When did your company begin trading?
We’ve been trading for over 25 years but it’s a bit complicated. We started developing the first speaker in 1989 then we started production proper in 1991. The Neat name came from the shop name we had in Darlington called North Eastern Audio Traders.
What inspired you to start Neat?
A mixture of things, I built my first radio at the age of 13 and I played in bands and built sound equipment for the band during the seventies. When I was living in London during the eighties I was a pro musician touring with bands. My main instrument then was electric guitar but I learnt various other things as well, I played double bass and piano a bit. Now I mainly play acoustic guitar.
Are you still performing?
I was just rehearsing last night with a rock and roll band but I play quite a lot of acoustic music in folk clubs, mostly with a friend who’s a double bass player.
What do you call yourselves?
As a duo it’s just Bob Surgeoner and Bruce Rollo but the rock ‘n’roll band, by pure coincidence, is called the Neat Petinas which is appropriate.
How did you get into building loudspeakers?
In the eighties I had quite a bit of spare time and started selling Hi–Fi and pro audio gear from home in London, that was transferred when we moved back up north and opened the shop. I’ve always been interested in building and tweaking with electronics and that became a retail thing and then we decided to build our own speaker. When we started the shop there were quite a few high quality compact speakers around but all of them had some kind of compromise, so we decided to make our own, just really to sell in the shop originally. That became the Neat Petite, a friend of ours cleverly came up with the name and we stuck with it. We took it to the Heathrow show in 1990 just to see what sort of response it would get and we were overwhelmed by the positive response from trade, press and public. Although it was still in primitive physical form it gave us the confidence to go into manufacturing proper, right at the beginning of the recession!
What is your motivation throughout your work?
It’s to try and create products that reproduce music that’s as engaging as a live performance. I think this has more to do with the spirit of the performance than technical aspects of the sound. Obviously those are part of it but you might be aware that we tend to rely on listening tests to develop our speakers rather than a strictly technical approach. It takes a long time to get the result you want.
Which of your designs are you most proud of?
Because of its original brief the Iota. It was a huge challenge to make it perform, but in fact it exceeded the original brief by quite a huge margin. For what it does, irrespective of its size, it’s the thing I’m most proud of from Neat. Because it was a quirky and difficult thing to effect and it does much more than you expect, there are things you can expect from a larger design but because of what the Iota had to be I am extremely pleased with it.
What are you trying to achieve with your work?
A product which is long lasting and has high performance and encompasses some kind of indefinable quality that is still identifiably Neat. I don’t know exactly how that arrives, we think we know what we’re aiming for at the beginning of the process but ultimately we want to deliver high performance alongside an identity.
What do you find most satisfying about your work?
The process involved in conceiving a new design, that’s a parallel to my musical activities. When you start almost with a blank page and think of what a product’s got to do and how it’s going to do it. All the possibilities that are inherent at that stage, that’s the most exciting and satisfying part. The other part is when you get feedback from customers where they’re very effusive about how much they’re enjoying the product, that contact is very gratifying.
What do you enjoy doing?
I love making music and working out arrangements on the guitar. I do love singing as well, although I don’t have a great voice. I love the activity of singing, that’s one of the reasons I like to play low key things in folk clubs because you’ll be tolerated.
What is your most iconic product/the product you want to be remembered for?
That’s a tricky one. The original Petite established us and gave us an identity, still even now, it’s a flawed product but its very musically rewarding when you put it in the right context.
Who are your favourite artists or bands?
Tom Waits, Hoagy Carmichael, Doc Watson, there’s so many.
Which Tom Waits album do you like?
I love Mule Variations, it’s got some difficult stuff on there but it’s got some of his most beautiful songs. The recording is really atmospheric, it’s probably a modern Trout Mask Replica but more accessible than that.
What system do you have at home?
I use an original NaimUniti, my room is not particularly good for large speakers so I tend to use either what we’re working on at a given time. The speakers that work best are the new Petite or the Iota and the Motive SX2. I mostly listen to vinyl on a Rega RP3, it’s more of a convenience thing to use, it’s got a lid so prying fingers don’t destroy the needle and it’s a suspsended wooden floor so a suspended subchassis is out of the question. Its got a Rega Elys 2 cartridge and the power supply upgrade. At the factory we use a Nottingham Analogue Spacedeck with a Dynavector Te Kaitora and a variety of amps.