An Interview With Julian Vereker

I met with Julian Vereker of Naim in 1987, fascinated by the parting of the ways with Linn.

Julian Vereker: It was certainly a catalyst. I wouldn’t say we had it in mind to change distributors, because once you make a commitment to support a distributor, part of their livelihood depends on that. The last thing any responsible manufacturer should do is to pull out, especially after 10 years. It wouldn’t have ever come as our suggestion. However, the sales people at Audiophile Systems clearly found it difficult dealing with what they perceived to be two competitive lines. So, very amicably, Audiophile suggested that we find an alternative distributor.

We did, in fact, have a look at several of the alternatives, but—being realistic about it—with the sort of operation that we feel that it’s necessary to do in the States, there wouldn’t have been enough money for another distributor to take on our line and deal with it as a sole line without having competing products. There are difficulties from the financial point of view—I don’t think anybody actually realizes how much proper distribution costs. One of the main things that we feel is important is to offer a really good, quick, efficient back-up for customers who have bought equipment, as well as advice on the phone at any time with someone who knows the equipment inside out and knows how to use it best. Service is all—it’s the most important thing. Someone spends a lot of money on a piece of equipment, they want to know that there is somebody there who is going to honor the guarantee should anything go wrong, and give advice, and it’s going to be good and accurate; it’s a matter of confidence.

In order to do that, we set up a plan of what we needed to do. We felt that it was important to have a technical person there on-site with a fully equipped workshop to be able to repair any of the equipment that we make.

Ken Kessler: But doesn’t any good distributor do that as a matter of course?

Vereker: Not as a matter of course if one looks elsewhere in the world. Looking worldwide, there are a few of our distributors who do have some repair facilities, but the majority of our distributors return failed printed-circuit boards to us in England and all they do is change dead boards. Audiophile was the exception; they had a guy who had been over to our factory several times and was pretty familiar with the equipment, but it’s not quite the same as somebody who’s actually helped with developing the test procedures at Naim.

In fact, the technician at Naim North America was at Naim in the UK for five years, went out to Chicago for six months, met a nice American girl, and has subsequently gotten married, so I reckon he’s there for good. That shows a whole commitment to the US. It has to be very strong and long-term to guarantee his future. We have daily contact with Naim US and the people who work there; if there’s any query, they know exactly who to call, and do it without even a second thought. We have a computer link between Chicago and Salisbury; every day we look in the machine in the States, or whichever end I’m in, and see what the problems are. There’ll be messages on a diary system we have. Any problems, and we can ship stuff out immediately, work out what stocks they need—all that happens every day. What we’re trying to do with Naim in the US is to make it every bit as good as if it were native product.

We’re one of the largest-selling high-end manufacturers in the UK. We actually ship over a million pounds’ worth ($1.8 million) of electronics into the UK market each year—that’s at trade price and no tax, so it’s a lot more by the time the customer buys it. The number of super letters and calls we get after something has been straightened out—well, the same thing is beginning to happen in the States. It’s very, very rare that there’s a problem which lasts more than 24 hours, where the customer is not happy with what’s gone on and we’ve not been able to get a dealer or one of our people to him.

If there’s a problem with a customer in the US, one of our sales people will actually go and visit as soon as it is humanly possible. Obviously there’s a little bit of how big a customer is; if it’s a NAIT integrated amplifier, he’s unlikely to have a visit the following day if he’s 4000 miles away. If it was a Six-Pack owner, then it’s very likely that someone would fly out that day and say, “Right, we have to get this problem licked.”

Kessler: Is it safe to say that, despite the events which led up to Naim parting with Audiophile Systems, the parting was amicable?

Vereker: Entirely. Although it was not of our choosing at all, they still carried on looking after our US dealers until we actually had a chance to get ourselves set up in the States. In fact, it was one of the most amazing pleasures of all time to arrive in Chicago on a Monday afternoon and, during the week that followed, find ourselves premises, a bank, a lawyer, order a computer—we were even able to find some time for shopping. The whole thing took four days—we left on a Friday evening and everything was done. To do that from the UK would have been impossible.

From that moment on we worked really hard to get all the systems in, get all the stock arranged. Audiophile honored all their obligations as far as warrantees were concerned, provided us with all the warrantee cards so that we were able to contact every customer who’d ever filled in a warrantee card over the past 10 or 12 years of Naim being in the US, and although it was, as I say, not of our choosing, it was as amicable and honorable and straightforward a changeover as two companies have managed.

