NAD 5425 CD player
One day I got a letter from right here in Austin, from a 15-year-old audiophile named Chris. Chris sounded like a good li'l guy, so I called him up and suggested we go grab a burger. I guess it was his age that intrigued me; when I was 15, I had a cheap JVC jambox, a big gnarly pair of Koss headphones, and I thought it couldn't get any better than that! I'd lie in bed at night with the JVC balancing on my chest, the sweet lullabies of Led Zeppelin wafting me off to sleep, the sweat pouring out of my ears from the hermetic seal of the 'phones. Maybe I wanted to reclaim some of my youth by association; maybe I just wanted to see if I could weasel a meal out of the kid. Either way, I wanted to find out just what made a 15-year-old audiophile tick.
Well, to say I was impressed is putting it lightly; this kid knew more about audio gear than most adults I know, and he said he owed it all to Stereophile (smart boy). We chatted more over the meal, and after a while the topic swung around to digital. Chris mentioned that he owned a budget-level CD player, but that the sound drove him nuts; what he really wanted to buy was a Theta.
I choked on my chicken breast; a Theta?! Which one, I asked?
"The Generation II! Man, as soon as I save up enough money, I'm buying it!"
I mulled over this for a Texas minute. On the one hand, I could easily relate to Chris's 15-year-old impatience with anything that represented "second-rate"; I remember drawing endless pictures of Fender Stratocasters all over my school notebooks, dreaming of the day I'd finally own one. But c'mon! When you're 15, four grand for anything besides braces is INSANE! Fifteen-year-old boys are supposed to be running around in wild packs, terrorizing the commonwealth and trying to get into 15-year-old girls' pants, not worrying about things like high-end audio. When you're all grown up and 15-year-old girls are illegal, then you can buy a Theta.
"Chris, the Theta is killer, but there's other gear out there that's really good too, and for a lot less money"
"Like what?" he snorted, just like I used to, in that perfectly executed 15-year-old way that made white steam shoot out of my folks' ears.
"Well, like the Audio Alchemy DDE" I began, but Chris banged his fists on the table in frustration.
"BUT THAT SUUUUUUUUUUCKS!!!" he yelped.
"Waitaminute! Have you heard the Audio Alchemy?"
"So how do you know it sucks?!"
"'CAUSE ROBERT HARLEY SAID IT SUUUUUUUUUUUUCKS!!!"
End of discussion.
After I drove Chris home, I thought some more about what he'd said and why. Because the truth is, Bob Harley didn't say the Audio Alchemy DDE SUUUUUUUUUCKED; in fact, he praised it as being a hell of a nice-sounding unit for the bucks. Of course it's not a Theta! If you could get something that sounded like a Theta for under $400, you'd see Neil Sinclair and Mike Moffat on those news stories about the homeless. No, what Bob said was that the Audio Alchemy just wasn't up to the ultimate performance of the more expensive processors, and it occurred to me that there're probably a lot of readers, some quite a few moons past 15, who think that anything less than a Theta, Stax, or a Krell SUUUUUUUUUUUCKS. And it's not so.
For one thing, it's all relative; just as there are some people who can afford to spend whatever it takes to get the highest level of sound quality available in their homes, there's a whole lot of us reg'lar folk who can't. I'll bet that there've been more Rotel RCD-855s and Audio Alchemy DDEs sold over the last year than all the megabuck processors combined. My mission was clear: find Chris a good midprice CD player or face the wrath of his folks, who for some reason think I'm the one putting all these expensive audio-notions into their boychik's head.
NAD 5425: $299
The 5425 is a MASH machine utilizing the MN6471 DAC, which has balanced analog outputs. These are summed by one half of a 5532 dual-op-amp chip acting as a differential amplifier, and then taken to a five-pole active filter. NAD makes much of the fact that they operate their 5532s without stressing them into TIM as do many other manufacturers, which is a pretty noble concept at this price level. The analog section is built around another pair of 5532s, small-value film caps, and the aforementioned 25µF electrolytic coupling caps.
What can I say about this player? How about this: Remember when you were in high school PE and you had to split the class up into two teams for dodge-ball, scooter-tag, etc., so Coach Scrotem picked two captains to choose sides? And there was always this one scrawny kid left at the end who nobody wanted? What? That was you?! Ehhh, forget that analogy.
Aw, what the hell, I'll just come out and say it: the NAD 5425 is the runt of this litter, a li'l grey churchmouse of a CD player. I half-expected it to squeak, "Hey, gimme back my lunch money you guys!" when the drawer opened. It's too light. It's too plastic. It's too cheap.
