Bob Surgeoner - Neat Acoustics
Audiophiles interested in unconventional loudspeakers often turn their attention to Neat Acoustics - a company founded in 1989 by Bob Surgeoner, who has spent most of his life playing music in a variety of styles, such as blues, rock, jazz, folk, country, and bluegrass. Neat Acoustics has its own recording studio because the professional approach is also the benchmark for the sound of loudspeakers. Music lovers talk a lot about achieving the sound as close as possible to the original, but few equipment manufacturers can actually hear it when designing their gear. Meanwhile, a variety of musical instruments are on hand at the Neat Acoustics factory, including piano, string organ, harp, double bass, synthesizers, and a wide range of electric and acoustic guitars. High-resolution recordings can be played back instantly in the listening room. The speakers themselves are also quite remarkable. They feature various unusual technical solutions, such as speakers working in an isobaric system, cabinets made of glued birch plywood, or supertweeters mounted on the top panel to improve the surround experience.
Bob Surgeoner is certainly not the only designer of playing equipment who started his adventure by playing a musical instrument, but he is one of the few loudspeaker designers who indulge in this passion on a regular basis. Reading about Neat Acoustics' products, one gets the impression that these two worlds constantly intersect. Bob allows music to rule the tuning and sound of their speakers to the exclusion of almost all other criteria. All aspects of the design are evaluated empirically. Neat Acoustics' engineers say that measurements cannot influence speaker performance decisions during design. This time-consuming, iterative process can take months before the work is considered complete. During listening sessions and product development, a wide range of recorded music is used, from early 20th-century records to state-of-the-art albums, as well as recordings made by the Neat Acoustics team on analog tape and digital media. In a world where most hi-fi equipment is designed to conform to a set of commonly accepted parameters, Bob Surgeoner's approach is very refreshing.
On your company's website, we can read that you learned everything yourself, from playing musical instruments to building loudspeakers. Did you really achieve all this on your own?
That is correct. I've never had lessons for any of the instruments that I play, nor any qualification for designing loudspeakers. Both of these passions began at around the age of 14.
How many musical instruments can you play?
My main instrument is guitar, but I also play piano, double-bass, banjo, and accordion to a limited degree, and am making progress now on the autoharp and the Celtic harp.
Which moments from your musical career are most memorable to you?
Playing at the Edmonton folk festival in Canada in 1995 with the backing band of Jez Lowe (a wonderful British singer/songwriter). On the bill were also Ry Cooder, Elvis Costello, and many others. Part of the festival was an accordion 'workshop' concert with myself and two other players, in front of an audience of around 1,000. One of these players was famous Cajun music star, and the other was one of the great Irish traditional accordion players (I was picked for this because our band's PR photo showed me with an accordion.) Although I could play accompaniments and basic solos to an acceptable level, the other accordionists were top class, and I was nowhere close to their standard and I was terrified. The concert was completely unrehearsed but I managed to get through it by accompanying the other players' solo tunes and playing some of my own 'party pieces'. The show ran for one hour, and if it had been five minutes longer I would have run out of tunes and would have been revealed as a kind of 'fraud'. In fact, I got away with it and actually received some praise from the other players, a lucky escape! An earlier highlight was in 1974, playing at the Roundhouse in London with my prog-rock band, The Mynd, having seen several music legends playing there over the previous four years. More recently, I got together with an old friend who plays double bass for a spontaneous set at a local folk club. We hadn't played together for over ten years and had no prior rehearsal, but we immediately struck a groove and had a great gig. We still play together regularly and have since made two albums together.
Many audio manufacturers like to refer to the sound of live instruments, but I get the feeling that some of them don't have a clue about it. You not only have, but you didn't give it up when you got serious about building speakers, did you?
I have regular exposure to acoustic instruments in intimate surroundings, so I'm very familiar with their sounds. I don't believe that this kind of experience necessarily enables one to design a great loudspeaker, in fact, there is some evidence to the contrary - that having a musical understanding might help you to 'imagine' bass fundamentals when only the harmonics are there. But I think that having such an authentic reference is an important tool in my design 'toolkit'.
You're proud of the fact that there is a recording studio at the Neat Acoustics headquarters. Is it used only for your internal purposes, or have recordings been made there that anyone can listen to today?