I’m not even sure, compared with some of the other distributors who also decided to stick with just Linn, whether it was entirely of the distributor’s choosing. I have a feeling that they were put in a situation where they needed to make that choice because of Linn’s plans on expanding to a much wider market, and they needed therefore to gear themselves in a way differently from our ideas of the ways in which our range will expand in a definite state-of-the-art direction, particularly with speakers.

I personally cannot see any reason at all for anybody—any distributor—to have dropped either. When Audiophile first knew about the Linn electronics, they said, “Right, OK, this is quite simple. We agree because Linn says this is the state-of-the-art amplifier, this is better or as good as the best Naim makes at half the money. Therefore, there is going to be a conflict.” My own view was that there would be no conflict at all.

First of all, the Linn amplifier doesn’t fulfill the same sort of design aim that Naim equipment does. It doesn’t have an upgrade path. It’s a one-product range. It has such a difference in ergonomics that either people will go for the pushbutton thing and want the remote, in which case there’s no good buying a Naim, or they won’t. There isn’t a problem there at all.

Kessler: In the past—at least in the UK—all Naim dealers were Linn dealers, though not vice versa. How has the end of the collaboration affected you in this area?

Vereker: We actually have several dealers now who don’t stock Linn; that never happened before. But this is also because there have been one or two other turntables which have appeared. The real problem (in our more naive view in the past, when we were collaborating) was that it was a Linn front end, a Naim middle, and a Linn back end. Now the minute you take away the Linn back end, then your option on turntables increases: due to the frequency response of Linn speakers, they draw attention to the faults in other turntables and ameliorate the faults in their own turntable. It was a system. The electronics actually don’t enter into it. Our electronics, in any system you put them in, always improved them in the ways which were important to me in musical terms. Not necessarily in your terms of the presentation of the sound and the space and these sorts of things, but in musical terms—the tune and the intentions of the composer, the skill of the people who are performing. It doesn’t matter what the system is.

What has happened in the UK is that there have been a few dealers who have decided that they’ve preferred the Linn electronics and our sales have been reduced with them a bit. By the same token there have been dealers who have maybe not sold a single piece of Linn electronics at all. That has happened with some of our largest dealers in the UK. The real problem area is when you have a whole lot of committed people in the same store and half of them prefer the Linn and the other half the Naim; they fight and the sales of both fall. Since our sales in the last quarter in the UK are up some 40%, and overall last year were up 23%, it hasn’t hit sales too badly.

Kessler: What are your relations with Linn now? I get the impression that most people think you burn effigies of each other.

Vereker: No, that’s not true. We still talk, but you have to bear in mind that we don’t discuss the things we would have discussed before, and that the relationship is unlikely to open up. However, we did spend a lot of years having a really good time together, building our companies together, and now it’s like an amicable divorce. We’ve done the 18 months of feeling aggravated with each other, but my impression is that Linn’s direction is quite different from ours. They want to build the biggest hi-fi company in Europe, and you’re not going to do that in the specialist market. It’s not going to happen. We’re interested in the specialist market, in doing things as well as they possible can be done, in our terms. Leave the big stuff to Philips and B&O.

Kessler: Now that you are no longer tied to Linn loudspeakers, your future involves Naim speakers. The SBL has already been launched and will be familiar to readers, but you showed the long-rumored Naim electrostatic to trade visitors at the 1987 Heathrow Penta Show in England.

Vereker: I should say first of all that it’s not a full-range electrostatic; it’s a hybrid. The tweeter is a ribbon unit, and the reason for that is that in order to get really good dispersion characteristics, and phase characteristics to match the character of the other two parts of the system, one needs to have a very small radiating area. An electrostatic element which does that is very, very difficult to drive. Although we’ve made units like that, in the end we reckoned that it was really safer to have a ribbon because it was a lot easier to drive. We don’t cross over to the ribbon until about 6kHz, so power handling isn’t a problem.

Then there are the areas of electrostatics which people complain about. One, of course, is dispersion at high frequencies; the ribbon was the answer to that. The other thing is level; none of them go loud enough. In order to get level, you need to allow the diaphragms to move far enough. This is basically a question of having the plates far enough apart and getting them sensitive enough so you can get that level out of the speakers without having too big an amplifier. If you’re going to have a big plate with big distances it’s not going to be very much of a capacitance so you have to have pretty high bias. You have to insulate the things in novel ways without losing the efficiency, so that they don’t arc under those conditions. You have to get the coating on the Mylar to stay there and not migrate all over the place, you have to be able to get exactly the right impedance of coating to suit what you’re trying to do.

