NAIM SUPERNAIT 3 integrated amplifier
+ One helluva good time amp, utterly involving yet never fatiguing or in lack of suaveness and sophistication; good phono stage; upgradability and flexibility.
– Price; sonic presentation may not be to some tastes in spite of its remarkable strengths.
THE evolution of Naim Audio’s Supernait, the top model in its integrated amplifier range, is a curious one indeed, to the point of being somewhat Benjamin Button-ish. Introduced in 2007, the first model looked to fit the description of what many would have thought to be the ideal integrated two-channel stereo amplifier for the early 21st century, ie complete with on-board DAC section (this idea still holds true for many – just look at the number of new amps which have, or have as an option, an onboard DAC section).
The following Supernait 2 then proceeded to lose said DAC section, entering life as a line-level only amp, something in sync with the norm of the 1990s. The latest Supernait 3 iteration, the object of this review, has now gained a phono stage, a throwback to the earliest days of the hi-fi boom when practically all amps had them, up until the beginnings of when the (first) “death of vinyl” came about.
Regardless that this may seem regressive, Naim is sensitive to its customers’ views and the move to include the in-built phono stage was the result of market feedback. Naim has chosen to implement it as a moving magnet-only choice (which will, of course, also accommodate high-output moving coil models), taking the position that a high-end low-output moving coil cartridge user at this level would be likely to seek to use a phono stage with performance, and by implication, price, and demands exceeding what Naim may have felt viable to be put into the Supernait 3. In any case, not everyone would accept that a low-output MC is necessarily preferable (or necessarily superior, even) to a well-designed and implemented MM model.
Together with said MM input, the Supernait 3 also allows connection of five line-level inputs. Input jacks are of the DIN as well as RCA phono variety, some of which are duplicated and not meant to be used simultaneously in tandem. Naim clearly state its position of preferring the user to DIN up if the source components (which almost means those from Naim itself) also has DIN connectors on them.
With a within-expectations chassis sized at 87 x 432 x 314mm (h/w/d/) and substantial weight of 13.9kg, Supernait 3 will fit comfortably into, or onto, a rack which will accommodate today’s usual sized gear, which is not the case with quite a few of other manufacturers’ ginormous flagship integrated offerings.
Even though the Supernait 3 is solidly constructed in Naim’s familiar classic minimalist all-black casework (with distinctive backlit logo and selected buttons in green), and with vibration rejection steps being something Naim takes very seriously to the point of suspending their circuit boards and only loosely mounting some of their connectors to the equipment chassis, I found that performance could be noticeably improved, or preserved if you will, when the Supernait 3 was properly placed, in my case when using of the long out-of-production Goldmund cones or with Finite Elemente Ceraball feet.
I used the stock Naim power cord throughout the time spent evaluating its performance. There were some mild changes noticeable when an aftermarket power cord was used (feel free to disbelieve such a thing is even remotely possible) but not to the degree anyone would become too focussed on them, by my reckoning. Naim now no longer insist that use of its own brand’s dedicated speaker cables is necessary, and I did use a variety but I had none of the former on hand, so can’t tell you if Naim’s view that its own cables are the best match for this amp is borne out, just as I equally can’t tell you whether DIN-to-DIN connection of the source component works better for it.
You will need your speaker cables to be terminated at the amp’s end with banana plugs, though, as the amp will not accept any other variety, something anyone familiar with the brand would have known to expect. I burned the amp in with signal from an FM tuner for several days and minimised the time the unit was ever switched off, in line with Naim doctrine that this be necessary to get the best out of its wares. No power conditioners or filters were used at any time with the unit, and it was plugged to a switchless, indicator-light free mains distribution unit which took AC direct from the wall.
Having recently come off from reviewing the much more expensive Nagra Classic, and going through the trauma of re-acclimatising to the house amps once that unit had made its way back to the local distributor, the reaction to initial formal auditioning of the Supernait 3 was somewhat less unsettling. This is partly due to the fact I have been using a Naim NAC122X (with Teddy Pardo power supply) preamplifier for some time now, though not in combination with any of Naim’s own power amps, so I knew what to expect.
The Supernait 3 did not disappoint when inserted into the test systems. I’d argue that it isn’t the Nagra’s equal (like, duh!), and there was a perception of the sound having a distinct flavour more than being neutral, but what it did equally well was draw me into the music, arguably more effectively, even if not as sonically impressive.
