Na­gra Clas­sic Preamp/clas­sic Amp

In­sight­ful, dy­namic sound; ex­cep­tional build qual­ity Ri­vals de­liver more mus­cle; re­mote isn’t smart

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Swiss high-end

brand Na­gra orig­i­nally built its rep­u­ta­tion on ex­cep­tion­ally en­gi­neered por­ta­ble record­ing equip­ment for the broad­cast, movie and se­cu­rity in­dus­tries. The com­pany was founded in 1951, but waited un­til 1997 be­fore launch­ing its first do­mes­tic com­po­nent.

That prod­uct, the leg­endary PL-P pream­pli­fier, set sky-high stan­dards for build qual­ity and sound, and was styled to echo the ap­pear­ance of the com­pany’s fa­mous recorders, right down to the prom­i­nent sig­nal-level me­ter. The PL-P set an aes­thetic tem­plate that the com­pany still fol­lows to­day.

Still stand­ing

The Clas­sic preamp is an ideal ex­am­ple. Put it next to the orig­i­nal and, at a glance, it’s hard to know which is the older de­sign. But don’t as­sume that means the com­pany has stood still – it hasn’t.

Look be­yond the Clas­sic’s gen­eral ap­pear­ance with its trade­mark sig­nal level me­ter, stylised vol­ume con­trol and com­pact case­work, and it’s clear that things have evolved. The most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple of this is the front-panel dis­play, which shows the in­put se­lected and helps in the over­all set-up.

Things could be bet­ter though. The small dis­play means there’s lit­tle room for in­for­ma­tion, and off-axis con­trast lev­els aren’t great ei­ther.

Delve into the menus and you can change the in­put names, set the bal­ance, switch from mono to stereo and check on valve life. It’s all done by com­bi­na­tions of turn­ing and press­ing the con­troller dial for vary­ing de­grees of time. The process takes a lit­tle get­ting used to, but soon be­comes in­tu­itive.

The large dial on the right of the preamp is more than just a power switch. It also in­te­grates mute and standby func­tions and, some­what con­fus­ingly, has a sep­a­rate set­ting for turn­ing the power on and off with the re­mote. Leav­ing it on the stan­dard ‘On’ set­ting by­passes this func­tion.

Few prod­ucts we come across feel as well made as this pre (or the part­ner­ing Clas­sic power amp for that mat­ter). Both are made with ob­ses­sive at­ten­tion to de­tail, from the way the alu­minium pan­els are ma­chined and as­sem­bled, right through to the neat­ness of the cir­cuit lay­out and the qual­ity of the parts used. These are eye-wa­ter­ingly ex­pen­sive prod­ucts, but there’s no doubt they have the man­u­fac­tur­ing qual­ity to back up that price tag.

Rea­son­able out­lay

The Clas­sic is a valve-pow­ered line-level unit. If you have a record player, you’ll need an out­board phono stage. Na­gra makes a ded­i­cated mov­ing-mag­net/ mov­ing-coil unit, but that will set you back a hefty £5900. Con­sid­er­ing the pre/power com­bi­na­tion we’re test­ing here weighs in at over £25k, spend­ing that much on a suit­able phono stage doesn’t seem un­rea­son­able – pro­vided the record player is tal­ented enough to jus­tify such an out­lay, of course.

There are three valves in the preamp’s cir­cuit – two ECC83S and one ECC81. Ex­pect them to last at least 5000 hours, though the com­pany says a life of up to dou­ble that isn’t unusual. The sound of valves grad­u­ally gets more dis­torted and nois­ier as they age, so there’s plenty of warn­ing be­fore they fail.

Ex­otic de­sign

The en­gi­neers have been care­ful to use types of valves that are easy to ob­tain, rather than some more ex­otic de­signs that (po­ten­tially at least) may per­form bet­ter but can’t be bought freely or at sen­si­ble prices.

