Onward and Upward: The Impressive Ascent of Naim

by Roy Gregory | March 14, 2015

recent press event at Naim Audio, based at Salisbury in the UK, centered around the launch of the new NAC-N 272 streamer/controller. But in many ways the accompanying discussion of two other aspects of Naim’s activities were just as interesting, namely [groan] their experiences putting the massive Statement electronics into production and their year-end figures.

Britain has a solid reputation for building neat, manageable, middle-sized components. Our electronics tend to be small and man-portable, the massive and massively heavy amplifiers that feature so prominently in the pages of UK magazines generally coming from abroad. Naim's previous flagship, the two-chassis Naim NAP 500, was considered large when it first saw the light of day, but it is dwarfed, dimensionally and in terms of weight, by the floorstanding Statement amps, along with their matching preamp. Taking a step up in price is always a challenge. Going from a product costing 15,000 and weighing 28kg (60 pounds) to one at 85,000 and 210kg (460 pounds) -- in a single giant step -- could be considered either brave or foolhardy, depending on your point of view. Yet, despite entering a new and completely uncharted market, Statement orders have exceeded targets by 50%, leaving Naim with the not-inconsiderable problem of building and supplying units that involve a degree of complexity and physical resistance previously outside their experience.

The Statements’ vertical tower construction and narrow footprint create their own problems, with complex stacks of circuitry and machined structural elements requiring the creation of large subassemblies that can be combined to create a whole. Being able to construct and handles these assemblies has required the creation of a series of jigs or tools that allow the technician working on them to move and reposition them while also protecting the boards from crush damage. One result of this is the large oval end caps you can see in the pictures -- handle and stand-off in a single part.

The sheer complexity and number of components involved mandated a new approach to the assembly process itself, the on-screen animation guiding the technician through each step in order. The work-station display is (of course) linked to the Solidworks 3D CAD system used to draw the boards and model the assemblies, meaning that any changes or updates are automatically incorporated.

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Looking at those multi-layer sandwich assemblies it’s easy to understand the necessity for such procedures. Less obvious are the sheer practicalities of the Statements’ tower form factor. Not such a problem with the power amps, which house their massive toroidal transformers in their base element, but the preamp could present a serious topple risk, necessitating the removal of all excess weight from the upper levels to prevent the unit from becoming worryingly top heavy. The heavy relief machining on the underside of the preamp’s top plate (shown above) is indicative, the random shaping designed to help spread structural resonance.

But the real challenge comes when you put all the parts together. Each Statement component is assembled on a special two-part table. The build level has a retractable ball-bearing system that allows the technicians to move the complete chassis easily, and then have complete stability once it is positioned properly.

Once each product is assembled, a hoist is used to shift the massive deadweight into the purpose built flight case waiting on the second, lower table. The separate wheeled base is bolted to the amp and then the whole table lifts hydraulically to stand the finished unit on its feet. The clamshell can be removed, leaving the wheels in place, allowing easy QA checks and installation. Such measures are of course not exactly news to the likes of Boulder and VTL, but they are extremely unusual in the UK and a timely reminder of what’s involved in building state-of-the-art audio electronics -- in whichever country it’s happening.

Despite the uneven market, the fragile world economy and a slow start, last year was a record one for Naim. Total turnover exceeded 21 million and staff numbers increased by 20 to a total of 180, compared to 60 back in 2000. The success of the Statement amplifiers has played a big part in that, but it also reflects the outstanding impact of the Mu-so network streaming system introduced at Munich last year. The one-box music solution marks several significant departures for Naim, not the least the fact that it’s their first product that hasn’t been built in the Salisbury factory. Establishing overseas manufacturing in China is an increasingly common theme, but it’s one that brings its own issues when it comes to consistency and reliability. It’s a well-worn path and a difficult one, an increasing number of manufacturers being defeated by the challenges and moved production elsewhere or back home.

Well aware of both the potential problems and the damage they might do to the company’s brand equity, Naim have invested heavily in onsite QA measures and personnel, with three permanent members of staff located in the Chinese factory and frequent additional visits from UK-based personnel to increase oversight. It’s a rigorous approach that has certainly paid dividends.

Mu-so has generated three times the expected orders, with current waiting lists extending to July. It has achieved most of that success through the John Lewis department stores in the UK (think Crate & Barrel but including a home-appliance department) and those all-important Apple stores globally -- where it represents the upper limit of their audio offerings. The difficulty as well as the commercial and cultural importance of cracking the Apple stock list can’t be overestimated -- especially for what is still a comparatively small, niche audio manufacturer, but what’s really impressive is the fact that despite the pressures of ramping up production, failure rates are vanishingly low and the major cause is transit damage rather than electrical failure -- it’s hard to legislate for forklift drivers!

What’s equally significant is just how successful Mu-so has been in hitting its target audience. Conceived as a product that would appeal to owners of existing Naim separates systems looking to extend their musical coverage as well as users for whom it would represent their main system solution, 71% of purchasers are new to the Naim brand. In an industry that’s searching for the mythical bridge product that will reach out to a new generation of music consumers, that’s a salutary lesson.

Naim’s performance also serves to underline the benefits of the Focal/Naim merger. For all the anguish and wringing of hands amongst the dealers and installed customer base that greeted the initial announcement and the renewed wails of outrage that rose in response to the price of the Statement electronics, Naim has kept faith with its separates customers, maintaining its exemplary service record and refreshing the range with products like the NAC-N 272, while successfully addressing seriously challenging new markets. That has demanded significant investment in technology and personnel, investment that would have been impossible without the Focal tie-up. The merger was always about the future and about a new generation of listeners and new types of product. At the same time, neither party can afford to turn its back on its existing customers. It’s a tricky balancing act, but given the state of the economy and the figures that Naim have posted, it’s hard not to conclude that it’s one they are managing, if not with ease then with considerable aplomb.

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