What is the Naim Supernait 3?
Within this wider process of development though, the Supernait has evolved in a manner that is almost the direct opposite to the wider amp market. The original Supernait was very unusual for the time in that as well as analogue inputs, it also featured digital inputs - something which we now take for granted as appearing on most models we test. Then, when the Supernait 2 appeared, the digital inputs were gone (although in their place came a headphone amp - a rather on point addition for the period). Now, the latest version is here, still shorn of digital inputs… but featuring something that Naim hasn’t done in a very long time.
At the same time as the Naim went through, I have started looking at a series of amps that - I think anyway - are starting to form the basis of a category that doesn’t yet formally exist. They’re clever, flexible and not too dissimilar in price to this one. So where does the Naim fit in 2019 amp thinking and in Naim’s rather considerable range as a whole? Is this now a slightly niche product or actually all the amp you’ll ever need?
Specification and Design
The Supernait 3 disposes of 80 watts into eight ohms, which is a figure that on the one hand seems a little low - after all, another £500 will buy you a Musical Fidelity M6 500i which has 420 more of them. On the other hand, it is quite a lot for Naim who have historically never chased headline grabbing outputs. If you pop the lid on it (not something I actually recommend doing on one you’ve spent your hard-earned on as there is an anti-tamper to discourage this) you’ll find a hefty toroidal PSU and the standard fastidious layout of components. Naim products generally look like they were designed by the sort of people who hoover lawns and this is entirely deliberate - the company feels that it is the basic starting point of decent performance.
Within this layout, there are some changes over the previous Supernait amps. This is not a cascode design. This is an element of the output stage that has historically been present for stability reasons but with careful optimisation of the second stage gain transistors, it can be eliminated and doing so means that Naim has doubled the slew rate. This is the speed at which the output of the amp responds to changes at the input and this is rather handy when it comes to the perceived speed and responsiveness of the amp.
Neither is it the only alteration. The power supply now includes an example of Naim’s discrete regulator technology that has trickled down all the way from the very top of the tree. The preamp stage of the amp runs at 24 volts and the regulator assists in ensuring that the voltage is perfectly accurate and responsive to the needs of the board. In the Naim tradition, if you wish, you can boost this further with an external power supply but for people who don’t really want to start bolting mystery boxes onto their amp, this should be a useful addition.
The most notable change though is to the inputs. As well as four line inputs - which in the grand tradition are available on both RCA and the DIN connections that Naim continues to prefer for their own products - there is a phono stage. In 2019, it’s not unusual to find this on amp but it’s quite a big deal for Naim who haven’t fitted a phono stage to an amp or preamp for well over a decade. Naim freely concedes that its inclusion is down to demand but the improvements to the preamp power supply and that fanatically fastidious internal layout is the company’s way of partly scratching the itch about the perceived issues of doing so.
What’s a little ironic about this fitment is that Naim has had a really clever system for adding phono stages for some years which is retained in the Supernait 3. You can take one of the company’s Stageline phono stages, that come in four varieties to suit different cartridges, and attach it to a powered DIN connection on the Naim for a phono input without needing another mains socket. It means if you need moving coil support, you can have it. Again though, it reduces the spread of little extra boxes and makes the Naim more ‘normal’ in use.
Of course, if you don’t want to connect a turntable, the Naim can feel at a disadvantage. Naim’s policy on this is simple; digital inputs are fitted to digital sources and something like the ND5 XS2 we looked at a while back has plenty of them. This makes sense as far as it goes but it means that budgeting to use the Supernait 3 will be more traditionally expensive than one that allocates the lion’s share of the budget to the amp and attaches ‘parasite’ style devices to it.
Some things don’t change though. Put the Supernait 2 and Supernait 3 side by side and it’s almost impossible to tell them apart (and the original Supernait is only different because it had a second row of input selectors for the tape monitor function. While the Unitis and Mu-So have forged ahead with innovations, the ‘Classic’ range is now fast approaching actually being classic. There is a method in the madness though. Aesthetics are subjective but I feel that the Supernait 3 is a lovely balance of proportion, details and overall design. It looks and feels expensive without ever needing to shout about it. It also means that an often overlooked but worthwhile aspect of ownership comes in to play. Thanks to the slow change in design, Naim equipment holds its value exceptionally well. If and when you choose to sell your Supernait 3, you’ll get rather more of your £3,500 back than almost any similarly priced rivals.
How was the Supernait 3 Tested?
