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Naim Nait 1

A living legend (1983-1987)

[Naim Nait 1 amplifier]
Naim Nait 1
[Italian version]

Product: Naim Nait integrated amplifier
Manufacturer: Naim Audio Ltd. - UK
Retail price: discontinued, original retail: ± 400 $/Euro
Reviewer: Lucio Cadeddu - TNT Italy
Published: March, 2003

Naim Audio Integrated Amplifier or Nait for short. Any audiophile worth his weight in strong Ale should be familiar with this acronym, quickly becomed a legend in HiFi since its early days in the mid Eighties.
Naim Audio is well known for its radical approach to HiFi design. Even non-Naimophiles are quite aware of the main differences between the Salisbury firm and..the others: Naim still uses DIN connectors in lieu of RCA's, makes preamps that get power from power amps or beefy external power supplies, interconnects that carry both signal and power and so on. Some of these weird solutions will make tremble more than one "regular" audiophile.
Enter the Nait, one of the most controversial and famous integrated amps in the history of HiFi after the glorious NAD 3020. Naim wanted to prove that power and size aren't everything for a good sounding HiFi component and that, moreover, a cleverly designed power supply can be crucial for fine sonic performance.
Following a well established Naim tradition, no tech specs were given for the Nait, not even power output on 8 ohms. Hence, someone said it was that small good 5 watts amp Paul W. Klipsch always asked for, others said it was a 10 watts per channel or so. Rumours, rumours, rumours. More or less, the first Nait was around 15 watts per channel @ 8 Ohms. Nothing able to impress your friends but enough to make average speakers play loud inside a small listening room.
The Nait 1 was then substituted by the Nait 2, slightly more powerful at 20 watts per channel, then came the Nait 3 and the current Nait 5. The aim of this article is to tell you how damn good the first Nait was, so I won't comment on the most recent incarnations.

First of all, we shouldn't forget the previous legend, the NAD 3020, rated at 20 watts per channel. It proved it was way easier to make a low powered amp sounding good than designing a 100 watts monstre that delivers sweet tunes. The NAD 3020 was the living (and inexpensive) proof. Actually, in the early Seventies everyone was trying to make powerful (and cheap) integrated amps. NAD designers swam against the tide and created a small jewel, with extremely good (and unusual for that time) driving capability matched to a warm and sweet sound.

[Naim Nait 1 inside]

Ten years later the Naim designers decided it was time to offer the famous Naim sound to everyone. The Nait was a small, black, nice aluminium cabinet (the same shared by Naim preamps, power supplies and power amps of the so-called "half-size") filled up with high quality (discrete) components precisely mounted on a single mainboard which included a damn good MM phono input (derived by the famous 322 Naim phono boards) and a superb Holden & Fisher 100VA toroidal transformer specially made for Naim Audio.
The package included 1 phono MM input (via standard RCA connectors!), 1 tuner line input (via DINs) and 1 tape loop (still via DINs). Speakers binding posts accepted bananas only, no bare wire or forks being allowed by Naim's credo.
The front panel had a plastic volume knob (at the left), power on and inputs switches + a red led (green on later Nait 1 versions). Quite radical, I'd say. And what about the fancy balance pot? It made adjustments of level on one channel only, by an amount of -3dB. No center position was available, so one had to find the desired "equilibrium" by ear. Disappointing, to say the least. Such a strange balance control disappeared on later versions.
Powering it on produced a quite strong "bump" on the speakers followed by a smaller "crack". Like other Naim amps it had NO Zobel network at the output stage so it required Naim cables to operate properly (Naim cables offer a prescribed mix of R, L and C, more on this later).

I bought my Nait 1 second-hand when I decided time was come to give this little piece of HiFi history all the praise it deserved. I've tested it with many different partners during the last 2 years and here are my (a bit biased, I admit) findings.

