The only reason that CD still has a place in the hearts of sound connoisseurs is that they have so many discs and streaming systems add a layer of complexity that seems intimidating to the uninitiated.In practice setting up a streaming system is very straightforward especially if you have any form of network at home, which must surely be the case for most of us by now. Using cables isn’t pretty but is easier, just get a network switch connect it to your router, NAS drive (or dedicated audio server) and streamer and Bob’s pretty much your uncle. You can of course make it more complicated for enhanced sound quality but those are the building blocks, see this how to feature for more. Wireless set up is barely any more complicated thanks to control apps which guide you through the process in usually painless fashion. The Naim app, like the streamers themselves, is definitely getting better, it’s pretty robust and they seem to have thought of everything except a stop button for net radio. On iOS at least, it’s there on my Android phone. As is a quick way of escaping from a Tidal rabbit hole and getting back to the library, I couldn’t figure out how to do this on the iPad but there are more buttons in the Android version, which is odd.
Launched last year the latest trio of Naim ND streamers covers the price range from just under £2,000 for the ND5 XS 2, jumps to five grand for the NDX 2 and settles around £13,000 (plus PSU) for the ND 555, the top dog source in the Naim hierarchy and a replacement for the venerable NDS. The NDX 2 therefore is quite an ambitious piece of kit, with Naim’s latest streaming engine that brings Airplay, Bluetooth, Spotify Connect and Tidal streaming to the party, oh and Chromecast but that doesn’t seem to have made the splash it was expected to. It has a 32-bit/384kHz DAC with various inputs including coaxial SPDIF on RCA and BNC connectors, and a SHARC processor with 16x integer upsampling feeding Burr Brown chips used solely for D to A. The NDX 2 gets all these features plus wired or wireless streaming, analogue output via RCA phonos or DIN and the option to add an external power supply. A five inch colour display can show artwork or artist and album info as well as act as an interface for the shiny black handset that gives instant access to the all important pause button when the phone rings. Much quicker than waking up an iPad or phone.
It will play all the usual formats up to 32/384 (24/192 via the DAC inputs) PCM and DSD128, a few DACS can deal with bigger bit/sampling rates than this but there is so little material available that it’s essentially specmanship for its own sake. Audio equipment is not about the numbers it’s about making the music engaging, a point that Naim are more aware of than most in the streaming field. But that has always been their ethos, it’s in the DNA of Naim products, what they have done with the latest ND streamers is to look at noise with a view to getting rid of much it as possible. The real difference between the three new streamers is the lengths that engineers Steve Sells and Roy George went to in order to minimise noise. The NDX 2 has a network card that was developed to route digital signals in the quietest possible fashion, remember this isn’t noise that you necessarily hear like tape hiss, it’s essentially the noise floor, the limit to how quiet a signal can be reproduced. You can only really hear it when it’s removed, if that makes sense. Unlike analogue noise such as that from vinyl or tape, digital noise is less obvious but more insidious because it does not relate to the signal in any way. It’s one of the reasons why digital sound used to be described as cold or harsh and it’s a big reason why analogue treble sounds more open and relaxed. So reducing noise is very much the goal of digital audio engineers today, even those from the Pace, Rhythm and Timing club that Naim and Linn started way back in the day.
The NDX 2 does PRaT exceptionally well and that’s a big reason for it being so enjoyable, but it is also precise and highly revealing of each recording you listen to. I didn’t get to try one of the first generation NDs but I suspect that this increased transparency is the main difference between the two. The first piece I put on once the streamer had had a few days to warm up (not the full two weeks recommended) was Keith Jarrett’s Eyes of the Heart(ECM) which builds slowly up to the first peak before coming back down, here the percussion was more obvious than usual but not because the balance is bright. Rather the leading edges of the cymbal are cleaner and more airy than usual, which gives the tempo a bit of extra definition and adds to the intensity of the build up. When the sax comes in you feel as if it can be touched just by reaching out, there is a magical tension to this live piece that rarely comes through. I love the way that the piano and drums play quietly to begin with but the level steadily rises as the double bass joins in, there’s so much of its resonant character on show it’s almost obscene.
The piano gets very powerful in the second part with a solid vamp coming from Jarrett’s left hand while the right starts to explore the possibilities of the improvisation. As the band join in for the final extended crescendo the dynamic range of the recording is revealed to be larger than expected and the soundstage opens up with the drums way out to the left. This is always a thrilling piece of music and one that I like so much that it’s usually a vinyl experience but the NDX 2 makes a very good case for the digital alternative especially in the quieter passages.
The level of transparency available is extraordinary, Hendrix’s ‘Wait Until Tomorrow’ (Axis: Bold as Love, Track) is as fast as you like but perfectly balanced albeit slightly polished in the way that remastering tends to sound, that said I doubt the vinyl has so much low end power. Nils Frahm’s All Melody from last year is a recording that keeps on giving, the Naim delivers what sounds like near mixing desk clarity with superb scale and multiple layers of sound from this gloriously woody sounding release. His earlier live release Spaceshas more powerful pieces of music on it but the sound is relatively rough and this is made very clear here, but this doesn’t get in the way of the musical experience most of the time.
Compared to other converters the NDX 2 has a powerful, dynamic sound with lots of vitality especially via Super Lumina cables. Then there’s the timing, always a strongpoint with Naim components it’s a key to the this streamer’s appeal, you can have all the detail in the world but if it’s not presented in a coherent manner it ceases to be music. As mentioned this streamer does both timing and high resolution, so images have a 3D solidity and this makes the sense of presence that a good recording can achieve so real that it’s thrilling.
I’m told that the performance of the NDX 2 can be significantly enhanced by the addition of a 555 PS DR power supply but at circa seven grand I would hope so. In its native state with onboard power supply and the supplied Power-Line Lite mains cable this is a fabulous streamer, use it with a very good server and you are guaranteed digital musical entertainment that will keep you enthralled for years. It shows you precisely what’s going on and brings out what’s special about the music, and that’s what you want from a piece of audio electronics.