Naim NAIT 5si Integrated Amplifier Reviewed

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Naim NAIT 5si Integrated Amplifier Reviewed


If you remove "Streaming Sux!" from the equation, I think most comments from readers here at Home Theater Review generally boil down to the same sentiment: "This preamp/amplifier/source component/whatever (or the review thereof) doesn't conform to the way I consume my entertainment and I'm angry that you reviewed it (or reviewed it the way you did)." It's not an invalid concern, of course, but the fact of the matter is that each of us here on staff has our own unique perspective and our own preferences for media consumption. And many of us, I think, have embraced all-in-one media streamer/DAC/server/integrated amp combos (like the Naim Uniti Atom) for our two-channel systems. Or at least we're gravitating in that direction.

A lot of our readers, on the other hand, fall firmly into the mix-and-match-components camp, preferring to hand-select individual pieces to perform each step of the audio decoding, processing, control, and amplification chain separately.

And others still fall somewhere in the middle. 

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So, in an audio world where the trend is in the direction of fewer boxes doing more and more things, it's heartening to see that products like Naim's NAIT 5si are still being made for those who prefer such a solution. Yes, the NAIT 5si is an integrated amp, which puts it on the poo-poo list of folks who would never abide volume control, source selection, and amplification being included in one box. But for those who aren't quite so dedicated to the concept of full-blown component specialization, the NAIT 5si is a compelling component, to be sure.

It features four analog audio inputs, with your choice of DIN and line-level RCA connections for two of them, and RCA only for the other two (one input also has an analog output for those wanting to connect recordable devices). It delivers 60 watts of Class AB amplification per channel (into 8 ohms) and sports a quarter-inch headphone output with unspecified power. And that's really sort of the beginning and end of the I/O discussion. 

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In other words, it's very much the successor to the original NAIT (which, by the way, stands for Naim Audio InTegrated amplifier, just in case you were worried I was yelling at you) from way back in the 1980s. And the intentions are very much the same -- to provide a relatively low-cost but high-performance integrated amp that's both minimalist and bulletproof -- although of course technology has evolved a lot in the intervening decades.

naim_nait5si_internals.jpgThe NAIT 5si is certainly a lot sexier than the original NAIT, with its sleek design and lack of chrome. And it's a little better equipped in terms of inputs. But what I think I like most about this $1,895 integrated amp is that it's a bit of a tabula rasa. You want a full-on digital audio system with mobile app control and access to every streaming service and library ecosystem known to man and Wookiee? You can plug in your streamer/DAC of choice and you've got all that. Want a purely analog system built around a turntable? Add a powered phono preamp and you're good to go. Either way, what you're going to end up with (once everything is decoded and processed or EQ'd and boosted) is smooth and stable volume control and enough amplification to drive most speakers to satisfying levels.

The Hookup
Given the relatively sparsity of inputs, connecting the NAIT 5si is of course a rather straightforward process, at least in the physical domain. For a source, I used Sony's great-for-the-price UDA-1, running its line-level outputs to the CD input of the NAIT 5si. I then connected the speaker level outputs of the NAIT 5si to a pair of Focal Chora 826 Three-Way Floorstanding Loudspeakers (reviewed here) with a set of pre-terminated ELAC Sensible Speaker Cables. Thankfully, the banana plugs of the ELAC cables slipped right into the terminals of the NAIT 5si just fine, although I suspect Naim would prefer that you use its own proprietary dual-banana terminals. Either way, bare wire and spade connections aren't an option.

You'd think that would be it, but the NAIT 5si actually has a bit by way of customization and programming capabilities, despite its apparent simplicity. You can configure automatic input switching easily via the included NARCOM 5 remote control (or handset, as Naim calls it), as well as AV bypass not so easily via a similar process. Both require you to refer to the instruction manual to decipher what different flashing lights on the front panel mean, and which button to press when, which is understandable given that the NAIT 5si includes no screen or app functionality and minimalist physical controls.

