Listening #8 Page 3

To be blunt, the distinction was lost on some people, who were sure they wanted something bigger, more powerful, and more expensive than the Nait. Of course, looked at another way, it's equally fair to say that a lot of malcontents like me bought the Nait just because it went against the grain. In that sense, it also helped that it was ugly, and it helped that the 16Wpc Nait was "underpowered."

And there you have it: The first pre-SET blow against the empire of excessive power, itself another bit of oily residue from the 1960s and '70s. That era left some people believing that output devices, be they tubes or transistors, exist to squirt watts into hungry speakers, and that better and more expensive amps are the ones with more transistors or tubes, for the squirting of more watts. Ay-yi-yi.

Smart audiophiles know that an amplifier and a loudspeaker work together as a variable-speed AC motor, as in a toy car: As you squeeze the button and voltage goes up, the motor goes faster and tries to draw more current. That's the limiting factor—current: Apart from the physics of "road-holding," top speed is reached when the system as a whole hits the current ceiling. And so it goes in home audio: You turn the knob on that preamp and the voltage goes up, stimulating the loudspeaker into ever greater excursions—and as that happens, the loudspeaker attempts to draw more current. If the output devices of the amplifier are capable of passing more current, then the loudspeaker can play louder with no more distortion than before, all other things being equal; when the output devices reach a point where they can't pass more current, the ceiling is reached.

Some facts: Two complementary pairs of TO3-style transistors can pass more current than one. A transistor can be made to pass more current if it is properly heatsunk. Heatsinks cost more money than transistors bought in bulk, and training a human to apply just the right amount of conductive paste between a heatsink and a transistor costs even more. (File under: If you think education is expensive, wait'll you see what they're charging for ignorance.) Four transistors cost more than two. And: Everything sounds different.

That all makes it sound as if you could save money by making a generally low-parts-count amplifier that has limited output power but that's also capable of passing higher amounts of current for brief periods of time—say, the instantaneous demands of musical transients—by virtue of canny design, careful construction, and maybe even the judicious use of bandwidth limiting. Such a thing would stand a good chance of being transparent, fast on its feet, and musically competent overall. That's exactly what Naim did in 1983 with that first Nait.

Now, three iterations later (the company skipped over the Naim Nait 4, owing to the negative connotations that number carries in some key markets), they've released a refined version of the same thing in the Nait 5.

I'll get my reservations out of the way first:

1) The Nait 5 neither comes with a phono section as standard, nor can one be installed as an option. The only thing the LP-lover can do is to buy the company's own (quite good) $350 Stageline outboard phono preamplifier (or something else from someone else).

2) I don't like the styling of the Nait 5 anywhere near as much as that of the original: I'd much prefer something smaller and uglier.

3) Although the Nait 5 does have a balance control—a superb, electronically controlled, remote-only balance control, at that—it lacks a mono switch. Whine, whine, whine.

That said, the Naim Nait, whatever its number, remains one of the most reliably musical products in all of perfectionist audio. The 2003 model had the same pitch certainty, rhythmic insistence, and real, organic sense of musical flow as any of its predecessors, which is to say that this $1550 integrated amp could teach most of its competitors, regardless of price, a few lessons on how to play music.

And despite my preference for the older one's funky looks, this newest Nait is a better-sounding product. If you haven't heard a new Naim amp in a while, let alone a new Nait, you're missing something special. I've long appreciated the Naim approach to music reproduction, even as I've acknowledged their flaws, including a rather flat spatial perspective on stereo recordings and a tendency to sound a bit gray and colorless compared with other amps. Yet even this newest entry-level Naim mocked those preconceptions: a colorful and downright juicy-sounding amp whose stereo imaging was likewise (surprisingly) good. Instruments and voices sounded whole and well-rounded, with a decent sense of depth when called for. It was also a bit more extended in the highs than my own older Naim gear—not as much as the Musical Fidelity A3.2, however—giving the Nait 5 more air and sparkle than previous versions ever had.

But most of all, the Naim's way with PRaT—e-speak for the interrelated concepts of pace, rhythm, and timing—remained. I heard it in Chris Stamey's great song "The Company of Light," from Fireworks (RNA R2 70766): When the tambourine entered for the first chorus, the Nait just locked on to it with its rhythm jaws, all the while doing justice to the slappy but precise sound of the drums, with just the right timbre and the right amount of die-away. This wasn't just good sound—this was good music-making.

"Hurt not the earth..."
Alexis Arnold, a much-loved Naim employee who passed away some years ago, once told me about an ad campaign she'd cooked up but that never saw the light of day: a series of color photographs of flora and fauna in the Amazon rainforest, framed by the words "It's a jungle out there...and Naim electronics help keep it that way." The point was that the output stages of Naim's amplifiers traditionally—some might say notoriously—operate in class-B rather than class-A or -A/B, and, as such, they consume less electricity, especially at idle.

It was a joke, of course, meant in good fun: a company of nonconformists calling attention to their products by taking a poke at their own nonconformity. (And as we watch our natural resources disappear, let us also mourn the passing of self-deprecation, that quality which, like compassion, curiosity, and intelligence itself, is most hated by those who are least capable of it.) So it goes: Ads that don't really sell products seem to go well with amps that don't sound like other amps, not to mention technology that everyone else disdains. I know good sound when I hear it, but I'd be lying if I said those qualities don't appeal to me, too.

Last night, my wife and I were sitting around in our black turtlenecks and berets again, this time moaning about Gene McCarthy. The conversation turned to music, but when we played a CD through the Naim Nait 5, the conversation stopped.