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Naim SuperLine Reference Phono Stage - Likely the best phono stage for vinyl lovers
by Chris Chamberlin

At the outset, let me clearly state that I am a proponent of tube audio as opposed to solid-state audio gear. Having exposed my subjective preference in terms of music presentation, I can unabashedly continue with the following phono stage review. By way of a little background, I have been an audio enthusiast for the past 35 years. I have a fairly large collection of both records and CDs, which cover a number of musical genres. The journey to try to achieve audio bliss has been an exercise in trial and error, but also, for the most part, a great deal of fun, with the occasional hiccup along the way. Recently my audio friend David McCallum approached me to inquire if I'd be interested in doing some writing for the high-end Inner Ear audio webzine. David and I both share the love of audio and also have similar tastes in two channel stereo equipment. Before I agreed to the assignment, I asked David specifically which piece he wanted me to audition and write about. He responded with two very appealing choices, one of which was the Naim SuperLine phono stage.

About Naim
Naim is a British manufacturer of high quality audio electronics. Founded in 1973, Naim has designed and manufactured a long list of highly respected amplifiers, speakers and digital components, competing successfully with other electronics manufacturers. The SuperLine phono stage is a part of their series of Reference audio components.

Before we begin to discuss the listening experience, let’s briefly examine and chat about the two boxes that comprise the SuperLine phono stage. The device itself only accommodates moving coil cartridges, which are generally the choice of discriminating audiophiles today. The main internal board where the external inputs (both RCA and B&C) are mounted is freely suspended on six springs, which are said to eliminate micro phonic disturbances. This suspension system is by way of a brass sub-chassis and being particularly heavy eliminates the influence of the wiring loom on the free movement of the sub chassis.

Now we move to the power supply choices, which are the foundation for all of Naim’s Reference series components. However, with options available from Naim, choosing the right power supply will be an educated decision, based on listening preferences or on personal budgetary constraints. Naim provides three power supply options for the SuperLine phono amp. Basic power can be fed by a FlatCap power supply. Larger and audibly superior is the HighCap, and at the pinnacle of vinyl bliss is the incredibly revealing SuperCap power supply. Alternatively, power can be derived from the Aux 2 input of most of Naim’s preamplifiers helping one get started without the need of an external supply which can be added when funds allow. Prices range from $1595.00 for the FlatCap to $7395.00 for the SuperCap. The HighCap falls somewhere in between.

For the audition Naim provided both the HighCap and SuperCap power supplies. From a performance point of view, the HighCap proved itself to be a very worthy unit, and when paired with the SuperLine phono keeps the unit in a surprisingly affordable price point. However the full capabilities of the SuperLine are not fully realized until you pair it with the SuperCap. It was in this combination that the majority of the listening tests occurred.

Below are some details provided to me by Steve Sells, the designer of the SuperLine phono amp. The first stage in the phono amp has a flat response, and is designed for low noise (82dB awtd ref 500uV). The passive stage performs the high frequency part of the RIAA eq. This uses selected metal film resistors and polypropylene capacitors. The second stage is similar to the first stage, but biased differently as the signal is now larger. This stage performs the remaining parts of the RIAA EQ, again using selected components and a single end Class-A output stage. The brass weight is 3kg and with six springs forms a sub sonic suspension system. We feel this is great for sound and quite expensive to build, but worth it! The unit is hand wired to allow the suspension to work and gives great low impedance PSU connections. It has 25 internal zero feedback ultra-low noise power supplies. These can be powered from the SuperCap, where it uses all the supplies for maximum benefit. They have a very low time constant; this is why it takes two minutes to un-mute when it is turned on. It takes a few days of operation and isn’t fully burned in until about three weeks. After this time, all capacitors have formed and their leakage is minimized. Finally, the SuperLine has externally adjustable loading for both — capacitance and resistance. The unit comes with plugs with various ratings (10kΩ, 1k, 500Ω, 220Ω, 100Ω, 100pF, 1nF, 5.6nF, 10nF) that can be configured in different combinations by the user. Also, a pair of transit bolts resides under the unit, and should be removed prior to use (although no damage will occur if the bolts are left in place). The bolts secure the main board of the SuperLine and — once removed — the internal components ‘float’ on the previously mentioned springs giving the listener the benefit of the innovative isolation that the brass sub chassis provides.

