First Sounds: Naim NAP 300 DR

by Roy Gregory | July 29, 2015

hen Naim Audio first announced the DR (discrete regulator) upgrades to its Classic Series power amps in Munich this year, the significance of the step escaped few of the assembled press. In essence, the changes involved replacing the existing transistors in the NAP 500, NAP 300 and NAP 250 with the new NA009 devices developed for the Statement S1 power amp and the regulators in their supplies with the new DR circuit, also drafted in from the flagship design. (There is also a more cost-effective implementation of the DR modifications applied to the NAP 200, although that doesn’t involve the NA009 output devices, and as its output stage is also unregulated, in this case the discrete regulator only governs the DC feed for the matching preamp.)

When Naim Audio’s Statement electronics first appeared, they marked such a radical departure, in terms of price, architecture and topology, for the company that it was hard for many observers and more than a few of Naim’s staff to get a handle on the new products and place them in the context of (or even relate it to) the existing range. Normally that wouldn’t be such a big deal, and many a company has produced flagship designs in part precisely because they represent a radical step-change in thinking or execution. But those companies don’t share Naim’s almost Jesuitical adherence to its own distinctive ethos and "way" -- a culture that verges on dogma amongst their many satisfied customers. Compare Naim products to a generalized notion of high-end, solid-state norms and they’re not just different, they’re almost bloody mindedly so: smaller, (significantly) less powerful, often employing external power supplies and their own arcane (even archaic) connection standards. They weren’t just ploughing their own furrow; they were ploughing a different field -- probably in a different county! Consider this: Until the arrival of the Statement S1 amplifier, Naim’s previous flagship model, the 19,500 NAP 500, boasted a mighty 140Wpc output from its twin-chassis configuration. The Statement S1 is Naim’s first power amplifier with balanced inputs and only their second ever monoblock (the first being the NAP 135, which was essentially a NAP 250 stereo amp with its entire power supply dedicated to a single channel). At 746 watts each, the Statement is also more than five times as powerful as its immediate predecessor, an amp that was already the most powerful in Naim’s 40-year history, and 50% more powerful than the company’s next-most-powerful unit -- the 90Wpc NAP 300 (7295 in the UK, $13,995 in the US) covered here.

Why the fuss about the modest power output of Naim amplifiers? After all, there are plenty of manufacturers with models that barely creep into double-figure outputs, but Naim’s amps are neither tube designs nor class A, the usual topologies associated with such modest outputs. Instead, those low rated outputs are a result of Naim’s reluctance to double up their output transistors, citing the loss of timing and dynamic integrity, the musical smudging that comes with multiple output devices. While US solid-state designers build ever bigger banks of output devices into massive chassis that require lifting handles just to shift them, Naim struggles to add a few watts here and there, a performance-led adherence to principle that won them admirers amongst their fans but left them marginalized in many markets.

All of which helps explain the company’s emphasis on the NA009 output device (and the discrete regulator circuit devised to govern it) as a core ingredient in the Statement story. Their pursuit of matched devices extends as far as carving each set of transistors from adjacent points in the same sheet of silicon and then building them into an all-new, fully regulated, complementary output stage -- another first for Naim. The problem is that the Statement was so far removed in so many ways from the existing Naim products that it was hard to say what contribution parts like those matched output devices and the new DR regulators played in the overall performance -- until now.

The DR upgrades represent the first trickle-down technology from Statement and the first chance to assess that technology in the context of the rest of the range. They also represent Naim maintaining tradition and keeping faith with its installed customer base, a group who felt their loyalty sorely tested by the 155,000 asking price of a full Statement rig, which at nearly four times the cost of the previous flagship combination, represented a hike that was almost as big as the jump in output power.

Now, all those who felt betrayed by the company’s lurch into the highest end can get their own slice of Statement technology and performance built into their existing amps. That’s right -- the DR upgrades are retrofittable to original Classic Series amplifiers. That process will start late this year and prices are yet to be announced, although while the increase in price between a NAP 300 and the DR version of the same amp is a mere 300, expect the upgrade -- which amounts to effectively remanufacturing the output stage of the existing unit -- to cost considerably more. Which leaves us with two questions: how big a difference does the DR upgrade make over the original and is it worth getting your existing amps DR'ed -- or should that be doctored?

Although the DR upgrades only impact the amplification chassis of the NAP 300, comparison of the new version with the original mandated two complete sets of units as both needed to be thoroughly warm. I ran them alongside the new, versatile and extremely impressive NAC-N272 DAC/preamp, and in the spirit of change I employed the new SuperLumina interconnects and speaker cables -- although I did also run the amps (briefly) with the stock interconnects and NAC-A5 speaker cables. With supports and other aspects of system setup rendered as nearly identical as possible and with both units in situ and running for a week (the NAP 300 DR had already had some considerable burn-in before that) it was time to ring the changes and see what Naim has wrought.

