One glance at Niro Nakamichi's NIRO range, and you know you are in the presence of something special. One glimpse, and I just couldn't wait to try out one of these over-engineered oddballs. I mean, the first analogy to pop into my head upon seeing the NIRO 1000 Integrated Engine was that it looked like a high-tech Ninja/Transformer robot peacock, what the Japanese would make if origami moved from paper to metal. (The separate pre-amp and power amp are just as outr .)
It's the 'peacock-ness', the fan-tail heat-sink array that renders the NIRO so distinctive, but the heat sinks are not mere styling conceits. This pair of extrusions embodies what NIRO is all about. So how can heat-sinks be the key to a design? However much I adore Pathos' Logos heat-sinks, which spell out the company's name, they only address, after all, wholly aesthetic concerns; Pathos could have used any old heat-sinks, but - being Italian - they preferred to make them look good. The NIRO's, on the other hand, are genuinely part of the circuitry.
To get to the 'root' of NIRO, you should know the parent company's name: Mechanical Research Corporation. Just as every brand creates its identity by having a special area of concern - Wilson-Benesch, for example, specialises in carbon fibre usage - NIRO devotes much of its attention to magnetic forces and 'unwanted currents'. Because current-carrying parts generate magnetic fields and forces, and all signal-carrying components can be caused to vibrate because of those forces, Nakamichi firmly believes that due - no, make that excessive care should be applied to those areas throughout the circuitry.
According to Nakamichi, 'In an environment inundated with electromagnetic fields, such motion induces unwanted current in response. [such forces] cause distortions that degrade the quality of the audio signal. Physical fields lie at the root of these phenomena, and combating them requires electromechanical engineering of a very high calibre.' Hence, the word 'mechanical' in the company's name.
So, you're still wondering, how do heat sinks affect sound quality? Ordinarily, heat-sinks are finned, rectangular structures with the sole task of dissipating heat. But if the nearest heat-sink fin is distanced from the active device, the heat then has to pass through the amp's structure. In NIRO's 1000 Power Engine, each heat-sink is a sub-assembly containing a push-pull output transistor pair, mounted immediately adjacent to one another to ensure thermal parity. Nakamichi explains, 'Using a dedicated subassembly for each transistor pair promotes uniform, efficient dissipation across all the fins with no "hot spots".'
Nakamichi mounted the heat-sinks with specially-designed supports that prevent the transmission of vibration. These mounts use a custom-made, conductive, non-magnetic gold-plated alloy, while the heat sink fins vary in length. Thus, any resonance from external sources, including excitation due to a speaker's high sound pressure levels, will be 'diffused' over a range of frequencies. Moreover, the heat sinks are fitted with a 3mm-thick resonance-damping bar, the structure also ensuring uniform heat distribution, a reduction in the time required to reach stable operating temperatures, and the prevention of external vibrations from interfering with the audio circuitry.
This concern for the electrical/mechanical relationship goes much further, Nakamichi applying it to the 1000 series models' entire component layout, including the power supplies. The design keeps all high-power wiring short and even prevents the transformer's primary and secondary wiring from physically crossing over each other. Nakamichi notes that, 'These goals simply cannot be achieved with traditional chassis layouts, which are conceived in two-dimensional space. The NIRO 1000 three-dimensional implementation is ideal and significantly reduces "noise pollution" generated by the power supply.'
To dissipate vibrations from the power transformers and chokes, they're mounted via custom-engineered springs, each with characteristics specifically matched to the weight of the supported component. Thus, the unwanted energy is converted into heat. Nakamichi feels that the gain even for this seemingly minor detail is 'an astonishing difference in sound quality.'
It goes on and on, detail after detail, in the best 'Japanese obsessive' manner: The transformers and chokes use 'inverted mounting' because in this manner they are fitted at the most mechanically stable part of their casings, and therefore cannot worsen unwanted vibration. Moreover, because the transformer and choke wires exit through what would normally be the bottom cover, even shorter wiring paths between these parts and the rest of the power supply can be realised. Even the AC input connector block is 'trick': it's spring-loaded, with an appropriate stabilizing pressure, to dissipate vibrations that might be transmitted via the power cord into the amplifier chassis, while a 1mm air gap between the connector block and the chassis 'ensures complete isolation from high-frequency interference.' (I swear I didn't make up this feature!)
Inside, the PCBs employ free-floating mounts made of special insulating dampers to isolate them from mechanical and electrical interference. The input stage board is located near the top of the chassis, to position it as far away as possible from the power supply and servo circuitry, while the line input connector is located at the top of the chassis immediately above the board. To keep inter-stage wiring as short as possible, the power stage board is located immediately beneath the input stage. To guarantee that mains-borne nasties are kept at bay, power is supplied to the input stage through a shielded channel
Read more about the Niro 1000 on Page 2.
