Naim SUPERNAIT 2: proving that less is more

Naim SUPERNAIT 2

There’s setting trends, there’s following trends – and then there’s apparently flying in the face of fashion, which is usually either very brave or very dumb.

I mean, look at the consumer electronics market: it’s simply stuffed with ‘me too’ products, showing a woeful lack of inspiration and a entirely risk-averse strategy. A company launches a smartphone, and before long we have a whole bunch of similar products from its rivals; someone decides that OLED TVs or 4K TVs or even curved TVs are the way forward, and guess what? As soon as one brand shows a prototype, the others do likewise.

Even when something truly imaginative appears, such as the excellent Sonos multiroom music system, it’s not long before others are snapping around its heels, with similar products seeming to offer similar facilities, even if they don’t quite manage it as well as the original.

Trouble is, in this confused and specification-driven age, it seems you need all the latest buzzword technologies aboard or you’ll get marked down by naïve commentators and reviewers unable to see beyond tick-boxes on a spec sheet and into real-world performance.

Who cares whether or not it’s got an Octocore SnapLizard XZ1000 processor if the damn thing won’t last a whole day without needing recharging? Or won’t get a decent signal when you’re in the office or sitting on the bog at home (yes, apparently many people do)? Or doesn’t have a screen you can actually see in the hours of daylight?

One of the latest ‘must-haves’ is the provision of digital inputs on amplifiers. It’s a modern trend, apparently – ignoring the fact that AV receivers have had such connectivity for as long as most of us can remember – and so, as someone wrote online the other day, ‘What kind of idiot makes an amplifier without digital inputs in this day and age?’

The answer, as at least some of the established hi-fi press discovered when we went down to Naim HQ in Salisbury a couple of months back, was that Naim is apparently just that kind of idiot. In fact – double slap of palm to forehead – not only was it still launching new amplifiers without digital inputs, it’d even taken its flagship integrated amplifier and thrown away the digital inputs it already had.

New Naim NAIT amplifiers

The new NAITs: from top to bottom, the 5si, the XS 2 and the SUPERNAIT 2

Launching the new amplifiers – the £925 NAIT 5si, the £1595 NAIT XS 2 and the £2750 SUPERNAIT 2 – Naim boss Paul Stephenson explained the company was doing two things: one was turning its attention back to some of it core components, having spent several years developing its Uniti range of all-in-one streaming systems, and the ND line-up of network music players.

A simpler approach
The other was to take a simpler, more performance-oriented approach to the new products: the Unitis and NDs have done a good job of attracting new buyers to the brand, Stephenson said, but now the company had an opportunity to look back inward at products already in the portfolio.

Of the three amplifiers announced at the end of June, I was especially keen to have a long hard listen to the SUPERNAIT 2, having run an original SUPERNAIT in my system, at first on its own and more recently with the addition of a HiCap power supply to feed its preamp section.

Naim seemed to think that was a pretty logical request, so one of the first SUPERNAIT 2s arrived just a few weeks after the launch, and has now been in use for several weeks as my main amplification, both with and without the extra power supply.

First, a quick look at how the SUPERNAIT 2 compares with the other two models in the NAIT range. All three use simpler circuit designs, and heftier transformers, than the models they replace, and all three have built-in headphone amplifiers with proper-sized headphone sockets on the front-panels – none of that 3.5mm nonsense here!

While the NAIT 5si has a simple passive preamp fed into its power amp section, the NAIT XS 2 has a more conventional preamp section, a powered DIN socket to drive Naim’s phono stages, that power supply upgrade potential, and a Class A headphone amplifier.

Oh, and there’s also a USB-mini socket on the rear, but before the computer audio boys get all trembly-trousered, it’s only there to allow future software/firmware updates. Sorry, lads…

naim_supernait-2_high

And so to the SUPERNAIT 2, and it looks just like the model it replaces, except – hang on a minute, which one’s the picture of the SN 2? Ah right – let’s try again…

naim_supernait-2_frontangle

And so to the SUPERNAIT 2, and apart from the general dimensions and the volume and balance controls, it looks nothing like the model it replaces. That’s the new one above, and here’s the original SUPERNAIT.

Naim Supernait

Two rows of buttons on the original SUPERNAIT

In fact, balance knob aside, it looks much more like a big NAIT XS 2, which is exactly in line with Naim’s thinking for the new range.