Look inside: it's every cheapie Asian CD player you ever ran in horror from. Teenie-tiny power transformer, ceramic caps all over the place...the output RCA jack assembly makes the flimsy stock Philips jacks look like Tiffanies. The analog outputs (there is no digital-out jack) are AC-coupled with some of the cheapest-looking 25µF/25VDC electrolytic caps I've ever seen. This may finally be the one cheap CD player the modkateers don't try to upgrade; where would they start?!
The styling is standard NAD; you either like it or you don't. Believe it or not, I actually liked the 5425's controls better than any of the other players'. They're big raised buggers and impossible to miss, unlike the seemingly endless rows of identical buttons on the more expensive machines. And because of its easily distinguishable controls, the NAD was far and away the easiest to deal with in the dark, which is not unimportant in my book.
The li'l NAD was, for me, the biggest surprise of the players reviewed this month. NOT because it's a giant-killer like the now-discontinued Rotel RCD-855 (footnote 1); it's not. NOT because it rivals the Sonographe in ease of emotional flow; it doesn't. And NOT because it really, really excels in one or two musically important areas; it don't. Then why was it such a surprise, you ask?
When you get a piece of gear like the Theta, the VTL 225 amps, the Lyra cartridges, you run these puppies through the WRINGER, because not only are they expensive, but they do so few things wrong that you have to get out the X-Ray Spex and really hunt for problems. For what you pay for these products, they'd better sound kick-ass!
But when you take something like the $299 NAD, all that critical hoo-ha evaporates; you can't POSSIBLY hold the li'l guy up to the same criteria as the typical high-end product! So you don't. You listen to it with almost zero expectations. And when you're all set to run from the room because you just KNOW that a player this cheap can't possibly sound good, the music starts. And you go, "Hey! That's not half-bad!"
Don't get me wrong; the NAD will not give you the bass impact of even the Audio Alchemy DDE, which I find a bit lacking in this area. Nor will it rival the bang-for-the-buck Rotel RCD-855. What it will do is not sound half-bad. And that's actually better than what the twice-as-expensive Denon and thrice-as-expensive Sony players were able to accomplish. You heard me right; I preferred the sound of the el-cheapo NAD 5425 to the $750 Denon DCD-2560 and the $900 Sony CDP-X555ES.
I preferred the NAD for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it has little or none of the glare, the off-putting brightness of those players. The NAD's top end is most definitely downward-tilted, to the detriment of sparkly sounds like cymbals, castanets, and that sea-shells-on-a-string thingie they're always shaking on Ana Caram's CDs for that authentic South Seas flavor ("Those of you in the first five rows: you will get wet"). On the other hand, you never clap your hands to your ears the way you do with every single other sub$300 CD player out there, the latest Magnavoci included. That alone is reason to recommend the 5425!
There's an overall ease to the NAD that's a new benchmark at this low a price. In fact, I kept the 5425 in my bedroom system the longest of any of the other players, even the Sonographe SD-22. Honestly, I was intrigued as hell that such a seemingly low-budget CD player could be so nice to listen to.
Unfortunately, one of the reasons it sounded so nice was that I found the $400/meter AudioQuest silver Lapis to be almost a magical match with the NAD, the Straight Wire Maestro proving a much tougher load than the poor NAD could properly drive. In my experience, gear with beefier output stages usually sounds better with the Maestro, which is much higher in capacitance than the Lapis. Also, it's a fact that some output stages need to see a little inductance (the Maestro has extremely low inductance, while the Lapis does not) lest they become unstable, just as Naim amps depend on the high inductance of the spaced-pair Naim speaker cable to remain stable. Whatever the reason, the Lapis let the NAD sound its best, and I said "unfortunately" before because NOBODY is going to buy a $400 pair of interconnects for a $299 CD player! It's probably a safe bet, though, that AudioQuest's lower-priced cables would work well with the NAD, too.
The NAD 5425 is the new cheapest CD player that still sounds musical. Again, it's no giant-killer; hook it up to a high-end system and you will not be moved to tears. It's the player you buy for your bedroom, the one you recommend to your friends who want to buy "something good" but don't want to spend any money for that "something good." Know anybody like that? I do. Recommended, therefore, as the lowest-priced entry yet into good digital sound.
Footnote 1: The multibit '855 has been reincarnated as the '955, which CG is currently comparing with Rotel's Bitstream 965BX.John Atkinson