Friday, May 2, 2008

Naim CD555 CD player

Naim CD555 CD player 
Naim CD555 CD player 
Naim CD555 CD player 
Naim CD555 CD player 
Naim CD555 CD player 
Naim CD555 CD player 
Naim CD555 CD player 
Naim CD555 CD player 
Naim CD555 CD player 
Naim CD555 CD player 
HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

Naim's new "statement" CD player, the CD555 ($20,300 by itself, $28,150 with PS555 power supply), breaks no new technological ground. Rather, in typical Naim fashion, it attempts to optimize 16-bit/44.1kHz CD performance by paying fanatical attention to the devilish details. It doesn't play the DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, or SACD formats, nor does it have a digital output—and it doesn't create an illusion of higher resolution by upsampling the data.

Encased in an almost forbiddingly heavy, precision-milled box of black aluminum with edges that are almost sharp as razors, the CD555 exudes all the mystery of some Fortress of Solitude. Two multipin cables made by Burndy—one each for the analog and digital circuits—connect the CD555 to the 555PS power supply ($7850), which is another dense, sharp-edged brick of black, brushed aluminum. The 555PS can be used with any Naim CD player made from 1998 to the present day. It has seven regulated power supplies, five secondary transformer windings, a 40% larger transformer than its predecessor (Naim's XPS2), and a low-resonance case with isolating feet.

The CD555's motorized, top-mounted disc door runs silently and smoothly, and seals tightly to shut out ambient light. Its clamshell design replaces the swing-open, front-mounted disc drawers of earlier Naim players. If you set the CD555 by itself on a lower shelf of an equipment rack, you'll need a between-shelves distance of about 9" for the door to clear. The disc transport itself is a Philips Pro with a diecast chassis; it resides in a heavy, machined tray designed to reduce resonances. Paint that minimizes the reflection of infrared light coats the tray area to reduce interference from stray light from the player's laser.

Pacific Microsonics' PMD200 chip handles digital filtering, which means the CD555 will recognize and decode HDCDs, while vintage (ie, introduced in 1998) Burr-Brown PCM 1704 DACs convert the digital signal to analog. There's a separate, triple-regulated, low-jitter clock circuit with its own multistage regulated power supply, sourced from a transformer secondary winding, and a post-digital filter circuit that Naim says virtually eliminates jitter.

Discrete components handle the current-to-voltage conversion, seven-pole analog filtering, and analog output stages. The digital circuit boards are made with surface-mount technology, the analog boards with the more conventional "through-hole" construction.

Three independent leaf-suspension systems, each tuned to a different frequency, isolate the analog and digital board assemblies and the CD tray. In designing the separately suspended analog and digital assemblies, Naim situated the analog-regulation board below the one that handles the analog signal in order to maintain a stable operating temperature. On the digital side, the regulation board is over the signal-processing board because that arrangement results in the most stable operating temperature. The DACs are mounted in what Naim calls a "quiet room"—an environment shielded to prevent varying electrical and magnetic fields from interfering with the DACs' performance.

The cost of all of the engineering tweaks, the superb, bulletproof construction, and Naim's Apple Computer–like first-class industrial design, is $28,150. Do the CD555 and 555PS add up to a significant improvement in CD sound? Or is Naim merely repolishing their already established, admittedly impressive take on what most listeners acknowledge to be the compromised resolution of the "Red Book" CD standard? More than 20 years after the launch of the Compact Disc, are there any more data still to be extracted from a sound format of inherently limited resolution? After all, you can't get a 480i-resolution monitor to display a 1920x1080p high-definition picture no matter what you do, and CD's measured and sonic performance has already come a long way since the format's introduction. What's left to improve? The question is not rhetorical.

Setup and Use
Before the CD555 can be used, the transport screws used to secure the three suspension systems must be removed—without turning the heavy player over. That requires hanging it off the side of a table or other platform from various angles in order to gain access to all seven screws. Then, moving the player to its final destination results in a loud clatter as its heavy brass subassemblies bang around inside, even if you try to keep the player level. No harm done, but it's best to remove the screws as close as possible to where the player will permanently sit.

