Have you ever been to Disneyland? I spent time last week at the McIntosh factory in Binghamton, New York and during my visit I asked McIntosh President, Charlie Randall, a lot of questions about the brand’s heritage and why customers hold onto their systems forever — or drive 3,000 miles to have it serviced. McIntosh has a global customer base that is fanatical about the blue skies and green grass but it’s a unique American success story.
The British equivalent is most certainly Naim Audio. Say that out loud and pretend that I’m wrong.
You know you want to. Say it twice. Naim. Founded by Julian Vereker MBE (1945-2000) in 1973, Naim Audio have been one of the linchpins of the high-end audio movement for almost as long as I have been alive. It is not a brand that creates feelings of ambivalence within the audio world; audiophiles either love or hate it.
From the launch of its first products; the iconic NAP 200 power amplifier and NAC 12 pre-amplifier, Naim Audio have been troublemakers – in the best way possible. Everything about the industrial design, choice of DIN over RCA connectors, and decision to do things “right” vs “first” was part of a bigger plan.
Julian Vereker rubbed some people the wrong way. Sign of an entrepreneur and rebel. It should not shock anyone to learn that one of his greatest passions was racing cars. Naim’s products have always had a particular look (the infamous Naim green) and feel – I rather love the look of older Naim kit with its switches and volume knobs.
It certainly doesn’t look like anything else. The original NAIT integrated amplifier was introduced in 1983 and it certainly bucked the “blowtorch” trend that was popular with amplifiers made in America and Japan at the time.
The idea that “more is more” didn’t fly very well with Julian Vereker.
His biggest concern was sound quality, and something our British friends like to call “PRaT” (pace, rhythm and timing). The music coming out of your loudspeakers couldn’t sound very good if the components creating that sound were incapable of getting those things correct.
Audio components need to get a lot more than that right; including tone, clarity, detail, imaging, soundstage depth and width.
It’s not that easy to get everything right. I’ve certainly never heard a single component that did everything well. After 40+ years of listening to audio equipment, I can count on both hands (makes sure he has all ten fingers) the number of times I’ve walked away from a demonstration or product under review and felt like it came damn close. That’s not a huge number in the grand scheme of things.
The trade-off for all of that excellence in the PRaT department, is that Naim gear has never been the most colorful. I’ve heard some describe its tonal balance as being “bleached” but I don’t think extreme description is accurate either.
Is it warm and slightly oversaturated like a lot of the tube amplifiers that people love? No – and those same amplifiers sound damn slow in comparison to the NAIT 5si integrated amplifier that is the heart of our system recommendation for this week.
Naim gear doesn’t throw the largest soundstage I’ve ever heard either. Scale it gets right with almost everything – it just doesn’t blow past the walls behind them into the backyard or into the adjacent rooms.
So why should you consider it?
Because it delivers the flow and pulse of music better than most amplifiers and will last you forever. I owned a Naim NAIT 3 for almost a decade. I’m not sure I turned it off more than a few times each year. It never broke and I sold it (huge regret there) in less than one day to a very excited buyer.
Music is engaging through this amplifier. In a more believable way than a lot of other amplifiers below $2,000.
One of the knocks against Naim under the tutelage of Julian Vereker, was that their products didn’t play well with others in the sandbox. I think there was some truth to that, but it didn’t really impact how their amplifiers made music with a lot of different loudspeakers.
Naim built their own loudspeakers for a long time, and while many who have belonged to the “cult” for many decades built very satisfying systems around those loudspeakers – I was always more impressed with how Naim equipment worked with other brands; particularly Spendor, Harbeth, Wharfedale, ProAc, Rega, Tannoy, Rogers, Neat, and Graham Audio.
Anyone notice a common thread there? G-d Save the Queen. She’s had a rough year. Damn kids.
Naim have also taken a bold step with their new Focal Powered by Naim Houston location which is going to be the model for another 20 or so just like it in North America. Locations in Europe, Asia, and Australia are already a thing.
