Hello, and welcome to the next of my series of reviews of vintage equipment. First, I only write about equipment that I have had extended, direct and personal experience of either as an end-user or retailer – or both. I don’t get involved in measurements. During 34 years of involvement I have heard far too many units that measured superbly and yet produced an uninvolving, sterile and un-compelling sound. So there are no measurements here.
My opinions are based on what I heard, and nothing else. As always, my opinions are merely opinions and not cast-in-concrete facts.
Recollection (in this instance going back around 24 years re these units) can be unreliable. Fortunately I have contemporaneous notes from the era, which help although admittedly it’s not always clear to me what was going on in my mind at that time. So anyway, please read the following, bearing the above in mind.
Inadequate UK promotion:
Although Nakamichi were best known for their cassette recorders and were arguably state of the art for many years, they produced other electronic components although these weren’t promoted heavily in the UK or anywhere else as far as I can tell. Thus they are rare.
Although these units represented only reasonable value in the 1980s, they representexceptional value today. As you continue through this article, hopefully you’ll agree.
The Threshold connection
Sometime in the 1980s Nakamichi took over the well known American amplifier specialist,Threshold. Threshold were known for their Stasis power amplifier circuitry which was held by some, in very high regard at the time. Having been a Threshold retailer in the early 1980s I was very impressed by the build quality but less impressed with the sound. It just wasn’t compelling to my ears. We sold a few, but sales never reached the heights of Krell or BS Meridian at Subjective Audio.
The head of Threshold was Nelson Pass. 1974 he received his BS in physics from the University of California-Davis. During his studies he and Mike Maher founded the small speaker company PMA. From 1973 to 1974 he was employed at ESS to design speakers. After graduating in 1974 he and René Besne founded high-end amplifier company Threshold Electronics on December 5, 1974. Later Joe Sammut became the third partner. Threshold is perhaps best known for the “Stasis” amplifiers (a design later also produced under licence by Nakamichi). He sold Threshold Electronics in 1997. The company continued without Nelson Pass under the name Threshold-Audio. (Wikipedia)
Anyway, Threshold (Stasis-era) still commands reasonably good prices even today. Thus Nakamichi through acquisition got a foothold into the amplification market. In retrospect though whilst this was a bold move, my guess is that from a marketing standpoint it was not a particularly effective one.
The e-bay situation:
For no apparent reason Nakamichi power amplifiers and pre-amplifiers, and to a lesser extent the very rare and excellent ST-7 tuners are commanding increasingly high prices on eBay and other auction sites such as Audiogon.
In passing, the ST-7 goes for very reasonable (probably far too low, given the quality} prices on both e-bay and Audiogon. Not quite up to standards of my Trio (Kenwood) KT-917, but considering the price differential, a bargain! Anyway ….. I digress.
The Subjective Audio Ltd connection:
At Subjective Audio I sold a number of the rather good CA-7/PA-7 combinations that delivered an effortless 200watts per channel. The sound quality was satisfactory rather than outstanding but nevertheless it did fit into a useful niche which allowed those people who wanted, but couldn’t afford, Krell amplification on the one hand and were awaiting monster power amplifiers from BS Meridian, who were not at that point contemplating such high powered units, on the other.
I don’t recall a single Nakamichi pre or power amplifier going wrong, but I do recall from my notes that the power amplifiers, this is both the PA5E and the PA7, benefitted from more sophisticated pre-amplifiers such as the Meridian 101B and latterly the Meridian 501 and 502 units. For whatever reason, at that time I wasn’t overly impressed with the sonic performance of the Nakamichi preamps. Today, I have no idea why.
For those people who couldn’t afford the CA7/PA7 combination, the CA5 and PA5-E were the answer. In 1988 they were £1,900 which was roughly half the price of their bigger brothers. I should point out that the E suffix relates as far as I can tell to it being a European version and does not indicate in any way a more sophisticated unit or potential upgrade path.
As is common with all Nakamichi products, the original finish is outstanding and durable. Arguably there was a fanatical attention to detail and even the gold graphics used on the fascia were apparently designed to match the shade of plating used on the phono sockets.
The CA5 pre-amplifier feels, even today, very solidly built. It even looks pretty smart as well. All of the normal controls are available and this includes volume, balance, input selection (disk plus three line inputs) and tape monitoring/dubbing/source plus bass and treble. Fortunately there is a tone defeat button and of course a power on and off.
Looking back on my notes from the time, I was slightly irritated that the corners were a bit sharp and it was quite easy to scratch one’s fingers or wrists if you weren’t being particularly careful. This of course in retrospect is nit picking but nevertheless worth pointing out.
A rather good phono stage:
By the standards of the early 1980s, there is a particularly sophisticated phono stage. It’s very flexible in terms of cartridge matching. In addition to providing the basic MM/MC sensitivity option along with variable gain, MM cartridges could be loaded by 100, 200 or 300 pF. The moving coil option offered 24, 30 or 36 dB gain.
