Listening #161 Page 2

AVO also sent along two sets of speaker cables: a 15' pair of Naim NACA5, terminated with Naim dual-bananas at one end and ordinary bananas at the other ($890); and a 21' pair of AVO's more budget-minded Twisted-56, with the same terminations ($674). Both had also received the deep-cryo treatment, an option that added $195 to the price of the Naim cables and $95 to the Twisted-56. I relied primarily on the Naim cables but also spent some time with the AVOs, which I very slightly preferred when I used them with my Altec Valencia speakers. It seemed to me that the less-expensive cables let my system sound the tiniest bit more direct and forceful—a distinction slight enough that I may have imagined it.

I began by connecting the Nait 2 to my rebuilt Quad ESL speakers, using as the primary source my Sony SCD-777ES SACD/CD player. Mindful of the breed's tendency to sound its best only when fully warmed up, I powered on the Naim well ahead of time—and was reminded at once of one of the few unpleasant characteristics of my old Naim pre-power-amp combination: Immediately after turning the Nait 2's rotary power switch, I heard a loudish pop, followed a second later by a slightly different-sounding pop. Neither noise appeared to threaten my speakers, but they broke the spell just long enough for me to recall how, when climbing into that Saab, I almost always hit my head on the doorframe . . .

I listened first to XTC's Apple Venus Vol.1 (CD, TVT 3250-2)—only later did it occur to me that the band came from Swindon, just north of Salisbury—and was astonished not so much by the sonic differences between my Croft Phono Integrated and the Naim Nait 2, but by the differences in the amount of information conveyed: With the Naim driving the persnickety Quads, here was the insistently loping beat of the energetically strummed acoustic guitar in "I'd Like That." Here was the propulsion contributed by the electric bass. And here was the sense of the words to the song, a distinction I find difficult to express. It wasn't so much that the Naim sounded clearer, thus rendering the singing more explicit (although that was probably true as well). For some reason, with the Naim, the words—and their meanings—simply leaped out to a greater extent. I know that must seem an odd, preposterous, foofy thing to say, but what I've tried to describe here I continued to experience, disc after disc.

There were other differences, the two biggest being that notes in the bass region sounded far tighter, with more precise attacks and cleaner decays; and spatial cues were compacted in the sense that, when I listened in the nearfield, I could hear them—but as I backed away, they became not less audible, but less important. I know, I'm back in FoofyLand: strange how really good, really distinctive gear can have that effect on a critic.

As for that first difference: This has become something of a cliché of describing the sound of a Naim amp, right up there with praising the thing's uncanny way with musical timing (which is also praise well deserved). But the simple fact is that if you're not sure exactly what notes are being played on an electric bass in one of your favorite records, or how they're being played, or even, especially, why they're being played, get hold of a Naim Nait and listen again: You'll find out. Robin Trower's (yes, Robin Trower's!) very subtle bass in "Barnyard Story," from Procol Harum's Home (LP, EMI/Regal Zonophone SLRZ 1014) was, for probably the first time since the last time I owned a Naim amp, completely distinguished from the same notes played on the piano, and the distinctive timing applied to those notes was revealed, to great musical benefit. At the same time, Chris Copping's more nuanced bass playing in the same album's "Your Own Choice" was exposed as such by the small and cool-running Nait. (Who needs class-D?)

Beyond the bass, all else was well—quite well—but characterized by a different set of strengths in comparison to my usual tubed gear. Certain instrumental sounds were notably chunky, not by dint of greater spatial heft or more saturated tonal colors but apparently owing to their textural information being a bit rounded off: Piano notes, for example, didn't lack texture, but that texture was now of a thicker, less stringy sort than usual. If one could see the elements of texture, the Nait's would be little rounded nubs, not little spikes or little hairs. Perhaps counterintuitively in light of all that, the Nait sounded slightly brighter overall, but not bright per se; vocal sibilants and plosives were more pronounced than through my Shindo Laboratory separates, but were still well within the range that I and, I think, any other listener would consider realistic and listenable.

Spatially, the Nait 2's sense of scale was less than grand—it was definitely not an ideal product for listeners who crave being able to hear the air surrounding the players and singers in the recording space. The upside of that is: The Nait 2's sound was solid, not puffy. I am not a lover of puffy.

Well-recorded acoustic instruments sounded grand through the Nait 2. With the recording of Schubert's Piano Quintet in A, "Trout," by Clifford Curzon and members of the Vienna Octet (LP, Decca/Speakers Corner SXL 2110), string textures were, as predicted from the above, thick rather than stringy, and saturation of timbral colors was average. That latter quality came as a surprise, as saturation hasn't been a strength I've associated with contemporary Naim products, despite their other undeniable strengths. Plucked notes from the double bass entirely lacked the sense of touch I get from the instrument through my Shindo electronics, but whatever may have been lacking in the tactile aspects of note attacks was more than made up for in the temporal rightness and realism brought to them by the Nait 2: This relatively inexpensive, 25-year-old amp rendered the musicians' tight, driving interplay utterly spellbinding.

