I once had a Naim – or should I say, Naim once had me.
I remember well when I first stumbled into a chrome bumper half-size box: a guy I knew worked in an audio store and I already had the habit of wasting a certain amount of my living time loitering there with little chance to buy the things I liked. Fact is, I loved audio gear per se but had no clear idea of what I truly liked. Tall people with self-assured wallets and faces knew what they wanted: Isodynamic panels, tubes, semiconductors, power!, 3D imaging, the illusion of real music at home. Times were favorable to mythmaking: what now hasn’t even a name of its own anymore, was called HiFi, short for High Fidelity. Amplifiers sounded all equal, the difference was only in power and distortion values. Turntables were requested to spin regularly and nothing else. Tonearms were requested to have decent or good bearings and an effective anti-skating gimmick. Geometry prevailed. Numbers ruled. Speakers had more bass or less bass. Were to be put inside a bookshelf or to proudly stand tall and magnificent on the floor, to intimidate doubters.
What was the problem between amp and speakers? None but impedance. You unscrewed two modest screws on the rear of the speakers and fixed a bipolar wire, caring to match + and –. That was that.
Amps were divided in variable categories of pairs: two in every one. They were American or Japanese, solid state or with glowing tubes [semiconductors didn’t glow in the dark and, like testicles and cops, needed to be two to do the job of one tube– in the present case, amplifying a single complete sound wave]. They reached 35 watts RMS or – like rockets at the Conquest of Space – aimed at much higher, at 100 watts RMS. They all had loudness but only some of them had V-meters. V-meters too glowed in the dark. I figured that 100 watts could compromise the stability of a building. When my dad told me of a guy he knew who had a 100 watts amplifier, I imagined something like a small radio station against a dedicated wall, with myriads of pots and regulations, that reached as far as the ceiling.
‘RMS’ was mysteriously enemy of ‘music’. If your amp was rated at 50 watts per channel (music) it meant that it couldn’t compete with 50 watts RMS per channel. So what 50 watts were? Speakers didn’t help: Acoustic Research two-ways could handle 100 watts (RMS) but three- or four-ways nice pieces of furniture with Moresque front grilles went into confusion with 35 watts Japanese amps. The more the ‘ways’, the better. Nobody ever talked about crossover distortion, and one coil and one capacitor were often enough to do the job - in this case, to prevent the tweeter from exploding.
Some had Sansui amps. Sansui amps were treated differently from other Japanese amps. They had a black front panel and the reputation of sounding better than other Japanese amps – which meant Pioneer and, when it was made public that Marantz had become Japanese too, Marantz. Some stayed with Marantz anyway. And some had McIntosh. McIntosh won the game hands down: it had all. It was American, had tubes, power and huge blue V-meters glowing in the dark. It was the Harley Davidson of HiFi.
This enormously simplified world had a positive and a negative side – to my eyes, at least: it was a good thing to simply combine two more costly units than the ones you had just traded in and be positive that it would sound better; it was a bad thing that no-one had a vague idea of why the system didn’t sound to his satisfaction even if the vendor, in his white coat, had sworn that that would bring the Berlin Philharmonic into your apartment. He watched you leave the store carrying the best amp in the world with the sad and envying look of one seeing the loved one climb aboard the Titanic, remaining on the pier.
This makes easy to understand why I was so struck when I was first shown first the exterior, then the interior of a Naim 32.5 and of a NAP110. Suddenly, no more wires inside, or close to; no treble pot, no bass pot, no loudness, no proper balance control. The vendor, with a foxy look, made it clear that all these absences, once unacceptable, were now the sine qua non to have good sound. The coupe had been done, dinosaur front panels were doomed to extinction. Yes, the NAC 32.5 had a sort of balance control, but – revealed the vendor with a foxy stare – it only acted on one channel, to compensate for phono cartridges’ uneven output.
He unscrewed the four not very hi-tech rubber feet and opened the box: Look how it’s built, he murmured. It could be thrown (not fall accidentally, actually be thrown) from the first floor and still work. In admiration and awe, I forgot to ask him, or myself, who could be so dumb to buy a shoebox sized nothing costing like a thing four times as big with a front panel more crowded that a department store at Christmas and then throw it from the first floor.