The studio is really only for my own projects, though our employees may also use it (most of the Neat staff are musicians who gig regularly). Several of my recordings are available on CD, and some are also on SoundCloud. I recently revamped the studio to a simpler setup so I can record alone, without a separate engineer having to be involved. I did a lot of recording during the Covid lockdown period.
What was it that got you interested in the subject of hi-fi equipment in the first place and made you build your first speakers? Didn't you, as we've heard a million times before, find ones that met your expectations?
I was always fascinated by the reproduction of music, even from the first experiences in the late 1950s with a tabletop record player. We also had a tube AM/FM radio in our home, usually tuned to AM stations, and I remember what a surprise it was to hear the difference in sound quality when I discovered the FM alternative. I built my first radio at the age of 14, and later went on to make loudspeakers for my band's PA system in the 1970s. When I first began a hi-fi business in 1985, it was from my home in London. Between touring as a musician I would sell and repair audio equipment. On one occasion I ended up with several pairs of faulty speakers from a well-known British manufacturer and set about repairing them. This gave me some useful insights into how drive units and crossovers worked. By the time I opened the NEAT HiFi shop in the north of England (1988) I'd noticed a lot of interest in compact loudspeakers so I looked into the various successful models of that time. Mentioning no names, I felt that there were flaws in all of them: slow bass, lack of bass, poor power handling, low sensitivity, excess colouration or inability to play loud. So we began the process of designing our own compact speaker in 1989. We had some cabinets made, selected the drive units, and made a 'theoretically correct' crossover network. One evening after the shop had closed, we put it all together and set up our creations for the first listen. It sounded very bad, so it was back to the drawing board. Within 2-3 days, with lots of tweaking, it started to sound acceptable. More adjustments to the tuning and crossover, different drive units etc, all took place over a further period until, after three months, we had a speaker that we thought sounded quite special. A friend suggested the name 'Neat Petite' and we started to make them in single pairs. At first, we only intended to sell the Petite from our own shop, but we had so much positive feedback from customers that we decided to show it at the 1990 hi-fi show in London, to test it in the real world. Response from trade, press and public, was overwhelming and convinced us to launch the Petite as a production model.
Apparently, the name of the company you founded does not necessarily mean what we think reading it literally?
Yes, the shop was called 'North Eastern Audio Traders' hence 'NEAT'. Though we do try to make our designs look 'neat' in the literal sense too!
When you look at the current Neat Acoustics catalog, at first you might think that these are just completely normal speakers. Just boxes, drivers - the standard. But no. Actually, each of these designs contains interesting technical solutions. What's the point? Haven't you ever been tempted to do it the way almost everyone else does it?
From the first Petite onwards, the development of new models has been an iterative process, so the models that came after the Petite had some features in common with it, with digressions that lead to a new variant. This continues today. Although we will test drive units and parts for consistency, the development of a new design is almost exclusively done by ear. We are quite unorthodox, and sometimes we'll try something that ought not to work, just to test this. For example, the 168mm bass/midrange unit in the original Petite was technically too big for the 7-litre cabinet volume, but with some tweaking of the port tuning, we obtained the result we wanted - good power handling, good control and quite deep bass for such a small enclosure.
One of the most original solutions used in your speakers is the isobaric system. Will you tell us exactly how it works and why exactly this method of loudspeaker tuning appealed to you?
I was always intrigued by the isobaric principle, and listening to the classic Linn Isobaric in the early 1980s convinced me that it was my preferred system of bass loading. The isobaric (or compound) system operates by mounting an additional woofer behind the one mounted on the front panel. Both woofers receive the same signal from the crossover network, in phase. The chamber between these two units is sealed, so that there is a constant pressure within the chamber and the internal woofer acts as a sort of 'brake' on the front woofer - and vice versa. The key advantage of this system is that the cone of the front woofer is effectively controlled by two voice coils, resulting in very controlled bass performance. Another useful benefit is that the internal woofer behaves as if it were in an enclosure with twice its actual volume, therefore increasing bass extension.
Neat Acoustics is not the only manufacturer using this solution, but usually, you have to pay much, much more for speakers with the isobaric system. And yet, essentially we are only talking about a different way of mounting the speakers in the cabinet than usual. Why are isobaric bass sets generally so expensive? Is it that their design takes much longer?
I hadn't really thought about this. I can't answer for others, but Neat loudspeakers are priced mainly on the cost of parts and assembly costs. It does take a little longer to get the isobaric alignment correct when developing a new model but, for us, this has become less so over time.
