Naim CDX CD player
I got to thinking about this while watching the Prez speak before half a Houseful of enemies the other night (not that you are my enemy). Is my job to review Naim's CDX player "as is," ignoring the high-resolution rumblings all around? If it is, I can't do my job. I don't want to do a disservice to this outstanding piece of machinery, or to the industry. Still, my job is not to review equipment in a vacuum, but to put the product in its market context.
So: context first. Should you buy your last CD player now? Or should the CD player (or processor/transport) you already own be your last—your next being a DVD-based 24-bit/96kHz system? I asked those questions only a few months ago in the context of my Bow Tech ZZ-8 review last August (Vol.21 No.8). Since then, the situation has become a bit less complex.
Sales of CD players and separates are quite sluggish right now; apparently, most consumers have decided to wait for the new format to mature. But is that the best thing to do? I'm not sure. Very little 24/96 software is available, a situation likely to continue for the foreseeable future. I count 31 titles on my shelf from Classic and Chesky. While a few more will trickle out from those two labels, Rykodisc, and a few other innovators, I expect a total of no more than 50 or 60 before the big two-triple-zero. And how many artists in the bunch are you not interested in? If you don't dig Sam Phillips or John Lee Hooker, scratch four discs right there.
Yes, the majors have signed on to 24/96, including Warner-Elektra-Atlantic and the formidable Universal Music Group (which now includes PolyGram and MCA). But don't expect titles to be released any time soon, and do expect them to be multichannel remixes when they are. Will the "classic" two-channel mixes be included at 24/96? Your guess is as good as mine.
Then there's the compatibility issue. You can buy a DVD transport that outputs 24/96 and a DAC that will convert it to analog, but when the major labels get involved, don't count on getting the full resolution out of your transport. There will be some sort of encryption or bit-reduction scheme to prevent the making of "perfect" copies. As has been reported in these pages—see Shannon Dickson's interview with Muse's Kevin Halverson elsewhere in this issue—there is movement toward an I2S standard for connecting transport to DAC that will pass the signal while preventing copying, but nothing has been finalized.
Still, there will be pricey, all-in-one DVD/CD audio players from some audiophile companies by the time you read this, so why not get one of those? Well, reaction to the prototypes has been mixed. Some listeners claim the players sound great on DVDs, not so great on CDs. Some claim otherwise. One speaker manufacturer claims that a very inexpensive "commercial" DVD player sounds better than almost any CD player he's ever heard, at any price. It's very confusing out there.
If you want to hear 24/96 audio now, my (and John Atkinson's) advice is get an inexpensive 24/96 DVD player—one that outputs a digital 24/96 datastream, like the Pioneer DV-414 or DV-606—and use that, or add an inexpensive DAC like the Musical Fidelity X-24K or MSB Link to enjoy the few DVD titles available. But if you're sitting on a few hundred or a few thousand CDs and your player is tired, and/or it's a budget model in need of an upgrade, you won't be getting much of an upgrade for CD playback with such a setup. And how the pricey new DVD-based audiophile players will sound decoding CDs remains to be heard.
CDX CD player
Meanwhile, back in the real world, you can still find "moderately priced" assaults on the state of the art of CD playback—like Naim's $4250 CDX HDCD player. There's no magic or mumbo-jumbo here, just the solid engineering and reliable music-making for which Naim is famous. Based on Philips CD7 parts and components, the CDX features a Philips VAM 1205 transport. An SAA 7376 servo-controller chip controls the transport, converts what the laser "sees" into digital data, and performs error correction.
The data are then fed to the Pacific Microsonics PMD-100 HDCD decoder/digital filter. This sends 8x-oversampled data to a pair of Burr-Brown PCM 1702-K 20-bit D/A chips, which are controlled by a low-jitter master-clock circuit. A seven-pole analog filter follows the DACs.
Naim has always paid particular attention to the power supply. The CDX's is double-regulated, with 20 low-noise regulators on the main board, plus separate supplies for the servo control and display board. A multipin connection for the optional $4000 outboard XPS power supply is included on the rear panel.
Control functions are microprocessor-directed via Naim-written software designed for simplicity and functionality. In fact, the governing design principle behind this and other Naim CD players is to get the bells and whistles off the operating menu, keeping only what's truly necessary.
Like the CD2 I reviewed in the February 1997 Stereophile, the CDX uses Naim's unique glass-reinforced, ultrarigid, single-hinged drawer mechanism in place of the usual motorized plastic one. According to Naim, this mechanism's mass has been carefully calculated to optimize rigidity and isolation. The design allows the player to be a "top-loader" that doesn't require top-shelf placement.
The transport mechanism is elastomer-suspended in the drawer, the surfaces of which absorb light to optimize the optical system's performance. A magnetized puck of low mass and inertia clamps the disc to the transport spindle. It's easy to misplace, but don't lose it—you won't be playing CDs until you find it! I complained in the CD2 review that Naim should supply an extra puck, just in case. The CDX came with two. They listen! They really listen!
I opened the chassis for a look inside and found the same high-quality parts and construction I found in the CD2. Like the CD2's, the CDX's chassis rings like a bell. If this CDX were mine, I'd apply some strips of constrained-layer damping material—like Cromolin Vibration Control, available from Media Access. Interestingly, while the CD2's main board was spring-suspended, the CDX's is not.
As in other Naim products, the CDX's analog output uses Naim's proprietary 5-pin DIN plug and jack. I was supplied with a Chord interconnect ($80) that converts the Naim output to conventional L/R RCA plugs and later a set of Nordost Blue Angel flat cables ($145). There is no digital output for connection to an external DAC, or to a MiniDisc or DAT digital recorder. Naim claims such a connection compromises sound quality.