Naim made its mark by producing one of the best sets of phono cards to show what the Linn Sondek LP12 could do, so it’s not going to skimp on the phono boards inside the Nait XS3. Here, Naim uses three distinct sections; the gain stage, passive equalisation and final gain, and active equalisation. This is not a typical phono stage layout (most either opt for a fully passive or fully active EQ) but using this hybrid approach is designed to maximise headroom while minimising noise. Note that this phono stage also adopts an ultrasonic roll-off beyond that of the standard RIAA curve and also treads somewhere between the standard RIAA and IEC/RIAA curve in terms of bass roll-off. This makes for something approaching a rumble filter without the ‘sloppy subsonic filter’ of the IEC variant of RIAA. Regardless or subtleties of tone-curve, the phono stage’s EQ capacitors are all ‘through-hole’ mounted film types, specifically chosen to reduce microphony.
The change that is often glossed over is perhaps the more important one; removing the cascode! The transistors in the Nait XS 3’s second gain stage is not shielded by a cascode stage transistor. Removing the cascode means less of a need for amplifier stabilisation, which effectively doubles the slew rate of the amplifier and that means the amplifier reacts faster to musical transients. The problem with this significant improvement in the Nait XS 3’s performance is more to do with our ability to gloss over technical innovations as ‘the science bit’.
The end result is an amplifier that ostensibly looks identical to its predecessor, has the same rated 70W into eight ohms power output, has the same Class A headphone amplifier, a similar looking front and rear panel with the same dimensions and almost the same weight. Aside from the number ‘3’ on the rear panel and the word ‘phono’ on one of the inputs, you couldn’t tell them apart. Until, that is, you plug them in and take a listen.
There was always something ‘meaty’ and ‘beaty’ about the Nait sound. That has softened slightly over the years; the accompanying ‘gritty, yet fun’ sound of older models did tend to editorialise your music collection; rock and folk sounded great, jazz sounded fine but classical often sounded just ‘OK’. The XS 3 retains much of what made its forebears fun but is more catholic in its tastes. You can realistically put any well-recorded music through this amplifier, and it sounds great. The XS 3 also retains the Naim appeal of being more forgiving of less good recordings too, although really undynamic and compressed chart material is a big ask of any replay system.
In terms of system, I used the XS 3 with a pair of the excellent – and extremely well-matched – Audiovector R1 Arreté standmounts (on their matching stands) and fed by a VPI Prime with an elderly but still functional Goldring MM and a combination Naim UnitiCore/Wadia 121 DAC (Coronavirus Lockdown Edition). Cables were Nordost Blue Heaven at first, but relented and went with the Naim NAC A5 loudspeaker cable and the supplied Power-Line Lite power cord. Equipment supports were simply Quadraspire with no additional treatments (Nordost’s Sort Kones do make a difference, but most Naim people will give you ‘the look’ if you make that suggestion).
This combination rocked so well I didn’t want to turn it off. In fact it worked so well that the rest of the street started sending me requests during our regular Lockdown Thursday ‘clappy hour’. It’s a fast-moving, quick-reacting kind of sound that makes most music sound great but makes a lot of fine sounding rock get really into its groove. One of my go-to pieces of music (not just for reviewing sakes) is ‘La Grange’ by ZZ Top [Tres Hombres, London]. It’s a fine test in a way because you want to play it loud, you want it to be clean enough to hear the detail but not so clean that it sounds sanitised, and it needs to be up-beat enough for you to start playing air guitar, air drums… even air beard. And the XS 3’s addictive sense of energy does all of that.
Those fluffy audiophile elements like soundstaging and precision of timbre were always a bit of a weakness in Naim of old, but no Naim fan really cared because it sounded so much fun. They are not emphasised here but neither are they underplayed anymore. The XS 3 has a fine soundstage – perhaps not the last word in ‘holographic’, but natural and more like the sound you hear in a concert hall in fact. Similarly, that ability to recognise the sonic differences between the ‘chime’ of a Fender Stratocaster and the ‘chimey-twang’ of a Telecaster is easy to hear.
That ‘science bit’ of the removed cascode stage transistor from the XS 3’s second gain stage does more than just give you nerd points. It really does help make the XS 3 sound livelier and more upbeat than its predecessors, which is no mean feat as the Naits were almost always lively and upbeat. There’s a precision to the leading edges of sounds now that not only keeps the XS 3 rhythmically on the money but gives more than a nod to high-end sensibilities as it improves on those subtle little ‘micro-dynamic’ cues that audiophiles crave. A fine example of this improvement – from both sides of the coin – is playing ‘Tamacun’ from Rodrigo Y Gabriela’s eponymous second album [ATO]. The bite of the two nylon-stringed guitars is powerful and just the right side of aggressive (as it should be), but the string noises and finger squeaks as they fly up and down the fretboard are more immediate and noticeable. They don’t detract from the recording – if anything, they make the music that bit more real – but they become more directly audible here. And do so without an obvious downside to the performance.
The addition of a phono stage is an obvious inclusion at this time. When the original XS landed a dozen years ago, the vinyl revival was still two or three years away and the zeitgeisty statement of the time was “why should I pay for a phono stage that I will never use… vinyl is long gone!” No-one’s saying that these days and including a phono stage in an amplifier seems like a fine idea. But for Naim, there’s no room for simply bolting on a phono stage… it needs to be damn good. And Naim’s XS 3 phono stage IS damn good; good enough to require a fine turntable, arm and MM cartridge package to partner it (the Vertere DG-1 reviewed in this issue is a perfect foil). It’s deft, fast, light, and extremely quiet. Bass isn’t underplayed but is well controlled. I recently picked up a minty original pressing of Cannonball Adderley’s legendary Somethin’ Else [Blue Note] and ‘Love For Sale’ has some of Miles Davis’ finest playing in a group that didn’t bear his name, but it’s Sam Jones deft bass lines that count here. Too much and it unbalances the recording; too little and the music drifts into blandness. This is just about right… and allows that extended upper frequency to cope with Miles’ muted horn perfectly. The same tidy, easy rhythmic properties and fine detail applied universally; the swampy beats of ‘El Morro’ [98-99 Road Map, Quarterstick] for example will make anyone an on-the-spot Calexico fan when played through this amp. Even the headphone amplifier is less of an afterthought than this part of the review! It’s a Class A design and is both fine sounding and capable of driving almost any headphone extremely well. Naturally, there’s a link with Focal’s designs, but realistically unless you are trying to power drive units made of concrete, this will sound like a Naim amp, only closer.