Gone is the double bank of selectors for record and listen found on the old amplifier, replaced by a much more conventional single row (plus a headphone socket), and of course gone is the entire digital section of the old SUPERNAIT.

Designed for pure performance
Instead, the Naim has been designed for pure performance, with a massive main power transformer mounted close to its capacitors and the output devices, but as far away as possible from the input circuitry. Again, here’s the inside of the new amplifier

naim_supernait-2_inisde

And here’s the model it replaces

naim-old-supernait-inside

There’s optical isolation of the control circuitry, again to minimise interference, and the entire audio section is mounted compliantly, even to the extent of fitting sound-critical resistors above (rather than on) the main board, so their wire ‘legs’ provide damping.

Still got those wobbly knobs
Extensive computer modelling was used to try elements of the layout at the design stage, enabling virtual testing of circuits without having to prototype them, but some things stay the same, including the compliant mounting of the Alps Blue Velvet volume and balance pots. To the uninformed, that could suggest poor build, in that the controls feel wobbly and loose: in fact, it’s all part of a strategy of minimising the amount of vibration able to creep its way thorough to the audio sections.

naim_supernait-2_rear

So, elephant in the room: there’s no digital section.

Huge mistake? I think not: I hardly ever use the digital inputs of the original SN, simply because they seem to have excessive gain, or at least a very high output level into the preamp. And that, combined with a volume control seemingly able to give all the level I ever wanted by about the nine o’clock position, or not much beyond, has meant a lot of caution was needed when switching sources.

The new SUPERNAIT 2 is much more controllable in this respect, whether via the remote handset provided or using the system automation features available via Naim’s range of streamers.

And talking of those streamers, they have digital inputs, so that’s that requirement covered off. Or you could use the Naim DAC. Or the excellent little DAC-V1. Or indeed any number of third-party DACs in a variety of shapes and sizes – I’ve been getting good results of late with the M2Tech HiFace DAC between my MacBook Air and the analogue inputs of the original SUPERNAIT.

Or of course if you wanted an all-in one streaming/amplification solution instead of the SN2 and an ND-series network music player, you could always opt for the Naim SuperUniti instead.

New amp for old…
The SUPERNAIT 2 slid into the rack above the ‘old’ amp, enabling easy switches between them, not only of sources and speakers, but also between use with and without the external power supply. It’s arguable that a power supply should make as much difference to the SN2 as it does to the original, given that the new model already has a discrete regulator, as found in the latest Naim power supplies, for its internal preamp power supply.

However, that’s an argument to be had later, for comparing old and new amplifiers in ‘unassisted’ form is already something of a revelation.
It’s safe to say that I’m used to the sound of the original SN, so it was even more striking just how different the new amplifier sounds: bigger, gutsier and faster, agreed, but also with greater delicacy and finesse, proving that pace and crisp attack needn’t be at the expense of weight and solid low-bass punch.

Playing bass-heavy dance music, the Naim is capable of pounding out the rhythm with metronomic sledgehammer blows and, provided your speakers can hack it, is more than able to drive the room hard without ever suggesting things are just going to tumble into a background blur of boom. Instead, with music like this and driving piano trio jazz alike, the Naim lets the bass provide the engine-room for the music, then layers the rest of the recording on top in entirely natural fashion.

Listening to some of the last recordings made by jazz pianist Bill Evans, with his final trio in September 1980, the ability of the Naim to put you in the heart of a live event – at least, when used with a fine source component and good speakers – is magical. For those who suggest there’s no such thing as a ‘soundstage’ – and yes, there are some –, then this is what you’re missing: the ability to ‘see’ the performers arranged before you, both between and beyond the speakers, in both the lateral and depth planes.

After all, ‘stereo’ doesn’t actually mean two-channel…

I used several sources with the SN2, from the little Fiio X3 player running in via analogue connections to the M2Tech DAC and my Macbook, plus a Naim NDS/555PS combination, with speakers including my usual PMC OB1s and some forthcoming floorstanders with some innovative technology (to be the subject of a future review), with cabling from Audioquest, The Chord Company and Naim itself.

In each combination, the SUPERNAIT 2 gave an excellent account of itself, or rather didn’t – this is a highly-revealing amplifier, but not a characterful one, instead just getting on with the job of showing you what the rest of your system is doing while delighting with the lack of effort with which it appears to be doing so.

It will drive speakers to silly loud levels, and still keep hammering out everything from jazz and rock bass to orchestral big fiddles and percussion with no sign of confusion, while at the same time giving excellent insight into the finer details of what’s going on in the rest of the band.

