In January 2014, in Las Vegas, I saw and heard Naim’s Statement NAC S1 preamplifier and NAP S1 power amplifier at the Consumer Electronics Show. I was blown away by their sound quality, visual design, and construction, all of which were breathtaking -- even at a total price of $200,000 (all prices USD). Together, the NAC S1 and NAP S1 make a large, unique-looking, floorstanding amplification tower with gorgeously curved side-panel heatsinks. They looked totally unlike any other Naim product I’d seen, and their build quality, visible in a caseless display sample was extreme and uncompromising. Their sound quality was equally impressive. Even under difficult show conditions, they drove a pair of Focal’s very large Stella Utopia floorstanding speakers to great effect.
That foray into the ultra-high-end aside, Naim hasn’t forgotten their deep roots in making a wide range of far more conventional and affordable audio components. These include several versions, starting at under $2000, of the Naim Amplifier Integrated (aka Nait), introduced over 30 years ago and followed by many subsequent versions over the years. The subject of this review is the newest and currently most expensive Nait, the Supernait 3 ($4990), which replaces Naim’s previous flagship integrated, the Supernait 2.
So when Doug Schneider asked me if I wanted to review the new Supernait 3, I was intrigued. We’ve recently reviewed models from some of Naim’s new lines on our SoundStage! Simplifi website -- the Mu-so music system, the Uniti all-in-one streaming players, and an ND5 XS 2 network music player -- but I can’t remember the last time we reviewed a Naim preamp, power amp, or integrated amp. I happily agreed.
What’s in the Naim?
Audio reviewers are often surprised by a product’s weight and solidity, but Naim’s Supernait 3 is the heaviest, densest integrated amplifier I’ve ever encountered for anywhere near its price. It was delivered by FedEx in a cardboard carton that could have contained any conventional stereo component of standard rack size -- were it not for a shipping weight of 38 pounds. The Supernait 3 itself weighs 31 pounds and measures 17”W x 3.4”H x 12.4”D.
I like an audio company whose products have a distinctive appearance, and Naim models have for years been clad in a matte-black powder finish accented by softly glowing green lights. The Supernait 3 is no exception, and I like its looks. On close inspection, the thick faceplate has a black brushed finish in contrast to the matte powder coating of the rest of the case. Low and centered is the Naim logo, its illuminated letters etched and recessed in a little arch. To the right of this arch, the Mute and six input buttons each light up when pressed; to the left, the large Volume and Balance knobs each have a green LED to indicate the setting. Those latter two controls are based on high-quality Alps Blue Velvet potentiometers. Just to the left of the Mute button is a headphone jack, its output derived from the Supernait 3’s class-A preamp output stage.
The supplied remote control is Naim’s Narcom 5 model, solidly made of black plastic and designed to control all Naim components. Like many remotes, it’s not backlit, and has many small, similarly sized buttons that are difficult to differentiate. However, I found its size and weight just about right, which made it easy to use once I’d found where the buttons I needed were. One useful feature of this remote is that, with a brief press of the appropriate button, you can nudge the volume up or down by just a small amount. Holding the button down changes the volume slowly for the first three seconds, then more quickly.
The rear panel is crowded but well laid out. The single-ended input connections (all RCA jacks) comprise four pairs of line-level inputs, one pair of outputs, and a dedicated moving-magnet phono stage with an impedance of 47k ohms, in parallel with 470pF of capacitive loading. The phono section comprises three stages: gain, passive equalization, and a final gain and active equalization stage claimed to provide excellent noise performance, RIAA equalization beyond the audioband, and great overload headroom. The Supernait 3’s RIAA film capacitors and resistors are through-hole-mounted and, Naim says, have low microphonic pickup, as phono stages are said to be typically much more sensitive to microphonic noise than other inputs.
