Integrated Amplifiers

Naim Audio, SUPERNAIT Integrated Stereo Amplifier with DAC

ARTICLE INDEX

Introduction

What's in a Naim? For those not overly familiar with the brand (myself included) that has usually meant DIN connectors, the ubiquitous black casework, green lit buttons and a reputation for an emphasis to PRat. This reputation for Pace Rhythm and Timing and a focus on hand built craftsmanship put Naim in a unique place amongst audio components. There's also the fact that it took Naim 10 years to release a CD player and one would think Naim is a conservative company. Yet as the SUPERNAIT proves they have jumped into the 21st century with style.

Specifications

  • Design: Stereo Integrated Amplifier with built in Digital To Analog Converter
  • Power Output: 80 watts x 2 into 8 Ohms
  • RCA Analog Inputs: 5 sets
  • DIN Inputs: 5 inputs (share single connection with DIN outputs)
  • Digital Inputs: 2 Toslink, 2 Coax
  • 3.5mm (1/8") input: 1 front mounted (dual analog and digital input)
  • Analog Input Sensitivity: 75mV
  • Analog Input Impedance: 47kΩ
  • Digital Inputs: 16-24bits, 44.1-192khz
  • Dimensions: 3.5" x 17" x 12.4" H x W x D
  • Weight: 28lbs
  • MSRP: $4,550 (down from $4,999)
  • Naim Audio

The SUPERNAIT is one of a few integrated amplifiers on the market offering a built in Digital To Analog Converter (DAC). Having recently abandoned analog playback (turntables were far too much trouble and while they do sound good, I am willing to sacrifice some performance for the convenience of a digital music server) all my sources are now digital. Most have decent enough sounding internal DACs but all have benefited from good external converters. Personally, I have owned two integrated amps with built in DACs, and I have to assume it won't be long before we see an explosion of selection in this product category. Just like an integrated amp saves on space, cables, and complexity compared to separates, bringing the DAC section into the case work makes as much sense in reducing parts, case work, etc. The key to the value of an integrated amp is providing enough flexibility, performance and value to outperform or rival separate components.


Design

Naim gear has always looked understated in photos. In person it is well, simple and plain, yet it does have a charm and aesthetic unique to Naim. Build quality is exceptionally high. Every aspect of the unit from the solidity of the casework to the smoothness of the rotary knobs exude quality. This extends to the remote control. Most high end components either have overly lavish (and expensive) remotes milled of metal, or incredibly cheap plastic remotes. The SUPERNAIT's remote is plastic but with a very solid case, great feeling buttons and no creaks. The remote has a very wide transmission angle, easily being able to bounce the beam of my rear wall and have the SUPERNAIT receive the signal. This strong IR performance is very welcome, many audio products have unusable remotes as they have to be pointed right at the device.

The SUPERNAIT has some very modern and useful features and also some very traditional quirky Naim main stays. In the traditional column you have DIN connectors for both input and output use, and linking the preamp section to the amplifier section. It's not possible to use the SUPERNAIT as an amplifier (disabling the preamp) directly by using RCA inputs. DIN connections must be used. One work around is to use the home theater pass-through function if you desire to bypass the SUPERNAIT' preamp.

I was curious as to why NAIM has steadfastly used DIN connections for so long. The following is information provided by Naim's US importer as to the reasons NAIM prefers DIN connections.

"Naim Audio uses a DIN-5 180° connector for interconnections between source components and preamplifiers. These can be configured for playback only (CDd and tuner inputs, lower left quadrant of pins) or for record and playback (tape and AV, lower right quadrant of inputs). The pinout adheres to a European standard which relies upon a common signal ground for single-ended audio channels (Note that Naim uses single-ended, rather than balanced, audio signal interconnections).

The self-cleaning pin-receptacle interface makes contact in only two places, minimizing the surface area of the connection and improving performance significantly. In addition, the chassis-mount Preh DIN sockets used on upper-level Naim products feature contacts which are fully de-coupled from the housing, providing additional anti-microphonic isolation.