Something else I remember from my years as a Naim owner: The amp's profoundly excellent sense of momentum and timing was maintained even during slow tempos. All too often, a system fails to hold one's attention during broadly paced music, like a too-slow bicycle that just tips over on its side. Yet in the second movement, Andante, of the Schubert, the Nait 2–powered system didn't lose one iota of its momentum. And when the pace picked back up for the third movement, Scherzo, it was easy to feel the players throwing themselves into the music: My brain felt as if it were hot-wired to the musicians' intentions.

Put another way: Through some systems—dare I say most systems?—this piece of music doesn't always hold my attention. Often, when heard from a record, the "Trout" is just a bit too "Happy Little Elves" for my tastes. With the Nait in my system, I left my seat only once, to flip over the record—and after side 2 was done, I wanted to listen to the whole thing straight through again.

That's what kind of amplifier this is.

The observations above refer to putting the output of the EMT TSD 15 pickup head through my Hommage T2 transformer before going into the Nait 2's MM inputs. Usually, the EMT isn't thrilled about going straight into a pair of 47k ohm inputs, and it almost always sounds better—in particular, more tactile—going into a transformer rather than an active device, whether or not the extra gain is necessary. But here's the thing: After all that, I ditched the T2 and sent the EMT's output straight into the Nait 2's phono inputs. And apart from missing the extra bass-range whoomp provided by the Hommage transformer, it sounded great. There was no diminution—none—of the pickup's touch or impact. If anything, believe it or not, timing sounded slightly better without the transformer in the loop: a first.

Naim eye for the trad guy
Here's a question we ought to tackle head on: Why are some companies' older products prized as vintage collectibles, while most others' are just—well, just older products? I can think of five explanations:

1) Some older products exert the power of nostalgia over the buyer—like the guy who's willing to pay big money for mint samples of things he coveted in his youth but could not then afford.

2) Some older products have kitsch value, as with the guy who thinks it would be cool to have a Wurlitzer jukebox for his game room, or the painfully hip who believe it's cool to have an 8-track deck or a Josie and the Pussycats Close 'n' Play record player in their main system.

3) Some older products are no longer available because they weren't understood or appreciated in their day and were discontinued prematurely (eg, the Neumann DST 62 cartridge).

4) Some older products are no longer available because their makers, who got things right a long time ago, took a wrong turn and started to get things wrong (eg, Garrard).

5) Some older products are no longer available because their makers, who got things right a long time ago, now gets things even righter—and yet the old product retains its hold on buyers' imaginations, owing to a combination of superior cosmetics, history, and mystique (eg, BMW's 2002 sedan).

With reservations, I would tend to put the vintage-Naim movement in the last category, with perhaps a smidge of the first category mixed in—my reservations pertaining to the notion that the sizes of early Naim components were more sensible, more attractive, less conspicuously male than the stuff they now make.

• • •
Our house is set back quite a ways from the road, and the driveway that connects them is nearly 1000' long. Our nearest neighbor can't see our house from his house, but our driveways draw pretty close to each other—perhaps 25' or 30'—as they near the road.

Most of the time, I'm grateful for the privacy my very long driveway affords. But that driveway is extremely difficult to maintain during the winter months—and the only tool at my disposal is a snowblower of modest size. It takes a long time to clear a 1000'-long driveway with a 26"-wide snowblower, and when the wind is blowing and the temperature dips below freezing and the snow keeps piling up, it's an awful task, on a par with digging up a leach field in stony soil, or reviewing an expensive cable.

On one such day a few years ago, my snowblower and I were making our third or fourth pass down the driveway when a new sound leaked past my earplugs and caught my attention. I looked over to the right. There was my neighbor, Ben, clearing his driveway with a snowblower. But his wasn't just any snowblower. It was at least half again as big as mine, and its entire front end was covered by a mostly clear cowling—later, I would learn that this is called a snow cab—that protected Ben from wind and snow. From where I stood, hunched like an arthritic monkey, Ben looked as comfy as a kitten sleeping atop a basket of towels just removed from the dryer. I was miserable: I'd lost all feeling in my hands and my face, I had enough ice in my beard that I looked like something from the cover of a Jethro Tull album, and I was reasonably certain that I was dying.

That was the first time in my adult life that I felt the Neolithic urge to take from another person some thing, some tool—some whatever—for which I felt an animal-level desire. The refurbished Nait 2 was the second.


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.

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..