Naim Audio NAIT 5si integrated amplifier Page 2

The NAIT 5si sells for under a thousand quid in the Mother Country, $1895 on the left side of the pond, so I figured I should switch to the similarly priced (and British-designed) KEF LS50 speakers ($1499.99/pair) for most of my listening. When it comes to speakers, I am totally new-world/left-brain. I believe that we audiophiles should start building our systems with precisely the right loudspeaker—the one that locks in to our room, makes us happy, and plays the most recordings well. I have a small listening room (13' long by 12' wide by 9' high) that lets all of my speakers play without difficulty.

I also believe the old adage "different horses for different courses." Once we have the room-speaker combo locked in, we need to find an amp that lets the speakers sing in their best and truest voice. I have the KEFs in just the right spots, but would the NAIT 5si be just the right amp for them? Maybe. I tried some more Miles. With "I Thought About You," from The Columbia Years 1955–1985 (5 LPs, Columbia C5X 45000), everything sounded appropriately scaled, with a clear tone and an easy-to-follow tempo. This Naim-KEF combo did near-and-far contrasts with notable precision. There was plenty of detail, and the listening was enjoyable, but the spaciousness and air I expected were missing.

If I were forced to listen to only one album for the rest of my life, I would surely choose one of the mystical masterpieces of South Indian classical music produced and recorded by Kavichandran Alexander for his label, Water Lily Acoustics. It would be tough to decide which one, but this night I chose Kalyani: L. Subramaniam playing Karnatac music on violin (CD, Water Lily Acoustic WLA-ES-19-CD), accompanied by his late wife, Viji Subramaniam, on tambura; T.H. Subashchandran on ghatam; and that maker of divine rhythms, Poovalur V. Srinivasan, on mridangam, a double-headed wooden drum. From my listening chair, Subramaniam sounds like the Stéphane Grappelli of India. If you already enjoy Django Reinhardt, Grappelli, and the Quintette du Hot Club de France, rise up now and buy this CD. (An even more amazing acoustic variation, Saraswathi, is available from HDtracks.)

The rhythms (tala) are swift and complex, and the NAIT 5si tracked them perfectly. The pitch intervals (shruti) can be microscopic, but the LS50–NAIT 5si combination kept them in good focus. But what I needed to know was how this Naim amp would deliver the individual notes (swara). And because all of the amps I was auditioning sounded so different, I decided to zero in on the beauty of a single note.

The opening of Kalyani, "Varnyam," begins with the hesitant drone of an acoustic four-stringed instrument called a tanpura, doubled and extended by an electronic version of a tanpura called a shruti box. The tone and texture of this drone opens and settles the mind as L. Subramaniam improvises beside it. There is no room in this musical space for cold or lifeless note-making. In fact, if an amp tends toward the lean or the dry or the colorless, there will be no hope for listeners entering this sacred dreamscape. The hue, attack, and extension of each note must be allowed to develop completely but not excessively.

With this recording, the NAIT 5si couldn't match the Technicolor shimmers of my reference Line Magnetic LM518 integrated amplifier ($4500), but it did deliver each note properly scaled and sumptuously textured. Forward momentum was spellbinding. Through the entire CD, the NAIT directed my attention toward how the players attacked their instruments—I could feel their touch and the measure of force applied. I could feel the dialogue of rhythm and melody, but timbre seemed generalized, and the recording venue—Santa Barbara's First Presbyterian Church—sounded airless.

I hauled out pianist Martha Argerich playing Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit (LP, Deutsche Grammophon 2530 540). Be forewarned: Argerich is my primitive Gypsy dream lover. When she plays this Ravel, she owns me body and soul. The NAIT 5si didn't quite show me Martha the flesh-and-blood woman, or the water fairy singing at the bottom of a lake—but it did present absolute proof that Se§ora Argerich can play the hell out of this extremely difficult piece.

Madison Square Garden, 1971: Ravi Shankar is backstage, and Bob Dylan has just been introduced to the audience by George Harrison. Above the sounds of the band tuning up, the crowd explodes. When the room gets quiet, Zimmy kicks in with an apocalyptic version of a "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." It's The Concert for Bangladesh (3 LPs, Apple STCX 3385).

I listened in awe. Before Dylan got to "Mr. Tambourine Man," everything I wanted to know about the NAIT 5si had become obvious. It reproduced the audience's voices and applause with exceptional texture and verity. The volume of the Garden and the position of the stage within it were clear and fully realized. I could make a diagram of where the microphones were placed. Most important, I could clearly "feel" the spirit and energy of the event.


