This vs. that, etc

I recently scored a great deal on NAIM pre and power amp XS combo for my office audio setup. I was very impressed in general but having a limited budget to play with, and being new to NAIM, I thought I’d make sure it was worth the investment by comparing it to something opposite, in this case based on tubes (or valves, as majority of naim owners would have it).

I brought it my friend’s Schiit Freya + and stacked it on top of the Rotel power amp that I had in my living room. My first reaction was very positive (naturally, as I was listening to the similar Rotel sound further enriched by a very melodic Freya). But quickly I felt that something was now missing. The soundstage was probably was just as expansive, and the tubes sounded more melodic to my ear overall, but none of the details I’m now used to hearing with NAIM were there. I was also missing its precision, speed, and perhaps the aggression. When playing “There, there” by Radiohead (Hail to the Thief), the valves were not delivering the same low extension, the aggression (yet that again), and the metallic brilliance of the drum strikes. Listening to “2 + 2 = 5” on the same album made the final confirmation - it was not even close.

In the end, this was an informative session. With some more mellow music I felt that tubes were offering something special that perhaps NAIM didn’t have but those were just a few instances. I realize to each their own, but my questions about what makes NAIM special are now completely answered :wink:

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I had a bit of an off/on dabble with valve (tube) gear over a couple years. Just headphone amps and pre-amps. At the outset I’d almost convinced myself this was more than just an itch to scratch and I was going to love what a valve or two in the circuit would do (too many “glowing” reviews of various bits of kit, other people’s opinions, folk-lore around iconic pieces of kit, e.g. Rega Isis Valve, etc.)

The reality was a bit different. Once into the world of tube-rolling, separating the rough from the smooth, it was interesting, but frustrating. With the novelty worn off and just getting down to listening to and enjoying music for music’s sake (rather than sonic traits, however pleasant they could be), it just didn’t hit the mark for me like good solid state. I know it’s a massive generalisation to say valves sound like this … and solid state sounds like that (see, I got there eventually :slightly_smiling_face:) but good solid state has a more “directly connected”, square-edged sound, resulting in the pace, rhythm and timing that helps so much with musical communication.

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Exactly, my thoughts but even better articulated.

I so totally disagree. If you had spent any time listening to ARC, VTL, Ayon or VAC you’d have a very different opinion.

I very much doubt my tube amp could be identified as a tube amp in a blind test.

A lot of the “tube sound” comes from pushing tubes close to or beyond their limits. Unlike transistors, tubes would blow the nanosecond you exceed limits. For some that mild distortion is very pleasing and comes off as warmth. But if a tube amp is designed to not go close to the functional parameters of the tubes, they can be very hard/impossible to distinguish from solid state in terms of colouration. And the tubes go 10 years before changes if not thrashed. Then you start getting great transparency and prat albeit with extremely low power.


No doubt! But to reiterate my point, this specific test underscored what Naim is known for and the Schiit pre + Rotel SS power amp were missing. No doubt other tube preamps produce a different voice. It’s also highly possible that here the issue is with the Rotel - perhaps the results would have been different with an edgier and faster power amp.

My World Designs Pre-4 transformer coupled valve pre amp doesn’t have any noticeable tube vibe.

On the other hand, my over driven Fender Guitar Combo amp does!


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