Naim Audio Statement NAC S1 Preamplifier and NAP S1 Mono Amplifiers
by Roy Gregory | December 25, 2015
What are we to make of Naims grand statement made real in the imposing shapes and even more imposing price tags of the Statement NAC S1 preamp and NAP S1 mono amps? For make no mistake, this is as much a statement of intent as it is a new flagship product line. Its not just a case of ratcheting up the price point until the pips squeal; it embodies a dramatic change in the companys worldview, product implementation and both the style and level of performance offered. Were fond of talking about sea changes in the audio industry. Well, this is like swapping the Dead Sea for the Roaring Forties, Lake Placid for Cape Horn.
As well see, these are in certain important respects unmistakably Naim electronics, but they are also like no Naim electronics you've ever heard. Forget the compact and modestly powered modular product line, with its quaintly anachronistic thinking and clearly defined upgrade path, its unmistakable styling and equally unmistakable sound. If the existing Naim line might be considered an established but slightly low-key TV series, now entering its 11th season and possibly in need of a theme and character refresh, Statement is a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, built on an explosive premise, with a convoluted plot (not without the odd hole), expensively realized visual design, a potentially subversive subtext and a shocking final twist. For once, the terms must see and gripping that get sprinkled so liberally across movie posters are entirely appropriate. Naims Statement preamp and amps are the real deal -- and like many a big-budget Hollywood production, the creative costs soon pale into insignificance against the critical and commercial success.
But to understand just how radical a technological and philosophical shift Statement represents, you need to understand a little of the Naims history and the arc of its product development. Just as Naim is quintessentially British, so too is its story and influence. Lodged firmly at the heart of the UK audio industry, Naim has been a central player in the establishment and maintenance of the UK industry and, in particular, its dealer network. Its active involvement in dealer training has in turn embedded its ideas and values deeply into the UK audio psyche, a mindset that is often significantly at odds with more mainstream high-end thinking. Class-A operation, high-power outputs, balanced topology, wide bandwidth, neutrality and stereo imaging were all concepts that remained alien to Naims focus. Instead they stressed dynamic and rhythmic integrity, the importance of power supplies, the irrelevance of cables and the creation of a carefully structured upgrade path. They developed their own interconnection topology based on DIN socketry and eschewed the use of multiple pairs of output devices, citing the loss of focus and temporal integrity as evidence. The result was a ceiling on output power (even their most powerful amplifier, the NAP 500 DR, only generates 140Wpc into 8 ohms and does so by adopting a bridged output topology) that in turn led to the development of active systems involving multiple amps, crossovers and even more external power supplies.
But while it has been fashionable in certain audio circles to mock or dismiss the stacks of little black boxes that build up into complete Naim systems, that is to miss the point. Naims carefully constructed upgrade path, add-on external power supplies and the reliability and serviceability of their products translates into remarkably high secondhand values and deeply embedded customer loyalty. Theres an old joke that suggests the main reason audiophiles love Naim products is that they all look the same, so their wives cant tell when theyve spent money on another upgrade. But lets not ignore the high trade-in values guaranteed by a waiting line of customers for secondhand products. Its a strategy that works for the dealers just as effectively as for the customers, even if it has been difficult to replicate beyond the shores of Britain.
Which brings us to the whole issue of Statement, the UK audio landscape and the schism that splits it right down the middle. Its no exaggeration to say that within the confines of Britain audiophiles can be divided into those in the Naim camp and all the rest. Like many sectarian struggles, its a split that has a long and "bloody" history, thats not without rancor, bitterness and prejudice on both sides, which, in these days of the Internet, spouts forth on multiple forums with increasing venom. This helps explain the howls of outrage from within the ranks of Naims legacy customers, not so much when the Statement products were first announced -- details were sketchy, so just how big a step they represented straight into the heart of the traditional high-end wasnt immediately apparent -- but when their prices became public knowledge.
