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Neptune Audio's neptuneEQ Review

Written by Andrew Robinson
Audio Video Revolution
Monday, 01 September 2008

It used to be that if you wanted the best sound out of your system, you started by tuning your room, which usually meant having large, cloth-covered panels along your front, back and side walls and a host of bass traps nestled in the all of the corners. If you were really crazy, you’d turn your attention to the ceiling and floor, creating a listening space that looked anything other than sexy or modern. While there is no faking good room treatments, especially on the first order reflections (in front of and to the left and right of your main speakers, as well as on the ceiling), apart from sneaking a bass trap or two into your room, the trend is increasingly moving toward using room correction software in an AV preamp or receiver to attempt to solve your acoustic issues and tune your speaker system to the audio needs of your room. But make no mistake – not all digital equalizers and room correction software are created equal. While a $500 receiver might now offer what looks to be a happening EQ system, it likely isn’t the best solution for a more demanding, audiophile-grade music and home theater playback system.

It is toward the high end of room correction where products such as the Neptune EQ find their niche. The Neptune EQ system is a fully automated, 30-band per channel equalizer, designed for the diehard home theater and multi-channel enthusiast. For a little under four grand ($3,995), the Neptune EQ features an attractive steel casing with a brushed aluminum front panel, complete with a vacuum fluorescent display that glows a pale blue and a manual directional keypad that is your only window to the Neptune’s stellar interface. The unit is roughly the size of a reference-grade DVD player and weighs about the same. The front panel features one very cool element missing from the competition: the inclusion of a front-mounted microphone jack. Most separate EQ systems – Audyssey comes instantly to mind – have the all-too-important microphone jack located on the rear of the unit, making it a bear to recalibrate if you have a custom-installed or rack-mounted system. Speaking of the back panel, the Neptune EQ has both balanced and unbalanced inputs and outputs, which are hugely beneficial, since some amps and/or systems sound better in a balanced configuration. Again, most of the competition can only be had with either/or, which makes the Neptune EQ a good value proposition. Speaking of value, the Neptune EQ also comes equipped with a calibrated microphone and stand, which no other automated, standalone EQ on the market today can claim. (The UFO-shaped mic that came with your receiver doesn’t count.) The Neptune EQ has a removable power cord, but no power button or RS-232 support of any kind. With a system as robust and complex as mine, the absence of a power switch and RS-232 support proved to be the Neptune EQ’s most glaring weakness as a new product in the high-end home theater world.

Under the hood, the Neptune EQ utilizes the latest in digital DSP technology to analyze and compensate for room anomalies across all 210 of its full-range bands. Each of the Neptune EQ’s bands can be adjusted in 1/2 dB steps at a time which provides ample amounts of control for the most diehard tweaker, or even a professional acoustician. However, tweaking a product such as the Neptune EQ somewhat defeats its purpose as a fully automated solution, but nevertheless, should you want to tune the factory presets, you can do it to your heart’s content and you’ll still be good. On top of the 30-band control, the Neptune EQ utilizes an additional 20 bands solely for the subwoofer channel, which can be the trickiest of speakers to integrate into any high-end system. Each of the Neptune’s bands is sampled at 96 kHz at 24 bits via high-end stereo codecs from Cirrus Logic. The Neptune uses separate power supplies for both its analog and digital sections for better isolation and sound quality. No receiver I have ever seen includes this audiophile feature.

All this technical talk sounds good on paper, but if the system doesn’t work as advertised and/or sounds like , it’s all a bunch of hot air, which is a category that describes many EQs.

Neptune Audio’s website claims that the entire calibration process (once properly installed) can be completed in as little as four minutes, utilizing five listening positions. Being a person who loves to call “bogus” on pompous claims, I set my stopwatch. Not rushing, and doing everything by the book, I was able to run the Neptune EQ through its paces, using five unique listening positions, in under four minutes. While I ultimately didn’t care if the process took four minutes or ten, the ease and speed with which the Neptune EQ gets you closer to musical nirvana cannot be denied.

