The word 'Statement' could be translated in many ways, yet it always comes down to expressing one's opinion in an ultimate, irrevocable way. So if a company calls a product using this particular word, one has to be damn sure of what one is doing. Naim Audio's Statement NAC S1 preamplifier and NAP S1 mono power amplifier (£57,000 and £49,000 each mono amplifier in the UK, or a total of $240,000 within the USA) are excellent examples. Designing a top reference, flagship, most expensive whatever one chooses to call it product is a huge undertaking for any manufacturer. This is especially true for one that, for decades, created mid-priced products. To produce such mid-line gear, it takes combining a philosophy that says there is a certain price limit that balances costs with sound quality. Then there are statement pieces where going beyond that limit to achieve those last few bits of improvements costs exponentially more. In fact audio products could cost as much as a luxury apartment near Wawel Castle in Cracow, or home in Paris, Monaco, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Manhattan Island, which are quite expensive. Let me introduce you to Naim Audio Statement.
Naim Audio's Statement NAC S1 preamplifier and NAP S1 mono power amplifier are, today, their top echelon of the company's longstanding experience in design and engineering. Naim Audio was founded in 1973 and it was a part of a "new wave" of British audio manufacturers who, at the early 1970-ties, challenged contemporary market leaders. Celebrating their 40th anniversary of The Absolute Sound magazine, Editor Robert Harley within issue 234 (July/August 2013), wrote that he felt he had been partially responsible for a success of those challengers. As it was The Absoluter Sound that played a role of an "incubator" for brands like: Arcam, Cambridge Audio, Cyrus, Linn and Naim. Whether one agrees with his opinion or not, the key element here was a list of all those then "new wave" manufacturers. You've probably noticed that all these brands still exist today and they do quite well despite the fact that all, accept for Linn, changed ownership somewhere along the road. At some point within this group some complementary / rivalry pairs arose. One of these was a Linn Naim pair. The former that started creating its own history with a LP12 turntable, chose the latter as its partner and rival. They were like two sides of the same coin. And I think it was no coincident that these two started to expand their offerings beyond mid-priced products as time passed. Today, both are counted amongst largest high-end companies and very commercially viable.
With the new Statement NAC S1 preamplifier and NAP S1 mono power amplifier, we may first want to remember their past successes. The first commercial product of Naim Audio was a power amplifier NAP 200. It was designed in 1971 and introduced to the market two years later. Already then Naim Audio proposed a certain characteristic appearance of their devices that was used for many years to follow. Chassis was made in a specific way of black aluminum plates with silver front edges. Also a very characteristic Naim's logo (two knobs next to each either) became iconic. A year later, in 1974, another product was released the NAC 12 linestage. It used a small chassis that repeated some motives after amplifier, adding characteristic knobs for volume control, input selector and balance.
Forty years later, celebrating their anniversary, Naim presented a product that belonged to the same category: a NAC S1 preamplifier and monaural power amplifier NAP S1. The category and names given by the manufacturer were the only two common features of these products. NAC S1 together with NAP S1 constitutes together a system called Statement. With its design, power output, weight, and, above all, with its price, is beyond reach even for most top-high-end manufacturers. This took a very careful and calculated development process spanning 10 years, with the first unit costing more than £1 million British Pounds ($1,495,300 US Dollar currency at today's exchange rate).
Naim Audio Statement Design
Unlike most other devices, these one don't "lay" on a longer side but rather "stand" on a narrow side. Naim Audio calls it a "vertical form", which allowed them to plan a much better interior layout. It is not the first time in history that amplifiers have a monolithic form iconic Mark Levinson No.33 amplifiers or Sovereign Glory Signature Series monoblocks (that entered the Guinness Book of Records) are great examples. But it is the first time, as far as I know, that a manufacturer proposed a monolithic system that includes both, power amplifiers and preamplifier.
Whenever transfer is needed each device is packed in a large travel-cases. Each case has to be carried by four people and also four people to perform setup within a listening room. All devices sport sharp spikes underneath, so one has to be very careful when setting them up not to scratch the floor. Considering the weight of 100 kg (220 lbs.) it is a very difficult task. Together, these three devices constitute sort of visual unity black monolith that reminded me the one from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. These three devices were designed in such a way, that preamplifier can be placed in the middle with two monoblocks at its both sides. The latter sport large radiators along their sides, which are shaped as waves to create an illusion of movement.
One can order Naim Statement in any color as long as it is black. And yet, despite the black color and its size, Naim Audio Statement products are not really overwhelming when placed within a room. In fact it looks surprisingly graceful. It was achieved by using these profiled side panels (radiators) and then dividing all three elements into two parts.. More or less these are at the third of device's height as there is a white acrylic backlit element with the company's logo. At the same level are the radiators and aluminum plates of the chassis were divided into two separate parts. Lower parts host power supplies, upper parts the analog and amplification circuits. I'll get back to that later.
Despite appearances, white is a color of this project and is along the same lines as the all-in-one Mu-so system. I don't know if you remember my review of that device. I emphasized an innovative looks of that device, but also innovations about its mechanical design and functionality. As it turns out these two industrial devices were actually designed by the same team and they share some details. I already mentioned one of them the white, acrylic backlit stripe. But even more important is a large, white, backlit circle on top of the preamplifier. One won't realize that immediately, but it is a volume control pot. It's made of aluminum and sports precise bearings. The volume control indicator is also quite atypical. It's a line of white LEDs placed near the top edge of the front panel. Once one turns volume control up or down a white LED "moves" along the line in one direction or the other. Do you remember a 2004 "Battlestar Galactica" TV series? This volume control indicator reminded me of a red light that worked as eyes of centurions in this movie.
Above this volume indicator, the names of inputs are also backlit with white light. One chooses an active input by pushing one of the backlit push-buttons placed on top of preamplifier close to its rear edge. For those who enjoy a dark listening room, the white backlit can be turned off. There are eight inputs, one of them marked as "Phono". All of them are placed on the lower part of a back panel, close to the floor. The first three of them sport double input sockets one can plug either DIN or RCA to them, the other two are balanced XLR. An active input is indicated by a small green LED. Above inputs there is a row of such LEDs that are helpful when one wants to set a gain for each input. An adjustment range is of plus or minus 7dB in 1dB steps. Beside there is a button that switches Statement to "unity gain" mode, that allows to use it also in a home theater system. Some of you might have bridled at the suggestion of using Statement in a home theater system but you have to remember that many wealthy people, and it is them who will buy this product, have top quality HT systems in their salons, too.
The device sports a high quality WBT NextGen RCA sockets. Also large, handy speaker posts were custom designed by Naim. They are placed close to the floor so connecting even heavy, thick cables shouldn't be a problem. Next to them there are the only, balanced inputs in NAP S1. It is a bit surprising as Naim has been using DIN standard for years, but there is a simple explanation to that both linestage and amplifiers sport fully balanced design and DIN is an unbalanced connection. A power switch has a form of a quite large lever. Both, preamplifier and power amps, sport solid spikes. If you're impressed with Statement's physical appearance wait until you have a look inside. I've never seen any amplifier so well build. The 20mm thick aluminum plates are in fact only sort of a shell, which is bolted to the frame. This reminds me of the construction of modern sky-scrapers, or of Magico loudspeakers. I think that this American manufacturer might have inspired the designers of this "vertical structure". Naim Audio's Statement's frame is made of thick, aluminum milled bars. Circuit boards within the output stage are bolted to that frame. The whole design is extremely sturdy and not susceptible to resonances. Although there are always some resonances present. The most sensitive circuits are those processing small signals, like preamplifier section. That is why preamplifier's PCB are bolted to thick brass plates, and these are mounted to the frame but with springs in between.
The input signal is amplified by transistors, with a very specialized type used in output stage I find very interesting. These elements were designed in cooperation between Naim Audio and one of the largest manufacturers of such elements but we don't know which one. The writings on them say: NA007 CN and NA007 CP these work in complementary pairs, operate in Class AB in a push-pull mode. The Statement NAP S1 features a new bridged dual design with zero global feedback. The outer layer is a metal element with a copper bottom side (for a better cooling properties) and thick connection pins. They were designed in 2000 for power amplifier NAP 500, and today are also used for less expensive NAP 250 and NAP 300.
As I already mentioned Naim Audio Statement combines three towers, which consist of a preamplifier and two power amplifiers. But in fact there are six elements. Each tower comprises of two parts separated, as already mentioned, with backlit acrylic elements. Lower part of each tower holds power supply transformers. These are mighty beasts 4000 VA each with their cores submerged in some sort of resin, fixed to huge, brass poles. Large capacitors sit above. In both, preamplifier's and power amplifiers' power supply sections at the back of transformers there are Faraday cages shielding input and output modules. And now the most important power supply's feature: Naim's flagship amplifiers sport a regulated power supply. These are usually used for devices with small power requirements like preamplifiers, DACs analog outputs and so on, but there are extremely few power amplifiers using this type of power supply. For them to do their job and fulfill current requirements of such power hungry device, they need to much larger, and more powerful than amplifiers they are supplying. That's how it works here the upper part of each power amplifier is occupied with another power supply sections. The controls for the Statement NAC S1 preamplifier and S1 mono power amplifier include a knob and push-buttons, which are located on top of devices. You receive an elegant, solid remote control. Another option is to use an Android or Apple tablet app. To use the latter, you only need to connect the Naim Audio Statement NAC S1 preamplifier and S1 mono power amplifier to a Naim network.
Some, as for example some British journalists believe that we should compare a device that reproduces music only to a live, not amplified music classical music being optimal reference. It's a good lead, supported by many right choices. But there is also another. Its fans say that the only way to assess an audio device is to compare it to another audio device of the same category. They explain that any and every recording is something else than live music, that recorded music is a new creation changing original material for good and for bad. Each music fan (and reviewer) should choose his own way, and any choice will be the right one as long as it is supported by certain level of experience, from either frequent listening to live music, or to different audio systems. Whatever works for a particular person is fine by me.
I also have my own method of assessment since I have quite a bit of experience from working within a recording studio (recording classic and jazz music), from being sound engineer on numerous concerts, but also from multiple listening sessions with the best audio products available on the market. All this experience tells me that the best way to assess an audio product is to compare it with another. Because the "original sound", the one that was played into microphones is beyond reach, can't be reproduced in 1:1 scale. Whatever we get from audio system is different from original sound so the only thing we can actually compare is the sound of two devices. But I also believe that for such assessment to be as credible as possible, person responsible should also have experience with live music. It's an auxiliary element, but a necessary one.
What I described above is particularly important when we deal with such ultra-top-high-end products as Naim Statement. It is not possible to transfer live music to our room. One reason is a medium carrying musical signal (disc, file). Also it's is not possible to reproduce scale of live event at home both listening room and loudspeakers are limiting elements. I think that is clear, so there is no need to further elaborate on a subject.
My point is that while Naim Audio's Statement NAP S1 monoblock power amplifier is one of three best amps I've ever listened to, next to Soulution 725 + 701 and Kondo M1000 MkII + Kagura (both pre+amp sets), each of them sounded differently, each designer realized his vision of what was most important in the sound. Let me add that I would be completely happy with any of these three. Of these three, Naim is the most "neutral" sounding one. I used quotation marks on purpose, yet don't mean to diminish "strength" of this word as it is not about winking like I don't mean that. Quite on contrary, as I'd like to emphasize the meaning of this word because there might be no better opportunity for it within this review. 'Neutrality' as a description of sound quality has lost its true meaning, perhaps because it' has been widely abused. I as understand while reading reviews from British and American audio magazines, and also translation of some Japanese reviews, this word is used to describe "lack of coloration". It is the phrase that describes a device that does not add anything to the sound by itself. But that doesn't tell us whether this device takes something away or not. So such an understanding of "neutrality" narrows its meaning, diminishes it turning it actually into a rather negative feature. Listening to devices that are "neutral" in such a way quickly becomes fatiguing, unbearable even.
Naim Audio's Statement S1 amplifier is the most neutral sounding device I know. But I use this word meaning its original meaning. In its tonality, as neutrality is mostly about accuracy of tonality, I couldn't find anything added or lost/deducted. At least when comparing it to other amplifiers. The frequency characteristic is flat across the whole band, it is simply good. Nobody uses this word "good" anymore as it seems to lack "weight". So how colorful the recording is, what its emotional temperature is depends solely on the recording. Listening to, recently released in Japan in SHM-CD format, Charlie Parker from 1952, I heard a powerful, close sound with fantastic attack combined with incredible smoothness. Leader's saxophone seemed large and bit aggressive but not in an annoying way. It sounded a lot like a live saxophone listened from a short (2-3m) distance. On the other hand, sound from Wojtek Mazolewski Quintet's "Polka" was extremely dense, almost sticky, due to a softer leading edge it seemed more distant. Palpability of each instrument was remarkable, but the general expression of that recording was very different from Parker's. Listening to "Sea" by Sławek Jaskułka, jazz pianist and composer from Gdańsk ("Polka" was also recorded there), one would be surprised how amazing ambiance he managed to create his piano sounds like played under water. A very rich timbre, absolute or so it seems lack of treble, and yet harmonics being present in the upper treble and they are so intense that sound gets overdriven by most amplifiers while one keeps pushing volume up to finally hear them clearly. Naim presented these subtle differences effortlessly, with style. Each of those recordings tells us another story and while listening to them via Naim Statement you just don't want to stop.
Except for better than I've ever heard differentiation of tonal subtleties, another key element of Naim's presentation is how is portrays dynamics. Knowing the immense output power of this device, whether it's only nominal or actually measured within a laboratory, one should expect remarkable dynamics. If you've had a chance to listen to several high-power amplifiers, and some low-power ones, you've probably realized that huge output power corrupts. Most of amplifiers capable of delivering 100W and more per channel have problems with proper presentation of small signals, as they try to pump as much air into the room as possible, whether it is possible in the particular moment or not. Tube amplifiers are masters in presentation of small signals. At first I didn't know what to think of Naim Statement's dynamics. It did not crush me with its power or move furniture around. But the longer I listened to it while being able to compare it with my reference amplifier, the more impressed I was. At some point I said: oh my goodness! That's an unforgettable experience! Music is presented in the most proper (in my opinion) way for a room environment, I mean without overwhelming listener with power and dynamics, but with utmost confidence. I don't think I've ever heard such a fabulously sounding double bass, as on Mazolewski album, or such a brilliantly presented perspective as on Talk Talk's "Spirit of Eden".
I loved the way mood was set on those recordings. All elements served logic of particular piece, supported it instead of controlling it. That's still not all size of instruments, reverberations, room's acoustics and of everything included in the particular recording was huge. Based on my experience I can tell that only above mentioned Soulution system offered equally impressive presentation of those elements. It's a dense, rich presentation that is brilliantly differentiated.
And I don't mean only fantastic differentiation of dynamic range, and tonality, but also special relations between all elements of particular piece of music. Modifications of frequency range, phase, and other distortions often force amplifiers to change size of instruments and voices depending of the particular part of the range these operate in. The Naim S1 mono amplifiers allowed me to realize for the first time how important part of Peter, Paul and Mary trio is the latter. Listening to the "Very Last Day" opening "In The Wind" album I heard her passionate vocal, sometimes almost screaming. Other systems either push her voice forward (while it should be in the middle, in front of us), which means there is some midrange coloration, or they withdraw the voice back than there is a problem with attack phase of the sound. The Audio Fidelity SACD version offers rich, warm sound, so any change introduced by system is clearly audible. Statement placed three vocals on a semicircle line, giving each of them the same space and the same air, harmonizing them perfectly it's a perfect super-group after all. Even when I played such a demanding recording as "Filia Praeclara" with material recorded by Ensemble Peregrina in a large church (vocals a capella) clarity of each voice, a distance between them and listener, and a harmony between them gave me goose bumps. There was purity, power and energy in this music. But the most impressive feature was coherence of the sound.
I could keep writing about different aspects of the sound and summarize each paragraph with sentence that would say something like: "it's the best differentiation of... I've ever heard", or "one of the best", or "unbelievably good", and so on. But it is not just art for art's sake. There are many others that offer more impressive performance. Naim does not bluntly show differences, it simply shows them naturally. Maybe that's why at first its presentation might seem bit "boring". But only if one hasn't experienced that level of performance before. I think that it would be easier (disregarding for a moment price difference) to sell NAIT system to a regular guy on the street than Statement. Such a person would fall for tricks that manufacturers use to force their inexpensive products sound more impressive, to deliver "more" music. Flagship products do not need to employ any tricks, it just has to do its job. Perhaps this is why it delivers music that sounds as an organic whole. This is why I could easily tell that new, analog remasters prepared by Damian Lipiński of Perfect's "Unu" and Dżem's "Zemstanietoperzy" were remarkable. Previous, digital remasters sounded ridiculous compared to these. That's why on Capella Cracoviensis "Bach Rewrite", released by Decca, Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos had their own "voices".
I discussed acoustics of concert hall in Lutosławice with the director of this ensemble, Jan Tomasz Adamus, and he told me that this hall had a long reverberation. Thus he felt it best to have the microphones placed near the instruments. Statement nicely presented the fact of microphones being placed close to instruments, but it also showed this slightly "wet", long room behind them. So on one hand it delivered what sound engineer wanted to achieve, but on the other it did not hide other aspects of the recording even if these were "hidden" in the background. Unconstrained, dynamic, coherent presentation that's the shortest description of Statement's performance. It is able to trigger amazing emotions related to the music one listens to, that make one want to absorb sound with one's whole body. The treble's character reminded me that of the very best of tube amplifiers it was "gentle". And yet the treble brings an amazing amount of information yes, information as I wouldn't dare to use such a crude words as "details".
Am Interview With Steve Sells,
Electronic Design Director of Naim Audio
Steve is celebrating his 47th birthday today and started working for Naim in 2011 as a chief engineer. The first products created by his team were preamplifiers: NAC 202, 282 and 252, and his next projects were NAIT, SuperLine and audio systems for Bentley cars. He built his first loudspeakers at age of 11. It's been a long road between then and the subject of our conversation - Naim Statement.
