Naim Audio Solstice Turntable System Review
It's a little strange that for all its importance in vinyl replay over its first 48 years as a manufacturer, Naim Audio has never made a turntable. Sure, there have been power supplies, phono stages, and even the Aro tonearm, and yes... a heavily modified turntable or two were bounced around the Salisbury-based company's 'skunkworks'. But a company that was one of the two defining vinyl brands for more than a generation of music lovers never made a turntable; until the Summer of 2021.
Solstice is that first complete turntable from Naim Audio, a 500 turntable run special edition turn-key package launched – as befits the name – on the Summer Solstice (Naim's Salisbury HQ is precisely 2.5 metric Druids from Stonehenge, and sometimes that rubs off in moments of uncontrollable tie-dye). This really is turn-key – the turntable is supplied with arm and cartridge fitted, and the power supply feeds both the turntable and a separate phono stage, all of which come in a series of quality boxes that give the product the look and feel of something special right from the moment of box opening.
The Solstice is also supplied with an album from Naim's own label, although that wasn't supplied at the time of review. The paradox, however, is a lot of this case-candy is going to be experienced at first by the installer; Solstice is only sold through Naim's most tippity-top dealers (which perhaps explains why it's in white on black 'Statement' livery) who have to install it as part of the package. However, for the most part the installation process is refreshingly free from PhD grade installation demands; fitting the platter on the magnetically levitating bearing while keeping the belt in place has a bit of a knack to it, but otherwise it's more about keeping the turntable level and making sure the cables are well-dressed and destressed.
Your only options with Solstice out of the box are the choice of cable from the phono stage to the preamplifier and which sort of equipment stand to use. Naim recommends its own Super Lumina cables, which were supplied, used, and proved a good match... natch. Also, one of the design criteria Naim imposed on the Solstice is that it should be able to fit on a Naim Fraim stand. This means while the platter sits relatively tall and the plinth relatively low ('relative' in this case comparing it to the brand of turntable that was at least once commonly associated with Naim systems!), the footprint of the turntable will not challenge standard sized equipment supports (it fitted on a Quadraspire without a problem) and the two off-board units (PSU and phono stage) could sit side-by-side on a single shelf.
In the past, turntables associated with Naim systems have tended to be suspended designs, so it might come as some surprise that its first complete turntable eschews a suspension and goes more down the high-mass route. Well... not quite. The use of a floating magnetic bearing is a sort of best of both worlds option, combining the temporal precision and quicksilver leading-edge definition of a bouncy deck with the more stentorian bass depth and dynamic range of the more 'hewn from solid' designs. While these are sweeping generalisations, they have more than a grain of truth behind them, and similarly the few floating bearing designs I've heard seem to have that ideal-option performance underpinning the sound. Still, those expecting half-turntable, half bouncy castle are likely to be surprised by Naim's choice for the Solstice, and just as likely to be surprised by its performance.
The turntable itself is made in Germany by Clearaudio. Given that Naim's Salisbury shop floor is given over to building electronics, retasking that production to make turntables is unnecessary and would hold up production of its electronics line. So, handing turntable production over to a company like Clearaudio effectively delivers the ideal combination of resources and specialisms to make the Solstice. However, after almost half a century of not making turntables, Naim isn't going to settle for an off-the-shelf design; Naim's design input is stamped right through the Solstice from the outset and there has been a lot of prototyping and works in progress moving between Wiltshire and Bavaria. This is no mean feat given the privations of the last year and a half. This could have gone one of two ways; both companies insisting on their own 'magic bullet' and ending up with something that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike 'good', or the two companies could work together to produce something really outstanding. As is the case here.
Yes, there were some cross-continent head-scratchy moments; allegedly, the magnetic bearing so beloved by Clearaudio was not as high a priority at Naim, and Clearaudio was initially sceptical of the impact of the Discrete Regulator based power supply. But in both cases, the 'technical' and 'theoretical' were resolved in the 'practical' of listening, even down to which side of the mat sounds best!
Of course, the part that will draw Naim aficionado's attention most is that tonearm. And those people are already hopping from foot to foot asking three obvious questions. And the answers to those questions are 'yes, it really is an Aro', 'no, it isn't available separately', and, 'hopefully a new standalone Aro will follow'. The differences between this arm and the original Aro is that it has a proper (as in, not an after-the-event Aro-matic) lift-lower system with built-in arm rest, an on-the-fly VTA adjustment that I seriously doubt anyone will use, and a carbon-fibre arm-tube; the original would have had the same, were neatly engineered carbon-fibre widely available and even remotely affordable in the late 1980s... such is the progress of material science in the intervening decades.
