The ‘digits is digits’ brigade won’t be happy but Naim’s new streaming client is sensational, says Andrew Everard
So you thought the arguments about cables, CD players and amplifiers were bad? Well, spend a bit of time on the various hi-fi and audio internet forums – I know, but you have to admit they hold a certain morbid fascination! – and you’ll find just as much friction between those advocating ripping your entire music collection to a hard disk and playing it via a streaming device.
There are those who’ll tell you that all you really need is an iPod plugged into a pair of active speakers, and however much more you spend you won’t get a better sound. To demonstrate that such thinking is wide of the mark, I held off from going down the computer audio route for a long time, waiting until I found the sound quality on offer was at least on a par with that of a decent CD player.
Now I have in my system a player able to move performance a good way on from that, to a level matching the very best of CD hardware and – when fed with audio files of a resolution beyond that available on CD – comfortably bettering what one can achieve with the familiar silver disc.
I’ll get the painful part out of the way first: the Naim NDX is £2995 as tested here, or £3250 when fitted with an optional DAB/FM radio tuner module to supplement the internet radio capability of the standard model. That makes it comfortably one of the most expensive streaming clients of its kind on the market – and it is just a player, needing to be used with an amplifier and speakers, although it does have digital inputs to which other source components can be connected.
What we have here is a streaming client, able to access a network either using wireless (Wi-Fi) or wired (Ethernet) connection, and with a variety of additional inputs. There are three on the rear panel, one each on optical, phono electrical and BNC electrical, and a fourth in the form of a front-panel USB socket. To this last can be connected USB “thumb-drives” or Apple iPod/iPhone/iPad devices, from which the NDX will take music in its digital form, bypassing the digital-to-analogue conversion in the portable players.
Outputs are provided on conventional stereo phonos and Naim’s usual locking DIN socket, and there’s also a digital output, again on a BNC connector, while an upgrade path is provided once a “link plug” is removed: Naim’s XPS or 555PS power supplies can then be added for even better performance.
Other connectivity extends to an RS232 serial connection, used for future upgrades, and 3.5mm mini-jack sockets for remote control input and output: Naim has built a high degree of system automation into the NDX and, as well as controlling many of the company’s pre-amplifiers, integrated amps and CD players, the NDX can also be programmed to handle major functions of other products conforming to the RC-5 remote control protocols.
Talking of remote control, the NDX comes with its own handset, or can be “driven” from an Apple iPod, iPhone or iPad, using the app available from the iTunes Store. As well as the version of the n-Stream app available for the iPod/iPhone, I also had a beta version of the iPad app to try and this features much-improved graphics – not to mention my being able to use it without reading glasses!
The NDX draws on the design of Naim’s standalone digital-to-analogue converter, the Naim DAC. SHARC DSP-based buffering is used with fixed clocks, which serves to isolate the digital conversion from jitter in the incoming signal. Also implemented in DSP is the 16-time oversampling digital filter, which feeds the Burr Brown PCM1791A converter, at a maximum sample rate of 768kHz.
At the moment, that enables the NDX to handle most of the popular audio codecs – though Apple Lossless fans have to stick to playing tracks digitally from an Apple portable device, rather than streaming – at sample rates and resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz. The Naim also offers full gapless playback, so there are no nasty breaks when works are split over multiple “tracks”.
The sections of the NDX are separated using galvanic isolation, minimising noise transfer to the analogue outputs, and there are separate transformer windings and power supplies for each part of the player.
The NDX I received for review had been run for a considerable amount of time, and was thus ready to use almost “straight from the box”. I slotted it into a system using Naim Supernait/HiCap amplification and my usual PMC OB1 speakers, and after only a short period of set-up, which involved configuring the analogue and digital output selections, selecting the automation for the Supernait – very simple, by the way – and connecting the NDX to my home network, all was ready.
Looking back through my calendar, I note that the launch of the NDX was held on September 1 last year at Naim HQ in Salisbury, and the “within weeks” promise for samples gradually stretched into months – I finally got the review unit in March. Was the wait worthwhile? Absolutely: the Naim sounds quite unlike any other streaming client I have yet heard.
In very simple terms, it doesn’t give away any clue that the music being played is delivered from a computer hard drive, over a network and out through the player: fed with files at CD quality, it is more than a match for almost any CD player on the market, while stepping up to high-resolution downloads such as those from Naim’s own label, Linn Records or the likes of 2L sees the NDX showing the best of CD a clean pair of heels.
There’s a magnificent sense of body, of three-dimensionality, to music played via the NDX: orchestral percussion has both slam and weight; strings and woodwind are handled with the most delicious sense of the instruments’ character, and the rasp of a brass section is nothing short of gorgeous.
The ridiculous thing is, I found myself consistently listening at a higher volume than usual, drinking in the levels of detail available and enjoying the stress-free sound on offer. There are no crushed dynamics, no sense of character being imposed on the music, but rather just sheer enjoyment.
I’m going to stick my neck out here and say the NDX is the best digital music player I’ve had through my system in my many years of reviewing – and just as I started typing this sentence the drums, brass and skittering strings of Elgar’s seventh Enigma Variation came pouring out of the speakers and raised it even further in my estimation.
Indeed, I can’t remember when I had quite so much fun reviewing an audio component, to the extent that I’ve been supplementing the classical diet with (whisper it) some high-resolution rock recordings and finding the NDX every bit as impressive.
Every single recording I have played through this new Naim unit has surprised me with just how much it has to offer, and I haven’t been disappointed once by the musical experience. The NDX is the most exciting thing I have encountered in audio for a very long time and – even if it were on those grounds alone – that ensures it is worthy of absolute, unqualified recommendation.
Type Network music player
Price £2995 (£3250 with DAB/FM tuner module)
Inputs Wi-Fi, Ethernet, two optical and one electrical digital, USB (+ connection for radio antenna when DAB/FM module fitted)
Outputs Stereo audio on RCA phonos and DIN sockets, electrical digital
Other connections RS232, remote control in, two remote control out
Accessories supplied Remote control handset, Wi-Fi antenna
Made by Naim Audio Ltd, Southampton Road, Salisbury SP1 2LN
Tel +44 (0)1722 426 600
The test music
Elgar - Enigma Variations
LSO / Sir Colin Davis
LSO Live LSO0109
Downloaded from B&W’s Society of Sound, this massively dynamic recording sounds magnificent on the Naim.