The sense of betrayal was almost palpable. Why? Because the hike in price was so big that it resulted in a product that would make even the wealthiest audiophile pause. The combined cost of the companys previous flagship electronics was just the right side of $60,000; the Statement NAP S1 amplifiers weigh in at $76,000 -- each -- with the NAC S1 preamp adding another $88,000 to the total, making it four times the price of the 552/500 combination that rests below it in the range. Suddenly, a host of loyal consumers who made the incremental investments to follow the ascending ladder of Naim upgrades as it spiraled ever upwards were disenfranchised at a stroke. The wailing and gnashing of teeth had to be heard to be believed -- which in turn explains why reviewing the Statement electronics might sensibly be viewed as something of a poisoned chalice: with so much emotion (not to mention money) invested in the brand and its products, theres no way you are going to avoid seriously upsetting somebody!
Indeed, its a commission I spent a long time dodging, but eventually I got cornered. And you know what? Im glad I did, because in many ways this has been one of the most interesting, engaging and enjoyable reviews Ive ever conducted -- not least because of the universal astonishment that greets the sound of the Statement preamp and amps, products that genuinely defy expectations just as emphatically as they explode prejudice. They do it by rewriting the design rulebook (at least the rulebook according to Naim Audio) and along the way they establish a totally new direction and sonic agenda for their parent company. Call it a clean-sheet design or a blue-sky project; call it whatever you like. Stand the Statement products alongside Naims previous products and it immediately becomes apparent that this isnt a developmental step-change -- its a complete paradigm shift. In motoring terms, its the equivalent of (the quaintly eclectic, unmistakably British and technologically recalcitrant) Morgan cars suddenly unveiling the Bugatti Veyron.
Lets take the NAP 500 DR as an example. This two-chassis design represents both Naims previous flagship power amp and its most powerful amp to date. A retail price of $33,995 for the stereo amplifier makes its 140Wpc rated output some of the most expensive solid-state watts around, while its separate audio chassis and external power supply are distinctly different from the high-end norm. Now compare that to the NAP S1. Not only is a pair of the Statement power amps five times the price, it offers five times the power. It still shares the bridged output topology of the NAP 500 DR and its physical separation of power-supply and audio circuitry, but the vertical mechanical structure of the amp is radically different, while even more surprisingly, this is Naims first true monoblock design (the '135 was simply a '250 with only one channel and the whole power supply dedicated to it), the first Naim flagship amplifier to feature a fully complementary circuit topology, balanced inputs only and even binding posts! Believe me, the day a Naim amplifier doesnt just accept but welcomes spades, you know the axis of the world has tilted.
You might think that fitting binding posts and balanced inputs is no big deal, but their significance lies in what they reveal about the designers awareness (or acceptance) of the high-end market as a whole. These products are going to be playing in a whole new environment, one in which Naim Audio can no longer expect to dictate cable choices and termination types. Its a tacit acknowledgement that if the Statements were going to be taken seriously, then they would need to adhere to accepted standards and practices. As well see, thats a realization that is easier to arrive at than it is to implement, especially given the arcane nature of Naims preexisting cable and connection strategy, but it is a hugely important step nonetheless, one that looks firmly forward rather than being rooted in the past.
Physically speaking, each S1 monoblock weighs in at 101kg (well over 200 pounds), stands 940mm tall (a little over three feet) and puts out 746 watts into 8 ohms (thats one horsepower in automotive terms), 1450 watts into 4 ohms and has a burst power capability of 9 kilowatts! Of course, you need more than big numbers to justify a price tag that looks stratospheric even in high-end-audio terms, but what they do underline is that Naim have embraced high-end thinking and high-end attitudes alongside the high-end pricing. They would point out those elements of continuity between old and new and doubtless state that theyve arrived at this design solution by their own path, but irrespective of the route traveled, the destination is mighty familiar -- in both technological and sonic terms. Of course, no matter how clean a sheet you start with, if you seek to answer the same question using the same parts bin and technology that a whole load of other people have addressed, then its not surprising that you come up with a lot of the same answers. What is surprising is that Naim, a company that has been so resistant to the realities of the high-performance audio market for so long, should now embrace them so completely and enthusiastically. Throw in those elements of continuity and a few unique touches and what you end up with is a product that is both recognizable in high-end terms and that offers its own distinctive take on the problem.
