Naim NA CDS CD player Page 3

More specifically, the CDS had a natural smoothness and sense of ease, particularly in the treble. This is one player I could listen to for hours without fatigue. The upper treble had a nice sense of air, with cymbals sounding delicate yet not rolled-off. In the lower treble and upper midrange, the CDS was extremely smooth, lacking the glare and grain often heard from digital. Consequently, instrumental textures were well portrayed, with a sense of natural timbres. There was, however, a slight "darkness" in the upper mids and lower treble rather than a crystalline clarity, a characteristic that contributed to the CDS's unoffensive presentation. Although less aggressive than most digital processors and CD players, the CDS was more incisive and up-front than the Linn.

Where the CDS clearly excelled in relation to the Linn, however, was in its ability to better involve the listener rhythmically in the music. The CDS was more exciting and upbeat, better conveying the music's energy. Music was more rhythmically involving through the CDS, particularly with some jazz, rock, blues, and fusion. However, I felt that the CDS was ultimately bettered in this regard by the Kinergetics KCD-55p, the Musik System Zero, and especially the latest Theta Generation III processor.

The CDS had a weightier presentation than I remembered the Linn having, but the CDS's bass tended to lack focus, snap, and speed. The mid- and upper bass, though a little lean, didn't cause the presentation to sound thin—perhaps because of the CDS's exceptionally smooth treble. Similarly, bass extension was good, but lacked the "center-of-the-earth" solidity exemplified by the sound of the Theta.

Despite the CDS's smoothness and listenability, I felt there was something missing. Extended auditioning—on its own and in comparisons with other processors—suggested that the CDS lacked the last measure of low-level detail. It was as though there was a threshold below which the CDS didn't resolve musical information. This no doubt contributed to the CDS's smoothness, but I found music overall less interesting and compelling despite the player's excellent sense of pace. Compared to the Bitwise Musik System Zero, PS Audio UltraLink, and particularly the Theta DS Pro Gen.III, the CDS's presentation of detail was much more subdued. On the Mokave CD (AudioQuest AQ-CD1006), the intricate percussion work (frame drums) that makes this music so interesting rhythmically was less immediate, detracting from the music's intensity. The fine inner detail that gives the listener a greater sense of instruments existing in the listening room tended to get lost through the CDS. There was just less information presented to the listener.

I should make clear that I'm not a detail freak. Many processors are etched, bleached, and hyped to sound more "exciting." Such products wear thin very quickly. I much prefer a slight loss of detail to an artificially analytical presentation. Nevertheless, I continually felt the CDS was missing part of the music (footnote 4).

Similarly, dynamics were less than impressive. Drums lacked the leading-edge sharpness and impact that contribute to some music's life and rhythmic drive. Transients sounded a little slow and subdued, rather than quick and tight. This was true of both fine dynamic structure and overall slam. This impression was confirmed by playing my drum recording on the second Stereophile Test CD. Through the CDS, it lacked the impact, immediacy, and quickness I remember from the recording session—and have heard from other digital front ends.

Soundstaging was good, but not superlative. The CDS didn't throw as great a sense of space and air as the Musik System Zero or Theta Gen.III. Listen to "Spontaneity," from Mike Garson's musically and sonically superb The Oxnard Sessions, Vol. One (CD, Reference Recordings RR-37CD). This recording's stunning spaciousness has the potential of turning the front half of a listening room into the Oxnard Civic Auditorium. With the CDS, I never got the same sense of depth or three-dimensional layering heard with the Gen.III or even the modestly priced Musik System Zero. The hall seemed smaller, there was less bloom and air around the instruments, and the CDS lacked the same degree of see-through transparency.

I attribute these characteristics to the CDS's apparent loss of low-level detail; low-level information provides the subtle spatial cues necessary for throwing a fully developed soundstage.

The presentation thrown by the CDS didn't differentiate individual instrumental outlines as well as many other processors. There wasn't the same sense of individual instruments hanging in three-dimensional space. This tendency to fuse image outlines had musical consequences. On the Bach Sonata in e, BWV 1034, from Gary Shocker's excellent Gary Shocker, Flutist CD (Chesky CD46), for example, the cello was less of an individual entity, resulting in a reduced sense of the counterpoint between it and the flute. Listening to the same piece through the Theta Gen.III and Musik System Zero, the counterpoint was much more apparent; the two processors better conveyed the music's intent.

Overall, the CDS's shortcomings were those of omission rather than commission. This made the CDS smooth, unfatiguing, and easy to listen to, but at the expense of not resolving all the information in the music. Although I enjoyed listening to the CDS, particularly the manner in which it conveyed the rhythmic values of the music being played, it never passed the threshold of totally immersing me in the music.

I enjoyed my time with the Naim CDS. It was smooth, natural, and always easy to listen to. I never felt affronted by the CDS, a quality that may endear it to many music lovers.

Ultimately, however, the CDS didn't quite measure up to the formidable competition of the identically priced Theta Data transport driving a Theta Generation III via ST-type optical interface. By contrast, the CDS was missing a layer of musical detail underneath the presentation. The CD player also lacked the Theta's rock-solid bass, quickness, and impression of instruments hanging in three-dimensional space. I also felt the CDS was bettered in many areas by the $1500 Musik System Zero processor. Some listeners, however, may prefer the CDS's softer, less incisive presentation.

Another logical comparison is with the Linn Karik/Numerik CD player; both are the first digital products from venerable analog-leaning UK manufacturers. The Linn had a greater smoothness, sense of ease, and more naturally portrayed instrumental and vocal textures. The CDS, however, was more rhythmically exciting, with a weighter bass presentation. Ultimately, however, despite its lightweight tonal balance, I did feel the Linn to be the more musically involving machine.

In short, the CDS's flaws were of omission rather than of commission. It added no unmusical characteristics to the music, yet it failed to involve me sufficiently musically. These criticisms, however, must be taken in the context of the CDS's not insignificant price: the standards of performance to earn a recommendation should be high at this price level.

Don't get me wrong: the CDS is a very good-sounding CD player. But at $7395, the competition is fierce—particularly from the Theta Data/Generation III. Those listeners who tend to shy away from the Theta's type of presentation and prefer a more easygoing rendering would be better off spending $1600 less for the Linn Karik/Numerik, in my opinion.

Footnote 4: The Mark Levinson No.30 had an extraordinary detailed rendering, yet the detail was so subtly and naturally presented.
Naim Audio Ltd.
North American distributor: Naim Audio North America Inc.
Chicago, IL 60614