The remote also provides buttons aplenty to control CD players, tuners, and other source components you may have plugged into the NAIT 5si, but since the remote can't be user-programmed, it only works with Naim components. Using the NARCOM 5 with the NAIT 5si may cause some slight confusion with some users at first, given that -- for example -- the remote has balance buttons and the integrated amp supports no such functionality. But overall, it's a beautifully built and well-laid-out remote, and my only objective complaint about is that I wish the volume buttons were a little more prominent and distinct.

Performance
Ask me for my preference in amps on any given generic day and I'll tell you that utter neutrality and a complete lack of personality is what I'm looking for. Give me good dynamic range, good transient response, sufficient overhead, and low THD+N, and nothing else.

Here's the thing, though: the Naim NAIT 5si challenges my preferences. Don't get me wrong: it does all of the above quite well. Audible distortion of any sort never reared its head in my time with the amp. It delivers more than enough clean power to drive the Focal Chora 826s way louder than I ought to be playing them. Its transient response and dynamic prowess are unimpeachable, especially for an amp at this price.

And yet... and yet, the NAIT 5si definitely has its own personality, its own unique sound, which comes not from any tinkering with tonal balance, but rather a bit of extra bite and a distinctively wide and deep soundstage with incredible imaging.

I could really hear this in Dave Matthews Band's "Ants Marching" from Live Trax Vol. 19: Vivo Rio. I've always gravitated toward this particular recording of the song because of its authoritative bottom end, something that many live DMB recordings lack. The NAIT 5si handles that beautifully -- way better than the amps built into the Sony UDA-1 I used as a source for this review. But perhaps the more important thing than it does much better than the UDA-1's amps -- indeed, many amps is in this price range -- is its handling of the punch and energy of the recording. 

The attack of the percussion, the bass, and even the fiddles that drive the rhythms of this track forward simply rang through with more authority, more punch, more oomph. In fact, the punchiness of the NAIT 5si reminded me way more of my trusty Class D Peachtree Audio Nova220SE (reviewed here), and if anything, it bested the Peachtree in terms of detail.

The only thing that keeps this rendition of "Ants Marching" from being my outright favorite is the relative weakness of the audience participation/singalong portion of the song. But I've listened to it enough through enough different gear to recognize the fact that the NAIT 5si rendered the crowd with a little more depth and a bit more width than is usually the case at this price level. Significantly so? No. Enough for me to sit up and take notice? Absolutely.

I'll admit, with tracks like "Jackrabbits" from Joanna Newsom's 2010 album Have One on Me, the NAIT 5si doesn't really flaunt its individualism quite as brazenly. True, Newsom's harp strings sound a bit pluckier than average, but for the most part, the amp just sounds like a bog-standard really good amp.

I'll say this, though: with a lot of gear in this price range, it's not always obvious that Newsom records, mixes, and masters completely in the analog domain, but that's immediately evident via the Naim, mostly because its noise floor is significantly lower than that of the recording. So in many a quiet moment, a bit of subtle tape hiss sneaks through that might go otherwise unnoticed. 

Although freak-folk and jam bands are more my, ahem, jam, I'll admit that the NAIT 5si had me digging deeper than usual into the heavier and grungier side of my music collection. I've always said that any component, speaker or otherwise, that can't sound good playing Jimi Hendrix has no place in my two-channel system (and that cuts out a lot of wacky full-range single-driver audiophile bullshit), but the NAIT 5si didn't just sound good with Axis: Bold as Love; it outright rocked.

For the first minute and fourteen seconds or so of "One Rainy Wish" from the album, again, it just sounds like a good $1,000 to $2,000 stereo amp. Once the music starts to get a little feisty, though, that's where the Naim really started to show its character, rendering the growling guitar and snarling vocals with the oodles of sass and grit. I was especially captivated by the way the amp delivered the way-too-stereo mix and all of the instrumentation spread across the soundstage with the utmost precision and control. You could boil all of this down to quantifiable performance characteristics -- good channel separation, low noise, no audible distortion, good dynamic punch, great transient response -- but when you get right down to brass tacks, I almost feel like a wet blanket doing so.