Even then, while both the ECC81 and ECC83 are about as com­mon as valves get, things still aren’t sim­ple. De­spite sourc­ing from the best valve man­u­fac­tur­ers, Na­gra sets high stan­dards, and re­jects more than half the stock it re­ceives.

Each Na­gra prod­uct comes with a de­tailed test sheet, which shows the ac­tual mea­sure­ments of the prod­uct you have bought. The com­pany takes great pride in the qual­ity of its prod­ucts and keeps copies of this in­for­ma­tion on file in case there are is­sues, or it re­quires re­pairs in fu­ture years.

The Clas­sic Preamp has five line-level in­puts in­clud­ing a bal­anced XLR op­tion. It

”Na­gra takes great pride in the qual­ity of its prod­ucts. It keeps a copy of each test sheet on file, in case there are is­sues, or the kit re­quires re­pairs in fu­ture years”

also has a 6.3mm head­phone socket on the front, and both bal­anced and sin­gleended out­puts. This may be sparse by AV amp stan­dards, but we can’t see this preamp get­ting caught short in a typ­i­cal premium two-chan­nel set-up. We wish it had a smarter re­mote con­trol, though. The plas­tic hand­set is nicely shaped and sim­ple to use, but lacks the qual­ity feel we’d ex­pect at this price point.

We would imag­ine that the ma­jor­ity of these preamps will be part­nered with a Na­gra power amp, but the com­pany has tried to keep things as flex­i­ble as pos­si­ble by fit­ting a gain switch to ac­com­mo­date al­ter­na­tive power am­pli­fiers of dif­fer­ing in­put sen­si­tiv­i­ties.

The Clas­sic power amp is rel­a­tively sim­ple, as such units gen­er­ally are. There’s a sig­nal level me­ter again – it seems a Na­gra prod­uct just wouldn’t be right with­out one – but be­yond that there’s lit­tle of note, apart from bal­anced XLR and sin­gle-ended in­puts and neat screw-down speaker ter­mi­nals that work best with spades or bare wire con­nec­tions. There’s also the abil­ity to ad­just in­put sen­si­tiv­ity lev­els to make preamp match­ing eas­ier, should you ven­ture out­side the in-house choices.

Take a look in­side and you’ll find that it uses tan­dem MOSFETS in the out­put stage that work in Class A over much of their power band. This gives the unit an out­put of 100W per chan­nel into 8ohms.

Most sim­i­larly priced ri­vals use more out­put tran­sis­tors to get higher power out­puts, but Na­gra en­gi­neers pre­fer to use just two, with the re­duced vari­abil­ity such a min­i­mal­ist con­fig­u­ra­tion brings. If you need more power, the Clas­sic can be turned into a bridged monobloc at the

“When the per­for­mance is this good, the me­chan­ics of hi-fi – elec­tric­ity be­ing ma­nip­u­lated, the ze­ros and ones in the sig­nals – are the very last things on our minds”

”Few prod­ucts we come across feel as well made. They are eye-wa­ter­ingly ex­pen­sive, but there’s no doubt they have the man­u­fac­tur­ing qual­ity to back up that price tag”

flick of a switch. That takes the out­put up to 200W into 8 ohms – but you’ll need two of them, of course.

The power amp is a com­pact unit con­sid­er­ing its price, and while hefty for the size, weighs in at a rea­son­able 18kg. Most price ri­vals tend to be more pow­er­ful, larger and heav­ier – all things that may im­press, but have noth­ing to do with per­for­mance.

Am­pli­fi­ca­tion at this level pos­i­tively de­mands a top-class part­ner­ing sys­tem. We use our usual Naim NDS/555PS mu­sic streamer and Clea­r­au­dio In­no­va­tion Wood record player (through our Cyrus Sig­na­ture /PSX-R2 phono stage) as sources, and ATC SCM50S, KEF Ref­er­ence 1 and Spen­dor Clas­sic 2/3 speak­ers. The Na­gras prove gloriously un­fussy, per­form­ing well re­gard­less of source and speak­ers cho­sen.

