"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

Saturday 28 May 2016

Naim Factory Tour 2016 via Bentley Flying Spur. Featuring UK Public Debut of the Focal Sopra No 3

Ever been anywhere and felt a bit out of place?  Well, my day began like that, at HR Owen in Pangbourne - purveyors of Aston, Lamborghini and Bentley motor cars.  I don't mind going into these showrooms - we can all dream - and I don't mind speaking with the sales staff and letting them know that I'm just enjoying a look around, if that's OK.  But this time was a bit different...

I was lucky enough to hear that Naim dealer Hifi Cinema had teamed up with HR Owen, Bentley and Naim Audio to arrange a little day out - start in Pangbourne, ride down to Salisbury, tour the Naim factory and then a ride back up to Berkshire.  Sounded great.  Both Hifi Cinema and HR Owen invited guests from their respective customer lists.

Why Naim and Bentley?  Well about 5 years ago they announced a partnership which lead to Naim audio systems being offered as an optional upgrade in Bentley motor cars.  I'm not sure how many buyers have opted for this choice, but a few of the cars today were so equipped.

Convoy Components
The day of the trip arrived - Berkshire was bathed in sunshine and temperatures looked promising.  I walked the 3 mins or so from my B&B (leaving the Insignia behind) down to HR Owen and enjoyed the views across the forecourt - particularly the Astons and noted the cluster of gleaming Bentleys lined up ready for the convoy.  Three Continental GTs and a couple of Flying Spurs.

A tea / coffee and the largest pastries known to man were on offer as the group gradually formed - friend A already there and chatting to some of the others.  Our Bentley host Andy then asked for driver's licence information.  It seems this wasn't just a ride in a Bentley - we were going to get the chance to drive too.  Fantastic!  Some folks had brought their own Bentley, some were going to meet the group at the Naim factory, some didn't turn up which meant one thing - we were allocated our own car for the day.  Maybe with a passenger, maybe not.  Paperwork was done and Andy showed me around "my" car - a metallic grey Flying Spur V8S Auto, with Naim for Bentley audio of course. £185k, 4.0 litres, two turbos, 2.5 tonnes and 500 bhp.  What could possibly go wrong?

Andy took me over to introduce the car and explain the basics such as the auto box, brake on when starting or shifting, paddle shift, how to use the sat nav, sport modes etc.  I started to get nervous - I've never had the priviledge of riding in this kind of car, never mind driving one - and its a long time since I've driven an automatic.

"My" Flying Spur for the day - beautifully built. I wouldn't choose this colour - for me its a bit understated on the outside...

...but rather distinctive on the inside!

Naim for Bentley

Mulliner = options list

Speaker Cabs in the Boot

We drove in convoy down to Salisbury, I had a passenger for this stage and we chatted about cars, Hifi, the business, and the conversation meandered amiably across many topics and decades.  The car is superb.  Its a large car, particularly on some of the narrow A roads in Berkshire, but it doesn't feel its size.
I expected floatiness and a vague drive, but there was none of that.  Once used to the size, its amazingly weildy - there is some feel through the steering, but no kick-back.  The ride is not soft, but its not too firm either - its fluid - following the road, controlling the shifting masses absorbing the worst of the crumbling roads.  You can waft or thrust - in Drive, there's a touch of hesitation as the systems work out what you want and then progress is as swift as you want it to be - a brush on the throttle is all that's needed to make good progress, and more than 1/3 throttle and the scenery starts to fly past with a blur.  Choosing Sport on the gearbox sharpens responses noticeably - now reaction is almost instant, gears are wrung out right to the 6200 rpm redline and when you back off the revs stay up rather than a higher gear being selected.  Even in Sport, shifts are seamless across the 8 speeds.

At 70 mph there is hardly any noise at all and everything is both effortless and completely stable.  I'm told it stays like this at 100mph too, but can't comment on that myself :)
What about the Naim sound system?  Well its not easy to tell. The car's HDD was loaded up with jazz lite hifi show music, recorded in MP3 format.  So I'll just say it sounded pretty good, given those constraints, other than that, it wasn't a good opportunity to test out the sounds.