Naim's preference for the DIN as a superior audio connector has driven the development of their own fully-isolated DIN connector (with floating connector pins), which is used on the Hi-Line reference interconnect. This is also compatible with the Preh-manufactured PCB-mounted DIN connectors used on the NAIT integrated amplifiers (including the SUPERNAIT), as well as DIN-5 180° connections used on other European manufacturer's legacy equipment (including Quad, Bang and Olufsen, Tandberg, etc.).

Other DIN plug configurations are used for dual-rail Naim preamp power supplies (DIN-5 240° connections, which carry two signal channels, two +24VDC power rails, and a low-impedance, combined signal + power supply ground) and Naim power amplifier input connections (DIN-4 270° connections, carrying two signal channels, an optional single outboard +24VDC power rail, and a low-impedance, combined signal + power supply ground). These also provide significant performance improvements over alternate / traditional separate signal / supply / ground routings using multiple interconnects / conductors / connectors, etc."

The front panel is dominated by the two large knobs. One is the balance control, the second volume. Can I say just how much I welcome a balance control (purists please avert eyes). There are many speakers that regardless of price have a 1.5 dB to 3 dB level mismatch in the pair. Not to mention that room placement can also shift the balance of even closely matched pairs (0.5 dB). Having the ability to match speakers as closely in volume is critical to getting the best imaging possible.

To the right of the knobs are parallel rows of the chiclet input and record buttons. The top row controls the audio input you are listening to, the bottom row selects the signal going to the record outputs. The green glow around the buttons is very attractive. One problem is a difficulty reading the input selected from any distance more than 5 feet from the SUPERNAIT.

A very unique feature (and one I'm sure most other similar units do not have) of the SUPERNAIT is the 3.5mm 1/8" input on the front panel. This can be used to connect a PMP from its headphone out or using a line out cable. Uniquely this is also a mini-Toslink connection, allowing you to feed a digital signal through the front panel. It's a very useful feature if you are temporarily hooking up a device, in my case my MacBook Pro laptop on an occasional basis.

There are no vents in the casework. The case also doesn't get particularly hot, this ideal for tight quarters and for stacking components on top of the amp. With such a reduction in components (amp, preamp, DAC, and cable count), this has the potential of being a very sleek setup. As a music-only system, the SUPERNAIT could be paired with a Sonos or Squeezebox streamer, or Mac Mini, for small, simple, excellent performance.


Setup

I abandoned my multi-channel home theater/music rig almost a year ago and have never looked back. I foresee a resurgence in 2-channel gear. For one, you can get so much performance from a 2-channel system of equivalent value to a 5.1 or 7.1 system. Second, it's just so much easier to set up, wire, operate, etc. I am a music lover first and foremost, and anything that lets me enjoy new music and also re-appreciate my library brings more pleasure to me than a system capable of playing a soulless blockbuster movie. Editorial rant aside, there's not much in the set up for the SUPERNAIT. There are some quirks though.

First, the SUPERNAIT does not accept bare wire or spade connectors natively. The speaker connectors are meant for 4 mm banana plugs. Naim does provide a unique bare wire to banana connector, which I have to say is not as good as real banana plugs. It requires you to open the adapter by removing a screw, then feeding raw wire and "spooling" it into the banana connectors. Each speakers pair is in one housing, and I do feel this design might be susceptible to shorting if there are errant strands of wire.

A second quirk is that all feature implementation (selecting which input is the HT pass through, or assigning digital inputs, etc.) is through a series of button combinations on the remote control and/or front panel. The timing has to be executed very precisely, with almost no visual feedback. It takes some practice, but once you execute it correctly once, it becomes easier. Be prepared for a bit of frustration initially.

There are some very modern and useful features in the SUPERNAIT. The mentioned balance control. Most useful is the home-theater bypass. Many integrated amps offer this but the SUPERNAIT allows you to assign which input is the HT bypass. Many other units require more than one button press to engage HT bypass, or inconveniently it's a physical button on the front panel, and worst yet, a switch on the back or bottom of the case.

