Neat Acoustics Majistra
Neat Acoustics has been designing and manufacturing loudspeakers since 1989. The company was founded by Bob Surgeoner, who has devoted most of his life to music, playing primarily blues, rock, jazz, folk, country, and bluegrass. The company's other key employees also work as musicians, which is virtually unheard of in the audio industry. In 2006, Bob was joined by Paul Ryder, who plays guitar in several bands in northern England. Since Paul is also an experienced sound engineer, the company set up its own recording studio. The professional approach to recordings is also intended to be a benchmark for the sound of the loudspeakers. 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 and other stringed instruments. High-resolution recordings can be played back instantly in the listening room. Bob and his team let music rule the tuning and sound of its speakers to the exclusion of almost all other criteria. All aspects of the design are evaluated empirically. This time-consuming, iterative process can take months before a design is considered finished.
Why speakers? Well, electronics was Bob Surgeoner's second passion, which he developed from an early age. It led him to the design of loudspeakers, which he believes are the most important and most difficult part of the audio chain from an engineering point of view. For the mission to succeed, you have to combine knowledge of electronics, mechanics, and acoustics, as well as something that's hard to describe in a single word. Sense? Talent? The ability to translate musical sensibility into the language of technology and vice versa? I have the impression that the English have also shown great courage on more than one occasion. Some of the loudspeakers available in their catalog are seemingly normal, classic boxes, but many of these "ordinary" models hide some kind of secret.
Design and functionality
From the beginning, the Teesdale-based manufactory has been making equipment for customers looking for something unique and original, so by definition, we're not talking about container-sized deliveries and bargain prices. The latter is, of course, influenced by such factors as small batch (probably largely handmade, although the company nowhere boasts about this) production or time-consuming design of new models. The Brits boast that they mainly use components they have developed themselves, and even if they use ready-made parts, they are never mass-produced. Even if they look like the ones you can buy in specialized electronic component stores, they are custom-made and to Neat Acoustics' exact specifications.
The key point, however, seems to me to be that this is one of the few companies that can really do something extraordinary not only with loudspeakers or crossovers but also with what is most difficult to design and manufacture properly - the acoustic system and enclosure design. Observing the speaker market, one can come to the conclusion that everything has already been invented, and most designers don't even try to come up with something special. They may use speakers with diaphragms made of cellulose, polypropylene, metal, carbon fiber, and compressed flax, add domes made of magnesium, beryllium, or diamond, bend the enclosures into the shape of a lute, a sail, or a dancing parabola, but the basic acoustic concept remains the same. Fortunately, some companies are doing it differently, and Neat Acoustics is one of them.
Looking at the pictures, you will certainly begin to wonder why these monitors caught my eye. At the front, there's a classic mid-bass driver complemented by a ribbon tweeter, all in the most classic arrangement possible, without even moving the tweeter to the side, while at the back there are normal single sockets and a bass-reflex port. So we're dealing with a completely normal stand-mound loudspeaker, right? Uhm, no. The Majistra uses an isobaric system. Neat Acoustics is not the only company using this solution, nor is it its inventor. In audiophile circles, Wilson Benesch is considered to be the greatest popularizer of this idea, although for some music lovers the number one in this regard is and always will be Linn, which in 1973 introduced speakers called Isobarik DMS. The isobaric system itself was developed in 1950 by Harry Olson. It was based on mounting two woofers one behind the other in a sealed chamber. The idea was to place the speakers facing each other in such a configuration that the diaphragm of one speaker faced the magnet of the other. This is the variant that is used most often today, if, of course, we can talk about any clear trend here. Both woofers receive the same signal from the crossover. The chamber between these units is sealed, so there is constant pressure inside. The inner woofer, in a sense, takes on the job of compressing and expanding the air in the chamber behind it, so that the outer woofer is provided with ideal operating conditions - its diaphragm doesn't have to resist any pressure, moving as freely as if there was a completely free space behind it. A key advantage of this system is that the cone of the front woofer is effectively controlled, in fact, by two coils - one directly and the other indirectly. Bob Surgeoner and his colleagues' first experiment with this system came in 1997 in the form of the passively driven Gravitas subwoofer, which served as a modular upgrade of the original Petite speaker. Since then, Neat has consistently worked on the concept, implementing it in passive loudspeakers for home use.