While the front panel is as clean as it gets - on/off toggle with
LED which goes from red to green after the circuitry has stabilised, a
non-motorised volume control and four press buttons to select from
three line sources or tape monitor - the symmetrically-arrayed back
panel is rather daunting. You do NOT connect your sources to this baby
before reading the manual. While you have a choice of single-ended or
balanced record-out and monitor-in sockets, pre-out (should you need
it) is balanced-only, and two of the line inputs are balanced only, all
balanced inputs via XLR. One set of line inputs (Line A) offers the
choice of single-ended or balanced, and you have to select them via
small switches at the back. Finally, there are WBT speaker terminals
spaced about as far apart as I've ever seen them on a stereo chassis.
Which reminds me: you'll need a shelf to accommodate 74.8lb and a
footprint of 18.1x14.8x20.7in (WHD). This is not the smallest
integrated amp I've seen. Small, too, is the supplied remote, which
handles volume, mute and source select, and which triggers a green LED
when it's received by the unit. Because it's not a motorised rotary,
the knob's position becomes the centre point for the volume as
activated by the remote. A quick nudge quickly returns the action to
the rotary, which you then treat as normal.
NIRO rates the 1000 at 80W/ch into 8 ohms, in Class A up to 30W/ch
and Class AB above that. Frequency response is stated as 1-50kHz, with
distortion 'less than 0.1 percent at rated output.' Protection
circuitry covers output DC, output overcurrent and thermal
misbehaviour. Hammering it for a month, I couldn't get the NIRO to act
up even once. It's as polite as any component I've every tried.
And that pretty much characterises the NIRO 1000 experience. Please
note that I may be overstating the case, as I have only heard the
separate pre-amp, monoblocks and stereo power amp at hi-fi shows, but I
suspect they're similar. (On the other hand, Nakamichi himself observed
that the advantage which integrateds have over separates - that of
eliminating a connection between pre-amp and power amp - rewards the
user with even lower levels of distortion. So the trend toward and
justification of high-end integrateds ain't just my imagination.) This
character? Clean, refined, subtle, cultured. The NIRO 1000 is so
terrifyingly indicative of stereotypical Japanese societal behaviour -
genteel, well-mannered, spiritual - that it had me worrying all about
Listen: more than once reviewers have observed that a designer's
personality can be detected in the sound of his products. The NIRO
takes that beyond Nakamichi's own courteous and considered demeanour to
that of a whole culture. Its actual sound is redolent of the miniature
marvel that is bonsai; the amplifier recovers detail which reminded me
of certain 4in long Japanese car models with full wiring under the
opening bonnet. The music's tonal shades and colours? Think Japanese
painting and porcelain. The layers? Look at anything bearing Urushi
lacquer. The delicacy? Taste a piece of sashimi or any two different
soy sauces, or examine cloisonné enamels. Even the ergonomics...there's
a reason why Lexus causes Mercedes the odd sleepless night.
Trouble is, this may all be too subtle in a world where an
aggressive, hip-hop mentality is taking over musical attitudes. On the
other hand...Japan is also, heh, heh, the source of Kodo drumming, and
the NIRO dispatches its lowest, most powerful excesses with ease. Maybe
it's because I rarely taxed it beyond its 30W Class-A operating zone.
Suffice it to say, the sound was reminiscent of the earliest small
Krells, delicate yet powerful. (Isn't that every woman's ideal man,
some cross between Colin Firth and Russell Crowe?) The schizophrenia
How could an amplifier make magic with the fragile a capella gospel
of Alison Krauss on the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and then
convey the unbridled raunch of the J Geils Band's 'Cruisin' For Love'?
A couple of majestic Bernard Herrmann film scores were reproduced as
easily as solo harpsichord, screeching soul courtesy of Wilson Pickett,
and smoky jazz vocals from Sarah and Billie. I could only put it down
to four things: balanced operation, Class-A bias, a seemingly total
absence of grime (which recalled the way the much bigger Halcros
operate) and utterly unflappable behaviour from the power supplies.
Whatever the rest of the system, and I used Wilson WATT Puppy System
7 and Quad ESL63 speakers with Marantz, Copland and Vimak CD players,
and Siltech cables, the NIRO acted like a calming influence. Fatigue
induction was kept at bay. Naturalness and ease were the order(s) of
the day, with a vast, boundary-free soundstage and an absence of any
form of clipping at the levels I prefer. It was cosseting, yet
commanding, hence the ability to ignore the strictures imposed by
genres. And yet I will admit that I've heard more slam, more of an
impression of 'power', as opposed to actual SPLs. So I suppose it's not
the amp I'd recommend to one whose musical tastes are restricted to the
raw and raucous.
For those with refined palates? The only indigestible aspect is a
price sticker in the region of 18,000. I say 'in the region of'
because ordering a NIRO is like ordering Maine lobster in New York: the
menu says 'market price', and there's no telling what the pound/yen
relationship will be at any given time. You don't get a NIRO ex-stock.
But it will be worth the wait, the tariff. Provided that your idea of
heaven is a kimono instead of metal-studded PVC.
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