The Naim Of The Game...
Review by Bob Neill
I have been all-digital without apologies since 1990 or so when the LP12 left the premises, with nearly 2000 pieces of vinyl. Spending the rest of my music-listening life comparing media was not an attractive proposition. I determined to build a system that could get all that 16-bit/44 kHz had to offer and never to look back - starting out with a one-box $700 Sony, which is still providing good service to my bassoonist friend up the road. The next move was to a Krell MD2/SBP 64X that could resolve a fly off the wall at twelve paces; and the next all the way back across the spectrum to a tube-based Sonic Frontiers SFT 1/SFD2-II that caused all music to melt on my tongue like medium amber maple syrup. Each of these experiments had something valuable to teach me, and by 1998 it was time to get serious - with a Naim CDX/XPS. I like natural ease in music presentation as much as the next guy, but not artificially induced. Six months with the Sonic Frontiers (and a brief flirtation with a BAT VK D5) cured me of that.
I'll take a brief look at the new Accuphase DP 85 toward the end of the review for comparison. Some day Jerry Ozment may send me an Audio Logic 2400 tubed DAC. Ralph Dodson has promised to "talk about a review" as soon as a Dodson DA-217 Mk II D DAC becomes available. And there is a call (several actually) into Cary about the 306/200. So there will be time to see what's cookin' outside the World of Naim Digital later on. But the subject for today is what Naim designer Roy George - not Julian Vereker as I previously thought - hath wrought.
The Naim CDX with the XPS external power supply won its way into the Neill house in the fall of 1998, replacing the Sonic Frontiers pair, by besting a Meridian 508.24 (a pleasant snoozer and I am told its successor has not yet been awakened by its prince either), a Levinson 39 (nice sound, horrible ergonomics), and a Wadia 860 (very good but finally a little too stark - is the 861 better?), among others. The Naim combination had all of the Wadia 860's bottom to top resolution but was more engaging: a crisp, clear, but also more natural, less clinical presentation. This is the Honda Accord range of cdp's and to my ears, the Naim combo was clearly the best. It has held up well and never caused me regret. It is renowned for PRAT (pace, rhythm, and timing - more on this later) and though in retrospect this is on the money, interestingly it is not what struck me about it first. Perhaps those who hear that first have spent too long with sleepy cdp's. Naim has always struck me as simply true. Not rhythmic, not clinical, not analytic, true. And mine has been mated with Nordost SPM and Quattro Fil interconnects, so clearly I have not found its truth off-putting. We could probably have lived happily with the Naim CDX/XPS forever.
But being more a Melville than a Thoreau man, Herman just had to see what more is possible in the Naim approach to music reproduction. I believe Sir Ivor of Linn's dictum that the road to improvement must begin with source, that beginning with electronics or speakers simply means getting clearer images of the limitations of what precedes them. This was dramatized compellingly during the eight years B&W Matrix 805's (small quarters) lived with me. As the front end got better and better, the 805's kept getting better too! While my recent Blue Circle review preached the primacy of electronics, that was assuming a top-flight front end - which is what I thought I had. The truth of the matter is that the front end is the only part of a system that you can upgrade forever without paying a penalty. Anyway, I really did want to hear the CDSII and knew it was altogether possible that the Valhalla cable in the system had caused it to move on, leaving the front end behind.
First, a baseline. With the CDX/XPS in the system, ever since the entry of Nordost Valhalla speaker cable and interconnect (between preamp and monoblocks), I have been very happy. The system was not yet perfect, but we couldn't hear very far beyond it. What another octave of bass would add was pretty clear. Also, absolute holography, the strings floating a little freer into the middle ground. I could imagine a little more bloom, maybe. Based on my experience with the Sonic Frontiers, I couldn't imagine too much more smoothness or sense of ease on individual performers without falsification. Kuijken's Bach Violin Sonatas [Deutsche Harmonia Mundi] sounded absolutely real and perfect. If they were much prettier, they would be "wrong." So what we had here was highly satisfying, realistic, medium scale presentation of music with slightly warmish low bass and less than hallucinatory holography. It was time to bring on the CDSII.
