When’s the last time you’ve heard a loudspeaker, such as the Neat Acoustics Ministra, with an isobaric woofer design? It’s been a while for me, too, but I recall two relatively small monitors from years ago that featured two woofers, one hidden inside the enclosure behind the other. I was impressed both times, and I thought maybe the isobaric design was gonna the next big thing for bookshelf speakers.
First was the Linn Sara, and I almost pulled the trigger just because I really wanted a Linn LP12 Sondek but couldn’t afford it, so it seemed like the next best way to get that marque in my home. Yeah, I finally got a Linn in the system. The second was the Totem Acoustic Mani-2, which was one of those slightly larger than average monitors that seemed expensive until you heard it and started poking around the room for the hidden subwoofer. The third time, presently, is with the Neat Acoustics Ministra loudspeakers.
Words and Photos by Marc Phillips
“It has an isobaric woofer,” Richard Colburn of Fidelis Distribution told me when he first suggested I take a listen. Under his breath he added, “and it’s really good.” The price for the Neat Acoustics Ministra surprised me, however, at just $2,849 per pair USD. I thought it would be more–one of the stated disadvantages of isobaric designs is the increased cost.
I had to stop and think about all things isobaric for a moment. It’s been so long since I’ve last heard the word isobaric in audio that I needed a refresher on the design specifics. Why would you do such a thing to a loudspeaker, and why isn’t it more common than it is? I truly enjoyed both the Linns and Totems but when did I last hear them, the ‘90s? Maybe before that? So yes, I wanted to try out the Neat Acoustics Ministra for that reason, and also for the basic reason is that I’ve heard many Neat speakers over the years, and they should be included in any serious discussion of British hi-fi. I’ve never been disappointed in the sound from this enduring loudspeaker brand.
Over the years, it seemed that North American interest in Neat Acoustics had its ebbs and flows, but that often says more about the fragile business models for importing and distributing high-end audio than the actual quality of the product. I still know dealers who carry Neat Acoustics, swear by it, and they wondered why more audiophiles weren’t in on the secret. All of that should change considerably with Fidelis Distribution now bringing their expertise to importing Neat Acoustics in the US.
Inside the Neat Acoustics Ministra
This is one time where I would love to go inside and have a look around. It almost seems like a shame that the second woofer will never be seen by its owner, unless the owner is one of those people who will void a warranty in the service of scientific curiosity. Without knowledge of that hidden driver, you might think the Neat Acoustics Ministra is another small British monitor in the classic mold–especially when you see the precise wood screw placement on the back panel and you think of another British speaker manufacturer that is also imported and distributed in the US by Fidelis.
The Neat Acoustics Ministra is the bookshelf version of the Ekstra, an elegant floorstander that uses the isobaric woofer arrangement for the down-firing drivers on the bottom, and the same 134mm treated paper cone woofer and 50mm ribbon tweeters. Both speakers are part of NEAT’s Strata line, which also includes the large bookshelf Majistra and the larger floor-standing Orkestra.
Isobaric woofer configurations aren’t necessarily designed to get you 20 Hz in your listening room or to perform miracles in small listening rooms. That second woofer handles the air pressure inside the enclosure so that it’s more stable, which in turn causes the drivers to perform as if they’re in a larger enclosure. Many isobaric designs do offer improvements in bass extension and dynamics, but the main attraction is the way two woofers can share duties and operate more efficiently.
The Neat Acoustics Ministra has a 86dB sensitivity with a 4-ohm impedance. That seems like a spec that’s on the cusp of being fairly challenging to drive, but I had no issues with getting decent SPLs in the room. Finishes include Natural Oak, Black Oak, Satin White and American walnut; the review pair arrived with the latter. The level of fit and finish is superb, by the way, if a little understated–just how I like my British two-way monitors.
Isobarik woofers did not really affect my placement of the Neat Acoustics Ministra in my listening room, and I had no problem getting tight and focused bass from them without triggering any of those bass nodes that lurk in the corners of the room. Neat Acoustics states that the Ministras should be placed close to the back wall. Still, my placement wound up roughly in the normal zone, about two feet from the back wall, where a large majority of review speakers with rear-facing ports wind up. I preferred a slight toe-in aimed at crossing slightly behind my head in the listening position.