The journey down to Salisbury was a pleasure and passed very quickly, except the last 4 miles or so in the city, which took us an unreasonable 30 mins.  Still, the Sun was glorious, the environment was sumptuous and the company good, so no problem really.  We arrived at the Naim factory late morning and enjoyed the sunshine as we waiting for everyone to turn up and form the full group.  The factory has evolved over the 40 years of Naim - from a small single building, but now occupying 3 separate buildings that are interlinked into one facility.  Below you can see the most recent addition to the site. Its quite a contrast to the Linn facility which was purpose built from the ground up - here you can see the history and evolution of the company, almost from its roots.  We were welcomed into the factory by Jason and Dan and teas and coffees were served in the dem room with a Mu-so playing the background tunes.

The convoy gathers at the Naim factory, Salisbury

Damson Continental GT in Salisbury

Dem room - ethernet lifters?  Really?

500 in the Dem Room - We listened to NDS and a single 555DR
We were welcomed by Jason, the UK Sales Director who explained the planned itinerary. Dan, our host for the factory tour, sorted us out with smocks and anti-static straps. Visitors are welcome to take photos, which is rather enlightened I feel. We headed straight for the Statement build area, which is a small dedicated area of the factory.  Very much a success story - Naim have now sold 52 sets of Statement pre- and power-amps - that's quite some achievement at £155k a time.  Below is a built up (but without side panels) of a pre- and power-amp.  The quality of the engineering inside this amp is astounding, in addition to being massive, by hifi standards.  This part of the factory has been adapted to Statement production by the addition of overhead rails and cranes - its just not possible to lug this thing around all day.

Statement pre-amp on the left and power-amp on the right
Castings and machining of the highest order and beautifully finished.

Statement chassis showing complexity of the structure

Statement power amp output chassis

Statement packaging

Statement power amp transformer (note size of 1 pound coin)

Statement volume control

Statement power amp output board

Statement board

Statement caps

Statement input board

Statement PSU Caps

Statement machined frame

Statement in build

Attention to detail everywhere

Statement bracket
Between build areas we passed through a storage section where there was a selection of wrapped and a bit sad looking Ovators.  These are reference examples, not the end of stock - apparently there are a few pairs left, but not many.  The green ones looking interesting.

Ovators.  Reference Units - only a handful of cabs are left now
Naim likes to take matching of transistors somewhat further than the transistor manufacturers.  So they match them to 1% rather than the typcial 5%, and if you have an active system, they'll build a stack of amps matched to 1% too.  Below is the rather prosaic looking tool used to complete the matching process.

Rather Prosaic Transistor Matching Machine
A somewhat venerable single automated PCB populating machine occupies one corner.  Its not the fastest machine and works on full size lead type components.  Not much in the way of surface mount in Naim. Where they are used seems to be more in control circuits than audio circuits.

Populating Boards (mainly traditional components, not many surface mounts)
Relaxed?  Naim interconnects certainly are.  There's a belief here that relaxed cables sound better, so they're given a 120 cycles shake before being packed off to customers.  Would be good to hear a with and without comparison, but its not offered today.

SNAIC Shaker

Super Lumina Speaker Cable Waiting To Be Built Up

SNAIC Shaker

SuperLumina speaker cable is also given some relaxation.  First on this barrel, then it's run through a series of pullies which flex the cable one way then the other.  I suppose this is yet more attention to detail, but it does seem a little on the eccentric side.

Super Lumina speaker cable having a nice relaxing time
The populated circuit boards meet the outsourced casework and start to look more like components. One person builds up each product, the main skill being the shaping and soldering of the internal wiring.  Carefully and precisely bent, the cabling is a work of art.  Each product has a "reference template" to work from.  Everything down to the position of each cable-tie, which cable is next to which other cable, when to bend (most are at a rather precise 90deg), lengths etc. is carefully defined and followed.

Part way through build (case tops added only after successful testing is completed)

Supernaits in production

Reference build units (particularly for cabling layouts)
Every single component goes through a measurement test and a soak test.  The tops of the cases are only fitted after testing so that any fettling takes less time.

