- Written by Rick Schmidt
- Published on 05 July 2010
How did it sound then? Naim has a house sound which is analog-like, warm, not etched or grainy, especially as you move up their food chain or add external power supplies. The DAC fits this bill though it is a little more on the neutral side compared to the Naim CD players I've heard (I've heard most of them). The neutral sound of the DAC serves to create some additional separation between instruments (always my favorite) while leaving behind some of the usual warmth. The difference could also be described as more 'technical' sounding, 'precise' is probably the best term. 'Exciting' is another word that comes to mind, i.e., not 'relaxed'.
Playing the CD version of the recording I recently made of the vinyl version of Joanna Newsom's Have One On Me was eminently satisfying. While comparing it to the actual vinyl showed that the recording and CD encoding process did indeed leave some good stuff on the table the Naim DAC made it sound so good that repeated listens were required. Not long into the opening track, "Easy" a rhythm section kicks in to what had been a quiet voice and piano affair. With the Naim it had the proper bomb-like effect in my living room, never failing to make me sit up, take notice and say to myself, "damn that's good". Most importantly, at this dynamic juncture in the music, the separation and power of each of the instruments was preserved.
Adding the XPS made it all more-so. Bass was deepened for sure, making the overall top to bottom balance more proper in my system. Piano starts to get quite real sounding with the extended harmonics and attack on the notes there to draw you in, more details were apparent from each of the instruments. Naturally I did the rest of my listening with the XPS in the circuit. I should note that my XPS is not an XPS2 which is what is available now. The difference is unclear at this point, especially since my XPS was refurbished during the recent Naim Audio Recap tour.
Of course the main reason a DAC makes sense for a vinyl nut like me is the possibility of playing high resolution files. As I noted in my recent review of the Neko D100, with properly recorded high res files, the differences between DACs seems to matter less. Playing back the Joanna Newsom and Cat Power recordings I had made at 88/16 (don't ask) and 88/24 respectively, the sound came very close to the sound of the original vinyl, especially at 24 bit. I used these recordings to check the difference between the DIN and RCA outputs from the DAC. The DIN was the clear winner with fuller bass and a deeper background. Sibilants were also somehow masked by the RCA connections. Of course the actual cables used might matter as much or more than the connector, your mileage may vary.
Making a vinyl recording is a pain in the butt however and if I have the vinyl right there I'm likely to just listen to that. So, even for me most DAC use is still for CD playback. Store bought CD's were well treated by the Naim. It was no miracle worker however, older CD's recorded in the digital stone age (late 80's early 90's) were revealed for the hack recordings that they are. I've heard CD players and DACs do a worse job with these but also some that have done better. Pick just about any Cocteau Twins CD for instance, I'd rather play it back with the Neko or something with some tubes in it to smooth out the digititus. The Naim did a good job of transforming the digititus into the actual musical sounds which opened up the sound overall compared to other DACs and so should only be considered an improvement but the remainder then is the recording itself which we knew was not-so-good. A well recorded and produced CD however is in good hands with the Naim DAC. A favorite of mine for hifi demonstration is Songs from the Cold Seas by the late Hector Zazou. This CD never fails to excite and through the Naim it was beyond that. 'Wow' was my comment at the time.
After much pleasant time with the DAC I revived my vintage CDS2 by unplugging the XPS from the DAC and re-attached it to the standalone CD player. Experience has taught me that the CDS2 likes to be really warm, warmer than I can get it by simply playing CD's even. It sounds way better on hot days. Such days are still a rarity here in Portland so this comparison is not all it could be. I did let it warm up by playing a CD for an hour before listening. Playing disc 1 of my recording of Have One On Me the background was a little blacker than with the DAC as I recalled but overall the sound was thinner than the DAC/XPS combo. Piano was not nearly as textured or realistic. Notes of all kinds seem to not extend as long. Switching quickly back to the DAC sans XPS with the same disc I found the DAC more listenable, piano was restored somewhat and all the instruments were held separate to a greater degree.
Overall I felt compelled to keep listening which was not the case with the CDS2. Playing a commercially produced CD such as Bjork's Voltaic in the CDS2, the overall presentation made a little more sense. No doubt the player was designed by listening to commercial CD's. Something about the slightly more technical sound of this CD was softened by the CDS2 making the overall experience musical and enjoyable. Putting that same CD into the Emotiva to drive the Naim DAC however revealed more timbral detail in each of the instruments, along with a background of equal depth. Clearly better. Adding the XPS back to the DAC revealed hidden details, 'The Hunter' is the second track on Voltaic, with the XPS I heard keyboard accents and string parts in the background which were certainly there without the XPS and on the CDS2 but they were lost somewhere in the background. With the XPS and DAC together each of the instruments, including the background instruments were easily available and clearly presented. A flourish of drum and cymbal sounds at the end of the track was especially well served, the DAC/XPS was able to offer this up with rhythm and timing reminiscent of a live performance. Similarly, putting my Joanna Newsom recording back on, the XPS helped the DAC bring out those violins in the back ground on 'Easy' and the piano was really starting to get fleshed out.
My experience comparing the CDS2 with the DAC was another lesson in the importance of break-in. I had of course done the same comparison when the DAC first arrived and at that time the sound of my CDS2 was richer than the DAC, with a blacker background from which the instruments seemed to leap, sometimes with too much enthusiasm it seemed. After a time the DAC was the clear winner for me, even without the help of the XPS. For all audio comparisons you might make while shopping, and for the best listening experience at home, make sure the components are both warmed up and broken in.