"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.
To compartmentalize or not to compartmentalize, that is the question. Does one review an expensive CD player at the dawn of the 24-bit/96kHz digital age by pulling a "Clinton," standing defiantly before a jury of audio peers to deliver a speech on the state of the CD art, boxing in, roping off, and all but ignoring the new, supposedly unimpeachable medium?
In an industry whose newest products are often as discouragingly unaffordable as they are short of the sonic mark, the Naim Audio Uniti ($3795) stands out. In a single reasonably sized box, the Uniti combines the guts of Naim's Nait 5i integrated amplifier and CD5i CD player with various additional sources: an FM/DAB tuner, and interfaces for an iPod, a USB memory stick, an iRadio, and a UPnP-compatible connected computer or serverall for the price of a very good television set.
"So, what are you reviewing these days?" my friend Mark e-mailed me recently.
"A CD player," I said.
"They're still making those?"
Yesand better than ever, for the most part. But I understood Mark's confusion. When a "Vote!" question on the Stereophile website asked readers what digital source components they used, a surprising number responded that they did not, or hadn't bought a dedicated player in years. Topping the list were computers and universal players.
How to integrate a computer into a high-end audio system is a hot topic these days. I'm getting more and more e-mails from readers asking for advice, Wes Phillips wrote about transferring his LPs to audio files in his October and November newsletters, and a lively thread on this topic ran on the forum at www.stereophile.com.
I first heard a CD player in my own system in 1984 or 1985, several years before I began writing for Stereophile. I was curious about the Compact Disc medium—I'd read about it, had listened to CDs in stores, and was eager to hear what they sounded like in my own system. I'd even bought a CD: the original-cast recording of 42nd Street, which I already had on LP. One evening, a friend who worked for Sony and knew that I was an audiophile brought over his latest acquisition: a CDP-501ES, the second from the top of Sony's line of CD players. He also brought along a bunch of CDs, including some solo-piano discs, and Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony's then-famous recording of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (Telarc CD-80041).
After two decades of motorcycling, I recently achieved a long-held goal by buying a bike built by Bimota, a tiny Italian manufacturer. Although Bimota engages in a wide range of activities, from two-stroke engine design to racing, they're best known for their exotic, hand-built street bikes. They always include the very best components and feature cutting-edge engineering and performance, but what they're truly revered for is their style. Bimotas unfailingly combine shapes, textures, and finishes into motorcycles that are most often referred to as "works of art."
For the high-performance audio market, it makes a lot of sense to process digital audio data via sophisticated software running on a dedicated personal computer. Which brings us to Parasound's Halo CD 1 CD player ($4500). Some might find it questionable to release today, as one's first digital-disc player, a machine that plays only "Red Book" CDs, rather than a universal or near-universal (nonBlu-ray) player.
Back when the CD was a pup, I used to hear people say, "I refuse to buy a CD player until they can record." Ha ha, I thought, smart-ass audiophile that I was, they're gonna wait for a long timethat's never gonna happen. I was half rightit has been a long time coming. But I was also, as my football coach used to insist, half-fast. "Never" has arrived.
Externally, the LHH1000 came as a bit of a surprise to these jaded eyes, over-familiar with plain black or brushed-aluminum boxes. Each enclosure is finished in an almost white, anodized finish, with greenish-gray endcaps (made from zinc alloy, I believe) painted with a nubbly, crackle finishan attractively utilitarian styling with shades of military-surplus radio equipment, nicely set off by subdued blue fluorescent readouts. Internally, the units are constructed to audiophile standards. The transport uses Philips's top CDM-1 mechanism, which is fabricated from diecast aluminum, compared with the plastic CDM-4 mechanism which appears in less expensive and less well-specified players. The loading tray, too, which is made from metal, has a reassuringly solid feel to it.
What, a high-fidelity product from Magnavox? The company that 20 years ago had a reputation for building massive, polished-console boom-boxes and was scornfully referred to in audiophile circles as "Maggotbox"? Some important things have happened to Magnavox since those days. Mainly, it became a subsidiary of the Dutch Philips company, co-developer of the laser video disc and now the audio Compact Disc. The Magnavox CD players are actually made by Philips for US distribution by Magnavox.