Here’s something I don’t do very often. I bought the new Naim NAIT 50 integrated amplifier without listening to it first. I’ve spent a lot of time warning audiophiles not to do this and here I am, breaking one of my oldest rules. But there’s a very good reason for doing this.
If you’ve been following my reviews over the years, you’ll know that I call the Naim NAIT 2 that I owned in the ’90s “The One That Got Away.” I should have never traded it in. I bought it back in 1992 from Gene Rubin, and it was a tough decision to make because my previous power amp (an SAE TWO) had 100 watts per channel plus tone controls plus all sorts of features I never used, and the Naim NAIT 2 was a minimalist low-powered integrated amp that was small enough to be picked up with one hand.
Words and Photos by Marc Phillips
The Naim NAIT 2, however, became the cornerstone of a game-changing system, at least for me–Rega Planar 3 turntable with Bias cartridge, Spendor S20 loudspeakers, Creek CD-60 CD player. That was the ideal system for a journeyman audiophile living in a one-bedroom apartment in Encino, a system that delivered great sound without the threat of eviction.
The Naim NAIT 2 stayed with me for close to a decade. I even had it converted into a preamp when I bought a Naim NAP-140 power amp, which together sounded like a 40 wpc Naim NAIT that could work with a wider variety of loudspeakers while adding a better sense of space and detail. When I finally traded in the Naim NAIT 2 and NAP-140, it was for bigger and better Naim amplification. Back then, I was truly a Naim guy–at least until I discovered tube amplification that took up my time over the subsequent decade. After that, I realized I should have kept the NAIT 2.
Recently, Naim has been working on its Classic Series, bringing back some of the classic models from the Julian Vereker era with modern embellishments such as digital connectivity and a more straightforward way of adding power supplies. I told myself, “If they ever bring back the classic NAIT, I’m buying it.” And then, at the High End show in Munich this year, they did. The new Naim NAIT 50 was introduced at a price of $3,599. It didn’t look like the Naim NAIT 2. It looked like the original Naim NAIT, which might be even cooler.
The Naim NAIT 50, like the rest of the Classic Series, has been updated significantly. First of all it was 25 watts per channel into 8 ohms (and 40 into 4), which makes it more versatile than before. It retains the internal MM phono stage but adds an excellent headphone amplifier. It even has a designated input for “streamer,” which seems intended for the new Naim streamers.
Well here it is, I thought. Are you gonna pull the trigger like you said? I was undecided until I heard that the Naim NAIT 50 was a limited release–1,973 units to celebrate 1973, Naim’s first year of business. I had to decide quickly before they were all gone and the prices on the used market started to skyrocket, just like they did with the Naim NAIT 2. (I paid $695 for a demo unit, from an MSRP of $995. Years later, when I decided I wanted another one, they were creeping up toward $2,000.) When Wendy Knowles of Focal Naim America asked me if I wanted her to set one aside, the decision was easy.
I now own Naim NAIT 50 #249. I’m pretty pleased with my buying decision.
Inside the Naim NAIT 50
You’ll notice that the Naim NAIT 50 is not an update of my precious NAIT 2. Instead, it pays cosmetic homage to the first NAIT, re-named the NAIT 1 for posterity, which lasted from 1983-1989. The NAIT was conceived as the engine for a simple hi-fi system–you just added speakers and a turntable. The second NAIT, the NAIT 2, actually had two different cosmetic phases. The first phase only lasted for about a year, and it was a close cosmetic match to the first NAIT. Then, in 1989, Naim updated the looks of the NAIT 2 to match the rest of the line–which we Naim fans refer to as the Olive Green look. My Naim NAIT 2 was from this generation, which lasted until 1993.
After that we had Naim NAIT 3s and NAIT 5s, which eschewed the diminutive half-width boxes for more normal proportions. These new NAITs were more powerful than the originals, which made them more versatile in system configurations, but I always thought these NAITs lost some of the magic. I know–I owned a Naim NAIT 5i once, but not for very long. But when the NAITs were joined by the SuperNAITs, which were more powerful and feature-laden and ambitious, I felt that the magic had returned to this line, something I confirmed when I reviewed the Naim SuperNAIT 3 a couple of years ago.
But I bet you want to compare the new Naim NAIT 50 to the original NAIT. Here’s how Naim summarizes the changes:
“Designed exclusively for Naim’s 50th anniversary and limited to only 1,973 units, at a glance the Nait 50 looks identical to the original Nait 1. However, upon closer inspection the front and rear are now high-quality anodised aluminium, the balance control has been swapped for a headphone socket and the LED changed to white. To aid vibration damping, the volume knob has also been machined from solid aluminium.
“Internally, the Nait 50 draws on the vast knowledge and experience of Naim’s technical experts; incorporating elements from across our current product ranges. The input selection uses fly-by-wire control to significantly reduce the signal path length and the new headphone amplifier has been lifted from the NSC 222. The all-new exclusive discrete transistor MM phono stage honours the Nait 1 sound signature. The pre-amp uses class A discrete transitory stages and a classic Naim class AB power amplifier comprised of custom, carefully selected audiophile components.”