The next thing is the ability to move, which is how you get the bottom end. On the prototypes in the factory, you can play 20Hz at around 96dB sinewave, and you hear pretty much nothing. You feel it and you feel considerable pressure on your ears. They do go very, very low indeed.

Kessler: Doesn’t this require massive bass drivers?

Vereker: No, they are about two foot by one foot, have large excursion, and pretty good sensitivity. The other thing which is different from other electrostatics is that the bass units are actually loaded. The speaker is about ten inches deep, and it has a series of tubes behind the bass panels which load the things and stop the excursion at resonance from going too far. It controls the whole thing, and you get the maximum levels instead of having them canceling.

With Naim 110 amplifiers, peak level at the moment is around 117dB—not at 20Hz, I hasten to add, but over most of the usable band. Sensitivity is about 88dB for 1W, or 2.8 volts, and the impedance is not unreasonable at all. It’s about four or five ohms, and it drops a little bit here and there.

Kessler: As these are “dipole hybrids,” are they as critical of placement as we expect of conventional electrostatics?

Vereker: You have to have them away from the wall, but since we’ve only got a couple of pairs, we haven’t had the opportunity to go around in all the different rooms to see what happens. They don’t seem to be particularly critical. They just need to have air behind them. In one of our listening rooms, which is very, very small, it was quite surprising how nicely they worked.

At the moment, we haven’t got the passive crossover, so they’re tri-amped using the Naim external crossover. But there will be two versions, and you can order it either way. Inside the bias box which lives inside the speaker, there’s space to put an internal passive crossover so you can use it either way. An economy-minded consumer could start out with one small Naim amp and later change over from passive to active crossovers. People who are not into enormous levels will be pleasantly surprised.

Kessler: That sounds like a reaction to the early Quad. Are you still inspired by that design?

Vereker: I think so. I certainly still have a pair and I think that there are at least another two or three pairs among the people at Naim in the UK. Every so often I bring my pair up and stick them into our big demonstration room and we have a listen to remind ourselves of how good these things actually were. Whatever it is—27 years ago or something. It was a super piece of design.

One of the big differences between, say, Quad and ourselves is that Quad set out to make a speaker with all the advantages of electrostatics at a price which people could afford. We’ve not set out to do that, or in anyway clash with what they’ve done. We’ve aimed to make it as good as it can possibly be and to hell with the price. Whatever it costs, it costs. I can’t give any idea as to how much it’s going to be, but it will be a high-end item.

I look at the sorts of components that we’re involved in. The plates, for example—two feet by one foot by one inch—have to be flat to better than 0.7 of a millimeter in that two feet because you want to keep the capacitance of all the units very, very close. That has involved our talking to experts at British Aerospace as to how to get materials, which they’ve suggested, and it’s led us to particular alloys which have to be processed in a special way, with an awful lot of holes in them; when it’s been drilled or punched, the whole plate has to have every single sharp edge removed. Precise radiuses on every single hole, inside and outside, otherwise you get all sorts of problems. The insulation then has to be put on. We’ve got to build clean-air rooms, two of them, one with one sort of chemicals and another without the chemicals because most of the chemicals actually eat bits and pieces until they’ve dried. The whole thing is an incredible ballgame.

One of the chemicals we asked for, the company said, “Sure we can supply you, but it only comes in 25 kilogram packs. Is that okay for you? Is that enough?” So we said that would be enough. Guy Lamotte, who is the designer of the speaker, came back and said, “Let’s put in a regular order. For 10cc a year.” Because that’s about all we’ll need of that particular chemical. In fact, 25 kilograms will keep us going until the end of the century.

Kessler: Did you consider using the technique employed by MartinLogan of curving the diaphragm for better dispersion?

Vereker: No. The dispersion has to do with the actual radiating areas, and how you cross over between one panel and the next, as much as it has to do with shape. The shapes are arranged in such a way that the sound is absolutely seamless, and you can wander around the room anywhere and the orchestra just sits there in the middle; you can move around the instrument. It’s quite uncanny.

Kessler: How did you manage to find a ribbon with the same phase characteristics as an electrostatic?

