Naim CDX CD player Page 2

Via its remote keypad or the four chassis-mounted controls, the CDX is fast and easy to use. Pop in the disc, add the puck, close the drawer; it loads almost instantly. Fast Forward and Fast Rewind are available only on the keypad remote. You can turn the display off, which Naim claims improves the sound. I couldn't hear it. While the track order can be programmed, I've never used the function in over a decade of CD playback. Want to change discs in a hurry? Pop open the door.

The operating system is an ergonomic pleasure. When you play an HDCD-encoded disc, the letters "hdcd" light up on the green LED display for a few seconds, then disappear.

Like Naim's CD2, their CDX possesses the usual Naim sonic attributes: On good recordings the sound was fast, tight, rhythmically certain, and spectacularly open and transparent, with an ease of presentation bordering on swagger. Most important, the sonic picture hung together seamlessly, resulting in convincing-sounding music.

With the Chord cable and without the XPS outboard power supply, the overall sonic picture was up-front and immediate—almost relentlessly analytical and ruthlessly revealing, but mesmerizingly detailed and flat-out exciting. Electric bass sounded both muscular and well controlled, and acoustic bass was delicate and refined. The CDX expressed large- and small-scale dynamics with unrestrained power and authority. Even at low volume, the player portrayed bass dynamics with satisfying thrust. No one will ever accuse the CDX of sounding "mushy" anywhere in the audible bandwidth at any volume.

Of all the CD players I've heard at home, the CDX was the most mercurial. It made bad-sounding discs sound awful and great ones incredibly convincing. Weekly, I receive dozens of discs for review in The Tracking Angle, and sometimes I'll spend a few days doing nothing but auditioning new CDs. So pitifully few sound any good that it is easy to lose sight of that and blame the player. CD after CD sounded dynamically compressed, spatially squeezed, rhythmically confused, bass-shy, and edgy on top—as if the highs had been shelved. I kept great-sounding discs, like Patricia Barber's Modern Cool, close by to remind me how dynamic, transparent, and richly three-dimensional the CDX could sound.

Still, compared to the sound of the CD2 (as my sonic memory recalls it), the CDX without external power supply but with the Chord interconnect struck me as somewhat too literal on top. By showing no mercy to less-than-exemplary recordings, the CDX made listening to many heavily processed CDs somewhat medicinal—sort of like listening through studio monitors. And the great recordings were balanced up-front, though free of sandy or grainy overlays.

The HDCD Factor
The addition of HDCD is a welcome upgrade. There are now thousands of HDCDs from major and minor labels, and while there remains some controversy as to exactly what the encoding/decoding accomplishes, the Pacific Microsonics HDCD encoder's detailed, transparent A/D converter is becoming increasingly popular with mastering engineers around the world.

Naim's temporary HDCD light inadvertently helped convince me of HDCD's efficacy. When I received Velvel's outstanding-sounding Kinks reissues late last summer (supervised by Ray Davies), I popped in Muswell Hillbillies, hit Play on the remote, and began listening. I didn't look for the HDCD light, because the disc said nothing about HDCD. Before long I found myself scribbling: "The delicacy, detail, and low-level resolution on this disc are amazing." Curious, I stopped the disc and reloaded it. On came the HDCD light. Whaddayaknow.

But HDCD alone isn't the main determiner of sound. I compared Steve Hoffman's non-HDCD gold CD remastering of Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark on DCC with the tracks from that album that appear on Joe Gastwirt's HDCD mastering of Mitchell's Hits CD (Reprise 46326-2). The gold CD was warmer and more to my liking, though the HDCD offered faster transients and a better delineation of inner detail. Good as both of these transfer are, Mitchell's LPs, both vintage and reissued, sound more convincing. Of course.

Upping the Power Supply, Changing the Cable
When the flat Nordost Blue Angel cable arrived, terminated with Naim's connector, I hooked it up and immediately—with no break-in—heard a clear overall improvement, especially in terms of transparency and high-frequency purity and continuity. Extension and detail remained excellent, but there was less of a sense of "spotlighting." I also tried various power cables, finally settling on the Yamamura Quantum as the complement to the Naim's sonic performance.

Shortly thereafter arrived the $4000 XPS power supply. Housed in the same chassis as the CDX, it couples to the player via a thick cable terminated with 11-pin, bayonet-locking connectors. Once attached, the CDX draws its power from, and is turned on and off via, the XPS. (I left the combination powered up continuously.)

The CDX alone is an exciting, involving performer, but the addition of the external power supply takes it to another level. The promise of the CDX's extended top end and brisk transient performance is fulfilled, with greater smoothness on top (but not at the expense of detail, which is actually heightened), improved overall focus, and better bass extension and authority. The whole picture jells.

Joe Boyd made his reputation during the 1960s producing albums by Richard Thompson, Nick Drake, the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, and on and on. Last year he produced two of his finest ever, both on Hannibal Records: The McGarrigle Hour and Dana and Karen Kletter's Dear Enemy. (The Kletter sisters vocalize with a lockstep precision and sympathy reminiscent of the Everly Brothers.)

