Naim Ovator S-400 Loudspeaker Preview

November 25, 2010

I popped into Auckland’s Shore Hi-Fi yesterday to take a look at Naim’s latest loudspeaker, the Ovator S-400, which is a smaller version of the S-600 that Gary Pearce and I heard in the same venue when it was first released.

The S-600 carries a price tag that’s not far shy of the $20K mark, so hearing that the S-400 was expected to be priced around the $7,300 point got my attention. The obvious question is how much of the bigger speaker would survive the downsizing if Naim had managed to carve that much off the price? Most of it as it turns out.

Standing 1060mm high, the S-400 doesn’t measure up to be much shorter than the 1168mm S-600 but in the flesh, the S-400 is substantially smaller in every dimension. Packing twin 165mm bass drivers and a 46mm BMR in a 40 litre enclosure to the S-600’s twin 200mm bass drivers and 85mm BMR in a 60 litre enclosure, the S-400 is designed for smaller rooms, where the sheer size of the S-600, not to mention its bottom end weight would be too much.

The Naim Balanced Mode Radiator (BMR) is a clever design – basically it’s a circular flat panel speaker integrated into a cabinet with conventional moving cone drivers. It covers a wide frequency range, allowing the designer to cross over from the bass drivers to the midrange/treble BMR at 700hz, thus keeping the nasty old crossovers from messing around with the most critical frequencies. Make no mistake, crossovers are evil but they’re a necessary evil until some genius creates the perfect one way loudspeaker (good luck with that).

There was a stack of Naim gear running the speakers, with not one single silver disk spinner in attendance. Sources were an HDX hard drive player and NDX network player, both running into a Naim DAC and being fed from the massive music collection on the Shore Hi-Fi drives. Amplification was a 202/200 pre power combo. Control was via the Naim app on the effortless iPod touch.

At this price point, there’s very strong competition. In addition to all the other choices, these speakers need to hit the right bells for all the Naim enthusiasts with a complete system who might be considering an upgrade. There’s been a change in the nature of Naim gear over the years and many who fondly remember the components from the 80’s and 90’s might mutter that some of the new kit is a little too smooth and off the pace. I for one really like the Naim sound in its recent form. The Naim DNA is all too clearly evident when you fire up some music that needs speed to sound its best.

Take something like Rodrigo y Gabriela’s version of Stairway to Heaven, hit play (or push the iPod’s touchscreen in this case) and you’re left in no doubt at all that these speakers and the electronics can do pace and speed like few others out there. Dynamics are superb, and the crescendos smash from the speakers with no restraint. If speakers can’t pull off this trick, they need not apply for the job as far as I am concerned – these are spot on.

Dave Brubeck’s Take Five seemed to be the right track to mellow out the end of a long day and a longer dreary month. This was followed by some classic Crosby Still and Nash with Southern Cross The sound wasn’t overly smooth or relaxed by any means, you can definitely tell that there’s Naim gear in the loop from start to finish, but the speakers get out of the way and let the character of the music shine through.The mellow stuff serves to relax as it should.

Chris Isaak on Wicked Game’s Blue Spanish Sky showed excellent detail in both vocal and instruments, with a vocal presence seemingly placed deep behind the rear wall. You can hear deep into the recording here and get a feel for how the mix has been put together and how Isaac is working the microphone. The detail levels were again evident in Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s Tin Pan Alley. At this point I was just about chilled enough to enjoy this all evening without a second thought.

The Naim Balanced Mode Radiator

Switch back to something faster however and the blinding sense of speed will wake you up in an instant. Try Stanley Clarke’s Passenger 57 Main Title from At The Movies and see how it should sound. There’s no overblown bass here, in fact it’s super tight, thanks to the closed cabinet design no doubt (and the electronics in the signal chain of course). The S-400s do a very good job of effectively vanishing into the front of the room. You can see them but there’s not much of a sensation that the sound is coming from them.

Based on an hour or so with the speakers, I’m loathe to make an definitive pronouncements but obviously, the S-400s are a better fit for most Kiwi rooms, where the bottom end won’t overload the room. At the price, you’re getting what seems to be a big chunk of the ability of the S-600s for far less outlay. They’ve got speed and drive enough to captivate if that’s your thing and detail to die for with a big sound that doesn’t seem inextricably bonded to a set of drivers. Strikes me as good value. Some of the nicest speakers I’ve heard in a long time.

As an aside, I can’t say that I missed jumping up and down like a monkey in a box every time I wanted to change the disk I was listening to, like I would on a CD player. Scroll through the iPod and work through a gigantic music collection without leaving your seat? Love it. Vinyl is different of course.

1 Comment

  1. I’m locumming for John while he’s in Hawaii, and we let the s400’s rip with some dvd concerts, Eric Clapton in Hyde Park , a couple of others. Really , really great to hear them light up with the music. Also tried in analogue mode with my td150 acos lustre denon 103PRO as a front end. That’s 500 dollar front end on a 30,000 dollar system. And it sounded great, just great. I get to play with this kind of gear all day for a whole week.

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