Review: Naim Stageline
This high-quality phono stage will keep vinyl alive.
From the July 2001 issue of Gramophone.
Sales of vinyl are up by over 40 percent year on year, so any addition to analogue's armoury is welcome indeed. This means that a new phono stage from a manufacturer with a pedigree in all things black and circuitry is big news - after all, this is the company whose scarily named, and even more scarily priced, Armageddon power supply was originally built solely to power the legendary Linn LPI2 turntable.
The £175 Stageline is part of Naim's 5 Series and, unsurprisingly, shares its cosmetics with the rest of the range. So it's black and it's a box. With a light on it. It's a sturdy little affair, though, and its machined aluminium case - chosen to keep stray electrical and radio frequency interference at bay - is to a very high standard, so perceived value is high.
This is the first standalone phono stage the company has offered, its previous model, the Prefix, having been designed to bolt into the plinth of a turntable. However, it's still a Naim, so for owners of non-Naim kit some faffing around with cables is to be expected. It's all down to the company's use of DIN socketry, plus the fact that the Stageline needs to be powered by a Naim amp - the Nair 5 integrated was used here - or, for users of non-Naim kit, one of the company's add-on power supplies, such as the Flat-cap or more expensive Hi-cap.
To further complicate things, the output from the Stageline runs to the power supply, which then feeds the amp. However, thanks to some clear instructions in the manual, what could have been a time-consuming and convoluted task was executed speedily, the Stageline hooked up to a Musical Fidelity No-Vista M3 integrated amp and music pouring from the speakers the first time the needle hit the groove.
The Stageline is available in three versions, specified by the buyer to match their cartridge. I used the 'N' type for moving magnet cartridges - perhaps the most likely to be used with a £175 head amp. The other options are the 'S' and 'K' versions, both designed to be used with moving coil cartridges, but offering differing gain.
Straight from the box the sound is all steely strings, nasal vocals and pinched presentation, but given a good day's run-in it fleshes out. Phrases on the piano during Britten's Noye's Fludde (a 1961 recording on Argo) are no longer rendered as a mechanical 'plink plonk': the Naim allows the rhythm of each phrase to convey full emotion. Meanwhile, the violins on Nigel Kennedy's reading of Vivaldi's Four Seasons with the English Chamber Orchestra on EMI lose their edge, becoming seductive, yet with their timing intact. Indeed, if one word was to sum up the Stageline it would be precision: resolution, ambience and the full decay of notes are highly attractive, too.
Bass is taut, the oboes on Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture (Charles Mackerras conducting the LPO on CFP) powering the score along, while treble is superbly resolved, the sound of high percussion such as cymbal clashes punching cleanly from the orchestra and dying into an inky black background. The midband, meanwhile, has fine presence, the vocal to-ing and fro-ing during the Britten morality play truly coming to life, each performer occupying a well-defined and solid position in the soundstage.
As for the overall sound, the presentation is best described as being 'far away'. Having heard the Britten through a standalone Musical Fidelity phono stage (the £130 X-LP was used as a comparison) I was thrilled at the sense of church acoustic the Naim conjured. Indeed, the performers are presented before you at a convincing distance and in a well ordered, deep, and ambient-rich soundstage. The Nairn also has its goal as transparency rather than the euphony which to many is the appeal of the MF. The result is that rather than focusing on the texture and timbre of instruments, the Nairn prefers to concentrate on all-round resolution.
Yes it's all leading edges; yes, it's all about speed and attack, but what is essentially a 'clarity without compromise' approach that some listeners find a little too upfront with traditional sounding Naim kit, makes a perfect foil for the richness vinyl has to offer. Naim fans of course will love it, but this unit has an appeal that extends beyond devotees.
Type - Phono stage. Price £175. Dimensions (HxWxD) 50 x 120 x 196mm. Made by Naim Audio, Southampton Road, Salisbury, Wilts SF1 2LN.Tel 01722 332266. Web www.naimaudio.com.