"I don't like Mondays!" sang Bob Geldof some years back, and I'm beginning to hate Mondays too. No, not for the obvious reason. You see, Monday is "hate-mail" day. Every day I get letters from Stereophile's readers. But for some reason known only to the mavens (or should that be Clavens?) of the US Postal Service, the ones pointing out my stupidity, dishonesty, and sheer incompetence as a human being arrive on Mondays.
For example: "Bits are bits, and it is therefore dishonest for Stereophile's writers to continue to insist that they can hear any differences between CD players or digital processors!" recently wrote an angry reader, canceling his subscription. (They always tell me they're going to cancel their subscription.) "Yeah, right!" thought I, having just sat through a comparative audition of, would you believe, digital data interconnects in Robert Harley's listening room. Some of the differences I heard were not trivial. They might even be audible in a blind listening test.
It's been a while since I auditioned a Meridian CD player in my system. I had enthusiastically reviewed the English company's groundbreaking Pro-MCD player in early 1986, and over the years had kept up with the progress they were making in digital playback, either through my own reviews or by performing the measurements to accompany reviews by other Stereophile writers. The 508-24 player, reviewed by Wes Phillips in May 1998, was one of the finest digital products of the 1990s, I thought. But when Meridian began promoting surround sound and DVD-Audio at the turn of the century, their goals became somewhat incompatible with my own. Yes, I can appreciate what surround playback can do, but my own musical life is still solidly rooted in Two-Channel Land.
When I first learned that Meridian had co-badged, with Ferrari, a $3000 table radio, I was tempted to cynically dismiss it as a marketing gimmick—an attempt by the audio manufacturer to leverage the brand loyalty of the Italian automaker to its own highly developed industrial designs. The problem was, that required that I dismiss everything I knew about Meridian and its singular head designer, Bob Stuart.
Well, it was inevitable. Prior to the MCD, every CD player had been a product of a major Japanese or European manufacturer, and we all know what kind of audio electronics "major" manufacturers usually design: adequate, but rarely much better. The MCD is the first player from a small, perfectionist-oriented firm, and an English one at that (Boothroyd-Stuart).
The audiophile does not pursue music reproduction because it is useful; he pursues it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If music were not beautiful it would not be worth knowing, and if music were not worth knowing life would not be worth living.
My apologies for corrupting the well-known statement by French mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré (18541912), in which he described his relationship with science and nature. But substituting audiophile for scientist and music for nature, I feel the sentiment expresses what drives many audiophiles to the extremes for which mere mortals often chide us.
How much fun can you have with an audio component? Fun for me is having a Nakamichi BX-300 analog cassette deck running into Musical Fidelity's evolutionary, revolutionary CD-Pre24 preamplifier, with the unit's digital output feeding the Alesis Masterlink hard-drive-based digital recorder, and being able to monitor the digital loop through the preamp once again in the analog domain.
In the fall of 2005, while the People's Republic of China continued to hold political dissidents in prison without due process, the US government wiretapped its citizens with impunity, tensions rose on the border between Chad and Sudan, Israeli citizens annexed thousands of acres of land from poor Palestinian farmers, Saudi Arabia executed more petty thieves and adulterers in the name of Allah, Russia "lost" a few more tons of nuclear armaments, and the polar icecaps continued to recede as the levels of preventable greenhouse emissions climbed out of control, a small band of middle-aged men took to the Internet to express their seething outrage.
What's next for you? Your last CD player? Your first SACD player? DVD-Audio? Looking forward to multichannel music? Still satisfied with two-channel stereo? Maybe you're waiting for an affordable combination SACD/DVD-A multichannel player, or for the format feud to shake out and leave a clear winner. So many options, so much excitement, so little software.
Audiophiles are frequently accused of being more in love with gizmos than with music. There may be a kernel of truth in that, but a scant few companies actually exploit the giz factor to give you mo'—a lot mo'.
"Them which is of other naturs thinks different," said Martin Chuzzlewit's Mrs. Gamp. If that is true, then Naim's Julian Vereker must be of a very different nature indeed. Vereker—and, by extension, Naim—has never done things the conventional way. Take, for example, power regulation and stiffening power supplies. Long before the rest of the world was taking them seriously, Naim offered upgrades to their components not by changing the audio circuitry, but by adding stiffer and stiffer outboard power regulation.
Give an engineering team a blank page and a blank check and there's no telling what they'll come up with. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, for example, one company showed a $25,000 CD transport with laser-pickup mechanism that was separate from its disc drive—almost the cosmic equivalent of having the sun revolve around the earth.
Naim's new "statement" CD player, the CD555 ($20,300 by itself, $28,150 with PS555 power supply), breaks no new technological ground. Rather, in typical Naim fashion, it attempts to optimize 16-bit/44.1kHz CD performance by paying fanatical attention to the devilish details. It doesn't play the DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, or SACD formats, nor does it have a digital output—and it doesn't create an illusion of higher resolution by upsampling the data.
Naim Audio has a reputation for making products that are truer than most to music's temporal content: rhythm, pacing, the beat almighty. Beginning with their classic solid-state amps of the mid-1970s, Naim's designers have stressed, above all else, the reduction of distortions that puff up and pad the attack and decay components of musical sounds: Getting rid of those additives seems to clarify the timing relationship between different notes in a line, making music more compelling and easier to enjoy. That their gear has historically favored musical content over sonic attributes is no shock to the Naim faithful.