Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part LI- A Tale of Two Amplifiers
(August 2005)

"It's a crime, a crime, that you have the turntable you do, and you've never heard it with a tube amp!" That's Adam, the guy I told you about in Everything Really, Really Old is New Again, the one who sold me that Scott 299B tube amplifier last year. And ever since he said that to me, I've noticed that most of the people I know who are into vinyl also have tubed amplification. In fact, it had gotten to the point where I was the lone solid-state holdout among all my vinyl-loving audiophile friends.

So it was with great relief that I decided to take the tube plunge last year, as if I could never really be a member of the Vinyl Anachronist Marching Bugle Corps until I did so. And when that Scott amplifier arrived after many months of meticulous restoration, I felt whole, complete. Valid, if you will.

But, of course, life is never that easy.

At first, I loved the Scott amp. Since my Koetsu cartridge was still in Japan getting retipped when the 299B first arrived, all of my listening was on CD (and my XM Skyfi tuner). The sound quality was remarkable, everything I'd hoped for. Tubed amplification seemed to eliminate a lot of the digital glare and harshness I've grown to dislike and publicly criticize. It didn't make digital sound like analog, but it made it into something done right. I had to admit that this 43-year-old vintage amplifier wasn't perfect (the deep bass was a little soft and loose, and the treble wasn't as extended as I was used to), but the things it did right, it did really, really right. I was happy for a spell.

Then my Koetsu returned from Japan, completely repaired and restored after The Sandinista! Incident. I know I keep harping on having killed two Koetsu styli in as many years, but I was honestly traumatized by the whole thing. I have nightmares still about walking up to my 'table, looking underneath the gorgeous hand-milled rosewood body of my Koetsu, and seeing nothing, not even a tiny, twisted stick, just as I did that fateful day last summer. I still believe that that tiny, severed, Zen-inspired piece of metal and precious gem resides deep within the fibers of my carpet, impervious to the tornadic persuasion of my Oreck, forever taunting me about my carelessness.

Anyway, hooking my analog rig up to the Scott amplifier turned out a bit problematic. First, I couldn't figure out the right settings on the amplifier. The Scott is what I'd call a feature-laden amplifier, adorned with all sorts of buttons and switches with strange, arcane functions. I've been using Spartan, purist, high-end amplifiers and preamplifiers for so long that I'd even forgotten what a bass and treble knob was. I certainly had no idea what RIAA NARTB ORTHO meant, or what a scratch filter did, or what EUR 78 implied. All of them, it seemed, influenced the sound of my turntable radically, usually for the worse.

Then, it became painfully obvious that my LFD Mistral Phono Stage, which had been modified to handle low-output MC cartridges, was totally, completely incompatible with the Scott. Apparently all that extra gain in the Mistral made my low-output Koetsu into a super high-output cartridge, which meant that any volume setting past the 8 o'clock mark filled the room with unspeakable noise and hissing, along with a LOT of music. Way too much music. My Spendor loudspeakers buckled at the knees and cried out in pain. So I took the Mistral out of the loop, which wasn't that big a deal, because Adam kept telling me about how special the built-in phono stages of the Scott amps were. Now it was time for me to find out.

In a nutshell, I was a bit bummed. The sound quality was definitely a step backward from the LFD Mistral integrated amplifier I had just sold to buy the Scott. First, it was a little obvious that the low-output of my Koetsu was still a bit too low for the Scott. I was surprised that the Scott did have a setting for low-output cartridges, since I thought that such beasts were a relatively recent invention (it's the "MC" part of a low-output MC cartridge that's relatively new). But I still had to crank the volume knob way past midnight in order to get a decent volume level, and unfortunately it was accompanied by lots of hiss, distortion, and tube noise (called tube "rush," since it can sound like running water). In other words, all the things the tubephobes hate about tubes, I had in spades.

I talked to Adam, and we figured out between us that it might have been a grounding issue. The grounding configuration for the Scott wasn't as straightforward as I've been used to, and once I had everything nice and tight and clamped down, I resumed listening. Most of the hissing and humming went away, as did most of the distortion. But there was still a quality to the sound that was unsettling. The best way I could describe it is to say the sound was phase-y and, well, unstable. The imaging and soundstaging seemed to fluctuate constantly, and weird noises would sporadically amble through the space between the speakers. I sat hunched in my recliner, mildly disappointed, realizing that this vintage amp flirtation wasn't really working out the way I wanted it to.

So I did what I usually do when I become utterly confused and undecided about all things audio. I called my dealer, Gene Rubin, to save the day. Gene has a knack for knowing what you need, as opposed to what you think you want. With Gene, it's pretty easy, because it's all about this sounds great, you'll really like this, instead of barrel-chested proclamations about TRVTH the world of audio. Gene suggested that I get back into Naim.

Naim is an idiosyncratic British audio company that makes superb, reliable and unique products. I've owned various Naim products over the years, and I've always been impressed by them. I've owned my CD3 CD player for close to a decade now, and I have no desire to replace it anytime soon. I've owned Naim integrated amps, as well as preamps and power amps, and all sorts of Naim cable. When the last CD player I owned died, Gene told me to get a Naim player because even though it was expensive, Naim stuff never breaks. Well, I'm sure a piece here and there has had to go back to the factory for reorientation, but for the most part this stuff is as easy to own and is as trouble-free as, well, Rega turntables.

