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September 2007
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine

Naim X Series System
A different way to travel... by using the system approach.
CD-5x CD Player, NAC-122x Remote Preamplifier, Stageline Phono Preamplifier,
NAP-150x Power Amplifier, Flatcap 2x Power Supply
Review By Nels Ferre
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

Naim Audio 122x Preamplifier & 150x Power Amplifier   Lately, I have noticed that very few music lovers own a single brand system and have wondered why. This review of the Naim CD-5x CD player, NAC-122x remote preamplifier, Stageline phono preamplifier, NAP-150x power amplifier, and Flatcap 2x power supply will cover this single-branded idea. One of the great things about a mix and match brands component system is that it allows one to get the sound and features they desire. When everything falls together as is hoped it is great, but it can just as easily go wrong. Brand X amplifier doesn't play well with well with Brand Y preamplifier, and Brand Z CD player doesn't like Brand X or Brand Y. This leads to disappointment and frustration, and possibly to expensive equipment changes.

On the other hand, a music lover could buy a single or nearly single brand system and be pretty much guaranteed of compatibility, as the components from a single manufacturer are designed to work together. Back in the late '80s into the late '90's I ran a system like this. Specifically, a Harman Kardon Citation amplifier, preamplifier, and tuner plus top-of-the-line Harman Kardon CD player. Enjoyed it for ten years with great reliability and there were no matching issues. Although I no longer own any of those components, and my system is now comprised of components from a wide variety of manufacturers, I still see the advantages of buying all of the components from the same manufacturer.

 

The Naim Game
Although Naim has been in business for 35 years, they seem to be just a bit on the edge of high-end here in the United States. Naim Audio is established but not mainstream. Have read various reviews of Naim gear over the years but had never personally known anyone who owned any Naim gear, nor had I ever visited a Naim dealer. There was something special when it came to Naim and when I got an e-mail offering the opportunity to review not one piece of Naim equipment, but a full compliment of Naim electronics, I jumped at the opportunity.

 

Thinking Outside The Box
Naim USA sent a full compliment of Naim electronics, namely (ahem) the NAP-150x 50 watt per channel power amplifier ($1750) along with the NAC-122x Remote Line Stage ($1550) and the Stageline N Phono Stage ($485.) CD playback was handled by the CD-5x CD player, which also features HDCD capability ($3250.)

Here is where the weirdness begins as the folks at Naim obviously think outside the box. I'm not sure they even see a box to begin with. With nearly any other manufacturer, all one would need to add to a CD player, preamplifier and power amplifier to make music would be cables to wire everything together and a pair of speakers and Shazam, a working music system! And so you do with Naim as well... however their journey takes a slightly different route. The NAC-122x preamplifier and the Stageline N Phono Stage have no internal power supplies, they get their power from connections to the NAP-150X. (Those who purchase the Stageline N a la carte get a wall wart.)

Naim Flatcap2x Power SupplyAs an option, and highly recommended, is the Flatcap2x Power Supply ($1150) which provided juice for the preamplifier and phono stage for the duration of the review. Color me embarrassed because it was included along with the other components provided by Naim USA, and because the preamplifier and phono stage have no built in power supplies, I assumed that the Flatcap 2x was required.

Thinking about it, it makes perfect sense as the power supplies are isolated from the sensitive audio circuits of the preamplifier and phono stage. A nice touch is the ability to add to the built in power supply of the CD-5x to increase its performance. This is a feature I would like to see with more audio gear. The components can be run as is or an uprated power supply added for those who desire an increase in performance. I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't add the Flatcap 2x, but for those who are a bit pinched financially, they can start with the NAC-122x and NAP 150x to later add on to the system as funds allow.

Naim SNAIC CableConnecting the gear together is an exercise in unconventionality as well, for Naim does not use RCA cables for making audio connections. Instead, they use a combination of DIN cables and SNAICs a modified DIN cable used exclusively by Naim. Although not difficult to work with, their use did require me to refer to the connection diagrams more than a few times. This is something I have not done in many years. It made me consider what novice music lovers must go through when connecting a more conventional system. It wasn't difficult and when the connections were made they made perfect sense once I "wrapped my head" around their logic.

I received the following e-mail from Chris Koster, Vice President of Sales for Naim USA:

"The great part of the two box preamp and amp solution is that one gets the benefit of an integrated amp, which, if designed correctly, operates in harmony as a whole due to simpler grounding, with the benefits of separates, which is lower noise with higher power and heat dissipation. The single ground connection of the 4 pin SNAIC cable is that the level grounding is guaranteed by the single ground connection.

