Note: This review was written in April during the initial COVID-19 lockdowns in the UK.
Rather It’s 2020 and it’s a lockdown. That gives one time and impetus to ponder nonsense past, present and future. And when I think back to what I was doing 30 years ago, it seems to fall into several core things; binge-drinking, going to festivals, taking copious amounts of recreational pharmaceuticals, failing to get off with a whole town’s worth of women, and selling lots of Naim Audio Nait 2s. The lifestyle had something of a major course correction pretty soon after that, but the Nait in all its guises has always held a kind of special – if a little addled – place for me.
Back in 1990 there was just the one integrated amplifier to carry the, er, Naim Nait name. Now there are three, and the Nait XS 3 sits squarely in the middle of them. Below is the Nait 5SI from the two-model SI line, and above is the Supernait 3 from Naim’s core Classic line. The Nait XS 3 is the lone amplifier in the company’s XS range, and is a visual, tonal and price match for the ND5 XS 2 streamer and the FlatCap XS power supply. The latter beefs up the power supply for the Nait XS 3 (but not the matching streamer) should you feel like giving your amplifier a bit of a treat.
The design lines are simple, elegant, and very, very Naim. It’s a well-finished, three-quarter height case with a single volume knob, a row of source selection buttons (and ‘mute’) and a 6.35mm headphone socket. The famous half-moon logo, the single row of buttons and the indicator on that volume knob all glow green against the brushed black aluminium finish. While there have been subtle changes to the overall styling, you could put the Nait XS 3 next to an original Nait XS from 2008 or even a Nait 5 from 18 years ago and struggle to tell them apart. In fact, the products are so well made, you could put a brand new model next to one from 18 or more years ago and think they came from the same batch… it’s not that they ‘age elegantly’, it’s that they don’t age at all; I still think that somewhere in the back of every Naim manual is a Dorian Gray-like picture of a hideously beaten-up amplifier.
If the industrial design harks back to the turn of the century, the XS 3 circuit is state of the Naim art. Granted, this is more an evolution of that original Naim XS circuit (holding to the same ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ ethos that has served the company so well) but these subtle tweaks to the circuit not only keep the Nait XS 3 relevant, but make it the amp to beat at the price.
The headline change is the addition of a moving magnet phono stage. While a fixture of the original Naits, the phono stage gradually disappeared from view and by the turn of the century, Naim’s engineers said that adding a phono stage to an integrated amp or preamp design was an exercise in compromise, and a standalone phono stage (like the Naim SuperLine or StageLine) was a better option. Although the last part of that statement still holds, Naim has been able to re-introduce a moving magnet phono stage to the XS 3 and Supernait 3 integrated designs. This is a step in the right direction; where many integrated amp makers are having to add Bluetooth connectivity to any DAC-sporting integrated designs, Naim has gone back to its minimalist roots and not included a potentially noisy in-box wireless DAC and instead included a built-in phono stage, which makes a lot of sense in this time of vinyl’s continued revival.