There are moments when I don’t quite understand the marketing inclinations of Naim Audio, in particular moments when they promote product combinations that deserve to be treated separately. Take the DAC-V1 digital-to-analogue converter under consideration here and the NAP 100 power amplifier that I have been using for a couple of months. Look up most advertisements or press announcements and these components are found together. Just because they were introduced at the same time? Because they match physically? Or because they both do a good job?* Probably all three reasons, although I find each deserves a separate approach as well. That is why I reviewed the NAP 100 some time ago and now that the Dutch distributor has delivered the DAC-V1 I am looking at that.
Like I said it physically matches the NAP 100 amp and other half size Naim boxes. In the middle of the faceplate it has an OLED display that gives information, for some menu options, in rather tiny lettering. Sometimes I needed my reading glasses. The Naim logo below glows green of course and on the left hand side is a large volume control above a full size quarter inch (6.3mm) headphone jack. On the right hand side we find six buttons for choosing input. A nice simple remote has some extra buttons for entering the set-up menu, dimming the display or muting the volume. Turning to the back we find the digital inputs, one BNC, two RCA and two optical inputs for S/PDIF protocols. The electrical ones will handle signals up to 24-bits and 192kHz sample rates maximum, optical is limited to 96kHz. Never previously seen on a Naim is an asynchronous USB input that will handle 32-bit, 384kHz sample rates. Output is available via RCA phonos and a DIN connection for a Naim SNAIC 4 cable. The mains connector, a power switch and a signal grounding switch complete the backside.
The set-up menu is easy, under settings you can rename inputs to Naim’s chosen labels, change the output from variable to fixed, adjust balance, change headphone volume, decide how USB input volume control is configured, alter the display brightness and adjust the display off timer. The next option is a BitPerfect test routine to establish whether an attached computer is sending the bit and sample rates that it says it is. Naim supplies files for this purpose and mine is perfect I can assure you. The USB status shows you more details about the signal and where it comes from. Last but not least we can choose to get back to factory defaults or upgrade the firmware. If not dimmed, the display shows the sample rate, the input you choose and the volume setting. All in all it’s very straightforward and easy to use.
The distributor was kind enough to lend me some cables from The Chord Company to connect the DAC-V1 in my system. These were fair priced cables and not over the top products. For USB I used a Chord USB Silver Plus most of the time, although I tried a QED Performance Graphite as well with excellent results. A Chord Power Chord and a Prodac digital cable completed the connections. The SNAIC cable that came with the NAP 100 was used too. My own gear consists of a Naim UnitiQute, NAP 100, Chord Epic Super Twin loudspeaker cables and a pair of PMC Twenty.23 speakers. But this is not the end of the story. My main system uses an Esoteric D-07 DAC and I was curious enough to replace it with the DAC-V1 even though the D-07 is over twice the price. To be honest and complete, the D-07 has AES/EBU in from my NAD M50 and goes out balanced to the preamp, which is an advantage. The DAC-V1 is connected with RCA in and RCA out. The RCA interconnect to the preamp cost a lot more than the V1 itself.
This is the point where I wonder whether the DAC-V1 and the NAP 100 should always be kept together. If you read my review of the NAP 100 you will notice that the power amplifier is not a component that matches with the rest of the high end system. Not enough power, rounded off frequency extremes, lack of detail. Mind you we are talking about a serious high end system with demanding loudspeakers, normally driven by a full Class A power amplifier from Audia Flight. No one would suggest putting a Naim NAP 100 in this context. My NAP 100 is put to good use with a UnitiQute to beef up this all-in-one in my system in the study. And I love it that way. But the DAC-V1 was playing in a different league between the NAD and Audia Flight. No, it did not outperform my Esoteric DAC, which upsamples PCM data streams into DSD before they are converted to analogue. But the DAC-V1 did an excellent job and came close to the results I have with the Esoteric, and what I remember of the Metrum Acoustics HEX DAC. I enjoyed my music collection much more than I would have expected at this price level. The Naim is well positioned between cheaper converters and far more expensive competitors. The sound is organic and easy on the ear, the soundstage stays between the loudspeakers, with good height and depth on most recordings. Dynamics are OK, so is the low noise level that helps to present a lot of detail to the listener. I would say that in a lot of systems the Naim DAC-V1 would be an excellent choice, especially since it has six digital inputs to choose from, including the increasingly popular USB. The headphone output is a bonus too if you want to put one of the high quality models on your demanding ears. I hate them all, but that is my opinion. That is why I never tried the DAC-V1 with a headphone. Sorry for those who want to know how a DAC-V1 performs that way, I suggest you take your headphones to a Naim dealer.