The Specs: Cartridge compatibility: 100mV to 500mV; Gain: 64dB; Input load options: 10k Ohms (no plug), 1k Ohm, 500 Ohms, 220 Ohms, 100 Ohms (resistive), 100pF (no plug), 1nF, 5.6nF, 10nF (capacitive). Max output: 7.5V RMS. Inputs: One BNC, one RCA
Outputs: Naim SNAIC (w/HiCap2), Naim Burndy (w/SuperCap2)

Into The Music And Sound
Getting down to serious listening would take a few days of break-in, so after David kindly hooked up the SuperLine to my Allnic T2000 Integrated amplifier, I inserted my trusty Granite Audio phono break-in disk into my EAR Acute Mkii CD player, and left it in repeat mode for a series of long days. After the fifth day, and overcome with unbridled curiosity, I finally sat down in my listening chair for an inaugural audition. First up on the platter of my Technics SP10 Mkii with Graham Phantom 2.2 arm and Miyabi 47 cartridge was my original copy of Steely Dan's 1981 album Gaucho. "Babylon Sisters", track one from side two, is a song familiar to many audiophiles, but is one I’m still trying to sort out. Using the same arm and cartridge, I’ve found that on some phono stages the vocal can sound recessed and veiled. The Superline, however, renders Donald Fagan’s voice as neutral (uncoloured) and in the foreground of the recording. I suspect this was how it was intended to sound in the mix. The bass line is taut and articulate. There is a sense of ease and effortless flow to the music. Second up and another of my must-test tracks is Roberta Flack’s The First Time I Saw Your Face on Roberta Flack’s Greatest Hits. Again, the bass sounded natural and uncoloured, while Roberta’s vocal was rich, warm and enveloping. What the SuperLine presented beautifully was the cymbals in the left channel, which are generally inaudible. Also, with many of the top-line stages I have used, the bass can easily sound either too taut or flabby; the Superline, however, gets it spot on. The SuperLine is by no means polite. Cranking up Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives from the album My Aim is True gives all the grunt and searing grit this song evokes. The vocals have richness where you feel the vocalist right in front of you. Percussion, such as wood blocks or castanets, has an uncanny sense of realism. Because I like all kinds of music, it's often hard to find pristine, perfect pressings of rare old favourites. I snatched up an old copy of the Best of the Beau Brummels and the SuperLine made that classic sound good; no, it made it sound great! I use Tannoy Canterbury loudspeakers within a combination of three tube-based power amplifiers and two tube-based preamplifiers. The Canterburys are known to be quite revealing, and I find them to be one of the best speakers at reproducing the human voice. Whether its solo presentations or large choral works, the combination of the Naim SuperLine at the front end and the Canterburys at the tail end produces truly breathtaking music. I can’t stop reaching for more records to play. This phono stage is really that good.

Closing Thoughts
The trick to getting the most out of a dedicated phono stage is finding the best settings for a particular cartridge. This isn’t always easy and cartridge specs don’t always guarantee a perfect cartridge-to-phono match. It's best to experiment with the loading and gain adjustments and judge for yourself. My wife’s hearing is better than mine and her sense of perfectly balanced sound is excellent. Between the two of us, we experiment until we are satisfied that all is tonally right coming from the transducers. For me, the phono stage hunt has been a long one, but I can safely say, without reservation, that this is the finest sounding phono preamp I’ve ever had in my system, regardless of price. Quality of workmanship, logical layout and most of all sound performance are my criteria, and that is because I’m totally blind and visual aesthetics don’t influence my take on a product. I have a dedicated listening room, so the WAF factor doesn’t enter into the equation either. I admit to suffering from a certain degree of obsessive-compulsive disorder so painstaking care is taken in placement of all components including speakers and cables. This also helps in my orientation to the system. I opened this essay by stating that I prefer tube equipment to solid-state gear. I’m doing an about-face, since that isn’t the case anymore. The Naim SuperLine phono stage with the SuperCap power supply is the number one phono preamp on my long list of top high-end phono-stage I have lived with. The engineers at Naim have something special here.
Naim SuperLine Reference Phono Stage; Hicap-2 & Supercap Power supplies Naim Audio
Over The Top (Chris' scale)

$ $3,995.00 (SuperLine);
$2,395.00 (Hicap);
$7,395.00 ( Supercap)

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