Naim NDX Network Player / DAC and XPS Power Supply Review
I visited the Naim Audio factory in England last September after visiting Devialet in France. The contrast between the companies couldn't have been more clear-cut. On one hand was Devialet with automated everything and the newest technology. On the other hand was Naim with real humans putting together every component by hand. Where Devialet wasn't old enough to have a major servicing department, Naim had a dedicated area in the factory where the company serviced nearly every piece of gear the company had ever made, going back many years. The area was like a Naim Audio historical society. The funny thing is though, both companies are pursuing the same goal of delivering excellent music reproduction in the home. There isn't one right way to do this stuff and there isn't one style of component that fits all user's needs. As enthusiasts who love great sound we are fortunate to have both companies perfecting their crafts in two completely different manners. [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
A few months after returning home from England I received the Naim NDX network player / DAC and the XPS power supply for review. This was the first time I had Naim gear in my house and my first experience spending more than an hour with a Naim component. Sure, I heard a great demonstration at the factory and I've heard what Naim products can do at audio shows, but I really wasn't sure what to expect in my system. After a little setup time I had music flowing to the NDX. As usual I didn't really listen because the system was fresh out of the box and the aluminum in my amps was still expanding with weird noises shortly after powering them on. After letting the system play for about one week, I spent one and a half days listening to what was a very boring system. I certainly had sound flowing to the NDX but the music wasn't flowing to my ears. I thought to myself, oh boy a fairly expensive system that's underwhelming and uninviting. This review is going to be a blast. There are a million things I'd rather do with my time than review a boring component and write a ho-hum article about the experience. Those types of reviews get good marks with the people because people tend to think writers are being more honest when they are negative as opposed to rubber stamping another component from the industry's golden children. The real truth is most of us are honest no matter what the product sounds like but we tend to select good products for review because they are much more enjoyable to write about. Back to the Naim NDX / XPS and the less than stellar sound I was getting. Unsure why this much lauded brand wasn't delivering the goods, I chalked it up to one or two of two things. Either my ears didn't come to play and / or the components needed additional break-in time. Near the end of the second day, I took a break to grab bit to eat, worrying about how I was going to write this one up. I wasn't afraid to tell it like it is, I was just bummed about doing a bunch of unenjoyable work. When I returned for another listening session and to start taking some notes things sounded different. The NDX / XPS combination sounded so much better that I was annoyed and happy at the same time. Annoyed that it was likely my ears and brain ruining the sound for the first thirty-six hours and happy that I could have some fun listening to music and writing the review. Over the course of the next six hours I couldn't stop listening to this new found sound. I didn't care about the specs or what features this player and power supply had, I was only interested in hearing much of my music again for the first time. Maybe I was right, this review was going to be a blast (no sarcasm this time).
Naim NDX Network Player
The Naim NDX network player as it's called resides in the Naim lineup in between the top end NDS and the entry point ND5 XS network players. The NDX is a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) with some traditional HiFi digital inputs such as S/PDIF on BNC or TosLink, an Ethernet / WiFi input, and analog outputs. The NDX has no adjustable volume control and outputs a static 2.1 volts rms into a preamplifier. I split the review time about 50/50 using both the Ethernet input and the BNC S/PDIF input. The NDX Ethernet input supports UPnP network streaming and is what's called a network renderer in UPnP terms. This means that a UPnP server and control point are also required to stream audio to the NDX. Naim provides the control point with its very respectable iOS application called simply Naim. An Android app is also available but I didn't use it during this review. The UPnP server can be any number of software and hardware combinations including a NAS running MinimServer streaming directly to the NDX or a separate computer running JRiver Media Center streaming to the NDX. I used several combinations of server hardware and software during this review and had great success with the Naim iOS application.
In addition to functioning as a UPnP control point the Naim iOS application can operate similar to the traditional remote control provided with the NDX. The app can select inputs, change input settings, rename inputs, and a couple other minor adjustments. A somewhat unique feature to the Naim iOS app is what I'll call booklet view. When browsing one's music it's possible to view each album as if one was looking at the old style CD booklet. The application enables the user to flip through pages of information pulled from Rovi. Info such as artist biography, images, discography, related artists and albums, and credits are visible in the booklet view. There are a number of hyperlinks within the booklet that bring up popup type windows with additional information including further links to purchase albums at Amazon. The links however don't link to artists and albums within one's own collection like the new Roon application from Roon Labs. The Naim app and Roon app may sound similar but the functionality is very different. The Naim app overall is very respectable, quick, and reliable. When I wanted to find and play music I was able to find and play music. The same can't be said for some apps in this industry. My only major complaint about the iOS app is that it can't configure everything that's configurable via the front panel of the NDX. It would be really nice to use an iPad rather than the traditional remote to enter one's WiFi network password. The process is a bit primitive right now. On the bright side, a WiFi network only has to be setup once.
Note: I've been told Naim is working on TIDAL integration that will enable users to stream lossless music directly to the NDX and other Naim products.