Soak testing

Some kind of test gear
After the tour we ended up in a reception room for lunch.  MD Trevor Wilson talked us through the history of Naim, their principles and how they want to bring people closer to the music.  Trevor used to work at Bentley and was part of bringing the 2 companies together and helping them understand each other's challenges and approaches.  To meet Bentley's requirements, Naim had to work out how to design a DSP system which allows the "image" inside a car move from seat to seat, according to the owner's requirement.  This lead to Naim building the Mu-So which uses a similar DSP engine.  Its built in China in dedicated Naim facilities in 2 factories, with rigorous quality control from Naim UK employees. We learn that the Mu-So has been a massive success - moving the company from 1,500 new customer per annum to 10,000 new per annum in the last 18 months.
Trevor mentioned several times about the Naim attention to detail, the consistent attention to quality and the priviledge of bringing quality sound into the home.  Not forgetting the company's pride in its ability to service every electronics product they're produced in the past 40+ years.  There were a few questions about company funding (Focal and Naim merged and are now partly owned by equity financing) and we heard about how the updated DR range of amplifiers has been a huge success - causing an extended waiting lists for some products and upgrades.

One-off Frame AV in the customer briefing room
After an excellent lunch we were back in the dem-room for the listening session.  We had an NDS streamer with its 555DR power supply (just the one), Super Lumina interconnects, Statement Pre- and mono power-amps, Super Lumina speaker cables and the UK public debut of the Focal Sopra No3 - a new larger, £16k floorstander topping the Sopra range.  So we're looking at around £200k system here.  Anyone want to choose between a Flying Spur and a hifi system?  I guess many customers at this level won't need to choose - lucky them.
Jason had a few tracks lined up  - for example Roadhouses and Automobiles by Chris Jones, Jenny Again by Tunng and some female vocals and jazz. I've heard the Statement on a couple of previous occasions - at the Bristol show and at the Chester Show - on both occasions it was partnered with Focal Grand Utopias which gave a very hifi sound full of detail, but no real emotional connection for me.  And harshness to the point of having to leave the room at Chester.  But the 2016 Chester show gave me a chance for and extended listen to the Focal Sopra No 2 - the first production speaker designed with the use of Naim electronics - and this transformed my opinion of Focal's more expensive speakers (I rather like the lower cost Arias that I've heard to date), although the Sopra is the middle range in Focal terms.  The Sopra No 2s have banished that harshness - there's still lots of details but there's music too - very much flowing and enjoyable.
So what of the Sopra No3?  Well, its bigger than the No2 and the sound very much reflects that.  If you like the No2 but wanted more weight, this is the place to look.  So that means lots of detail and nusances, speed, space and the ability to really let the Statement shine through.  Really, Naim should stick to demoing with these speakers until the time comes for Focal to release a new Utopia range that's been developed with Naim electronics.  Any downsides?  Well, despite all the treatment in the room, it was still contributing from time to time, leading to a thickening in the mid-bass, and the imaging, whilst very stable and 3 dimensional, was rather exaggerated - vocals being central, but typically around 3 feet wide, which is a bit odd. But that's being picky - this is an excellent system and the Sopras are a major step forward for Focal's musical abilities.

Dem Room - NDS / 555DR / Statement Pre and Power Amps, UK Public Debut of the Sopra No3

Afterwards we were free to take the Bentleys back up to Pangbourne - this time I was solo which didn't matter too much as the car itsself was enough entertainment for the journey.  I followed my nose for a while and found some entertaining roads, but just for fun - this wasn't the place nor the time to find out the car's capabilities - I really wanted to take it back unscathed. Had a play with the flappy paddle changers but they're a bit superfluous really - sport mode does everything that's needed. The Sat Nav is infuriatingly slow to respond to any inputs, but that's the only thing I didn't like about this car.  Fantastic.
A Flying Spur (for a moment)

So, a great day out and a great combination of cars and hifi.  Toys at their best.  A big thank you to:

Bill and Alan at Hifi Cinema
Andy Smyth and the team at Bentley Berkshire
Trevor, Jason and Dan and the team a the Naim Audio factory.

Sunday 8 May 2016

House of Linn / brianandtrevors Interview At Hifi Pig

These guys have been part of my music enjoying experience over the past 6-7 years and here's an interview with them at Hifi Pig


Sunday 1 May 2016

LINN Majik 140 Speakers FOR SALE. Black Ash. Mint. Boxed. Also Active Cards

My Linn Majik 140 Speakers for sale.
Mint condition

Please see the listing on ebay: