Installation is easy, as the speaker is relatively unfussy about placement. Precise positioning nets the best sound, but ‘sub-milimetre precise’ isn’t necessary. More important, however, is the nature of the floor beneath the speaker. As there is a down-firing bass unit, which is the outer driver of an isobaric chamber, surrounding it in thick shag-pile carpet from the 1970s is unwise. OK, so that’s ‘unwise’ in terms of undermining sound quality (and taste... who has these kinds of things today?) rather than a potential fire hazard. But if your living room looks like it was used in some low grade porno movies from the mid-1970s, you might be advised to look elsewhere.
Usually, the way of reviews typically goes good points, bad points. Occasionally it’s a sandwich of good-bad-good or bad-good-bad. This time, in honour of Neat’s convention-breaking design protocol, we’ll break with convention and get the bad out of the way first. There seem to be two results from listening to a Neat loudspeaker; either an almost immediate bonding to the way it sounds, or a tepid ‘hmm’. Occasionally, those who weren’t initially impressed warm to the sound of the Neat as they shake off years of listening to what ultimately was the wrong product for them. Many will never make that flip and come to consider Neat loudspeakers as little more than a brand to cross off the short-list. In the UK, such things are given the term ‘Marmite’ after the dark yeast spread that is either a salty-umami jar of heavenly deliciousness, or some form of food-grade rust protection you might use on the underside of a car. You can’t know your feelings about Marmite until you try it, and very few people are so-so about the stuff; it’s either ‘love it’ or ‘make it stop!’ Neat is a ‘Marmite’ loudspeaker and the Ekstra is perhaps the most Marmite-y of the lot.
OK, so in the pantheon of ‘different’ sounding loudspeakers, Neat is relatively mild next to things like the late ‘lamented’ Rehdeko designs or really quacky early Klipshorns (both of which have their followers, even today). However, in a world of increasing convergence of sound (due in part to everyone using the same group of measurements, often on the same suite of measuring instruments), the Neat does stand somewhat apart. That will mean some will listen and say ‘thanks, but no thanks’, usually recognising the good points of the design, but realising those good points do not apply to them. Others will be able to do that without even going within 10 miles of a pair of loudspeakers, because they define their musical options at one remove and rely on measurement to define one of the least measurement-defined parts of audio design.
To get an idea of what Neat is all about, let’s put a scenario together. You go to a small music venue, a folk singer turns up and plugs into a small, well-tuned PA system and sings a small set. He’s no Bob Dylan, but he’s very good, and backed by a small semi-acoustic band. If that is your idea of Hell (because it’s not bangin’ Techno played at eye-popping levels, or it isn’t a piece of classical music played without amplification in a natural acoustic), then the chances of you finding the charms of the Ekstra reaching you are remote at best. On the other hand, if the only thing missing from this scenario to make it perfect is ‘a pint and few mates’, this might well be your next loudspeaker. That may sound flippant, but the more you listen to the Ekstras, the more you realise that’s exactly what it does so well.
This means that what you get is a bass performance that defies all logic of loudspeakers of this size. It’s not overblown at all; if anything, the bass is taut to the point of dryness, but there’s a lot of bass energy in reserve. This makes for a very tidy and tuneful presentation and is particularly good at reproducing the sound of a bass guitar. As ever in such cases, Jaco is called for, and Pastorius’s fretless bass voice sings clear here, to the point where Jaco Pastorius [Epic] got played in its entirety and led to Joni Mitchell’s Hejira [Asylum]. That too spun on for the whole album, and led (through slightly less obvious steps) to listening to all of the eponymous Silly Sisters album [Chrysalis], then to Richard and Linda Thompson’s I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight [Island], then to Richard Thompson’s solo career, then to other guitarists, and on, and on.