Certain aspects of Statements design are more familiar than others. The balanced signal path and fully complementary topology being two examples. Likewise, the tower block layout, with the power supply in the base and the sensitive signal path in the upper section, might be proportionally more extreme but is essentially the same construction seen in amps like the Mark Levinson No.33 and No.33H and the VTL Siegfried and S400 (amps which share other significant design features with the Statements). Naim may have taken an extra step in physically separating the two elements, inserting a slab of Perspex between them, but quite how efficiently that blocks the path of mechanical energy is open to question. It does serve to impede eddy currents within the chassis and what isnt so questionable is the aesthetic impact of that low-slung waist, its translucent boundary both breaking up what would otherwise be a visually monolithic slab and creating an instantly identifiable visual signature.
When Naim launched Statement, their presentation fastened on three aspects of the design. The first was the volume-control implementation, where as soon as the large horizontal wheel is activated (according to my wife Louise, changing the level on the Statement preamp makes her feel like Captain Kirk on the bridge of the Enterprise) or the remote buttons pressed, a basic microprocessor-controlled ladder switches into circuit, allowing the user to set the required level. The preamp then equates that level to one of a hundred discrete resistor values and switches that component into the signal path, switching off the microprocessor and its ladder at the same time. Its a neat and effective approach to the most vexed of all problems facing a preamps designer, and it works -- although even in this case you can hear the negative impact of remote as opposed to manual control. One thing that Naim expended a lot of effort on was the silky-smooth and perfectly damped feel of the volume wheel. Its so tactile and luxurious that its almost criminal not to use it. Less apparent is the care thats gone into the internal arrangements, one example being the suspended, screened box that helps protect the input socketry.
The companys well-publicized reservations over the matching of output devices drove them to an extreme solution. Increased power output inevitably meant increasing the number of devices, so working with the supplier who already produces the proprietary output transistors used in the NAP 500 DR, Naim created a new high-capacity output device in which individual sets of output transistors are cut from adjacent positions on the silicon substrate, individually paired and numbered so that they stay together from production to final installation. The power amplifier runs a class-A voltage gain stage followed by a class-AB current gain stage, the split topology allowing isolation of the delicate voltage amplifier from the loudspeaker load. Theres no global feedback around the two stages, allowing the amplifier to be very fast.
Naim also developed a new discrete regulator (DR) circuit that can be placed immediately adjacent to and trimmed precisely to match each individual device in the output and driver stages. Discrete regulators are not exactly new, while close coupling them to the devices they feed is the sole raison detre for the layered air-dielectric construction employed in the Connoisseur preamp and phono stage, but regulated power supplies have always been big in the Naim philosophy, and if you are going to follow (or extend) an established path, make sure its a good one! You might wonder just how significant using adjacent slivers of silicon can be (a subject to which Ill return later), but theres no doubting that well-executed power-supply regulation has a huge impact on sound quality, while one sage old designer once pronounced that "The volume control is 80% of the sound of a preamp." Naims design choices have been carefully considered, thought through and then beautifully executed. A previous article outlines the steps that Naim have taken when it comes to manufacturing the modular circuit blocks, subassemblies and casework that combine to create a single Statement product, but I have rarely seen such elegantly executed mechanical design and construction, or such attention to detail. The interior of a Statement preamp or amp is every bit as impressive and striking as the exterior.
The design does have its blind spots, some more understandable than others. Look around the back of the preamp and the connections include a bank of Naims preferred DIN sockets, with three inputs served by the multi-pin connectors, three more equipped with RCA jacks and a pair of balanced XLR inputs as well. Each input can be allocated to a specific source/identity -- all fairly standard stuff that allows you to choose the appropriate connection topology for each source. It also ensures compatibility with Naims existing source components that all employ the DIN standard.
What it doesnt take into account is that the vast majority of the more serious cable designs are not available with (and most wont fit into) a DIN connector. Naim have launched their own Super Lumina interconnects and speaker cables, offering a significant increase in both performance and price over their existing wires, but even these are easily outperformed by the best cables out there. While I had the Statements in-house, I was able to run them with Nordost Odin and Valhalla 2, AudioQuest Wild and Crystal Cable Absolute Dream. Not only do the Statements both justify and demand this level of cabling if you are going to really hear what they are capable of, is somebody dropping this kind of coin on a two-channel system really going to cut corners on the cable loom or settle for something that costs a fraction of one box of electronics? You can argue that such a sense of imbalance is largely psychological and that decisions should be made on the basis of performance, but that doesnt make it any less real in the market and only brings you back to the yawning chasm that exists between the musical capabilities of those flagship designs Ive already mentioned and Naims own cables. Which is where things get that little bit subversive. Given that Naim have finally bitten the cable bullet and produced a credible audiophile design, how long will it be before their Statement cables appear? It doesnt just make sense in the context of the Statement electronics -- potentially these would be the Statement products that all Naim owners could aspire to.
