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Steve Sells

We have taken a keen interest in the Statement amplifier programme and have kept in touch with Steve Sells, the Senior Engineer on the project, throughout its development and launch. We sat down with him as the Statement was being launched in 2014 and more recently to hear his thoughts on how this masterpiece has been received.

When did you join naim?
In 2001

Steve SellsWhat motivated you to join naim?
Growing up in the Hi–Fi business reading brochures and magazines I had a friend who was really into Naim and he’d say look at this internal shot of a NAP 250 and it was exactly the same as his one, which really appealed to me. As a designer you are a little bit OCD, we’re born that way and the job makes you even worse. I’ve worked for Cambridge Audio, Wharfedale, NAD, Cyrus, Mission, Roksan, QUAD and finally Naim. I went through them very quickly early on.

What was the first product you designed for Naim?
The NAC 202, 282 and 252 preamplifiers. When I joined they were going through crazy developments of about 15 products in one year, when they went from olive to black, they were desperately under resourced so I went down and met Roy and Paul and thought this looks really cool. My Hi–Fi obsession started when I was seven, it may be because my parents weren’t into Hi–Fi or music or anything so they had nothing. But my grandpa was into music, he bought a Quadraphonic system and I remember him listening to classical music at full volume. He had the special chair and he’d turn the volume up and it was like he was in the orchestra, it completely envelops you that sort of Quadraphonic sound. I wasn’t allowed to touch it because it was so expensive and that made it really special. When I was 10 I got hold of a loudspeaker and worked out how it worked and then made one out of a magnet, nail, coil and a cornflakes box, about a week later they were all around my bedroom. It sounded diabolical!

What have been the highlights of working with Roy George?
He’s got a great consistency, he’s tried everything. It’s the continuity of his work, all his ideas of decoupling and isolation, it’s the level of detail he works to, that’s what I’ve learnt from Roy. And how multi–disciplined you have to be to design good Hi–Fi. It’s the way the mechanics interact with the electronics, the way that the detail is in the different metal properties. It’s not just about designing a good circuit. And of course musicality, Roy is really hot on that. He proved that it’s not about measurements, when we designed the DR regulator I sketched out the initial concept and then worked on it, if you work a year on a simple circuit you can make it phenomenal; one parameter was 1000x better than the stock part and by the time it was sound tuned it only measured 100 times better, but sounded so much better than what it replaced!

The Naim Audio team at Salisbury HQ - taken in the 80s!

Doesn’t that mean you’re measuring the wrong thing?
Yeah, it does. Also there are some measurements you have to do at component level, the complete circuit masks their properties but we still hear them. There are more things we don’t understand. Every company has different philosophies, QUAD and Naim are two polar opposites. One says that if it measures good it is good, and that’s absolutely true as long as you measure the right thing and everything.

What motivates your work?
It’s the desire to do the best. All my life I’ve been obsessed with amplifiers, when I was a student I would sketch circuits, any designer wants to make what they think is the best, but you never get the opportunity. When you’re working on a £2,000 preamp that’s a pretty high budget, that feels like it’s the best and you ignore the £20,000 one. But then when you do get the opportunity it’s like Christmas. Naim is a fun friendly place, it’s like a big family, everybody is really into it. I’ve worked in other places where you wonder why people work there, it’s just a job. At Naim we spend so long recruiting people that we have a really good team.

Naim internal circuitNaim produce end–to –end audio systems, how vital is it to ultimate performance for you to have complete design control over every component in the chain?
If you’re going for the sound you want and you carry that through then every bit counts. As a designer I go through phases of being totally obsessed by amplifiers then you sort of amplifier out for a bit and get completely into digital and DSP. It’s the same as music, you can get bored of listening to rock and do three months on opera and then move onto something else.

What is your favourite classic Naim product that’s no longer in production?
The classic has got to be the Nait, I like the initial chrome bumper and the current one. If I had to take one home it would be the last one. It’s laid bare, a simple amplifier that’s designed to sound really good and has got no frills on it. It was nice doing three Naits together [the current models] because the features stack up, you get better sound and more power as you go through the range. I think that design continuity is really nice.

What is your favourite current Naim product, or is that a silly question?
You know which one! It’s not current but it’s very current in my mind.

When does Statement become current?
It’ll be shipping in July. It looks like a finished product both inside and out but we have one more phase where we get everything together. It’s all the more boring bits, heating it, freezing it, dropping it, bashing it. Giving it 15kV sparks, putting 2000 volts on the mains. We learnt a lot of that from Bentley when we did a system for them, it’s quite extreme torture, you put an amplifier into a shake and bake system and you shake it, bake it, freeze it, bake it. If it comes out alive you’ve got a good amplifier. The Naim DAC is another favorite current product of mine. The technology allowed us to break a Naim golden rule. We said we’d never make an external DAC as the master clock had to be next to the DAC chip to sound best. Sending audio over say S/PDIF would add too much jitter. The new DSP and optical isolation eliminated incoming jitter and it sounded great. The technology is now in all our streamers.

