Behind the scenes at Naim Audio

posted on Monday, 13th August 2012 by Steve May

Hi-fi  Network audio 

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Naim Audio has been one the UK's blue ribbon hi-fi brands for the best part of thirty-five years. With a reputation for immaculate engineering and world-leading fidelity, it's developed a loyal user base across the globe. The brand's latest signature product is the Ovator S-800 loudspeaker. This 93.5kg tower represents the culmination of five years of research into the brand's proprietary Balanced Mode Radiator (BMR) technology. Priced at £27,500 a pair, it's not so much a loudspeaker as a musical milestone.

The Ovator S-800 has just made its debut at this summer's Hong Kong High-End AV show. However, Inside CI enjoyed a rather less glamorous reveal some time earlier, when we exclusively visited Naim's Salisbury base for an in-depth factory tour.

As we made our way through a stock room full of speakers, we spied some enclosures much larger than the rest, covered with a drape. Our guide, Naim Customer Service Manager Steve Hopkins, winced when we pointed them out.  "Oh, you weren't meant to have seen them," he said. "They don't exist - yet." He paused, then unable to resist, pulled back the cover just enough. The Ovator S-800 stood revealed for the first time.

Of course, a good deal more work was required before any official launch. "It's a bit like Formula 1 engineering," said Hopkins. "Someone has an idea, then we develop it - but the last and most important part of the process is all the tweaking. That's where you get the last drop of performance out of a product. When we perfect a design we religiously follow it. It's a bit fanatical, but if it makes a difference, you have to do it. Everyone pays attention to detail - we just take it to a higher level."

Naim speakers have had a reputable for being challenging to set up, but that seems to changing. "Our S-400 and S-600 Ovator lines are much easier to set up'" said Hopkins. "When you listen to them they're surprising, they're not difficult to drive at all. Even a Naim Uniti all-in-one can drive them."

The history of Naim Audio
When visiting the factory, it's clear the Naim team is a tight knit bunch. Managing Director Paul Stephenson has been with the company for more than 30 years. "A large percentage of people have been here for over ten years," he told us. "The staff churn is very low. We're like a family" The brand also wears its company history on its sleeve. You don't need to look far to see vintage photos from Naim's early days, many featuring the brand's founder Julian Vereker; classic advertising images dot the walls. 

There are also multiple listening rooms around the facility, some large, others small. The service department has its own listening room, R&D has another, and then there's the fully-furnished audition room. Occasionally dealers are brought in for training, although typically Naim reps train as they travel around the country. "The sales guys actually spend far more of their time on support and training, than they ever do on selling," we're told.

Electronics go through four stages of testing before they're released from the factory. "What we do here is test, test and test," said Steven Hopkins. "Kit typically goes wrong during the first week of its life, so we try and make sure it has that first week in here. So a PCB will be assembled then tested, have components added and then tested again; finally it's soaked tested, and then auditioned before shipment for good measure." Apparently if you purchase a flagship product, Naim Technical Director Roy George gives it a final once over before its green lit for shipping.

And it seems you buy a Naim product for life not just for Christmas. "If you bought a NAP 250 amplifier from us more than twenty years ago, you can still send that back, spend around £400 and get new capacitors and various other things, and it'll be returned sounding as good as new. It'll easily last another ten to 15 years. For consumers, that's a very affordable way to enjoy high-end hi-fi." That's a pretty low running cost per year, said Hopkins.

"When stuff comes in for a service the majority is in really good nick. When people send in their pride and joy you have to be very careful, so we take a picture of it, listing any scuffs or marks before we begin work."

The brand also makes a virtue of its lookalike aesthetics. "We've heard plenty of anecdotal evidence that some guys will wait until their wives aren't around, then take an old pre-amp to a dealer and part exchange it for the next one up in the range. It goes in the rack and looks exactly the same. Everyone is happy"

Naim network audio
Of late, Naim has pushed hard into the world of networked audio with its NDX and NDS music players. Backing this up is a massive amount of software engineering. Technical Project Manager Trevor Wilson explains that his R&D team is actually split across continents. "We keep the team together by email, phones, Dropbox - it holds together pretty nicely I think and allows us to attract better brains."

When Inside CI visited the only other person on site was the brand's iOS software developer. The team actually consists of four permanent people and around 20 contract staff. "We have people working in Germany, Vienna, Slovakia, Cambridge, Texas, Utah, Salt Lake City…."

"The biggest problem with the arrangement is making sure everyone has the same hardware," said Wilson. "When new hardware has been released, within 4-5 days everyone gets it. And if they need to physically come in to the office to solve a problem, they come in."

Of course, developing streaming audio gear brings its own unique challenges. "We have every file type and format, every bit-depth; FLAC files with a big image, small image, no image, broken images, bad text data, and deliberately damaged files. We go through all these variants with ever new release to make sure we're not tripping ourselves up.  We found a good one a few days ago, which was a music track that locked.  It turned out to be a FLAC file which a customer had renamed as a WAV file, so now that's in the library. We ensure our play reads the file itself not the description."

But equally there are benefits to networked audio when things go wrong. "We recently had a customer in Spain who was pulling his hair out with a problem," recalled Wilson. "We logged in remotely and sorted it out for him within a couple of hours. He was ecstatic that he didn't have to ship his gear back to us."

Doug Graham, International Sales Manager, notes that for many hi-fi enthusiasts, the ritual of using hi-fi is part of the enjoyment. "You don't press a button on the fridge to get the milk out. It's the same as putting a puck on a CD when you play, something we introduced. You want the experience; a connection with the media. It's the same with vinyl. Enthusiasts like to engage with their media.

So is that going to be lost as people migrate away from physical products? Graham doesn't think so. Engagement will come via apps. "They're so intuitive. Being able to view album art on tablets is actually a good thing. When we moved from vinyl to CD, that appreciation of the art was lost for a lot of us. The point size was so small on CDs that you just couldn't read it. Now, by using a tablet and apps, you get that back," he said.

"What's more, if you have a collection of several thousand CDs you can't possible work your way through it. Put them on a NAS and then listen via random play and you'll hear songs you love but haven't heard for years. There will be happy accidents when to tracks played one after the other just work. It's a really exciting way to rediscover your music collection."

Also read:
Naim Audio factory tour: Photo Gallery

 

Steve May

Inside CI Editor Steve May is a freelance technology journalist, who also writes for T3, TechRadar, Home Cinema Choice and ERT (amongst others).

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