Listening #161

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
—Robert Frost

Perhaps it was different for other audio hobbyists in other parts of the world, but to this American, the Naim Audio of the late 1970s and early '80s seemed a bit prickly. It wasn't just their road-less-traveled-by attitude toward amplifier design—scorning class-A output architecture, preferring DIN connectors to RCA jacks, routing preamp output signals and power-supply voltages through the same cable—but also the British company's perspectives on selling and setting up and even listening to hi-fi gear that seemed combative: Shopping for amplifiers based on output power is foolish. Using short speaker cables and long interconnects is the wrong way to go about it. And why do you Americans bother with all that "soundstaging" nonsense?

Peripheral matters only expanded the gulf between Naim and their American cousins: In the beginning, a few of Naim's most conspicuous US dealers were condescending assclowns, as were some of the first US reviewers to write about the brand. But then came the Great Thaw of 1990, spurred in part by Naim's hiring of a sharp-minded and thoroughly likable American woman, the late Alexis Arnold, to represent the brand in the US. Another contributing factor was the 1989 makeover of Naim's entire product line, in which the clunky cosmetics of their extruded-aluminum casework—referred to in retrospect as the "chrome bumper" look—were swapped for uniformly dark enclosures and vaguely olive-colored faceplates with cleverly backlit logos in bright green. Naim's amps now looked less hair-shirt and somewhat more elegant, signaling in the minds of many that, deep down, this notoriously edgy company just wanted to be liked.

With complements
Naim's revamped cosmetics didn't coincide with revamped internals of any of their amplifiers, save one. Just before the transition to the newer casework, Naim upgraded their sole integrated amplifier, the Nait: a smallish box 8" wide by 3" high by 11" deep, equipped with inputs for a moving-magnet (MM) cartridge and two line-level sources, and an output section that was casually if never officially rated at 15Wpc. Notwithstanding its low power, that first Nait, introduced in 1983, was said by some to surpass the performance of most companies' megabuck separates, those accolades being yet another source of polarization—in this case between the Naim faithful and most other Earthlings.

The first Nait was designed by Naim's founder, the late Julian Vereker. In most respects, this entry-level product was typical of his company's work, down to its relatively massive, custom-made toroidal mains transformer, its common-ground DIN connectors for line-level input signals, its active preamplifier stage, and its true star-ground circuit layout. But the Nait departed from the Naim norm in one key respect: it had a fully complementary output section.

Normally, such a thing wouldn't be remarkable: complementary pairs of bipolar transistors—an NPN for the top half of the input waveform, a PNP for the bottom—are used in a great many solid-state, push-pull amplifiers. But from the time of its founding, in 1973, Naim has been known for its own distinctive variation on a quasi-complementary class-AB output section, in which NPN transistors are used for both halves of the waveform (footnote 1). This stems from Vereker's observation that an amplifier that relies exclusively on NPN transistors tends to sound better than one that combines NPNs and PNPs—this despite slightly increased distortion that arises from having to configure one transistor in a pair somewhat differently from the other (footnote 2).

Because Naim's quasi-complementary circuit required, among other things, greater care in selecting parts, that output architecture was eschewed for their first budget amplifier. But by the late 1980s, the design and construction of Naim's circuit boards had begun to grow in sophistication, owing in part to a high-tech, robotic circuit-board stuffer then being phased in at their factory in Salisbury, England. A Naim employee named James Barrington-Brown was assigned the project of redesigning the Nait with a proper quasi-complementary output section and a two-sided circuit board—the latter a first for Naim, and a means of increasing their dedication to proper grounding paths. The result was the Nait 2, introduced in 1988. Other refinements included a slight increase in output power (to 18Wpc), a real balance control (on the first Nait, balance was adjusted with a potentiometer that attenuated a single channel, and by no more than 3dB), and, in deference to the reality of the times, an additional line-level input (but labeled Aux, not CD).