So while I understand the necessity for the DIN input options, discovering that the NAC S1 features three outputs of which only one is balanced (via XLRs) while the other two are unbalanced and equipped with DIN connectors had me scratching my head. Fine, so it means that the Statement preamp can be used with existing Naim amplifiers (of which the most expensive is almost a quarter of its price) and crossovers, but that facility should be made optional, with the alternative of a second set of XLR outputs taking up the real estate. That would open up the possibility of both biamped and subwoofer systems -- both frequent occurrences in the high-end market these products will inhabit. Indeed, there was a plan to use not just two but four of the Statement power amps to drive the Wilson Sasha 2s along with the WATCH Dog subwoofers Im currently running, but it foundered early, partly because of the difficulty of securing a second pair of amps (customer demand is significantly outstripping all estimates and supply), but mainly because the arcane output topology meant that we couldnt wire up the WATCH Dogs active crossovers even if wed wanted to. Never mind -- this should be an easy (and worthwhile) fix.
Less easy is that having separated the "noisy" power-supply elements from the delicate signal path by placing them in separate boxes, Naim then chose to place the input and output socketry on the back of the lower, power-supply chassis. Sorry, but I simply cannot get my head around that one, whichever way I look at it. When you have a preamp and amps that genuinely push the boundaries the way these do, you cant help but wonder just how much further they could go if it werent for "practical compromises" like this. I do get the "lifestyle" appeal of having the sockets so close to the ground -- it just has zero place in a design with aspirations as genuinely groundbreaking as this one. They say that in the lifecycle of every product there comes a point where the sales and marketing teams need to take the designer out and shoot him. In this case, he should have shot back.
Whinging over, time to wallow! This is the most impressive solid-state rig Ive ever had in my system -- and Ive had a few. The last electronics that made anything like this impression were the Siltech S.A.G.As, four-boxes of battery-powered hybrid running in biamped mode. The Statements are very different but in their own way just as impressive. They are also just as much of a system solution, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, an observation which brings me directly to the question of system setup and matching. Ive already spoken about the demands the Statement electronics place on the cable loom. What is less obvious is that they are also critically affected by the systems grounding topology. Visually designed to stand side by side, to sound at their best, the three units need to be connected to the same star-grounded AC supply, with the preamp connection firmly in the center of that star. Given the ground paths employed in previous Naim systems, thats no great surprise. What I wasnt ready for is the fact that as good as the Statements sound en bloc, they sound even better if you run the power amps on long interconnects and place them close to the speakers, where they deliver greater separation, better rhythmic articulation and more emphatic dynamics. Im in the fortunate position of having the long power leads to make that a possibility, while still maintaining the preferred grounding topology, but the difference isnt subtle and once again anybody investing in Statements should be prepared to examine the possibility. Besides which, the NAP S1s do look seriously cool stood sideways with those beautifully sculpted heatsinks facing into the room.
Ah, yes, those heatsinks. Naim have gone to great lengths to sculpt a disruptive structure, but even so, the old trick of running insulation tape across the fins to damp resonance still provides an audible benefit. The review amps had to suffer the indignity of bright blue tape striping their sides, but if you find the benefit worthwhile, then black tape will serve just as well and be considerably more discreet. A related effect I wasnt ready for was the impact of placing a pair of long HRS damping plates atop the monoblocks and a small one centrally on the top plate of the preamp. Despite Naims considerable efforts when it comes to trying to spread resonance within the Statement chassis, damping those top plates, adjacent as they are to the lowest signal levels in each unit, has a profound effect on the sound, dropping the noise floor, increasing separation and microdynamic definition, delivering slightly richer but also more distinct instrumental colors and a livelier, more immediate sense of presence.
Finally, a word on warm-up: if the amps are powered down for any period of time, certainly if they are transported, they will take around a week to get back close to full performance. The set that I reviewed had been run for at least a couple of months, but even so they continued to get better and better throughout the two-month review period (during which they ran continuously). If they are sounding in any way flat, stilted, gray or thin, it's probably a warm-up/burn-in issue. This is one product where you should avoid rushing to judgment. Give them time and the Statements will reward you by revealing their true capabilities.