Via the Ethernet input the NDX accepts audio at sample rates up through 24 bit / 192 kHz. All the usual lossless formats are supported including WAV, FLAC, ALAC, and AIFF. Naim claims gapless playback is supported with all the lossless formats and most lossy formats. Of course I just had to put the NDX through my rigorous gapless playback test, playing 24/192 FLAC and 24/96 FLAC with embedded image files large enough to choke some network streamers. The NDX successfully passed all my gapless tests via wired Ethernet. The same can't be said for its performance via WiFi. I connected the NDX to my 802.11n network of Apple Airport Extremes and Expresses in the 2.4 GHz band. I was successful streaming 16 bit / 44.1 kHz gapless music to the NDX but anything above 44.1 kHz failed the gapless test. The highest sample rate I could play via WiFi without dropouts was 24 bit / 96 kHz. Readers should note I experienced similar issues on my 802.11n network with the Auralic Aries, until I switched from the 2.4 GHz band to the 5 GHz band. The Naim NDX doesn't support 802.11n at 5 GHz. Readers should also note that the NDX can't connect to hidden wireless networks. There is no consensus from the nerds on whether a hidden WiFi network is actually beneficial now days. Both sides of the argument offer decent reasoning. If one wants to keep his network hidden he will have to use wired Ethernet with the NDX.
The other way I used the NDX was via its S/PDIF BNC input, just like a non-networked DAC. The NDX doesn't feature a USB audio input, thus I was required to use a USB to S/PDIF converter to connect my computer to the NDX. During the review period Roon Labs released the initial version of its Roon software. The Roon application is remarkable in many ways and I wanted to interface this with the NDX. I ran Roon (core) on my MacBook Pro laptop that was connected via Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB cable to a Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB converter. From the Alpha USB I used a Wire World coaxial digital cable terminated with BNC connectors on each end. Some manufactures prefer the BNC connection due to its low voltage, compared to AES/EBU, and its true 75 ohm impedance. Controlling the Roon core server running on my MacBook Pro, I used a MacBook running Roon remote. This combination of source and NDX reproduced fabulous sound and provided incredible access to my music collection.
Naim XPS Power Supply
Part of the Naim ecosystem has long been the ability to upgrade one's power supply. Based on word of mouth from Naim users I know, this ability is not lost on the Naim user community. In fact this is a key reason why many people select Naim components. The built-in power supplies that ship with Naim components such as the NDX are terrific. However, the upgraded power supplies are seen as world class by many. The XPS power supply shipped to me for this review can be used with several Naim components including the NDS, NDX, ND5 XS, and HDX hard disk player. According to Naim the XPS features a toroidal transformer, six separately regulated low-noise outputs and six regulators. This is a new discreet regulator configuration that surpasses previous Naim engineering standards for low noise and stability. The anti-vibration feet of the XPS may come in handy once in a while as I experience a bit of hum and vibration with my review unit. This wasn't a showstopper, just something to note in this review.
Note: Readers interested in Naim's new discrete regulator technology can view the white paper HERE.
Note: Due to unforeseen circumstances and publishing deadlines I was only able to review the NDX and XPS together. In other words, I didn't operate the NDX using its internal power supply.
Let The Listening Begin
All My Trials from Peter, Paul, and Mary’s In The Wind album has become one of my new favorite tracks because I love the sound quality and I love the music. I was first turned on to this track by loudspeaker designer Andrew Jones at CES and it has remained in heavy rotation here at CA ever since. Listening to this track through the Naim NDX / XPS combo was stellar. The Naim components were like a time machine that transported me back to 1963 when this album was released. I didn’t want this 3:19 track to end so I put the single track on repeat to keep the time traveling experience alive. No matter what specifications or features an audio component offers, the one thing, above all else, I want it to do is to present a sonic illusion that pulls me away from reality and delivers me to the recording studio or live event. The Naim combo on this track succeeded in setting me in the studio like a fly on the wall. From the opening centered vocal to the harmonizing vocals emanating from each channel the sound was so seductive I wanted to jump on the bandwagon of whatever hippie cause they were singing about. I’m not even a fan of folk music, but the ability to hear into the smallest of vocal inflections and the realness of the backing vocals on this track, through the Naim NDX / XPS combo, had me hooked from the first spin.
Note: I just went back and listened to this track again and got the chills from the realism that my system is producing with this Naim gear. What a treat this is.
Switching gears to my favorite Diana Krall album The Girl In The Other Room, the Naim NDX / XPS time machine catapulted me back to 2004 and into Capitol Studios with recording engineer Al Schmitt. Most of my favorite tracks on this album are originals such as the title track, Narrow Daylight, and Departure Bay. But, my number one track is Diana’s cover of Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue. The track is similar to All My Trials in that it sounds good and is musically very enjoyable. Almost Blue helps demonstrate the Naim NDX / XPS combo’s delicacy and powerful, yet controlled low end bass playback. From the opening notes, and throughout the track, the Naim gear reproduced a very pleasant piano decay that can so easily fall off a cliff on components of lesser quality. It’s as if one can hear the notes bounce off the wooden top of Diana’s open Steinway grand piano, the flow out into the room. In that same vein, an excellent decay and shimmer can be heard from Peter Erskine’s cymbal brushing. If I knew more about cymbals and brushes I could probably make the brand and model of each when listening through this notable Naim combination. It goes without saying that Diana’s vocals on this track were reproduced with terrific realism, but the foundation of vocals and every other instrument has to be Christian McBride’s incredible bass playing. Through the Naim gear the bass notes keep the track grounded as they are well delineated. Each pluck of the strings can be heard as a distinct note, nowhere near the blob of low end sound that comes from less transparent systems. While keeping the track together throughout the first three and one half minutes the bass is very nice, however it’s the fury of bass notes near the end that’s extraordinary. If the bass-heads driving through my neighborhood only knew they could seem a touch more sophisticated by playing this track, rather than their normal drivel, and still rattle their back windows loose. That said, there’s no way a Naim-less car audio system is going to sound like what I heard through my system with the NDX / XPS. Maybe the local bass-heads need a Bentley with a Naim audio system.
