“Naim Audio make musical instruments, other manufacturers make hi-fi,” so says one posting on a certain Naim-friendly internet forum. It’s an interesting proposition, because it encapsulates what Naim Audio acolytes see in the marque. Of course, glib statements like this aren’t wholly true, but they’re useful as in insight as to why people so adore this brand.
To me, as a fairly impartial observer, and one who routinely uses other manufacturers’ equipment which most emphatically does make music, I find it fascinating that Naim has engendered such an avid following. I don’t think for one moment that it’s undeserved (quite the reverse), but whereas most people use hi-fi and sometimes even love it, it strikes me that for many Naim owners, it’s more that just a case of ‘using’ hi-fi, it’s more of a way of life…
One explanation for this exceptional brand loyalty is Naim’s carefully designed after-service and upgrade path. Recognising that high fidelity equipment is a good way for buyers to lose money from the moment they’ve opened the box, Naim took a conscientious decision to support its products in respect of spares and servicing, make them easily upgradeable and when this was not possible, make the ‘cost to change’ relatively low. Each successive upgrade was always easily demonstrable by the dealers, and easily justifiable on sonic (and even cost) grounds.
Interesting then, that at the press launch of Naim’s new £14,000 CD555 at Roxburgh Castle in June 2006, the Salisbury boys started by playing the assembled hi-fi hacks their existing top CD player, the CDS3. They then hooked it up to the 555PS, one half of the CD555 (i.e. the power supply box), and we sat back to appreciation the improvement. Then came the full fat CD555/555PS (which is the statement product a proper), and lo and behold, there was another order of magnitude of improvement. This is how Naim is selling the CD555, and also why it is making it.
The raison d’etre for the ‘555 then, is its position as the ultimate goal in the Naim upgrade path. For a company with such brand loyalty, it makes perfect commercial sense to make a crazily expensive product. The downside is this; recognising as I do the inevitability of large numbers of people buying it simply for the name, Naim could have made a pup and got away with it. This was my initial fear – that people would want this simply because it’s the ultimate Naim. But as it transpired, the CD555/555PS sounded remarkable in itself.
Lesser Naim CD players are superb at their price points, but even £7,500-worth of CDX2/XPS2 sounds forced and mechanical, like the music’s being squeezed from a toothpaste tube rather than flooding out of a sluice gate as per the ‘555. This statement CD spinner brings a sound nine tenths as good as high end vinyl in the musicality stakes, but considerably better in respect of pitch stability and bass grip. Music gushes forth, yet it all sounds unforced and unflappable; it’s the ultimate combination of easy listening and dynamics to die for.
Tonally, this player is as close to neutral as Naim has yet achieved, and a world away from the machines the company was making ten years back. It is smooth, slightly velvety across the mid and treble, and yet manages to give an explicit rendition of a recorded acoustic. This doesn’t come by brightness or a metallic sheen, but by massive, unremitting grip of every minute detail in the mix. It’s a rare combination – lesser CD spinners attempt to give smoothness by the use of euphonic tube output stages, whereas the big Naim achieves it by innate accuracy and focus.
Bass is wonderful, a hoot to listen to. Big, fast, impactful and tremendously musical, it powers the music along with heady abandon. It can summon up great punch when called upon so to do – there’s a massive visceral thwack in your back. As the music builds in intensity, the Naim stays strong like few others, ‘pile driving’ the low frequencies out at you, but it’s never wooden or emotionally detached. Its midband is another joy, with not a scintilla of brightness or stridency to behold. It’s possessed of tremendous emotional fluency; you can see why the musicians turned up at the studio to record what they did, and you can marvel at their great prowess. It goes loud with disarming speed and confidence, then goes quiet and soft just as the music dictates, time after time with total ease and unflappability.
Treble has real finesse, yet tangible ‘crispness’ too. There’s no suggestion of hardness or grain, so much so that it makes the already superb CDS3 sound quite clangy and metallic – something I never thought I’d say. There’s also a wonderful air to proceedings, which locks back into the midband; everything about the vocal booth in the studio is there to hear, yet despite the explicit detail, it’s all so natural and effortless. There’s certainly no sense of ‘analysis paralysis’, which is remarkable for something so detailed.
