Naim CD 3.5 CD player Page 3
All young men greatly exaggerate the difference between one CD player and another
As I've opined several times in the last few months, the cream of the CD crop is converging—the similarities between the finest players currently available are greater than the differences. Nonetheless, in one-on-one comparisons, there are still differences, no matter how subtle.
I compared the Naim CD 3.5 to Meridian's 508.24 ($3495) and was startled at how similar the two sounded for the most part. On "CC Blues" on the Haden/Anderson disc, both players captured the drive of Haden's solo bass opening and the down'n'dirty quality of Anderson's piano blues, but the Meridian had more bass slam and a richer, slightly more mooshed-together timbre. The Naim seemed leaner in the bass and captured the separation between notes and tones to a greater degree. I found both appealing.
With Acoustic Mania, the differences were so subtle as to almost not even register, but here I felt the clarity of the Naim won out ever so slightly over the warmth of the Meridian. That was me—you may call it differently.
Listening to the Shostakovich, I preferred the Meridian's warmer, richer timbre, but I also felt the Naim had more coherence in its presentation of long phrases—an area where the Meridian is no slouch itself. Call it a draw.
No matter how much I natter about differences between these two players, the scale of the differences was minute. To some listeners, there would not ever be enough variation between them to care about; to others, even such small deviations might seem day and night. As always, try before you buy—but you can't go wrong with either.
If one be perfectly reasonable, the other can't be perfectly right
But what about the CD 3.5 with an external power supply powering the analog filters and output? I asked Vereker why it should make a difference at all.
"Filters have fairly extreme current requirements. The minute you take the load off the internal supplies and you power that separately, you make a worthwhile improvement. People assume that the next DAC technology will make a huge improvement, but that's not necessarily true—in some ways it's the least important part of a CD player. Things like the environment in which the analog stage is working can be more important than the DAC you're using."
So I listened for myself, using a Naim FlatCap ($700).
Wow! The differences weren't subtle—but neither were they simple to put a finger on. The sound was richer and warmer, without losing any of the snap or detail I found so beguiling in the single-box player. How much richer? Well, the CD 3.5 sounded far more similar to the Meridian with the power upgrade. But even more, the music was communicated more effortlessly.
I know, I know—that seems so uncommunicative itself. What could I possibly mean by it? I know what I heard, but it's difficult to describe: There was greater warmth and an increase in tonal richness, certainly, but these changes were subtle. The bottom line is, as much as I enjoyed listening to music through the straight 3.5, I seemed to get further into the music with the FlatCap powering the player's analog section. You won't find it on any chart or graph, but the change was by no means insignificant. In my opinion, the FlatCapped CD 3.5 sounded far better than the stock unit.
Can you get even further improvements by upgrading to a HiCap ($1550) or a SuperCap ($4450)? I can't wait to find out, but those power supplies are a lot more expensive than the FlatCap, so they'd better represent a helluva improvement to match the value represented by the FlatCap upgrade—at $2850, a FlatCapped 3.5 offers top-rank performance at an attractive price, but the equation might be quite different at $3500 or $6450.
Or perhaps not. I'll be trying both options soon, and will report back to you.
Vive la différence
The Naim CD 3.5 is a great player—one with no real weaknesses and some very attractive strengths. One of the latter is that it costs only $2150—not cheap, of course, but none too shabby for sound approaching the state of the art. And for $700, a purchaser can upgrade its performance in ways that, while hard to explain, make a great player even greater. That may be as much future-proofing as an 18-bit player can offer in our current digital environment.
So when are CD players not the same? When they're different.