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
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.
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.