Above the RCA inputs is a row of six proprietary DIN inputs that provide line-level connections to similarly equipped Naim source components, including a phono input that can provide DC power to a connected external Naim phono preamp such as the SuperLine. The Supernait 3 can be configured to work as only a power amp, using the preamp DIN input -- or used as part of a home-theater system, by connecting to either the DIN or RCA A/V inputs and throwing the AV Bypass switch on the rear panel. A DIN output for connection to an external Naim power amp is also provided.
A better power supply than the Supernait 3’s own -- e.g., Naim’s HiCap DR ($2990) -- can be connected via DIN to improve the performance of the preamp section. Naim’s SuperCap DR can also be used ($7490), but that far more expensive power supply is intended for use with Naim’s separate preamps, where more of its regulators can be employed. At far left on the rear panel are the main power rocker and the three-pronged IEC inlet for the supplied power cord, and to their right are two pairs of speaker terminals with Naim’s custom speaker connectors, which comply with EU safety regulations. The AV Bypass switch is flanked by a USB port for updates and a 12V DC remote input.
The Supernait 3 is specified to output 80Wpc into 8 ohms or 130Wpc into 4 ohms. It has a massive toroidal transformer with a 24V Discrete Regulation module for the preamp stage. Since the Supernait 2, Naim says, they’ve optimized the second gain-stage transistors, which no longer need to be shielded by a cascode-stage transistor, with claimed results of less amplifier stabilization being needed and a doubling of the output stage’s slew rate, the latter for increased performance.
Naim goes to great lengths to minimize mechanical noise in their products, down to the IEC socket -- its pins have a deliberately loose fit, to decouple the socket from any incoming vibrations. The mounting of the circuit boards and transformer is carefully designed to isolate these components from any vibrations, whether generated externally or internally. To provide further isolation, the input jacks are all mounted directly on the chassis, then hand-wired to the circuit boards.
I used the Naim Supernait 3 with my usual reference speakers -- MartinLogan Masterpiece Classic ESL 9 hybrid electrostatics -- and a Lenovo IdeaPad laptop computer running Windows 10, Roon, foobar2000, and Qobuz. An Oppo UDP-205 4K Ultra HD universal BD player served as the DAC, connected via an AudioQuest JitterBug jitter reducer and Carbon USB link and Nordost Quattro Fil interconnects. A Pro-Ject Audio Systems X1 turntable was plugged into the Supernait 3’s phono stage with Pro-Ject’s Connect It E interconnects. Speaker cables and power cords were Clarus Aqua, with power-conditioning products from Zero Surge and Blue Circle Audio.
Naim that tune
I’ve recently reviewed several exceptional integrated amplifier-DACs, including the high-powered Anthem STR ($4499) and Lyngdorf TDAI-3400 ($7199 as reviewed). Both are specified to output 200Wpc into 8 ohms, and include room-correction systems that impressed me with their versatility and excellent sound quality. With its lack of a DAC section and no DSP for room correction or bass management, the similarly priced Supernait 3 is a much simpler design, which should mean that Naim allocated more design time and manufacturing dollars to maximizing the sound quality of the preamp and amplifier sections. Still, I was prepared to be somewhat underwhelmed by the sound of the all-analog Supernait 3.
But even when I first installed the Naim in my smaller system, to give it a few days’ burn-in with a pair of PSB Alpha T20 floorstanding speakers, it was immediately obvious that this was no polite little sub-100Wpc integrated. The Naim took control of the PSBs with an authority that totally belied its 80Wpc power rating -- the sound was stunningly robust and bold, and easily bested my usual amplification in this system: an Oppo BDP-105 universal BD player ($1199, discontinued) used as a digital preamp-DAC and an Axiom ADA1000 multichannel power amp (125Wpc into 8 ohms, $1530). Although I normally biamp the PSBs by using four of the Axiom’s five channels, the sound with the Naim driving the little Alpha T20 towers was larger, more powerful, and more precise, with superior imaging.