In the Spendor SP 1/2 - Harbeth Compact 7 comparison a while back in my Harbeth Monitor 40 review, I wrote that you could certainly prefer the allure of the one or the frankness of the other but that the Monitor 40's trumped them both, in effect making honesty alluring. Well, with the first notes of the CDSII playing Handel's Occasional Oratorio [Hyperion], then Podger and Pinnock's Bach Violin Harpsichord Sonatas [Channel Classics], and then Mingus Live in Antilles [Atlantic], we were in essentially the same place. How do you resolve a dilemma? You transcend it! One could prefer the unassuming honesty of the Naim CDX/XPS or the more solicitous beauty of some of the tube DACs; but the CDSII, in my system, coming on the tail of Valhalla cable, pretty much left that distinction behind.
What the CDSII brought to the system, in addition to an expansion of the Valhalla's virtues of clarity, immediacy, and ease (and these qualities are not listed idly) is beauty. Not "prettiness" - the stuff I fled from before and was afraid more of would drown Kuiken's Bach sonatas. Beauty. The result of reproducing the entire and absolute sound of musical instruments played uncommonly well, reproduced so as to bring out the particular, characteristic beauty designed into them, whether they are baroque oboes or electric guitars. All live music - even Bob Mould, a raw Prince Edward Island fiddle, and Varese - is beautiful. Why else would we listen to it? So we're not talking about a lush, harmonically enriched beauty focused on the center of an instrument's sound, the edges planed off or attenuated in pursuit of a pleasing effect. What is lost if you "cheat" on the true sound of instruments in this way is the very effect you are greeted with each time you return to the CDSII: freshness. To me freshness is at the heart of musical beauty. The CDSII's beauty is to some extent what I've come to think of as single-ended beauty. (All Naim cdp's are single-ended.) Clear, just liquid enough to delight without cloying, firm, direct, immediate, exciting, highly informative, lithe - and with a wonderful sense of touch. Not fulsome, not romantic, not overly sensuous. Savory rather than delicious; eloquent rather than emotive and dramatic. You could call it lean, but it is lean somewhat in the way the EVo 2002 amplifier is lean, but that amp lacks the CDSII's wonderful liquid beauty. The CDSII's beauty makes a strong case for this quality being an absence of distortion, a stripping away of, well, fat. It is certainly not an absence of information of any kind. From bottom to top, this player is the most informative I've ever heard. I guess I'm coming down on the 'truth is beauty' side of things.
The CDSII made me realize that my system had gotten a little away from beauty. This player seems to infuse everything with grace. The Blue Circle BC 3 and BC 2.1 were beautiful in this way, though with less authority and a bit more ebullience and sensuality. The Blue Circle AG 3000/8000 combo and the Harbeth Monitor 40's can do beauty in spades but must be fed right to do that. The Naim CDX/XPS, for all of its undeniable, honest virtues, can't quite do that. I did not realize that until the CDSII entered the story. I couldn't quite imagine that. I was not really aware of its absence. How does one imagine beauty? The first remark out of my mouth when I heard this player in the system was, as I say, "My goodness." Not, "holy shit" or "sonofabitch." "My goodness." That tells you something. There was the distinct feeling that the system had not been enhanced or upgraded so much as blessed.
