When we assemble complete systems for review, occasionally we end up making a system that is almost impossible to audition outside of the reviewer’s listening room. This is not that sort of system. Naim Audio and Neat Acoustics are often seen in the same stores in the UK, and in the same distributor’s portfolios elsewhere. Even when distributed by different companies, they go so well together, they often end up in the same stores. It’s a match made in audio heaven.
This is a simple enough system, made up of two very new and one reasonably new product. We don’t have space for detailed specifications, and in some respects these three products fall into that ‘sufficient’ category where the most important specification to note is that they all work together well. The Naim Audio ND5 XS is the company’s base-model standalone UPnP network player. At its most basic level, wire this into your home computer network and it will seek out music held on computers on the same network, and play them alongside internet radio (via vTuner) and optionally DAB/FM radio. But if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly, and giving the music its own sub-network, with the ND5 XS, a NAS drive full of music, a network switch and a wireless point for an iPad to control everything is even better. And using something like a dedicated UnitiServe to rip and control your music is better yet. But this is not the place to discuss network infrastructure; we’ve gone over that ground in previous networked product reviews.
The Naim Nait XS 2 is a wholly new product, the middle of a ‘good, better, best’ trio of Nait integrated amps. This one delivers 70 watts per channel, has six inputs, a Class A headphone circuit, a constant current stage that takes a lot from the company’s flagship 552 preamp and some very clever ceramic heatsinking that takes cooling right down to the individual component requirement level without recourse to fins or fans. Being a resolutely engineering-led company (with a few joyful concessions to audiophile madness along the way), Naim has taken the opportunity to redraw and optimise the signal path layout.
Appearances can be deceptive. This is not your 1980s Nait. The Nait XS 2 is programmable, and even has a mini USB port for potential firmware upgrades. The level of programming is fairly limited (such as assigning default source, disabling unused sources, volume levels at power on, etc), but too many options would detract from the overall minimalism intrinsic to the Nait ethos.
As you might expect from Naim, both products can be upgraded with off-board power supplies. This is often read wrongly by the chattering classes, who view it as a good product hobbled until you add an expensive power supply. The other way of looking at this is a pair of great products, which can be made even better at a later date by adding beefier power supplies. Given the performance of the two, I’d go with the second answer.
Finally, the Neat Acoustics Motive SX2. This is a diminutive (765mm tall), reasonably lightweight (11kg), back-swept, floorstanding two-way bass-reflex loudspeaker, with a fair bit in common with our 2006 Product of the Year Motive 2. It still sits on a plinth (the port is built into the base of the speaker) and is single-wired. It still features a 25mm inverted dome tweeter, although this time it’s black anodised aluminium, with a large screened magnet assembly behind. Under the hood, the tweeter now has its own cavity, the port has been revised and the crossover reworked (although this last comes with the change in tweeters). These are not small changes though, and build on the predecessor’s strengths.
We could go all wig-out crazy here, with cables that double the cost of the system and a room full of power conditioners, tables, platforms, cones, decouplers, uncouplers, recouplers and marriage guidance counsellors. But that’s not what this system is all about. It’s a simple system, and should be treated as such. The electronics ended up stacked one atop another on an Ikea Lack table, and the speakers were plonked down against a wall, with no care or attention given. The power cords are the ones that came with the boxes; bog-standard affairs, albeit ones with good MK plugs in place of moulded plugs. The interconnect is the giveaway grey DIN lead that also comes in the box and the loudspeaker cables were Naim’s own NAC A5. This last is a relatively inflexible stranded copper pair of conductors separated by a central spacer. It’s not giveaway cable, and has its detractors (unsurprisingly especially among rival cable makers) but is one of those ubiquitous speaker cables that does its job unobtrusively, especially in this context.
I broke the cardinal rule with Naim here. I forgot the power of the run in. As a consequence, my first experience with the system wired up was quick, and nasty. There was some kind of balance, in that the monochrome Neats were evening out the random sounding Naims, but not in a way that was anything even muscling up to ‘nice’ sounding. It got to the point of reopening the boxes and uttering a polite ‘no thanks’ to the companies involved, when suddenly it did what all Naim systems do after a few days, and spring to life.
At that point, I began to give the installation a little more thought. Strangely, that didn’t matter too much – I’m sure tweaking the system would make a difference, but this isn’t the kind of equipment so delicate that it demands laser-guided precision of install. What did matter was sheer hours spent plugged in. The ND5 XS did seem to need a periodic hard boot every five or six days, but after two of those 20-second gaps in power delivery, the system had reached its happy place… and stayed there.
This system gets to music’s nub, and clamps on like an angry bull terrier. This doesn’t necessarily mean protracted listening sessions (although that is a by-product), but more excuses for a listening session seem to appear in your life. It’s the end of a long day – time to play an album or two. Time to prepare dinner – what’s the best music to accompany chopping onions? It’s next-door’s cat’s birthday – that calls for a musical celebration.
Truth to tell, I can’t put my finger on ‘why’ this happens, just that it does happen. I’ve heard other systems that perform similarly, which don’t create the same drive in the listener. This has been labelled ‘musicality’ or ‘Pace Rhythm and Timing’, but I suspect these are clunky abstractions shoe-horned into attempting to label something that doesn’t readily respond to labels. This is because it applies equally to tracks where these things don’t apply – Richard Burton narrating Under Milk Wood for example. This also exposes the criticism of such systems being all fireworks and no substance as a myth; his voice is at turns soft and lilting, and hard and flinty, as the poem demands at that point. It’s organised sound at its stripped back, purist form.
I guess the keyword here would be ‘composure’. The three are perfectly matched for one another, the surprising power delivery in the bass of the Nait XS 2 is an ideal counterpoint for the demands of the Motive SX2, and the ND5 XS feeds both a signal with scope to let them sing. Oh, and one last – and frequently overlooked – point; the headphone sound quality is absolutely superb.
The system worked so well together, it seemed a crying shame to split the band up. However, of the trio, the ND5 XS was the most universal product (because it slotted into many settings without imposing change to the sound) and the Nait was the most ‘obvious’ (it brought its personality to anything it touched).
So long as you don’t judge audio only by the depth of soundstage or the ability to hear what grade of sandpaper the guitarist used on his fingernails, this system is in it for the long term. In a small to medium room, there’s no need for more, and tweaking is like tampering. This Naim/Neat combination just makes music sound right. Highly recommended.
- Naim ND5 XS: £1,995
- Naim NAIT XS 2: £1,595
- Naim NAC A5 loudspeaker cable: £25/m
Manufactured by: Naim Audio
- URL: www.naimaudio.com
- Tel: +44(0)1722 426600
- Neat Motive SX2: £1,395/pair
- Finishes: Natural oak, American walnut, black oak, satin white. Other finishes to order
Manufactured by: Neat Acoustics
- URL: www.neat.co.uk
- Tel: +44(0)1833 631021
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