The XS 3 is the middle model in Naims’ integrated amp series that began with the original and now iconic Nait in 1983. By then, Naim had already established itself as a highly acclaimed British hi-fi maker with a coveted range of preamps and power amps. Spurred by the success of integrated designs – notably NAD’s 3020 – the company sought to make its mark and the Nait (Naim Audio Integrated) amp was born.
As the series has evolved over the years, Naim eschewed the shoebox shape of the original Nait in favour of a chassis design with more standard dimensions, as is the case with the slimline and rectangular XS 3. But even with its illuminated logo badge switched-off, there’s no mistaking that this is a Naim: from its volume control positioned on the left and green backlit source select buttons, to its black powder coated casing and black anodised fascia, there’s no doubt that Salisbury’s finest has done it again. This typically minimalist amp is a well-crafted and solid piece of kit that smacks of top-notch engineering as you would expect from this marque (and certainly at this price).
Since Naim launched its last Nait amps the R&D team have come up with a number of enhancements for the XS 3. Among the upgrades are an Alps Blue Velvet volume pot, Class A headphone amplification, ceramic insulators for the power transistors, plus a number of other engineering improvements including what’s claimed to be more than a doubling of the speed of the voltage gain stage which in turn doubles the rate at which the speaker driving output stage can react.
From a user’s perspective, one of the most significant additions is the built-in phono stage which hasn’t been seen on a Nait amp since the mid 90s (although Naim continues to offer a dedicated, off-board phono stage). More on this later. Rated at 70W per channel, as well as a phono input, the XS 3’s back panel features four RCA line inputs, an RCA output to connect an active subwoofer, plus seven DIN sockets. The latter include two inputs for compatible audio components, and two inputs/outputs to add a streaming or recording device or AV equipment. If using the XS 3 as part of a multi-channel system, an AV bypass switch enables the home cinema processor to take over volume control.
These DIN sockets work in parallel to their corresponding RCA input/outputs, so if your equipment has both connection options, only one should be connected at a time. The three other DIN sockets can be used for upgrading by connecting a separate power supply (such as Naims FlatCap XS), power amp or a separate preamplifier.
The rear panel also includes sockets to hook-up a single pair of speakers, a mini-USB socket purely for firmware upgrades or diagnostic tests, and a power switch. Around the front, the fascia is adorned with the aforementioned volume knob and source select buttons, plus a 6.3mm headphone socket. A remote control handset completes the feature line-up.
Nait XS 3 in action
Given the XS 3s built-in phono stage, spinning-up some vinyl was the obvious first place to start. Now Iet me come clean right from the outset here: it blew my mind. Within the opening moments of Coldplay’s Fix You from the vinyl version of the album X&Y, the hairs on the back of my neck didn’t just stand up, they jumped for joy. What instantly struck me with the Naim was the sheer power in the way it delivers music. When the track gets busier, the XS 3 goes to work but there’s an effortless here and you don’t have to crank the volume too far up the scale for the amp to belt out its power.
Go further back in time to New Order’s Blue Monday, and the Naim hardly breaks a sweat as it pumps out this 1983 12-inch classic with its relentless beat. Lower frequencies are served-up with a warm embrace but retain their clarity; with less capable amps these can come across as mush and goo on this track. Before I get too deep into exalting the XS 3’s driving force, it should be pointed out that this amp is not all about pure muscle or brute force. That would be far too crude. Sure, you can count on it being the workhorse in a high performance system, but it’s a thoroughbred with the class and sophistication to match.
If pace, rhythm and timing are considered to be the hallmarks of the Naim sound then the XS 3 provides ample evidence of this. Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black never sounded so gorgeous. The title track in particular is delivered with such grace and elegance as Winehouse’s doleful vocals drift across the room with such soul but without drowning out the details of the instrumental backdrop. It all gels together exquisitely and comes over naturally without ever sounding forced or strained.
Some critics will point out that the amp’s built-in phono stage only supports turntables fitted with moving magnet (MM) cartridges rather than moving coil (MC) versions which are considered to be superior sounding. For this review, I used a Linn LP12 Sondek turntable fitted with an Akito tonearm and K9 MM cartridge and experienced great results. For vinyl enthusiasts who prefer MC cartridges, Naim’s separate StageLine phono amp offers support for both cartridge types, and can be connected to the XS 3’s power output which provides the requisite 24V to drive it. But that would mean forking out an extra £400 or so.
Moving to digital sources, and the Naim steps up a gear. Load up delicate classical tracks, such as those from Ludovico Einaudi’s 2013 album In A Time Lapse and the XS 3’s timing is spot on every time. For instance, the gentle piano on Discovery At Night comes across at a measured pace, drawing the listener in. This becomes more apparent on the next track, Run, which is just mesmerising through the Naim, heightening the aural anticipation as Einaudi makes each note ebb and flow.
And just when you think you’ve heard the best this amp can offer, try it with female vocals. For instance, Hilary Gardner on Hope Is Gone from Moby’s Wait For Me, or Tami Plescher on One Connection from Ghost Like Sun’s CD Human Satellite, or the amazing Only A Few Things by Above & Beyond featuring Zoë Johnston from the Anjunabeats Sampler, will leave you entranced when heard through XS 3. The scale and breadth of the sonics here up the performance to new, jaw-dropping levels – you remember the hairs on the back of my neck? Well, they just got blown away.
I could go on – this is one of those hi-fi reviews where you’ll always want to try just one more track and before you know it you’ve spent an evening with your favourite records strewn across the floor and yet still crave more. The Naim Nait XS 3 has this uncanny ability to deconstruct a track, give you all the detail, and then re-assemble everything and deliver it in a way that is utterly captivating – and all with such effortless grace and supreme power.
This is an artful piece of hi-fi and, like all great art, it succeeds because of its ability to elicit an emotional or intellectual response in the audience. For me, the XS 3 appeals to the intellect because it is technically bang on and does all the right hi-fi things. What you get for your money is a well-engineered bit of kit that has been lovingly crafted by a company with a solid pedigree. But – and this is most important point – it has that ineffable ability to engage the listener and deliver a performance that goes straight to the heart.