I also placed the Ministras on the granite Acora Acoustics SRS-G stands for even tighter and more extended low frequencies. It’s been a while since I was able to use the SRS-Gs since most of the monitors I’ve had in lately are either large enough to prefer 24″ stands or less, or they come with dedicated stands. Then again, the Acoras were my perfect stands for the Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a MoFis I had in here last year, and now we have another speaker, baffle-wise, that’s around the same size. (Foreshadowing alert!) The top plate of the SRS-Gs is still a little wide for the Ministras–the Falcons covered even less due to the shallow cabinet dimensions of this iconic design–but there was no doubt that the Acoras continue to provide added weight to the sound of every small monitor it supports.
Most of the amplification I’ve been using is the high-powered sort, primarily class D. (I think the Neat Acoustics Ministra would be a fantastic match with the tubed Lab12 Integre4 integrated amp, something that Richard Colburn has already confirmed for me.) We’re talking, of course, about the Bel Canto Design e1X and the Aavik U-280 integrated amps, both with 300 watts per channel. I did have a chance to use the Ministras with my Pureaudio Duo2 power amplifier, which can be run in pure class A with 25 wpc. Also, I’m still playing around with that older Ayre V-3 power amp, which sounds great to my ears and offers 150 wpc.
Speaker cables ran the gamut, from my “workhorse” AudioQuest Rocket33s at just $300 per pair to the Ansuz Speakz C2s at $9,200 per pair.
Neat Acoustics Ministra Sound
The Neat Acoustics Ministra shared my listening room with a number of two-way monitors that had far wider frequency responses and far bigger price tags, so it seems unfair to bring them up at all. The Ministras, however, only had one real sonic disadvantage from those compact overachievers, and that was the overall size of the presentation. I didn’t have any issues with tonality, or imaging, or almost anything else I need from a quality bookshelf monitor. But the Ministras didn’t quite make the leap into the seemingly impossible realm of sounding like a much bigger speaker that can fill a large room with energy.
That’s all right, though. Very few bookshelves can accomplish that, and none of them sound like a British monitor, which is the point here. None of them cost anywhere close to $3,000 per pair, either. But when I talk to audiophiles who eschew small speaker designs because they need a certain threshold of scale to be crossed, I get it.
Yes, I am talking about a slight yet expected reduction in the perimeters of the soundstage. What I heard consistently with the Neat Acoustics Ministra was perhaps of seven-eighths scale presentation of those precious diminutive boxes with the five figure prices. So I quickly refocused on everything else the Ministras were doing, which was quite amazing. The first word that popped into my head during listening sessions was “refined,” which is sort of a catch-all word some of us use to define Brit-fi sound. But the Neat Acoustics Ministra was almost rare in its refinement, especially in the way it presented details in a completely logical and mindful way.
Isobaric woofer configurations, I’ve implied, do some things astonishingly well, but I’ve almost been conditioned to think about quantity over quality. It’s not about how low we can go with isobaric woofers, but whether those low frequencies are under control. The Ministras made those priorities clear by producing some of the tightest bass I’ve heard from a two-way. It didn’t try to reach too low, where its urgency would possibly fade away, but it does anchor the low frequency energy in a way you can sense in multiple ways.
What the Neat Acoustics Ministra does is this: it reminds me of why I became such a fan of British monitors in the first place. I started noticing its strengths, such as the very refined and slightly British sound, coupled with a pure and honest midrange that regularly tricks you into thinking you’re not alone in the room. Here I was, staring at the Neats head-on, and it suddenly occurred to me that the front baffles were roughly the same size as the LS3/5a, even though the cabinets are about twice as deep—a modern conceit among designers who are inspired by the BBC designs yet worried about those shallow cabinets in this day and age.
Once I sorted that all out, the Neat Acoustics Ministras really clicked for me. The Neats might throw out an overall smaller projection, but the tonality, the sheer rightness of the music, shoves those concerns into the back of the room. The secret to distracting the LS3/5a listener is to bring the seating position closer to nearfield, and to juice up the lower midrange and upper bass range with a slower roll-off. The Neats behaved a little differently, mostly because they can go a lot lower than 70Hz and don’t need to be voiced in a certain way to capture the listener’s attention. But they did like nearfield listening, and the space between the speakers opened up and soundstage depth increased dramatically.
The 50mm true ribbon tweeter in the Ministra is perhaps another uncommon ingredient in the classic Brit-fi recipe, although I know plenty of loudspeaker designers who were once influenced by the BBC but now have abandoned the soft-dome. In the past, Neat has built a number of loudspeakers that use ribbon tweeters, sourced from all over, but never in an isobaric design. These combination of these two design elements is, as far as I know, the truly unique part about the Ministra. That’s why it sounds unique, but surprisingly familiar in a few key ways.
