Lately, I have noticed that very few music lovers own a single brand system and have wondered why. This review of the Naim CD-5x CD player, NAC-122x remote preamplifier, Stageline phono preamplifier, NAP-150x power amplifier, and Flatcap 2x power supply will cover this single-branded idea. One of the great things about a mix and match brands component system is that it allows one to get the sound and features they desire. When everything falls together as is hoped it is great, but it can just as easily go wrong. Brand X amplifier doesn't play well with well with Brand Y preamplifier, and Brand Z CD player doesn't like Brand X or Brand Y. This leads to disappointment and frustration, and possibly to expensive equipment changes.
On the other hand, a music lover could buy a single or nearly single brand system and be pretty much guaranteed of compatibility, as the components from a single manufacturer are designed to work together. Back in the late '80s into the late '90's I ran a system like this. Specifically, a Harman Kardon Citation amplifier, preamplifier, and tuner plus top-of-the-line Harman Kardon CD player. Enjoyed it for ten years with great reliability and there were no matching issues. Although I no longer own any of those components, and my system is now comprised of components from a wide variety of manufacturers, I still see the advantages of buying all of the components from the same manufacturer.
The Naim Game
Thinking Outside The Box
Here is where the weirdness begins as the folks at Naim obviously think outside the box. I'm not sure they even see a box to begin with. With nearly any other manufacturer, all one would need to add to a CD player, preamplifier and power amplifier to make music would be cables to wire everything together and a pair of speakers and Shazam, a working music system! And so you do with Naim as well... however their journey takes a slightly different route. The NAC-122x preamplifier and the Stageline N Phono Stage have no internal power supplies, they get their power from connections to the NAP-150X. (Those who purchase the Stageline N a la carte get a wall wart.)
As an option, and highly recommended, is the Flatcap2x Power Supply ($1150) which provided juice for the preamplifier and phono stage for the duration of the review. Color me embarrassed because it was included along with the other components provided by Naim USA, and because the preamplifier and phono stage have no built in power supplies, I assumed that the Flatcap 2x was required.
Thinking about it, it makes perfect sense as the power supplies are isolated from the sensitive audio circuits of the preamplifier and phono stage. A nice touch is the ability to add to the built in power supply of the CD-5x to increase its performance. This is a feature I would like to see with more audio gear. The components can be run as is or an uprated power supply added for those who desire an increase in performance. I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't add the Flatcap 2x, but for those who are a bit pinched financially, they can start with the NAC-122x and NAP 150x to later add on to the system as funds allow.
Connecting the gear together is an exercise in unconventionality as well, for Naim does not use RCA cables for making audio connections. Instead, they use a combination of DIN cables and SNAICs — a modified DIN cable used exclusively by Naim. Although not difficult to work with, their use did require me to refer to the connection diagrams more than a few times. This is something I have not done in many years. It made me consider what novice music lovers must go through when connecting a more conventional system. It wasn't difficult and when the connections were made they made perfect sense once I "wrapped my head" around their logic.
I received the following e-mail from Chris Koster, Vice President of Sales for Naim USA:
I could not have said it better myself.
There are some additional advantages to the DIN/SNAIC arrangement: because both audio channels are connected with a single cable, there are fewer cables overall in a Naim setup. Because the cables are supplied by Naim, one can be assured that these cables are designed to be a good sonic fit. One won't muck up the sound with the "wrong" cable in a Naim system, something that is easily done with RCAs.
The downside? Should one want to connect a component from another manufacturer to the preamplifier, a DIN to RCA adapter cable may be required. Actually, there are a two pairs of RCA inputs as well as a pair of outputs, marked "Subwoofer." The rub is that if a Naim phono preamplifier and CD player are both used, they override the RCA inputs, making them unusable. Those who won't be running more than 1 other Naim source component will have use of at least 1 pair of inputs.
Rounding out the system were a pair of eight-foot NCA5 speaker cables ($364) as well as a Wiremold 9 way power strip (although only 3 connections are needed- $80.) Don't think about using your favorite speaker cables in a Naim system, as the terminations are different on both ends, a sort of modified banana plug. One last DIN to DIN cable ($215) is needed to make the extra connection between the CD-5x and the Flatcap 2x Power Supply. The grand total for all of these goodies is a cool $8844.
Decided to use the ART Stiletto 6 for the duration of the review for a few different reasons. First, I had listened to them enough with my own gear and developed a good sense of their strengths, which are many, as well as their faults, which are few. I found them to be an excellent sonic fit with the Naim gear. Furthermore, their price fits right in line with what I would expect someone buying this system to spend, as well as in the range a dealer might choose to demonstrate the system.
Additionally, the ART Loudspeakers Stiletto 6 is a superior loudspeaker to the Infinitys that I have owned since 1993. Rated at 88.5dB/W/m, they are a good electrical match to the 50-watt per channel Naim NAP-150x. It made sense to use the best speaker that I had available to me at the time. As the equipment was shipped to be reviewed as a system, I resisted the temptation to use the CD-5x in my reference system.
When my wife awoke, her first reaction was a rapid-fire rat-tat-tat of monologue that went something like this, "Wow that sure looks hot! How much is it? How long do we get to borrow it? Wow, That looks great! Can we keep it? Sounds fantastic! Nine grand? That's not too bad, are you sure we can't keep it? I really really like it!" I realize she mentioned the appearance of the equipment more than once. Note that she was an art major in college so definitely places an accent on the visual aspects of things. Note to self: Wife Acceptance Factor... check!