NaimAudio equipment awaiting servicing

What do you find most satisfying about your work?
I didn't catch your Naim posterYou have ideas, I started making amps when I was 14 and reading Japanese mags and dreaming of building the ultimate amplifier, so it’s realizing that dream. When I joined Naim it was in the back of my mind to do something really big but they had just finished the 552/500 when I joined. In 2002 we had regular brain storming sessions to discuss ideas and I prepared this argument for an ultimate amp, people liked it but said we can’t do that. A couple of years later I tried again and it got a little further but in 2008 we had another brain storm and this time there was page after page on how we can construct this, what the circuits were, why it was different and it kind of got the go–ahead but there were so many other things that I didn’t really start until 2010. Whilst designing it Paul said it doesn’t matter what it costs, if you want to put a bit in it that makes it better then do it, use the parts you like. I’d be designing it and say do you know I’ve a great idea for a part like the transistor but it’s going to cost a couple of thousand, and he’d say "ssssh, don’t mention price just do it." Paul really enjoyed it, it’s like he’s got a bunch of mad scientists downstairs spending all his money. I think he wants a really good system at home, he got Native the industrial design company involved. Simon Matthews designed the black look for Naim in 2001 and the Fraim but half way through Statement we employed him as group design director. He loves Hi–Fi, he’s got 500 series at home.

What do you like doing in your leisure time, if you have any?
Don’t get too much, three kids, house renovating. My biggest thing excluding electronics and music is mountain biking. I used to do BMX as a kid. When I was 16 I wanted a unicycle and you couldn’t buy one in those days so I made one out of an old bike.

What bike are your riding?
A Turner Burner, it’s very sort of Naim, some are really polished up and carbon fibre, this is designed by an ex racer and is lots of bits of aluminium welded together crudely. I used to do BMX competitions when I was young, it makes you a bit of a nutter.

Who’s your favourite artist or band this week?
Last week it was those French dudes with the helmets [Daft Punk]. Radiohead I keep on going back to, I like Thom Yorke. I go to Glastonbury every year, a friend has been working there for 20 years so I got a job there. I also like Blur, Damon Albarn is very good and Bowie, he’s done so much you’re bound to like one of his songs. I like quite a few of them.

What system do you have at home?
It’s an ever evolving one, for years it was 252/250, CDS3 and all the power supplies that go with it and SBL speakers. At the moment it’s a SuperUniti with a NAP 250 and a DAC, the one they call the nDAC, the original DAC, HDX and nSub.

Paul came round my house a few weeks after I joined and saw all my Cyrus gear and Heybrook speakers and said that’ll never do, so he went to the reception area at Naim and stole a whole system and brought it round the next day!

I do quite big parties here in marquees, and for the last one I wanted to do real Hi–Fi sound quality for the DJs, so I had three SuperUnitis driving three sets of speakers and two Focal active subs. There was a stack of foldback speakers for the DJ, ceiling mounted speakers above the dance floor as well, you got to feel the ground shake with the bass.

Statement banner

STATEMENT

Naim have an incredible heritage and a hardcore fan base, how do you balance this with the need to continually push the performance envelope?
When I was designing it, it didn’t enter my mind that it was for any sort of fan base. But I hope they enjoy it at the shows and stuff. The attention to detail that goes into Statement will ripple through and bring benefits later on. It’s just like I enjoy cars and I like Porsche but I can’t afford the most expensive one but I still enjoy going to a show, and if a friend gets one I can try it.

Naim StatementWould you expect a mini Statement in future?
I think it’s very hard to say because Statement is the ultimate product, so you can only have one. It’s inevitable that things rub off onto other products, something will come out of it. Even though it’s a one off. The shape of it is vital: we just made it the best shape and that evolved and then it was up to Simon to make it look amazing. You should have seen the work he put into it, it was fantastic. The whole of his studio was covered in drawings and he walked me through the story of how they designed it, all their ideas, the different logos, shapes, architetctural and art images, they’d explored everything. We gave them a really tight spec, a life size drawing of every component on a massive roll of paper and said this is all the bits, this is where the separations are. They were very restricted.

What does Statement mean to you personally?
It’s life’s goal. It’s been a really good buzz doing Vegas [CES 14] because it’s kind of real now.

Why is the choice of substrate for the 009 transistor so important?
Aluminium nitride, I watched a documentary on how to make satellites and thought this is crazy. You look at the materials they use and the tests they do. A satellite has got to last for 15 years, if it fails at 14 you get your money back so you’re looking for materials that are going to last. So I went to a parts manufacturer for this stuff and it opens up what you can play with. We’d been playing with aluminium oxide to insulate transistors for a while and essentially what it does is move the circuits away from the case so they’re less capacitively coupled. So the electrical noise from the case is not transmitted to the audio circuits and vice versa. You put ceramic insulators under the power transistors so the heat goes through the ceramic but the electricity doesn’t. The exact internal stack–up of material laminations and structure to the new transistors is secret.

