The first part of the Naim Audio series focused on my introduction to the brand and the launch of the New Classic series of components. This part will focus on my visit to Naim.
This visit began over a coffee in the demo room with Jason Gould, brand ambassador for Naim. We discussed how best we might give readers an insight into Naim today. To misquote Spinal Tap, what I wanted was “to capture the sights, the sounds, and the smells of a hardworking audio factory”—and I was able to do just that.
The Naim demo room
The tour kicked off in the busy assembly area. I was struck by how large this department is and just how labor intensive Naim’s build process is. Naim provides their build technicians with reference examples of each model in their range, complete with a detachable Perspex transparent lid. Components are selected, measured for tolerance, and distributed to the build stations. All the assembly technician needs to do is to copy the template, routing the wiring exactly the same way and soldering each component in the same place using the same quantity of solder. Naim uses what they call a “single-stage build,” where each operator builds a single unit from start to finish. This approach ensures that team members feel responsible for each unit they build, and it creates pride in the product in a way that production line assembly cannot.
The Naim assembly area
Of course, when new technicians join, they start off building only portions of the simpler products or performing simpler tasks like fitting transformers to cases. The more difficult work is then handed off to someone with more experience to complete. Gould indicated that it usually takes more than two years for assembly workers to become proficient enough to join the single-stage build line and to assemble the more complex items in the Naim range. After assembly, every unit is put on a test rig to measure its performance across multiple parameters. Anything that fails this testing is sent to a dedicated area of the factory for reworking. Once they’ve passed electronic testing, all completed amplifiers and streamers are then subjected to individual listening tests. Naim is dead serious about consistency, and the firm is determined that the amplifier or streamer you heard and liked in the dealer’s demo room will sound exactly the same as the one that’s delivered to you and installed in your home.
A Naim reference template as followed by build technicians
It’s interesting to note that Naim uses surface-mount technology (SMT) across their entire range for components that aren’t associated with the audio path, but they use through-hole mounting (THM) for all components in the audio signal path. SMT components are secured only by solder on the surface of the board, while THM components have leads that run right through the board. Through-hole mounting is superior because it offers greater reliability; this is why THM is commonly used in aerospace applications. However, these types of circuits are more time consuming and expensive to assemble and require more space on a circuit board. Naim argues that THM mounting sounds better and is more reliable, which is why they build this way.
Brass suspended isolation cage for sonically critical components
Our next port of call was Naim’s Statement zone, where a dedicated team builds the Naim Statement range. The circuit boards for Statement products—the NAP S1 mono power amplifier and NAC S1 preamplifier—are all black, lending them a menacing air compared to the green circuit boards used for all other Naim products. I examined them carefully to see if there were any references to Cyberdyne Systems on the circuit boards because these amplifiers really are as imposing as a Terminator. The curved and sculpted heatsink fins alone look otherworldly.
Otherworldly curved heatsinks adorn the Statement amplifiers
The NAP S1 amplifier is a behemoth: it’s approximately the size of a washing machine. It also has the biggest toroidal transformer I have ever seen rated at 4000VA. Each NAP S1 mono power amplifier is capable of delivering 768W into 8 ohms, doubling into 4 ohms, or offering burst power of 9000W into 1 ohm. The whole assembly weighs some 222 pounds, about as much as a T-101 Terminator. Jason remarked that when he saw the first prototype, he told Steve Sells, the chief development engineer, that he had built the proverbial “yacht in a basement.” When asked how the hell he planned to get it out of there, Steve retorted, “that’s not my problem.” Seeing a Statement in the process of being built reminded me of aerospace engineering and those times I have visited the hangar and seen the Airbus I fly in my day job being stripped down to bare metal for an A check. The enormous complexity and sophistication of the design is readily apparent, even to the untrained eye. All vibration-sensitive circuit assemblies in Statement products are decoupled from the chassis on springs to minimize vibration reaching sensitive components, while the design physically separates the delicate voltage stage at the top of the power amplifier from the current stage located at the bottom of the unit.
In the Naim Statement, note the black circuit boards
Naim Statement assembly in progress
Following the six years of work done with Motorola developing the fast-switching NA007 transistor for the NAC 552 and NAP 500 DR amplifiers, Naim set about designing an even faster switching and more linear power transistor for the Statement with Semelab Ltd. This culminated in the development of the Naim NA009 transistor, a component specifically created for the Statement although this transistor has now trickled down to the NAP 250 DR, NAP 300 DR, and NAP 500 DR amplifiers too. The new transistor feeds less radio-frequency noise back into the amplifier circuit and has resulted in a significant upgrade in sonic quality, a lowering of the noise floor, and an even more rapid response to input signals. Naim’s reputation for excellence in pace, rhythm, and timing is the result of its unique engineering from the ground up. Jason reflected that Naim’s philosophy has always been to pioneer new technologies in its flagship products before rolling out the same improvements to models further down in the range. While the Naim Statement series may be out of reach for most people who don’t own a couple of oil pipelines, the firm is passionate about ensuring as many of its customers as possible benefit from the innovations such products engender.
