Neat Acoustics Ministra Bookshelf Loudspeakers Review
This technologically innovative little standmounter is a new rose among small speakers, says David Price…
Ministra Bookshelf Speakers
AUD $3,300 RRP
A hi-fi manufacturer is only as good as its products. Of course, grand brands sensibly trade off their heritage – but ultimately if something sounds good, it should sell regardless. That is what has kept Neat in business over the years – founder Bob Surgeoner is a passionate guitarist who started a company to make speakers he personally wanted to hear. Since then, his authentic, no-nonsense approach has won him many ardent fans.
Bob has played electric and acoustic guitar, double bass and piano since the late nineteen sixties – and is also an experienced recording engineer – so he continues to produce loudspeakers that have a distinctively engaging and live feel. His designs are benchmarked from his own reference live recordings, among others, and the result is a distinctive family sound. Newest to the ranks is the new AUD $3,300 RRP Ministra, which has some interesting design flourishes which – to my ears – set it apart from even the best of its market rivals.
Simply put, the Ministra is one of the most technically complex and unconventional affordable standmounters around, because it blends a ribbon tweeter with isobaric bass loading. “I'm not one hundred percent sure,” says Bob, “but along with its Ekstra floorstanding big brother, it may be the only production speaker in the world to combine both of those elements.”
Neat has used 'true' ribbons in prototypes of its more expensive speakers before, but these were never incorporated into production versions – but “this particular ribbon happened to gel very well with the bass/midrange unit”, Bob explains. “The idea of combining isobaric loading with a ribbon tweeter was introduced with the Ministra's big brother, the floorstanding Ekstra. This was very successful, so it seemed a logical step to devise a bookshelf version using the same ingredients…”
Neat has used variants of ribbon tweeters in various models, going back to the nineties – such as EMIT Planar Magnetics, Air Motion Transformers etc., as well as conventional dome tweeters. “All such drivers have their own pros and cons,” he points out, “and it's all dependent on the context, but I try to get a natural organic presentation rather than an over-analytical performance. For me, 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.”
The Ministra marries a 50mm true ribbon tweeter to two 134mm treated paper cone mid/bass drivers in a very compact 300x170x290mm cabinet that weighs 8kg. Bob sources drive units from all around the world – Denmark, Norway, Germany, USA, the Far East, and sometimes uses his own designs. “I like the speed and agility of a good treated paper cone, and those we use in the Ministra are an exceptionally good design for a modest cost”, he explains. The drivers are married together by “a relatively simple three-element network”, that crosses over at 4kHz.
The Ministra's cabinet is made by a company in Rotherham, UK, using high grade 18mm thick MDF with real wood veneer or paint finishes. It's automatically braced inside, as Bob puts it, due to the positioning of the internal isobaric bass unit. “We've taken unorthodox solutions to bass drivers since our very first Petite in 1990. Isobaric loading helps the speaker deliver deeper and more controlled bass, and using it allows the loudspeaker to seem much bigger than its size would suggest. Aside from the extra time it takes to get the alignment right in a new design, I don't find that it creates any problems at all.”
The cabinet sports a small reflex port which Bob intriguingly says is more like a “controlled leak”! The Ministra is a boundary design, intended for discreet close-to-wall placement. “It also pinches a useful feature from the Ultimatum range. The front-drive units are mounted on an MDF sub-baffle which is attached to the cabinet via a polyethylene membrane. This dramatically reduces cabinet colouration”, Bob adds.
The Ministra is a very well made little loudspeaker, and not showy or flashy in appearance. The front baffle treatment is interesting and attractive, and the overall feel is of quality despite a less glitzy finish than some rivals. The company claims it has a sensitivity of 86dB/1 watt/1 metre, which is good for a small isobaric design. At this point, I am reminded of the classic late seventies Linn Sara whose combination of poor sensitivity and low impedance – thanks to its isobaric design, infinite baffle loading and heavy Bextrene-coned KEF B200 drivers would regularly trigger the cooling fans of Naim NAP135 power amps!
No such issues with the Ministra, as its nominal quoted impedance of 6 ohms is less cruel than it could be. Bob says it drops down to 4 ohms minimum; the isobaric units are said to be 8 ohms, but wired in parallel thus giving largely a resistive load. This means that any modern solid-state amplifier of over 40W RMS per channel should cope well, but ideally, you'd want something with a bit more grunt – especially if you have a medium-sized, rather than a small, room. I paired it up to several amps, but mostly used an Exposure 3010s-2d integrated for the review period, fed by a Chord Electronics Hugo TT2 DAC and assorted digital sources. This system proved to be a great synergistic match.
Over the past year or two, a number of exceptionally good small standmounters have appeared on the market. To these ranks, we must now add the new Neat Ministra. Whether it's “the best” or not is down to personal taste, but it's certainly first among equals at the price, and of some designs costing a good deal more.
Right now, for me, there are two stellar standmounters under $3,500. One is the $2,050 Acoustic Energy AE500, and the other is the $3,290 Monitor Audio Gold 100. Both punch way above their respective weights, and now the new Neat Ministra pulls off the same trick – but for a little more money. Sonically, it takes much (but not all) that's great about both aforementioned designs and adds its own magic. For example, it's peppy and fun like the AE, and smooth, civilised and detailed like the Monitor Audio. It's not quite as much fun as the former, and not quite as svelte as the latter, but treads a fine line between the two and adds one additional thing – a lovely, expressive, textured bass that's considerably better than both.
