Do you remember your first system? Throughout our lives as audiophiles, there are certain key moments that define that particular sound we all chase in our heads.
I was just 19 in the summer of 1988 when I experienced the most influential audio demonstration of my life at a bygone audio retailer, Hi-Fi Systems of Southport, England. I was putting together my first audio system before leaving for university, and as all lovers of fine audio know, choosing your first complete system is a seminal moment in any budding audiophile’s life. At the top of my list of potential components was the Arcam Alpha integrated, then the reigning champion of budget amplifiers at £129.
As the final demo track from Pink Floyd’s The Wall ended, I confirmed my intention to purchase the Arcam. But then the owner of the shop said, “Do you mind if I just try something?” Now, at 19 you’re open to just about any experience you can get, legal or illegal, so I enthusiastically agreed. He walked out and returned with the smallest shoebox amplifier imaginable—the Naim Nait—and at £255, it was roughly double the price of the Arcam.
The Naim Nait Series 1, from the “chrome bumper” era
The Nait was Naim’s tiny integrated, the lowest that the lofty audio engineers in Salisbury were prepared to stoop and still put their name on an amplifier. Crucially, it was the first step on Naim’s stairway to audiophile heaven. I understood this because every month I devoured audiophile magazines in which writers like Malcolm Steward and Chris Frankland wrote in glowing praise of Naim’s incredible sound. To this day I still regard Malcolm as the finest audio journalist to have scratched ink across vellum—if you can find it, check out his NAC 52 review to experience the grand master at the very peak of his powers.
When the dealer cued up “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” I was blown out of my seat by the snare and cymbal hits. The speed, drama, intensity, and scale of the sound were in a totally different league than the Arcam, or anything else at anywhere near the price. Within seconds, I knew there was no way on earth I could leave without the Naim, even though it was way beyond my budget. I told the people at the shop I loved it but just couldn’t afford it—and then they did something extraordinary. They offered to sell me their demo unit, which brought the cost down to £200, and what’s more, they offered to reserve it for me over the summer until I had earned the rest of the money I needed from my student job.
The author at home with his resident Naim system—a mix of Naim Olive and Classic components
For the next few months, I popped into the shop regularly to check that the little Naim was still there, and they would obligingly invite me in, make me coffee, show me my boxed Nait, and play me whatever exotic system they had on demo that week. Their systems were always fronted by a Linn Sondek turntable, usually connected to some combination of a Naim preamp and power amp, and rounded out with Naim SBL or Linn Isobarik speakers. My audio education began right there and I’m not joking!
Later in the summer I walked in, put £200 down on the counter, and with great excitement took home the Nait. That incredible little amplifier saw me through university, played the soundtrack to countless young seductions and painful breakups, played at my 21st birthday, served as the PA system at my graduation party, and in a bizarre twist of fate, stepped in at my 50th birthday party when, after hours of high-volume abuse, my big Naim preamp and power amplifiers went into thermal shutdown. Now, over three decades on, it’s still making music driving a second system in our home studio.
Crucially, the Nait was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with a sound created and engineered in Salisbury by Naim Audio and designed from the very beginning to recreate the drama, emotion, and impact of live music. So, some 35 years after my first encounter with Naim, I decided to pay them a visit to find out how they create audio magic in Salisbury.
A little history
From no matter what direction you approach Salisbury, the city that Naim calls home, the glorious spire of Salisbury Cathedral dominates your view long before you reach the outlying suburbs. It’s the tallest spire in England, and American novelist Bill Bryson wrote of it: “There is no doubt in my mind that Salisbury Cathedral is the single most beautiful structure in England and the close around it the most beautiful space. Every stone, every wall, every shrub is just right. It is as if every person who has touched it for 700 years has only improved it.”
Not only that, but Salisbury Cathedral holds the finest of the four remaining copies of the Magna Carta, the single most important document in democracy. Signed in 1215 by King John of England on the banks of the Thames, it took ultimate power away from the King and gave it to the people, or at least their elected representatives. It is the foundation stone of every democracy on earth.
Julian Vereker: founder, visionary, genius
It was here in 1969, in the shadow of that magnificent spire, that Julian Vereker, a young engineer, began experimenting with tape recording. One of his friends, a talented guitarist, asked him to make some recordings of his playing. Julian took along his high-quality Revox reel-to-reel tape machine and a professional Audio-Technica microphone to capture the performance. Later, when he replayed the tape, he realized that much of the music’s life, emotion, energy, and dynamics had been lost in the recording process. At the time, the prevailing orthodoxy was that all amps sounded alike. However, through experimentation Julian found this wasn’t true. He discovered instead that all amplifiers suffered from varying degrees of distortion. He spent 12 months teaching himself electronics before he started building amplifiers and small mixing decks. The first Naim Audio power amplifier emerged in 1971, but it was only available on request to friends and acquaintances. In 1973 Vereker won a contract to supply 24 actively powered loudspeakers to Capital Radio. Later that year he incorporated Naim Audio, and in 1974, he moved its premises from a house basement to a 16th-century shop. Vereker had great difficulty deciding what to call his new audio venture and so with wry humour, he dubbed it Naim because he couldn’t come up with a suitable name!