Backing up a bit, installing the Neptune EQ into a high-end home theater went something like this. I placed the Neptune EQ between my reference Integra DTC 9.8 processor (with the built-in Audyssey room correction of course disabled) and my Bel Canto REF1000 monoblock amplifiers. I utilized all balanced interconnects from UltraLink for this particular review. Making the requisite connections was a snap. Once all interconnects and speaker cables were connected, I plugged in the Neptune EQ. Remember, it has no power switch, so once it’s plugged in, it’s on and working. I rolled my Middle Atlantic rack back into its custom closet and grabbed the included microphone. On my way back to my rack, microphone in hand, I disabled my Outlaw Audio LFM-1 subwoofer’s internal crossover and set the volume to twelve o’clock (the standard setting for most automated EQs). I plugged the microphone into the front-mounted jack and set it in my primary listening position. I then navigated the simple onscreen menu and began the process. The Neptune EQ starts by emitting a series of signals and pulses across all seven channels, notifying you if a speaker is “missing.” In my case, two were absent, since I only have a 5.1 set-up. Once all speakers were located, it ran through the tone and pulse sequence again. When this was completed, I moved the microphone to the second listening position and repeated the process on the onscreen menu. I did this for a total of five listening positions, at which point, the Neptune EQ automatically adjusted the speaker levels, distances, delays and crossover points. It did the same for the subwoofer, as well as setting the phase, which is always a nice touch. Again, the entire process once the microphone was plugged in took just under four minutes.

Once the program is completed, the Neptune EQ automatically sets itself into a “Flat” default setting, which should provide a uniform frequency response, but as my listening tests would show, it was far from the best in terms of sound.

Music and Movies
A room correction EQ system, be it automatic or manual, should have no sound of its own; it should simply enhance your system’s sound by essentially removing your room’s sonic anomalies from the equation. This said, the Neptune EQ is by far the most musical-sounding EQ I’ve encountered by a wide margin, as I was never really aware of any digital trickery being done. Some EQs – okay, most – showcase their “look at me” room correction by having what can only be described as a chokehold over the music and/or movie, making for an often unnatural or anemic presentation. Sure, the inner detail and clarity aurally seems more apparent, but it often comes at the expense of the sonic “oneness” that should be more the norm. For example, when listening to “Uninvited” from Alanis Unplugged (Mavrick), the Neptune EQ unlocked the air and seemingly the entire venue from the disc. Morissette’s presence wasn’t so much enhanced as it was grounded within a well-defined space, with its own energy and dimensions, which were clearly larger than my average-sized listening room. Her voice was weightier and more full-range then ever before, with clear separation between lyrical passages. Hell, each breath could be felt, as opposed to simply heard. From the highest frequencies all the way on down, the entire sonic landscape seemed more composed, seamless and natural than ever before, provided I changed one simple setting on the Neptune EQ. The Neptune EQ defaults to a “Flat” frequency curve right out of the gate, which is about as musically involving as karaoke night at the local pub. Switch the frequency curve to “Movie,” or better yet “Music,” and wonderful things begin to happen. After speaking with Neptune EQ about this phenomenon, they informed me that I was not alone in my findings and that all future Neptune EQs will ship with the default setting being “Music.”

Moving on, I went for something a bit more aggressive, opting for the DVD presentation of Godsmack’s tour Changes (Zoe Video). Skipping ahead to my personal favorite chapter, “Batalla de los Tambores,” the Neptune EQ’s bass performance was cemented in my mind’s eye. The raging dueling drums section was raucous, barely contained and just good fun. The Neptune EQ allowed my sub to plunge the depths of its capabilities with reckless abandon, all the while remaining supremely composed. With my sub’s internal crossover out of the equation, my reference Meridian in-walls seemed more like huge full-range speakers than a satellite sub combo. The presentation was borderline seamless, with only a hint of separation between the large in-walls and the sub. For this, I fault the sub’s lack of lightning speed (it only has a 350-watt amp, after all), not the Neptune EQ’s capabilities. More impressive still were the cymbal crashes that rained down upon me each time lead singer Sully slammed his sticks into the ridges of his Zildjian cymbals. Every strike seemed to hold in space for that second longer and reverberate more naturally throughout the room. The Meridian in-walls have what I consider to be one of the best tweeters on the market today and, with the Neptune EQ in tow, were able to do sonic feats I had not yet heard in my system since installing them over two years ago. The midrange was fuller and more analog-sounding through the Neptune EQ than through my old reference Audyssey EQ, and the presentation between all five speakers in my system was more robust and coherent as well. The added air, decay and texture only aided in creating a larger, more defined and cleaner soundstage than before, which wasn’t so much the result of the Neptune EQ adding anything to the music per se so much as it was removing things from the sound’s path, allowing everything to reach my ears in truer form than before.