Boiling the Ministra's sound down to its bare essentials, I'd say it's the combination of frequency-domain balance and time-domain prowess that makes it special. By this I mean it's tonally even – indeed it's actually a little on the sumptuous side – and it's also seriously rhythmically snappy. Often you get one or the other but rarely do you get both, especially at this price. As the silky soul music of Bobby Womack's Across 110th Street showed me, it has a commendably smooth tonality that doesn't suck the colour out of a recording (assuming it's there in the first place), yet it's got a great natural groove. Music just flows along enjoyably, without it sounding overly frantic or unnaturally slow.
Tonally, it doesn't make everything it plays sound like it was recorded in the same studio. The spiky ska of The Specials' Ghost Town comes across with a different texture to the sleek soul/funk of George Benson's Give Me The Night, for example. The Ministra tells the listener in no uncertain terms that there's a slight mid-forwardness to Terry Hall's vocals on this classic Specials track. At the same time, you can hear the mastering engineer on the George Benson track has pushed up the fader on the upper bass for example, and the great man's voice is slightly more recessed than perhaps it should be – considering how silky smooth it already is. This is a trick that some speakers at five or six times the Neat's price fail to pull off – and it's a testament to the quality of the drive units and a cabinet that's stiff enough to let them do their job properly.
In absolute terms, you can hear the cabinets joining in the fun – especially at higher volumes. Yet they intervene in a subtle and linear way, introducing a touch of upper bass bloom and a subtle woody colouration in the midband that really isn't intrusive. Every other price rival of the Ministra does this to an extent too, usually more. And it's surprising how loud you can push this teensy standmounter without it keeling over and falling apart – again this reminds us that at this price it's a class act.
Although its largely natural tone is most welcome, that doesn't mean the Ministra is overly analytical – quite the opposite in fact. With its very light diaphragm, that ribbon tweeter has super-fast transients and catches the leading edges of notes impressively deftly. Indeed, put it against any small speaker with a standard dome tweeter and the latter doesn't come out of the comparison well. I love the aforementioned Acoustic Energy AE500 for example, but the Ministra shows its tweeter up as being slow by comparison. The excellent Monitor Audio Gold 100 does much better here with its super-light micro pleated diaphragm tweeter but sounds a tad overdamped. That the Neat can outpoint these two favourites, is quite a thing.
What this means is a lovely, open high frequency and upper midband performance. The Association's Along Comes Mary is a sixties psychedelic pop classic and although a dated recording has lots of energy and some sparkling tambourine work. The Ministra lapped all this up, giving a really expressive feel to the vocal harmonies, an edgy, raw timbre to the rhythm guitar and – perhaps most surprisingly – a really crisp and percussive rendering of that big fat, bass guitar sound. I suspect this is all down to the magic that the Neat's super-fast tweeter is working; because of its rapid handling of harmonics, instruments down the scale are made to sound faster and tauter than they could otherwise be.
Moving back to basics, and this little loudspeaker's bass response is exceptionally good given its size and price. The usual caveats must appear here – it's just a little tiddler that can't hold a candle to any of the loudspeaker world's big (and expensive) beasts. Yet like its treble and midband, the Ministra's bass really hits the spot somehow. It's not faultless – being ever so slightly soft around the edges, for example – yet it is very tuneful and has a dynamic articulation that belies its diminutive dimensions.
The acid test of any small standmounter is to see if it changes its character when you play it really loud. I was quite taken by how things did not start to descend into chaos at this point – unlike many of its similarly sized price rivals, it is not skilled at the art of falling apart. Indeed when given a big bassline, the Ministra keeps driving hard and punching out low frequencies. The thunderous introduction to Kraftwerk's Man Machine has some seismic electronic bass right at its heart, so is a stern test of any speaker's bottom end. It would be dishonest to say the little Neat can outgun a large floorstander on programme material such as this, but someone has obviously forgotten to remind it of its small stature nevertheless – it stayed articulate at far higher levels than you'd reasonably expect.
Soundstaging was excellent, although the Ministra proved sensitive to both running in (it needs a good hundred hours or so) and to warming up. When suitably settled in, this little box again belied its small size to throw out a most capacious stereo image. I really enjoyed the super-precise image placement with Japan's Quiet Life. This synth-driven new romantic classic is very well recorded, and I heard a panoramic recorded acoustic that pulled me right in. Stage depth wasn't quite as impressive but was still seriously capable at the investment price being asked – so it would be churlish to complain. Overall then, whatever music I threw at this small speaker, it just kept on getting into the groove, making music magic and surprising me with its dimension-defying performance.
Whether you're after your first serious standmounter or downsizing from a big box but cannot live without realistic sounding music, Neat's Ministra is an essential audition. With its wonderfully open, informative and enjoyable sound, right now it's the class of the sub-$3,500 field – and any prospective purchaser of small speakers should hear it if they possibly can. Thanks to its excellent packaging, classy drive units and isobaric loading it shows that sometimes, less can actually be more.
For more information, visit Neat Acoustics.
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.