Listening to the two amps side by side leaves little room for confusion and even less for equivocation. The DR is so manifestly superior, sonically and musically, that it simply blows the original version away. You could describe the result as a slam dunk, except that you don’t get three points for that and the upgrade here is definitely worth the maximum. It’s surprising how often "improved" versions of products are not so much better as simply different -- and in the case of a product as well balanced as the original NAP 300, such a difference can all too often signal exactly the kind of imbalance that might sound initially impressive but soon pales after longer listening. That isn’t the case here. The NAP 300 DR is even better balanced than its predecessor, yet the step up in quality is so wide-reaching and profound that I can’t find a single area in which the original amp betters the upgraded one. In hi-fi terms the DR delivers significantly greater transparency, air, dimensionality, resolution, focus, texture and tonality, dynamic range and impact. But what is most impressive (and what will impress the dedicated Naim owners who listen to it) is how it binds those sonic advantages to the core performance that has always characterized Naim’s amps. You want to talk pace, rhythm and timing? The NAP 300 DR is quicker, more sure-footed and articulate than the original, with greater clarity of musical purpose and more emphatic musical punctuation and expression.

Playing the Jackson Browne CD Solo Acoustic Volume 1 [EMI CDANGE01 0094634366724] the DR amp delivered a far more immediate and convincing sense of presence and performance. Browne’s familiar voice was more natural and his playing was far more articulate, making the original '300’s presentation sound almost clumsy and stilted in comparison. It’s all down to the relaxed, unforced and unconstrained sense of flow that the DR brings to the music. It was apparent in Browne’s phrasing, the delicacy of his fingering and shape of the melodies. It was apparent in the weight and body that sit behind the notes, the chest that sits behind the voice. But it was most apparent in the spoken introductions, those wry, humorous anecdotes that precede so many of the tracks. The DR captured more of both the natural rhythms of speech and the humor it contained. These brief interludes actually dragged on the '300, but with the DR they seemed to pass far more quickly, yet without ever seeming rushed. Instead they flowed naturally into the songs, leaving you with a slightly surprised feeling of, Oh, we’re there already. It’s this ease with which the DR passes through the tracks, the way it glides so effortlessly from note to note, phrase to phrase and song to song that lifts it head and shoulders above the original version.

If you think that sounds like it might be overly sweet or smooth, think again. Listen to Michelangeli playing the Beethoven First Piano Concerto (Giulini and the VPO [DGG 419 248-2]) and you can’t miss the sheer verve the DR brought to the soloist’s performance, the way it captured his astonishing combination of dexterity, delicacy and authority, the dramatic orchestral contrasts and emphasis supplied by Giulini. This live performance has a real sense of occasion and atmosphere, something that the crisp clarity and immediacy of the DR thrives on, leaving the original '300 sounding thick, congested and distant, rounded off and compressed. It had none of the air nor the spatial definition delivered by the upgraded amp and couldn’t match the DR’s effortless separation and definition of left and right hands, or the various woodwinds as opposed to the strings as well as each other.

Bottom line: it’s way, way easy to hear exactly what’s happening with the DR -- and with a performance this good that’s a very good thing. Michelangeli made his instrument dance and so too did the DR. Giulini balanced the orchestra perfectly against the solo instrument -- and so too did the DR. Does the new amp match the dimensionality and tonal palette of a tube design like the ARC Reference 75 SE or the sheer transparency and resolution of the CH Precision AMP1? No, but it does extend the '300’s performance in these regards significantly, without in any way undermining the musicality, rhythmic and dynamic coherence so close to the hearts of Naim devotees. In fact, it advances those pretty significantly too.

Naim’s DR upgrades to the established and well-regarded NAP 300 are an unqualified success, a major boost in terms of sound quality for a minor increase in price. I can only assume that they are just as successful when applied to the other Classic Series units -- although the NAP 500’s bridged topology does introduce another variable. We don’t yet know how much the upgrade to an older unit will cost, but the difference in performance is sufficient to support a compelling case for trading in an original amp against a new DR version, a step that would actually make musical and financial sense. The upgrade is going to be way cheaper than that and that makes it a no-brainer. Owners of Classic Series amps should get their names down for the DR mods just as soon as they can, while those thinking of upgrading an existing amp within the range are going to receive a significant and unexpected performance benefit.

Once you’ve heard the DR upgrades in action, it’s not hard to understand why Naim made so much of this aspect of the Statement’s technology story. It’s also not hard to understand just why the Statement amps sound as good as they do. Longtime Naim watchers have long felt that the NAP 300 represents the most universal of their amplifiers -- the one which offers the greatest slice of conventional hi-fi virtues and is most at home outside of an all-Naim system. The DR version extends that appeal even further. Indeed, at this point in time I have the NAP 300 DR running the upstairs system and the Statement S1s running the setup in the listening room. Who’d have thunk that Gregory would ever be running a house full of Naim amps? But then, who’d have thunk that the performance of Naim amps could progress this far, this fast? I’m impressed.

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