Naim CD5x CD player Follow-Up, November 2005
Growing up has nothing to do with hormones or hairlines. Growing up happens when people become blasé about the things that used to excite them—things that made them fly through the air with their mouths open, swallowing wonder the way swallows swallow mosquitoes.
So it goes in the world of hi-fi, where memories are short and yesterday's favorite toys are today's switchplates and curtain rods. Moving-coil cartridges, single-ended amps, OTL amps, electrostatic speakers, AR turntables, Linn turntables, Notts Analog turntables, SACD players... we all get excited for a while, but before long most people cease to care. They take the good things for granted, along with the people who dreamed them up.
I'd rather that didn't happen with any of my favorites, especially the good things that have come from Naim Audio over the years. Like most flat-earthers, I started out at the cheap end of Naim's electronics line, and I still vividly remember the first time I heard how much better their most basic preamplifier performed with the simple addition of an accessory power supply—an area of audio commerce and technology in which Naim has led the rest of the industry.
The current Naim Audio catalog contains eight accessory power supplies (nine, if you count the Armageddon 60Hz turntable power supply) that range in price from $165 to $5450. They can't all be used with just any Naim product—most are keyed to a small selection of different items from among the company's many preamps, CD players, and active crossovers—but they all share the same goal: to deliver the cleanest, most stable DC possible direct to the audio circuits that need it. And when it comes to audio components that contain a mix of analog and digital circuitry, Naim's accessory power supplies can do an even neater trick: supplying fresh DC to either one or the other, thus keeping digital spuriae from modulating low-level analog signals.
It was with the latter in mind that Naim Audio USA sent me a sample of their latest supply, the Flatcap 2X: a dual-24V device that sells for a reasonable $1050. The Flatcap 2X is built into one of Naim's new zinc-and-aluminum diecast enclosures, of precisely the same size and shape, and finished in the same shade of black, as their CD5X CD player (which I reviewed in the November 2004 Stereophile, Vol.27 No.11).
Inside are a beefy toroidal transformer and a suspended circuit board containing four regulators and associated heatsinks, two reservoir caps, and other bits. Except for an illuminated Naim logo, the front panel is blank—no sense printing a photo, since drawing a black rectangle on the page would do just as well—and the rear panel contains the power-cord receptacle, On/Off switch, and six DIN sockets for various power-out and signal-out chores. With regard to the latter, keep in mind that Naim's outboard power supplies are also designed to become the grounding reference point—the center of a star grounding scheme—in any system in which they're used to power a Naim preamp: That's where the power amp picks up the audio signal.
The Flatcap 2X's predecessor, the Flatcap 2, was among the first of Naim's outboard supplies that could be used to simultaneously power two different components—say, a CD player and a preamplifier. But the Flatcap 2's internal supplies weren't balanced, in the sense of being equally clean and quiet: one would always be very slightly better than the other. The 2X changes all that, with separate transformer secondaries and matched pairs of regulators, ensuring that the buyer can expect equal degrees of improvement from both of the Naim components he or she wishes to simultaneously upgrade.
Using the Flatcap 2X with a CD5X entails removing a jumper plug from the latter's rear panel. Doing so breaks the connection between the player's internal power supply and its analog circuitry, and also exposes another DIN socket, which does address everything forward of the CD5X's dual-mono Burr-Brown D/A chips. That done, the most fertile source of noise is isolated from the most sensitive circuitry, and the latter gets a DC supply that is also theoretically stiffer and cleaner.
The result of doing that in my system, if you'll forgive a bit of gratuitous subjectivism (but not quite sinister piffle), was about twice the improvement I've heard in the past when similarly upgrading a Naim preamp.
First, the essential character of the CD5X remained the same: The Naim CD player with Flatcap 2X was still an incisively musical, rhythmically faultless player, with a chunky sound more colorful and spatially accomplished than that of earlier Naim players, albeit with a shade less air and sparkle than other of my favorites from other makers. What the Flatcap 2X accomplished was a tightening: an über-tightening.
God forgive me for saying this, because it will probably please no one, but going from the standalone Naim CD5X to the CD5X plus Flatcap 2X was like starting with a Linn LP-12 that's been in service for a long time and giving it a good tune-up: tightening all the screws, fine-tuning the motor angle, adjusting the springs, slaughtering a goat and sprinkling its blood on the bearing spindle while singing Scots, Wha Hae—that sort of thing. Bass didn't get deeper, though it sounded that way on first listen, only because it had gotten tighter. While I never considered the stock CD5X as having a problem with overlong note decays, the addition of the Flatcap 2X showed me how much cleaner it could be, especially on percussion instruments of specific pitch (think tablas, kettledrums, and the bass marimba that opens Procol Harum's "Pandora's Box," from Procol's Ninth (Friday Music 6837730). And with the Flatcap 2X driving the CD5X in standard mode, the noise floor seemed as low as with the CD5X when its display is turned off—and with both such refinements, the blackness between notes was almost spooky.
I'd already considered Naim's CD5X to be a decent value at $2950. But with the addition of the Flatcap 2X it became a $4000 CD player that performed well above its price class, making music that was consistently rich and involving—no mere tweak, and a rare instance of spending a little more money for a lot more value. And for the listener who already owns a CD5X and a Naim preamplifier, the value could be even higher.
It's nice to know there are still surprises to be had, even from our oldest friends.— Art Dudley