The first Naim NAIT embodied the nineteen eighties move towards minimalism – less was more. So there was nowhere to go for the NAITs that followed (the 2 and 3) except bigger. They got progressively higher powered and less minimalist – the 2 was little more than a 1 with slightly more power and neater styling, while the 3 was to the 2 what the 2 was to the 1. By the time I reviewed the full width NAIT 3 back in 1994 it was definitely a more practical proposition, but you still got the feeling you were buying something that had been dragged kicking and screaming into the nineties…
Launched in 2000 at £799, the NAIT 5 was a revelation compared to what had come before. Pull it out of the box and its low-vibration cast and machined aluminium chassis feels as beautifully built as any of the company’s high end stuff. Then there’s the styling. I couldn’t help thinking Naim’s early nineties restyle wasn’t very successful, but the new ‘5 series’ look, with its styling cues taken from the company’s flagship NAP 500 power amplifier, was a major step forward. Better still are the ergonomics. The simple row of backlit push buttons for source selection and muting are superb to the touch (far nicer than the tacky feeling NAIT 3) and lend an air of sophistication. Shame about that rough volume control action, though…
Rather than sonically dubious digital volume controls or motorised potentiometers, the NAIT 5’s preamp section has a discrete resistor ladder (a hard wired network of hand selected resistors) which acts just like an old fashioned volume pot, except that it’s more accurate, reliable and quieter. The power amp section is a downsized version of the flagship NAP 500, offering faster signal transition times and better rejection of power supply noise. The new transformer has separate windings for the preamp and power amp circuits, and unlike the Nait 3 all preamp supplies are double regulated.
In contrast to its predecessors, all six inputs are controlled by a microprocessor. This only powers up to interpret a button push, and then goes to ‘sleep’ again so as to not pollute the signal path with noise. By using this ‘fly-by-wire’ system, it means Naim can also offer user-programmable gain matching for each input, a unity gain option for surround sound systems and remote controlled balance too. As per the 3, there’s a preamp output for hooking up the (then) new NAP 150 power amp, a plug-in power supply option for a FLATCAP (which can drive the Nait 5’s preamp and a CD5 CD player at the same time), and the excellent sounding Stageline phono stage option. It’s a very versatile set-up then, with great flexibility and upgrade options built in as standard.
Despite its radical engineering changes, the Naim sound was still very much there. This means a strong, firm and tuneful bass – this amp takes any piece of music and frames it around the bassline. This becomes the architectural foundation for the rest of the mix – everything that subsequently appears in the music is woven into those all important low frequencies. Even at really high volume levels driving difficult loads, the baby Naim goes ever louder when the occasion demands it, while others run out of steam despite their higher ‘on paper’ output. This combination of power and control is the key to the Naim sound, one which some love and others hate. Music becomes urgent and engaging, what ever it is you’re listening to.
Trouble is, when you begin to listen critically, rather than relaxing into the groove of the music, you are are of issues. For example, the midband is a touch too glassy and the treble is a little opaque and lacking in subtlety. The soundstage is rather constrained, working on an altogether smaller canvas than rivals like the Cyrus 7. Although image location was supremely tight and accurate within the soundstage, the soundstage itself reached out less both vertically and horizontally.
There was a time back in the ‘flat earth’ nineteen eighties when many of the company’s acolytes wouldn’t have a CD player in the house, let alone contemplate buying a remote control preamp. The trick Naim had to play with the NAIT 5 was to keep these extremists on board, whilst appealing to an altogether more ‘real world’ brand of listeners. It worked, and you might say this was the company’s first truly modern amplifier – a sort of bridge between the company’s past and its future.
The Naim NAIT 5 was a highly focused design which over achieved dramatically in some respects, but was an also-ran in others. In this sense, it was like all its predecessors, just less so. Unlike them however, it boasted accomplished build, facilities, connectivity and upgradability. This makes it an easier integrated amplifier to live with in today’s hi-fi world – and well worth the £350 that a good secondhand example commands now, just so long as you like the Naim sound.