Digital inputs can be custom assigned or used in their default allocation (listed in the owner's manual) for quick use. It's all very simple to use.

One other note, the unit remains in mute for 30 seconds after you turn it on. It's not a normal mute either where you can continue to select sources, etc. The unit is essentially powers on but will not respond to controls for 30 seconds. This is not highlighted in the manual and it did concern me when I first turned it on and the SUPERNAIT did not respond.

There is only one pair of speaker connectors so bi-wire users, you need to have cables shot-gunned at the amp end.

Setup was painless for my installation, I connected my banana speaker cables, hooked up my Squeezebox through coax, a PS3 via optical, and my iPhone through optical using an imported Onkyo ND-S1 dock. I put on white noise, set up my dB meter, balanced my speakers, and I was ready to go.


In Use

After a week of burning in the SUPERNAIT, I sat down for a mid day listening session. Feeding the internal DAC via a Squeezebox using Apple Lossless files, initial impressions were very positive. Playing Bossanova by The Pixies, the kick drum had a ferocious attack and presence. Kim Deal's bass work was forceful, deep, and with a snap and force not often heard outside of a studio or concert. It's a rhythmic snap in the bass and mid-bass region that makes for a wonderful musical foundation. Is this PRaT? If so, consider me converted. This trait gives music the drive and timing to let the rest of the instruments breathe and live.

I listened to the entire Pixies album and discovered it in an entirely new way. The SUPERNAIT is not afraid to let its hair down and jump in the pit. My experience has been that often times when you go up the ladder in Hi-Fi you get too much polish, and the details are too refined. It makes for great analytical listening, but you lose the soul of music at times. The SUPERNAIT is a great balance of hairy chested force and sonic refinement. Feed it music that plunges into the depths of bass, and I dare you to not tap your feet or play air drums. Whether listening to The Clash, Radiohead, or classic Bowie, I couldn't help but to do just that. I was so swept up in the music, my analysis of the sound had gone out the window. That's good, very good.

When I switched to La Roux and Basement Jaxx to test the SUPERNAIT's dance credentials, the bass was turned up to 11. The balance on electronic and hip-hop was overwhelming initially. The fluid timing and taught attack were all there, but the level of the mass in proportion to the rest of the spectrum was just too high. Switching to my somewhat lean JBL 4208 speakers (from the Waterfall Iguascus I was using), I found the bass was still fairly intense in volume. I contacted Naim's US importer and was advised to try cables that have high inductance and not capacitance, my Kimber 8TC cables being low inductance/high capacitance. Switching speakers cables did bring the level of bass down, without sacrificing the feel of the bass. Everything from Ice Cube and Eminem to LCD Soundsystem and Phoenix, to Chet Baker, led me to get lost in the rhythm and enjoy the music. If the SUPERNAIT does one thing very well, it is to form an emotional connection to music. I played music for weeks with the SUPERNAIT and loved every moment of it.

For my analytical listening session, I set out to compare the internal DAC against the performance of a budget friendly DAC and a more expensive DAC. The price of the SUPERNAIT is not insignificant, and one can purchase many integrated amps sans DAC and add a good DAC to arrive at the price of the SUPERNAT.

I purchased the Musical Fidelity V-DAC ($299) as the budget contender, and the higher end unit purchased was the Benchmark Media DAC-1 USB ($1295). All comparisons were through SPDIF connections. The DAC-1 and V-DAC were connected via RCA to the SUPERNAIT, white noise was played and relative volumes marked with tape so I could level match them as best as possible.

This DAC comparison would also help me determine what part of the SUPERNAIT's sound is attributable to the DAC and what is the sound of the "integrated" portion of the SUPERNAIT.

The NAIT's built-in DAC was both more detailed and smoother overall compared to the V-DAC. The musical fidelity put up a good fight but in the end the SUPERNAIT's midrange was not only more insightful but clearer with less grain and distortion. The treble on the V-DAC had a trace of digital hash and didn't feel as extended. The V-DAC bass felt more stressed than the NAIM DAC. The V-DAC didn't go as deep nor did it sound as fast. The bass lacked the articulation of the NAIM.

