Naim CD555 CD player Art Dudley, October 2007
As recently as two weeks ago, I was moved close to tears by a lo-fi recording—Martin Newell's "I Will Haunt Your Room"—played over the standard-equipment CD player in my 2001 Subaru. As recently as five days ago, I was bored out of my underpants by the same song played through a $3500 CD player, a $6000 integrated amplifier, ca $2000 loudspeakers, and various tarted-up cables. The total cost exceeded the current used value of my car, whose ability to do more than just play music requires little in the way of discussion.
The point is not to question the wisdom of spending more than a few hundred dollars on playback equipment, but to underscore the shakiness of trying to predict what, if any, satisfaction you can expect when you buy well-reviewed gear.
Considered in that light, reviewing a product such as Naim Audio's recent top-of-the-line CD player, the CD555, has been dead easy: Not only was it the most emotionally convincing digital source component I've had in my system, it was also the most consistently so. Played on the Naim CD555, not a single disc failed to involve me on some or another level. The Naim was never boring.
That in itself will coax a stop there from some readers, reasonably enough—but that in itself is yet another hurdle: To achieve that level of performance, one must invest $28,150 in a massive, two-box component, the genus of which appears to be fading from the scene. Hardly a slam dunk.
According to Naim's Roy George, the CD555 became possible only when he and his design team brought two of the company's technological fixations to an even greater level of refinement: enhancing the mechanical isolation of its various mechanical and electronic stages, and ensuring the purity and stability of the player's working voltages. The mechanical isolation was accomplished by mass-loading various subassemblies with thick brass plates, then isolating them with a clever system of leaf springs and jeweled bearings—the resonant frequencies of which (there are three different suspension systems) appear to be astonishingly low.
The purity and stability of the voltage supply was accomplished in what can only be described as the usual Naim approach: ever better transformers, with an ever greater number of dedicated secondary windings feeding ever more tightly regulated power-supply circuits. That is not unlike the campaign manager who is shocked to discover that raising a previously unthinkable amount of cash can influence the results of an election—and then, on recovering from his shock, endeavors to raise even more for the next campaign.
As Michael Fremer pointed out in his full review of the CD555 in February 2007, the working bits that benefit from all that isolation are rather long in the tooth as such things go: Burr-Brown's 24-bit 1704 digital/analog converter chip, introduced in 1998; the Pacific Microsonics PMD-200 digital filter chip, introduced in 2000; and the Philips VAM 1254 modular transport mechanism, introduced in 2003.
From a marketing point of view, then, the difficulty comes with the realization that none of the above is terribly sexy, and thus not the sort of thing one associates with high-ticket merchandise. It's frustrating that the CD555's level of performance costs so much, and seems to have resulted primarily from the cumulative application of technology that was available 16 years ago, when the first very expensive Naim CD player was introduced. And it's frustrating—for some, at least—that there's no brand-new answer, no silver bullet, no single-stroke solution that might someday cost much less. So it goes.
Listening: Had I expected a miracle—though I don't believe that I did—I would have been let down. After a brief check with a less challenging disc (footnote 1), just to make sure the CD555 was working, and after letting it warm up for a while, I fed the Naim my recently purchased copy of Brahms' Symphony 3, according to the very intelligent young Marin Alsop (Naxos 8.557430)—an enchanting if somewhat deliberate performance marred by disappointing sound when compared with Alsop's excellent Brahms Symphony 1 of just two years ago. On my Sony SCD-777, the opening bars of the Brahms sounded muted, muddled, and sadly lacking in impact. Played on the CD555, the opening bars were muted, muddled, and lacking in impact. What a drag.
I listened on, however, and found that the CD555 had many charms, especially as compared with the humbler Sony: Those charms were just a lot more subtle than I'd hoped for. Note attacks were definitely tidier. Melodies flowed with the momentum and jauntiness that seem to flow from all of Naim's best products. Harmonic envelopes—the distinct timbral fingerprints of unamplified instruments—were simply righter.
Eventually, then, I went back to that simple disc I'd used to see if the CD555 was working in the first place: David Grier's solo-guitar masterpiece, I've Got the House to Myself (Dreadnought 0201). I listened again to "Ookpic Waltz," and now I was all but stunned: The sense of force and dynamic nuance in the playing, the believability of each note, the sense of air around the sonic picture of the guitar, and, yes, the simple tunefulness, were staggering. The Naim's performance towered over that of the Sony.
I carried on through "Black Mountain Rag" and was astounded again. I know this disc inside and out, and it was as if someone had exchanged it for a different version while I wasn't watching: I thought I was hearing new variations. The two different players seemed to be from two different planets.
A similarly stunning example came when I listened to Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic perform Richard Strauss's ever-controversial Metamorphosen (Allegro CDO 1040), recorded two years after the work's composition and two years before the composer's death. It's mono, of course, and not even good mono: echoey, shouty, and hard. To play the disc on my Sony SCD-777 is to wish I had the recording on vinyl; to hear it on the Naim 555 was to hear the musical line brought to the fore and the wretchedness of the sound made irrelevant. It was brilliantly made music, remade with similar brilliance.
And, yes, Martin Newell's decidedly lo-fi "Goodbye Dreaming Fields" always sounded wonderful on it, and always brought a tear to my eye. It isn't hard to imagine someone who'd shoot 30 grand on that—especially someone who's old and beginning to wonder if there are no thrills left.
I went back and read Mikey's review. Every word of it was the truth—he got it all right. But the perspective of one's personal conclusions is always a different matter, and mine were shaped by a single observation: The performance strengths of the CD555 were the sort that didn't knock me off my feet at first, yet when I removed it from my system a month later and reverted to the Sony, I felt like the sad balloon in the Zoloft commercial. And I couldn't help being reminded that, in the world of music, the greatest performers are the ones who make less of an impression when they take the stage than when they leave it. If the same can be said of playback gear, then the Naim CD555 may be one of the greatest of all.—Art Dudley
Footnote 1: For a list of the components I used with the Naim CD555, see the "Associated Equipment" sidebar accompanying my review of the Audio Valve Eclipse preamplifier, in the August issue.—Art Dudley