Sting’s voice in “Desert Rose,” from his My Songs: Deluxe (24-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, A&M/Interscope/Qobuz), was razor sharp -- but it was Cheb Mami’s backing vocal that caught my attention. It sounded just as crystalline as with the Oppo-Axiom combo, while also managing to swirl around the soundstage among the various instruments with an incredible layering effect. The bass was also supremely taut; the PSBs’ midrange-bass drivers seemed directly coupled to the amp, which exerted complete control over them, seeming to make them act as perfect pistons. The acoustic guitar in “Fragile” sparkled against deep, lush bass tones that contrasted with Sting’s voice. On this track his voice is more closely miked than on “Desert Rose,” its presence upfront and extremely palpable -- he sounded as if he were in my room rather than in a larger space, as in the other track.
But ultimately, driving a $649 pair of speakers with a $4990 integrated doesn’t make much sense. I was having a lot of fun with the Supernait 3 and my PSBs, but I soon moved it over to my main reference system, to get a better idea of its true capabilities, and began my listening with some vinyl.
From the opening tolling bell and guitar licks of “Hells Bells,” from AC/DC’s Back in Black (LP, Columbia 69699 80207 1), the sound was as good -- rich and tremendously incisive -- as I could have expected from a sub-$1000 source: Pro-Ject X1 turntable with Ortofon Pick it S2 moving-magnet cartridge. Through the Supernait 3’s surprisingly capable MM phono stage, “Shoot to Thrill”’s driving rhythm and the tight work of producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange were on full display. Brian Johnson’s angry, fiercely vicious singing in the title track was fully reproduced, backed by Angus Young’s slicing guitar riffs. The straight-ahead, hard-rock sensibility of Lange’s production continued with “You Shook Me All Night Long,” the Supernait 3 extracting every last bit of dynamics from my analog source.
The sounds of high-resolution digital files through my Oppo UDP-205 universal BD player were even more glorious. I could play the medley of “It’s a Beautiful Day” / “Haven’t Met You Yet” / “Home,” from Michael Bublé’s Bublé! Original Soundtrack from his NBC TV Special (24/48 FLAC, Reprise/Qobuz), at very high volumes without the sound of the orchestra distorting. The sound of Bublé’s wide-ranging baritone was exquisite, especially down low, where it had a pleasing resonant tonality with a nice touch of warmth.
Even more appealing was Levon Helm’s easygoing Arkansas drawl in “Up On Cripple Creek,” from the Band’s The Last Waltz (24/48 FLAC, Rhino/Warner/Qobuz). The whole of the many talents of the Band’s five members was surely greater than the sum of their parts, but for me, Helm’s passionate voice has long been what keeps me coming back to their recordings. Through the Supernait 3, his voice was always emotionally expressive and cleanly defined -- and even in this less-than-ideal concert recording, the twangy sound of Garth Hudson’s clavinet, played through a wah-wah pedal, was brilliantly funky.
Although Helm is front and center at the beginning of this album’s gospel-tinged studio version of “The Weight,” I was easily able to distinguish Robbie Robertson’s tight, skillful guitar playing at left, and Richard Manuel delicately playing organ at right. Mavis Staples’s singing of the second verse dripped with soulful feeling, and Rick Danko then does his best to equal her and comes close. The Supernait 3 placed every tiny detail of the song in sharp relief, including Staples’s soft off-mike hand-claps in the final verse, which can easily go unheard if a system can’t resolve such fine detail.
With a specified output of only 80Wpc into 8 ohms, the Supernait 3 nonetheless sounded almost as powerful as the Anthem STR and Lyngdorf TDAI-3400 integrateds, and just as powerful as Cambridge Audio’s Edge A ($5000). By this I mean that it controlled my MartinLogan ESL 9 electrostatic speakers with nearly the same authority as my reference separates: an Anthem STR preamp ($3999) and M1 monoblocks ($7500/pair). The Naim never had a problem filling my room with tons of supremely musical sound.
