Gear: Amplifiers

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Naim NAIT XS 2 – £1,715

If you’ve ever been serious about hi-fi, you’ll probably know all about Naim. The company, who are based in Salisbury, are actually the largest UK manufacturers of hi-fi products. They see themselves as the artisans of the hi-fi world, aiming for products that boast incredible build quality and that are largely created to order – hence that price.

Naim have a huge following across the globe and their reputation is built on products like the XS 2. Fripperies have been kept to a minimum, so there’s no phono stage or digital inputs – you have to add those yourself. What you do get is incredible build quality and super high‑end components that have been tweaked to perfection.

It shows too. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is a revelation, like having Neil Young in the room. The sound is very precise, high on detail and underpinned by lots of tight bass. In many ways it picks up on the weaknesses of the 1969 recording, highlighting some of peculiarities of the singer’s slightly reedy vocals.

If anything, the differences are even more marked on Comfortably Numb, with the track’s eerie opening bars and Roger Waters’ vocals boasting a menace that’s absent on the others amps. The sound is more powerful, more upfront, and at 70 watts per channel, can go considerably louder than the others, without sacrificing any of the subtlety.

NAD D3020 – £399

NAD’s 3020 amp was launched in 1978 and went on to become the first commercial hi-fi product to sell more than a million units. If you’re looking for a budget amplifier, this is still as good a place to start as anywhere. The latest version has been given a bit of digital makeover too. For starters, it’s an upright design. This means it can work well as part of a full hi-fi separates system, but can also act as the heart of a physically small system. To this end it comes with Bluetooth for connecting phones, tablets, MP3 players and so on, plus inputs for music streamers and TVs. If you have a turntable, you’ll need to add an external phono stage.

In spite of its diddy size, the D3020 packs quite a punch, outputting as much as 30 watts per channel – more than enough for smaller rooms. Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere leaps from the speakers with power and aggression. It picks up some of the song’s subtleties, but is weaker on the bass than the pricier amps. It also performs well on Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb, though the vocals aren’t quite as upfront in comparison to some of its rivals.

Arcam FMJ A19 – £695

Arcam are one of the longest established British hi-fi brands. They have been engineering their portfolio of sober-looking but inspired-performing hi-fi separates in their Cambridgeshire base for decades, though these days they’re owned by Canadian company JAM Industries.

Coming in at not too far off twice the price of the NAD, the additional money you pay goes on a rock-solid, super-sturdy design and higher-end components. Like a lot of more expensive amplifiers, it doesn’t have as many features as its budget rivals. The theory is that sonic performance is the most important thing, much more pivotal than facilities that may or may not appeal to all users. Crucially, though, the A19 does have a phono stage built in, so turntable owners can listen to their vinyl records from the off.

As soon as it’s plugged in, it’s clear that this is sonically a step up from the NAD. There are elements on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere that aren’t as apparent on the cheaper amp but which are crystal clear here, especially the background vocals. On Comfortably Numb, there’s also a lot more detail and presence, especially in the vocals.

CONCLUSION

The last few years have seen a big rise in sales of amplifiers. As more music fans invest in turntables, they’re also shelling out on new amps to partner them. If you’re one of those looking to hook up a turntable, make sure the amp you buy has a phono stage, otherwise budget for an external one.

The new breed of amps, at least at the budget end, are also optimised for the ever-expanding range of digital music sources.

The NAD 3020 has served generations of hi-fi fans well and the latest incarnation is no different. If flexibility and budget are key issues for you, this is a no-brainer.

The Arcam delivers exceptional sound quality for the price, but if money’s no object, the Naim is the amp you want. It packs a huge punch, yet never sacrifices detail.

We tested the amps with PSB Imagine B speakers (£899) and the Bluesound Vault 2TB streamer/storage system (£899).