Until the Naim NAIT surfaced in 1983, integrated amplifiers had traditionally been regarded as something you bought before you could afford a ‘real’ preamplifier/power amplifier combination. The breed, it’s fair to say, wasn’t widely respected. The little Naim changed all this, because instead of offering cheap circuitry in an expensive case – covered in acres of brushed aluminium and bouncing power meters – it offered lower calorie version of the electronics inside Naim’s respected 42.5/110 pre-power amp. Rather than a tarted-up low quality design, it was a cost-cut high quality one.
For such a small (276x205x76mm) box, it made a surprisingly big splash. Indeed it’s likely that Naim Audio hadn’t anticipated this – because to the Salisbury company it was mainly about its strategic partnership with Linn at the time. “We wanted, with Linn, to offer an entry-level system to set the reference and help expose source-first expenditure philosophy within system hierarchy”, said a spokesman. As it happened though, this £253 box put not Linn or Naim on the audiophile map, but the integrated amplifier itself…
Designed by company founder Julian Vereker along with the Naim production team, it borrowed heavily from the company parts bin for the casing and internals, although pennies were saved by the fitment of a cheap volume control knob and a crude trim pot in lieu of a proper balance control. This worked on just one channel and gave 3dB of attenuation, and presented itself as plastic stalk jutting out of the front fascia panel! Switchgear notwithstanding, the NAIT looked and felt like a high end Naim product – classy but quirky.
The single main circuitboard was a quality item, and better laid out than many amplifiers of its day – with much of it taken up by a large custom-made 100VA toroidal power transformer. A high quality ALPS volume control potentiometer was fitted, as was an excellent moving magnet phono stage – which was the only part of the preamplifier section to sport RCA phono sockets. The remaining tuner line inputs and tape loop were via DIN sockets only; even the loudspeaker outputs were a little different in their day, being banana sockets as opposed to binding posts.
Sonically the first Naim NAIT was distinctive to say the least. Whilst the balance control raised a few eyebrows, the really controversial thing about the Nait was its meagre power output. Estimates vary, some saying it was as low as 6W RMS per side, although a reliable industry source puts it at 13W RMS per channel into 8ohms and 19.5W RMS per channel into 4. Whatever it was, it wasn’t much – especially in a decade notorious for its inefficient loudspeakers.
Rather like a single-ended tube amplifier, the Nait sounds very upfront, direct and lucid – although tonally it’s a million miles away from valves. It is spry, crisp and dry with a slightly well lit upper midband and treble – not least because of the relatively anaemic power amplifier section. The amp is wonderfully propulsive, pushing the sound along with a verve rarely heard even in far more expensive amplifiers. It makes music wonderfully good fun to listen to, seemingly able to get under the skin of the recording and into the musicians’ very souls. In this respect, it is sublime. Naim Audio concurs, reflecting that, “it is full of ‘pace, rhythm and timing – highly musical but low on power”.
One key trait of the NAIT is that – although the power is low, it keeps on driving hard right up to its maximum capability. Driving inefficient loudspeakers like Linn Kans, which with it was commonly used in the nineteen eighties, the wee Naim was able to sound surprisingly composed even at highish volumes. So what little power it has, is well deployed – and this means it can go quiet then loud with relative ease. The Nait doesn’t ‘sit’ on dynamic accents, and this allied to its fine transient speed makes for a lively listen. It’s never a dull moment with this little black box!
The downside is that the first NAIT – more than any of the others – is something of a ‘Marmite’ product. Whilst many will love its sonic fireworks, others won’t appreciate its rather steely, transistory sound. It doesn’t have a wide palette of tonal colours, preferring to present everything as a tad too grey. Even if you can live with the limited power, some may find its general nature rather too unforgiving for their tastes; it’s certainly not the sort of thing you’d cosy up to on a cold winter’s night.
There were two versions of the first Nait, the original having a red LED power light and the second having a green one. According to Naim Audio at least, it’s an urban myth that the ‘red light’ NAITs sound better! Both variants have held their values well – with prices going from around £200-£400 depending on condition and whether or not they’ve recently been serviced at the factory. This is something, incidentally, that’s well worth doing if you’re an existing Nait owner.
Naim replaced it at the end of the nineteen eighties, and sure enough the new NAIT 2 had a good deal more power, a proper balance control and the (then) new illuminated Naim logo. It addressed all the weaknesses of the original. But I do know some Nait aficionados who swear the original was the best – it was certainly the most focused and seemed to distill down ‘the Naim sound’ better than any that followed. In its own wee way, a landmark product.