Speaking of sitting—if you do place the CD555 on a lower and/or poorly lit shelf, you'll find that its controls won't light up until you activate one of them, either directly or via the rugged remote control, with its illuminated LCD screen. Ditto the lack of illumination in the CD well itself, where you might find yourself fumbling in locating the spindle, and in placing the magnetic CD clamp atop it once the disc is in place. But all of these are minor inconveniences; I suspect most buyers will place the CD555 on a top shelf—where, indeed, such a top-shelf product deserves to reside.

Naim includes both RCA and DIN analog outputs, selectable via a few button-presses on either the remote or the player. You can use both outputs simultaneously, but Naim says the player won't sound as good that way, so don't. Naim supplies a set of DIN-to-RCA interconnects, which I used during the break-in period and for my initial listening. However, in order to remove one unknown variable, I eventually switched to a set of TARA Labs The Zero interconnects fitted with RCAs. The resulting sonic improvement was enormous, and as described in my review of The Zero in the December 2006 Stereophile. A cable that handles attack, sustain, and decay as effectively as The Zero does well serves Naim's signature sound, as described in the next paragraph.

Virtually everything in my system has changed since I last reviewed a Naim CD player: the CD5, in April 2001 (footnote 1). Since then too much time has passed for me to make any comparisons, but the CD555 delivered all of the sonic attributes for which Naim is known: taut, punchy bass, rhythmic agility, transient clarity, exceptional resolution of low-level detail, and overall transparency. Like other Naim CD players I've heard, the CD555 managed all of this without sounding etched, bright, or harmonically bleached, and delivered weight and body while never sounding "zippy." Yet its overall tonal presentation was definitely cooler and less voluptuous than that of the Zanden pair, even as its bass extension and punch were deeper and better controlled.

At a presentation I did last October at Seattle dealer Definitive Audio, recording engineer Matthew Gephardt came by to listen and give me a CD he'd engineered: bluegrass mandolin player Chris Thile's How to Grow a Woman from the Ground (Sugar Hill Sug-CD-4017), recorded at New York's Sear Sound using a Forssell Technologies mike preamp and two vintage Telefunken ELA M251E microphones in spaced-omni orientation. You need to hear this disc. I'd not heard it on any other player, but via the CD555, the quintet's spatial presentation was intensely three-dimensional, vibrant, and whole; the band's rhythmic and dynamic delivery were cleanly rendered and breakneck exciting, if tonally somewhat on the cool side.

At last fall's Hi-Fi News show at Heathrow Airport, I picked up a used copy of an early-1970s pressing of the Elgar Cello Concerto with cellist Jacqueline Du Pré, and John Barbirolli conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (LP, EMI ASD655). I also have the same performance on CD (EMI CMS 7 63282-2). When hack film composers want to show a scene of war's devastation or some other unpleasantness, they reach for the aching melody of the first movement and it works like a charm. I heard the concerto performed live at Avery Fisher Hall last year, and damned if I didn't catch "a cold" a few minutes in.

On vinyl, when Du Pré bows her instrument, my heart breaks. On CD, I merely take note (in this case, literally). The massed strings melt in my ears via vinyl; via CD, they merely tickle. In an A/B comparison, the hall alternately appears (LP) and disappears (CD). (In all fairness, so do some pops and ticks.) That's just the way it is, whether you spend $2800 or $28,150 on a CD player—which is not to fault the Naim CD555-555PS. In fact, the Naim pairing's rhythmic and dynamic agility and low-level resolve made its rendering of this recording quite involving and attention-grabbing, if somewhat harmonically reticent compared to the Zanden player that I reviewed last November, which costs nearly twice as much and measures only half as well (though the latter is probably a bit of an exaggeration).

So rather than compare CDs to LPs, I thought it more worthwhile to compare the CD555 to Musical Fidelity's two-box kW DM25 transport and DAC, which Art Dudley reviewed in July and which sells for a comparatively modest $6500.

I keep worrying that my enthusiasm for TARA Labs' The Zero interconnect is delusional, Pavlovian, or whatever, so I began with another brand of interconnect between the kW DM25's solid-state output and my preamplifier, and TARA The Zeros between the Naim and the preamp. Armed with two copies of the Chris Thile CD, I began my A/B comparisons.

