Bob Surgeoner, Neat Acoustics Ltd.

Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers
Bob Surgeoner, Neat Acoustics Ltd.

Did your interest in the high end emerge from the music side or the electronics side?
It was a love of music that first caused me to become interested in the quality of sound reproduction and, eventually, the high end.

How do you define the difference between hi-fi and high-end audio?
It might be counter-intuitive for a loudspeaker designer to say this, but I can derive enjoyment from even the lowest-fi systems when listening to a piece of music that I love. The music itself is the most important element, and the elusive trick for hi-fi is to optimize musical information without exposing the artifice by which it is delivered.

That is perhaps where the high end comes in. The term seems to suggest the embodiment of cutting-edge technological achievement, state-of-the-art performance, and/or the most expensive parts and build-quality available. But I would define the high end more simply as the type of products that draws the listener into the atmosphere and purpose of the performance in a way that, although different, is just as profound as a live musical experience. Some of those products might be the most expensive available and employ cutting-edge technology, but not always.

Do you recall your first high-end system?
My first “real” system was a mono Quad 22/II tube system with a Goldring turntable and a Tannoy Canterbury corner loudspeaker fitted with a 12" Monitor Red drive unit. It was a really involving system and made me question the value of stereo for a while. My first high-end system in the more conventional sense was Oracle Dephi/ Mark Levinson ML9/ML10 and Magnaplanar MG3B speakers in the mid-1980s.

What kind of education did you receive?
At the age of eleven I won a scholarship to a grammar/technical school and then went on to an apprenticeship in a local musical instrument factory. They made classical guitars, violins, and cellos. I’d already started playing guitar with local bands by then, and gradually I distanced myself from my proper job and became a full-time musician. I had originally taught myself to play guitar, and then piano, banjo, doublebass, and accordion. I still enjoy exploring new instruments.

How did you decide to call the company "Neat?"
It just followed from the initial letters of the shop which I’d opened in 1989 in the north of England, “North Eastern Audio Traders” became Neat Hi-Fi and, subsequently, Neat Acoustics. The word “Neat” has a slightly different meaning in the UK, and it works slightly better as a brand name in the U.S.

How does having a company full of musicians inform your goals as speaker designers?
Of course, being a musician doesn’t automatically qualify you for designing loudspeakers. There is some research that indicates that learning a musical instrument increases hearing acuity; other research indicates that musical training increases the ability to “hear” a missing fundamental frequency. This could be a potential disadvantage in designing a loudspeaker! In so far as the designers (myself and Paul Ryder) are regularly exposed to how real instruments sound in differing rooms and acoustic environments, we have a consistent reference to some kind of “truth.” Neat loudspeakers are all tuned and voiced by ear, allowing music itself to shape the design. Paul is a good deal younger than I am, and has his own feelings about music and sound. When we converge and agree that a new design is delivering something of value to both of us, it usually translates to success.

Analog or digital—do you have a preference and why?
Analog for me, though I’ve heard some very convincing digital reproduction. Each can be very persuasive in the right circumstances, but when I listen to analog on tape or vinyl it just seems more natural and complete to my ears.

How do you account for the staying power of LP analog playback in a digital world?
It’s encouraging that a significant part of the vinyl resurgence seems to be due to younger people adopting it, maybe as part of a new kind of counter-culture. Other than the performance, it’s probably a reaction to the impersonal nature of digital media generally, and MP3s in particular. There is something special about owning music as something tangible, particularly an LP, with its sleeve, artwork, and the idea that the grooves themselves are actually a physical representation of a performance.

Going forward, What are the greatest challenges confronting the high end?
The greatest challenge is to prevent normal people from thinking we’ve all gone insane! Otherwise it’s how to market high-end audio so it might be perceived as being just as desirable as high-end cars, watches, etc.