Neat Acoustics Majistra Standmount Speaker Review

Posted on 14th January, 2022

Neat Acoustics Majistra Standmount Speaker Review

David Price listens in to this highly innovative compact standmounter…

Neat Acoustics

Majistra Standmount Loudspeaker

£3,495

Eighteen months or so ago, Neat Acoustics released another one of its quirky small loudspeakers. Of course, I'm well aware that it also makes highly accomplished, full-size designs too, but I was always a huge fan of the tiny Iota – so was 'all ears' when it came to auditioning the Ministra. Lest we forget, this compact two-way standmounter uses both isobaric bass loading and a ribbon tweeter – two things that rarely go together!

Needless to say, I came away highly impressed. Now, the company has launched its bigger brother, the £3,495 Majistra. In the words of designer and Neat boss Bob Surgeoner: “There is essentially no design difference between the Ministra and the Majistra except size. The Ministra has an internal volume of circa ten litres; the Majistra is circa eighteen. Both models use the same types of drive units, just larger versions in the Majistra.” So there you have it – in car terms, this new speaker is the BMW 320i to the older one's 318i. At 380x220x290mm and 11kg apiece, the Majistra has definitely put on some pounds, but not that many (the Ministra is 300x170x290mm and 8kg).

Now it's time for me to let you into a secret. Whilst I love mini-monitors – I have tweaked versions of Linn's Kan, Videoton's Minimax and Wharfedale's original Diamond in my collection – I have generally found that the model up from the smallest speaker sounds better than the iconic range-starter. That's because a little more cabinet volume makes a very big difference to a speaker without many cubic centimetres to start with.

The Majistra doesn't look quite as cute and minimalist as the Ministra; suffice to say, it has filled out a bit. Yet you wouldn't say it's flabby in any way and has a certain purposefulness to its proportions. I particularly liked the matt white finish that my review pair came in, contrasting with the slightly unusually shaped front baffle. The front 165mm treated paper cone mid/bass unit isn't quite as wide as the latter will allow but still a fair bit bigger than the 134mm driver of the smaller speaker.

Of course, both speakers share isobaric loading, meaning there's an additional, identical driver inside the cabinet. It follows then that the gains from the larger drive unit will be disproportionately higher; Bob Surgeoner tells me that: “This type of loading makes the bass drive units behave as if they're housed in much larger internal volumes.”

As well as expanding the effective cone area of the loudspeaker significantly, another bonus of this type of loading is that it can be placed relatively close up against a boundary wall; I had my review pair just a few centimetres out into the room, without any adverse bass boom. For some people in some rooms, this will be a huge advantage. “The speaker is aimed at listeners who want a virtually full-range speaker but in a compact form. Because it can also be used close to the wall, it's quite discreet, which can help save marriages!” adds Bob.

Speak for yourself, mate! I shan't comment on its marital bliss-inducing properties. Still, its design certainly makes positioning easier – a fact further helped by the particular 50mm true ribbon tweeter that's fitted, which is way less directional than some I've heard over the years. But, again, this type of drive unit has its pros and cons. The former is that its super-light diaphragm has lower distortion and better linearity than practically any type of conventional dome tweeter available – regardless of whether it's a fabric or metal type.

One downside of ribbons is the difficulty of combining this type of tweeter with heavier moving-coil mid/bass units with very different mechanical, electrical and acoustic characteristics. It can be done, but not everyone does it well. Another is that some ribbons have less even dispersion characteristics than you'd think and/or lower sensitivity. This job is entrusted to a pretty minimalist crossover employing first and second-order slopes; its components are all hard-wired, point-to-point and said to be of premium audiophile quality. This includes high voltage polypropylene capacitors and low loss air-cored inductors. The action takes place at 3.5kHz, slightly lower than the Ministra's 4kHz.