Long story short, this is just a hell of a fun amp.

It was at this point when I decided to test the NAIT 5si's headphone output, with perhaps a bit of skepticism due to the lack of specs. I started with difficult pair of cans, Hifiman's HE-500, and to my surprise the headphone amp drove these open-backed planar magnetics pretty easily. I did have to crank the volume a bit, understandably, but the integrated amp never struggled to provide the headphones with sufficient current and I didn't come close to running out of room on the volume knob.

True, with tracks like Allman Brothers Band's "Rambling Man" from the Deluxe Edition release of Brothers and Sisters, I could tell I wasn't getting every ounce of dynamic punch I might get from the best headphone amps, be they standalone or built into much more expensive integrated amps like the Mark Levinson No. 5805 (reviewed here). But it wasn't that far off. And a switch to more efficient custom IEMs like my Ultimate Ears UE RM Studio Reference (by way of a quarter-inch to 3.5mm adapter) definitely opened things up and delivered that punch I was looking for.

The Downside
I've mentioned a few caveats that I won't retread here related to the remote control and some of the programming features of the Naim NAIT 5si. You can check the Hookup section for those minor concerns.

A bigger downside for me is the lack of volume memory when switching back and forth between the headphone and speaker outputs. The volume knob for the NAIT 5si has a range that runs from about 7:30 to 5:30, if you'll imagine the dial as a clock face. With the Focal Chora 826s, comfortable listening in my relatively small (10- by 12-foot) two-channel listening room occurred at around 10 o'clock on the dial. I had to scoot the knob up past midnight (or lunchtime for you diurnal weirdos) to do some truly satisfying headphone listening, though, especially through full-sized cans. And the handful of times I forgot about the lack of volume memory and unplugged the headphones in the middle of a song, I nearly found myself needing to do a load of laundry, if you catch my drift.

Comparisons and Competition
One comparable integrated amp that I've heard great things about over the past few years but haven't had a chance to put my paws on yet is the Rega Elex-R, which sells for a little less here in the Colonies ($1,695) and provides a little more power (72.5 wpc into 8 ohms), but seems otherwise similarly equipped.

Granted, most other high-fidelity integrated amps in this price range also include some form of digital connectivity and D-to-A conversion. One of those that I particularly like is NAD's C 388 ($1750), which features three analog inputs (one a MM phono input), two coaxial, and two optical digital inputs, along with Bluetooth wireless connectivity and support for BluOS wireless multiroom functionality. The NAD is, it should be said, a Class D amp, so some people shopping for the Naim NAIT 5si might not give it serious consideration even if they're intrigued by the digital connectivity. It really just boils down to what you're looking for in an integrated amp.

Conclusion
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When you get right down to it, in so many different ways, the Naim NAIT 5si just isn't the sort of integrated amp I would have gone out of my way to audition for my own two-channel listening room for so many of the reasons listed above, if not for the fact that I was tasked with reviewing it. Generally speaking, I wouldn't put any integrated amp that lacks a USB input into my "to audition for personal purposes" pile.

But the NAIT 5si simply won me over with its price-to-performance ratio and its distinctive character. So if you're looking for an all-analog integrated amp -- whether you plan to use it with an all-analog hi-fi system or simply look elsewhere for D-to-A conversion -- the NAIT 5si is absolutely a component that I think you should check out, assuming you can schedule an audition anytime soon.

Additional Resources
• Visit the Naim Audio website for more product information.
Naim Uniti Nova All-in-One Media Player Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Naim Uniti Atom All-in-One Wireless Music Player Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.

HTR Product Rating for Naim NAIT 5si Integrated Amplifier

Criteria Rating

Performance

5

Value

4

Overall

4.5

Disagree with our product rating? Email us and tell us why you think this product should receive a higher rating.


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