Thursday, May 1, 2008

Naim Supernait integrated amplifier

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We've tried making it more powerful. When I was away on holiday, some of our people cooked up a more powerful version and presented it to me on my return. It sounded awful.

That was Naim Audio's founder, the late Julian Vereker, MBE, talking to Sam Tellig about the 15Wpc Naim Nait 2 integrated amplifier, as reported in the April 1990 Stereophile (Vol.13 No.4). His words were the first thing this ever-cynical reviewer thought of upon learning that, some seven years after Vereker's death, the company he left behind had been rattling those same pots and pans.

Then again, after 23 years of writing about domestic audio, I've come to where I can tell when a company is promoting a product simply because they must, and when there's some sense that the thing they're offering is special. And it's obvious: Everyone at Naim thinks that the new Supernait integrated amplifier is really special.

So my hopes of pre-judging a new audio amplifier were once again dashed: I would have to get my hands on a Supernait, read the owner's manual, install it, and use it to play music. Most of which seemed like a pleasant idea, once I stopped to think about it.

A considerable increase in power is not the 80Wpc Supernait's only calling card: It also contains a 24-bit D/A converter, addressable through any of five S/PDIF inputs: two RCA coaxial jacks, two TosLink optical jacks, and one front-mounted 3.5mm "mini-TosLink" jack, the latter for use with portable media players, which also accepts analog signals. That's a remarkable thing, made all the more remarkable by the fact that Julian Vereker also scorned the idea of having D/A converters and their datastream sources physically separate from one another. It's getting so a fella can't even leave the planet for a few years without other people coming in and stirring the pot.

The Supernait's digital input section begins with a Crystal CS8416 receiver chip, which identifies the incoming datastream as 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, or 192kHz. Conversion is handled by a stereo 24-bit/192kHz D/A chip from Burr-Brown. As the owner's manual states, the Supernait's digital circuitry is designed to recognize stereo PCM datastreams only; its digital output will be muted in the face of DSD, DTS, or other such data. Absent a recognizable digital input signal of any sort at any of the five inputs, the S/PDIF board powers down altogether, in an effort to maintain the purity of an alternative (analog) signal.

The Supernait's analog inputs outnumber their digital counterparts: There are six in all, most of them addressed by both RCA jacks and Naim's traditional DIN sockets. (Where both exist for a given input selection, the two types of jack are wired in parallel with one another.) The DIN input socket reserved for Aux 2 also contains a 24V DC output, to power one of the company's outboard phono preamplifiers. (Typically, that would be the Naim Stageline, although I imagine the company's Prefix, specific to the Linn LP12 turntable, would work as well.)

Unlike other recent integrated amps, the Supernait incorporates a fully active line-level preamp, said to be derived from class-A circuitry developed for the company's flagship NAC-552 ($28,100 including companion power supply). Volume and balance are controlled with very-high-quality potentiometers—I heard not the slightest trace of degradation when adjusting the latter to the left or right of center—which are motorized for use with Naim's standard remote handset. I was very happy that the serenely attractive Supernait lacks a digital display; instead, it has a single tiny LED each for the volume and balance knobs, and equally subtle illumination for the soft-touch selector switches. (I can also live without knowing which digital sampling frequency is in use at any given time, though not everyone may share that indifference.) Sadly, unlike the NAC-552, the Supernait has no mono switch.

The output section of the Supernait's power amplifier, derived largely from Naim's NAP200 amp ($3100), is biased to operate in quasi-complementary class-B. That's very much a Naim tradition, albeit one that Julian Vereker suggested wasn't a strict requirement for good performance, but merely an architecture within which he was comfortable working. (Vereker also thought it possible to make an excellent-sounding tube amp, but disliked working with such high voltages.) According to some Naim insiders, the quality of their power transformers—designed in-house and sourced from the same company for most of Naim's existence—is among the keys to their amplifiers' musical success. One staffer told me that Naim has actually looked into the idea of using switch-mode power supplies in some products, going so far as to build a couple units of the company's classic NAP250 using such a thing—but the noise levels were always unacceptably high compared with the more traditional approach.

A pioneer in recognizing the need for good power-supply design, Naim Audio has also distinguished itself with an original approach to power-supply implementation. Almost from day one, Naim has made sure that all of their low-level circuitry is kept as far as possible from the power-supply circuitry that feeds it, and that all amplification circuits use a central point within that remote power supply as a common reference for zero voltage potential: a system-wide star ground, if you will. That philosophy has given way to a commercial line in which remote power supplies are available for many of their products—as standard items or, just as often, as upgrades representing various levels of cost and refinement.

