Naim CD5x CD player Page 2

Lest you assume the Naim's rhythmic strengths hold more interest for fans of rock music than of classical, consider something such as the Boulez/Vienna Philharmonic recording of Mahler's Symphony 6 (Deutsche Grammophon 445 835-2), surely one of the great Mahler recordings of recent times. I thought it benefited from the CD5x's timing strengths, especially given Boulez's choice of a less than brisk tempo for the opening bars—which I've heard suffer when the replay gear is lacking in momentum. Beyond that, the CD5x sounded appealing overall: Timbral colors were, as suggested earlier, well saturated, and such dramatic touches as the single side-drum blow toward each start of the main phrase, and the bass-drum strokes that signal every appearance of that peculiar woodwind "chorale," were very effective; listening closer, I heard good note attacks and very believable tone, without exaggerated note decay.

And in the quietest portions of the second movement, the CD5x nailed the texture of all the instruments in the scaled-down ensemble: That part sounded as deliciously thick and resplendent here as with any other digital player I've tried.

Before wrapping up, I wanted to make sure the CD5x could make sense of those newfangled hybrid discs, so I tried my recent copy of David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars (EMI 521900 27). The Naim player found its 44.1kHz CD layer without incident, and sounded damn good in the process. The songs were as emotionally compelling as ever—heard at its best, "Five Years" seldom fails to move me—and "Star" gave more evidence of the Naim's seemingly matchless rhythmic prowess. On the above-mentioned pricey rig it was pretty and smooth and spatially very deep, but on the CD5x the music was obviously, appropriately more relentless—all dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah! in the best possible way.

Against the Arcam
Before my time with the Naim was through, and in an effort to learn how it might stack up against the competition in its own price range, I called John Atkinson to see whether the Arcam FMJ CD33 ($2499) he'd reviewed for Stereophile's July issue was still out there. Luckily for me, it was; I snagged the Arcam sample on its way back to the distributor.

It's interesting that, in developing these two similarly priced products, Naim and Arcam have taken somewhat different paths: While Naim has gone from a standard digital filter to the HDCD-enabled PMD200 chip, Arcam has abandoned the Pacific Microsonics filter for the CD33. (On the other hand, the CD33 shows Arcam stepping back toward "standard" 24-bit performance and away from the dCS-developed, single-bit Ring DAC—and Naim, of course, remains steadfastly multibit.)

In my system, the Arcam did have somewhat more air than the Naim, which sounded a bit chunkier by comparison. Listening to flatpickers Steve Pottier and Sandy Rothman pick the tune "Little Annie" (from Bluegrass Guitar Duets, Sierra SXCD 6013), Pottier's vintage Martin had a slightly thicker and woodier tone through the Naim, while through the Arcam it sounded like the same instrument but with a newer set of strings. Which was right? My own D-18 is only one year older than Pottier's, and I can confidently say that both presentations were realistic as far as that goes, although I preferred the sound of the Naim. I also thought that, through the CD5x, Pottier's overdubbed upright bass line had more momentum—although the Arcam was acceptably good in that regard.

On well-recorded classical fare, such as Mark Minkowski's exceptional 1998 production of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld (EMI 56725 20)—which features the unbelievably sexy-sounding Dessay Nauori—the Naim's greater clarity of line allowed the brief overture to hold my interest better than did the Arcam. But with the Arcam, a little more room sound was audible—pleasantly so—at the endings of some lines, and the clarinets and other reed instruments in particular had more color and bounce. Again, you pays your money and you makes your choice.

But when I played Neil Young's live album Weld (Reprise 26746-2), especially one of the more relentless numbers—like "Rockin' in the Free World," a favorite around here—the Naim just walked away with it: The beat muscled its way into the room in a manner that escaped the Arcam: Bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-BRANNNNG, BRANNNNG!

By the way, my comparison was aided by the fact that the Naim's remote handset worked fine with the Arcam player—although I admit a preference for the Arcam's control logic, whereby pressing the Prev button brings you back to the beginning of whatever track is playing at a given moment. With the CD5x, that same button takes you to the beginning of the track prior to the one you're listening to—and if that happens to be the first track, the CD5x just gives you the digital equivalent of a blank, Pet Goat-like stare.

All other things being equal, I confess to enjoying reproduced music best when it has utter freedom from ambiguity in rhythm and in pitch. (Is that why I still love Toscanini?) Viewed in that light, Naim Audio's CD5x is the most satisfying "Red Book" CD player I've enjoyed in my system.

I also enjoyed the CD5x for its decidedly chunky sound, and was impressed by its gains in timbral color and stereo imaging over its predecessors. A little more air up top wouldn't hurt it at all—I think that would make the CD5x an even better and more convincing conveyor of realistic sonic textures—and I'm just the same as everyone else when it comes to wanting more and more overall transparency. Maybe, maybe, maybe: But then I come back around to some old Django Reinhardt transfer, and I revel in the way that, while other CD players are anxious to tell me about the recording's shortcomings, the Naim just homes in on the music, and reminds me how a cascade of 16th notes at the end of a line in "Blue Drag" can descend into something like a growl...

That most essential Naim quality remains, alive and well, in the new CD5x: It makes reproduced music sound convincing by preserving so much of its original meaning, especially insofar as the timing of the musical information is concerned. For that alone, it deserves to be auditioned by any hobbyist who listens to CDs for more than just good sound. To whatever extent it exists, the Naim difference is another of those things you just can't miss—once you learn not to miss it.

Naim Audio
2702 West Touhy Avenue
Chicago, IL 60645
(773) 338-6262