I could also tell that the NAIT (and the new Naim interconnects) were finally breaking in and opening up. Suddenly there was wood and metal and pot smoke and pink bleeding madras—everywhere! Finally, the NAIT 5si was showing its colors, and I was beginning to taste those juniper berries. I could see the gourd and tun-wood neck of Shankar's sitar. Forget boogie factor—when Harrison sang "My Sweet Lord," his voice seemed so real I got goose-bumps. The Concert for Bangladesh is superbly recorded—when I heard the audience singing along with George, I choked up, smiling. With the NAIT 5si, the scale—the size of Harrison's voice vs the sound of the crowd—was a joy to behold.

I am an audiophile. To me, the act of playing records in my home is a form of church, and failure to really listen is a character defect or sin. Therefore, when I say that I listen for rhythm or timbre, I mean to say that I am locked in and worshipful. One of my favorite forms of musical church is listening to the Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948–1997), the "King of Kings" of Qawwali music. Before his untimely death, this peerless vocal artist traveled the world, showing his audiences that the path to the divine is paved with stones of rhythm and tone. He is the only singer I know of who is surely bigger than Elvis.

So now, with the NAIT 5si fully broken in, I put on Ali Khan's Back to Qawwali (CD, Long Distance 122083) and listened to the traditional "Masté Vila'aiy Hyderam, Dam Hama Dam Ali Ali." It seemed so silly—overly syncopated and ridiculously repetitive, so not Euro, so not American—that I was stupefied. But I was giddy and smiling, so damn cheerful to be exactly where I was and exactly as I was, listening to this divinely hypnotizing song. Even in its most popularized modes, Ali Khan's music brings the listener tangibly closer to those dances we all have danced and those songs we all have sung.

The most conspicuous aspects of the sound of music are its flux and flow: its comings and goings, its pauses and forward momentums. Through my speakers, the Naim NAIT 5si did flux and flow (melody and tempo) as well as any amp I have used. It did scale and proportion better than my current reference integrated amplifier, the Line Magnetic LM518, or the Rogue Audio Sphinx ($1295), which I reviewed in the August 2014 issue. It had texture out the yin-yang. It provided above-average weight and body. It had an exceptionally good-sounding headphone amp. It played all types of music in exciting and enjoyable fashion. But . . . what about timbre?

Timbre makes music beautiful and dream provoking. Timbre is the tone of the musician's voice and the sound of wood and metal instruments. And tone is what distinguishes one guitar from another, or one drum from another drum. To my ears and in my system, the NAIT 5si seemed a bit ungenerous in the timbre department. Once it was fully broken in, it delivered good and sufficient tonal color—enough that I could stop missing it. I'm certain that most people would never notice—or maybe even need—what I'm suggesting was slightly deficient.

But because Naim's very first NAIT, for which I still harbor a distant affection, was also a bit ungenerous in quality of tone and note, I was hopeful and greedy that the 5si would deliver that psychedelic, pure-organic-juniper experience I desire. I became so desirous, I fantasized sitting in a dark South Indian bar: A man in the corner is playing a shruti box. Idly dreaming, I'm smoking Gold Flake Kings and drinking Bombay gin. Wood ceiling fans are barely moving the dense air. The tala are dancing wildly and my mind is tracking them perfectly.

When my fantasy ended, I realized that, at a thousand quid, the Naim NAIT 5si is a world-class integrated amplifier that delivers more audio precision and musical enjoyment than any self-respecting anti-imperialist should ever need.

Naim Audio Ltd.
US distributor: Audio Plus Services
156 Lawrence Paquette Industrial Drive
Champlain, NY 12919
(800) 663-9352

Allen Fant's picture

Excellent review HR-
earlier this year I did spend some time w/ this integrated amp and its matching cd player. Excellent sound, very pleasing. Simple set-up that does not require any critical skills. Disclaimer:
I am a separates guy.

Anon2's picture

I have heard though not had the privilege to own a Naim product.

I'd be interested in some comparison between the Naim Nait 5si and the recently reviewed Arcam FMJ A19.

This would be a good intra-UK integrated amp comparison, especially in view of the price of the Arcam FMJ A19, at almost 1/2 the price of the Naim.

And, for good measure, I'd really like to know of the compatibility of the Naim, or Arcam, with the Dynaudio Excite X14 or Focus 160 that have made the pages of Stereophile recently (the 160 as a come-back recommended component, and the Excite X14 as a new product).

BaTou069's picture

Nice Review, thanks!
Would be interested in more comparison between these two, as I consider one of them to pair with the LS50.

PitM's picture

I auditioned the LS50 with Arcam A19, Roksan Kandy K2 and Naim Nait 5si. Same room, same condition (Marantz HD DAC 1 as a source, music was alt rock, indie pop).

Arcam is notably the weakest amp here, while Roksan with it's great control, sound stage and power still doesn't sound so clean and lacks the fineness of Naim.

voxi's picture

I have this amp I must say that the amp is absolutely excellent! If someone have it or he is considering to buy, one should get it paired with Naim Nac A5 speaker cable (at least 3,5m long as manufacturer recommends). It will substantialy improve already excellent sound - almost unbelievable difference.