It is hard to quantify the CD555/555PS’s ‘value’, because it’s self evidently so expensive that conventional cost considerations don’t come into it. Certainly, on Naim’s own upgrade ladder, it makes sense; it brings a natural ease, plus a host of extra detail and focus that the CDS3 cannot manage. It was head and shoulders above the powerful but rather dispassionate sounding £8,000 Meridian 808i at the time of launch, and bettered Linn’s rival CD12 in terms of power and impact – if not style and finish. To this day, it remains one of the best Compact Disc players I’ve heard.
The CD555 story
Although the player was first shown at 2005’s Hi-Fi and Home Entertainment Show at Heathrow, it wasn’t until later that hi-fi hacks got a chance to hear it ‘in anger’. It’s brilliantly conceived, in the sense that it’s a no-holds-barred attempt to eke out the maximum amount from any given Compact Disc – and precisely that, because it does not attempt to play DVDs, DVD-As or SACDs, and nor does it have digital output, nor does it have a variable analogue output. Instead, you plug it in and go.
Physically, it’s quite spectacular. If Linn’s CD12 was a masterpiece of compact elegance, Naim’s CD555 is a triumph of size and physicality. At 114x432x314mm, the main box is large and heavy, and appears hewn from solid black brushed aluminium. For me, the motorised top loading disc lid is its best feature – press the ‘open’ button and it moves up smoothly, and then when you’ve loaded your disc and dropped the puck on, it closes – initially quickly but it slows down just before closing, a nice touch reminiscent of the electric windows of certain luxury cars, dare I say.
The relevant transport control button illuminates in use, and the green LED display gives just enough information to make using it possible, and then self-extinguishes. All the functions (and more) are available from the superb bundled remote, the genius of which I don’t have time to explain here. Overall, using the CD555 is immensely satisfying; not quite up there with classic high end Japanese transports such as the Sony CDP-R1a in terms of speed and tactility, but not far off.
As stated, the ‘555 package is the CD555 ‘head unit’ and 555PS power supply. The latter is a massive affair, some 15kg or so, and powers the CD555 from two Burndy interconnects which carry discrete digital and analogue feeds. This, says Naim, extends the principle of reducing capacitive coupling between power supplies as far as possible. The CD555 gets a separate power supply from a transformer secondary winding, which is triple regulated, right through to the critical master clock and dejittering circuitry. Special attention has also been paid to reducing capacitive coupling of high frequency noises from other supplies into this super quiet clock supply through interconnect cables and wiring looms.
The 555PS power supply incorporates significant upgrades over existing designs. More regulators have been used to isolate the supplies to various parts of the circuit, minimising their interaction. A total of seven regulated power supplies, including separate one for the clock circuitry, are used, with five secondary windings on the transformer (which is itself forty percent larger than that in the XPS2). The 555PS is backward compatibility with the CDS3 and CDX2, so you can upgrade either with it, and keep it for if – or when – you take the plunge for the CD555.
The CD555 DACs are mounted in a special ‘quiet room’ inside the case, designed to ensure all critical signals reaching the DAC have “immeasurably low jitter” and keep their environment free of the varying electric and magnetic fields. The CD compartment has low infra red reflective coatings to reduce eye pattern interference and noise., and sports an extremely low inertia and low resonance CD clamp. The very best Philips Pro CD mechanism is used with a diecast chassis – this is a welcome change from the (in my opinion) inadequate DVD-ROM mech used in high end rivals such as the Meridian 808i. The CD555 has a very heavy brass sub-chassis – separate for digital and analogue electronics, and all analogue stages, I-to-V conversion, filtering and output drivers are built from discrete components. Seven-pole output filters are used, and there’s a separate low jitter clock circuit with its own multi-stage regulated power supply with post-digital filter de-jitter circuitry to eliminate jitter.