I ran the Statements exclusively with the Wilson Sasha 2s, partly because the implications of relocating either product are daunting, but mainly because they simply worked so well together that I felt no need to ring the changes. The Wilsons deliver exactly the sort of enthusiastic dynamic response and slightly awkward load that Naim amps have always thrived on -- and the Statement amps are no different. Obviously I havent tried it, but I suspect that pairing with Alexias or Alexandria XLFs would prove even more efficacious, with the big Naim monoblocks having both the power and authority to drive either speaker, as well as the musical qualities they demand.
Likewise, experimentation with other preamps proved something of a dead end. Whilst substituting other products in place of the NAC S1 clearly showed what the Naim preamp wasnt doing, the associated loss of pace, drive, dynamic and temporal coherence that resulted was always too high a price to pay. My investigations in this regard were far from exhaustive (and Id have loved to try a top-flight fully balanced solid-state design like the Karan KA L Reference, but I didnt have one to hand), but they did demonstrate conclusively that the Statements are a genuine system solution. My gut tells me that the power amps in particular might well thrive in alternative pairings, but I havent found the magic combination yet, so for the purposes of this review, Im solely discussing the Statement preamp and power amps used together.
In many ways, the sonic and musical aspects of this review are easy to write. The astonishing musical coherence and communicative qualities of the Statement electronics rest on two aspects of their performance: these are big amplifiers that succeed in sounding small, right up to the point where they need to sound big, when they do so effortlessly; they are also genuinely low-loss devices, resolving not just information but also the total and differential energy levels in the performance. The more you put in, the more you get out -- a simple concept, although one that can be hard (and expensive) to actually enact. I used both the Neodio Origine and the Kuzma Stabi M/4Point turntable/tonearm, mounting a Lyra Etna, Allnic Puritas or the remarkable new Fuuga cartridge, all fed through the Lyra Connoisseur phono stage as the main sources for this review. Not only did the Statements reveal the manifest superiority of the vinyl front-end over CD, they clearly delineated the distinctive character, strengths and flaws of the various cartridges. One reason I had so many different high-end cables available was that I was somewhat concerned about the match between the Odin/Valhalla 2 and the Naim electronics. On first switch on, my worst fears seemed to be confirmed, but the longer the amps stayed in situ, the more and more comfortable the combination became, the Nordosts' microdynamic resolution and ultra-low-loss nature a perfect match for the electronics inherent strengths. Whilst price is no guarantee of quality, in the case of the Statements understand that they will be incredibly demanding of partnering equipment. If you want to actually realize their enormous musical potential, then only the best of the best will do.
When it came to playing visitors, where I normally start is with the Montserrat Figueras disc Ninna Nanna [AliaVox AV9826], a collection of lullabies from across the world and across the centuries. Track 8 is an anonymous composition from 18th-century Alicante, featuring not just Figueras beautiful voice, but fabulous harmonies with her daughter and a period arrangement by husband Jordi Savall. It is captivatingly beautiful, the purity of the voices and sparse instrumentation creating a delicate, almost ethereal quality. But nothing is quite as delicate and finely wrought as the simple hand bell that opens the song. With the Statements you hear the tiny bell, locked in space, you hear the air around it, you sense the hand movement that energizes it and the harmonics, purity and fragility of its chimes. Its so natural as to have an almost ghostly presence, a display of astonishing sonic dexterity, especially given the size of the amps -- the tiny, intricate sound and monolithic presence of the amplification creating an aural/visual discontinuity akin to seeing an NFL nose tackle dancing on the head of a pin. When I say that these electronics can do small, I mean really, really small, without any hint of clumsiness or smoothing, without any loss of attack, energy or life. Those tiny hand bells simply happen in time and space, emerging naturally from the blackness of the background. Its one of those sonic sleights-of-hand that stops listeners in their tracks -- and in this case immediately makes them realize that not only are these not the electronics they were expecting to hear, its not just any electronics theyre in front of.