The Flatcap2x has two large ultra-quiet regulators, and the 5 pin SNAIC cable that comes included with the supply carries:
 -left channel
 -right channel
 -ground
-24 volts that powers the input stages of the preamp
-24 volts that powers the later stages of the preamp.

By adding a Flatcap2x as an "optional" upgrade to the preamp and amp (and CD player and, by extension, the attached phono stage via the extra purity of power coming into the preamp), one removes the intermodulation distortion that occurs between the early and late stages of the preamp, which, along with the ultra-low noise performance inherent in the design of the Flatcap2x, gives an excellent return on investment."

 

I could not have said it better myself.

There are some additional advantages to the DIN/SNAIC arrangement: because both audio channels are connected with a single cable, there are fewer cables overall in a Naim setup. Because the cables are supplied by Naim, one can be assured that these cables are designed to be a good sonic fit. One won't muck up the sound with the "wrong" cable in a Naim system, something that is easily done with RCAs.

The downside? Should one want to connect a component from another manufacturer to the preamplifier, a DIN to RCA adapter cable may be required. Actually, there are a two pairs of RCA inputs as well as a pair of outputs, marked "Subwoofer." The rub is that if a Naim phono preamplifier and CD player are both used, they override the RCA inputs, making them unusable. Those who won't be running more than 1 other Naim source component will have use of at least 1 pair of inputs.

Rounding out the system were a pair of eight-foot NCA5 speaker cables ($364) as well as a Wiremold 9 way power strip (although only 3 connections are needed- $80.) Don't think about using your favorite speaker cables in a Naim system, as the terminations are different on both ends, a sort of modified banana plug. One last DIN to DIN cable ($215) is needed to make the extra connection between the CD-5x and the Flatcap 2x Power Supply. The grand total for all of these goodies is a cool $8844.

 

The Setup
The remaining players in the system were my SOTA Star Series III vacuum platter turntable ($2500) fitted with a modified Rega RB-250 arm ($399) and a Denon DL-110 moving coil cartridge ($150). I would have liked to use my Dynavector DV-20XL ($695) but it was out for a rebuild/upgrade. Speakers were the excellent ART Stiletto 6 Loudspeakers from Scotland ($5,000/pair, review forthcoming.) I did not use any type of power conditioners or surge protectors, as Naim does not recommend them. Despite my fear of disaster due to lightning strike or power surge, as I live in Florida, which is the lightning strike capital of the world, I ran the system the way they shipped it.

Decided to use the ART Stiletto 6 for the duration of the review for a few different reasons. First, I had listened to them enough with my own gear and developed a good sense of their strengths, which are many, as well as their faults, which are few. I found them to be an excellent sonic fit with the Naim gear. Furthermore, their price fits right in line with what I would expect someone buying this system to spend, as well as in the range a dealer might choose to demonstrate the system.

Additionally, the ART Loudspeakers Stiletto 6 is a superior loudspeaker to the Infinitys that I have owned since 1993. Rated at 88.5dB/W/m, they are a good electrical match to the 50-watt per channel Naim NAP-150x. It made sense to use the best speaker that I had available to me at the time. As the equipment was shipped to be reviewed as a system, I resisted the temptation to use the CD-5x in my reference system.

 

First Impressions
Picked up the system from the shipping agent early on a Saturday morning and set it up while my wife was asleep. I was immediately impressed with its understated elegance. The appearance of the gear exudes quality and refinement along with a healthy dose of British reserve. Gazing across the room at the system, I couldn't help but be reminded of another British icon. That being the legendary luxury automobile manufacturer Rolls Royce. It seems that if one is shopping for a Roller and inquires about horsepower, the answer will be "Sufficient." That says it all about Naim as well, everything is designed with a purpose in mind, everything one needs and nothing one does not. It doesn't draw attention to itself (unlike a Rolls Royce) yet when it is noticed, it whispers quality. It is far too refined to scream it.

When my wife awoke, her first reaction was a rapid-fire rat-tat-tat of monologue that went something like this, "Wow that sure looks hot! How much is it? How long do we get to borrow it? Wow, That looks great! Can we keep it? Sounds fantastic! Nine grand? That's not too bad, are you sure we can't keep it? I really really like it!" I realize she mentioned the appearance of the equipment more than once. Note that she was an art major in college so definitely places an accent on the visual aspects of things. Note to self: Wife Acceptance Factor... check!