A Naim Statement power amplifier showing the immense toroidal transformer capable of delivering 9000W into a 1-ohm load!
As we left the Statement build area, we came upon the impressive flight cases that all completed Statement amplifiers are shipped in. Jason let slip that these incredible cases are made by the same firm in England that built all The Who’s tour cases—but then Naim has always been a company with its heart in rock’n’roll.
Statement flight cases, as used by The Who!
As we explored the assembly areas, it was apparent that Naim is firmly committed to the use of toroidal transformers, so I asked Jason whether they had ever considered using switched-mode power supplies. He explained that switched-mode power supplies still cannot deliver sufficient quality for Naim’s demanding requirements, but they have employed switched-mode supplies to provide power for the standby mode in their Mu-so products. This works right up until an audio signal is present, when the switched-mode power supply is cut out of the circuit and the toroidal switches in. Such innovation is evidence of Naim’s commitment to ingenious engineering to protect audio quality while remaining compliant with the very latest energy efficiency legislation. External power supplies remain at the heart of Naim’s design philosophy. I have witnessed first-hand how the addition of an external power supply in my own system transformed the sound. It’s not just a cynical attempt to sell people more boxes; the company is a strong advocate of running the system off a dedicated mains spur and implementing good grounding practices, none of which results in a single penny of revenue for the firm. It could be argued that a key benefit of this philosophy is that customers can upgrade their systems without needing to replace a preamplifier or streamer because the addition of a power supply provides such a worthwhile sonic improvement.
Another Naim assembly area
For decades the company has been renowned for its excellent service on out-of-warranty products. The firm recognizes that their products are an investment made for the long-term love of music, and a long service life is expected. The factory’s ability to service almost every product the company has ever made (some of their early CD transports are no longer available) undoubtedly helps Naim equipment retain its value over the long term and has led to a buoyant secondhand market. This approach has built enviable brand loyalty, with many customers using their components for decades. A small example illustrates the point: I was a student in 1991 when my original Naim Nait developed a crackle on the volume pot after several years of use. Although it was out of warranty, I sent the amplifier in to Naim for repair with a cover letter explaining that I was a student and thus had very little money! To my astonishment, I received the amplifier back free of charge via courier with a new volume pot fitted and a test report confirming the amplifier tested “OK.” There really aren’t many businesses in the world that would show such generosity to an impoverished undergraduate, but I never forgot it. At the time, I had no connection with the industry, and I wasn’t yet a reviewer—I was just a young customer who had struggled to afford Naim’s most basic amplifier and loved its sound.
Original invoice from 1991 showing Jonathan’s own Nait repaired free of charge
Naim’s service and repair department
Naim has always recognized the importance of maintaining unusually close links with their customers and being approachable. They do this partly via the Naim Forum, where Naim users all over the world come together to discuss music, whisky, films, and all things Naim. The forum was Julian Vereker’s baby, and from the very earliest days, he was an active participant. That tradition continues to this day, with senior staff regularly posting there and participating in discussions with customers. A million users a month visit the forum, and I suspect it’s a major driver of sales because seeing other people’s exotic systems on the site undoubtedly leads others into temptation!
A fairly recent addition to the Naim factory is the electromagnetic compatibility chamber (EMC), where they test the electronic emissions from each component. The room is essentially a Faraday cage, and it’s quite an eerie place to visit—being inside felt like being locked in a bank vault or a solitary confinement cell. When I walked in, I almost expected to see the crumbling bones of the last hapless reviewer to pen a negative Naim review decaying in the gloom . . .
The EMC chamber/rogue reviewer solitary confinement cell
As the range has expanded in recent years to include more and more products, the cost of sending each of them out for mandatory emissions testing and measurement was mounting, so Naim invested in their own in-house facility. It’s a pragmatic addition to the factory but not one I’ve seen at any other UK audio manufacturer.
They do things a little differently in these parts, and Naim remains fastidious about small details that they’ve found make a difference to the resulting sound of their products. One example is heat treating all Super Lumina cables several times over a 24-hour period because they’ve found that this changes the molecular construction of the sleeve/dielectric and benefits the sonics. All of the firm’s cables enter the factory on huge drums, and the first thing they do is listen to them to determine directionality. All Naim cables are directional, and this is seen as a vital element of maximizing performance. Cables are scored to denote direction so assembly workers know which way to wire a component. That’s not all, though—one of Naim’s more bizarre inventions is the SNAIC shaker! They discovered that shaking their SNAIC interconnects improves the sound quality, so they built a special machine that shakes each end of their SNAIC interconnects 172 times. The company believes that paying attention to all these seemingly tiny details incrementally adds up to a significant and audible performance edge. I came away deeply impressed by the passion and care the firm applies to every aspect of their operation.