It’s still a bipolar transistor?
Yes, it goes to show that it’s not what components you choose it’s how you treat them. We get that heat out pretty quick, no bits of mica underneath. They use this substrate on satellites, aircraft but you can’t buy an audio transistor with this material. It’s almost like a big IC, if you’re Boeing and you’re designing the landing gear motor drivers it’s what you use. Instead of using a circuit board they use a lump of ceramic and put bond wires in between the components, that’s where they use this material and that’s where I saw it.

ClipboardWe’ve got 3D CAD that does analysis and tracks how the heat travels through the product over time. You can simulate what happens when you put a bass transient through a transistor and see what remnants remain a millisecond later. It’s a key factor in the amp, also what’s cool is that we get to break rules. Naim has always said you can’t have parallel output transistors in an amp because no two transistors are the same and one tends to hog the current. To make something that has twice the dynamic headroom as the NAP 500, that’s where we get the power from, it has to have lots of transistors to stop it blowing up. We are able to use parallel devices in Statement because we take a single slice of silicon and use adjacent dies cut from that disc, we don’t need to match them because they are made from the same substrate. Each transistor is going to be serial numbered. It’s the most outrageous amplifier anyone has made in this country and probably beyond!

Is it possible to design an amp with measurement alone?
Not entirely, no. You can go a long way, the development of Statement took a long time and there’s a lot of historic stuff you take onboard, but there’s a point where you work on something for two years having not listened to it and have that first listen. And it was crazy in the listening room with a big pair of Utopias, it was like a party, so many people were coming in the room and staying late. I was sitting there, the music’s so loud you don’t know who’s coming in and out of the room and I looked round and there’s a room full of people! It was very raw but one thing I expected was the bass performance and sheer dynamics, you can measure those things, you know it’s going to work. It then takes months of tuning to achieve the musicality and balance.

We caught up again with Steve recently...

So Steve, thank you for this opportunity to revisit the interview you gave us when the Statement project was finally coming to fruition. Statement has now been winning the most generous plaudits from the press (and well–heeled customers!) for the last couple of years, how do you feel about the way in which it has been received?
It’s been an absolutely fantastic couple of years. During the design phase you become very focused on detailed design; you’re in the moment. Once Statement was released and you put your head up above the parapet; you look around at the reaction and it strikes home the scale of the global impact of the system. Also you get time to reflect on the scale of the undertaking and what the various teams at Naim achieved. The reviews and customer feedback has been astonishing, I have to pinch myself sometimes.

We’ve seen the first example of Statement ‘trickle down’ design in the form of the new DR range of power amps which feature the 009 output transistor that you developed for the Statement power amplifier. How else has the Statement project ‘raised the bar’ in terms of your thinking and approach to design?
The trickle down and influence on how we approach design has been far reaching. It just so happened we were developing Statement and Mu–so simultaneously. The products are polar opposites in term of price. In terms of design both influence each other. Aesthetically there is continuity and there is obsessive attention to detail, not only in the performance of the circuits but the fit and feel. Mu–so in its category is expensive; the sound had to match that expectation but also details like the volume control had to feel high class. Both systems use precision raced bearings with damping grease to get the level of quality often missed. While refining Statement circuits the team had moments where we’d spot opportunities to take ideas and apply them to our classic range. The high current DR PSU was one such moment, I didn’t think the 009 power transistors would make it; but fortunately they did but it took lots of work. I hope we see a few other audio technologies to come from statement over the next few years. For me the surprising trickle down is the level of design detail through every aspect of the design; it has made us as a team question everything we do. It makes us question the validity of every part and if we don’t think the customer gets a worthwhile benefit then we re–engineer until we have a holistic balance. The Statement design process has indelibly changed our own levels of expectation.

Having established a new and truly stratospheric reference point for amplifier performance with Statement, where else in the system chain can you see a particular opportunity to push the audio performance envelope even further?
Digital; I think as an industry we are only just seeing the birth of something new. Electric cars have taken about 100 years and now it’s about to happen in 2020. Digital audio has been around a long time, but for the consumer about 35 years. Micro controllers and DSP are at a point where they are incredibly powerful and affordable. Now we can really start to make worthwhile audio improvements. What digital can bring to the table is far reaching. It’s hard for me to give more clues without giving away too much; we’ve a lot of work to do.

A project like Statement could quite justifiably be considered your ‘life’s work’ however I’m sure you’ve got quite a few good years left in you yet. So what can possibly come next?
Yes, hopefully another 20 years yet. Again, I believe digital is only just starting to show what it can do. It can help us build systems with incredible resolution at a price that could never have been achieved before. For me the magic comes when analogue is creatively combined with digital to extract performance that have been in our design books waiting to happen for years.

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Specialities: CD Players, Network Players, All in One Players, DACs, Amplifiers, Loudspeakers, Cables, Complete Systems

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