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The Naim Story part II

masters of the universe 

Naim and Linn together grew very rapidly throughout the Seventies, so by the early Eighties both were becoming quite big fish in a fairly small  specialist hi-fi pool. Since both were operating at (and had indeed largely created) the top end of the market, it was pretty inevitable they would start treading on each other’s toes at some stage. 

The relationship came to a fairly sticky end soon after Linn launched it first amplifiers, in 1985. Many dealers who’d been happily selling combinations of the two were forced to choose either one or the other of the brand, so it became quite hard for customers to find a shop where both could be auditioned.

It was a difficult time for all involved, but both companies survived the split-up, and carried on growing their market shares independently. While there was still a certain commonality of purpose in hi-fi terms, each developed its own quite distinct character and identity.

Naim already had FM tuners to partner it’s amps, and decided against making a turntable. Instead it introduced a couple of turntable products – the Armageddon power supply and the ARO tonearm –  which gave the Linn Sondek a distinctively Naim flavour, and worked very well with the Naim amps and speakers. The exceptional and surprising ARO tonearm continues to go from strength to strength. Ten years after it appeared, the respected US ‘high-end’ magazine Stereophile has just picked the ARO as it’s ‘turntable component of the year’.

Naim NA SBL

More important than these turntable forays was the 1986 move into loudspeakers, with the very original and ground-breaking SBL. Designed by Roy George (who joined from Goodmans), it uses a number of unusual design techniques which have been carried through into subsequent Naim speakers. There are parallels with the amplifier design too, inasmuch as the basic drive units are fairly conventional, while their application is anything but.

SBL stands for separate box loudspeaker, but that’s only part of the story. Just as interesting are the complex integral stand, the bass driver loading and the cabinet damping, all applying sound mechanical principles in original ways.

The importance of firmly spiked stands in getting the very best sound quality out of loudspeakers had been discovered some years earlier. Few people likes the appearance, but their use was taken for granted in top quality systems. Naim’s solution was to integrate the speaker and stand as an entity- easier said than done, when each speaker uses three different boxes. The result is a complex skeleton frame which supports each box separately, coupling and decoupling them as appropriate.

The driver line up is throughly conventional, if classically executed, with an 8inch frame, paper cone main driver and fabric tweeter. The enclosure complexities are all designed to help these drivers reproduce the signal as accurately as possible, and to keep enclosure vibrations as low as possible. By mounting the tweeter in its own box, it’s much easier to keep it well clear of the strong vibrations generated by the main driver, while a measure of controlled decoupling isolates the whole assembly from floor or stand borne vibrations.

The main driver mounting arrangements are even more elaborate. In essence, the prime purpose of the double box is to try and achieve the mechanical benefits of a small box, alongside the acostic advantages of a much larger one. The driver itself mounted in quite a small box, independently spike-coupled to the stand mechanically, but acoustically coupled to the much larger lower box via a controlled acoustic resistance. Mechanical enclosure vibration is therefore largely confined to the smaller box. From the driver’s point of view the box is both large (giving good bass extension), but also (because the resistance panel) small enough to give good cone excursion control.

Another unusual feature of all Naim speakers is the ability to upgrade from single-amp (passive) to multi-amp active drive. It’s all part of the philosophy which allows the system performance to be upgraded in easy steps. In thee SBL this is achieved by mounting the crossover in an external capsule that plugs into individual socket pairs on the tweeter and the main driver boxes, and is thus easily removable.

The finale major link in the Naim Audio chain came in 1991, when the CDS CD player first appeared. Along with several other brands, Naim was underwhelmed by the performance of the CD medium, and continues to provide full support for those who continue to use vinyl. But the mass market tide has made CD comfortably the most important music medium around, with by far the widest range of repertoire, so Naim started looking seriously at the problem of CD replay.

The result, embodied in the CDS, is typically different from the normal way of doing things. CD players tend to be built up from modules, such as the disc drive/transport, or the digital-to-analogue conversion chip set, bought in from the component industry, which does somewhat limit the range of options available at a basic technology level.

It’s in the way that technology is applied that Naim chooses it’s own path. CDS is a two-box player, but instead of separating the transport from the D-to-A converter, these are kept in a single chassis, while the other box is devoted entirely to the various power supplies needed by the different stages, the two linked by a hefty multi-conductor cable. By adopting this unorthodox arrangement, and deliberately not providing the standard serial digital output socket (needed for using an external D-to-A converter), Naim can use its own internal interface, with faster parallel connection. 

The player unit is unusual in other ways too. The disc drive mechanism and D-to-A processing electronics are separately and independently spring-decoupled from the casework, to give a high degree of immunity from vibrations. The drive has a top-loading mechanism, working within a tray lined in a special paint to absorb any stray laser light, and using a little bit powerful magnetic clamp to give good grip between drive and disc without significantly to the rotational inertia.

Hopefully this cursory tour around the ins and outs of some of Naim’s core products gives a little of the favour of the company’s approach to engineering design, which is entirely logical but usually creatively unorthodox at the same time.

However, you can’t talk a hifi system. It’s only genuine validation is how well it plays music, and how well that music communicates to the listener. In the hi-fi fraterbaity, Naim systems have always tended to polarise opinion, between those which rate their communications skills above all else, and those who complain of a less acceptable lack of natural tonality and perspectives.

It’s a valid point. The music I like is bound to be very different from whatever turns you on, and the reasons behind our differences in taste are deeply rooted in the subconscious. We all have our own personal agendas for getting what we want from our music, so it’s not surprising the same applies  to our hi-fi systems. Naim’s systems will therefore never have universal appeal, but they do represent a valid and unusually consistent  approach to the multi-dimensional subtleties of hi-fi reproduction, and as such deserve to be given a hearing.

I first ‘tuned in’ to the Naim sound some twenty years ago, at the back of that little shop in Salisbury. That the company now operates from  a shiny new purpose built factory out on the ring road, with a hundred employees and an annual turnover of several millions, is strong evidence that more and more people have been getting on the Naim wavelength every year. Naim components remain an expensive proposition, but the passage of time shows they’re very reliable and hold their value well.

The product range and operational complexities have grown every which way, and the products themselves have undergone steady refinement. But there’s still plenty of continuity going back to those early days. At the end of the day, the guys down at Naim are well into music and hi-fi, and make the products they themselves want to use at home. 

The one factor which above all bedevils serious hi-fi is that there’s no clearly defined winning post. Everything is compromise, and the designer has to make the choices. A crucial strength of Naim’s system approach is that all those choices throughout the chain follow the same coherent philosophy, so that everything works together towards a common goal.