"Hey there good looking...
What's your Naim?"
Naim Stageline Phono Stage And Flat-Cap 2 Power Supply
Review by Ian White
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As someone who travels frequently for business, I often make the effort of searching out vinyl, regardless of my location. While some might consider wandering through the narrow streets of the Marais in Paris searching for records a rather peculiar act, especially when one could be searching for French women along the Seine, I consider it perfectly normal human behavior. I also consider playing doubles tennis in the dark normal human behavior, along with eating dim sum with Vegas showgirls, tube rolling, and following the dog around the house with a Dirt Devil. Eccentricities aside, have you ever met anyone completely normal in a record store?
Let's be honest here. A majority of the people standing behind the counter at any record store resembles the comic bookstore owner from the Simpson's, which in our tiny corner of the human experiment is perfectly acceptable. When was the last time you ran into Famke Jansen in a record store on St. Marks? Hell, I think the audiophile pressing of
Zeppelin IV is thicker in the midsection than the radiant and seductive Jean Grey.
The best vinyl story that I can come up with is that I bumped into one of the former stars of that unforgettable Hollywood epic
Flashdance while bargain hunting at an outdoor music sale in suburban Chicago. What did he have in his hand? There was a sealed copy of the original motion picture soundtrack to that very same film. He paid a measly seven dollars for that piece of history, granted a black mark on the history of film, but he got what he came for. The guy pulled up in a silver Porsche 911, but I know he didn't hide it in the 911's miniscule trunk. I actually saw him place it on the empty passenger seat and buffer it with a heavy coat before pulling off.
The moral here is that people still love vinyl, not only because it sounds better than digital, but because it takes them back to a certain moment in their past that they would like to preserve. Have you ever pulled a disc from your shelf and sighed "Man, my life was going nowhere until those kids from 90210 came along"?
I didn't think so.
Affordable Audio Meshugas For The
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to review a number of components from Naim, but none have impressed me more than the Series 5 components, quite simply because they offer so much at reasonable prices. Yes, the NAC 282 and NAP 250 offer superior performance over components such as the NAIT 5 integrated, but a properly set-up Series 5 system with a good pair of speakers from Spendor, Harbeth, Meadowlark, Neat, or ProAc really does sound better than what ninety-nine percent of what the world is listening to. To its credit, Naim has tried very hard over the past few years to make its equipment more compatible with other brands, especially its superb range of CD players, and for the most part the experiment seems to be working.
With the sweeping changes presented by the digital world, not to mention business opportunities, it would be unfair to dump on any company that chose to abandon analogue reproduction, but Naim has never flinched in its support. Not only does Naim still offer the
uni-pivot ARO tonearm, but a revised version of its Armageddon turntable power supply for use with the Linn Sondek LP12, and two Phono stages; the table-mountable Prefix (Moving Coil only) and the
Hey Fella, Is That A Ten-Gallon Hat
Or Are You Just Glad To See Me?
When I removed the Stageline from it's packaging, I was slightly confused. Not only were there no switches or buttons, but it also had RCA inputs. For the uninitiated in the listening audience, Naim has almost always used either DIN connections or BNCs (that option will run you an additional $25). The output sockets use the ever popular
DINs, but users can use one of the DIN/RCA terminated cables offered by the Chord Company should they decide to use the Stageline with a non-Naim preamplifier. One of the good things that Naim has always done is supply one of its SNAIC interconnect cables with its products free of charge so that those of you using a Naim preamplifier can save your shekels. The Stageline is available in four different versions; the 'S' for low output moving coil cartridges, the 'K' for low output moving coil cartridges requiring a higher impedance load, the 'E' for medium output moving coil cartridges, and the 'N' for people like myself who use high output moving coil and moving magnet cartridges.
The Stageline is fairly small, measuring only a meager 2.2 x 4.7 x 7.4 (HxWxD in
inches). The only indication that you have of its operation is a glowing LED stuck right smack in the middle of the front panel. The interesting thing about that Stageline is that it can be powered by either plugging it directly into a special socket on the NAIT 5, or by using one of Naim's external power supplies. Naim supplied a Flat-Cap 2 for the duration of the review and it is their belief that users will get the best sound from a Stageline by using the external power supply. Having used the original Flat-Cap to power a Naim CD3.5 and NAIT 3 integrated, I can attest to the improvements in clarity, dynamic ability, and pace when using one of the external power supplies.
The first thing that I noticed about my sample of the Stageline was that it was slightly noisy. Initially, I thought that I had a ground loop problem but when I moved the Flat-Cap 2 further away, the noise (more like a low level hum emanating from my Spendor SP2/3s) began to disappear. In all fairness, some of the tubes in my Emotive Audio Sira
pre-amplifier can be rather microphonic (only became really audible in the cold dry
winter) and magnify any noise in the system. About a week into the review, I placed the Stageline two shelves beneath my
pre-amplifier and moved the power-supply to the bottom shelf to see if I could eliminate the hum. Dead silence. I can't confirm if other Stageline users have had the same noise issue, but I do know that once I had the two components placed further apart and away from my tube preamplifier, the noise issue was fixed.
For the review, I used three turntables (Michell Orbe SE, Audiomeca Romance, Nottingham
Interspace) and the Benz Micro H2.0 and Clearaudio Aurum Beta S cartridges. From the onset, I was not entirely convinced that the higher output Clearaudio MM was going to work well, but as the Stageline opened up, the Aurum Beta's warm midrange began to sing.
Bruce Springsteen has always been hit-miss with me, but I am absolutely addicted to
The Ghost of Tom Joad, which is about as dark, somber, and melancholic as they come. Springsteen's "I am a man of the people" mantra does sound a little self-serving sometimes but he weaves together a beautiful collection of songs on this album and I was truly captivated by his angst during my sessions with the Stageline and the two cartridges. What makes the Stageline really good (and extraordinarily good for a phono stage that retails for $375) is how well it fills a song with life. Its ability to image or recreate the soundstage is really not its strength, but name me one product from its maker that is a world-beater in that regard. It is not bad at it, but it is not reference quality in that regard. My Audiomat phono-1 is far superior in that regard but it also comes across as a little cool in comparison.
The Stageline's sonic signature is most certainly not what most people come to expect from a Naim product. Quite frankly, it sounds like it uses tubes. There is a great deal of warmth in the midrange and there was most certainly some roll-off in the treble. Springsteen uses the harmonica quite frequently on the album and on some systems it is almost brittle sounding. With the
Stageline, it was clear and sharp but without the extra emphasis that can make it harsh sounding. When I switched to the Benz H2.0, the imaging improved along with the pace, without sacrificing a substantial amount of the midrange warmth.
When I switched to Tori Amos' Little Earthquakes and In the Pink, I was pleased to hear that the Stageline did not throw a veil over her sultry voice. Tori's sexiness was preserved and quite arousing. I know, shocking to read such profanity in a review. As much as I enjoyed the Stageline's reproduction of the piano, I do think that the Audiomat makes it easier to distinguish between pianos and has an edge when it comes to that last smidgen of "air" in the treble. The Naim keeps its reputation intact in regard to pace, quickness, timing, and rhythm, but the Audiomat is equally as good.
When I switched to jazz, I really appreciated the Stageline's speed and found myself very engaged by the various performances. For $375 (plus an additional $950 if you need the power supply), the Stageline is a very good phono stage and one that worked well with both a $390 moving magnet cartridge and a $1,200 moving coil. In the context of my system, which retails for around forty times the price of the
Stageline, there was never a moment where I felt that the little fella was in way over his head. I suspect that its real magic will shine through in an all-Naim system, but for the asking price, it is impossible to go wrong with it.