We doubt for many people reading this that nearly four grand going missing from their bank account is likely to go unnoticed, so performance gains at this price need to be matched by versatility.
Luckily, the Cambridge Azur 851N streamer has us covered on both counts. As well as its full-bodied, spacious sonic performance, the Azur 851N doubles as a preamplifier and can plug straight into a power amp thanks to a volume output controlled by a 32-bit Blackfin digital signal processor.
Music signals pass through two 24-bit Analog Devices DACS in dual differential mode, meaning lower levels of distortion and noise giving, we hope, better sound.
Connections are plentiful too – there’s a pair of coaxials and opticals and three USB inputs, as well as an AES/EBU input – and in terms of build it’s more Hulk than Popeye to look at.
Muscle with finesse
The Azur 851N delivers a muscular, full-bodied presentation, lathered in enthusiastic drive, bone-rattling punch and class-leading insight. Despite this, everything is served with extra helpings of expression and dynamic skill, not to mention extra space.
It’s punctual, decisive and quick on its feet with the fluctuating tempo too; rhythmic cadence and precision comes to the fore. With balance on point, there’s punch and depth down low and sparkling bite up top, with all-you-caneat solidity fleshing out a clear and articulate midrange.
Such an articulate source needs its detailed and rhythmic performance matched along the chain, and in the Rega Elex-r the 851N finds an ideal bedmate.
Think of this integrated amp as a more muscular Brio and you’ll be pretty close to the mark. By using that as a base, and adding circuitry from the talented Elicit-r into the mix, Rega has created one of the most talented amplifiers we’ve heard at this price.
As well as its muscle, like the Azur 851N the Elex-r delivers a fast, agile sound that’s as rhythmically surefooted as we’ve heard at this level – and that can’t be stressed enough.
And even if all you want is a traditional stereo amp, it remains on sure ground. There are no digital inputs; instead you get a good-quality moving magnet phono stage, one that’s talented enough to make the most of £1000 turntable packages, such as Clearaudio’s Concept.
There’s no value in such an entertaining performance from your source and amplifier if you’re going to dampen it with your speakers, of course. No chance of that happening with Neat’s Iota Alphas, however. They sound as fun as they look. They’re odd-looking things, thanks to the mixture of knee-high stature and strangely angled appearance, but they are as expressive as they come and time just as well. A 50mm Emit magnetic/planar tweeter sits alongside a 10cm polypropylene mid/bass unit. They’re in a sealed compartment in an effort to help integration with the downward-facing 13.5cm pulp paper bass unit. Bass is augmented by a rear-firing port.
The three drivers are linked through a relatively simple crossover that uses first- and second-order slopes for filtering. All the components are hard-wired to maintain sonic integrity, and include Mundorf capacitors and air core inductors.
There are some distinctive spikes in the packaging. You’ll need these because they set the gap between bass driver and floor, and so to a large extent govern the quality of the low frequencies.
A different angle
If you were thinking short speakers mean a soundstage aimed at your knees, you’d be wrong. That angled baffle helps throw the sound upward, resulting in a surprisingly expansive and spacious presentation that wouldn’t be out of place from rivals twice the height. There’s a good amount of precision here, and the presentation stays stable even when the music becomes demanding.
The Alphas’ presentation is wonderfully cohesive, the three drivers integrating seamlessly, and the sound is appealingly robust. Dynamics are strong too, with larger-scale dynamic shifts handled with condence, even at volume.
Tonally these speakers aren’t wholly even, but the deviation isn’t enough to worry us. Once we start listening, the Neat’s ability to capture the essence of the music grabs our attention, rather than any tonal shortcoming.
While there is a good amount of low-frequency action, it’s fair to say that some larger, similarly priced traditional floorstanders dig deeper and hit harder.it would be unrealistic to expect such compact speakers to fill a large room properly, but in a small-to-medium space they’re more than adequate for anything below nightclub levels of volume.
If you thought expensive hi-fi meant dour, expressionless performances designed to have audiophiles stroking their chins as they marvel over detail and insight, these three have the personality to prove you wrong without forgoing any of the maturity necessary for deep listening.
As a team, they dig deep into the emotion of the music, with sprawling dynamics and a regimented sense of timing. Simply, they combine to present music according to its primary purpose: to entertain and to make us feel.
“There’s punch and depth down low and sparkling bite up top, with all-you-can-eat solidity fleshing out a clear and articulate midrange”