Moving up the scale to a comparison with the Benchmark DAC-1 USB, the SUPERNAIT had a harder time. In many ways the SUPERNAIT's DAC is the equal of the Benchmark. Midrange was equally fluid and detailed, the level of grain/hash/distortion was equally low. Bass was fast and taut, detailed, and with a great percussive attack. The SUPERNAIT bested the DAC-1 USB in terms of that sheer slam factor and leading edge definition. Where things really differed was in the treble. The DAC-1 USB had a noticeably sweeter treble. Cymbals and Hi-Hats had a truer metallic ringing without being grainy or sibilant. There was just a tad more definition and detail in the highs versus the NAIM.

I found the SUPERNAIT to be a tad dry in its sound, especially with regards to treble and spatial depth. The treble while extended and clear did lack that last bit of air and sheen from some other amps I've heard, such as my own Myryad and NAD. Cymbals in particular lacked the sparkle and ringing to sound truly realistic. Female voices sounded a bit flat and one dimensional as well. Keep in mind this is compared to other integrated amps in the $4-6k region. The NAIM easily outperformed in all aspects any integrated I've heard in the $1-3k region plus DAC. In most ways it outperformed my Myryad integrated amp paired with the DAC-1 USB (except in terms of that air and treble sweetness).

A good example of the NAIM's dry sound is with recordings where the depth and width of the acoustic/digital space (if digital reverb was used) is well recorded. You get the effect with the NAIM but not the last nuance of the acoustic image/space. The feeling of knowing how far the artist is from the walls of the recording venue, or in the case of digital reverb being able to hear deep into the reverb trail until it fades into black is more limited with the NAIM. If a reverb trail took 3 seconds to die, the NAIM would sustain it for 2 seconds.

Dry character aside, the NAIM posses a rare trait I've never heard before in any amplifier integrated or not. Regardless of how much dynamic compression has been applied to a recording (many of the albums I listen to are massively compressed), the SUPERNAIT allows each instrument to occupy a place in the overall level of a recording. It's a hard trait to describe, but very impressive. Each time a new instrument or singer joins the sonic landscape, there's an accompanying and very noticeable increase in sound pressure. This may not appear impressive, but keep in mind that in some modern recordings there's less than 5 dB of dynamic range. In fact on La Roux's debut album there's nary 4 dB. Yet there's a distinct presence to each instrument as it enters the musical fray. I'm a bit puzzled as to how this is possible since no other amplifier I have ever owned or had on hand could do the same. It gives great insight into all the elements of a mix, and I was able to easily lock in on an instrument or singer. This trait also gives the music a greater sense of life and vitality.

The analog signal path seems immensely clean and uncolored, and any signal fed to the SUPERNAIT came out of the speakers sounding the same as it went in. Overall, the SUPERNAIT is a very good DAC, a great amplifier and preamp, and a very good value especially considering the recent price adjustment to $4550.


Conclusions

The SUPERNAIT (and now the Uniti) show Naim is a thoroughly modern company making an integrated amplifier that fills the needs of an ever increasing group of digital only systems, and music server sources. Throw in the flexibility of a home theater pass-through, so you don't need to compromise on music performance from your HT (and negate the need and cost of two systems), and you have a thoroughly modern, flexible integrated amp built to last. It's not cheap, but for your money you are investing in sheer musical enjoyment. My few reservations are not being able to easily see from across the room which input is selected, and a lack of a USB input for the DAC (a nice but not must have feature).

An integrated amp with an onboard DAC like the SUPERNAIT saves space and also saves money when it comes to analog interconnects, power cords, etc. Money which can either be used to buy a better single power cord or upgrade the digital interconnects, or better yet more music. In the end If you value getting lost in the music, as opposed to an analytical and surgical picture of your music, the SUPERNAIT is a must audition, even if your system is not all digital.

Naim Audio