The two little black aliens were connected to a pair of loudspeakers so small that I thought they were kidding me. They were – I learned – the Linn Kans. That was the first time I heard the name of a Linn product, day one of an infinite series of names with a K in them. If I had known that the revolution in HiFi was being led by people with the brain of a high-school sixteen year old, the Tiefenbruns and the Verekers and the Jobs of the world, who had one single idea and proceeded to build a cultural and financial empire on that idea, I’d have stuck with my Pioneer. But as I said at the beginning, Naim once had me.
My first step into the new world was to forget screwing wires on the speakers’ back panel: I had bought the Kans, the era of the K-Ration had begun. I still had the Pioneer (an SA-7300), so I could go on turning screws on the back of the amp, but then came a second hand Naim Nait, and I discovered another truth that would take me decades to be truly assimilated: the difference in quality has never anything to do – on a peer-to-peer basis – with the difference in cost. Looking at the build of the Pioneer and that of the Nait, it was obvious to me that the New Order World HiFi was priced by its sound, and even if the sound had an amount of objective and measurable quality, most of the remaining amount was persuasion.
First thing I lost bass. I came from a pair of Epicure 10s, which had a honest 8" woofer and a concave tweeter and were the size of a loudspeaker. What did I expect from Linn Kans? Nobody had told me that to have some bass from a minimal sealed enclosure it was necessary to keep the output level of the tweeter down, to raise the impedance above the crossover point and hence have an amp with the driving capacity of a pocket nuclear plant. The Nait was an amiable, musical music box, but it couldn’t extract bass from a 95dB/W Japanese open box giant. What was missing from the objective voice I got from the Kans, I had to substitute with a leap of faith and the belief that ‘bass’ was actually ‘bump’, had nothing musical and – worst of all – ‘slowed down music’: I had begun being trained that whatever was not Naim was like when a cop car starts the siren off behind you and you have to pull to the curb. Speed is over, and fun with it.
Since then, I am not able to list the Naim stuff I have owned or borrowed or demoed anymore. I can swear on five N-Sats, two SBLs, an N-Sub, three SN1s, two pairs of S-400s, two AV2s, three 202/200 combos, a number of series 5 boxes, two CD3.5s, four or five CDX2s from the first to the last iteration, a number of XPSs, all the sources bar the 555, all the amps bar the 300, the 500 and, curiously, the Nait2, which remains one my meteors of HiFi – not even the time to toss the very reasonable £5/600 to buy one and voilà!, nobody talks about it anymore. It was mildly maniacal from 1985 to the late 90s, then unstoppable from 2005 to a year ago, like any other addiction.
Escape was not easy to plan. It was like quitting smoke. You cannot decide that you’ll start with ditching the Naim wires one by one for generic ones, then slowly try mixing third party preamps with Naim power amps, and so on until one day you discover you have no more black boxes; it is not like when you cheat yourself by saying ‘I’ll only keep a Naim CDP’ – I’ll only smoke 3 cigarettes a day, after meals. It doesn’t work like that: you must improvise and accomplish the feat in a single flash, like jumping over the fence and running into the woods in that very short time when the rotating headlight leaves ten seconds of darkness in your spot.
Otherwise, you need the help of an accomplice. In my case, it was love. I already had left CD reply on the basis of the evidence of a better sound from a bit perfect file on an SSD. But then, one day I went into my usual store and stumbled into the Bricasti M3 DAC/Streamer and the Pass ST-25 class A amp. Some men will never leave wife and kids for a senile infatuation; I did. So far, I have not repented. And to add a touch of personal irony to fate’s own, I bought a pair of loudspeakers named Heresy. I am specially proud of this, because most consider Klipsch an absurd, unmotivated, un-authorized remnant form a disputable era and culture of audio; after all, they were designed in 1957. Mine are Mk III – the worst, if you credit the words of the Vintage Priests. And yet, they sell since 1957, while – under our nose, and without apparent notice – you already cannot buy half of the Naim catalogue that seemed eternal two years ago, anymore.
I can’t remember if it was in a film or a book, but I have this mental image of someone pronouncing this concept: ‘Do you really think that if a dead man was allowed to live again in his flesh body for a weekend he would spend it listening to music, reading, visiting a museum? I can tell you, he would only want to spend it making love’.
Life is so short.
Have a nice Sunday evening and forgive me for this rant, but first forgive yourself if you read it through to its end.