Acoustics produced its first loudspeaker back in 1989. That unassuming-looking
but ground-breaking model, the Petite, quickly became my 'reference' compact,
high-end, two-way. It has retained that position for more than two decades.
While the latest mark for iteration, the Petite SX, has replaced the somewhat
utilitarian looking original, with its almost bitumen-like finished cabinet,
little else certainly nothing fundamental has changed in all that
time... except the price, of course.
NEAT: The Ultimatum XLS
Aside from all the technical and constructional
excellence, what has made me such a devoted fan of these designs is their
musical performance, which is little short of spell-binding. They simply blend
all the vital attributes necessary to present music in the most plausible and
engaging manner one can imagine. The fact that the designer is an active
semi-pro, multi-instrumental musician, and his right hand-man is a gifted
guitarist, song writer, and recording engineer coupled with them having a
recording studio set-up in their factory probably goes a long way towards
explaining why their speakers communicate so convincingly.
The XLS comes with two pairs of terminals to
allow bi-wiring or, preferably, bi-amplification. They are not a 'difficult'
load with a quoted 87dB/W/m sensitivity and a minimum impedance of four Ohms
and can be driven easily by even a small, say 30W, integrated amplifier,
provided it can handle a low impedance load. However, they seem to thrive when
bi-amplified using, in my case, a pair of Naim NAP 250 power amplifiers. Regardless,
their performance was entirely satisfactory with a modest Naim SUPERNAIT/Hi-Cap
combination single-wired with Tellurium Ultra Black loudspeaker cables. I say
all this having lived for the past 15 years or more with an active loudspeaker
set-up, which tends to foster dissatisfaction with passive loudspeakers for
their tendency towards time-smearing. The Ultimatums do not have that problem
and I can listen to them for hours on end without becoming aware of any annoying
Helping keep things clean, undoubtedly, is the
minimalist, four-element crossover network the XLS employs. This uses precise
tolerance components low-loss air cored inductors, and Polypropylene film
and foil capacitors along with some damping and attenuating resistors.
First-order slopes and mechanical roll-offs encourage what NEAT refers to as "a
natural, uninhibited" performance.
One unexpected inclusion on the XLS, for me at
least, are the upward-facing 'super-tweeters'. Previously such devices have
struck me as coming decidedly from the smoke and mirrors school of hi-fi design.
NEAT explains that their output, which extends to 40kHz and, although extremely
quiet to inaudible, affects the content within the audible frequency spectrum
and "lends an open, airy quality to the presentation." If this sounds
implausible it is sufficiently easy to prove or disprove this assertion: place a
cushion on the top face of each cabinet and take a listen. The music adopts a
slightly dulled character and the stereo imagery suffers a noticeable loss of
ambience, vitality and air.
In order to maintain its timing and imaging
precision, the XLS must be supported byo a suitable loudspeaker stand. I used
the dedicated 24-inches tall, $1425,slate-based and laminated steel topped, four
pillar model, which provided a suitably stable and inert platform for the
speaker. I attached the speaker to this with a thin wad of Blu-Tack putty in
each corner. The stands and speakers then needed careful placement in the
listening room. Fine adjustments an inch or two of movement or a slight
change in the angle of toe-in can exert a surprising degree of influence
over the performance, so it is worth spending some time finding the ideal
position for them in your particular environment. In my room I placed them just
over eighteen inches away from the rear boundary and approximately twice that
distance from the side walls. They were toed-in so that I could just see the
inner cabinet walls from my listening position. When you find the ideal spot,
the stereo image gels like the image in a camera lens when it is focused
precisely. At that point it is time to get out your wrench, get down on the
floor, and adjust and firmly tighten the spikes to remove any vestige no
matter how slight of rocking in the assembly.
Once set-up it is time to enjoy a little musical
magic. The XLS deserves a particularly fine source and the best amplification. I
used a Naim HDX-SSD hard disk player drawing music from a home-built NAS unit
running Asset UPnP software on top of Windows XP, feeding my Naim DAC and
multiple-amplified Naim system wired to the speakers with the highly revealing
Tellurium Ultra Black speaker cable. All the electronics were supported by
Quadraspire Sunoko Vent stands.
This cleanliness leaves the midrange rather exposed without
any cloying warmth to take the harsh edge off voices and harmonicas , for
example: Bob Dylan fans, in particular, will need to be meticulously
careful about setting up this speaker: try using his vocal on the track Spirit
on the Water from his album Modern
Times to assist with the process. His nasality should not provoke you
to throw things at the loudspeakers: if it does, try repositioning them and
adjusting the toe-in more carefully.
Songs such as Hide and Seek
from Imogen Heap's album Speak for Yourself
with its heavily processed, multi-tracked vocals demonstrated that the XLS was
equally dexterous at the opposite end of the frequency spectrum: the high
frequencies had energy in abundance but were kept under strict control. Even her
breathing was explicitly portrayed without imparting any harshness to the
Similarly, the XLS excelled with exposing phrasing subtleties
on albums such as über- expressive vocalist ,Sia's Lady
Croissant and Van Morrison's Too
Long in Exile. This facility turns a song that is enjoyable on any
other speaker into one that is truly mesmerizing and emotionally moving.
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