Both discs were recorded by John Wood, whose credits you'll find on all the classic Boyd-produced albums, and both are intimate, well-recorded collections of what could be described as delicate "drawing room" music. The McGarrigle disc, featuring the extended family of Kate, Anna, and Jane McGarrigle and Loudon, Martha, and Rufus Wainwright, with such guests as Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, demonstrates the true greatness of the CDX/XPS combo.

On the opening track, Loudon Wainwright III's "School Days," there are multiple voices, acoustic and electric guitars, and a drum kit at the back of the soundstage. The vocal miking is sometimes purposefully ultraclose, sometimes more distant, in service to the song and to provide a spatial context for the singers. The CDX/XPS reproduced the tonality of each singer/mike combo, sounding edgy or warm where appropriate, each singer's physical and sonic envelope intensely focused in space. The acoustic guitar was richly portrayed, with both transient detail of the pick on the strings and the harmonic overtones of the resonating body. The sonic picture also included a warm, tremolo-drenched electric guitar and the distant drum kit.

The CDX/XPS conveyed the recording honestly and in great detail while imparting no particular sonic character. If the close-miked voices sounded slightly hard, The Naim convinced me that's what they sounded like on the master. The more distant vocals were warm, as was the electric guitar. The drum kit, subtly placed in the mix at stage rear, didn't turn to mush or get lost in the up-front guitars—it was detailed and focused, each snare hit and cymbal splash audible without sounding etched or spotlit.

That performance had me pulling out Begoña Olavide's extraordinary Salterio, an incredibly detailed and pristine recording of a variety of plucked string instruments, mostly psalteries, taped in a monastery on a 96kHz DAT (M•A Recordings M025A). The CDX/XPS's rendering of this recording was spectacularly transparent, detailed, and nuanced, with lightning-fast transient detail and not a hint of edginess or unnatural hyper-detail.

It was telling that, while I appreciated and respected the CDX by itself, it wasn't until I added the XPS that I was engaged enough to indulge in an orgy of disc pulling—miraculous under any circumstances, given my anti-CD predilection.

One disc led to another that first evening, ending with Olu Dara's delightful In the World (Atlantic HDCD 83077-2). That "folk-jazz" disc, which I'd already played with the CDX alone, clearly demonstrated the benefit of the XPS, especially at the frequency extremes. The bass tautness, focus, and even the extension were much improved on bottom, as was the brassy glow of Dara's distinctive cornet on top. The final track, "Kiane," is a lullaby featuring muted cornet, electric guitar, electric bass, and B-3 organ. The cornet was sweet and brassy at the same time, the bass muscular yet impressively detailed and fast, with no overhang whatsoever. I could "feel" the bassist's fingers touching and releasing the guitar strings with greater clarity than before. As with the CD2, the CDX is notable for its "blacker-than-black" backgrounds. And speaking of amazingly well-recorded trumpets and deep, taut bass, do not miss JVC's XRCD2 of Tiger Okoshi's Color of the Soil.

These great-sounding CDs demonstrated conclusively that the CDX/XPS combo delivered transparency, focus, inner detail, three-dimensionality, timbral accuracy, rhythmic authority, and most everything else you'd want from a CD player—or any front-end component, for that matter—and did so without imparting brightness, grain, or etch.

How did the CDX/XPS compare to the Bow Tech ZZ-8, my previous point of reference? The Naim sounded somewhat faster and perhaps slightly more detailed. Its bass presentation was unmatched, though the ZZ-8 is very close. The Bow Tech is somewhat less aggressive, and gives less-than-stellar recordings a bit more leeway. Both offer levels of image focus, soundstage depth, and, more important, musical involvement and listening satisfaction I wouldn't have thought possible from CD a few years ago. I'm certain both approach the limitations of the medium. If I could choose one, I don't know which it would be...but I'd be happy with either.

A component as ruthlessly revealing, dynamic, and detailed as the CDX/XPS demands equally accomplished associated equipment and recordings. Otherwise, it might sound aggressive, edgy, and unpleasant. Even under the best circumstances, the Naim CDX/XPS will not suit every listening taste. Those who prefer a laid-back, tubelike sound will be put off by the Naim's springy, up-front quality and assertive bass.

But I suggest listening to a fine piano recording before deciding. The CDX/XPS's rendering of that instrument is as accurate as I've heard from a CD player. It "gets" the piano's transient attack, harmonic structure, and physical image better than any CD player I've ever heard. Bad recordings—unfortunately, a majority—and inferior associated equipment will be ruthlessly revealed when partnered with the CDX/XPS. The right cable is critical, which makes the nonstandard Naim connector somewhat unfortunate.

Before packing up the CDX for shipping to Santa Fe, I removed the XPS and again ran the player from its internal supply. On its own the CDX was still a fine performer, but it sounded somehow incomplete, not as rhythmically coherent, immediate, and focused. The bass softened, and the piano's attack lost its astounding authority.

In short, the XPS external supply is more than icing on the cake. To hear the CDX's full potential, you need the XPS. That makes it an expensive CD player, but at least you can buy it in two steps. Think of it this way: When Naim comes out with its first DVD-Audio player, chances are it will be upgradeable using the XPS. You'll already be halfway there!

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