The original Naim NAIT 5i, has earned a formidable reputation as a class-leading, 50-watt integrated amplifier offering outstanding musical performance.
It's also credited with the ability to deliver levels of communication beyond that of most entry-level amplifiers. It wasn't without its faults, of course.
Better at low volumes
If you cranked up the volume (through difficult loudspeakers) and played some challenging music, then the amplifier would show signs of discomfort. So, for listeners who preferred a smooth hi-fi type presentation, the NAIT with its warts-and-all honesty was never going to be a front-runner.
Now there is a much improved replacement for the NAIT 5i: the NAIT 5i, with an italic 'i ' as opposed to the mark one version (hardly the most attention grabbing change of nomenclature). The exterior is equally undemonstrative, with the addition of a tiny, auto-switching input socket on the fascia for connecting an iPod or MP3 player.
As one would expect, the changes that significantly affect the NAIT's performance are mostly hidden from view. So, you could be forgiven for buying the NAIT 5i, under the impression that it's identical to the non-italic version it replaces. That is, until you switch it on and play the first track through it.
New and improved design
The enhanced performance comes from (in typical Naim fashion) an evolution of the original. Here, the audible result turns out to be greater than the sum of the parts might lead you to believe. For example, the new 5i features ceramic heat sink material, which delivers better efficiency and far lower capacitive coupling of the transistors to the chassis.
Restructured wiring improves the isolation of the PCBs, the overall feedback has been reduced to lower transient intermodulation distortion (improving stability into difficult loads) and, finally, the passive preamplifier stage now benefits from improved RF filtering.
One hidden element in the design of the NAIT 5i and, indeed, many of the company's other electronics, is the way in which Naim controls and directs resonance and vibration.
The loose fitting mains input and audio connections are not faults, but intentional design measures that aim to prevent spurious vibrations being transmitted through the system's cabling to the amplifier circuit boards. The boards themselves are decoupled to combat the effects of any external vibration that does manage to find its way inside the 5i's sturdy aluminium casework.
There is little else to say about the NAIT 5i. It features four line-level inputs: all of which have RCA phono connections, while the CD and tuner inputs are duplicated with DIN connectors.
The remaining connections are tape - in and out - and AV; which can be configured as a unity gain input if the user wishes to integrate the 5i into a home cinema system.
The final connection is the 3.5mm stereo jack on the fascia. Plug your iPod into this and the amplifier automatically switches to it: remove the connection and the amplifier reverts to whichever input you were using previously.
The NARCOM 4 remote handset is also compatible with the CD5i, CD player. This is an extremely palatable combination and one that (naturally) Naim strongly recommends. In fact, the company partnered these two for the NAIT 5i's original debut in November 2007, along with a pair of Naim n-SAT loudspeakers.
With no n-SATs to hand, a pair of Shahinian Compass speakers were pressed into service as they were already set up in our listening room. While the Compass wouldn't be everyone's ideal choice when it comes to an inexpensive integrated, it is an unusual and sophisticated loudspeaker that retails at over £3,000 a pair.
The NAIT 5i works surprisingly well with the revealing Compass, but we switched to the more price-appropriate and conventional Neat Motive 1 for the bulk of the review.
There's little or no reason to analyse a track through the NAIT 5i and the Neat Motive 1 speakers, because this amplifier appears to do very little other than amplify. It somehow steps aside and lets the music do the talking, without trying to manipulate or modify it.
Expressive and assertive sound
The NAIT5i and Neat combination sounds perfectly balanced and wonderfully expressive on the Doctor John album Duke Elegant: David Barard's bass displays the ideal amount of presence in the mix.
Assertive and tuneful, with excellent leading edge attack, it never imposes on the proceedings, although it does add plenty of 'pure fonk-i-fication', to paraphrase the good Doctor.
Throughout this collection of Duke Ellington compositions, the musical brilliance and sheer empathy that Doctor John brings to transcribing them for his much smaller band, its different, more modern instrumentation and his individual style of delivery, are abundantly clear through the Naim.
It's fair to say that we've heard this album through a great many systems, yet few (even the most expensive) have conveyed this element quite so strikingly.
There seems to be something about the way in which this amplifier is designed that allows it to be so informative without it having the blatant detail and transparency of some more effusive, but ultimately less communicative designs.
Driven to extremes
To see how the amplifier fared with extreme dynamics, we switched to multi-instrumentalist, the classically trained, ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale and
his album Fragments of a Rainy Season.
On many tracks, in particular Fear [Is a Man's Best Friend], Cale's voice and piano explore both ends of the dynamic register -- both overtly and subtly -- to great dramatic effect.
When Cale switches to acoustic guitar, it merely restates just how fast this amplifier is: its leading edge definition is astounding, but doesn't dominate proceedings. When, for example, Cale plays a Jazz chord, you hear the notes ring, albeit briefly.
When he plays in a tuning that allows open strings you can distinctly appreciate the switch in timbre and note-envelope.
The NAIT 5i performs as succinctly with more densely layered, orchestral music, portraying its mechanical structure as convincingly as it does its musical beauty. Nowhere was this better felt than in the second movement of Villa Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No 1, played by the English Chamber Orchestra and led by Rostropovich.
As well as successfully capturing and recreating the recorded acoustic and ambience, along with the sumptuous tonality of the strings, the sheer magnificence of the composition and the playing were undeniable.
Proof, indeed, that after 25 years in the business, the idiosyncratic NAIT has finally matured and become a genuine all-round proposition.