A band with a good horn section is a band after my own heart. It’s no surprise then that Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band is a frequent virtual guest in my listening room. Listening to Sing Sang Sung from the Swingin’ For The Fences album through the Naim NDX / XPS really shows off the vivid and incredibly rich overtones from the horns. A bright, shrill, yet somewhat rounded brilliance can be heard throughout much of the track and the Naim gear shows its luster by letting this through to the listener. In HiFi there’s little worse than when an edgy brash horn section is turned into a smooth jazz snooze-fest by less than capable audio components. Such is not the case with the Naim components as there’s no inappropriate smoothness to this horn section. As the Vienna Symphonic Library says, horns such as the trumpet can be everything from metallic to piercing and penetrating. Everything on this continuum can be heard superbly through this Naim combination.
Graduating high school in 1994, I was the perfect age to jump into grunge music with both feet, and hands, and head, etc… Without a job, or much money to my name, I had a fair chunk of free time to invest in music during those days. I consumed everything from the Seattle area that I could get my hands on. As many Computer Audiophile readers know all to well, I was addicted to Pearl Jam form the moment I heard the first notes of Alive on the radio and subsequently purchased the album Ten. On the other hand, Nirvana’s music was something much different to me. I liked it, but there was an abrasive edge to the music that didn’t thrill me. The lyrics also seemed a bit empty in such songs as the huge hit Smells Like Teen Spirit. For example, “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido…” Sure art is subjective and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I’m not ready to call Kurt Cobain a lyrical genius. Nonetheless I listened to Nirvana until Kurt’s death and beyond. On May 4, 2015 Brett Morgen’s documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck premiered on HBO. The film offered a unique look into the life of Kurt from beginning to end. The band’s performance of Lead Belly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night provided a very emotional conclusion to the film. What does all this have to do with HiFi and Naim? More than anything, the film moved me to start listening to Nirvana once again, specifically the entire MTV Unplugged performance that contained the Lead Belly cover. Listening to Where Did You Sleep Last Night through the Naim system brought out so much more emotion and feelings, about the grunge era and Kurt Cobain, for me than any visual in the entire documentary. I liked the film, but it was no contest for the sonic illusion of my audio system. From the opening acoustic guitar strumming and sliding of fingers up/down the fretboard to Kurt’s incredibly convincing screams toward the end of the track, the whole performance was more involving and as fun as I’ve ever experienced it in any medium let alone audio system. The power of a great audio component to bring out emotion in the listener is unmeasurable and a specification that all manufacturer’s would love to put on marketing materials. The Naim NDX / XPS combination may not write the book, but it’s at least a co-author of how to get the listener more involved in his collection and bring out that long lost emotion form incredibly brilliant works of art.
The Naim NDX network player and the XPS power supply are a combination built for time travel. The ability of this combo to transport the listener back to a 1963 recording session or to the Sony Studios on November 18, 1993 for Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance is uncanny. The Naim components rescue people from reality and pull them into musical performances through a combination of delicacy, powerful punch, bass control, and a superb ability to reproduce a sense of space and instrument decay.
The NDX’s feature set is broad enough for most listeners yet not overwhelming with possibilities. Those looking for a USB audio connection must move on while those seeking a UPnP network player or DAC with digital inputs need look no further. One feature I’d love to see in the NDX is a volume control, but that’s only for my preference to go preamp-less and remove one component from the audio chain. That said, the performance of the NDX / XPS going through a preamp spoke for itself. These are fantastic audio components that deliver musical performances competitive with some of the best in the industry.
- Source: CAPS v4 Cortes Server (UPnP), MacBook Pro
- DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC RS
- D-to-D Converter: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB
- Amplifier: Pass Labs XA160.5 Monoblocks
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: Naim iOS app
- Remote Control Hardware: iPhone 6+, iPad (3rd Generation)
- UPnP Server Software: JRiver Media Center, MinimServer
- Playback Software: Roon
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+
- Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables,
- Power Cables: ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables
- Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Vodka Ethernet Cables throughout system
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, Apple AirPort Extreme, PFSense Router / Firewall, Cisco DPC3000 Docsis 3.0 cable modem, Comcast Extreme 105 Mbps Internet Service
- Source: CAPS v4 Cortes Server (UPnP), MacBook Pro