So it goes here: As a first step, one can upgrade the performance of a Naim Supernait with the addition of a Naim FlatCap2x power supply ($1150), whereby the latter provides a cleaner, stiffer, and altogether more serene 24V to the analog preamp section of the former. After that, the HiCap2 ($2050) and even SuperCap2 ($6350) power supplies may be applied.

The potential for upgrading a Supernait doesn't end there: One can also buy any of Naim's separate power amplifiers, for use in place of the Supernait's own, by means of its preamp-out jacks. Or, a Supernait owner who has biampable loudspeakers could buy that extra amp and, via an entirely different set of jacks on the Supernait, use it alongside the Supernait's own.

I didn't do any of those things, but I did borrow a Naim Stageline-S phono preamplifier ($485), which I connected to the Supernait's Aux 2 socket using the 5-pin-to-5-pin cable Naim supplied for that purpose, for signal and DC power. Beyond that, there was nothing extraordinary about my Supernait installation. I used it in two different systems, on two different, lightweight tables, but otherwise paid no special attention to siting or isolation. I used only the 14 AWG power cable that came with it. And I mostly used Naim's own NACA-5 loudspeaker cable, terminated with Naim's 4mm plugs—although I took a chance and also tried my own 6m pair of Auditorium 23 cables, which are at least superficially similar to Naim's own stranded-copper cables. Nothing blew up, and the system sounded good; I seldom ask for more than that.

I noticed one good thing right off the bat: The Supernait didn't produce the same loud switch-on thump I've come to associate with earlier integrated amps and preamp-amp combinations from Naim, more than a few of which I've owned over the years. That's reportedly because the Supernait uses separate internal power supplies for its switching circuitry, along with its digital circuitry and front-panel microprocessor. Thus, the analog preamp and amp supplies aren't stressed when the power switch is thrown.

The only glitch I encountered was when I first connected the Naim Stageline-S phono preamp to the Supernait's powered DIN socket. I muted the amp before doing so, but in the interest of keeping the Supernait fully warmed up, I neglected to turn off its power switch before remaking the connection—which is clearly warned against in the manual. The tiny but inevitable bit of DC noise that resulted triggered the Supernait into a forced mute mode, where it resolutely remained for 30 seconds before returning to normal. During 29 of those 30 seconds I held the heels of both hands against the sides of my head and muttered a profanity over and over, directed at myself. I learned a darn good lesson that day.

My first music experience with the Supernait came courtesy of the Tone Poems album by mandolinist David Grisman and guitarist Tony Rice (CD, Acoustic Disc ACD-10). Listening to the Supernait in place of the Quad II amps that usually drive my Quad ESL loudspeakers, with my Sony SCD-777 SACD/CD player driving the Naim's analog inputs, I was struck at first by how much larger than usual the two instruments sounded on the first track, "Turn of the Century." The Naim was also more explicit than my older tube amps, and gave good insight into the minutiae of Grisman's and Rice's playing techniques: slurs, slides, subtle dynamic nuances, and the like.

On that disc and the others that followed, the Supernait displayed the sort of overall tonal balance that one might think of as the Naim "house sound"—or at least an updated version thereof: Its treble extension was a bit rolled off, compared to that of other modern amps, but not so much as to make it sound dull. Indeed, this incarnation of the Nait integrated was the airiest and most open yet—and I've heard them all so far. Throughout the rest of the sonic spectrum, the Supernait continued the trend that seems to have blessed virtually all of the company's electronics and CD players over the past five years: The sound was less "gray" than earlier Naim products, with more timbral color and texture, albeit not to the levels of same that one expects from very good, very low-power tube amps.

A few days later, having left the Supernait to warm up and run in as much as possible, I returned to Tone Poems—but this time I bypassed my Sony's internal D/A converter, connecting its transport to one of the Supernait's (coaxial) digital inputs. The sound was darker still—pleasantly so, although I wouldn't have wanted any less in the way of treble extension. At the same time, I found it easier to relax with the music, and to follow and make sense of the melodies: My system sounded just a shade less "hi-fi" with the Sony's transport addressing the Naim's digital input.

