masters of the universe part I
Founded at the beginning of the Seventies, just before the British hifi industry went through its deepest ever recession, Naim Audio has grown steadily and surely ever since. That difficult birth seems to have bred a ruggedness that has proved remarkably resilient to the stop/go economic cycles ever since, so it’s now one of the largest and most influential British hifi players around.
I must be better qualified than most to put this profile together. My own the vague awareness of the products goes back to those very earliest days, and my knowledge of the company itself stretches back more than twenty odd years, to the days when amplifiers were built in a room behind the tiny backstreet hifi shop in Salisbury which sold them.
The trip down to Salisbury arose from a challenge issued by one Julian Vereker, then and still the owner and main moving force behind Naim Audio. It arose at a major hifi show when I scurried into the relative tranquillity of a closed-door Naim room, primarily to evade from a torrent of Glaswegian invective hurled at me across the Linn room next door.
That abuse was not entirely undeserved, but I wasn’t planning to get involved in a slanging match across a crowded room at a public hifi show. Julian may have been making some very similar points, but his use of received English to enquire politely whether I knew what the flaps each side of my head were for, was always going to be easier to handle than the Braveheart “‘Ye deff Sassenach’ war cry next door. Besides, by public transport from Brighton, Salisbury was going to be easier.
The mid-Seventies was an exciting time in British hifi. The industry was still reeling from its worst ever recession, which sent many famous brands to the wall, and young turks like Julian at Nam, along with Ivor Tienbrun at Linn, Roy Gandy at Rega, and Bob Stuart at Meridian, were busy challenging most of hifi’s accepted dogmas. The fact that these four brands now form much of the backbone of British hifi would seem a powerful validation of what was often considered wild heresies at the time.
With hindsight, the early Seventies was a strange world. Subjective reviewing was virtually unknown, or at least restricted to loudspeakers and cartridges. The overwhelming majority confidently believed that turntables and amplifiers had no significant effect whatsoever on sound quality; and were earnestly debating whether to dump their surface-noisy LP’s in favour or pre-recorded cassettes.
The ‘new boys’ were urging all and sundry to actually listen to hifi, rather than merely debating the feature count and the measured specifications, and came up with some pretty radical suggestions about what you should be listening for. Young journalists such as yours truly, with neither test gear investment not reputation to protect, thought this listening thing sounded a neat idea.
We weren’t very good at first, but after a bit of practice found quite big obvious differences between turntables and other components. With hindsight, we were digging past the superficial presentation of the sound (largely determined by speaker balance) and picking up on dynamic range improvements. Most hifi is capable enough of reproducing the sound of a plucked guitar string, for example. By doing a better job of preserving all the much weaker signals generated at the same time, these new components were providing information on a much more subtle musical level – such as how or even why te string was plucked.
Why these factors had been largely overlooked for so long remains something of a mystery, though several factors probably contributed to their emergence during the Seventies. Part of it was a reaction against the super complexity and specmanship of the Japanese kit around at the time – quadraphony had just bombed commerciallly, in a mess of competing formats. But there was also a change in the way of listening.
Rather than simply concentrating on the character of the sound created by a component or system, there was a serious attempt to get behind the sound and examine what was happening to the actual musical content and assess the emotional impact.
The most important factor of all, however, was the alliance between Naim and Linn, and their energetic joint preaching of the ‘music first’ code. It was a natural alliance. You didn’t need to use a Naim amp to appreciate the advantages of a Linn turntable – but it certainly helped. And by the same token, it was much easier to hear amplifier differences if you used a Linn turntable as the source.
The net result was a sea change in hifi attitudes over a few short years. Attention switched away from loudspeakers, which after all are entirely dependent on the signal which feeds them, and focused instead on turntable paraphernalia (motirs, arms, and cartridgrs) and amplifiers.