But, as I said, Naim is idiosyncratic, and places demands upon its customers that no other audio brand does. First of all, you always needed to use Naim or Naim-approved cabling with their amplification. That's not as bad as it sounds, since Naim cables are priced affordably, but Naim's claim that some brands of cable can make the amplifier unstable (there's that word again) sounds a little scary, even though it's meant to reflect on the sometimes shoddy DIY cable industry and not the amps. Second, Naim components require nonstandard connections, called DIN connectors, which have either five or six pins. Standard RCA jacks need not apply. So even if you wanted to use other brands of cable, you couldn't. And finally, Naim products sound their best when used with other Naim products. The more Naim you have in your system, the better each component will sound. I'd draw the line at their speakers, which I've never liked, especially when most of the other classic British speakers from Spendor, Harbeth, and Quad sound so good with Naim amplification.

Gene recommended their entry-level NAIT 5i integrated amplifier for now, and when their new "super" integrated arrives later in the year, he'll give me a full trade-up allowance. I owned an earlier iteration of the NAIT, the NAIT 2, back in the '90s. This little solid-state amp put out somewhere between 15 and 21 wpc (Naim wouldn't publish specs on the NAIT back then), but it sounded fantastic, and was my first experience with quality amplification. Even its built-in phono stage sounded superb with MM cartridges. I loved that little amp, and kept it a long time, even having it modified into a preamp when I added a Naim power amp later. In fact, I'll go as far as to recommend the NAIT 2 as a GREAT amplifier for the new vinyl addict. You need speakers efficient enough to deal with the low power, but not as expensive as you think. I've seen NAIT 2s sell on eBay for as little as $300, and that's an incredible bargain (remember, though, you will have to buy a handful of Naim cables to hook everything up).

The NAIT 5i is a different animal altogether. First of all, it has 50 watts per channel, so matching speakers isn't the issue it was with older NAITs. Second, ever since Naim founder Julian Vereker died back in 2000, the company has taken steps to make their products more compatible with other brands. You can pretty much choose whatever cabling you want (although the Naim cable still offers exceptional value), and RCA jacks are now used alongside the DIN sockets (Naim still claims that the DIN connections offer better sound). These changes don't necessarily reflect the change of leadership within Naim, by the way, because Mr. Vereker was said to already be making these decisions at the time of his death.

For many people familiar with Naim, however, the biggest changes are in the overall sound of Naim. In the UK, audiophiles use the term PRAT to describe the Naim sound. PRAT stands for Pace, Rhythm, and Timing (or Pace, Rhythm, Acceleration and Timing, depending on who you're listening to). Naim gear, along with other British brands such as Linn, stresses the rhythmic drive and momentum of music over ethereal things such as soundstaging and imaging. In fact, Naim gear can sound rather flat when compared with other brands, and that turned quite a few people away. There's even a bit of backlash against the concept of PRAT, a feeling that it's all basically marketing bullshit used to conceal audio products that vary too far out of the norm to be accurate.

Well, the newer Naim stuff still has PRAT, but it also has imaging, soundstaging, and all the other bells and whistles audiophiles (mostly US audiophiles) seem to need. Plugging the Naim into my system was easy and natural, and everything sounded great within minutes. The NAIT 5i had everything the Scott didn't. It sounded stable, quiet, refined, perfect. Not sterile, as in digital or solid-state perfect, but confident and effortless. I would go as far as to say that the Naim sound is as different from other solid-state amplification as tubes are, which is not to say that Naim and tubes sound anything like each other. No, this was a good sound, as hypnotic and entrancing as tubes. Almost.

I looked over at the Scott amp, disconnected and sitting on top of a table in a corner of my listening room, and I felt bad. "This couldn't have been a mistake," I thought. "It sounded so nice with CDs, and I'd hate to just turn my back on it now." I knew, deep down, that I still preferred the sound of tubes to solid-state, even to PRAT. I thought maybe I had just made a mistake by going with vintage tubed gear, and that a more modern tubed amplifier would be the answer. Then again, I keep meeting people who are absolutely in love with their old McIntoshes and Fishers and Eicos and Scotts. Adam told me the other day that he simply cannot listen to ANY modern audio components, especially amps and speakers, because they sound so aggressive and screechy to him. He needs the smooth vintage sound to get through the day.

Then it occurred to me that the Naim NAIT 5i could be my daily driver. For years now my wife and I have discussed the possibility of buying an old car, probably a VW Beetle from the '60s, to take out on the weekend for fun. We'd keep it in the garage all week and take good care of it and drive our regular cars, which are new and reliable, to work every day. Our daily drivers. The Naim was like that, something to use on a regular basis, something that could be left on all the time without worrying about the finite lifespan of tubes. The Scott, therefore, could be the VW, the fun one, the goofy one, the one to trot out when I feel bored with the sound of my system (which happens from time to time, which is why I'm constantly upgrading). The Scott sounded so nice with CDs that I just couldn't bear to get rid of it. It is still, despite the problems I had, an amazing piece of equipment.

So I'm happy for now, having the best of both worlds. I know that I've been talking a lot about amplifiers over the last couple of years, which I know just merely reflects my personal journey into the hobby of listening to music. But I've come to the conclusion that amplifiers are very important parts of listening to vinyl, even more so than loudspeakers. With different types of loudspeakers, you can radically change the type of sound you get until you find something you can live with, but mainly it's a matter of personal preference. But with amps, I think there's more of a synergy that's required when listening to vinyl, a right and a wrong. I think that most solid-state amps can kill the sound of analog, and can take away its life and light. I think most tube amps complement the sound of vinyl, giving you more of what's good about analog. I think Naim amps, while solid-state, also work well with vinyl (seriously, start searching eBay for Naim NAIT 2s!).

And then there's me, going against the grain, discovering that tubes are just what I needed to finally like digital. Go figure.

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