I can only compare the Naim NAIT 50 to my Naim NAIT 2, since I’ve never heard the original. Back in the ’90s, the NAIT 2 was always known for being idiosyncratic–usually that discussion began with the lack of specs for the power output, which was “estimated” at 15-21 watts per channel. Since the Naim amplification is high-current, most of us discovered that the NAIT could drive a greater number of speakers than expected. My first pair was the Spendor S20s, which had an 83 dB efficiency and an 8-ohm impedance. I couldn’t play Zep as loud as I wanted, but intimate music was superb and natural, with a tonality that convinced me to no longer crave watts or deep, deep bass.
In terms of connectivity options, however, the Naim NAIT 50 is possibly even more idiosyncratic. My NAIT 2 had three RCA inputs, with one of them for the inboard MM phono stage. I never had a need for more than that–everything plugged in, and everything worked. The Naim NAIT 50, however, has only one set of RCA inputs, and those are for the inboard MM phono stage. The remaining two inputs are for Naim 5-pin connectors, which aren’t included. So I realized I need to buy a couple of cables with the 5-pins on one end, and RCAs on the other.
Those remaining two inputs are marked AUX and STREAMER. (The STREAMER input can be used for most streamers, although it seems to gently suggest that you might be happiest with one of Naim’s many network streamers.) I still have a feeling that back at my vast cable warehouse, there’s a 5-pin connector from the Naim days. But since I knew I was keeping the Naim NAIT 50, I wanted something special. First, I ordered a Blue Dragon interconnect from Moon Audio. I know their headphone cables are top-notch, and they specialize in Naim Uniti gear. I even ordered the Cardas connector upgrade, and the entire cost was $150. Then, Colleen asked if she could snag one from the family biz, and I said yes.
Finally, the Naim NAIT 50 is very different than the Naim NAIT 2 in one important aspect–there’s that inboard headphone jack. That’s when I stopped thinking of the Naim NAIT 50 as a workhorse/back-up amplifier, but as my reference headphone amplifier. I know, I have lots of exotic options available when it comes to headphone amps, but I like the idea of the Naim NAIT 50 because Naim always made some pretty awesome headphone amplifiers.
The first Naim NAIT 50 system was a simple one, mostly because I’m on a losing streak when it comes to getting review gear that works with the rest of the review gear. The Naim NAIT 50 arrived the same time as the Music Hall Stealth turntable, which includes tonearm and an Ortofon 2M Blue MM cartridge. Seemed simple enough–the Stealth, the NAIT 50 and several pairs of speakers. (I never have a problem with finding enough speakers to play with, at least this year.)
We’re talking about a $1,695 direct drive turntable with a $239 MM cartridge included, the tiny 25wpc Naim NAIT 50, and the most affordable monitor I had in for review–the $2,295/pr Falcon Acoustics M10s. I spent a couple of weeks with this relatively modest system, and it was the kind of system I had back when that Naim NAIT 2 was in my life–simple, musical and always capable of making me smile. As time went on with the 50, I brought in more “sophisticated” gear, speakers such as the $6,500/pr MonAcoustic Platimon VC 1 monitors from Korea, the $9,995/pr Piega Coax 411 monitors from Switzerland, and the $12,000/pr Gershman Acoustics Studio XdB loudspeakers.
In the second phase of the review, I used the Naim NAIT 50 as a dedicated headphone amplifier. For that I used two pairs of ZMF headphones, and the Innuos Pulsar streamer and the Merason DAC-1 Mk. II converter. (My Unison Research CDE CD player was also on duty, as you can see from the photos.) In this headphone rig, the Naim NAIT 50 also had to share the spotlight with the Audion Silver Night 30th Anniversary headphone amp with 300B tubes.
The Naim NAIT 50 Sound
Before I talk about the sound of the Naim NAIT 50, I’ll mention the sound of my old Naim NAIT 2. Ordinarily I don’t like to compare gear unless I have both pieces sitting together, in my reference system. I haven’t listened to my NAIT 2 in more than 25 years, and I can’t rely on my memory from that long ago, but I can remember my reaction to my first listening session. I can even remember the track, which will give you an idea of my spotty musical tastes back then–Enya’s “Caribbean Blue.” (My girlfriend at the time was a big fan of New Age music.)
The Naim NAIT 2 created a wonderful sense of “presence” in my living room, a feeling that I was hearing more detail than ever before. It was a supremely musical little amp, with a natural tonality that seemed only a bit diaphanous; one audiophile visitor referred to it as a “lovely pastel sound.” The Naim NAIT 2 sounded refined, delicate and only a little lightweight, especially when paired with the Spendors, and the soundstage was prone to collapse if I cranked the volume too high. It was, however, the perfect amp for my lifestyle.