A living legend

First of all do not let the low power output fool you. This amp has grunt and drive in spades, more, much more than you'd expect from such a diminutive package. You'd be surprised to know that many Quadophiles consider this amp a perfect match for Quad ESL and ESL 63's electrostatic loudspeakers.
The first thing you may notice, perhaps because it comes as totally unexpected, is overall dynamics. This amp can follow even the most demanding tracks with ease, provided you don't ask for too much sound pressure. It's quick, tempo'ed and pacey, in other words, just to use the common Naimophiles jargon, it has PRaT (Pace, Rhythm and Tempo) in spades. It is simply damn good at that.
You just can't help but feel the amp is playing the right tempo. Snares and toms are reproduced with lightening quick attack time and perfect decays while bass lines follow the rhythmic patters easily: you can distinguish electric bass and kick drum even when playing all'unisono. Many amplifiers fail to do that and glue the two bass notes together.

The tonal balance is a bit on the warm side, with an audible roll-off at the upper highs and a tilt at the mid-bass so to make the sound "bigger" than it actually is. Really deep bass notes stay a bit "behind" the rest, which is normal, considering how underpowered this amp is.
It seems the balance of the Nait has been tought to perfectly match that of classical small British bookshelf loudspeakers, such as the Linn Index: dry bass and, depending on listening rooms, slightly "forward" high range.
The Nait simply adds the needed warmth and smooths the edges in the highs. The final result is a perfect blend of pros and cons, giving life to a sound which is well balanced, realistic and lively.
With bigger speakers one starts to feel the lack of the first octave and the added warmth in the mid-bass but, still, the small Nait is enjoyable, more, much more than many "audiophile" integrated amps when mated with highly demanding loudspeakers.
In case you were wondering, I'd confess I've compared the small Nait against the old legend, the NAD 3020 and its highly praised audiophile incarnation, the 3120. Then added a Rotel 920, a 820 BX, a Cambridge A 500 and everything else I've come across during these last 2 years. Yes, you may find more powerful integrated amplifiers out there but it is HARD to find something that sounds this good _overall_.
My pre-loved 3020 and 3120 simply don't fit the bill. The difference in terms of overall musicality, pace, dynamics and "living presence" is stunning, the Nait beats 'em all hands down (one should remark the difference was BIG even in terms of $$$, though). A real "taste" of hi-end sound that comes in a small package.

Of course, do not try to make it drive largely inefficient loudspeakers in large listening rooms. There are laws of physics that reign even up there in Salisbury. Also, the Nait - sometimes - sounds edgy in the mid-range, with a touch of extra aggressiveness which isn't welcomed in such a sweet amp. This slight trace of "dirt" in the mid-highs does not seem to depend on the power output. It is there even at low levels though - of course - it becomes more evident the louder it gets. If you are looking for an utterly transparent, airy and delicate performer, stay away from the Nait, it is not the right amp for you. If you're searching for dynamics, pace, rhythm and "life-like" performance, well, your search may be over :-)
Also, rock nuts may like it more than opera and ancient Music fans.

Finally, a few words on 3D imaging. This is not something of real interest for Naimophiles of the Flat Earth kind :-) so, flat-landers, please press "page down", now :-)
Naim loudspeakers are designed to perform at their best when placed close to the rear wall. In few words, this means the depth of the virtual stereophonic image isn't considered of paramount importance. Rarely you'll hear Naim-fans discuss about this parameter, they think it is too much "HiFi" and not enough related to "Music". I won't start a flame war on this point (as we've had enough of wars lately, I'm afraid...) so let me elaborate this a little bit further.
Though not designed with this parameter in mind ("imaging", that is) the Nait performs quite well in this department, building a WIDE and reasonably deep soundstage, with a decent focus and plenty of precision. It does way better than many other "audiophile" integrateds I tested, for example.
This proves that cleverly designed HiFi components not only respect the correct "timing" of the Music but even its spatial environment, as captured by the mics during the recording process. After all, HiFi means just that: faithful reproduction of what's inside the discs. And if discs contain soundstage informations any "correct" HiFi component should be able to deliver these to the listener. Period.