A pattern emerged here. You put on an album and you listen to the album, not a few tracks. However, that ‘on to other guitarists’ showed it’s not just a folk-lover’s loudspeaker, and not just a walk down memory lane (to the pub serving foaming pints of Scrummock’s Aulde Fetlock). Out came Vök and Little Simz and Stormzy (‘cos I is street) and it all worked. I didn’t find pen hitting paper too often though, because my attention was focused on the music rather than the sound it makes. A good thing for a listener, not so good for someone with pages to fill!
Strangely though, this lack of description of the sound a speaker makes is what the Neat is all about. You listen to music, then listen to more music, and never once give a damn about the performance of the loudspeaker. To discuss it in audiophile terms seems to be like dragging the conversation back to the prosaic, or worse, back to an entirely different conversation in which you have become thoroughly uninterested.
Nevertheless, a job is a job. The Ekstra is a very fast sounding loudspeaker with outstanding bass in terms of both depth and speed. It is exceptionally good at the presentation of musical coherence, and when listening to a piece of music (such as ‘Love in Vain’ by The Rolling Stones from the Stripped CD [Polydor]) the sense of interplay between musicians in this live cut from the rehearsal room really puts you in there with the Glimmer Twins.
Detail is good but only slightly above average in its class. That being said, upper register detail is very good, and free from aggression or brashness. Staying with the Stripped album, the live arena tracks are some of the least listenable tracks I own, even down to an occasional sense of the band ‘phoning it in’. Any hint of top end emphasis on tracks like ‘Street Fighting Man’ make the album descend into thin, nasty brightness, and the Ekstra managed to keep that top end in check while opening out the top end sound.
Ekstra is also a relatively forgiving loudspeaker, twice over. It needs a good, but not brute-force, amplifier, but more importantly it’s very forgiving on less than wonderful pieces of music that are swathed in compression. Muse’s ‘Invincible’ from Black Holes and Revelations [Helium-3] is an anthemic piece almost ruined by compression. While the Ekstra cannot undo the damage made by such compression, it can – and does – make it seem less bothersome.
You’ll notice that most of my recording callouts here have not gone too far down the classical rabbit hole. I noticed this several hours into the listening session. It’s an odd sensation; it’s not that the loudspeakers were bad on classical music – in fact, they played classical music pretty well on balance – but I found myself playing other music each time I thought about playing classical pieces. In later introspection, I can’t quite tell whether that was down to the loudspeaker gently moving me away from music it cannot do to the same degree of justice, or it exposes my own musical predilections to be less catholic than I would like them to be. In other words, it might have been ‘me’ rather than ‘it’ opting for the non-classical music. To date, I’m still not sure on this and where I run with it. Playing them to a true classical-loving friend (who also ‘got’ the speaker) they played a lot of Bach through them and were surprised by that (“I didn’t realise how much I like Bach” was the reply). I’ve come to the conclusion that the Ekstra isn’t a musical filter, but it engages with your own musical filters with a high degree of accuracy.
What I also found myself not putting down on page too often was imaging. This time, it was more a function of the loudspeaker than me. Imaging here is good, but very much not a priority. So that holographic soundstaging and the kind of presentation that makes a loudspeaker really attractive to some people is a little bit less obvious. It’s more a bolus of sound between the loudspeakers than a three-dimensional presentation of sounds around the room. In fairness to Neat, most concerts I’ve been to have a similar ‘soundstage’ to the Neats and no one has ever walked away from a concert saying ‘what great imaging!’ Nevertheless, if you define your musical presentation by a walk-in soundstage, the Neat may struggle to meet those demands as well as some other designs.
A lot of the rest of the performance is marked out by a very high degree of effortlessness in all things. Take its dynamic range, for example. This is not the kind of loudspeaker that presents a powerful dynamic range up front, but the more you listen to it, the more you realise it’s incredibly dynamic... it just hides that dynamic range in a kind of British sense of understatement. The same applies to its ability to portray the light and shade of microdynamics; there is no immediate sense of a microdynamic superstar, but all those subtle shades and textures are there in full effect.