Podger's dynamics and power were now also appealing, irresistible actually. Grace and power. Handel and Haydn (Roy Goodman's series on Hyperion) were a bit more spry - the textures were clearer and also more attractive. Listening to Boulez conducting Stravinsky's Petrouchka [DGG], I noticed how much clearer the bass was. Super-tight bass does not sound natural to me, but it is nice to hear bass instruments doing their thing by themselves and not spilling over into general low-end ambience and effect. And man-o-man, how the violins sang and floated in the middle ground while percussion snapped away, off behind them. This was music in its natural medium: air. Change of pace: the Mosaic Quartet playing Mozart on 'early instruments' [Astree]. Here it's how tightly sprung the instruments seemed that struck me and the quickness and agility of the bows on the strings. Vanska's Bruckner Symphony #3 [Hyperion] was wonderfully clear, very solid, but not as fulsome as some like their Bruckner. An example of where clear and solid were enough was in David Fincklel and Wu Han's Rachmaninov Sonata for cello and piano [Artistled]: I have never heard more cello or piano on a music system - more of their absolute sound. Finckel's low notes on the cello were lustily clear, Han's bass notes on the piano were full of the sound of the hammers on the thick, wound strings. You could literally taste this performance. On to Van Keulen's and Ollie Mustonen's Stravinsky's music for violin and piano (Philips, sadly no long available) where the end of the violin notes had an exquisite finish that my CDX has never mustered. The Bis edition of CPE Bach's keyboard concertos, rich and tangy as it is, had always seemed just a little plumy; the Naim cut through the reverberant stew of the lower strings where the problem had been and rendered them clear, distinct from one another, solid, and satisfying. Thank you for that one, Roy George. Violist Paul Silverthorne's new CD, "Invocations," a collection of contemporary British viola music on the brilliant and innovative new Black Box label: viola and piano are ravishingly real. And finally, Kuijken's Bach: was it too sweet, as I feared it might be with more liquid than the CDX? Here the CDSII characteristic un-lush, trim presentation combined with its liquidity came through. Could the violin use a little more body? This particular violin probably doesn't have more. I'm satisfied but I wish Kuijken could hear this presentation and tell us. Probably the most powerful listening experience I've had with the CDSII was Rostropovich playing cello in Sofia Gubaidulina's recent CD, Canticle of the Sun [EMI]. NEVER, EVER has a cello been so beautifully played or reproduced on a music system in my house. Firm, lyrical, warm, clear ribbons of perfection. Almost impossibly beautiful. Apollonian beauty perhaps, but Apollo is a god. And Rostropovich has not lost a step.
Nuts and Bolts
The secret of the CDSII's beauty, we are told by North American Naim representative Chris Koster, is partly in starting with a CDX and:
(1) getting its own internal power supply out (you need an XPS with a CDSII while it's an option with the CDX), providing more room for both the machinery and electronics;
(2) upgrading the electronics; and
(3) replacing the retractable drawer mechanism with a top-loader that makes possible a state-of-the-art double-suspension isolation system.
Suspending the transport on tuned springs results in an orders-of-magnitude decrease in jitter caused by microphony. The increased space made possible by moving out the internal power supply makes possible discrete circuitry in the output rather than op-amps. There are three boards stacked on top of each other - all suspended, which reduces jitter farther. The output is designed to be far less noisy through a novel design similar to that in Naim's latest power amp, the NAP 500, which has extremely low noise characteristics. Finally, there is three times the overall power supply regulation than with the CDX. Aesthetically, the CDSII is handsome, reserved, and black - unassuming. The top-loading feature means it must sit on top of your rack, which suits me fine. The remote is large, all metal, and more of a design statement than the player it serves. Its operation is less intuitive than the plainer plastic remote that goes with the CDX but once you master it, it's fine. And my plastic remote has broken twice. Final note: like the CDX, the CDSII uses the Pacific Microsonics (now Microsoft) HDCD chip; a note to that effect will appear in the track window briefly when an HDCD disk is loaded.
Using hindsight, it is clear what has happened to my system. When Valhalla entered, it in effect, sought out, like a diagnostic tool, all that was around it, approving the Blue Circle electronics and Harbeths but, as suggested earlier, finding the CDX/XPS a little lacking - though not in any way you'd notice if you didn't know better. I didn't notice a problem. And returning to the CDX/XPS to keep honest, while the refinement, liquidity, detail, and sense of space were diminished, it was not as disappointing as expected, which says a lot for the CDX. Its presentation, switching directly from the CDSII (using the same XPS power supply which remained plugged in), seemed plainer, less sorted out, less airy, and more blunt. Notes weren't finished as smoothly. Weightier? Well maybe. Rather, with the CDX there was more sound but less information. But overall it sounded damn good. If you prowl around the Naim Forum you'll find a few folks who prefer that sound. They are surely wrong: the CDX with the XPS is a very good CD player but the CDSII is a great one. That said, I returned to the CDSII with increased respect for the CDX.