Re-reading these notes I feel my opinions may appear a bit biased. Good news! Simply put, I couldn't care less. Yes, this amp is no longer made, it is hard to find it second-hand and I LOVE it immensely. Am I biased? Perhaps. All I can suggest is to search for one of these babies and hook it to your speakers. If you already own a "modern" audiophile integrated amp...chances are you'll jump over the seat.

Some advice

When searching for second-hand Nait 1's always ask the seller to tell you the serial number of the unit. At the Naim Audio site (section Products > History) you'll find a reference map that matches serial numbers with years. This way you'll know the exact age of your unit. Not only, precise serial numbering is of paramount importance to investigate (still at Naim's) whether the unit has been serviced by the factory or not. Serviced units (recapping, for example) have higher value. Naim keeps track of any servicing they make. Surprised? Don't be.

Avoid insanely high prices. Since it has already happened (with other "Classics" we've reviewed), after a review prices tend to go ballistic. Don't get ripped off. During these years I've seen Nait 1's selling from 150 $/Euro to 400 and even 500/Euro (way too much of a good thing). I believe 200-250 $/Euro is a good price both for the seller and the buyer.

No MC phono inputs are available, the Nait 1 had only MM inputs. No preamp out/main-in either. If you already own a Nait 1 it is perhaps time to consider a recapping by Naim. It shouldn't be expensive, considering the size (and number) of caps involved. This will make your Nait sound like it was new for 15 years to come, at least.
Use Naim cables whenever possible. NAC A5 cables are the best choice (minimum lenght 3.5 meters per channel) but even older NAC A4's could work fine. Both can be found cheap second-hand.
DO NOT USE high capacitance cables like our DIY speaker wires.
Then you need RCA/DINs interconnects. I don't recommend using RCA/DIN adapters...it is better to use cables with RCA's at source side (if you're using non-Naim sources, shame on you :-)) and DIN's at amp's side. A popular choice among Naimophiles is Chord cables.
Since you're forced to use bananas try Naim ones, these are slim and fit perfectly inside the amp sockets. Bulkier bananas may require too much space (one from the other)...and Naim Nait posts are damn close. Phono RCA's are somehow recessed inside the cabinet, you may consider slim RCA plugs as well.

As for speakers matching, I wouldn't recommend anything below 85 dB/w/m, unless your listening room is REALLY small and your listening habits favour extremely LOW listening levels. Don't penalize the small Nait with speakers it can't drive. A good match could be a pair of the aforementined Linn Index (better, Linn Index Plus), some compact KEF bookshelf, Quad ESL's if you are of the "no-fear" kind :-)

There are different versions of the Nait 1. The most evident difference between older and later models is the power-on led light: red on old ones, green on later models. But there's more: during the years (1983-1987) the mainboard has been revised several times. Revision numbers can be found on the mainboard. Mine, a later version with green led, has a Nait 1/rev.7 mainboard, for example (serial number: #40xxx).

Conclusion

What else can I say? If your target is centered on small audiophile amps you should consider the Nait seriously. It is a small legend in HiFi, a revolutionary product that proves without doubt that power and size aren't everything. This was (and still is) a damn good amplifier. A stunning one, indeed. I'd love to see Naim designing again a "small" Nait. Later Naits are of the "full-width" kind. Nothing wrong with this but I kinda feel the need for small HiFi systems. And I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Credits: first of all, Naim Audio UK and Paul Stephenson in particular, for his precious and kind help and for providing a set of Naim NAC A5 speakers cables for testing purposes.
Another excellent source of precious infos has been the Pink Fish Media "Flat Earth" website and the related PFM Forum (love you, guys).
Very good infos can be retrieved from the official Naim Audio Forum as well (access it directly through the Naim website).
Finally, the Nait 1 pic (not the inside view, which is mine) has been kindly offered by NASG - Naim Audio short guide, a must-see gallery for all Naim fans.

© Copyright 2003 Lucio Cadeddu - http://www.tnt-audio.com

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