Naim Audio CD-5x CD PlayerThe system was uneventful in use with one exception, as the CD drawer on the CD-5x manually pivots on one side. Because no motors are involved, the CD-5x should have above average reliability. I had seen pictures of the CD-5x both on line and in print, so I knew what to expect. However in use, my first reaction was literally "Whoa, funky!" I quickly got used to it. Like the rest of the system, it just makes sense.

The other aspect that was a bit different with the Naim system was that it appears to be designed to be left on at all times. All of the power switches are on the rear panels and the remote did not have a power button. I didn't see a problem with this as the gear was always "warm" and ready to use. The system sounded a bit better after being powered up for an hour anyway, more open, more articulate. My power bill was slightly elevated with the Naim gear, but its arrival also coincided with the arrival of our first triple digit heat wave so I doubt the gear was the cause. For my own piece of mind, I did unplug it when we left on vacation. I really didn't want to have to explain any mishaps with lightning to the guys at Naim... "Ummm, Chris? This is Nels...."

Another nice feature, although I seldom use it, is remote control. The remote that comes with the NAC-122x preamplifier is a full system remote, which will control other Naim components. The nice touch is that the identical remote is included with the CD-5x CD player, giving a Naim system owner a spare in case of a malfunction or mishap. Ask me about my two nearly identical cordless phones, identical except for the Boxer tooth marks all over one of them.

 

Sounds Like... Music
Those of you who have been following my reviews (both here and elsewhere) will know that I am a "tube" guy. I hesitate to use the term "hardcore" although some may not. I do not believe I fall into that category because I do not go the "new old stock" route. Simply can't see the value in using expensive tubes, which will eventually wear out. This is unlike my feelings on expensive phono cartridges, which, although they will suffer the effects of stylus wear, can be rebuilt for a reasonable sum. Why the mention of tubes in a review of a solid-state system? Because the very reasons I prefer tubes to solid state, emotional involvement with the music, purity of tone, and a sense of real musicians performing music. The Naim system did, and in some instances, did better than my reference system.

The term PRAT (Pace, Rhythm and Timing) often comes up in reviews of British gear, a term that the British often use. American reviewers often note if the system got their toes tapping, and the Naim/ART Loudspeakers system certainly did. One of the most telling tracks I can think of is the title track from Los Lobos' 1990 release The Neighborhood. [Warner Brothers 075992613125] With systems that excel in PRAT, it is easy to lock onto the rhythm of the track. With systems that fall short, the beat of the tune is evasive. Its as if the band were slightly drunk, at times, with other systems. This track has reminded me of the opening scene of "The Jerk" with Steve Martin as he lays in bed listening to music, yet humorously the viewer discovers he has absolutely no sense of rhythm. This wasn't the case with Naim in the house.

The system tonally was as neutral as one could hope for. I recently slammed Virgin Records' LP reissue of The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street. [Virgin LP 7243-8-47864-1-0] as have played this album every time I made a change to to my system since it was purchased. Every time it was played i came away disappointed, as it was muffled, dark, closed in, and the highs were rolled off. Keep in mind I have owned this album for several years and have heard it through many combinations of gear. Was pleasantly surprised listening through the Naim/ART Loudspeakers setup. While not the audiophile version I had hoped for, it was now more enjoyable and no longer felt as if I had wasted $45. The ART Loudspeakers are brighter than my own, to be sure, though have heard the album through other speakers and the album had always disappointed. It can't be the cartridge loading of the Stageline N either, as Exile was at least approaching neutrality, then every other LP would be bright to the point of ear bleeding. This was not the case as other great sounding LPs sounded excellent.

Bass was tight and tuneful as well. A recent purchase of the U.K. import Limited Edition 3 LP set of The Best of Depeche Mode [Motel 15.0094637507414] Side A opens with "Personal Jesus," one of their biggest hits. The bass line pounds the track throughout. Regardless of the fact that the Naim amplifier had only 50 watts on tap, there seemed to be plenty of headroom. That's not to say that someone with a larger, more acoustically dead room than mine may want more power as Naim does offer larger amplifiers for those who need them. The NAP-150x did sound larger and more dynamic than its modest power rating would indicate.

The CD-5x made CDs sound smoother, with less of the artifacts that I feel make digital inferior to analog. What I really enjoyed was the HDCD capability. One of my favorite HDCD encoded discs is Chris Isaac's Baja Sessions. [Reprise 093624632528]. The opening track "Pretty Girls Don't Cry" showed the systems sound staging capability with Isaac well in front of a small combo strumming his acoustic guitar. This system throws a believable sonic image with softer music. Louder music will, of course, require more sensitive speakers or a more amplifier power. The CD-5x, like the rest of the system, was a joy to use. One of my favorite features of the CD-5x, besides the funky pivoting drawer and HDCD capability, was the display. It can be set to stay on continuously or only turn on for a second or two when changing tracks and remaining dark otherwise. This is how I kept it set. When I listen to music I don't want to be distracted by the equipment.