Wojciech Pacuła: How did Statement project start?
Steve Sells: Being obsessed with amplifiers I proposed designing an ultra-fidelity amplifier in 2002 shortly after joining Naim. This was rejected as we had recently launched the NAP500. It was proposed again in 2005 and again in 2008. This time there were computer simulations of the circuits and pages of design notes of what we could achieve. From this point the idea started to gain traction in the company. We were also in a stronger position in R&D with more staff and more sophisticated CAD tools. In 2010 the project was given the go ahead and project plans and budgets were put in place.
WP: What are main goals you wanted to achieve?
SS: The top goal was to design a pre and power amp that sounded better than anything we'd done before and have the ability to drive the most exotic speakers in the largest rooms. Paul Stephenson said there were no budget, time or size constraints... and he meant it. If he heard me mention a price of part he'd tell me to shhhhhh! There were smaller detailed goals such as to design a volume control that was sonically purer than a potentiometer, that had perfect channel balance, that had a constant frequency response, that had 100 steps, that had smooth transitions and was controllable over Wi-Fi.
WP: Please describe main technical details of the preamplifier and power amplifier.
SS: The main technical details are on the web page. Let me know if you'd like something more specific that what's available at NaimAudio.com/statement. I can give you details like how we made the NAP S1 the fastest ever Naim amplifier not by a small margin but by 10x. This is by splitting the amplifier into two functions. Voltage gain and current gain. Each element can now be optimized. Normally these are combined to make the design easier. Statement has no global feedback and uses positive feedback error cancellation for the output stage. This buffers or isolates the loudspeaker from the gain stage. The gain stage can now be made as pure and fast as a pre-amplifier as it does not need to drive a speaker.
WP: How Statement differs from other high-end amplifiers?
SS: For me it's the level of detail in the design, freedom in the design process and the passion of the team. For example we don't just match our transistors we have our transistor custom made from a single silicon wafer, each serial numbered and parameterized. So not only do they match they are also from the same silicon. This fanatical level of design continues throughout. It's evident when you see inside the products. At the other end of the detail scale we started with a holistic approach. We questioned how do we make the best amplifier. The answers to these questions can be seen in the overall shape. It's vertical so that it cools naturally. It's tall to physically separate the power supply and output stage from the delicate gain stages. There is an acrylic Eddy current divide between the transformer and the signal side of the amplifier.
WP: Why not Class D?
SS: For me Class D does not sound as good as good as linear. Class D is like a big, inaccurate and slow 1 bit DAC. A high-end Class D amplifier may sound better than a cheap linear amplifier, but when you give a team of audio engineers unlimited budget and no weight constraints then they will choose linear. If my goal was to produces the world's lightest 746W amplifier I would have chosen a derivative of Class D.
WP: Did you use some exotic components? Do you believe that such details like binding post etc. can alter sound?
SS: Yes a few. They were chosen in listening tests. The goal was not to make the most expensive amplifier. Even without a budget I believe all designs must be honest and not use exotic components just because I can. Every single component had to earn its place however rare or expensive. Very often it is how you use a part that can determine its influence on the sound. Sometimes we had custom parts made of our existing favorite parts. You mention speaker binding posts, yes they certainly can influence the sound. For Statement we custom designed our own binding posts. This way we could make sure the plugs and sockets worked perfectly together. We could design details like making them from the same materials; we used silver plated phosphor bronze. By having the same materials it eliminates galvanic scale mismatch and differing coefficients of expansion.
WP: You just announced that Naim will product high-end cables - do you believe cables can alter the sound?
SS: Yes, cables influence the sound. Not just their resistance, capacitance, inductance or how well they electrically screen but also their mechanical properties change the sound. In speaker cables there is an opposing force between the parallel current carrying conductors. In small signal cables vibrations in the room can be transferred to the contacts.
WP: What next? - Statement Streaming Player?
SS: A Statement streamer? I'm really excited to design one. As we look at what can be done with digital electronics today we can take designs to the maximum expression of the art. Streaming and digital audio is inexorably improving. By dreaming big we can make significant jumps forward in sound quality. Once we are happy that we can make a demonstrably better streamer than our NDS we will make the Statement Streamer. For me Statement is about bringing to life the big ideas and seeing if they work. If they do not then we will not make one. We have some great ideas but not enough to today. We do not want to waste these unique opportunities to produce exceptional designs.
NAC S1 Preamplifier
System Price: £155,000 in the UK and $240,000 in the United States of America