"What a refreshingly honest blog about listening to music through hi-fi. So happy to see views based upon the enjoyment of music rather than so-called sound 'quality'." - Peter Comeau, Director of Acoustic Design at Mission / Wharfedale

Monday 23 October 2023

Exploring Naim Power Amplifier Alternatives - Guest Contributor Clive

He's back!  After only a short gap, Clive is back with more insights into experiences with his system.  Opinions are Clive's own. Enjoy.

A couple of months ago I was speaking with John Jackson aka JJ about improving the amplification of my system without swapping my 2 x 250s for 4 x 135s - I didn't want to increase the box count. My 250s have already been upgraded with the addition of Avondale HCR200 power regulators & John's Phoenix amplifier boards, sound amazing & outperform standard 135s so I appreciated it might be a tall order... but read on.


For those of you who don't know him, JJ is ex Naim Senior Test & Service Engineer & was Witch Hat Lead R&D Engineer before their demise. He is now operating under his own name as JJSThatcham (https://www.jjsthatcham.uk/) offering Naim servicing & upgrades. When I put my question to him, he told me that there was a modification that's he'd been thinking about for a while but not got round to trying - did I want to be a guinea pig?


The modification involved taking a pair of his highly acclaimed Dragon Newts (which will elevate the performance of your Hicap or Supercap) tweaking them to produce +/-42 volts rather than +24 and using them to power a specific section of the Phoenix boards, which would benefit from these ultra-low noise power regulators.


So I took a deep breath, put my system back to passive & handed one of my amps over. The development had to overcome a couple of hurdles. The first build of the 42 volt Newts wasn't a quiet as John wanted, but a redesign solved that. Secondly a variation to ensure PSUs start up safely in all conditions caused another issue but that was soon resolved. And about ten days ago John called me to say my amp was ready for collection.



Those of you that don't know my system may be thinking that, when I mention Aktiv& 250s in the same breath, there'd be something like a 52/supercap/snaxo/ in front of the power amps, and in fact there used to be. But the clue is in "Aktiv" rather than active. Now at the front of my system is a Linn Klimax System Hub which is a streamer/pre amp followed by a Klimax Exaktbox Organic which performs DAC & digital crossover filter duties. I found that the Linn Aktiv implementation is a significant improvement over the Naim snaxo. My speakers are now Kudos 707s although until recently I had SL2s with bespoke crossover filters created by SpeakerFilters / http://speakerfilters.blogspot.com/



So how does it sound? I've initially left my system passive so I can easily compare to the existing amp. Straight out of the box it was obvious that the addition of the Dragon Newts had made improvements but now they've got 200 hours /10 days under their belt, I sat down do a serious comparison. I pulled up my Test Tracks playlist (link at the end) & chose five tracks. First up was Mary Coughlan - The Beach. It was immediately apparent from the open opening notes that the sax intro has more detail, more of a rasp to it. When Mary starts singing, the vocal has more air & is more breathy. The guitars are more distinct & more defined. Notes start & stop with more precision. But the overall impression is of a more musical, more real, more live performance.


Other tracks I listened too were Hanne Boel - After Midnight, ERA - The Mass, John Campbell - Way Down in the Hole & Nils Lofgren - Little On Up (you thought I was going to say Keith Don't Go didn't you). It was the same story. Snare drums have more snap, bass lines are tighter, there's more air round instruments, there's more vocal inflection & everything is easier to follow. On the ERA track the timpanis sound more - well more like timpanis& the track has more drive. The Nils Lofgren track while it's easier to separate the two guitars, the whole track is more poignant, you can feel the emotion.




To summarize, the modification retains all the PRaT that Naim amps are famed for and gives you more of the attributes you'd want - tighter bass lines, more precision, more decay on sustained notes, more shimmer & shine on symbols, airiness & separation, greater insight into vocals & individual instruments. However it manages to do this in a hugely musical & real, non HiFi sort of way. It sounds more like a live performance, be that in a controlled studio environment, on a stage or in your local pub. It sounds like the musicians are having just so much fun. Fantastic. Swapping back to the original amp (very briefly) & that sounded a bit dull & pedestrian by comparison, & bear in mind that this is an amp that out performs standard 135s.


I was now itching to have Dragon Newts fitted to my other amp so I can go back to AktivExakt.


Well a couple of weeks later I got my second 250 back from JJ with Dragon Newts fitted & put my system back to AktivExakt and gave it a couple of weeks for the second amp to burn in. I listened to the same playlist (links at the end) that I used in my initial assessment of with / without the Dragon Newts - so how does it sound?



Short answer - awesome. Longer answer - I have my amps configured so that, rather than one for bass/mid & one for tweeters, one powers left bass/mid & left tweeter & the other the right speaker drive unit. Linn's ExaktAktiv implantation brings a depth & precision to the sound stage and separation between performers that you just don't get in passive configuration.


In ExaktAktiv configuration, the Dragon Newt modification to the amps brings an extra level of airiness /breathiness & dynamics to the performance. On the first track the rasp & inflection on the sax was more obvious, more real. Bass lines gain in solidity & Mary Coughlan's voice is anchored centre stage - close your eyes & she could be in the room with you along with the saxophonist & bass player (although that makes it quite crowded in my lounge)


On the Era track you really get more of a feeling of a massed choir. There's a greater sense of menace with the  timpanis like rolling thunder, and the driving bass lines sound like something from an Indiana Jones movie when the bad men are lowering him into the pit of hell


John Campbell's  voice sounds even more gravelly if that's possible, ravaged by years of smoking cigars & drinking cheap whisky. And if Little On Up doesn’t bring a tear to your eye you must be made of tough old boot leather.


Going ExaktAktiv takes the attributes that I experienced after JJ had added Dragon Newts to my first amp - tighter bass lines, more precision, more decay on sustained notes, more shimmer & shine on symbols, airiness & separation, greater insight into vocals & individual instruments and builds on them. But importantly, it does so in a hugely musical & real, non HiFi sort of way. It sounds more musical, more real, more like a live performance in your living room. It sounds like the musicians are having just so much fun. Fantastic.



As a foot note, I've heard the new white logo Naim 250, and I know some people are raving about it. For me, that is hifi, amazingly detailed but ultimately not engaging. If you are looking for the PRaT that Naim are famed for, but in spades, get an Olive 250 & have JJ breathe his magic on it. And if you fancy going down the ExaktAktiv route, but have speakers that aren’t supported (I previously had Naim SBLs & the SL2s) contact SpeakerFilters:  http://speakerfilters.blogspot.com/



Test Tracks (subscriptions may be required to access these playlists)




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