AUDIO EXPERIENCE FROM FRANCE
Naim audio merged with Focal in 2011. However, you still have to travel west for an hour by train from London to reach Naim’s factory, where all its production takes place. I therefore made the journey to Salisbury just a few days ago. Naim’s success, and most of its history, are products of what has gone on within the factory’s modest red brick walls. It all started in the 1970s, when Julian Vereker, a young HIFI enthusiast, put together his first amp and then decided to make others to sell to his friends. Naim Audio was born and set up shop in downtown Salisbury. In 1980, the company’s success and subsequent development forced it to move into a new, larger space located in a business district a stone’s throw away from the city center. The factory underwent expansion over time, and a second building was added in 1995.
Today, the factory houses 160 employees. Around 100 work on the production lines, 30 are involved in researching and developing new products, and the rest are distributed among the company’s commercial, marketing, and administrative branches. Steven Hopkins, Naim’s Customer Relations Manager, was my guide on the visit. He indicated that a large number of employees are able to “multitask,” that is, they can shift from one job to another as needed. He said, “They have received in-house training that allows them to replace coworkers carrying out different tasks or to temporarily help out a different work group.” This flexible approach means the company makes efficient use of its employees’ work hours and can adapt production to meet demand.
Before entering the part of the factory dedicated to production, I donned a white coat bearing the company’s name—just like the ones worn by Naim’s employees—and anti-static overshoe covers. We first visited the area where Naim’s multitude of components are stored. The factory has a wave-soldering machine that attaches surface-mounted devices (SMDs) to circuit boards, thereby allowing the company to produce some of its printed circuit boards itself. Next, we came to a spot where larger components are attached and where the mechanical parts, hardware, and power supply elements are mounted manually at a series of workstations. Indeed, Naim wishes to control what is happened at each step along the production line so as not to leave anything to chance. For example, Hopkins pointed to one workstation and commented that all the little rubber parts of its suspension system had been replaced because they were not sufficiently supple. These pieces of rubber play an important role because the suspension system is crucial in preventing vibrations as different circuit boards are mounted in a device’s chassis.
After having crossed an area neatly enclosed by nontransparent panels, which unobtrusively houses the software and quality teams, we came upon a very unique, well-ventilated workspace. Here, a small group of eight employees is completely dedicated to manufacturing Statement. This entirely new kind of system is composed of a preamplifier (the NAC S1) and two mono power amplifiers (NAP S1s), which can power speakers with around 750W (into 8 Ohms) or with 9000W (into 1 Ohms). This completely unique behemoth has a price tag of $200,000. Statement is a project and a product that illustrates Naim’s ability to push the technological limits of sound system performance. In this area, the workstations are far apart because manipulating the enormous power supply units and mounting the device in its impressive metal hull require a lot of room. A bit further along was the section of the ground floor where Naim speakers are put together. In particular, there is machine with enormous jaws that handles the biggest model in the Ovator series—the S800—a stout beast that weighs in at 93 kg.
At the entrance to the area dedicated to quality control, a large shelf holds all the models in the series. These are the “master copies,” which sport a protective transparent plastic cover that lets you see their internal architecture. All the devices passing through here are, of course, identified, labeled, and accompanied by a tracking sheet. They will undergo a whole series of tests. First, they will be run for 24 hours; this lengthy time period also puts all of a device’s mechanical parts to the test. Consequently, the CD drives will also play, uninterrupted, for this length of time. Then, a final set of tests that fully assess the state of the hardware will ensure that a device is completely functional before it is sent off for packaging. The vastness of the packaging and storage area reflects the factory’s level of production: an average of 450 devices are produced each week! More than two-thirds are amplifiers and Uniti all-in-one players (which are integrated amplifiers capable of streaming music and CD playback). Also, two-thirds of what Naim produces is exported.
During my entire visit, I could sense that Naim’s employees were highly focused on their work; they seemed simultaneously to radiate a great deal of company pride. The work atmosphere was very “British,” if I dare resort to a stereotype, in that it was imbued with a combination of rigor and relaxation. For instance, employees gather in small groups in the company cafeteria (Naim personnel eat for free), where a friendly and welcoming ambience reigns.
Auditioning the new Mu-so system
I ended my visit with a series of auditions that spanned two extremes: I went from the new Mu-so wireless music system to the behemoth that is Statement. Paul Stephenson, Naim’s Managing Director, explained the rationale behind the company’s diverse pursuits to me, including—more specifically—the reasons for creating Mu-so. He commented, “We must not remain blind to the changes taking place in how people listen to music. It is also our job to respond to new demands without turning our backs on our values or on our other product lines. In developing the Mu-so system, we were striving to find the best possible compromise and to stretch the limits of what it is possible when you are trying to create an attractive, compact, wireless device on a restricted budget. This project took us more than two years, and we are very proud of what we came up with.” It is important to note that the device is manufactured by subcontractors in order to make it available at a very reasonable price. I was rather pleasantly surprised by the Mu-so, even if the sound landscape it generated was a bit limited by its design. However, the system’s performance was very respectable and its sound signature was characterized by nicely balanced acoustics. Indeed, the tones were rather nicely defined. Overall, the experience was far superior to any I have had with other products of this type. It is beautifully finished, with a modern yet understated design. All it takes is picking up the device to confirm that it is a serious piece of machinery; its weight is an argument in its favor. The Mu-so is a great option for anyone who wants to purchase an attractive, compact, and connected device as a way of entering into the universe of quality sound reproduction.
Naim currently stands out in the vast HIFI market. The company has figured out how to maintain its sterling reputation: by focusing on what is important, namely nurturing its very strong relationship with its large customer community. It is these individuals who remain the brand’s most effective ambassadors.
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Slideshow / Photos of the factory