The CDSII has raised the performance of our whole system, bringing a level of grace, beauty, and musical reality that is new to the house. I thought we'd reached that point with the Valhalla. We expected the CDSII to add a little of this or a little of that, an improvement comparable to moving from SPM to Quattro Fil - real enough and welcome but nothing like this. But I have been continually knocked out by the ability of the CDSII to literally search out musical information and render it clearly with grace and authority. It is as if the intellectual aspect of music has at last regained its natural balance in the mix. Those who, like me, are drawn to the CDSII's presentation will describe it as lithe, vigorous, fat-free, utterly graceful, and true, recognizing that its approach enables it to get the essential part of the real sound of music. When instruments first break the air, there is almost a lyrical lift to the attack that is as delightful as it is striking. This is another way of describing the sense of freshness mentioned earlier. This can be especially poignant in the case of strings, most especially 'authentic' baroque strings, but it can equally delightful with woodwinds. This is what I meant by savory rather than delicious. The air around the instruments is not so thick.
The CDSII's character or point of view, to these ears, is an entirely natural one, but it is also by necessity an incomplete one. Every man-made object has a point of view. There is no 'view from nowhere,' and designers who ignore this truth, like Mr. D'Agostino and friends, create snowmen, who, "nothing themselves, behold nothing." Or if Wallace Stevens is not your man, you can substitute the Beatles' "Nowhere Man." And it may well be that the better a component is, the clearer will be its point of view. The designer will compromise less in pursuing his vision. This is a controversial hypothesis that would not go down well among the objectivists in the audio world, but it's worth thinking about. If we mistakenly, in my view, think of audio components as aspiring to be windows, then this hypothesis fails. But if we allow that components are interpreters, like works of art, then it becomes germane. I'll leave this one with you, asking you to first to consider which are your favorite components, then to consider what it is that draws you to them, and finally to ask yourself if they sound much alike. In the case of the CDSII, let me just say that it makes such an eloquent argument for its point of view that it will probably take you at least a week to realize that it has one. That's how long it took me. And, I suspect, even if it is not your particular point of view it will make forays on your reservations every time you put on a new recording. This is surely what the very best equipment does.
Some listeners, accustomed to richer, smoother - less textured, more homogenous - fare, while appreciating the Naim's presentation may not find it entirely satisfying. Those who feel this way could, to reiterate, call the player somewhat lean. We went through a week or so when we characterized it that way. But returning to the Naim after a few days with an Accuphase DP 85, it no longer sounded lean to me. It sounded right, true. Nice homecoming. The Naim is like a vintage British sports car and the best single-malt Scotches. Its character is what is required to cut directly, with immediacy and beauty, to the exact timbre of individual instruments. This is the CDSII's hallmark, the signature of its point of view.
Toward the end of the audition process, out of consideration for folks who prefer to drive cars that with softer suspensions and like their Scotch blended and smooth, in went some Chord interconnect between the Naim and preamp - Chrysalis and Cobra II. A great many Naim fans prefer Chord's presentation to Nordost's. The switch to Chords (I slightly preferred the Chrysalis to the Cobra) proved that the CDSII can be made mellower on the palate, less revealing, less exciting, more relaxing. It was initially very pleasant and had me wondering for a little while - but not so much about the CDSII as about the Quattro Fil. Then, toward the end of the second day, the Naim/Chord pairing began to remind us a little of what I consider the civil presentation of the aforementioned Meridian 508.24. Punchier than the Meridian with more PRAT (more on PRAT still later), but still more of a compromise than I'm prepared to make. It was as if the Chord cables were throttling down the CDSII.
Switching back to the Quattro Fil, it was good to have its transparent and exhilarating presentation back; but the increased midrange intensity did remind us of what we'd heard when switching from Valhalla to Quattro Fil in the Valhalla audition last month. So it's clear that the CDSII could benefit from being relieved of some of the Quattro-Fil's added mid-range emphasis, ideally by subbing Valhalla for Quattro Fil. This can be done by retrofitting the Naim with dual din (or RCA) outputs, since a single din can only accommodate one Valhalla wire.
