To ascertain what sort of signal the network media components were sending to the Neo amplifier section we first listened to the output from the DAC through the big tri-amp reference system.
All seemed well with a richly detailed, musically rewarding performance emerging. The top end has plenty of sparkle and well controlled energy while the bass has speed, power and good note shape and pitch definition.
Afro Celt Sound System's Shadowman exhibits all its intense instrumental texturing and wealth of detail, while powering along with marked polyrhythmic determination. Switching to the Neo's integral amplifier stages, the sound retains the same fundamental character. The low-frequency performance, however, loses a degree of weight, because the NEAT Petite SX loudspeakers (unlike the active Naim DBLs) do not enjoy the benefits of 15-inch bass units.
Playing Aurelo Martinez' Laru Beya and Speed Caravan's Kalashnik Love, the Neo/NEAT combination impresses with its very generous soundstage and shows a clearly organised instrumental and vocal arrangement spread across a wide, deep vista.
On both types of music the system displays excellent transient performance with distinct silences between notes, lending its temporal delivery genuine impetus and a real sense of purpose. Even Killing an Arab, which would have been rendered far too politely on early generations of Arcam electronics, displayed distinct angst and vitality here.
We then played some William Carter baroque guitar, but that is stored on a NAS at 24-bit/192kHz resolution, which the Arcam would not accept. Neither would it play Dawn Langstroth's 24-bit/96kHz Highwire album. It could not be troubled to throw up an 'out of range' error message or similar, but just sat there insolently saying nothing.
We found the USB input equally perplexing when we plugged in a memory stick containing a variety of different hi-res tracks, starting with a 24-bit/88kHz recording. It enumerated all of the tracks, but sat dumbly when we pressed the play button. This not a communicative way of dealing with problems such as users plugging in a device with overly hi-res music on it. And 24-bit/96kHz is hardly an extreme resolution these days.
The Neo seems thoroughly content with orchestral music and big-band jazz, using its copious soundstage to particularly good effect on the Frank Sinatra Duets album. It also enjoys smaller-scale recordings equally, giving voices and instruments plenty of room in which to manoeuvre and allowing the listener to choose whether to focus on one or all of them.
The performance on internet radio is excellent, with outstanding clarity and freedom from coloration on Radio 4 announcers' voices. Those voices demonstrate extreme detailing and remarkable realism with very little sense of artificiality.
The CD player, too, performs delightfully, sounding scrupulous in its information-retrieval and fluent in its musical communication. Sia's Some People Have Real Problems was completely engaging, both in terms of her impassioned vocal performances and the recreation of her backing band's skilful playing. The decay on the drumkit, in particular the way cymbals faded gently into silence, warranted recognition for Arcam's seemingly successful efforts in lowering the noise floor.
The Solo Neo is a very capable performer and would certainly trounce most older separates, but whether it truly competes with today's finest is a moot point: it rather depends upon the particular makes and models to which it is compared.
That said, the Neo is a noteworthy achievement, however, a compact and highly attractive, multi-function unit that can take the place of a rack full of boxes and cables if needs be.
Certainly, if you're looking for a convenient system, it seems a no-brainer thanks to amazing performance and versatility.
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