The Naim put on full display the great sound of Lady Gaga’s Chromatica (24/48 FLAC, Interscope/Qobuz). This wonderful album is personal and cathartic, but is nonetheless upbeat and punchy. The Supernait 3 had no trouble keeping up with the album’s immense and pulsing dance beats. The album’s sweeping electronic flourishes highlighted a huge soundstage, the Naim assertively positioning deep, well-defined synth notes between the speakers in a dense and dizzying wall of EDM sound. But even as the dance beats pounded through hectic electronica, the voices were still clear -- when Elton John enters 1:42 into “Sine from Above,” I was caught entirely off guard by how present his voice was. The slight processing on his voice didn’t keep the Supernait 3 from presenting it with an arrestingly crystalline quality that was vivid and commanding in the best possible way.
The Supernait 3’s headphone output was also extremely satisfying. The many-layered vocals in Sting’s “Desert Rose” were well defined, and benefited from a bit of warmth that made this recording sound big and inviting through my Sennheiser HD 580 headphones. Although the sound wasn’t quite as clear as through the headphone output of my Oppo UDP-205 -- my reference for built-in headphone amps -- small details were still audible, and there was a touch more bass. And despite the signal having to travel through a pair of Nordost Quattro Fil interconnects to get to the Naim from the Oppo, the sound from the Naim’s headphone output was always clean and authoritative. I suggest that, unless they’re very serious about their headphone listening, those considering buying a Supernait 3 think twice before spending more on an external headphone amp.
The advanced room-correction (RC) softwares built into the Anthem and Lyngdorf integrateds give them an advantage over most of their competition, but I concede that there are probably plenty of audiophiles who don’t want RC. I found that using the Anthem’s or Lyngdorf’s RC circuits not only cleaned up the bass, resulting in faster, better-defined, harder-hitting lows, but also made for a clearer midrange that in turn improved the aural imaging. For example, with RC, the layering of voices in “Desert Rose” was improved, and the soundstage was more spacious. While RC improved the sounds of those amplifiers, the Naim’s sound was so robust and coherent that I didn’t feel I was missing much without RC -- even with its lower power output, the Supernait 3 could keep pace with the Anthem and Lyngdorf. The Naim also lacks a built-in DAC, which has allowed Naim to lavish more attention on the critical pre- and power stages -- and anyway, many audiophiles prefer standalone DACs. Whether listening to an external digital source, or to LPs through the Naim’s phono input, or through headphones, I could not have been more satisfied with the sound of the Supernait 3.
Listening to Naim Audio’s Supernait 3 was a revelation. I never thought I’d enjoy an all-analog integrated amplifier as much as I did this one -- that is, as much as I’ve enjoyed any similarly priced integrated amplifier-DAC I’ve recently reviewed, including those with built-in room correction. It sounded fabulous, and I now understand why Naim has such an avid following. I don’t think purists looking for a straightforward integrated amplifier with top-notch sound could do better than the Naim Supernait 3 without spending a lot more than $4990.
. . . Roger Kanno
- Speakers -- MartinLogan Masterpiece Classic ESL 9, PSB Alpha T20
- Integrated amplifiers -- Anthem STR, Lyngdorf TDAI-3400
- Preamplifier -- Anthem STR
- Amplifier -- Anthem M1 (monoblocks), Axiom ADA1000 (five-channel)
- Digital sources -- Lenovo IdeaPad laptop computer running Windows 10, foobar2000, Roon, Qobuz; AudioQuest JitterBug jitter reducer, Oppo Digital UDP-205 4K Ultra HD and BDP-105 (used as digital preamp-DAC) universal BD players
- Turntable -- Pro-Ject X1 with Ortofon Pick it S2 cartridge
- USB link -- AudioQuest Carbon
- Speaker cables -- Clarus Aqua Mk.II
- Interconnects -- Nordost Quattro Fil, Pro-Ject Connect it E
- Power cords -- Clarus Aqua
- Power conditioners -- Blue Circle Audio PLC Thingee FX-2 with X0e low-frequency filter module, Zero Surge 1MOD15WI
Naim Audio Supernait 3 Integrated Amplifier
Price: $4990 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Naim Audio Ltd.
Salisbury SP1 2LN
Phone: +44 (0)1722-426600
Fax: +44 (0)871-230-10-12