Now, combine that level of control and resolution, sudden response and temporal precision with the sort of headroom that goes hand in hand with 750 stiff watts and youve got some serious musical and expressive potential. Choose almost anything that you think you know inside out -- in my case, the Giulini/VSO Beethoven Piano Concerto No.1 with Benedetti Michelangeli [Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft 2531 302] -- and the Statements will reveal new aspects to the performance and recording. Here, its the sheer swagger and musical panache of Guilinis bravura performance, the contrast with the poise, delicacy and sinuous power of Michelangelis playing, an expressive range Ive only heard matched by the VTL Siegfrieds or the biamped S-400s, amps that match the big Naims for presence and drama, but cant compete when it comes to instrumental texture at low frequencies. Is one better than the other? Theyre different, which is why some people prefer tubes and others solid state, but its a comparison that tells us two things: lest anyone have any lingering doubts, the Statements are right up there, challenging the current state of the art; and how interesting that the amps the monoblocks most resemble in terms of mechanical and circuit topology are also the ones which come closest in terms of their ability to deliver sheer musical impact -- despite the differences between silicon and vacuum-based devices.
Move on to the Maazel/VPO Sibelius Symphony No.2 (an early wideband recording [Decca SXL6125]) and again the Naims excel when it comes to floating the layered bass figures and delivering the textures of the softly rolled drums. Just as with the hand bells, you hear the individual impacts upon the skin, the air above it and trapped below it, irrespective of what is happening around it. Spookily impressive when its a solo fill between opening phrases, but whats really remarkable is when you clearly hear those low-frequency underpinnings anchoring the full string section. The characteristic slow-building crescendos of the Second Symphony are beautifully paced and structured, step on step until just when you think the sheer musical intensity cant increase, Sibelius backs off and then builds to the next higher peak until you reach that final joyous release. Brass tuttis rip convincingly, with trumpets and trombones piercing through from the rear of the stage just as they should -- and each time the performance hits a new summit, the system responds without strain or demur. The music says "Jump!" and these amps dont even wait to ask "How high?"
But again, what makes the big Naims' delivery so impressive is about much, much more than just muscle. So much of what makes these electronics genuinely special (and sit firmly alongside the others -- very few -- that exist in the same class) can be encapsulated in the second movement of this Sibelius symphony. From the astonishing intimacy of the gentle opening quiver emanating from the timpani, through the extended pizzicato bass passage, so secure in pitch and tempo, attack and decay, with its effortless transition into the cellos, before that brief optimism sinks back into deeper, darker waters. Then theres the shocking intensity of the sudden dynamic shifts, the stark, almost strobing contrasts of light and shade, the sustained intensity of the drawn-out, elongated brass lines, echoing the long, almost muted notes that bring an inner color to the earlier passages in the first movement. Never has the centrality of that opening three-note theme been so apparent to me, the way it carries through and binds the whole work, each return, each inversion, each development clear and consistent before it reappears, bigger and stronger and dominating the massive finale.
If Sibelius was a composer welded to the inner logic of his work, then none of his works displays that more clearly than the Second, with its sporadic, disjointed phrases and instrumental interjections, which all need to be bound and combined into that single, central flow, a little like working from the twigs to the trunk of a tree. Finding that logical core and making it an inevitable path is the challenge for the conductor, capturing it is the challenge facing the recording, and not pulling it apart is the challenge for the system. With the Statements in the driving seat, theres never even the slightest doubt where Maazel is taking the orchestra, or the route theyre taking to get there. Now listen to Berglund or Barbirolli and their own paths are just as distinct, the individual slant they bring to the logic just as clear (as are Ashkenazys clumsy missteps).
By now we know that the Statements will go big or small with equal alacrity, just how naturally is their expansion in terms of scale and musical energy, just how totally unfettered is their response to dynamic demands. Theres no sense of delay, no sense of the sound having to work its way up the scale. As soon as it needs more energy, there it is. But perhaps what is most impressive of all is that at no point do the dynamic demands of the signal disturb or impede the temporal stability of the music. That big crescendo or sudden hush never stall the musics step or rhythmic pattern. Yet, for electronics that are so astonishingly agile and fast, the Statements don't sound it. Combine those things and what you have are a preamp and amps that occupy that state of grace where you dont notice them working. If a component sounds fast, its generally because something else is lacking (often substance). The Naims don't sound fast -- what you dont realize until you actively think about it is that they simply aren't slowing the musical demands, either in terms of attack or scale. Its a quality that allows them to recede further into the background, further behind the musical performance than any other solid-state electronics Ive used. Its also a quality that, especially when combined with the Statements sense of presence and musical purpose, Ive always associated more with tubes than transistors. In this regard, the Statement preamp and amps really do beat tubes at their own game.