The good reviews poured in—and not from only the UK press. Arguably most visible of all was the positive review in the April 1990 Stereophile, in which Sam Tellig compared the sound of the Nait 2 to that of his own Krell KRS80 amplifier. His conclusion: "If you want to forget all this audiophilia nonsense and just listen to music, you may find that the Nait is neat."

Thus did Naim begin to achieve long-deserved recognition from normal Americans—not just those who drive six-cylinder Alfa Romeos and buy Ben Sidran records. That was fine with me: I didn't need a Nait 2, because I already owned a Naim NAC62 preamp and NAP140 power amp. To me, seeing Naim succeed was like being a Mets fan in 1969.

Things change, and some of those things have been my priorities regarding playback gear and the contents of my system. While I still admire the performance of Naim's amplifiers, and still consider the Naim CD555 to be the best-sounding CD player of my experience, at present I own no Naim gear. But the memory of hearing a Nait 2 paired with Quad ESL loudspeakers and being impressed all to hell and back has occasionally brought me to the brink of buying a used Nait 2. Those near-debt experiences brought with them the realization that, more than a quarter-century after I bought my first brand-new Naim amp, I'm living at a time when there is a market for vintage Naim gear. Who saw that coming?

Into that once-inconceivable niche steps US firm AV Options, offering repair and rebuild services for older Naim electronics. Within the past year, Nick Despotopoulos of AVO acquired for himself a 1990 Nait 2 in need of refurbishing; knowing my fondness for early Naits, he sent me an e-mail, wondering if I might like to hear the finished product. Yes! I typed, with sufficient force that the clicking could be heard from the next room, like those bugs with the red wings.

Let's recap
Among the various levels of service offered by AV Options (footnote 3) is their Standard Rebuild—which, for a Naim Nait 2, costs $1195 and entails the replacing of 14 transistors (including all 4 output transistors), 3 potentiometers, 32 capacitors, 6 resistors, 4 banana jacks, and 4 rubber feet. The work is performed by AVO service manager Chris West—for many years the man in charge of Naim's US operations—who also realigns the gain stages and prepares for the owner a printout of test results certifying that the amplifier meets or exceeds the original specs. West says that, of the 64 new parts fitted, many are of a higher grade than those originally used—eg, 14 electrolytic capacitors are replaced with modern tantalum substitutes—and all are sourced from the Naim factory. During a Standard Rebuild, West also performs cosmetic reconditioning as needed, including a thorough cleaning inside and out, and the touching-up of flaws in the casework. Asked if AVO could replace a blemished faceplate, West replied that that's almost never required for a Nait 2, observing that the faceplates of the restyled products—which Naim aficionados now call the "olive" series—all had a thick protective coating. Nice to know.

While the Standard Rebuild would seem capable of restoring any Naim amp to as-new condition, AVO offers an additional parts-and-service package for those who want more. The Ultimate Upgrade includes all of the above, in addition to which West sends off the original Holden & Fisher mains transformer and its wiring loom for a deep-cryo treatment. On top of that, 10 resistors are replaced with Texas Components TX2575 "naked" Bulk Metal Z-foil resistors; the RCA phono-input jacks are replaced with WBT Nextgens; and the original hard-wired AC cord is replaced with a Neutrik PowerCon socket and an AVO TibiaPlus cord, itself fitted with the corresponding Neutrik PowerCon connector. Additionally, all of the above-mentioned resistors, connectors, and cables are themselves given the deep-cryo treatment. For a Nait 2, the Ultimate Upgrade, which includes the Standard rebuild and a 2-year parts and labor warranty, costs $2190.