Back to business and back to the DAC-V1 with a NAP 100 in my smaller system. Two sources were available this time, the digital output of the UnitiQute and a small computer running Vortexbox software. The Qute streams music from a NAS and lets me listen to DAB or internet radio. I am happy to use the BNC digital in- and outputs with a Stereovox XV2 BNC terminated cable. I prefer BNC termination over RCA on 75 Ohm digital connections, they are only bettered by AES/EBU in my opinion. In this setup the DAC-V1 is a nice upgrade to the UnitiQute, the V1 really is a better converter all the way. More detailed, extended frequency range on the loudspeakers, more easy on the ear and a better stereo image. I do like the Qute a lot but the DAC-V1 adds some nice extras. But compare the prices (consider the fact that the analogue input of the Qute is out of use too) and you will probably agree that a Qute in combination with the DAC-V1 is over the top. If you can live without an input for an analogue source, I would suggest you turn to a UnitiServe as the main source for the V1. Yes, the lack of an analogue input on the DAC-V1 might be a problem, but let’s be honest, it is a digital-to-analogue converter with variable output and a headphone connection. Not a full blown preamplifier with a converter on board.
Time to listen to USB. I have used it before with other brands and a Mac as well as Windows based hardware. Windows with its drivers and weekly updates is not my favourite operating system and it never made real sense to me to use USB instead of a good streamer with wired Ethernet. But USB is hip and reviewing a product like the first Naim with USB means it needs to be tested right away. I took my normally Ethernet connected Vortexbox computer out the cupboard and placed it next to the DAC-V1. Connection takes one cable and the Vortexbox Linux based software recognizes the DAC-V1 right away. Showing up as ‘Audiophilleocom’ in the configuration screen. Searching the web I found Audiophilleo.com which says that the company manufactures asynchronous USB to S/PDIF converters. On top of Vortexbox I use a Logitech Media Server software that presents the opportunity to use Squeezebox on my iPad. The test files from Naim show BitPerfect results up to 24/192, the limit of the Vortexbox.
Much to my surprise the Naim has turned me into a USB lover. I can honestly state that the DAC-V1, NAP 100 and a pair of PMC Twenty.23 with a Vortexbox computer works miracles with ripped CDs as well as with high resolution material. This time it does make sense to combine the DAC-V1 with a NAP 100. Or an even better power amp and a pair of fine loudspeakers.
Martin Helmchen plays piano sonatas from Schubert (Schubert: Piano Sonata in A, D. 959; 6 Moments Musicaux) and this recording delivered a quality I seldom reach at this price level. The grand piano has a very natural sound with good dynamics, realistic levels are no problem in a small room like my study and very tender tones reach my bones just as well. Stereo imaging is first class, it’s very easy to see the piano in front of you. The music was ripped from SACD, converted to analogue and then converted back to an 88.2kHz file (on professional equipment of course). Ripped from CD with the Vortexbox is Melody Gardot’s Worrisome Heart, it starts with piano but soon bass, drums and voice join in. Again a very fine soundstage appears, Gardot’s voice has just the right intonation to be engaging and natural. She is standing in front of the band with a trumpet far behind her and a real 3D sound appears between the walls of the listening room. Never in your face, yet still direct enough to keep you eager and awake. Another lady, Lori Lieberman, has made many CDs in the past and recently she came up with Bricks Against The Glass, mastered at the Wisseloord Studios in the Netherlands. A lot of acoustic instruments surround her guitar and background voices sing with her. The result is an example of how mastering and recording should be done; uncompressed, wide open soundstage and a good layout of all the musicians. The DAC-V1 with the NAP 100 presents the results with joy and excitement.
I am not digital
After playing a lot more music than I could mention and after Adele brought tears to my eyes again with her Royal Albert Hall concert, it’s clear to me that the DAC-V1 is one of the few digital-to-analogue converters that keeps me entertained. Mainly because it doesn’t have the ‘I am digital’ stamp, it delivers a sound that is engaging, easy to listen to over longer periods, projects a nice three dimensional image and adds detail to musicality. Most converters cannot live up to the analogue sound of a record player, certainly not at this price level, Naim proves it can be done with a versatile shoe box in a high end system combined with a good but not over the top streamer and power amplifier. The USB input was a real eye opener to me, a solution I can easily recommend if you want to build your own streaming device. Whether you run a Naim system or not if you want a D/A converter that will give you real music at a realistic price level, listen to the DAC-V1. I assure you it will be worth your time.
*possibly because they work as a type of pre/power combo, Ed.