When I reviewed the Majistra monitors, I couldn't find a photo of their rear panel anywhere, but I knew they use an isobaric system. When they arrived and I saw them from the back, I was dumbfounded. Bass-reflex? In isobaric loudspeakers? Can you explain how it works?
All Neat isobaric speakers are reflex-tuned, even though the classic theory suggests that an isobaric enclosure should be sealed. We always choose what works best for us in a given context, regardless of the theory. We rarely use a classic reflex tuning, and the port usually just acts as a controlled leak to optimise the behaviour of the low frequencies.
Is the unusual design of the Neat Acoustics speakers intended to make it easier for the user to set them up in the listening room, or is it simply a matter of getting the best possible sound, and an easier installation process is kind of a bonus?
It varies. Some models will need some attention to placement, others will be less fussy depending on the individual room characteristics. For some recent models, we have deliberately attempted to have them perform well when close to the wall (Iota range, Ekstra, Ministra). It's always a lottery when placing a loudspeaker in a given room. The room is probably over 50% of what you hear, and a bad combination of room & speaker can result in a very poor sound, regardless of the speaker's innate qualities.
You are clearly a proponent of ribbon/planar tweeters. What is it about them that captivates you? Have you never had problems with coherence when combining such tweeters with classic midwoofers?
Ever since 1985, on hearing the Magneplanar IIIb panel speakers (which used a long vertical ribbon tweeter), I've been drawn to the speed and openness of planar/ribbon tweeters, and the Air Motion Transformers pioneered by Oscar Heil. Using our long-standing approach of empirical experimentation (trial & error) we simply tweak the various parameters until we get the desired match between the tweeter and midwoofer. One way or another it usually works out. Naturally, only the successful attempts go into production.
On the top panel of the Ultimatum series loudspeakers, we can see another unusual solution - supertweeters. What is the purpose of these drivers and how does it translate into the listening experience?
The supertweeters add a sense of open-ended ambience to the performance. They were originally incorporated to enhance the treble response of the main tweeter we used in the prototype 'MF9' (the first Ultimatum model) which rolled off quite early. This worked very well and, to my surprise, they still added something special when we replaced the main tweeter with a different unit, with greater HF extension, for the final version. These supertweeters extend to 40kHz, and of course we can't hear much of what they do directly, but there is some overlap with the main tweeter. My feeling is that the inaudible output from the supertweeters creates intermodulation between them and the main tweeter and has an effect on what we do hear. It's quite easy to hear the difference in their effect. Just place magazines over the supertweeters and listen to several pieces of music. Then compare the sound when the magazines are removed again.
I understand that with such complex loudspeakers, you have to work hard even when manufacturing the enclosures. Thick MDF walls, screwed plates of laminated plywood, sometimes very complex shapes. Is this necessary?
The main carcass of the Ultimatum models is birch plywood, which is I think a very good material for a loudspeaker cabinet. It is difficult to work with in this context, so we mount the drive units on the MDF sub-baffles and link them to the main carcass with a polyethylene membrane between, thus giving the drive units an inert platform to work optimally with minimal colouration. As an extra benefit, the MDF baffles help to achieve a more attractive finish than plain plywood can achieve.
Where and how are your speakers manufactured? Is everything done in the same place?
The cabinets are all manufactured in two factories in the UK. We source other parts from all around the world as well as the UK. The crossover networks are built here in the Neat Acoustics factory and everything is assembled, tested, boxed, and shipped directly from here.
Neat Acoustics has been around for more than 30 years. Experienced audiophiles are familiar with the brand, but I don't think it has ever aspired to the mainstream. Weren't you tempted to start making budget speakers or wireless speakers? Are you comfortable where you are?
In fact, we have done some experimenting with alternatives for wireless (Bluetooth) versions of some of our smallest models. It's too early to say if this will lead to production items, but it is a possibility for the future.
What stereo system do you use at home?
I just use quite a simple system at home, though it's now quite old and I'm looking at alternatives. The turntable is currently a Rega Planar 6 with Exact cartridge, into a Dynavector P75 mkII phono stage, into an original Naim Uniti, for CD, internet radio, and TIDAL streaming. Speakers change a lot, depending on what I'm working on, but at present, I'm using the new Petite Classics.