Using the Naim's digital input to play the Del McCoury Band's cover of Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," from Del and the Boys (CD, Ceili Music CEIL 2006), my impression was of greater-than-usual musical precision. Mike Bub's acoustic bass line was a model of pure momentum and insistence coupled with truly metronomic accuracy. Bub's intonation, too, came over as dead right—and I dare say that pitch uncertainties were banished to such a great extent that more timbral clarity was able to come through as well, despite the darker tonal signature. Throughout the spectrum, in fact, clutter was banished in favor of order and precision. Rob McCoury's tonal shifts on the banjo—muting with the palm of his hand, altering his distance from the instrument's bridge—were preserved, and were signaled with greater clarity than by any other amp in the house, save for the Shindo Masseto preamp and Cortese amp.

Listening to Joanna Newsom's brilliant Ys (CD, Drag City DC203CD), with its generally rich, predominantly acoustic arrangements, it was again clear that Naim has made real progress since the very first, mildly clangy-sounding Nait integrated from 1983, in terms of preserving texture and color without compromising the signature Naim strengths of good pitch accuracy and timing. The new Naim sounded especially rich in its lower registers—the sheer thrum of Newsom's Lyle and Healy harp was superb, with very good bass weight and depth. Again, trebles weren't as extended or airy as some would like to hear, nor were the highest overtones quite as delicate and sinewy as with my tube gear—or, for that matter, the very good combination of DNM 3D preamp and PA3_S power amp, which is also in house. The DNM and Shindo combos also did a better job of bringing the voice forward from the rest of the mix, as well as "freeing" the sounds of the strings from everything else, and capturing a more human feel throughout. But the Naim had tremendously good moving clarity, for lack of a better expression: It was explicit at showing me where each line was going, as in the dramatic ritards at the ends of some sections in Newsom's "Emily."

Soon after sorting out the Naim Stageline phono preamp and its connections, I played an impressive vinyl reissue of Dexter Gordon's One Flight Up (LP, Blue Note/Cisco Music BLP-84176)—highlighting, in the process, many of the same strengths described above. The Donald Byrd composition "Tanya" opens with a simultaneous snare-drum stroke and a low B-flat on the upright bass, leading into a steady ride-cymbal pattern. The Naim, ever the rhythm section's friend, truly nailed the excitement of every such downbeat, and maintained a high level of musical excitement throughout the entire 18-minute piece. It nailed the color of the bass and the reeds, too, and gave a good sense of the sheer temporal randomness of Kenny Drew's piano chordings. The only thing lacking was the last bit of delicacy in the cymbal work, which sounded less mechanical and even somewhat more melodic, if you will, through my best tube gear.

In keeping with all of my earlier Naim experiences, the most important aspect of the Supernait's performance—the thing I found myself jotting down in my notes, again and again—was not the treble this or the imaging that, but rather the success with which the gear disarmed me and made it easy to enjoy the notes and the beats. I was sold on the Supernait—the concept and execution, if not the merchandise itself—when I used it to listen to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's lovely recording of Strauss's Last Four Songs (LP, Angel S 36347). The music began to draw me in with the first notes; two dozen measures later, when the sound of the orchestra unfolded and became huge, it was obvious that the Naim knew just how to play it: follow the drama, the curves of the melodies, and the change in intensity when the singer leans into it. Make her voice sound like her voice. Make it big when it's supposed to be. Don't add any noise. Finis.

Back in 1983, the Naim Nait integrated amplifier was introduced as a sort of bare-bones, hair-shirt entrée to the world of Naim amplification—which was then and is now demonstrably different from everyone else's world. It sold for around $500.

In 2007, that particular torch is carried well by the Naim Nait 5i, which sells for $1495. All things considered, today's entry-level Naim is only a slightly greater investment than the original, even though its shirt is less hairy.

The Supernait is something different altogether—and demands a different sort of comparison in terms of performance and price. Apart from the vintage pieces I've owned and enjoyed in recent years, my last Naim preamp-amp combination, purchased new, was an NAC72 preamp with HiCap power supply and an NAP250 power amp. The Supernait sounded somewhat better than my memory of that system, and played music almost as well. I would still give even an older NAP250 a slight edge in terms of sheer musical momentum.

The new Naim is the most well-made Nait: on a par with Naim's top electronics, with a build quality that befits a $4950 amp. The question remains: Does the Supernait deliver $4950 worth of music? To answer that, one has to keep in mind the uniqueness, and the evidently good engineering, of its onboard D/A converter. If you lack the ability or the interest to take advantage of that feature, then I don't think the Supernait would be a very good value for you, fine and flexible though it is. But if you intend to couple it with a similarly good datastream source—and I can't help wondering what, if anything, that implies for the future of Naim's CD-player line—then it's hard to imagine a $5k investment delivering more genuine musical involvement and satisfaction. The Supernait is a bold move on Naim's part; having now lived with it, I can tell why they're proud.

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