Naim Nait 5

 

Hi-Fi News Feb 2001


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Alive and Kicking

Naim's long awaited '5 series' is finally here, offering punchier sound, superior finish and greater sophistication. David Price auditions the NAIT 5 integrated

Remember the original Naim Nait? I do. After reading a glowing review of it back in 1986 in the now defunct Hi-Fi Review, I lusted after one for ages. When I finally got to a dealer for a dem, I realised it wasn't really for me.
Although superbly musical, it was far too compromised in other respects and just not a practical solution to my upgrading problems.
The subsequent Naits (that's 2 and 3 - I presume 4 was omitted, thanks to it being an unlucky number in the far east?) were less extreme, but still far too out-on-a-limb for most hi-fi buyers. The 2 was little more than a 1was slightly more power and neater styling, while the 3 was to the 2 what the 2 was to the 1, if you see what I mean. By the time I reviewed the Nait 3 back in 1994 it was definitely a more practical proposition, but you still got the feeling you were buying something overly reminiscent of British hi-fi's 'cottage industry' past.
Against this background, the new 5 is a revelation - pull it out of the box and its new low-vibration cast and machined aluminium chassis feels as beautifully built as any of the company's high end stuff. Then there's the styling. I for one couldn't help thinking Naim's early nineties re-style wasn't very successful, so I wholeheartedly welcome the new '5 series' look with its styling cues taken from the company's flagship NAP 500 power amplifier.
OK, so the new front panel isn't going to win any Design Council awards but it looks neat, subtle, well judged and classy. Indeed, if Naim offered the option of a silver finish, you could even call it modern! Better still are the ergonomics. The simple row of backlit push buttons for source selection and muting are superb to the touch (far nicer than the slightly tacky feeling Nait 3) and lend an air of sophistication. Shame about that rough volume pot, though.
In truth though, none of the above have ever been Naim strengths. To its credit, through the years the company has remained unfashionably unconcerned with features and fittings, instead choosing to focus its gaze on what lies within. Rather than fitting sonically dubious digital volume controls or crude motorised potentiometers, the preamp section has a discrete resistor ladder _ a hard wired network of top quality, hand selected resistors) which acts just like an old fashioned volume pot, except that's it more accuarate, reliable and quieter. The power amp section is downsized version of the awesome NAP 500, offering faster signal transition times and better rejection of the power supply noise. The new transformer has separate windings for the preamp and power amp circuits, and unlike the Nait 3 all preamp supplies are double regulated.
In total contrast to its predecessor, all six inputs on the Nait 5 are controlled by a microprocessor. This only powers up to interpret a button push, and then goes to 'sleep' again so as to not pollute the signal path with noise. By using this 'fly-by-wire' system, it means Naim can also offer user-programmable gain matching for each input, a unity gain option for surround sound systems and remote controlled balance too. As per Nait 3, there's a preamp output for hooking up the brand new NAP 150 power amp, a plug-in power supply option for a FLATCAP ( which can drive the Nait 5's preamp and a CD5 CD player at the same time), and the excellent sounding Stageline phono stage option.
It's a very versatile set-up, with great flexibility and upgrade options built in as standard.
Naim customers are more sophisticated these days. Lest we forget, there was a time back in the 'flat earth' eighties when many of the company's acolytes would'nt have a CD player in the house, let alone contemplate buying a remote control preamp.
The trick Naim has had to play is to keep these extremists on board, whilst appealing to an altogether more 'real world' brand of listeners, those who've grown up used to the idea that you don't have to sandpaper your stylus at the end of every track. The key design objective of the Nait 5 was to embody this.

Sound Quality
If, as LeCorbusier would have had it, 'design is intelligence made visible', there are some bright people at Salisbury right now. Despite its radical engineering changes, the unmistakable Naim sound is still very much there. First and forenmost this means a delightfully strong, firm and tuneful bass - this amp takes any piece of music and frames it around the bassline. This becomes the architectural foundation for the rest of the mix - everything that subsequently appears in the music is woven into those all important low frequencies. Compare the Nait 5 to any other integrated, from Cyrus's 7 to Sonneteer's Alabaster, and its rivals seem soft and spongy by comparison. As sure as night follows day, the Nait 5 spotlights glaring weaknesses in the way these amps reproduce music, like it's saying 'look what they're doing wrong'.
The way the Nait 5 handles dynamics is totally unlike other sub-1000 pound integrateds. Amazingly, even a really high volume levels driving diffucult loads, the baby Naim goes louder when the occasion demands it, while others run out of steam despite their higher 'on paper' output power. Driving my big Yamaha NS1000Ms hard (which have high sensitivity but are a nightmare load), the Nait just kept going louder without a hint of break-up, whereas lesser amps just lose it in the bass or trigger their thermal cut outs. The only better amps I've heard in this respect are Naim's own NAP250 and Musical Fidelity's XA-200 - every other one I've tested - valve or transistor, power amp or integrated - has come off severely bruised after trying to wrestle my NS1000Ms at very high levels.
The combination of power and control is the key to the Naim sound, one which some love and others hate. Music suddenly becomes tremendously urgent and engaging, what ever it is you're listening to. Because basslines don't stop playing as soon as there's a loud bit elsewhere (i.e. a drum hit hard, or crashing piano cadences), you get a convincing sense of 'liveness'. If this is what you're after, no other integrated amp anywhere near the price comes even close.
The trouble starts when you begin to listen 'critically', rather than relaxing into the groove of the music. As you'd expect, Chic's 'Good Times' is a feast of rhythms through the Nait 5, but the female singer's voices sounded just a touch too glassy. Those deliciously sumptious strings - a jaw - dropping delight with valves - came across as generic and airbrushed, almost as if they'd been sampled.
Those hi-hat cymbals that feather through the song sweetly with other amps sounded grey, unatmospheric and rolled off through the Nait. It's lacking in other respects too. MJ Cole's 'Crazy Love' showed how the Cyrus 7 set up a considerably wider soundstage which really reached out of the speakers and grabbed you. The Nait 5 on the other hand seemed to be working on an altogether smaller canvas. Although image location was supremely tight and accurate, the soundstage itself reached out less both vertically and horizontally.
So, the new Nait 5 is nothing new inasmuch as it's a highly focused design which over-achieves dramatically in some respects, but is an also-ran in others. What's so great is the balance Naim has struck with its new baby - it's so supremely capable at what it does well AND it now boasts similarly accomplished build, facilities, connectivity and upgradability. This makes it one hell of a bargain if a punchy 'transistor' sound is what you crave. It's arguably the world's best entry-level audiphile amplifier right nopw, a sort of Subaru Impreza Turbo of the hi-fi world. True enough, compared to the Naim Nait 5, all other integrateds sound positively pedestrian.


 
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