The Naim Nait 2 sent to me by Nick Despotopoulos had been treated to the Ultimate Upgrade. It also came with an additional, extra-cost option: a brand-new Naim Audio carton and packing set ($150). As a consequence of all that, on the day it arrived, the experience of opening that carton and unpacking its contents was, for this former Naim owner, somewhat trippy: I felt taller, healthier, more confident. Surely my beard was blacker, my scalp less visible—and I imagined that my 1988 Saab was still waiting outside, ready for a trip to Tower Records, or maybe even Beefsteak Charlie's. This time-machine Naim had taken me straight back to 1990.



Footnote 1: Recently, this design approach resurfaced in PS Audio's BHK Signature 300 amplifier.

Footnote 2: For as long as I've been aware of the brand, Naim amplifiers have been mistakenly described as operating in class-B, an error that I regret having passed along myself on numerous occasions.

Footnote 3: AV Options, Tel: (847) 329-9549. Web: www.avoptions.com

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
music guy's picture

My starter amp was the original "hair shirt" Naim Nait. Initally drove Kef 104ab then for some some the totally power hungry Magnipan 2.5's until moving to a Naim 32.5 pre and a Nat 160 amplifier. Source was an ever increasing, in parts count, LP 12. (Natch).
Those were the exciting days of audio. My current system is delightful (Magico/Devialet/Nordost) but that wonderful "open top sports car ride" of these early Naim pieces was delightful.
Thanks,
wdw

bpeugh11's picture

Thank you Art for bringing back fond memories of Alexis. She was truly a very special human being.

volvic's picture

Enjoyed the article from Art, great gear, what for me was a great period in audio.

tonykaz's picture

I never owned a naim piece but I've owned plenty of Meridian from that Era. I still miss my Meridian M-2 Active Loudspeakers. Sure it was "quirky" from a USA perspective, not spec. driven, simple to use and enjoy, high levels of performance, reliable and "musical" as the Brits describe it.
I wish we could go back to Naim simplicity.
That was the end of the Vinyl Era which I regretted to the point of leaving the Audio Business world to return to my roots in the Transportation Industry ( I'm betting Audiophile Systems was happy to see me depart because I was Gray-Importing Air Containers of Linn LP12s to sell thru the back pages of Audio Magazene's classified Ads.) I never bothered to import Naim stuff but today I'd love to have one of these lovely Naits and a pair of little Kann Speakers. I've always felt that it was a magical system.
I was sorry to learn of Julian's death.
Today, I'm happy that Naim is part of the French outfit Focal, Naim deserve a good distribution system. I wish them well! Geez, they had a good run with LINN, didn't they?, at least while it lasted.

LINN naim kinda started it all for a great many audiophiles, we need something like that for the 21st Century.

Tony in Michigan

ps. I'd have-to own a LP-12 Ittok Asak, too, wouldn't I? or at least a Basik Arm and it's matching MM.

Fond memories from 35 Years Ago

srdykes's picture

Much ink has been spilled in Stereophile about the Croft; how 3 writers loved it but JA's measurements sucked. I do love some measurements but take them with a grain of salt sometime.

In this comparison, with I assume the Croft connected to Art's Quad ESL's, what else can be said about the Croft? Is it good at all with the Quads (I assume it is) or does it suck? Did the Naim trounce it that much?

Why you ask -- well I'm considering the Croft for purchase to use with my WPK rebuilt Quads, but as I can't audition them together, I'm looking for review advice.

And I'm leery of buying a the Naim when I need to stick another $2k in it. Damb things are $600 to $800 or more used. I can get the Croft for much less. Not many reviews elsewhere on it though.....

So Art -- any comment on the Quads and Croft?

spacehound's picture

I've been keen on both music and HiFi since the 1970s and I'm in the UK.

Just use Naim amps (their core products). Don't bother with any other manufacturer. At one time its only rival was Krell, their early class A amps. Where are Krell now? They are nothing.

Buy a current model Naim NAP250 and a matching Nain preamp - it's the equal of ANYTHING in the world at any price. Except Naim's higher spec amps/preamps.

Fanboy? No. I'm only come to them recently after wasting money on much higher priced stuff..