Naim has found another way to build streaming into a system – this time in a preamplifier
Since the arrival of its first NaimUniti network music player around three and a half years ago, it seems Naim has been exploring all the possibilities of systems built around the streaming of music.
From the original single product, we now have five models in the Uniti range, not to mention three ND series players designed to be used with external amplification, giving the company of the most comprehensive streaming line-ups around.
The NaimUniti2 has recently replaced the original NaimUniti, with a new CD mechanism and digital-to-analogue converter, an improved analogue section and a useful power increase from 50W to 70W. Or you can choose the upmarket SuperUniti, compact – but CD-player-less – UnitiQute or the very new entry-level UnitiLite, with a simplified slot-loading CD mechanism in place of the more expensive swing-out loader used in the pricier models.
The players start with the ND5 XS and NDX, both of which have been reviewed in Gramophone, and top out with the NDS: the first two models can be upgraded with the addition of Naim’s external power supplies, while the NDS needs an external supply from the start.
And if you want something from which to stream your music, you can do that while staying within the Naim family, too: the company’s UnitiServe and HDX models will both rip CDs and store your music, at prices starting from £2150.
With all that, I thought Naim had the bases covered, but then came the model we have for consideration here: the NAC-N172 XS. Sitting in the company’s ‘XS’ range, which is one step above its entry-level CD player and integrated amplifier, and selling for £1650, the NAC-N 172 XS combines a preamplifier and a streaming player, giving the buyer a way to lay the foundations of a very upgradable Naim system, as well as adding streaming to an existing set-up while keeping the ‘box-count’ down.
The NAC-N 172 XS is based on the company’s conventional NAC 152 XS preamplifier, which sells for £1005, so you’re paying a premium of just under £650 for the streaming capability and the provision of digital inputs, to which the output from CD players, digital set-top boxes and the like can be connected, which seems entirely reasonable.
As an option, the NAC-N 172 XS can also be supplied with an FM/DAB radio tuner module installed, this adding £250 to the price. Remote control comes as standard, and in addition the preamplifier can be ‘driven’ using Naim’s free n-Stream app for iOS devices, giving extended information about the content being played, system integrated remote control and so on.
The preamplifier itself has five 24-bit/192kHz-capable digital inputs – two optical, two electrical, and a front-panel mini TOSlink optical on the front panel – plus a front-mounted USB port for memory devices and the digital connection of iPods and iPhones.
Three analogue inputs are provided: one on Naim's familiar DIN socket, one on conventional RCA phonos and a third using that front-panel 3.5mm combination socket, while output to a power amplifier are available on both DIN and phonos. There's also a line-level analogue output plus a front-panel headphone socket.
Both wireless and wired network connectivity is provided, Naim saying that the latter gives better stability of connection to a home network, and there are also remote control in and out sockets, and a mini-USB connection for future firmware updates.
One unusual feature – at least for a Naim preamplifier – is a mains input: unlike the company’s other preamps, which tend to be powered either from the power amplifier with which they’re used or an external power supply, the NAC-N 172 XS has an internal transformer, with separate windings for its digital and analogue sections.
Within, the preamplifier uses a digitally controlled analogue volume control for optimal sound quality, is able to stream content at up to 32-bit/192kHz resolution, has high-quality digital-to-analogue conversion from Burr-Brown, and can stream or play WAV, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, AAC, WMA, Ogg Vorbis and MP3 files, with gapless playback supported on all lossless formats.
For this test, Naim supplied a NAP 155 XS power amplifier, which delivers 60W per channel into 8ohms and sells for £1150, meaning the price of the NAC-N 172 XS with radio module plus power amplifier is around £3050, parking it squarely between the latest version of the NaimUniti and the SuperUniti.
That may seem to place it at a disadvantage – after all, there’s no CD player here – but Naim is aiming this product at a different market to those all-in-one systems: the price also pitches it at about £1000 less than an ND5 XS player plus a NAC 152 XS preamp used with the same power amplifier.