Seam­less sounds

We start with Ola­fur Ar­nalds’ Found

Songs and are soon en­thralled by the am­pli­fi­ca­tion’s sub­tlety and res­o­lu­tion. This pair­ing un­cov­ers a stun­ning amount of de­tail, and ren­ders it with del­i­cacy and pre­ci­sion. We hear low-level in­stru­men­tal strands we’ve never no­ticed be­fore, and lush sonic tex­tures that most ri­vals would gloss over.

Ev­ery sound and note fits to­gether seam­lessly, form­ing a won­der­fully co­he­sive and mu­si­cal whole that sweeps us away. Through this am­pli­fi­ca­tion, the al­bum is more poignant and af­fect­ing than we’ve heard be­fore. When the per­for­mance is this good, the me­chan­ics of hi-fi – elec­tric­ity be­ing ma­nip­u­lated, the ze­ros and ones in the sig­nals – are the very last things on our minds.

We switch to Kanye West’s Yeezus and find that, for all its so­phis­ti­ca­tion and re­fine­ment, this Na­gra pair­ing can also pack plenty of punch. It sounds solid and con­fi­dent with the al­bum’s hard-hit­ting tracks and de­liv­ers rhythms with sure­footed en­thu­si­asm. There’s no short­age of ex­cite­ment here, nor any fudg­ing of the is­sue with any harsh­ness or ag­gres­sion in the record­ing. While this pre/power com­bi­na­tion won’t make a meal of things, its trans­parency en­sures that short­com­ings in the record­ing (or sources, for that mat­ter) are ob­vi­ous.

Stravin­sky’s The Rite Of Spring comes next. This is a dra­matic piece of mu­sic that’s as de­mand­ing as any­thing we’ve come across when it comes to dy­namic swings and in­stru­men­tal com­plex­ity. It swings from sparse to seis­mic with barely a breathe be­tween the two.

The Na­gras take it all in their stride, sound­ing ag­ile and or­gan­ised. This pre/ power combo deals in com­po­sure and fi­nesse, even with the mu­sic at its most fe­ro­cious. At the same time, we’re aware of the con­vinc­ing tonal neu­tral­ity, the nat­u­ral in­stru­men­tal tim­bres and the am­pli­fi­ca­tion’s abil­ity to de­liver fluid, and far reach­ing dy­namic swings. It’s a ter­rific all-rounder – but not quite per­fect.

While the power amp has a de­cent amount of mus­cle, you’ll have to look fur­ther up the com­pany’s range if you have in­ef­fi­cient speak­ers or a large room and play at high vol­ume lev­els; 100W per chan­nel will go only so far.

Also, this pair­ing doesn’t quite man­age to gen­er­ate the sheer scale or over­all sonic au­thor­ity of sim­i­larly priced (and more pow­er­ful) con­tenders from the likes of Burmester or Mark Levin­son. How­ever, the Na­gras pull ahead when it comes to tonal­ity, trans­parency, dy­namic sub­tlety and rhyth­mic pre­ci­sion.

For us, the Na­gra’s im­pres­sively broad spread of tal­ents wins out. Once in full flow it leaves the mu­sic to take cen­tre stage and does its work qui­etly from be­hind the cur­tain. Make no mis­take; the Clas­sic Preamp/clas­sic Amp com­bi­na­tion is ex­cep­tional.

The re­mote lacks the qual­ity we’d ex­pect at the price

The de­sign hasn’t al­tered much, but the tech­nolgy has

You can ad­just in­put sen­si­tiv­ity lev­els to make pream­pli­fier match­ing eas­ier

This Na­gra is an ex­cep­tional com­bi­na­tion

Pre/power amp Gamut D3i/d200i £17,000 In­sight­ful preamp matched with one of the most de­tailed power amps around

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