“This particular ribbon gels very well with the bass/midrange unit”, claims Bob. He's used all manner of esoteric treble units before, over the years – EMIT Planar Magnetics, Air Motion Transformers – and for him, it's about what works, rather than a doctrinaire approach of using the 'intellectually correct' solution. “The tweeter defines the character and integrity of a loudspeaker, and matching a given tweeter to the ideal bass/midrange unit is one of the biggest challenges.” Being an electric and acoustic guitar player, double bass botherer and piano tinkler for over sixty years, he has a good ear for voicing.

Somewhat unfashionably these days, the cabinet is made by a Rotherham-based British company rather than being imported from the other side of the world. It uses high grade 18mm thick MDF with real wood veneer or paint finishes, and the positioning of the isobaric bass unit aids internal rigidity too. The single rear-firing port vents from behind the tweeter, with just a small air gap to the lower isobaric bass driver inside.

The result is a solid little box that has a dull and brief 'thunk' when you hit it with your knuckles. An MDF sub baffle at the front is attached to the main cabinet via a polyethylene membrane, which is said to dramatically reduce colouration. Finish is as good as any sane person could expect from a speaker of this price; standard ones are Natural Oak, American Walnut, Black Oak and Satin White.

One downside of isobaric loading is that it can make the speaker a pig to drive. The Ministra had a quoted sensitivity of 86dB/1w/1m, which I think is a tad on the generous side. You really need a muscular amp to get the best from it. I'm not saying it's as bad as the old Linn Sara though – a compact-sized isobaric standmount design that was such a tough load that it used to get the cooling fans of Naim's (then) flagship NAP135 power amps whirring like a Chinook helicopter!

The littlest Neat in this range is definitely a test of the mettle of the amp you're using, whereas this one isn't quite as fussy. The company also claims a sensitivity of 86dB for the Majistra – which again makes me query the Ministra's figure – and a nominal impedance of 4 ohms. Frequency response is listed as 25Hz to 40kHz, with no cut-off points given.

I used a number of power amps, from my World Audio K5881 valve design to a classic current-dumping Quad 909 and the latest Exposure 3510 integrated. It's just a shame I didn't still have the recently reviewed gazillion watt Rotel Michi X5 to hand, which I suspect would have picked up and shaken the Majistra like a rag doll. Because of its pretty smooth and neutral tonal balance, it's not too fussy about what amplifier you use, providing it can produce power and current in proper quantities.

THE LISTENING

Imagine the Ministra, and then turn it up to eleven – to use that old Spinal Tap analogy. The Majistra is a superb sounding smallish standmounter, with all the good points of its cheaper, more compact brother, minus its few failings. Admittedly, it's quite a bit of extra money to spend over the range starter, but you get a more confident, relaxed sound with broader shoulders – so to speak. Yet the new speaker retains its superb treble and physics-defying ability to produce large amounts of bass from a small box.

Best of all though, is that this new Neat is great fun to listen to. I've reviewed so many speakers over the years and often find that I have to acclimatise myself to them before I really 'get' what they're trying to do. But with the Majistra, it was just a case of sitting in front of them, pressing 'play' and enjoying myself. It has a remarkably easy and accessible nature, one that makes music enjoyable, natural and emotionally communicative. It doesn't amaze you with this or that special talent, just pulls your attention away from the speaker and into the music. Even in 2022, there are precious few designs that do this at or near its price.

What makes this musical immediacy and articulation possible is its glass-clear treble and midband, allied to a well-integrated and unobtrusive bass – plus excellent time-domain performance that ensures that the attack transients of instruments are briskly delivered. Take Tears For Fears' Head Over Heels, for example, which is a great, stomping mid-eighties pop song that's more than a little diminished by that era's digital recording technology. It's not the cleanest by modern standards, and through poor replay equipment, it can sound splashy and tonally rather grey. Via the Majistra, however, the track was surprisingly satisfying to listen to.