I myself started with a second hand NAC12/NAP160 pre-/power amp way back in the mid-Seventies, then a little later added a separate external SNAPS power supply for the pre-amp. I then upgraded the NAP160 to a NAP250 (helped by good trade-in prices), and subsequently changed the snaps to a larger HI-Cap power supply. The final step, a couple of years later, was to ‘go active’, adding the NAXO electronic crossover and two extra NAP250 power amps to drive Linn Isobarik PMS speakers in trii-amp mode.
Naim and Linn together
Meanwhile, the back room shop in Salisbury was busy churning out curious looking and unusually expensive amplifiers, to supply a gradually widening network of dealers. These in turn were getting increasingly enthusiastic about this unique and strangely addictive amplifier, to the point where became personal customers too.
What were those early Naim amps like, and what was.so unusual about them? The answer to the first part of the question might as well be that surprisingly similar to the amps makes today. Although there are lots of detail differences and far wider range of models, much of the essence of the early NAP200 power amp the funny little NAC12 pre-amp is still preserved in the current catalogue.
I reckon the thing which most irritated Naim’s commercial rivals at that time was not just that the amps were selling very well despite apparently extravagant price tags, but rather that Naim was doing this electronic circuitry which was conventional and unadventurous in the extreme.
Naim happily left its competitors to squabble about the importance of transient intermodulation distortion and the significance of slew rate listening and to go on searching for the ultimate output stage configuration. The secret to its success lay not in the circuitry itself, but in the way, it was applied. This was where the Naim amps were different from the rest.
The most obvious was the lack of tone controls – a true heresy back in the days when leading brand preamps were busily sprouting mini-graphic equalisers. Just which was the first high amp builder to dump tone controls has never been fully resolved. It might have been Julian Vereker down in Salisbury; it might have been US high-end guru Mark Levison; or it might have been some Japanese garage operation which never got into export.
Whatever, JV and ML (and of course Mark’s electronics designer John Curl) had clearly identified the tone control as a menace to sound quality way back in the very early seventies. Any equalisation involves the introduction of a resonant circuit, and that itself introduces unwanted phase shifts. Ditching tone controls cleaned up the signal path but in a marketplace dominated by the features vs price equation, it was also something of an act of faith in the very principle.
Hopefully those that listened rather than looked before they bought would appreciate the advantages.
It’s taken twenty five odd years, but what started out with a couple of small companies standing their principles to give the customer a better sound, has now spread throughout the specialist high world. Mainstream integrated amps still have their bass and treble controls of course, and many mini systems now sports a full electronic graphic equaliser to impress wouod be purchasers. But in real hi-fi land, where sound quality is taken seriously, tone controls have all but disappeared.
Dumping tone controls might have been the most obvious Naim characteristic, but it wasn’t the most important. The whole architecture of the amp system was – and is – radical, with the extensive use of complex outboard power supplies (especially where low level pre-amp signals are concerned), and the rigorous attention paid to star -earthing the whole caboodle, with a complex web of DIN-style interconnects.
Adherence to DIN plugs and sockets was another Naim something of an outsider. The company has sound reasons for sticking to DINs, but a practical consequence is that it’s difficult to mix’n’match between pre and power amps of other makes. The Naim amp is effectively a complete amp system, from start to finish.
It could also consist of almost any number of boxes, depending upon the wealth and aspirations of the owner. Naim’s use of separate outboard supplies leads to a modular structure which in turn permits considerable future upgrade flexibility. A first Naim amp need not be a dead end, one-off purchase, but can be the first building block in a system which offers considerable scope for expansion.
The latter was undoubtedly the definitive ‘British high end’ system of the late-seventies, and while the price was still comfortably below some US exotica, it was way above what the British audiophile had been accustomed to pay. A Naim NAP250 was about three times the price of an equivalent Quad power amp, so a system using three of them was considerably more expensive than normal passive system. A surprising number were sold nonetheless, and many are still keeping owners happy today. And although Naim and Linn no longer cooperate commercially the principles behind it are still easy enough to see in both company’s product ranges today.