Packing a lot into a relatively slim chassis, Paul Rigby reviews this solidly built integrated amplifier
I remember running a Rega Mira amplifier, way back when. I was looking at an upgrade and popped over to Castle Hi-Fi in Nottingham to check out what was new and exciting.
I left the shop with three boxes. The first was a Naim CD5 that replaced an old Marantz that had died on me. The other two were a NAC/NAP pre and power duo: my first entry into the heady world of chassis isolation.
I loved them to bits too. Solidly built, reliable, big bass, confidant sound, no obvious sonic issues at all, the Naims provided the heart of my system.
Since then, I have been dazzled by the bright lights of the hi-fi industry, the design innovations, the amazing sounds and the knitted cardigans. Heady stuff indeed.
Opening the box for the Supernait 3 was like coming home, then. Not much has changed in all those years. The same heft. The same chassis texture. The same fascia buttons. The same green light illumination. The same feeling of solidity and reliability.
So, this review’s going to be a biased travesty, penned by a Naim fanboy and written in a cloud of cuddly nostalgia, no? Well, no.
It doesn’t work quite like that. Since my original Naim ownership, many grooves have glided by and my ears have grown callouses. I’m not as wide eyed as I was. Grizzled? If I don’t shave, maybe. But this Naim was going to have to impress or ship out (via DPD, no doubt).
So what do we have here? Before we get to the box itself can I ask why you’re given a manual – so large – it had to be perfect bound and spans over 100 pages? What is this, dBase3 for the PC or something? Two thirds of the manual isn’t even devoted to the Supernait 3 while most of the remaining third is a prospectus for a language night-school course. In fact, of the 100+ unwieldy A4 pages, I could only use four. Yes, four. Around eight sides of A4, if you combine a couple of extraneous bits and bobs, printed a bit further on. Just give me a leaflet, Naim.
As it is, I feel like I’ve been handed a tablet direct from the hands of Moses.
And in that manual, why are the button/socket captions (the captions that explain what each button and socket actually does) covered by obscure picture icons that would need a pocket-sized Rosetta Stone to translate? And why is the key to those icons, 11 sides of A4 further on in the manual? And why don’t the icons feature the same labelling as those on the actual amplifier? (The actual image chassis labelling is so low resolution, you can’t even see them.)
And if you are going to offer the public a downloadable version of the manual from your website – and that is appreciated, I have to add – then please don’t feature low-res, fuzzy images with poorly laid out floating captions (see the remote control section for that surprise).
But back to the plot and the black, powder-coated amplifier and while the Supernait 3 is not small, it’s not a space hugger either. At 87 x 432 x 314mm, it can be described as pleasantly compact but the weight of 14kg hints at quality within.
Before we do that, let’s take a quick 360 degree, guided tour. On the front left are two very large knobs supplied by Alps. So you would expect prominent controls via a respected parts supplier like Alps to control pretty important functions, yes? The first is gain. Yep, critical. Essential to an amplifier’s operation is gain. The second control here handles the…balance. Balance? Why? Why is a balance control even on an audiophile amplifier valued at £3.5k? More to the point, why is it given such prominence? I’m mystified. It doesn’t even feature a naturally centring click/notch around the 12 o’clock position. You have to gauge that yourself.
These days, a balance control is such a quirky, niche thing I only expect to see them on 70s wannabe designs that also feature treble, bass and loudness controls or Japanese-sourced amps who want to recapture the glory days of old.
But a Balance control on a £3.5k Naim? And a whopper at that? Is it there for aesthetic reasons, I wonder? I also wonder, if it was removed, how that might affect the price or free up the build budget for more essential items?
But let’s move on.
The central part of the front facia features a Naim logo that goes green when powered on. The right side of the fascia holds the solid, now classically designed input select buttons, a mute control and 6.35m headphone socket. Yes, there’s a built-in headphone amplifier here. Plugging in a pair of headphones will mute the speakers. A good thing.
Around the back is an IEC power socket and rocker power switch, speaker connections for banana plugs only (No spade connections, then?), four single-ended inputs, phono and sub, Naim’s own DIN socket options, pre-amp and bi-amp options and upgrade sockets. As usual with Naim there’s plenty of options to upgrade the Supernait 3 with Naim’s own external power supplies such as the Flatcap, Hi-Cap and Supercap units.
A remote control is included that allows you to switch off the front fascia display lights.
My final point regarding sockets and the like is the access to the phono amp. Again, I have to ask, why? Because this is a moving magnet-only phono amplifier. There is no moving coil choice here.