But before we delve into the technical details of the construction of the reviewed monitors, let's look at their appearance and functionality. I have to admit that despite their considerable size, a certain heaviness, and traces of studio character, which is largely influenced by the additional black lacquered plate attached to the front panel, the Majistras look very luxurious. The ebony veneer looks gorgeous, but there is one downside - such a finish is an optional extra which requires a 15% additional charge. We will also pay the same amount for finishing the cabinets with any RAL lacquer. Cherry, oak, walnut, and black veneers are available as standard, as well as white satin lacquer. The double front panel is so thick that the "external" woofer is bolted on with very long screws. Now add to that the internal baffles and the additional "inner" woofer, and you'll have some idea of how much the Majistras weigh. These are large monitors that deserve to be taken seriously. You'll certainly need good, heavy stands. As for the speakers, while the woofer looks familiar, the ribbon tweeter is extremely interesting and quite large. It is surrounded by a ring of black felt, which dampens reflections, improving the spatial experience.
So why is there a bass-reflex port in speakers that use an isobaric system? I had no idea at first, and there is very little information on the manufacturer's website. Neat Acoustics states that the Majistra was created to combine the sound of full-range speakers with the dimensions of a medium-sized monitor, but the description is really scarce. Two sentences about the drivers, a word about the isobaric configuration, three sentences about the crossover, basic parameters, two photos, a tiny cross-sectional drawing and that would be it. Would you like to see what Majistras look like from the back? Ah, that's too bad. Would you like to see how they look with grilles on? The manufacturer doesn't mention them at all, and upon opening the package I was surprised both by the fact that they are there and by their packaging. The British decided to put the grills in large bubble envelopes. The kind you can buy at the post office. The mounting system is also unusual. A horizontal bar runs through the center of each grille, exactly where the gap between the woofer and the tweeter is. Attached to this bar are two magnets. The designers probably wanted the front panel not to be disfigured by pin holes. Cool, but during the photo shoot, one of the grilles slipped off while cleaning the speakers with compressed air. I wondered if it was installed correctly, but there is no other way - in the inverted position the horizontal bar would have to snag on the woofer suspension. So I can only conclude that the grilles do not protect the speakers from children or animals in any way.
Talking about the downsides of a practical nature, I have to complain about the sockets. Since they are mounted on a large black plate, allowing free access to the crossover and the mid-bass speaker's inner magnet (which is actually quite nice), why weren't they spread a bit wider? Owners of cables with spades will have to be careful when installing them. Otherwise, a short circuit can occur, and amplifiers generally don't like that. Besides, the sockets chosen by Neat Acoustics are no graze. They look decent, but they are not Cardas, Furutechs or WBTs worth hundreds of euros. Meanwhile, the Majistras cost £3495 in the standard version. Quite a lot. However, it's worth remembering that we're dealing with one of the highest-priced monitors in Neat's catalog. Only the flagship Ultimatum XLS is more expensive, and significantly so. Considering the average price difference between monitors and floorstanders, we have here a really decent piece of equipment - speakers for very demanding listeners, who are aware of the limitations resulting, for example, from the size of the listening room or the inability to place the speakers one and a half meters away from the wall. I suspect that these monitors will become the object of interest of audiophiles who are fed up with traditional solutions, as well as those looking for "speakers that play everywhere".
When I read about monitors designed to offer sound comparable to floorstanders, I become suspicious and proceed to the listening with some reserve. I understand that those repeating this slogan want to emphasize the advantages music lovers associate with large boxes, such as deep bass, dynamic scale, and the ability to fill the room with sound to the brim, but floorstanders also have their downsides. Many companies are trying to convince us that their relatively small packages can roar like a giant home theater system and venture where only the largest subwoofers occasionally go. Perhaps the point is that some audiophiles can't afford to buy big speakers, but here another question arises - why? Because they are more expensive? Without exaggeration, in the higher price ranges, such arguments do not convince me at all.
This leaves only one logical explanation - such speakers are unlikely to be placed on heavy metal stands, not even close to the place dictated solely by sound considerations, and their territory probably won't be a room looking as if it was taken out of a textbook on interior acoustics and speaker placement, but an ordinary living room with a couch, a TV hung on the wall and pretty normal furniture. In my opinion, some manufacturers are well aware that building a stereo system according to all the rules is one thing, and real life is often a completely different story. That's why, in an effort not to offend audiophiles, they give customers clear hints along the lines of "our speakers are designed using the best materials, a recording studio, and live-playing instruments, the whole process takes years to make the sound perfect, but if you buy them and put them on the dresser under the TV, 20 cm from the back wall, everything will be fine." At first glance, this doesn't make sense, but when you consider the size and furnishings of a typical listening room, it does.
Unfortunately, there is another catch in all this. Some speaker manufacturers go even further in this reasoning, concluding that the average customer has no idea what good sound really is, no experience, and no point of reference other than wireless headphones, a soundbar, or a car audio system. I get the impression that this is why a good portion of "monitors that sound like floorstanders" completely fail in an unorthodox setting, sometimes in an orthodox one as well. Neat Acoustics' team tried a different approach. The company's engineers are apparently aware of certain limitations faced by both average music lovers and extremely demanding audiophiles, but they design their speakers with the latter group in mind.
