Naim NAC 552 preamplifier Page 4
I dragged out the UK Decca box of the Beethoven Piano Concertos with Vladimir Askenazy, Georg Solti, and the Chicago Symphony—superb recordings—and listened to all of Concerto 3 twice. The Naim's rendering of the piano, in terms of its totality as a physical image and of the velvety solidity of individual notes, easily overwhelmed the Steelhead's direct-out delivery. If there was slightly less shimmer at the top end of the keyboard, it was a price easily paid.
Other than an almost unnoticeable loss of transparency (not enough to be called a "veil") and a slight harmonic darkening (though not enough to say it simplified the natural envelope), the Naim's performance was exemplary in every way: it was quiet, grain-free, did nothing to change the overall spatial picture (compared to sources fed directly into the amplifier), and didn't impose its own texture on the most delicate musical information. On the positive side, what it always managed to do was grip the music in a way that helped delineate small and large rhythmic and dynamic gestures. Its bass extension, definition, and textural presentation were as good as, if not better than, what I've heard from any other preamp—and the rest wasn't half bad either!
The NAC 552 never added thickness to the overall picture, never slowed down or dulled high-frequency transients. Whether Naim's proprietary ultrasonic transient filtering improved the performance of my reference Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300 amplifier, I can't say. It would be funny if much of what I heard was not preamplifier performance but better power-amp performance.
Whatever was doing it, the NAC 552's apparent sonic effect was to add enormous weight and meaning to all of the music I listened to through it—kind of like what the Boulder 2008 phono section did, when I reviewed it last August. More than any other preamp I've heard so far, the Naim organized and solidified the sound picture. I went back to my review of the Hovland HP-100 preamp, in the November 2000 Stereophile. About the Hovland's presentation of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, I wrote, "The HP-100 seemed to be able to dig out and reveal tiny vibrational peaks and valleys where other preamps deliver flat lines. And it did so three-dimensionally, without etch, grain, or spotlighting."
There was only one thing to do: pull the record out and compare both preamps. The Hovland nosed out the Naim on Miles' horn in the ways I described in that review, but the Naim was almost as revealing, and definitely gave the picture more weight, the instruments somewhat more body. The Hovland is somewhat leaner-sounding and less prominent in the bass, but I knew that when I gave up the Ayre K-1x for it, because it did other things I liked better.
I preferred the Naim's and Hovland's presentations to the sources directly out, and that convinced me that I'm a "more can be more" audiophile, not a "less is more" type. Recordings are simply raw material—grist for the mill that is your stereo system. Whatever it takes to make a recording sound more vital and realistic is fine in my book. The Naim NAC 552 is what it takes.
At $22,400, the two-box Naim NAC 552 won't be flying out the doors of your local audio emporium. It's a "statement" design that sums up Naim's sonic aspirations, and, for serious Naimophiles, it's a dream piece worth lusting over. And its user-friendliness makes it a contender for well-heeled audiophiles who've never owned Naim gear. That's a good thing—it would be a shame if what has been achieved here could be of interest only to true believers. (But remember: If you have more than two sources and plan to use the NAC 552's recording facilities, you'll need to have DIN plugs on one end of your favorite cables.)
Believe it or not, there's a "bargain" aspect to the 552: you can add Naim's outstanding, ultra-quiet Stageline phono section for only $350. The price is so low because the Stageline draws its juice from the NAC 552PS power supply. The phono section will credibly handle the lowest-output MC cartridges, though it's very susceptible to static and emits a loud pop when you throw switches of any kind (lights, turntable motors, etc.) in its vicinity.
My time with the NAC 552 was time well spent. It was always exciting and inviting to fire up the system knowing that the 552 was in control. Its ability to organize and solidify the performance of my reference Audio Physic Avanti III was unsurpassed in my experience of those speakers. The 552 made me appreciate, more than ever, how tricky this job really is, and how problematic it is for someone reading a review to draw definite conclusions from it. Had I owned the NAC 552 when I reviewed the Avanti IIIs, my description of their bottom-end performance would probably have been significantly different. That's why a review—mine or anyone's—can be only a guideline, and not the final word.
But I'm fairly certain that the Naim NAC 552 has set new standards in my listening experience for low and midbass performance and overall dynamic drive. The rest of what it delivered, in every sonic parameter, was also of exceptionally high caliber. I never listened and thought "This is dark" or "This is edgy" or "This is grainy" or anything like that. All I thought was "This is music." If you like warm and bloomy, you probably won't go for the 552—but you'll never be able to say it sounds "solid-state."
Most important, the sonic vision of the Naim designers was clear and coherent, and they delivered what they set out to achieve—the NAC 552 provided an exceptionally coherent and cohesive sonic, and especially musical, picture. Add to that its high build quality, convenience, flexibility, and, for the most part, glitch-free performance, and you have an expensive product that, when you look at, touch, and hear it, quickly lets you know you're in the presence of audiophile greatness.