The system was uneventful in use with one exception, as the CD drawer on the CD-5x manually pivots on one side. Because no motors are involved, the CD-5x should have above average reliability. I had seen pictures of the CD-5x both on line and in print, so I knew what to expect. However in use, my first reaction was literally "Whoa, funky!" I quickly got used to it. Like the rest of the system, it just makes sense.
The other aspect that was a bit different with the Naim system was that it appears to be designed to be left on at all times. All of the power switches are on the rear panels and the remote did not have a power button. I didn't see a problem with this as the gear was always "warm" and ready to use. The system sounded a bit better after being powered up for an hour anyway, more open, more articulate. My power bill was slightly elevated with the Naim gear, but its arrival also coincided with the arrival of our first triple digit heat wave so I doubt the gear was the cause. For my own piece of mind, I did unplug it when we left on vacation. I really didn't want to have to explain any mishaps with lightning to the guys at Naim... "Ummm, Chris? This is Nels...."
Another nice feature, although I seldom use it, is remote control. The remote that comes with the NAC-122x preamplifier is a full system remote, which will control other Naim components. The nice touch is that the identical remote is included with the CD-5x CD player, giving a Naim system owner a spare in case of a malfunction or mishap. Ask me about my two nearly identical cordless phones, identical except for the Boxer tooth marks all over one of them.
Sounds Like... Music
The term PRAT (Pace, Rhythm and Timing) often comes up in reviews of British gear, a term that the British often use. American reviewers often note if the system got their toes tapping, and the Naim/ART Loudspeakers system certainly did. One of the most telling tracks I can think of is the title track from Los Lobos' 1990 release The Neighborhood. [Warner Brothers 075992613125] With systems that excel in PRAT, it is easy to lock onto the rhythm of the track. With systems that fall short, the beat of the tune is evasive. Its as if the band were slightly drunk, at times, with other systems. This track has reminded me of the opening scene of "The Jerk" with Steve Martin as he lays in bed listening to music, yet humorously the viewer discovers he has absolutely no sense of rhythm. This wasn't the case with Naim in the house.
The system tonally was as neutral as one could hope for. I recently slammed Virgin Records' LP reissue of The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street. [Virgin LP 7243-8-47864-1-0] as have played this album every time I made a change to to my system since it was purchased. Every time it was played i came away disappointed, as it was muffled, dark, closed in, and the highs were rolled off. Keep in mind I have owned this album for several years and have heard it through many combinations of gear. Was pleasantly surprised listening through the Naim/ART Loudspeakers setup. While not the audiophile version I had hoped for, it was now more enjoyable and no longer felt as if I had wasted $45. The ART Loudspeakers are brighter than my own, to be sure, though have heard the album through other speakers and the album had always disappointed. It can't be the cartridge loading of the Stageline N either, as Exile was at least approaching neutrality, then every other LP would be bright to the point of ear bleeding. This was not the case as other great sounding LPs sounded excellent.
Bass was tight and tuneful as well. A recent purchase of the U.K. import Limited Edition 3 LP set of The Best of Depeche Mode [Motel 15.0094637507414] Side A opens with "Personal Jesus," one of their biggest hits. The bass line pounds the track throughout. Regardless of the fact that the Naim amplifier had only 50 watts on tap, there seemed to be plenty of headroom. That's not to say that someone with a larger, more acoustically dead room than mine may want more power as Naim does offer larger amplifiers for those who need them. The NAP-150x did sound larger and more dynamic than its modest power rating would indicate.
The CD-5x made CDs sound smoother, with less of the artifacts that I feel make digital inferior to analog. What I really enjoyed was the HDCD capability. One of my favorite HDCD encoded discs is Chris Isaac's Baja Sessions. [Reprise 093624632528]. The opening track "Pretty Girls Don't Cry" showed the systems sound staging capability with Isaac well in front of a small combo strumming his acoustic guitar. This system throws a believable sonic image with softer music. Louder music will, of course, require more sensitive speakers or a more amplifier power. The CD-5x, like the rest of the system, was a joy to use. One of my favorite features of the CD-5x, besides the funky pivoting drawer and HDCD capability, was the display. It can be set to stay on continuously or only turn on for a second or two when changing tracks and remaining dark otherwise. This is how I kept it set. When I listen to music I don't want to be distracted by the equipment.
My favorite aspect of the system was it's smoothness combined with excellent resolution. Found myself pawing through both my CD and LP collection time and again pulling out many old favorites. In many instances not the ones with the best sonics. Enjoyed some of my favorites like Jamaican Ska from the late '60's for example, while taking less notice of the warts inherent in the recordings. The Naim system was well rounded. What's the point of a system that only pleases with a handful of recordings?
It's rare that a US publication will review a complete system from one brand..., which makes life a little harder for a company that engineers things this way! So firstly, all of us at NaimUSA and Naim UK wholeheartedly applauds the staff and Nels for making this commitment. Thank you.
As for the review, Nels' direct-to-the-musicality analysis is right on target. He understood Naim's core values right out of the box... and what's more, this is the initial separates system in the Naim range.
The fact that Naim is a valve lover's solid-state dream is not lost on many Naim owners over the past 35 years either. Running a Naim system longer term is inexpensive, and yes the power usage at standby is negligible. Reliability and longevity are certainly Naim strengths. On that note, I will comment that we are currently examining power strips that offer some storm protection with minimal power compromises, as an option for those who require it.
Nels' enthusiasm for music matches ours, and I am ready to buy some of the discs he talks about! It's always a delight when someone understands that Naim is not about hi-fi, it's about the music.
NAC-122x Remote Preamplifier
Stageline Phono Preamplifier
NAP-150x Power Amplifier
CD-5x CD Player
Flatcap 2x Power Supply
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