The NAIT 5si Integrated Amplifier
The NAIT 5si has a lot of competition below $2,000 and we’ll cover some of those in future installments.
The Schiit Audio Ragnarok 2, Cambridge Audio CXA81, Croft Phono integrated, and Rega ELEX-R come to mind as obvious challengers. They all do something better than the NAIT 5si, but I’m not sure the PRaT thing is one of them.
From a power perspective, it delivers 60 watts/channel into 8 ohms and includes 4 analog inputs, and a single ¼” headphone jack.
If you were expecting an internal DAC, streamer, or phono stage – none of that is part of the package.
The omission of an internal phono stage bothers me a little; especially when Naim makes really good ones. I think it’s something they need to fix in this new awakening in regard to listening to records.
But what about sources?
Naim has always built premium CD players and the CD5si has been an easy recommendation for a few years. It’s robust, easy-to-use, reliable, and one of the few CD players that makes me want to turn off the Roon server and listen to CDs all night long. It doesn’t do MQA, DSD, or even high-resolution audio. How’s that for a middle finger in 2021?
The CD5si engages better than most CD players and combined with the NAIT 5si really finds its groove. Synergy is a thing.
Naim also offer a family of streamers and network amplifiers like the Uniti Atom that we reviewed in 2020, but they are priced well outside the margins of the kind of system we are trying to build here; and I prefer the sound quality of the NAIT 5si with the loudspeakers I’m recommending below.
The brand new Bluesound NODE streamer gets my enthusiastic recommendation here. It’s easy to use, affordable, and the sound quality is excellent for the money. You can always upgrade it with an external DAC in the future. The Node also does MQA and high-res audio with the various streaming platforms like Tidal, and Qobuz. It will be good to go once Spotify launch their new HiFi lossless tier. Bluesound have added eARC and (finally) a USB digital output that will be activated with the next BluOS firmware update.
Turntable? Rega Planar 3 with the Nagaoka MP-110 cartridge.
Say My Naim
There are so many options in the loudspeaker category that work well with the NAIT 5si. It would be easy to select something from Focal (both companies are owned by the same group), but I’m going to be that guy and make 2 other suggestions based on my experience with all of the components so far.
I had already returned the Focal Chora 806 that we reviewed last year when the Naim equipment arrived so I’m not going to pretend that I know how that combination sounds together. Not a clue.
I’ve used Spendor loudspeakers going back to the 1990s and while they might lack the overly colorful midrange of the SP2/3s, the A2 deliver far superior detail, clarity, and imaging. They are definitely on the smaller side for floorstanders (31” H x 6” W x 10” D), but sound larger than they look. They also benefit from some power.
I would pull the A2 a few feet from the wall and listen to them disappear; the rock solid center stereo image extends outward and is remarkably engaging. Vocals and horns are magnificent in this system. The bass could extend a little deeper, but that shouldn’t be an issue in a smaller room.
Wharfedale EVO 4.2
Wharfedale is another brand that I’ve owned for many years and I’m recommending the EVO 4.2 because I think their reserved nature needs a bit of an enema. Something Naim gear can deliver with some attitude – after it remembers to wash up and put on a pair of gloves.
The EVO 4.2 are large stand-mounted loudspeakers with excellent midrange resolution, a slightly rolled-off treble, and first-rate clarity. They can sound huge if you set them up correctly. The NAIT/CD5si combination wakes them up. I can’t imagine anyone could find this combination even remotely boring sounding. With any genre of music.
The Spotted Dick
Naim NAIT 5si integrated amplifier ($1,895.00)
Naim CD5si CD player ($1,895.00)
Moon by SimAudio LP110 V2 Phono Preamp ($475.00)
Bluesound NODE streamer ($549.00)
Spendor A2 ($2,795.00/pair – find store)
Wharfedale EVO 4.2/24” stands ($998.00/pair + $299/pair)
Total: $7,281.00 – $8,779.00