If you happen to be an aspiring Naim owner but don't relish the thought of accommodating a multitude of boxes and the attendant wiring, the SuperNait might just represent your ideal choice of amplifier.
This new top-end integrated model combines all the typical attributes of the company's electronics - both the distinctive sonic performance and the upgradeability and versatility - with the convenience of being a neat, single-box design that would be easily incorporated into any home.
A quick read of its specifications will convince you that it has all the up-to-date technology that one might reasonably require nowadays. There are integral digital inputs and re-clocking conversion, an iPod socket, a headphone jack, further socketry to enable it to act either as a preamplifier or a power amplifier in a bi-amplified system, remote control and 'intelligent home' connectivity, while its sound should easily convince all but the most musically illiterate of its worth.
The latter point is something to which we will return in detail later, but for the moment we will say that the SuperNait's musical performance is utterly amazing. In hi-fi terms, it is exemplary; but in musical terms, the way in which it reproduces recordings is beyond the wildest imaginings of someone (like me) who has been using Naim's top-of-the-range pre and power amplifiers for more than two decades.
The SuperNait, it should be understood, slots into Naim's range at the 'reference' end of the spectrum. It is not a 5-series component. Not that there's anything wrong with the 5-series, but the all-in-one nature and facilities of the SuperNait might make some people regard it as some sort of 'Naim-lite' product, despite its £2,350 price tag.
Believe us, it most definitely is not watered down in any respect. As Naim's sales manager, Doug Graham said: "This is a serious addition to the Naim range; one that will connect you with the music and the (increasingly important) boy's toys." Listening to it in my own system has utterly convinced me that he meant what he said.
First, let's get the boring mechanical details out of the way: the SuperNait offers 80 watts per channel and 400VA output for transients thanks to the expected, over-engineered, dedicated power supplies that Naim always puts into its designs.
Note that this is not a switching power supply, but a 'proper', meat-eating, bourbon-drinking, toroidal transformer with seven discrete windings. Inputs include six of the analogue variety and five digital (two coaxial and three optical, including a combination mini-jack/mini-Toslink connector with auto-switching on the front panel). The digital board powers down when an analogue input is selected, to clean up the electrical environment and to eliminate any audiophile paranoia.
Those not wishing to stick with single-box elegance can add external power supplies to the unit - Flat-Cap, Hi-Cap or Super-Cap - or can even combine the SuperNait with a secondary power amplifier to bi-amplify suitable speakers.
The preamplifier section, which was derived from the high-end NAC 282 design, offers separate record and listen selectors on the front panel, and around at the back, an RS232 port for custom installation applications and a subwoofer output, which, given my experiences using the SuperNait, would seem a tad superfluous.
Before describing how the SuperNait sounds, it's worth mentioning that the amplifier is built into Naim's usual, bomb-proof, triptych aluminium casework as used in the Reference series models and uses multi-layer PCBs. As usual, the inputs are the preferred DIN types but these are duplicated with RCA phono connections for the benefit of those who have yet to see the light, as well as those who enjoy playing with trick cables.
Because of the tight deadlines involved in this article, Naim rushed one of the first SuperNaits that it finished round to us on the same day that Neat delivered a pair of the Motive 1 loudspeakers. You might imagine that two new products (new to me, at least) would not be a wise pairing but we decided to hook them both up for a listen, and to give them both a thorough, simultaneous warm-up.
Much to our surprise and delight, this turned out to be a marriage made in heaven. Each product gelled with the other to form what proved to be an intensely satisfying and dynamic musical joint venture. We used a variety of analogue and digital sources with this combination including CD players from Saxon and Roksan, a Cambridge Audio Azur 640H music server, an Apple Mac Pro laptop, and, as the final arbiter, my own Naim CDS CD player. Cables were a mix of Naim, Chord Company and various manufacturers' logo-free interconnects, and Chord Company Signature loudspeaker cables.
We mentioned the SuperNait's musical performance a little earlier in this review and it is in this respect that the design truly stands way above most other integrated amplifiers we have heard - and a great many pre/power combinations, too. It does all the hi-fi stuff very well, of course, but it's the way it puts music together that really makes it shine.
