Naim NAC 552 preamplifier Page 3

Tighten Up!
I started with the NAC 552's volume control at approximately 10 o'clock and put Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon SACD in the dCS Verdi's drawer. The familiar heartbeats shook the room with what struck me as noticeably tighter and more controlled definition than I'd become accustomed to through my reference Hovland HP-100 preamplifier.

Then the first blast hit with hurricane force. Ten o'clock was loud—way louder than my Hovland, or what I was expecting, and way too loud to tolerate. Below 9 o'clock was still rockin' loud, and throughout the review period, no source needed to be turned up much beyond that to play at levels that shook the house. The McIntosh MR-67 tuner's fixed-level Out provided so much gain that there wasn't enough usable range in the lower end of the 552's volume control. I was forced to go through the tuner's variable-output jacks with the Mac's pot turned well down.

According to the instruction manual, the NAC 552's nominal output is 775mV, which is not unusually high. Fortunately, the volume pot's taper offers a great deal of range at the low end, and with the remote's "nudge" facility, I had satisfactory volume control through all inputs at all times.

It's a cliché to say that Naim specializes in providing "rhythm'n'pacing," but wow, did this preamp let me know it! It was the first piece of Naim electronics I've had in my system that wasn't a CD player, and while those hint at exceptional control and rhythmic drive, the 552 put it in my face. I mean that in a good way.

Putting the 552 in my system was like outfitting my car with heavy-duty, high-performance shocks, 17" rims, and low-profile tires. Once I'd gotten used to the preamp's dynamic authority, and especially its grip on contrasts, when I played familiar recordings with explosive dynamics, such as Classic Records' 45rpm edition of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, I entered the same kind of relaxing yet exhilarating zone that I do when throwing a high-performance car into a hairpin turn at higher-than-normal speed. Just as I feel the small bumps in the road without the car pitching and rocking, the 552 did the same with low-level microdynamic contrasts.

Audiophiles who prefer soft and bulbous sound—judging by the enthralled crowds in some demo rooms at Consumer Electronics Shows, there are many of these—will probably find the 552 a bit stiff. But if you like your reproduced music to have "grip" and drive, the NAC 552 is the ride for you. Its control of the Audio Physic Avanti IIIs' woofers and its ability to deliver taut, realistic bass weight and textures were unsurpassed in my listening experience, and it accomplished these without sounding dry or overdamped. Kick drums were well-focused, the attacks not overly brittle, the decays not artificially fast.

Once I'd locked into this quality, I found myself pulling out LPs, CDs, and SACDs that showed it off, such as the UK vinyl edition of the first Clash album, and Elvis Costello's "From a Whisper to a Scream," from the UK F-Beat edition of Trust. That tune is also an excellent test of image placement and focus—the mixing engineer placed Costello's voice just to the right of the left speaker, and Squeeze's Glen Tilbrook just to the left of the right speaker. The 552 locked the two voices in space right where they belonged in 3D-like focus.

The NAC 552's solidity, control, and focus were not limited to the bottom of the audioband. These qualities extended right to the top, giving the preamp a coherent, solid, fully developed sound picture. Compared to my reference Hovland HP-100, the 552 was slightly darker, somewhat less transparent, and somewhat less liquid and airy in the upper mids, but those qualities were more appropriate to the preamp's bottom-end performance—just as the Hovland's somewhat lighter, less pronounced, but equally well-textured and well-focused bass was appropriate to its mid- and high-frequency performance. Both are great preamplifiers, in part because their designers have provided organically complete though very different pictures. If you like your images to have body and physical solidity, the Naim delivers that. If you want bloom, look elsewhere—but not to the Hovland, because it's not a "bloomy" tube preamp.

Once I'd settled in and begun enjoying rather than analyzing the sound—easy to do because the NAC 552 did nothing wrong that was readily apparent—I tried to envision what would happen if I ran the dCS Elgar and the Manley Steelhead directly out. Each has a built-in volume control designed to drive an amplifier directly, but here's where the Naim threw me for a loop. Audiophile gospel says that less is more—that the simpler and more direct the signal path, the more "pure" the sound. But after running both sources directly, then through the Naim, I preferred the sound through the NAC 552.

Both sources driving the amplifier directly sounded somewhat more transparent. For instance, with Cisco's indispensable LP reissue of Nathan Milstein's recording of the Dvorák Violin Concerto, there was a slightly creamier, sweeter texture to the violin's upper register, and greater richness to the overtones, via the Steelhead's volume pot—but there was more body and solidity to the fiddle through the Naim, and the orchestra had greater weight and image dimensionality.

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