The Naim NAIT 50, however, is more composed and versatile. It’s been paired with a number of speakers with middling sensitivity, and yet at no time did the soundstage do a quick impression of a house of cards during an earthquake. During its time with the Falcon Acoustics M10 loudspeakers, the Naim NAIT 50 integrated amplifier brought me back to the Encino Days, when I felt like I discovered my new audiophile place in the universe. As I mentioned in my review of the M10s, I returned to more intimate music, almost out of habit, but when I felt adventurous I discovered that larger scale recordings such as Hilary Hahn‘s Eclipse and Paris were delivered with a firm foundation of lower frequencies that veered sharply away from that pastel tinge of yore.
Sound-wise, the Naim NAIT 50 was a Naim NAIT 2 without the limitations, something more akin to the NAIT 2 when it was paired with that NAP 140 power amplifier. This was no longer a Naim amp that was about PRaT, or playing the notes, or having a limited appeal that mainstream audiophiles might not appreciate. The Naim NAIT 50 sound was closer to some of the great British integrated amps I’ve tested in recent years from LFD, Exposure, Sugden, Rega and more. That’s not to say the Naim NAIT 50 has gone mainstream, even though I feel that many of those classic Naim idiosyncracies dissolved in the years after Julian Vereker’s untimely passing in 2000, but I do think the appeal of the 50 will satisfy a broader audience.
We’ll have to break this section into two parts, obviously–the Naim NAIT 50 in the main system, which I’ve already discussed to a certain degree, and its new role as my reference headphone amplifier.
My headphone rig for the Naim NAIT 50 was pretty swanky–I received two pairs of ZMF headphones for review in the same week, the $3,499 Caldera and the $2,499 Atrium Closed. I used both the Moon Audio Blue Dragon and Cardas cables as interconnects, and my source was either the Unison Research CDE CD player or the Innuos Pulsar network streamer with the Merason DAC-1 Mk. 2 converter.
I tried the ZMF Atrium Closed first, with the CDE, and I played a CD that I’ve always loved for headphone listening–Kate Bush’s Aerial. With a sub-optimal system, Aerial can sound a bit muddled and unstable, but this headphone rig sorted out the inconsistencies and provided a stable and musical performance. The Naim NAIT 50/ZMF combo didn’t come across as lightweight or pastel–it sounded beefy and punchy and all of the other adjectives we used to apply when talking about PRaT. It almost sounded like someone had slipped an original Naim NAP 250 into the mix without the “unique” sense of three-dimensionality the 250s used to possess. (Punchy, full of life and a little flat.)
Bass, on the other hand, was ample. It seems like I’ve spent the last few years trying out headphones that are satisfying, but with a slight lack of low, low frequencies–with the possible exception of the Focal Clear MGs that I dig so much. But the ZMF Atrium Closed, and to a greater degree the Calderas, bulldozed through any paucity in the bottom octaves and created a bold, substantial sound that was superb to my ears.
In comparison, the Audion Silver Night 300B headphone amplifier offered a more natural midrange and more space between the instruments, thanks to those wondrous 300B tubes, but we’re talking about a $5,000 dedicated tube headphone amp versus an inboard unit in a $3,600 25wpc full-function integrated amplifier that serves double duty in my home.
Switching back to the Naim NAIT 50’s other role as my workhouse amplification, I’m chuffed. (That’s what the Brits say, and I like it.) There are so many reasons to love this little integrated, apart from the sound–it’s small so it leaves lots of room on my equipment rack, and it packs a lot of useful features in that tiny box. But it’s the sound that wins me over, the sound that made me write a check to Naim. There is nothing small about the Naim NAIT 50 sound. If you’re okay with 25 watts per channel, you may not need a bigger, fancier, heavier amplifier–ever.
Naim NAIT 50 Conclusions
Am I glad I purchased the Naim NAIT 50? Heck yeah.
First of all, the Naim NAIT 50 can serve as my review workhorse in my reference system and my headphone rig. It’s been tough for me to maintain a schedule of headphone reviews when I don’t seem to have a headphone amp on hand most of the time. Those days are over.
But my appreciation for the Naim NAIT 50 goes far deeper than mere nostalgia for my audiophile beginnings. There’s a cosmic rightness to having this little amp back in my home to remind me of where I’ve been, and to guide me where I’m going. Truth is, the NAIT 50 is a superb integrated that can provide the sonic anchor for systems big and small. Like the Naim NAIT 2, the 50 is a superb amplifier for small spaces or dense populations, but it can also step up and handle big speakers and energize your room with plenty of low frequency info–as long as you’re using loudspeakers that are comfy with 25 watts per channel.
I’ve heard from a couple of people who are also using the Naim NAIT 50, including Guuny Surya of Sonner Audio. His excellent speakers are fairly efficient, and with the NAIT 50 he’s downright excited about the sound he’s getting from his system. That’s high praise–Gunny has some of the best ears in the business.
But here’s the catch, and it’s the number 1,973. Reviewers take a risk when they recommend something that may be sold out once the review goes live, and I hope that number is large enough to sustain the model’s availability for a reasonable time. At the same time, you probably need to check the Naim NAIT 50 integrated out for yourself–especially if, like me, you have an obsession over the earlier NAITs. The Naim NAIT 50 turned out fantastic, and everything seems to feel right in the audiophile universe as a result.