There is a fourth question that would be asked by existing Aro owners, and the answer to that is 'yes'... it has a slotted headshell; the original Aro had three small holes in the headshell, designed to fit the Linn Troika cartridge, and if your cartridge wasn't a Troika and had a different distance between mounting holes and stylus tip, alignment was more luck than judgment. While the supplied Naim Equinox moving coil cartridge (also made by Clearaudio) has three mounting points – making alignment relatively easy and adds to rigidity of contact – should you wish to move beyond the Equinox cartridge at some point, the arm now allows greater adjustment at last. This sounds trivial, but was in fact quite a feat of engineering, because the design of the original Aro headshell would lose some structural integrity if slotted and making a similar headshell without compromising in performance or 'aro-ness' would be difficult.
While Solstice is considered a turn-key device, that it allows future changes in cartridge would be of little benefit if the phono stage itself was locked into the parameters of the Equinox alone. Fortunately, the Solstice phono stage has a range of cartridge loading options on its back panel. This is something of a nerve-centre for the Solstice system, as the rear panel also provides options on logo brightness and standby options. It also provides options for DIN output (Naim has traditionally used locking DIN connectors over phono as a preference... even of those in the know tend to use these DIN connectors unlocked, for similar reasons to the floating connections in the company's power cords).
The only strange part of the operation is there is a top-mounted power switch on both the turntable and the power supply, which perform the same function. This causes some consternation when mildly 'refreshed' as you press one button to turn it off, press the other (because you are being the inebriated version of 'diligent') and it turns back on! The deck spins up from a standing start to 33 or 45 relatively quickly; not 'direct-drive' quickly, but also not as glacially slow as some of the very high-mass designs.
While it's likely that many Solstice systems will go into Naim systems, I consciously wanted to place this in a wider context. Placing the front-end package into a system comprising Burmester 068 preamp and 911 power amplifier into a pair of Wilson Audio Duette 2 on Townshend platforms, eventually settling on Nordost Odin 2 cable throughout (except for the aforementioned Super Lumina) is almost as un-Naim as it gets. Would it sound good in context or is it designed simply to slot into Naim systems? Would it put a smile on my face or leave the sound cold?
Normally such questions might take a day or so to answer, but the Solstice responded instantly. Granted this was one of the first samples and had been thoroughly run in, but it took longer to write this sentence than it took for the Solstice to make its mark; a foot-tappin', gormlesss milin', music lovin' mark. Right from the moment Lana Del Ray intones "Goddamn, man child!" at the start of 'Norman f***ing Rockwell' [NFR, Polydor/Interscope], I knew this was going to be something special. The way the vocals had excellent presence and focus, but backed by instruments that both existed in their own vivid, visceral dimensional 'space' and integrated with the music as a cohesive whole is so very Naim Audio and so hard to find in wider circles.
Better yet, the more I listened, the more I liked it. This coincided with one of the few heatwaves the UK gets, and that at a time of unlocking after COVID, so if ever there was a time where a record player would sit around getting minimal use, it was this. And yet, I couldn't help myself; out came records from the back of the collection, such as Nic Jones Penguin Eggs [Tropic/Three Black Feathers]. 'Canadee-I-O' is a fine bit of finger-style acoustic guitar picking that is supremely well recorded and Jones deserves to be thought of alongside of Bert Jansch and Richard Thompson on the basis of this record. It's one of those tracks that always sounds good, but rarely sounds great because the intent of Jones is subsumed by the impressive recording. Here, you get the impressive recording, but you also always get the sense of a musician playing with great skill and passion.
In a way, the Solstice isn't something that unveils endless amounts of new information off the groove (although the turntable's overall performance is extremely detailed); it's how it ties everything together so well and makes that sound natural and entertaining. All the elements that contribute to good sound (dynamic range, good stereo soundstaging, etc) are there and represented well, but the same could be said of almost any decent turntable. The combination of turntable, arm, cartridge and phono stage is well developed, and the individual products work in harmony (as much as it's possible to check given there are limited swappable options at this time), but so do many well-assembled turntable packages. What the Solstice does so well, however, is render all that academic. Most other decks you experience or enjoy; this one helps you enjoy the music, all else is at best a secondary concern.