Naim CDSII and Accuphase DP 85
There is of course, another route to follow, and a far more sensible one if you find the CDSII's point of view and yours truly conflict, and that is to find a machine that loves you rather than upgrading or putting a governor on one that does not. If you don't like single malt Scotch, buy Chivas, don't you go putting water in my Couvreur! And so, since I work for you all and not Julian Vereker's estate, it's now time to report briefly on one of the CDSII's prime competitors from Accuphase. The logical choice would be the 75V, which sells for a few hundred dollars less than the CDSII. But what is on hand, stopping off on its way from Accuphase importer/distributor Axiis-USA to CES, is the new DP 85, a CD/SACD combined player, which Arturo Manzano of Axiss claims outperforms the 75V in redbook. Early web chat is unsettled on this point, but for our purposes, they are likely close enough. For the record, the 85 retails for $16,500.
Again, Naim cdp's are all single-ended and the Accuphases are balanced, so the comparison has afforded a chance to hear a balanced player and also to hear the Blue Circle AG3000 in true balanced topology as it was designed to run. The Accuphase can also be run single-ended, however, and my time with the player revealed that it sounds quite different in this mode - more like the Naim actually. (Jonathan Scull's comparison of the 75V's single-ended and balanced performance in his Stereophile review of the player is a very useful statement of the difference between these two modes in general. See Stereophile "Archives" at Stereophile.com) The comparison also enabled me to put Valhalla between the cdp and preamp, since the balanced Accuphase does not need the din plug that can't accommodate Valhalla. So I was able to hear an all-Valhalla system. As a pure comparison, because there was a cable change and since the preamp was running balanced, it is clearly an imperfect one. But it was interesting and I think useful to report on.
The Accuphase DP 85 comes from the Land of the Lexus. It looks luxurious in his soft gold finish, and its mechanical operation is smooth, smooth, smooth. It appears to be extremely well built. Running in balanced mode, it sounds like it looks, offering the best first run, light amber maple syrup ever. A hint of days with the Sonic Frontiers SFD2-II, but much clearer from top to bottom. It offers a fuller, softer, more atmospheric and more homogenous presentation than the Naim. Both players are smooth but the Naim is smooth one instrument at a time while the Accuphase aims for overall smoothness. The Naim focuses on texture, the Accuphase on sweep. You would never call the DP 85 lean, though it is not fat either. Scull's description of the 75V in balanced mode does not quite ring true for the DP 85, so perhaps Mr. Manzano is right. It does not "grab ones sex," as Mr. Scull so tastefully reports. It sounded considerably more refined than that. In comparison with the Naim that excites, the Accuphases appeals and soothes. It is extremely good at retrieving low level (and incidental) detail but the details tend to stay back in the mix where you are less aware of them. They are more conspicuous with the Naim: not intrusive, not distracting, but conspicuous. How you feel about this difference, which approach feels more correct and natural to you, will go a long way toward determining which player expresses your point of view. Everything tends to sound good on the Accuphase. It seems to add a soupcon of warmth and lovin' to all those in need, which is a considerable favor to some older jazz CDs made in the late 1950's and to the likes of Andrew Manze's latest Handel Violin Sonatas CD [Harmonia Mundi], which is about as astringent as I've heard baroque in quite a while. But it also loves up some cd's that would be better off left alone. Iris Dement, my favorite vocalist for finding out what a system is doing, sounds delicious on the Accuphase. On the Naim she sounds more like Iris.