Cables come into the factory on drums before being listened to for directionality
Naim hasn’t suffered too badly from component supply issues due to COVID-19. Their biggest challenge has been coping with the huge surge in demand caused by the pandemic. With people spending more time at home and less money on going out, demand for high-quality hi-fi gear like Naim has soared. This is a story I’ve heard echoed by other firms such as ATC, Michell, and SME because the pandemic has stimulated a growing interest in hobbies and pastimes that can be enjoyed at home, like music listening. As a result, Naim’s Salisbury factory has now become a 24/7 operation, and this year Naim has employed 20 more staff in the assembly division alone. Jason reiterated how much Naim values its staff and wants to retain and develop them because they are the lifeblood of the company. It takes years for production and engineering staff to become truly skilled, and the last thing the company wants to see is high staff turnover. So the firm continues to do its best to ensure employees are happy at work and feel valued and well looked after. Naim ensures that all its staff have plenty of space around them in their work environment and a good source of natural light. Employees enjoy a generous leave entitlement, and there’s usually a staff summer party with food, drinks, and live music to reward people for their efforts. Jason Gould also remarked on the importance of providing staff canteen facilities, and we chatted over a tasty lunch in Naim’s own canteen. The pandemic has at times made things difficult though. When COVID-19 struck, the canteen had to be closed, so Naim arranged for a local catering company to provide a range of sandwich/lunch choices that could be delivered to individual workstations.
What this all adds up to is care. Caring for the employee, the customer, the work environment, and the smallest details in the design and manufacture of products that will deliver a lifetime of musical pleasure in their owners’ homes. Since 1973, these values have been integral to the Naim philosophy, and despite the merger with Focal and steady expansion, the firm still puts this caring attitude at the core of everything they do. In my early days as a hi-fi reviewer, I remember feeling a little lost at industry shindigs and dinners, and the Naim team was always the first to invite me to join them for dinner or a beer.
Jonathan wants one of these—badly!
Our penultimate port of call was to the large dispatch and packaging area. From here goods leave for over 600 dealers worldwide across 50 countries—and cool Naim T-shirts are the order of the day!
Jason Gould, Naim brand ambassador, in the demo room
My visit to Naim concluded where it had started, playing some music in their superb and newly refurbished demo room. Along the rear and the right wall, pretty much the entire Naim range was arrayed, including the Statement series and the new Naim Solstice turntable, complete with the legendary Aro tonearm. At the front of the room were Focal Sopra No3 loudspeakers, looking rather striking in white. The in-room sound was impressive and seemed more coherent than what I had experienced with earlier Naim/Focal systems. Jason agreed and confirmed that Focal now designs their loudspeakers using Naim amplification, while Naim designs their amplifiers using Focal loudspeakers.
The extraordinary Naim Statement amplifiers
Jason described how the firm has evolved as it’s grown to become a more professional organization with established procedures and processes rather than “flying by the seat of their pants” as they did in the early days. He acknowledged that such changes have been painful at times, as the structures and restrictions of a larger and more professionally run organization came into play. As a result, some highly valued and long-serving staff members did elect to leave, but this is a transition that happens in many successfully expanding companies. Naim points out that this is what has enabled the company to scale its operation and grow to become the world-class audio manufacturer it is today.
Naim Solstice turntable and Aro tonearm
As I departed from the Naim HQ in Salisbury, I reflected on how far the firm has come from its humble beginnings in the early 1970s. Naim is now one of the most widely admired and aspirational audio brands in the world. If you want evidence of the respect their products command—even amongst rival audio firms—just go to any hi-fi show and see how many other manufacturers are using Naim streamers and amplifiers. Heck, even my beloved Kate Bush uses a Naim system at home.
Inside the factory, the atmosphere and philosophy seem largely unchanged since the Vereker era: the aim is still to create products that convey the excitement, dynamics, and energy of a live performance. During the launch week for the New Classic range, Steve Sells, the chief development engineer, and Richard Dane, who captains the Naim Forum, were on hand day and night to field questions from Naim fans all around the world. How many large audio companies offer you the chance to ask their most senior engineer questions about a product and get a response in minutes? I think that’s unique! As a reviewer I’ve had the opportunity to hear scores of systems from various brands over the past 20-odd years, but I have now employed Naim amplification and digital sources at the heart of my system for more than 30 years, which says a lot.
I think Julian Vereker would be proud of all that this great British audio firm has accomplished since his passing—from record labels to digital streaming, amplifiers to turntables, loudspeakers to lifestyle products, and of course, Naim for Bentley Motors and Princess Yachts, which have introduced the brand to a whole new cabal of listeners. In domestic audio there are few audio firms in the world that produce such a comprehensive range and can offer so many options for a complete system. Naim continues to build almost all its products in England in the very same factory that they have occupied since the 1970s, and they will indeed probably be there for as long as the cathedral. With more products in the New Classic range on the horizon, the firm is still striving to bring the power, drama, and emotion of music into even more people’s lives.
Based on past form, I have no doubt they’ll succeed.
. . . Jonathan Gorse