Vereker: Aah, we didn’t. We’ve actually taken other people’s bits of ribbons and mounted them in a completely different way and given them a completely different type of phase-correcting throat or loading.

Kessler: As far as interfacing with a variety of amplifiers, we know that Quad’s ESL-63, early on, had a problem with amplifiers without protection. When the speaker shut down—

Vereker: — it shorted the power amp. While that’s probably okay, it actually did it for an awfully long time, like 200 milliseconds. Now that is a long time in the life of a transistor. It’s not so bad because it wouldn’t normally occur with modest-sized amplifiers under anything other than fault conditions, so that was probably OK. But the early ones were actually sensitive to arcs outside the speaker, and used to shut things down and could damage things quite badly. They fixed that; it’s no longer a problem.

If you drove the original Quads too hard, you’d make a hole in the diaphragm and that would be that. The later Quads have very sophisticated protection systems which not only cut the low-frequency energy fed into the speaker at high levels—as you get louder, you actually get less at the bottom end—but it also shuts down when it senses an ionization inside the speaker. Ours has no protection at all. If you overdrive it, the diaphragm will stick itself to one of the plates, discharge, take a few moments before it charges up, then come back again—with no harm at all.

Kessler: What’s the audible effect?

Vereker: It splats, and then silence. I don’t know about damage to other people’s amplifiers, but it doesn’t damage Naim amps. So far as we know, Naim amplifiers didn’t suffer from Quad shutdowns either, though I actually thought that it might occur.

Naim amplifiers are protected. First of all, there’s the fuse; if any total disaster happens, the fuse will blow. The next thing is the thermal sensor in all the amps except the Nait. If the case exceeds 70°C, it cuts the mains, the whole thing turns off, and you have to wait for it to cool down. Also, the amplifiers have built-in power limitation. They constantly measure the current through the output devices, the voltage across the output devices, and integrate that with respect to time; it’s a true power limitation. The 135 also has a fan to help dissipate the heat.

The 250 amplifier has four regulated power supplies, each of which will feed something like 16 or 17 amps continuously at ±40 volts, and give you a peak of around 30 amps for up to 10 microseconds. This would indicate a fault condition because the amplifier’s rise time is less than 10 microseconds. Then the power supply will shut down, both sides exactly symmetrically, and it will take a minute or two for the amps to reset. You just turn the mains off.

That was the problem that Quads would cause when they shorted the amplifier out. Quad fixed the problem quite early on with an alternative earthing arrangement. Once that was fixed, there was no further problem.

Kessler: By the way, what are you calling the electrostatic?

Vereker: The FL1—Flat Loudspeaker 1.

Kessler: As far back as three years ago, you were talking about producing a Naim cassette deck. Has the possible demise of analog cassette due to DAT killed your plans?

Vereker: Not yet. The biggest difficulty has been to get Papst to make the transport we want. They’ve finally done it; it works really nicely, and it’s beautifully made; very consistent. Unfortunately, they’ve been rather slow about it; samples due in January 1986 didn’t arrive until September. There have been delays all along the way, so that hasn’t enabled us to put it on the market before now. In fact, we would have if they’d actually produced the transport on time. The Papst transports are industrial ones, for hotel systems and that sort of thing, designed for unbreakability, to run for a year without hassle, 24 hours a day. The one we have is a dual-capstan design not used by any hi-fi company at the present time.

Our commercial problem is that we are likely to sell only 500 very expensive cassette recorders unless we can break into the professional market, and Papst insists that we buy 500 of these transports for roughly $100,000. If DAT is better than the best analog cassette, then I’d have to say we’d end up with having three or four of these Naim analog cassette decks kept in the factory—or in my home—to be used for dubbing master tapes from friendly musicians. That sort of thing may arise.

The indications I have about DAT so far are that, while it may be better than CD in my terms, it doesn’t compare with the very best analog.

But beyond cassette or DAT, there are so many other things which are dead certain to occur. There’s the smaller dynamic speaker, the NAC52 preamplifier—a new high-end six-input preamp with user-configurable inputs—and a stereo television tuner. We’ve also got a small FM tuner coming, to match the Nait. This is nearly together, and the cassette deck is virtually finished.

Kessler: Would you consider making a DAT machine?

Vereker: Oh, if somebody would play with us with the transports. But we’re not going to get into making helical-scan-type transports.

(Stereophile, March 1988)

Julian Vereker passed away in 2000.