Set-up is as simple as with other Naim streamers, the NAC-N 172 XS quickly finding both the home network and the storage drive(s) on it, A DIN cable connects the preamp to the power amplifier, and Naim provides a ground lift switch to eliminate any hum caused when other equipment is connected.
Also handy is the input trim facility provided to ‘level out’ the volume of various sources, so there are no nasty shocks when changing input, while there’s also an ‘AV Fixed Volume’ option on the analogue inputs, which is useful should you be integrating the NAC-N 172 XS with an AV receiver.
And while the NAC-N 172 XS/NAP 155 XS combination isn’t going to trouble more expensive Naim combinations unduly, lacking the bass extension and conviction of the NDX/Supernait (with external power supplies for each unit) I have been using of late, and giving away some texture and upper frequency openness, there’s much to like about the way this set-up plays music.
There’s a directness and honesty about the sound that really communicates a recording very well indeed, the usual Naim clarity and speed serving highly detailed recordings excellently, giving a fine impression of vocal and instrumental clarity and allowing good speakers to create convincing soundstage pictures.
I tried the Naims with the PMC twenty.23 speakers, and the amplification and network player sections worked very well with the crisp, precise sound of the PMCs. As already mentioned, there isn’t quite the scale and grip to the bass available from more exalted Naim combinations, nor quite the sense of space and atmosphere in the very high treble – noticeable in particular with recordings made in large churches or chapels – but the Naims are never lightweight or insubstantial, and the midband and treble integrate well with the bass.
In other words, the streamer/amp doesn’t give you quite as much as you could have (in return for spending a lot more money), but you’re unlikely to miss anything significant other than in a direct comparison, so persuasively does this set-up play everything from accompanied voice to large-scale orchestral works. And that makes it well worth further investigation.
Naim NAC-N 172 XS
Type Network music player/preamplifier
Formats played WAV, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, AAC, WMA, Ogg Vorbis and MP3
Maximum resolution 192kHz/32-bit
Inputs three optical/two electrical digital, three analogue, USB
Outputs Fixed and variable level stereo, headphones
Other connections Wi-Fi, Ethernet, FM/DAB antenna (when optional tuner module fitted), remote in/out, mini USB for upgrades
Accessories supplied Remote handset, Wi-Fi antenna
Dimensions (WxHxD) 70 x 43.2 x 30.1cm
Naim NAP 155 XS
Type Stereo power amplifier
Output 2x60W into 8ohms
Input connection Stereo analogue in on four-pin DIN socket
Speaker connection 4mm sockets, plugs supplied
Dimensions 7 x 43.2 x 30.1cm
Project leader, Naim NAC-N 172 XS
On Vangelis, birthday violin solos and the importance of internet radio
Matthieu Guilloux, known at Naim as Matth, says his earliest musical influences include Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis and ‘lots of French artists’ including Francis Cabrel, Alain Souchon and Maxime Le Forestier.
He counts among his favourite performers and composers Bach and Keith Jarrett, and says he most memorable music experience was ‘A friend of mine – a very good violinist – playing one of my favourite pieces, Sur le fil, for my birthday.’
Among his favourite pieces used for tuning are the du Pre recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto and the Storm interlude from Britten’s Peter Grimes, along with Palestrina’s Gloria performed by the Tallis Scholars.
Asked how important sound quality is in the iPod age, he says ‘I think I have to say unfortunately not as important as it should be to most people. I don't think they know just how much they are missing.
With a good audio system, he says, ‘Soon one realises that less TV is being watched and far more music listened to.’
He considers himself ‘very lucky to work for a company that takes sound quality very seriously and to design products to bring great sound quality and convenience to new customers with our varied streaming range’, and adds that ‘Internet radio is especialy useful to me being a Frenchman who has been living in Salisbury for years, I can easily listen to loads of good French stations.’