No contest. The Naim's bottom-end control, instrumental focus, soundstage clarity, transient speed, and overall tunefulness simply outdid the Musical Fidelity. I then compared two CD-R copies of mostly acoustic tracks I've compiled from various LPs. The results were similar.

Then I leveled the playing field with a pair of TARA Zeros going to the Musical Fidelity CD player and began listening again to the CD-R compilation, which ranges from Don Henley's "End of the Innocence" to the Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band," Joni Mitchell's "Cold Blue Steel," Clive Gregson and Christine Collister's devastating "I Specialise," Nanci Griffith's " I Don't Want to Talk About It," Arlo Guthrie's "Down in the Valley," and Peter Case's magnificent-sounding "Put Down the Gun," among others—in short, enough dynamic, tonal, and spatial variety to let me know what was going on. Yes, there was still a difference, but it was now almost imperceptible. I feel confident that most casual listeners would say that the two players sounded virtually identical in terms of every item on a checklist of audiophile playback parameters. However, most audiophiles are not casual listeners and for the serious listener, the improvements in bass weight and control, high frequency transient resolution and spatial focus out to the very back and corners of the soundstage might be worth the asking price

When I listened with great concentration for any hint of sonic signature, the Naim exhibited slightly tighter overall control and spatial focus, had a little less congestion and greater weight in the bass, and slightly better transient resolution at very high frequencies—all areas in which Naim gear is known to excel. For instance, Nick Lowe's "Cruel To Be Kind" is equalized with a ludicrous amount of top-end information, which accentuates guitar strums, tambourine hits, and Lowe's sibilants—all of which the Naim CD555 rendered with slightly greater precision and clarity, without any added hardness or stridency. The Musical Fidelity kW DM25 reproduced the tambourines with less resolution and more clatter.

Overall, however, the two players were more alike tonally, spatially and harmonically than they were different. We're not talking about transducer-type differences so that depending on the source material, these differences could be significant or inconsequential. The biggest and most consistently noticeable differences, regardless of source material, were in image solidity and size, soundstage focus, and overall musical control—all Naim signature sonic attributes. In the A/B contests, the Naim always won but usually not by a large amount. However, one of the reasons we tend to reject "A/B" tests is because we listen over time, not for short bursts, and over time the 555 proved its value. Switching to other brands of interconnect—for instance, Shunyata Research's smooth yet detailed Antares Helix—changed the overall characters of both players, but I could still hear the same slight differences. The importance of those differences was determined by the musical content and recording quality.

The recently resurrected Reference Recordings has just issued their 30th Anniversary Sampler HDCD (RR-908). I compared the Naim's HDCD signal with the Musical Fidelity's non-HDCD signal, upsampled by the player to192kHz. I didn't hear enough difference in resolution to write about, but the greater image solidity, focus, and all the other Naim specialties were still evident from the CD555, though still bettering the MF's performance by only a hair.

Value is almost impossible to define. Is the Naim CD555's more refined sound worth the $21,650 difference in price between it and the kW DM25? In the highest strata of audiophilia, small incremental sonic improvements seem to cost more as you near the limits of what's possible, or what was previously considered possible. Like other companies playing in the 16-bit, 44.1kHz playground, Naim has probably reached the limits of what's possible with the format. Getting there required the expenditure of a great deal of time, effort and money and the results do speak for themselves. I can't say listening was a "mind blowing" experience, but it was certainly the best CD sound I've heard other than that of the mediocre-measuring and twice as expensive Zanden. Call me a "distortion lover."

That said, the CD555 was the best solid-state CD playback that I've heard and while the differences between it and a far less expensive CD player seemed minimal in the short run, I imagine that a music lover with a big collection of CDs and a bank account to match will find his long term listening pleasure intensified to a degree that would make such a purchase well worth the investment. And then there's the exceptional engineering, meticulous build quality and attention to detail that went into its design and manufacture. It's difficult to put a price tag on that, but Naim had to and that price tag is $28,150. Only you can determine if the CD555 is worth that much scratch.

Footnote 1: Art Dudley reviewed the Naim CD5x in November 2004, with a follow-up in November 2005.—Ed.

Related Links...