the recording studio used by local artists). Neat even has its own label (Splurge Records) although it currently has just three records to its name.
Music runs like a red thread through every product Neat makes too, from the smallest Iota to the largest Ultimatum; the products are designed more as a result of careful listening tests with a varied musical programme than by the usual cycles of objective testing and measurement. The latter is not dismissed, but the most important consideration in making a good Neat Acoustics loudspeaker is music first, last, and always.
Yet, for a brand so intrinsically linked to music, Bob is the first to question the effectiveness of such a development process. “I’m not really sure if being a musician is a benefit in designing loudspeakers. There’s some research to show musicians fill in fundamental parts of the music in compensation,” he says, “and that’s not a good thing.” But Neat seems to have risen above simply making loudspeakers by musicians, for musicians. “Listen to any of our speakers and there’s something non-hi-fi going on that’s still very musical,” says Bob. “Obviously I would think that, but others comment similarly, even when they don’t know I’m a musician.”
I suspect a lot of this comes down to the evaluation process. “I play a lot of acoustic instruments (guitar, double bass, piano), and some colleagues play electric. There’s a kind of mini-committee here,” meaning they all listen to the latest speaker developments, from a diversity of musical styles. And that rubs off on the loudspeakers themselves.
That’s not to say the company is entirely free from technological development. The company uses a specially made corner anechoic chamber for driver testing and development, and works closely with a range of loudspeaker driver manufacturers to deliver custom-made versions of drive units to meet Neat’s exacting specifications. But those specifications are more to do with how the end result sounds musically than how it performs on the test bench. Because, ultimately it reflects what a loudspeaker has to do for a living – make music sound good. “We tend not to work in a theoretical way”, says Bob Surgeoner, “we tend to work intuitively.” “Because we’ve been using the same drive units in combination for some time, design is more of an iterative process.” It’s about finding the right part – the Peerless bass unit we use in Motive wouldn’t work with the Ultimatum, and the custom-made unit in the Ultimatum isn’t as good as the off-the-shelf model for the Peerless when used in the Motive. It’s all about context.
The brand makes four distinct lines, all of which have a combination of music-driven sonic direction and a refreshing sense of Northern British pragmatism, that makes even the most expensive loudspeaker in the range – the Ultimatum XL10 – still cost less than a few metres of the more outré loudspeaker cables. At the other end of the scale, products like the excellent diminutive Iota Alpha floorstanders came about as a result of Bob wanting a loudspeaker that could fit into his small living room. Music is something to be shared and enjoyed by as many people as possible – not simply an elite – and the affordable nature of Neat’s lines reflect this.
The speakers are all hand-assembled at one of three workstations at the centre of the factory. The Iota might be comparatively new, The Motive, Momentum, and Ultimatum lines are refined, latest iterations of designs dating back to the 1990s. Many are deceptively designed: the Momentum SX3i for example looks like just another a rear-ported two-way standmount mini-monitor, but the mid-bass unit is isobarically loaded, with a second midbass unit behind the front bass chamber. This combines to deliver bass that is as fast and as communicative as most two-way standmounts, but as deep as a multi-way floorstanders. With typical understatement, Neat doesn’t shout about this. “All we do is get the speakers to sound like we think they should sound, and working backwards from there.” Says Bob. “It seems to work, so far – we haven’t been caught out massively yet!”
Tucked away in one of the more remote parts of the North of England, Neat Acoustics remains one of the audio world’s best-kept secrets. These are not loudspeakers that sell thanks to elaborate bling, wide baffles, or multiple drive units… they sell because the sound good to people. While Bob is self-effacing to the point of shyness and that is reflected in the looks of the product, the sound itself is first rate. We hope to be evaluating more Neat loudspeakers in the near future.