The Neat Acoustics Ministra, therefore, sounds a lot like many classic BBC loudspeaker designs that can give you a big chunk of everything you need in realistic living spaces, with a few less restrictions when it comes to listening the music you enjoy. It’s a little bit LS3/5a, a little bit Harbeth Compact 7, but it’s also a Neat Acoustics Ministra and knows when to assert its distinct personality.
Whenever I’m listening to British monitors like the Neat Acoustics Ministra, I tend to dive into mostly acoustic recordings. This is not a dig at a British monitor’s ability to jam, but rather the fact that I’m drawn to acoustic guitars all of the sudden, or anything else that sounds appropriately feathery. Plus, I happened to have a large selection of dreamy, atmospheric music scattered around the listening space right now.
As 2022 limped to its conclusion, I surprised myself with my choice for the best album of the year–Barry Coates, Jim Haslip and Jerry Kalaf’s New Dreams. It’s a gorgeous, tight and introspective jazz guitar trio that always seems to be stripped down a little further than most in terms of content as if the ensemble started off as a quartet but someone called in sick. What winds up happening, for me at least, is that my mind starts filling in the gaps with ideas, resulting in an album that sounds a little different each time I take a listen.
The Neat Acoustics Ministra speakers, however, captured everything from the performance, balancing Haslip’s deep and emphatic bass attack with the constant shimmering that bounces off Kalaf’s cymbals. I’ve had larger speakers make too big of a deal about those prominent, almost startling bass proclamations, but the Ministras made them sound natural and balanced between the percussion and the dreamy guitars.
The Ministras also provided a bit of magic with Hilary Hahn’s new album, Eclipse, where she takes on the Dvorak Violin Concerto. I thought it might be risky to ask the Neats to deliver the impact of a well-recorded symphony orchestra–the amazing Frankfurt Radio Symphony–I suspected that it might not be big enough. It was, however, which spotlights the Neat Acoustics Ministras skill at providing the right balance and weight with all types of music within reason.
Did the Neat Acoustics Ministra admit its real size when I introduced the bombastic version of myself in another marathon of Tool, Swans, System of a Down, and even a Yulunga Test or two? Sort of, but not in the usual mini-monitor manner. Some monitors instantly harden up when you crank up the party tunes, and that’s when you realize you’ve pegged the meters on some innocent little speaker. The Ministras didn’t do this at all–and that’s undoubtedly the contribution of the isobaric woofer design.
For so many years I listened to British two-way monitors, adapting my own musical tastes to their abilities, and that’s when I ditched Zep and Pink Floyd for string quartets and jazz trios. If I had stumbled upon the Ministras back then, I could have had it all, including an eviction notice from my landlord. I had no problem getting the Neat Acoustics Ministras to play loud–not insanely so, of course, but enough for me to believe that I was hearing all the things I needed to hear.
Neat Acoustics Ministra Conclusions
I’ve mentioned many times that I still love to review small monitors in the $3,000 price range because that’s where I used to roam during most of my audiophile journey. Much of my audiophile heart, in fact, still lives back there.
In those days, you could still buy a quality British speaker like the Harbeth Monitor 30 or a ProAc Response D2 or a Spendor SP2/3 for around that much. Not now. The very idea that the Neat Acoustics Ministra can be had for less than $3,000 per pair and still supply those legendary Brit-fi strengths such as realism through the mid-band and a familiar warmth that just eases your mind any time of the day–well, that’s what British hi-fi is all about, innit? It’s a tasteful application of the things that matter most.
As for the isobaric woofer design of the Neat Acoustics Ministra, I think it’s a success on multiple levels. I do wonder what the same speaker, with a single woofer, would sound like in comparison. (I also wonder at what point the larger speakers in the Strata line dissolve that final barrier of the overall size of the soundstage–I bet it’s not far away.) The Ministra wasn’t the usual tiny speaker with amazing bass, but rather a small speaker that brought gorgeous tonality and a natural balance that just sounded right in my head, over and over.
I recall that one of Andrew Jones’s bookshelf speaker designs for Elac had such a woofer configuration.
Should try Wilson Benesch speakers, they’re all using isobaric bass. And they’re amazing.