From the first minutes of listening, I knew it would be interesting. The boasts about sounding close to what the floorstanders offer turned out to be - fortunately - exaggerated. Or at least that's the conclusion I was led to by listening to a few favorite tracks with the Majistras set up in the standard way. Looking at the sizable cabinets, two woofers, and bass-reflex ports in the back, I expected the bass to rearrange my furniture, but it was exactly the opposite. These heavy monitors offered quite light, phenomenally fast, transparent, and very natural sound based on a well-controlled, rhythmic bass. Above all, however, it was simply healthy, natural, and by all means correct, which is unfortunately not always true when we talk about loudspeakers of unusual design. Often such loudspeakers offer an interesting but abnormal sound, sometimes crossing the point where a harmless quirk turns into a pathology, and instead of high fidelity we get a caricature of the music. But not this time. From a technical point of view, the Majistras are even doubly strange, because not only do we have an isobaric system here, but the designers added a heavily damped bass-reflex. And is their sound unpredictable? Not at all. On the contrary - it's been a long time since I reviewed speakers endowed with such a natural and free sound.
I was prepared to move the monitors away from the wall, and in the meantime, after only a dozen minutes or so, I began to reduce the original distance of about 70-80 cm (measured from the rear wall of the speakers), waiting for the moment when I would overdo it, and the low frequencies would take control of the sound. To my surprise, however, nothing like that happened. Another adjustment, and another, and the monitors didn't seem to care. The amount of bass increased, but its quality did not. The sound remained compact and dynamic with no unpleasant rumble. I got to 20 cm and gave up, but not because of the dominance of the low frequencies, but rather the soundstage, which, not surprisingly, was flattened in this setting. Since it was three-dimensional and beautifully detached from the speakers during my first attempt, I focused on finding the right balance between bass power and soundstage. However, if you are willing to sacrifice the depth of the stereophonic imaging for the sake of majestic bass, or simply have no other choice, this experiment gives hope that the Majistras, despite their sizable dimensions, can be treated as slightly smaller monitors.
The matter interested me so much that I decided to listen to what "comes out" of the bass-reflex ports. Maybe nothing? Well, no - you can hear the bass, and it's incredibly low but gentle at the same time. There was almost no air movement even when I turned up the volume. Not even a fly would be frightened. It appears that the British designers' penchant for an isobaric system has a solid foundation. And it's not about calculations, simulations, or measured parameters in an anechoic chamber, but about what you can clearly hear. Thanks to the complex design, we get monitors that can play virtually anywhere. Place them wide and far from the wall, and they will show a fast, contoured, detailed sound with an immersive, airy soundstage. Reduce the distance and you'll get powerful but still, superbly controlled bass, quite as if two perfectly tuned subwoofers, while the rest - except for the soundstage - remains intact. Due to further rehearsals and listening in a second system, I had the opportunity to treat the Majistras with a wide variety of music, and they performed brilliantly with any genre. Despite my sincere intentions, I couldn't complain about the tonal balance, timbre, or any other aspect of the presentation. These monitors simply want to have fun with any music you throw at them and, what is becoming more and more important, they are able to do it even in difficult conditions.
An interesting acoustic layout translating into an uncharacteristically predictable and cultured behavior of the British monitors is what makes them stand out from the competition, but my impressions would certainly not be so positive if it weren't for something that Neat Acoustics' designers thankfully didn't forget about - quality. On paper one can draw an enclosure of unusual shape or a bass-reflex in the form of a bent and bisected tube, but the feeling of experiencing high-quality sound also, or perhaps even mainly, comes from the money put into key components such as speakers or crossover, and the time and skill needed to polish such a design to perfection, down to the level of correcting the smallest details. I have no doubt that in this case both of these conditions have been met. You can scoff at the Brits that the descriptions of the speakers on their website are so sparse, and instead of clear photos, customers will see at most another version of the story of how Bob Surgeoner and Paul Ryder set up their own recording studio, but there is no arguing with the end result. It is excellent.
I was particularly impressed by what came out of the tweeters. If you like hi-fi that prefers to tell the truth rather than embellish the music and put some sort of proprietary filter on everything, you will be delighted. Okay, at times it can get a tad too bright, but you will certainly notice that this only happens when you use a bad recording. This is the only thing I would pay attention to when setting up the system. It's better not to overdo it with the treble, but that doesn't mean that for the ribbon tweeters you have to prepare some kind of counterbalance in advance, pulling the sound the other way. It's enough to keep it even and neutral, and the Majistras certainly won't do any harm to your favorite music. Despite their excellent resolution, they are not studio monitors whose job is to push all the dirt and shortcomings to the fore. Here, all components work together in such a way that we derive the greatest listening pleasure. This is not due to the warm midrange attributed to many British monitors. If anything, a hint of mellowness appears only in the mid-bass driver's range, probably due to the material of its diaphragm. However, this does not affect the overall neutrality of these monitors. If I had to advise something, I would only try not to go below a reasonable level of quality and power of 25-40 watts per channel. Other than that, you are free to do what you want and the speakers should adapt. To the equipment, you have, the acoustics of the listening room, and even, if necessary, an unusual placement.
