I am delighted to have been invited to be a guest blogger at the Tom Tom Club, not least because it means that I get to play with superb kit that is usually reserved for the inner circle of Naim devotees in the reviewing fraternity. James got me in at the deep end with full 500 series of electronics, an experience that left me feeling very sorry when it had to go back as you might imagine. But to paraphrase Tennyson, it is better to have listened and lost than never to have listened at all.
Listening to the Naim CD 555/NAC 552/NAP 500 & Guru QM60....
In over twenty years of reviewing hi-fi I have only had the opportunity to use Naim equipment at home on a few occasions. I’ve enjoyed systems such as Paul Messenger’s which are powered by the company’s amps and where the turntable is of the legendary Armageddon variety with a Naim power supply alongside a variety of other mods from Salisbury – not least being the ARO tonearm. So the Naim sound is not new to me, at least the Naim sound that Paul had in the nineties but it’s never the same as having the hardware in your home and playing your own music. So getting to use Naim’s top of the range electronics was a leap into the unknown and highly respected deep end of audiophilia as prescribed by the good burghers of Salisbury.
The full monty Naim system that I have here came about as a result of wanting to hear the Guru QM10 loudspeaker, the diminutive but remarkably charming debut model from the Swedish company that impressed and entertained both Paul and myself so effectively when it first appeared. Getting the QM10 meant contacting James at Tom Tom, a process that lead to us discovering a shared passion for photography, bikes and music. And one which also lead to me having the pleasure of the top Naim components at home for as long as it took to get these words into some sort of order – quite a while as it turned out.
Having used all manner of high end components over the years the Naim approach to set up and connections didn’t exactly phase me but it did leave me scratching my head when sound failed to issue forth at the first attempt. Naim is an idiosyncratic brand, it does things its own way and makes little concession to convention. This is definitely not a ‘me too’ product. I mean who else remains committed to DIN connections, DNM electronics could be seen sporting them last time they could be seen but that was a while back, in the current field Naim appears to be alone. It also does strange things like powering the preamp with the power amp and putting signals down the same cables as power supplies. In the 500 series each component has its own power supply but the signal does have to pass through the power supply on the NAC 552 preamp on its way to the NAP 500 power amp.
The 500 series casework is a far cry from the Naim’s metalwork of yore, the photographs hopefully reveal just how superbly finished and put together these components are. The most appealing element has to be the curvy heatsinking on the NAP 500 but as this is a casting it doesn’t have the deep lustre of the main casework and the beauty of the grille section that bisects the amplifier. The NAP 500 is an alarmingly dense amplifier to pick up, it’s not particularly large by the standards at this price but it makes up for this with mass. Moving its 25kgs is not a task to be taken lightly. The power supply is nearly as bad and the cables that join them take the biscuit. The latter are huge and terminated with burly Burndy bayonet connectors, hooking the two up is a wrestling match but one that gets easier by the fourth and final go. What surprised me about the amp is its relatively low rated output of 140 watts. Now, I realise that by Naim standards this makes it a beast, but in the wider world its hard to think of another solid state amplifier of this price which delivers such a modest output. But power is of course not indicative of quality, life would be a lot more simple if it were and the proof of the NAP 500’s value lies in its sound.
The NAC 552 preamp is also sumptuously finished and laid out in an understated fashion that while it might not be obvious to the newcomer is not so obtuse as to be difficult to operate. That said I did look up the function of the lower row of input buttons which turn out to be record out selectors and which allow you to record a different input to the one that you’re listening to. A bit like recording and watching different things on a satellite receiver but without the extra LNB. The question has to be: does anyone record in analogue anymore?
Press an input button whilst looking at the back panel and you will see that a light above the input socket to which that input is connected turns on. This is a clue to the fact that any input socket can be ‘mapped’ to any source button. Another distinguishing feature of the 552 is that like certain turntables it has a suspended sub-chassis within it that supports the circuit boards. Fortunately it doesn’t require the same set-up malarkey as a turntable but there are plenty of transit bolts to remove and you can hear it move around when you pick up the unit. This is a feature that I’ve come across in CD players but never in amplifiers, yet they are clearly sensitive to vibration as any effective isolating equipment support or base will reveal, so it makes sense to do the job internally.