The sound is typically the current Naim house sound, but done to a very high standard. The overall balance is on the earthier side, having a fuller, warmer tonality than most rivals with the high treble being somewhat softer and less airy (I hesitate to call it “reticent” as, once acclimatised, it didn’t pose a problem for me, but then I am a bloke in his 50s age-wise, so younger listeners may perceive things differently). Midrange was finely detailed and sounded open and articulate, with faithful tonality, and a natural flow and sense of ease.
It may not have the same panoramic soundscape of something like the Musical Fidelity M6si, but within its envelope, the performers are presented with a strong sense of three-dimensionality, at times seemingly life-like in presence. Instruments like well-recorded drum kits or grand pianos have a sense of immediacy which is downright impressive.
Whatever the sonic description in words, this amplifier excelled at providing a robust, coherent-across-the-spectrum, musically compelling performance. The lower end is where it just outguns much of the competition, not in outright extension perhaps, though it is very good, but in underpinning the music with a firm and muscular low end which motors along tightly in keeping with the rest of what’s going on like its very reason for existence (well, it is – ask the composers and performers if they thought otherwise!).
One of the combinations tried, where the Supernait 3 was hooked up to Apogee Centaur Minors, worked surprisingly well, I don’t think word of such a combination had ever made the rounds in any of the audio geeks’ forums. I would say that this combination gave some of the most enjoyable results I have had with the Centaurus Minors since having owned them from the mid-1990s, better from memory even (but appreciating my tastes have since evolved) than when I regularly used them with the old Krell KAV300i, an amp I still have fond memories of. It simply excelled at piano tracks to these ears, articulate and transparent, but also smooth, relaxed and full of dynamic contrasts, with the decay aspects being simply marvellous.
The MM phono stage is good, no token unit, but yes, it can be bettered. I used a low output Benz Micro ACE Red with an SUT to boost the output signal into it and came away impressed, but given the excellence of the line pre and power stages of the amp, it would be difficult for me to give up my Parasound JC3 or even my locally-made Audio Image AIME unit for using it as my only option. Short use with a Denon DL110 cartridge had me feeling the MM stage’s performance level was about right for a cartridge in this price range. Had I never heard the likes of the Parasound JC3 or higher, perhaps my views would be different and I’d probably be well-satisfied with the results without feeling any compulsion to upgrade.
I did not have much time to spend with the headphone output, but it could drive my Sennheiser HD650s satisfactorily, and definitely good enough for the occassional listen if one was not a headphone nutter.
THE LAST WORD
My time with the Supernait 3 was more limited than I would have preferred, so was spent on evaluating the sonic merits of the unit in comparison with the house systems to discern its capabilities rather than trying notional options such as powering the preamp separately or using its internal preamp and power amp sections with other components, something I would have dearly loved to have done had I had more time. But it’s nice knowing those options are there to be explored.
Did I say ‘evaluating the sonic merits of the unit’? That’s more than a partial fib in that, as I was rather busy enjoying the music during the review period; and the raunchier stuff did feature more than the quieter ones, simply because I felt like it for no particular reason, which the amp’s performance could not have had no influence on.
The sound is very much voiced in line with the Naim sound of today, like it or otherwise, so if you’re a never-Naimer who’ve somehow chosen to read up to this point (thanks, by the way), this amp is unlikely to do anything for you. But for the rest of us, make no mistake about it, this amp is up there with the frontrunners, and one need not be in the Naim hardcore base to appreciate that. Unhesitatingly recommended!
Sources: Garrard 401-Rega RB1000-Benz Micro ACE L, Roksan Xerxes-RB251-Denon DL-110, Micromega Stage 3, Sony HAP-Z1ES / Amplification: diyparadise Step-Up Transformer, Audio Image AIME and Parasound JC-3 phono stages, Naim 122X line preamp with Teddycap power supply or Euphonic Research ATT600 passive controller into Odyssey Khartago Extreme monoblocks, Crayon CIA-1 integrated amp / Speakers: Mordaunt Short MS10i, Apogee Centaur Minor, Spatial M3 Turbo, James EMB1000 subwoofer / Assorted cables including Symo LS-5SX, Gotham 50025 and some diy stuff