That superb ribbon tweeter plays a big part in this, giving one a clean, insightful feel for what's going on in the treble and midband. I loved the vibrant lead keyboard riff, and the speaker picked out the lustrous sound of a period Yamaha DX7 digital synth doing its stuff in the background. Despite the guys' voices sounding quite similar, I could easily discern Roland Orzabal taking the lead role and Curt Smith on backing vocal duties – and could pick-out producer Chris Hughes double-tracking the former on the choruses. Bass guitar was tuneful, taut and powerful, while the lead electric axe sounded crisp and direct.

This speaker is great at deconstructing dense pop mixes then, but its party trick is setting up a big groove and staying with it. Via the Neat, Head Over Heels was a real rocker – reminding me in some ways of Sowing The Seeds of Love that came out five or so years later. It did exactly the same with the pinched, new wave strains of Walk On By, by The Stranglers. The Majistra wasn't bothered by the gritty, grimy recording quality of this late seventies post-punk epic, preferring instead to go straight for the sinewy bassline and powerful rock drumming like a heat-seeking missile. It was huge fun to listen to, despite its revealing tweeter telling me how lo-fi the recording was. Still, it threw plenty of detail out – from the electric organ arpeggios to the cranked-up rhythm guitar.

Take the recording quality up a notch or three, and the Majistra can sound quite spectacular. It may be mid-eighties, but few have bettered the crystalline electronic sound of Kraftwerk's Techno Pop. The little Neat loved it, taking it as a chance to show off its remarkable detail resolving ability; I was struck by the ringing harmonics of some of the synthesised sounds, allied to the Swiss train-like rhythmic precision. This is a heavily beat-driven track, with all its various sound effects syncopated ultra tightly to give an engrossing sound – providing the system is up to the job. This speaker dived in and had a ball, showing its brilliant combination of detail retrieval, insight, and superb timing – no doubt aided by that ultra-light tweeter diaphragm.

Better still, when I really turned the volume up, the Majistra held things together more than any speaker I've heard of equivalent size. True to the isobaric design, it gave out vast tracts of controlled bass that would have many floorstanders congratulating themselves. Although it went down surprisingly low, the really impressive thing was the overall ease. Here it was a big improvement over the Ministra; the latter does great for something with a small cabinet, but the Majistra does more than proportionately better. I had just been auditioning Spendor's very large, wide-baffle Classic 1/2 standmounter and really didn't notice any shortfall in the bottom end, compared even to this. With the Kraftwerk track, it kept punching hard, showing few signs of breathlessness even at high volumes and no unwanted boom or overhang.

Despite it being a super-athletic performer that's able to move surprising amounts of air around the room while playing Kraftwerk, I was actually happiest listening to the Majistra when chilling to some jazz. This was down to the aforementioned rhythmic dexterity, tonal purity and also soundstaging. This speaker images very well indeed, again something that's largely a function of that tweeter – which is the gift that keeps on giving.

Herbie Hancock's I Have a Dream – the first track from his seminal 1969 album The Prisoner – was a delight. The Majistra set up a huge soundstage, capturing all the space of the Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey; inside this capacious recorded acoustic, I could hear each instrument located with pin-sharp precision. Hancock's piano was placed firmly in the centre along with the double bass, with the drum kit to the far right and brass across to the left. It was a highly immersive sound and blessed with a good deal of depth. The trumpet solo soared around delightfully, followed by and delicious-sounding saxophone. Instrumental timbre is quite something on this speaker, almost as special as its spatiality.

THE VERDICT

Like any other speaker at this price, Neat's new Majistra isn't perfect – but what it does, it does brilliantly and never draws attention to its relatively few limitations. The result is a smallish standmounter that's hugely capable in musical terms and also excellent in a hi-fi sense, too – for example, in its ability to excavate detail from a recording or reproduce the space of the recorded acoustic. Above all, though, it's a really charming listen, able to squeeze so many of the good bits from pretty much any genre and/or recording you give it and make the music magic.

Visit Neat Acoustics for more information

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      David Price's avatar

      David Price

      David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.

      Posted in:Hi-Fi Loudspeakers Bookshelf / Standmount Applause Awards 2022
      Tags: neat acoustics 

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