My favorite aspect of the system was it's smoothness combined with excellent resolution. Found myself pawing through both my CD and LP collection time and again pulling out many old favorites. In many instances not the ones with the best sonics. Enjoyed some of my favorites like Jamaican Ska from the late '60's for example, while taking less notice of the warts inherent in the recordings. The Naim system was well rounded. What's the point of a system that only pleases with a handful of recordings?

 

Conclusion
To say that I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Naim system would be a massive understatement. I found the gear to be quite attractive, intuitive in use, and excellent performance. This is a system that could please both the "Hi-Fi Nut" as well as those not similarly afflicted who want a great sounding system that looks both elegant and non-intrusive at the same time. Can quite easily picture my wife's parents enjoying this system in their home, although they would never spend the cash. My wife is a different matter altogether. When we move from our condominium into a house she insists that one of our first purchases for our new home will be a stack of Naim gear for the living room. I'm sure we will both use it quite often. Her plan sounds like a great plan to me! I am all for it. Very highly recommended.

 

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High-frequencies (3,000Hz on up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape width front

Soundscape width rear  
Soundscape depth behind speakers

Soundscape extension into the room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Enjoyment

Value for the Money

 

Manufacturer Comments
Dear Nels and staff at Enjoy the Music.com,

It's rare that a US publication will review a complete system from one brand..., which makes life a little harder for a company that engineers things this way! So firstly, all of us at NaimUSA and Naim UK wholeheartedly applauds the staff and Nels for making this commitment. Thank you.

As for the review, Nels' direct-to-the-musicality analysis is right on target. He understood Naim's core values right out of the box... and what's more, this is the initial separates system in the Naim range.

The fact that Naim is a valve lover's solid-state dream is not lost on many Naim owners over the past 35 years either. Running a Naim system longer term is inexpensive, and yes the power usage at standby is negligible. Reliability and longevity are certainly Naim strengths. On that note, I will comment that we are currently examining power strips that offer some storm protection with minimal power compromises, as an option for those who require it.

Nels' enthusiasm for music matches ours, and I am ready to buy some of the discs he talks about! It's always a delight when someone understands that Naim is not about hi-fi, it's about the music.

Regards,

Chris West
VP NaimUSA

 

Specifications
Type: Naim X System

NAC-122x Remote Preamplifier
Inputs: 6
Input Sensitivity: 75mV, 47kOhm
Output Levels for Tape/AV/Aux 1: 75mV, 600 Ohm
Main Output: 0.775V, <50 Ohm
Overload Margin On All Inputs: 35dB
Dimensions: 70 x 432 x 301

 

Stageline Phono Preamplifier
Available as:
Moving Coil and Moving Magnet
'S': 100uV/470ohm for low output cartridges
'K': 100uV/560ohm for selected moving coil cartridges
'E': 400uV/400ohm for medium ouput cartridges
'N': 2mV/47kohms
Dimensions: 57 x 121 x 187 (H x W xD in mm)

 

NAP-150x Power Amplifier
Power output continuous [8 Ohm]: 50 Watts
Voltage Gain: + 29 dB
Input Impedance: 18 kOhm
Frequency Response: 5Hz to 40kHz (-3dB)
Dimensions: 70 x 432 x 301 (HxWxD in mm)
Finish: Black
Price: $1750

 

CD-5x CD Player
Frequency Response: 10Hz to 20kHz (+ 0.1dB/ -0.5dB)
Output Level: 2.1V rms at 1kHz
Output Impedance: 10 Ohms maximum
Phase Response: Linear phase, absolute phase correct
Laser Type: Semiconductor AIGaAs
Wavelength: 780nm 20nm
Light Output (cw): Maximum 0.5 mW
De-Emphasis: 0.1 dB referred to main response
Distortion and Noise: <0.1% 10 Hz - 18 kHz at full level
Dimensions: 58.4 x 432 x 301 (H x W xD in mm)

 

Flatcap 2x Power Supply
Power Output: 2 x 24V
Dimensions: 70 x 432 x 301 
Price: $1150

 

Cables
Eight-foot NCA5 ($364)
DIN to DIN cable ($215)

 

 

Company Information
Naim Audio Ltd.
Southampton Road
Salisbury
SP1 2LN
England

Voice: + 44 (0) 1722 426600
Fax: + 44 (0) 870 224 4702
Website: www.naimaudio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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