More: Audio format nomenclature explained
First up, those changes to the output stage and power supply arrangements do not render everything that came before obsolete or create ‘night and day’ differences. Most significantly, the alterations that have improved the slew rate don’t make for an amplifier that feels more responsive than the preceding version. The reason for this is simple enough. If you sit down and listen to a Supernait 2, I am confident that the last descriptor you’d apply to it is ‘slow.’ The newer amp might be even more responsive still but coming from such a high base, you aren’t really going to notice.
What is noticeable, both for people that are familiar with the previous Supernaits and the Naim brand itself, is that there have been changes to the way this amp creates a sense of space. Historically, this has never been a big part of the Naim performance. Older amps tended to fire the music at you in a very narrow focus that barely extended to the width of the speakers, let alone beyond. Over the years, this has opened out gently without really changing the underlying virtues. With the Supernait 3, this has accelerated.
What this means is that if you give the Naim a great live recording - and you can choose your poison on this one but for me, something like the Penguin Café Orchestra’s beautifully understated Concert Program - and the Naim creates the space that this incredible recording has woven into the presentation. It’s not overt, nothing is made bigger or more spaced out than it should be but listening to the two amps side by side is to be treated to a performance on the Supernait 3 that is a presentation on the Supernait 2.
No less significant is that this is achieved with no other changes to the equipment. I initially wondered if this effect was simply the Focal Kanta No 1 doing its Mesut Özil routine and finding space where there isn’t any but removing them and substituting the Acoustic Energy AE1 Classic - a speaker as unrelentingly focused as older Naim equipment was - sees the Supernait 3 still extend the performance outward in a way that the older model can’t. In any context and with any equipment, this is more three dimensional than it’s predecessor.
Crucially, none of this comes at the expense of the things that Naim amps should do. Change tack completely and play the crunching Foundation by Nocturnal Sunshine and the Supernait 3 is entirely at home. The bass response is deep, controlled and detailed. It integrates perfectly with the upper registers and underpins everything with a confidence and authority that even rather more expensive amps can struggle with. This is where I have to be conscious of implicit bias because using these amps as a baseline means that this sounds ‘right’ even if another design might be doing something more accurate, so my comments have to be seen in this context. Even so, I cannot see many people being unhappy with how the Supernait 3 performs.
They should be happy with the phono stage too. Crucially, the internal model does all the things that should be expected of it. It is no noisier than the other inputs, has plenty of gain and keeps the same presentation as the amp itself rather than sounding like something different again. There is a school of thought that says at the £3.5k point that the Supernait 3 resides, many people will be looking at moving coil cartridges but the increase in moving magnet designs up to and beyond £500 makes this argument less compelling than it might once have been. Taking something like the 2019 Editor’s Choice Rega Planar 8 and ordering it without a Rega moving coil and instead fitting an Audio Technica VM760SLC would make for seriously capable partnership. The headphone amp remains unchanged from the preceding model and I’d still describe it as good rather than great. It’s more than up to the job of occasional use but it can feel a little short on gain at times.
- Beautifully propulsive and spacious sound
- Very well made
- Phono stage adds useful extra functionality
- Looks pricey next to Naim all-in-ones
- Headphone amp lacks a little gain
Naim Supernait 3 Integrated Amp Review
The biggest issue for the Supernait 3 isn’t if it’s better than the Supernait 2 - it is, or if it’s better than most rivals at the price - it’s that too. Since the Supernait 2 came along, Naim has become a very different company and the range that the new amp inherits sees some of the stiffest competition come from itself. I am often accused of being a bit blasé about pricing and, surrounded by a constant stream of review products, I undoubtedly am. Dragging myself towards reality for a moment, I have to acknowledge that were it my own money, I would have a hard time walking past the Uniti Star and Nova and on to these Classic components. The Supernait 3 is better than the amp in the Nova - don’t let the identical power figures fool you, there’s more to it than that - but the Nova does pretty much everything for £4,200. Combining the Supernait 3 with the suggested partner of the NDX 2 is £8,500 and it will be very good indeed but that’s a lot of money. Of course, more cost effective partners are available but it’s still something to think about.
For a subset of people reading this though, they won’t want an all-in-one, they will want an amp. Here the Supernait 3 is on firmer ground because it’s a truly exceptional one of those. The evolution of Naim’s flagship integrated amp has been a fascinating process and this third iteration is at once a logical development and a surprising leap forward. Without compromising on the virtues of the earlier models, this is an amp that creates compelling and believable space around everything you ask it to play. It’s a wonderful thing to listen to for extended periods and the addition of the phono stage will allow it to be no less accomplished with a vinyl front end as a digital one. The world around the Supernait 3 is changing but for people wanting to use it in the way Naim envisages, it is still a class act and one that comes Highly Recommended.
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