Build quality and technical parameters
Neat Acoustics Majistra is a two-way monitor equipped with three drivers - a ribbon tweeter with a length, or rather height, of 60 mm, and two 17-cm Peerless woofers with cellulose-coated diaphragms, working in an isobaric arrangement, one of which is visible from the outside, while the other has been mounted inside. The "front" drivers were mounted on an interestingly shaped panel covered with black lacquer and connected to the cabinet via a polyethylene diaphragm to reduce resonance and coloration. Since the boxes themselves were made of thick MDF and generously damped, the result is a heavy, stiff cabinet. Just add to that a beautiful finish, and you get a high-end product that - well, except maybe for the grille mounting system - gives the impression of being extremely solid. At the rear, there is a Low-Q Reflex resonance port. Unlike traditional tunnels, the airflow is not free but suppressed by an acoustic filter placed inside it. The cross-sectional drawings provided by the manufacturer show that the tunnel runs almost all the way to the tweeter, and doesn't really support the "rear" woofer, but drains some of the pressure from the chamber between the woofers. What pressure, since we are dealing with an isobaric configuration, one in which when one speaker pumps air in, the other sucks it out in an identical manner, and vice versa? Frankly, I have no idea. It turns out, however, that while the end of the port is indeed behind the tweeter, the chamber where both speakers work is not completely sealed. At its top, there is a small gap through which air can enter the bass-reflex port. I suspect that this is some kind of compensation for the delay or overload of the isobaric system. I think the task of the Low-Q Reflex tunnel is designed to bridge these differences, and it's heavily damped because if the airflow was completely free, the use of a second speaker placed behind the one visible from the outside would lose sense. It made me curious to the point that I asked Bob Surgeoner himself for a brief comment. "You can't see it well in the drawing, but the hole in the inner vertical panel is larger than the diameter of the port. So the port actually loads the low-midrange section. This is not a traditional bass-reflex tuning, but acts more as a controlled leakage for the low-midrange section." - he wrote. Thus the mystery was solved. Returning to the monitors, there is a large nameplate on the rear panel, where single sockets are mounted. The manufacturer reports that the crossover is a minimalist design using first and second-order filters. All components are rigidly mounted using the point-to-point method to ensure maximum bandwidth integrity.
Audiovector QR5, Equilibrium Nano, Unison Research Triode 25, Hegel H20, Auralic Aries G1, Auralic Vega G1, Marantz HD-DAC1, Clearaudio Concept, Cambridge Audio CP2, Cardas Clear Reflection, Tellurium Q Ultra Blue II, Albedo Geo, KBL Sound Red Corona, Enerr One 6S DCB, Enerr Tablette 6S, Enerr Transcenda Ultimate, Fidata HFU2, Melodika Purple Rain, Sennheiser HD 600, Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO, Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO, Meze 99 Classics, Bowers & Wilkins PX5, Pro-Ject Wallmount It 1, Custom Design RS 202, Silent Angel N8, Vicoustic VicWallpaper VMT, Vicoustic ViCloud VMT.
This review shows that there are so many underrated gems on the market, that audiophiles will never run out of interesting offerings to choose from. At first glance, Majistras are monitors like many. However, on closer examination, it turns out that this is a complex and highly original design, which from the outside may not look spectacular and innovative, but during listening, it behaves quite unusually - it does not pretend to be a three-way stand-alone set, but skillfully combines the advantages of monitors and floorstanders, giving the user enormous freedom, both in terms of repertoire or selection of accompanying equipment, as well as the placement of the speakers themselves. Outstanding flexibility in terms of placement, however, is only a prelude. It takes only a moment to realize that we are dealing with loudspeakers offering neutral, fast, dynamic, clear sound with a three-dimensional soundstage and excellent bass, which does not rumble or roll up the carpet, but when required, it goes as low as you need. The price is high, but after all, we are dealing with the second best monitor in Neat's catalog. If you're looking for monitors that can perform outstandingly regardless of the placement and overall acoustic conditions, give them a listen.
Speakers type: Stand-mounted, dynamic, isobaric/ported
Drivers: 2 x 17 cm, 1 x 60 mm
Sensitivity: 88 dB
Impedance: 4 Ω
Frequency response: 25 Hz - 40 kHz
Dimensions (H/W/D): 38/22/30 cm
Weight: 11 kg/piece
Manufacturer: Neat Acoustics