So that’s going to confuse those who think Naim amplifiers have a ‘sound’, isn’t it? In fact the only sonic characteristics I can ascribe to the SUPERNAIT 2 are those revealed when you harness up the HiCap power supply to deliver juice to the preamp, at which point the music takes on just a shade more sparkle, and there’s even greater insight into the recorded space and ambience, and slightly sharper focus to the way performers are placed in it. Without that extra clarity, you’d never notice that the unassisted amplifier sounds only a shade cloudy by comparison.

Of course, all this is an illusion, and just the ears playing tricks on the brain: I mean it’s not like adding a power supply is moving recorded elements around between the channels, is it? That’d be silly, just like the suggestion two speakers could create a three-dimensional image of a performance, wouldn’t it?

As I said, it’s all about stereo, and what’s achieved when an even better power supply is added is a slight clean-up – which, by the way, is much more subtle than that obtained by adding the same power supply to the original SUPERNAIT – to make it even easier for the illusion of depth and space in the original recording to do it’s stuff.

There’s nothing being created or added here: instead, you’re just gaining the wherewithal for the recording – any recording – to do its stuff and work its magic.

Feed a rubbish, compressed, ‘made to thump out of two speakers with maximum loudness’ recording through the SUPERNAIT 2, and guess what? It’ll sound rubbish and compressed for as long as you can bear to listen to it – which hopefully won’t be too long.

However, play a high-quality recording through this amplifier and on to some fine speakers – and fortunately there are a lot of very good recordings out there, from vintage straight-to-analogue stuff all the way through to current state of the art high-resolution digital – and you can hear just what the Naim engineers mean when they explain what they were trying to achieve with this amplifier.

The time I have so far spent with the SUPERNAIT 2 has coincided with the luxury of being able to wake up, sip a cup of coffee in the garden and have nothing more to worry about than what music to play first that day – and I have to tell you it’s been an absolute joy throughout. Apologies to the neighbours, but the weather has been warm and thus the windows open; I hope they’ve enjoyed at least some of the music floating on the air throughout the house in the last month or so – I know I have.

Yes, I guess I could have made use of the excellent headphone amp fitted – and indeed have, under sufferance for some late night listening, with fine results – but this is an amplifier at its best with some good speakers and filling a room with music to be enjoyed as a social pleasure, not an always slightly dodgy-feeling solitary one.

So then – and assuming Naim hasn’t managed an Apple-like ‘here’s the new one; what old one?’ trick, and there are some original SUPERNAIT amplifiers still in the retail chain, maybe at decent prices – the question is this: should you buy old or new?

In the blue corner, separate record and listen selectors, AV bypass if you can remember the Masonic sequence of button presses, digital inputs and yes, if you squint real hard it looks a bit like a NAC 552.

In the red corner, there’s the SUPERNAIT 2, looking for all the world like a NAIT 5si to which a footpump has been applied, complete with its (intentionally) wobbly knobs – and just sheer sonic magnificence as soon as you start using it.

Unlike most Naim products, this one wasn’t ‘eagerly anticipated’ or ‘long awaited’: we just went down to Salisbury, and there it was alongside its junior partners in crime, sprung on an audience probably expecting a more affordable streamer or one without a DAC or something. So there goes the ‘it was worth waiting for’ conclusion you usually read on reviews.

Instead, the SUPERNAIT 2 is just what it is: a superb integrated amplifier for those who want serious performance without going down the pre/power route. And now I’ve got used to its simplicity, simply the best all-in-one Naim amp I’ve heard.

Naim SUPERNAIT 2
Type Integrated amplifier
Price £2750
Inputs Four on DIN/RCA, one on RCA only, one DIN with 24V power for Naim phono stage
Outputs One pair of speakers, 6.35mm headphone socket, preout and biamp on DIN, subwoofer on RCA phonos
Power output 80Wpc into 8ohms, 130Wpc into 4ohms
Upgrade options FlatCap, HiCap or SuperCap power supplies for preamp sections
Other connections/facilities Input for external infrared sensor, remote control input, USB mini-B for upgrades, unity gain input for use with AV receivers/processors
Accessories supplied NARCOM-4 remote handset, link plug (remove when power supplies added)
Dimensions (WxHxD) 43.2×8.7×31.4cm
www.naimaudio.com

Written by Andrew Everard

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