This utter lack of restraint in response brings a fluidity to phrasing and performances that sits at the core of the musics expressive vocabulary. If each phrase is like a musical sentence, the Naims allow them to combine and interleave into complete paragraphs, leading you naturally through the score and the performance. It doesnt matter if you are listening to a piano trio, a symphony orchestra, a jazz quartet, a big band or a studio rock recording, the intent on the part of the musicians, the purpose in their performance, is laid bare. You never for a moment doubt where the music is going or why.
Talking of big bands, if you get the chance to spend some time with the statements, do yourself a favor and play some Basie. Its not just the explosive dynamics, its the perfect sense of pace and timing, everything happening when and where it should, that makes the Basie band and their recordings so brilliant. Feeding them into the Statements is kind of like pitching up underarm serves to Novak Djokovic: they come back past you, at pace!
So, incredibly agile, responsive and rhythmically articulate, musically fluid and temporally explicit, what is it that the big Naims dont do? Their solid-state nature is betrayed in the balance they strike between images and the acoustic as a whole, the dimensionality and the depth of the soundstage. Instrumental spread is excellent, as is layering and height, which creates exceptionally natural perspectives, but there are electronics (especially tube electronics) that deliver a greater sense of the overall acoustic space, more depth, more dimensionality and, partly as a result, more intimacy and immediacy. As remarkable as the bass generated from the Sasha 2s was, I cant help wondering what bringing the Wilson WATCH Dogs into play (or moving up to Alexandria XLFs) would have brought to the party. But play good studio rock recordings and the naturalness of the Statements' perspective opens up the craft thats gone into the production, underlining accents and flourishes, rhythmic shifts or hesitations, all adding to the power of the performance -- and demonstrating just how much the producer and engineers add to the mix. It could be the straight-ahead energy of Joe Jackson or Elvis (either Presley or Costello), the almost magical one-take arrangements that captured Buddy Holly or the sparse, ultra-modern reworking of Suzanne Vegas body of work, in each case the studio becomes an active and positive participant in the process, an almost subliminal realization that moves you closer to that event and that performance.
This ability to subordinate their remarkable power(s) to the service of the music is what elevates the Naim Statement electronics to a place at the high ends top table. There are more powerful amps and preamps that offer more resolution. There are electronics with a broader tonal palette that some would argue conjure a more beautiful vision of the music. But the electronics that I value put the life and sense of the performance first. To do that they must be able to sound small and the Naims do; they must be able to sound big, and the Naims do that too; they must be able to scale their output to match the performance, whether its a girl and guitar, big-band Basie or a full orchestra; but above all they must allow the music to flow and through that fluidity convey the sense of purpose and direction that drives that performance. The Naims tick all of those boxes and underpin them into the bargain with their own special party piece, the remarkable transparency, power, delicacy and natural texture of their low frequencies, a quality that really helps to bring recordings and performances to life.
All of which defines the Statement electronics really quite clearly in the context of the established high end, a landscape in which they tower impressively yet perfectly comfortably. But it only answers one side of that initial question: how does it look from a more traditional, Naim-based perspective? If we look at that from a purely sonic point of view, the answer is impressively simple: the Statements have advanced the Naim sound in every single area in which it was weak, will confound all those who have dismissed the brand in the past and have actually set new standards in certain important musical respects -- all without eroding the marques traditional values and capabilities. In fact, combine the advances in the traditionally weak areas with those established strengths and the whole becomes considerably and spectacularly greater than the sum of its parts.
So far so good, but what of Naims legacy customers and the vast installed base of existing equipment? The pricing of the Statement components is such that it doesnt just produce a fracture in the brands carefully constructed upgrade path, it produces a chasm akin to the Marianas Trench. On the face of it thats a step that risks disenfranchising and dismaying the companys most loyal and valued customers, those who have bought into each incremental step along the brands long and evolutionary development path. Except for one thing: those customers who can afford Statement-type expenditure will have, for the most part, already have gone shopping elsewhere. No brand these days can afford to ignore potential markets, especially markets that they are equipped to serve -- and Statement is clearly serving a need. When I visited the company at the beginning of the year, Statement orders had already exceeded total targets by 50% -- and theyve been climbing ever since. One reason that it wasnt possible to access a second pair of power amps, even for a few days, during the review period is that production simply cant keep up with demand -- and is in danger of falling even further behind. This is very good news for the financial health and wellbeing of the company and group as a whole.