I would not, I repeat, would not recommend hooking up a turntable to a £3.5k amplifier and running it via a moving magnet cartridge. That is a source-derived bottleneck staring you in the face, right there. To be honest, I wouldn’t recommend an internally fitted phono amplifier in the first place but such a unit can be useful if you’ve just bought your amplifier, funds are low and an external phono amplifier is not yet viable, financially.
On those terms? Sure, a built-in phono amplifier is a good temporary option but a moving coil only for this price point. Moving magnet support? It’s a mistake.
Apart from the above, generally speaking, the Supernait 3 is another solid, well-built, nicely designed unit. Picking it up out of the box, you can feel the value the quality.
Inside is a Class A preamp output stage which features the headphone amplifier I mentioned while ceramic heatsink technology, “…minimises capacitive coupling between the chassis and output transistors for optimum sound quality,” said the company.
Inputs are each individually decoupled and hand-wired to minimise noise while internal switching employs “ultra-low-noise, constant current” sources.
And the main reason for that weight? The whopping great toroidal transformer in the power supply.
Once you switch on, be prepared to wait 20 seconds while the innards warm up, then you can be away.
So how does all of that actually sound?
I played Kati Melua’s startlingly good new album, the smoothly chilled Album No.8 which features a Melua-voice-on-castors, smoothly running alongside an orchestral backing.
I have to say that the sonic performance from the Supernait 3 is fascinating. This integrated amplifier has a real confidence in its performance. It doesn’t strut around in an excitable fashion. Some amplifiers are rather macho and full of testosterone and like to not only throw their weight around but be seen to be doing so.
The Supernait 3 retains the same strength and power but its presentation is lower key and restrained. You know that this is a powerful unit but the amp never greets you by slapping you in the face. Instead, it offers a firm handshake. With a slight smile and a twinkle in the eye, you know that there’s power to spare if required.
Hence, bass is all over the soundstage. Well, underneath it as bass underpins the music. Bass guitar is easily tracked here as is percussion while the lower register piano notes are resonant in their delivery.
And then there’s the upper midrange and treble. This area is interesting. It’s not airy or terribly spacious. The clarity is not present in abundance yet the expected detail is definitely there while noise is low so all of the information you need to hear is present and correct. I could easily hear cymbal taps and acoustic string plucks, for example.
In fact, you will hear information here that you may not hear with closely priced competitors but that information is thinly coated with a slightly warming presentation. This amp is not ‘warm’ per se. It’s not sweet. What it does is paint a thin coat of low frequency enhancement over the mids and treble. Not enough to veil detail but enough to give the information a perceived sincerity, a self-assurance that comforts, a composure and poise.
In many ways, the Supernait 3 sounds what many people expect expensive hi-fi to sound like: strong, in control yet calm and unhurried.
I know, there’s a lot of metaphor and imagery there but that’s how you feel when you listen to this box. You’re happy to let the Supernait 3 handle the heart of your hi-fi. You know it will do the job.
Melua strolled though this LP in a relaxed, cool and calm manner. And why not? She had the burly Supernait 3 as company. What harm could befall her?
Searching for more dynamic fare, I turned to New Order’s album, Republic (CentreDate) on CD and the track, Regret.
This release does suffer from a measure of peak-limiting compression so can be hard on the ears. The Supernait 3 doesn’t shy away from this problem. It tells you all about it which is what I want, to be honest. I don’t want my hi-fi to sugar-coat issues. I can take it, Doc.
Even so, I could hear that strength here, the sheer potential was almost volcanic. The grunt behind the bass was immense and yet there was a tremendous amount of delicate information on offer here too. The lead guitar strums, the backing bass was a foundation for the entire track, the drummer’s ride cymbal was there, the high-toned acoustic string plucks could be heard through the cacophony.
Yes, the tonal balance leaned ever so slightly towards the bass so neutrality was not strict but that didn’t take anything away from the performance which remained impressive.
This electro-rock track was driving, forceful, full of detail and most of all, it dragged you into the performance. The Supernait 3 is nothing if not involving. I challenge you not to tap the foot, nod the head and sing your heart out when listening to this amplifier. This box has soul.
Offering a great build quality, a solidity that is a watchword in the industry as a whole, a classic, traditional yet subdued design and a simple, easy-to-use interface, the Naim SuperNait 3 sits like a piece of granite in your hi-fi chain.
And in that chain, it will take control of your entire hi-fi chain by the scruff of the neck and never let go. Providing an assured performance, be glad that this beast is on your side.
NAIM SUPERNAIT 3 INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER
GOOD: bass control, detail, confident presentation, expandability options, build, ease of use
BAD: manual, balance control
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