These days Naim occupies a building complex on the outskirts of the city, and the premises have gradually expanded with the rising fortunes of the company. The core of the factory is festooned with masses of enormous Ron Smith Galaxie FM aerials, some of which seem to rival the mighty cathedral in height if not width! Back in the 1980s and ’90s, Naim built some of the finest tuners on earth and always specified Ron Smith aerials for use with them.
Naim Audio’s factory, adorned with Ron Smith aerials
For this tour I was warmly greeted by Jason Gould, now brand ambassador for Naim. I’ve known Jason since he first came to my house over 20 years ago to install the NAC 552 preamplifier for a front cover review with Hi-Fi News & Record Review. Such long service is quite common at Naim, as people seem to join the company and spend their entire careers there making their mark in a variety of different roles. It was quickly apparent that the firm still has the same family feel I recall it having back in the late 1990s.
Vereker steered the firm through the “flat earth” heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, challenging the prevailing orthodoxy that all amplifiers sounded the same while emphasizing the importance of preserving the pace, rhythm, and timing of music. Together with Linn’s Ivor Tiefenbrun, Vereker espoused the “source first” philosophy, which held that the source was the most important system component because musical information lost by the source cannot be restored, no matter how fine the later components in the signal chain. Naim endorsed Linn’s LP12 as the best choice for its amplifiers while Linn recommended Naim amplifiers for use with its turntable. This arrangement proved highly successful for both companies but eventually proved problematic when both began making loudspeakers. Linn moved into amplifiers and Naim started making tonearms.
Cool factory signs in the style of classic Naim amplifiers
Philips and Sony launched the CD in 1982, but Naim was seemingly slow to embrace the technology, only launching their first CD player, the CDS, in 1991. For years before that, the company had in fact been developing prototypes, building digital expertise within the factory, and working with Philips. That’s very much the approach Naim has always adopted—they’re rarely first to market, but they do invest heavily in R&D, and they’re continually embracing and assessing new technologies. When they do finally launch a product, it’s a highly refined and professionally executed design that often ends up lauded as among the very best in its class. That’s not to say everything makes it into production: legendary tales exist of electrostatic speakers that almost killed their designers and compact cassette decks that were prototyped but never launched.
Julian Vereker remained at the helm of the company until his untimely death in 2000, when sales director Paul Stephenson took over. At that point, Naim had a turnover of £6,000,000. Paul, a lifelong Naim employee, took the company into the digital streaming era, further developed Naim’s own record label, oversaw the partnership with Focal, and launched a totally new model range. By the time he retired in 2015—and Trevor Wilson, formerly head of R&D, took over—Naim’s turnover had risen to £15,000,000. Today the company turnover has reached £39,000,000, huge by high-end audio standards. Naim is in fine shape, and it’s currently led by Cedrick Boutonet, CEO of VerVent Audio Holding—the parent company that owns Naim and Focal.
Dawn of a new era . . .
Naim celebrates its 50th birthday in 2023. The year got off to a flying start when Naim launched the first wave of its New Classic range of audio components on January 4. These comprise the NSC 222 streaming preamp, the next-generation NAP 250 power amplifier, and the NPX 300 power supply. This is only the third major design change in Naim’s long history, but it forms the core product line that will set the company’s direction sonically and visually for the next decade or more. This evolution is similar to the transition that occurred in 1988, when the “chrome bumper” designs of the 1970s gave way to the Olive era. Olive was later succeeded by the Classic design in 2002.
The New Classic components
The New Classic range builds on the original Classic style but incorporates elements from the company’s Statement line, like the white Naim logo, NA009 transistors, and beautifully machined finned heatsinks on the sides. Circuits have received a radical overhaul too, with higher output of 100Wpc for the latest NAP 250 power amplifier. The new range offers balanced XLR connection while the novel power-saving features first pioneered in the Uniti range have also been incorporated. During my factory visit in the late summer of 2022, I witnessed the new units being built. But I have yet to hear them. Rest assured that SoundStage! will be reviewing the next generation in depth as soon as possible.
Naim’s current NAC 252 preamplifier with SuperCap power supply
Next month you’ll read all about my day at Naim and see the inside of the factory.
. . . Jonathan Gorse