This is a concept that seems lost on many listeners, not to mention some reviewers, but which, for me, has always been Naim equipment's greatest strength. It's a hard concept to explain but I'll do my best: we sat listening to a selection of CDs recorded by Telecaster maestro, Steve Cropper and blues ace, Robert Ward.
Neither of these guys is an outwardly impressive player - certainly not in terms of today's million-notes-a-minute shredder guitarists, yet the SuperNait easily revealed that it was their phrasing, tone, and the choice of notes they played as well as those they left out that marked them out as being a cut above journeyman players.
This wasn't just the usual Pace, Rhythm and Timing thing: certainly all the temporal clues were present and correct but the SuperNait and the Neats seemed able to dig deeper still into the music and get to those telling, often quite deeply submerged, nuances with immeasurable dexterity.
For example, several times we found ourselves involuntarily smiling as Vernon Reid ripped through We People Who Are Darker Than Blue from the Curtis Mayfield tribute album People Get Ready, awe-struck by his harmonic sensitivity and the subtle detuning he uses to great effect on the track.
It's not that other hi-fi amplifiers and speakers don't render such information but simply that the SuperNait portrays it in such a way that one can't easily ignore it, or its influence on the music as a whole. The SuperNait and Neat Motives are an ideal coupling for anyone who wants to transcribe songs to write guitar or bass tablature, for example. Was that a quarter-note bend or a half note? The SuperNait will provide the answer with clarity and gusto.
In a recent conversation with one of the UK's most influential loudspeaker designers and semi-pro jazz players, I was told that few systems truly recreate bass with any real semblance of pitch. He had obviously not heard this system, which seemed uncannily able to convey low frequencies with vivid realism and conviction.
We don't mean make-you-soil-your-underwear, AV subwoofer style bass, but really powerful lows replete with note-shape, intonation, tone and attack/delay envelopes by the truckload. The Motive 1s clearly played a valuable role in this instance, but they could only do what the amplifier was instructing them to do and the SuperNait was gripping them in a vice-like fashion.
And this was at levels varying from a mere whisper to a full-on ear-bleeding assault. The amplifier's exemplary timing ensured that despite the metronomic regularity and precision of low frequencies, the idiosyncrasies of whoever was playing were still allowed through to full effect.
Earlier we touched on the subject of cables, with which the SuperNait, with its copious connections, lends itself to experimentation. And experiment we did, with both sources and cables. The amplifier proved to be especially open and revealing of sources.
The Naim CDS quickly established itself as the source of choice. The Hi-Line cable then proved why it costs as much as it does by vaingloriously trouncing a selection of other high-end and more lowly interconnects. Again, this wasn't an 'Oh, the treble sounds sweeter' type of hi-fi decision.
It was far more relevant than that: while Aimee Mann sounded pleasant but nothing special as a vocalist on her Whatever CD through regular cables, her voice sounded quite magical through the Hi-Line; similarly, Lightning Hopkins' guitar work took on an even more meaningful and expressive demeanour through the better cable.
We've tried this comparison through many systems and never before heard results so clearly night-and-day. The same was true when swapping a supplied component digital cable with the Chord Company's Optichord Toslink lead. The differences in the performance and presentation were truly dramatic. And we had the benefit of a very experienced listener - and equally cynical friend - providing a reality-check as we switched leads.
Comparing the SuperNait with a NAC 122X and NAP 200 combination was equally enlightening, with the integrated model more than holding its own against the pre/power set-up. We dare suggest that anyone who was set on having one box instead of more in their living room would scarcely determine any musical difference between the presentation of the two systems.
One listener preferred the SuperNait, feeling its view of music sounded more clearly etched and decisive. And, on several tracks, we felt inclined to agree with him. Certainly it is a wonderfully cohesive sounding amplifier and has no problems knitting together diverse musical strands: no better did it display this facility than with tracks from Tower Of Power's Soul Vaccination CD, where the steamroller bass thundered along relentlessly, with outstanding fluidity and clearly defined pitch. All the while, the staccato horns and muted guitar chops punctuated its flow with their relevant, but delightfully incisive and coherent interjections.
And that appears to be the Naim SuperNait's forte: pair it with a good source, capable loudspeakers, and don't scrimp on the cables, and it will nail a surprising smile to your face permanently, irrespective of your musical inclinations.