But while that should put a smile on the face of all existing Naim owners, protecting as it does the serviceability and value of the products they own, the real impact of the Statement electronics back in the real world of hi-fi is actually even more significant. A few months back I wrote about the sonic improvements in Naims longstanding NAP 300 power amp as a result of the latest DR upgrades. These involve fitting Statement-type output transistors and discrete regulators to the existing circuits in the '300 and other Classic-series amplifiers. The improvements are in many of the same key areas in which the Statement amps excel, delivering a more rounded, better-balanced performance that is both less circumscribed by character and less system dependent. It tells us two things: not only were Naim right to make such a big deal of these two technological steps, advances that show significant and fundamental musical gains, but just as important, even if existing Naim owners cant aspire to owning Statement-level product, they can certainly benefit from their own significant slice of Statement performance. Best of all, the DR upgrades are retrofittable to existing units -- if you can fight your way to the front of the line!
The Statement preamplifier and amplifiers herald Naims somewhat belated entry to the traditional high end -- and do so with considerable style and fanfare. But just as they mark a totally new level of ambition and an equally new direction for the company and its products, they have also caused a sharp left turn in the existing range, the DR modifications dragging the Classic-series amps well and truly into the wake of Statements charge. Its a state of affairs that might well confuse as well as delight Naims more traditional constituency. As the man might once have said:
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large amplifier
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful hi-fi
And you may ask yourself
Well...How did I get here?
Hey guys, welcome to the high end.
Prices: NAC S1, $88,000; NAP S1, $76,000 each.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Naim Audio Ltd.
Salisbury, SP1 2LN, England
+44 (0) 1722 426 600
Audio Plus Services
156 Lawrence Paquette Ind. Dr.
Champlain, NY, 12919
Analog: VPI Classic 4 with SDS and VPI JMW 12.7 and Tri-Planar Mk VII tonearms; VPI Classic Direct turntable with JWM 12" 3D tonearm; Kuzma Stabi M turntable with 4Point tonearm; Allnic Puritas, Kuzma CAR-50, Lyra Etna, Dorian, and Dorian Mono cartridges; Stillpoints Ultra LP Isolator record weight; Connoisseur 4.2 PLE, Simaudio Moon 810LP, Tom Evans Audio Designs Master Groove phono stages.
Digital: Wadia S7i and 861 GNSC CD players; dCS Vivaldi and Paganini transports, DACs and uClocks; CEC TL-3N CD transport; Neodio Origine CD player; Naim UnitiServe music server.
Preamps: Audio Research Reference 5 SE.
Power amps: Audio Research Reference 150 SE.
Speakers: Wilson Audio Sasha W/P Series 2, Wilson Benesch Square Five.
Cables: Complete looms of Nordost Odin or Valhalla 2, Crystal Cable Absolute Dream or AudioQuest Wild from AC socket to speaker terminals. Power distribution was via Quantum QB8s or Crystal Cable Power Strip Diamonds, with a mix of Quantum Qx2 and Qx4 power purifiers and Qv2 AC harmonizers.
Supports: Harmonic Resolution Systems RXR, Hutter Racktime or Quadraspire SVT Bamboo racks. These are used with Nordost SortKone or HRS Nimbus equipment couplers and damping plates throughout. Cables are elevated on HECC Panda Feet.
Acoustic treatment: As well as the broadband absorption placed behind the listening seat, I employ a combination of RPG Skyline and LeadingEdge D Panel and Flat Panel microperforated acoustic devices.
Accessories: Essential accessories include the SmarTractor protractor, a USB microscope and Aesthetix cartridge demagnetizer, a precision spirit level and laser, a really long tape measure and plenty of masking tape. I also make extensive use of the Furutech anti-static and demagnetizing devices and the VPI Typhoon record-cleaning machine. The Dr Feikert PlatterSpeed app has to be the best ever case of digital aiding analog.