Attention to detail:
Looking back on my notes Nakamichi made a big play of the preamp’s power supply having multiple regulators feeding each stage of each channel independently. They didn’t go as far as to claim it was a twin mono pre, but I guess this was as close as you could get without stating it as such.
The power came from screened toroid with high quality Cerafine capacitors, with Alps potentiometers and special RIAA capacitors. On the rare occasions when I took the top panel off, the internal build quality was always superb and I can see here from my notes that I felt that no cost had been spared to achieve the highest standard throughout. I noted at the time, somewhat cynically, that this beautiful construction didn’t seem to translate into beautiful audio reproduction!
Meanwhile, at the muscle end:
Regarding the PA-5E power amplifier this delivered a minimum of 100 watts per channel and is 16 kg in weight. Watch out for the very sharp cooling fins!
The panels were I noted well damped and didn’t rattle. The front panel is superbly hewn as was the Japanese tradition at the time. It has an oversized on/off switch. I noted at the time that it looked impressive didn’t inspire a feeling of confidence, curiously. Mine never failed though.
The front panel is virtually featureless. There are two tiny LED clipping indicators. The rear panel is unremarkable except for the gold phono inputs plus very good quality 4mm socket for the loudspeaker cables. At the time, the Stasis technology produced what was described as pseudo class A output. This meant that the unit ran pretty cool and no fans were needed and the heat sinks were sufficient to cope with the waste heat.
Give me current, son:
Round about this time and I’m talking here about the mid 80s, in addition to power output, some reviewers, dealers and customers were interested in the peak current capability. In this respect the Nakamichi produced a very reasonable 33A. I noted that the amplifier was capable of driving most, if not all, speakers although not necessarily with a terrific sound quality. But then again this must be taken in the context of me being very successful with both Krell and Meridian at that time. Those Krell KSA50’s, KSA 100’s and Meridian 105’s were, and remain, tough acts to follow.
Looking at my notes from the time, I notice that the sound quality varied somewhat according to how the combination was being applied. I did feel that in some respects with some speakers, the sound was mildly disappointing. Irritatingly my notes re this are not as comprehensive as I’d like. My guess is that I tried the Nakamichi with the Gale 401aspeakers, Lentek Monitors and various Magneplanars. In this respect these Nakamichi units sound no different to the Threshold Stasis units. A fairly-valve-like sound (I noted at the time) that was “meaning that the power amp is just too soft for my tastes at the bass-end and not quite sparkling at the extreme top-end.”
On balance I thought the pre-amplifier was the best of the combination and I remember that I sold quite a few of them because of their elegance, decent sound quality and simplicity of use. The pre-amplifier had a degree of sparkle and the bass had strength in terms of slam and power. Overall the dynamics were good, but I did feel that the mid band sounded a bit on the thin side.
Although I was very pleased with the moving magnet option, I did feel that the moving coil side was below standard and inadequate in a pre-amplifier of this cost and pedigree.
The power amplifier always sounded good – straight out the box and was lively in the treble and very smooth but a little dull compared to the then competition.
I’ve commented on the Mk2 version of the PA-5 power amp. Is it better than the Mk1? What is meant by “better” in this context? Were the components “better” in the Mk2 than its predecessor? Frankly I have no idea. What I can say from direct personal experience that there were no reliability issues with the Mk.1 that might have driven development of a Mk2. My notes from the time are inconclusive re these unresolved issues. Sorry about that.
In conclusion, this combination was and remains beautifully built with great attention to detail and considerable care in the choice of components. All in all though at the time, not particularly good value and I noted that the unit was probably riding on the reputation of Nakamichi as a highly respected brand-value and it’s not surprising that it never became a big seller. However, at today’s modest asking prices, it is certainly well worth considering.
Does all or any of the above commentary have any value over and above merely being an interesting diversion from day to day issues, or perhaps being nothing more than a harmless trip down memory lane? Sitting here, it’s difficult to say for sure. These Nakamichi units do turn up from time to time HERE and HERE and so I suppose the value, if any, of my comments should relate to considerations of buying these units on the second hand market in 2010.
First it’s worth remembering the all of my above comments re sound quality were made in the context of value for money in the mid 1980’s. Frankly up against both Krell and Meridian at that point, these Nakamichi units represented poor-to-marginal value. But that’s not the case today. These Nakamichi units sell in combination for anywhere between £450 to £775.
The price variation seems to be merely due to the frequency of them appearing on the auction sites. Two pairs at the same time drives the prices of both pairs down whereas one set every few months might drive the price up. Additionally there are issues of cosmetic condition and so on that influence the final winning bid.
Anyway …….. I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that for a pair in mint to near-mint cosmetic condition in full working order could and should –when compared to what else could be purchased new or used today in a similar price band – the CA-5/PA5 II at around £650 represents very good value. My guess is that at these prices, they have achieved their full price depreciation. Or in other terms, buy it, use it for a few years and you might get back all of your investment.
© Howard Popeck 2010
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