The arm in particular is a joy to use, retaining all the easy 'plonk it on the record and play the thing' nature of the older arm, but with just enough of a lift/lower to make cueing up a record possible. Looking into the past, some of the limitations addressed at the Aro of its time (I used one in the 1990s; it was great, but a little rolled off top and bottom, it errs on the 'easy on the ears' side of things, and it doesn't take well to complex layered classical music) are either simply not an issue or are reduced to near-total inaudibility. Yes, the Aro's midbass bloom (which gave music its characteristic 'bounce') is still around in vestigial terms, but it only serves to make the sound more beat-oriented and exciting, and doesn't detract from music above or below that region. Like all good audio, the Solstice is focused on making music sound entertaining as well as accurate. Those who like their music more like a science experiment than something to enjoy might find comfort in other front-ends, but the rest of us are playing to a very different equation, and enjoying the coefficient of rhythm.
There's a phrase I've been holding onto with many Naim reviews, waiting for the one product where it is truly appropriate... and I am pretty sure the Solstice is that product. This turntable is just so 'Julian Vereker'. This is not just a pithy statement... just ask Naim's Technical Director Emeritus, Roy George, who came out of retirement to work on the Solstice special Edition project; "I started working for Naim in 1985 and immediately began working with Julian and the team to optimise the performance from vinyl, using our favourite turntables at the time; either Linn or Phonosophie. We developed several modifications, including detailed mechanical changes, motor power supplies and phono stages, to extract the best from vinyl replay. Not all these advances made it to market – though they certainly got a lot of use in our personal systems! – but they all helped maximise the music source to enable the design of better pre and power amplifiers.
I still often think about Julian, and how he would have regarded the products we have designed since he died. I was a Naim customer for 11 years before I joined the company, so I'm well and truly steeped in the Naim vision. I believe he would have very much approved of the engineering solutions and final performance of the Solstice Special Edition."
Solstice has got that combination of drive, excitement, foot-tapping energy, dynamic punch. Sure, it's more evenhanded as befits the more 21st Century approach to music replay and also the way Naim sounds today... but it's also got that 'put a smile on your face' love of music that permeated really well thought-through 'chrome bumper' Naim products of yore. Which fits the only sadness I feel about the Solstice; those who are no longer around who would have absolutely loved the deck. Listening to the Solstice makes me think about the late Malcolm Steward shoe-horning in a pair of SBL loudspeakers into a room only slightly larger than the boxes in which they were packed, and playing Gregson & Collister and Richard Thompson albums at 'Def Con 1' levels on his Pink Linnk's, Aro'd up LP12. Malcolm would have adored this turntable and its sound. So, perhaps it's fitting that one of the last records I played on the Solstice was one I remember playing at his place decades ago; 'Pale Blue Eyes' by The Velvet Underground [Verve]. The fragile nature of this song (just Lou Reed's voice with a very simple backing) is deceptively difficult to do well, but when it's right... it simply stops you in your tracks. That's what the Naim Solstice can do so well.
Personal weltschmerzaside, there are few downsides to this system as a complete package, save for it being a complete package. While you could theoretically swap out either the cartridge or the phono stage, there is no provision for doing so when specifying the Solstice. As I can't help feeling that the Solstice isn't going to be many people's first LP rodeo, I can envisage some mild gnashing of teeth among those who want to upgrade parts of the LP replay system instead of the whole caboodle. In fairness though, the package itself is so damn good in and of itself, I think that downside is a bit of a 'reach'; in reality, after about five minutes in the presence of the Solstice you will be too busy tapping in your credit card's PIN number to think about what's presently sitting on your shelves. Otherwise, for cat-related reasons, I'd like a lid... that's it!
In a way, what buoys me most about Solstice is the potential it holds. It's a great turntable package and I hope Solstice isn't a 'one off', but instead the first of a series of vinyl-related components that add a high-performance Naim LP source component to a wider range of price points. I would love to see a Naim turntable that sits alongside a Supernait in price and performance, for example. If the Solstice is the launch pad for such a range of devices, 2021 might just turn out to be one hell of a summertime!
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