If this all sounds condescending toward the Accuphase, it's because, as fine as it is, it does not express my particular point of view. As an audio dealer friend of mine who has liked Accuphases for years says, "One man's "PRAT" can be another man's "relentless" and, conversely, "overall smoothness" can be perceived as "natural musicality." Just so. I have not heard the Linn CD12, but that would seem to be the logical, if not economic, competition for the DP 85. What the Accuphase has done is to clarify what the Naim is doing by demonstrating what it is not doing. We did try the DP 85 in single-ended mode, thanks to a hefty looking set of RCA/RCA interconnects provided and the presentation took a full step toward the Naim. I liked it better but not better than the Naim. That said, if your taste in these matters wavers a bit (or if you want to have both single-ended and balanced options available somewhat as a tone control), it's nice to have the choice - one not available with the CDSII. It also has digital outs and digital inputs, neither of which the Naim has. There were no SACDs on hand to check out that aspect of the DP 85 that will draw most folks to it, and so apologies for that. A full review of the DP 85 by another of our writers will appear later this winter when it returns from CES.
Note: The Accuphase so affected the overall sound of the system, it was impossible to draw any useful conclusions about the AG3000 running in balanced mode or about listening to an all-Valhalla system. Both matters will have to remain open for now.
A Note on PRAT -
Apparently Pace, Rhythm, and Timing (PRAT) has been in my system since 1998 when the Naim CDX/XPS arrived. The Naim Forum is full of talk about it where many components and whole systems are praised for having it. But we've never been able to identify it, isolate it as a sonic attribute. When I put a pair of Cyrus Chestnut CDs (his debut Cyrus Chestnut and most recent Soul Food, both on Atlantic) on the Accuphase and then on the CDSII, what PRAT is finally came clear. It is musical energy, life. It is the opposite of giving peace a chance, the life of Riley, and a sweet summer breeze. It is Cyrus as pretty cool and a fine pianist compared with Cyrus as kick-ass and foot stompin'. My five-year-old son's favorite CD is REM's Out of Time, in particular "Smiling Happy People." My son likes the Accuphase CD player because he loves its looks and the smooth operation of its drawer. But he prefers REM on the Naim.
PRAT is lift, lilt, rhythmic energy and drive. Most music depends on this to communicate. When you fail to feel enthusiasm for a piece of music or a system, lack of this vital quality is often the culprit. Naim discovered this fact years ago and, while it's been attributed to all of their electronics, it is especially evident in their cdp's. A brief but useful discussion of this fascinating subject, "Pace, Rhythm, & Dynamics," can be found in the Stereophile Archives under "Reference" (Vol. 9, No. 6, September, 1992).
Some of you will have noticed that what I have said about the Harbeth Monitor 40's, Blue Circle AG 3000 & 8000 over the past three months on Enjoy the Music and now about the CDSII has a certain sameness to it. As I said earlier, that is because these components were not chosen idly. I have been assembling a personal reference system and what these three reviews represent is my closing in on its completion. There has been a goal in view that my reviews have tried to make clear: a presentation of music that is above all clear and honestly, searchingly, and compellingly beautiful through the principal listening range. I am not moved by smoothness and warmth that throttle down the expressive beauty of instruments or singers nor interested in the retrieval of detail at the cost of music's natural warmth. And I am not taken by systems that are overtly expressive, reaching out into the room to woo or wow with dramatic presence and immediacy - though please give me a little wiggle room on this last point. In a word, I have a point of view. I like the Ace-Bristol, all Morgans, and the Austin Healey 100-6/Six Port. I like unblended, unfiltered Scotch and Federalist or modernist architecture. I am drawn to an artist's sense of line before I notice his colors. The leaner, bitter-sweet textures of Stravinsky and Britten are more appealing to me than the more luxuriant and flamboyant colors of Bruckner and Mahler. Above all, I truly love the real sound of musical instruments and don't want them lost in the crowd.
You should take note that my reference system is a direct reflection of these preferences. The Naim CDSII is the final piece of my personal puzzle. I will buy it, retrofit it with RCA's, and install Valhalla. If your taste is anything like mine and you can afford to play in this price range, I urge you to go and do likewise.
LATE BREAKING NOTE:
Once again, I ask you to read this numbers as indicative of the system as a whole. The system the CDSII entered was already, so far as the numbers go, about as impressive as can be. I would say, so far as these categories go, the only improvements were in tonality (or instrumental timbre), attack, and rear soundscape extension. What the numbers don't tell you is that the overall clarity of the soundscape is improved by the CDSII; and that the overall sense of reality is upgraded.
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