I ended my evaluation with the action staple Speed on Blu-ray disc (Twentieth Century Fox). Again, the presentation was hands, arms and feet above all others. Dialogue was more intelligible and natural and carried with it more weight, which made the actors feel more or less life-sized. Dynamically, the Neptune unlocked a bit of explosiveness I hadn’t realized I had been missing until now. When the bus exploded outside the coffee shop in Santa Monica, the effect was so jarring and visceral, it was pants-wetting. Each shard of singed metal and broken glass fell so distinctly that the aftermath lasted much longer than I had previously heard. It’s always a surreal experience when your system, or a system better than yours, gives you something you never heard before. This became the case each time I sat down to a movie or CD with the Neptune EQ in my system. While I experimented with the Neptune EQ’s “Movie” setting, I felt that its “Music” setting was more well-rounded for a wider variety of source material than all of the others, so I left well enough alone and kept the “Music” setting engaged for the duration of my listening tests. With the “Movie” setting engaged, the dialogue was more pronounced and the film’s grander moments were all the more epic. However, the subtler cues were less apparent and at times seemingly missing from the guest list, so you’ll have to let your ears be the judge of what works best for you and your room. Just know that, regardless of what setting you choose, provided it isn’t flat, you’re going to have a good time with the Neptune EQ.

The Downside
While I am completely smitten by the Neptune EQ and unabashedly recommend it to anyone serious about room acoustics and reference-grade sound reproduction, there are three glaring design flaws that must be addressed. First up, the absence of a remote control to navigate the Neptune EQ’s menu and features is outright unacceptable for a product of this caliber and price point. The manual states that this decision was deliberate, in order to create a tactile relationship with the product. Come on, I’m not asking it out on a date. When your rack is in another room or out of reach, things like remotes become less of a luxury and more of a necessity. Being able to adjust frequency curves or EQ settings from the listening position is a must-have for a product costing as much as the Neptune EQ does. I have a feeling that dealers and reps will demand a remote from Neptune sooner than later, even if it raises the cost of the product incrementally.

Second has to be the Neptune EQ’s lack of a power switch or RS-232 support, which plays into the remote department a bit by not allowing it to integrate into a custom control solution, such as a Crestron or AMX system. Neptune says they are working on adding this functionality as I type this, as there isn’t a custom installer worth his salt who doesn’t use RS-232 to control the biggest, highest-performance systems.

Lastly, and this is a more minor quibble, I didn’t like that the Neptune EQ didn’t have a video output or onscreen GUI. Granted, most standalone EQs don’t have this either, instead opting for a PC-accessible interface (sorry, Mac users), but these are the little things that can truly set a product like the Neptune EQ apart from the rest.

For just under four grand and available at select retailers or directly through Neptune Audio’s website, the Neptune EQ is one of, if not the single, best standalone automated EQ solutions in the market today. Yes, it’s better than Audyssey, and I own the Audyssey as part of my HDMI-switching Integra AV preamp. The fact that the Neptune EQ is a self-contained, DIY, no-hassle solution to a very real problem facing every audiophile and home theater enthusiast today speaks to its ingenuity and incredible value. And when I say value, I speak to the idea that this Neptune EQ (plus the cost of cables) can make a bigger improvement than investing $4,000 more in a preamp or a more powerful amp or even better, more exotic loudspeakers. This is a big-boy solution to a real-world problem that used to cost a lot more in room treatments and professional acousticians to solve. I am glad it’s on the market. If you have a reference-grade two-channel audiophile music system, this could be the Holy Grail for you, as well as a way to add a subwoofer without selling out the integrity of your system. If you are running a top-of-the-line home theater system, the Neptune is a pricey yet meaningful way to get more from your HD audio soundtracks from Blu-ray right now. The Neptune EQ is a truly impressive new audio product.
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