The CD 555 likewise has a suspended subchassis and a full array of transit bolts to undo without turning the player on its side, Naim clearly want to bring back some of the interaction required of turntables like the LP12 to retailers and end users alike. Another aspect of this is the use of a separate magnetic puck for the disc. Once the disc bay lid has opened, a silent and fairly sexy action it has to be said, you have to remember to put the puck on before pressing ‘play’ or ‘door’. If you don’t, and I didn’t on several occasions, the disc doesn’t fly off but neither will it play, so it’s a habit worth forming.
Both player and preamp have metal rather than the rubber feet seen on the other 500 series components, this is because these two units have internal suspension and adding another lossy interface undermines the tuning of the suspension. With metal feet Naim can predict the nature of resonances that it has to isolate the circuit boards from and can design the suspension accordingly.
Operationally the CD 555 and NAC 552 are pretty straightforward and you are supplied with a very nice remote handset that has an aluminium case and buttons that match the components themselves, they even light up if you move the handset. For bigger systems there is a more complex handset that will operate a wider range of components and looks like it will survive the rigours of family life. The system was supplied with Naim’s Power-Line mains cables and a Hi-Line interconnect. The latter gave me some grief by having a mark on its collar that does not align with the mark on the socket for a standard DIN plug but needs to go at 12 o’clock. I guess this lack of idiot proofing is where the help of a dealer is invaluable!
As I didn’t have any NAC5 cable to hand a set of Chord Signature speaker cables were used for initial listening, that and a pair of B&W 802D speakers which made an interesting contrast to the Guru QM60s which came later. First impressions were very positive and completely at odds with what I’ve heard in Naim demonstrations at shows over the last few years. Clearly these electronics need a good warm up and run-in before they are going to approach their optimum sound and I have been told that it takes three months for them to really start to disappear behind the music. Yet from the off with only day’s warm up they delivered a more musical result than the majority of the competition. The effect was to keep me listening to well worn review favourites for way longer than usual, the music consistently taking precedence over the sound and urging you to carry on listening. Something that I take to be the sign of a very good system whatever its make up.
Radiohead’s In Rainbows was first up, it’s IMHO the band’s best album since OK Computer all those years ago. Virtually every album that they have released since that time has been said to be of this calibre but most are merely good and don’t reach the heights offered by that classic. In Rainbows shares that album’s need for a bit of familiarity before its qualities shine and I have been slowly getting there over the last six months – the days of total immersion every day are long past so these things take an age. But with this system and its remarkable sensitivity to phase everything just clicked and the music’s appeal seemed to double at one stroke. The sound is good and taut with plenty of control but not an obviously grippy feel, you don’t get the sensation that you are listening to an electronic device the way you do with many big amps and this is a good thing for the musical experience.
What quickly became apparent is the way that it’s very hard to hit the stop button when using this system, it is supremely engaging thanks to class leading timing. So the Me’Shell NdegeOcello disc stayed on way past the two tracks usually used for assessment purposes, prompting the line in my notes ‘this could be a distraction’. In my line of work that’s the last thing you need! It’s also the whole point of the pursuit so in the name of research the listening continued with an ECM album called Vossabrygg, a Scandinavian project led by guitarist Terje Rypdal who was inspired by the Miles Davis classic Bitches Brew. It’s a live recording although not always obviously so, here this was made clear with a vibrant sound that’s underpinned by some lovely bass notes. The experience was a lot more immersive than usual thanks to an evenness and coherence that is far too rare, what’s more even hard edged instruments like the trumpet (there had to be a trumpet) are not abrasive. The Naim 500's have a clean but organic presentation that encourages high level listening despite the real world power rating, but then again all that power supply is clearly doing something for the cause. In fact the energy it managed to extract from this album was nothing short of astounding. I thought Naim amps were all about timing but it seems that they are pretty damn swift in the dynamics department as well.
With Rodrigo y Gabriela’s Live Manchester & Dublin album the system managed to eek out characteristics of the recording which had not been all that apparent despite using it for quite a few reviews. The image is quite small scale but has had a lot of reverb and even some echo added in an attempt to fill it out, some of this may come from the original recording venue of course but I have not found this part of the sound so easy to pin down before. The Dublin tracks have a bit more width in terms of the soundstage and its easier to hear the precise contributions of each of the players at this venue. This type of distinction is not always clear cut and suggests that the Naim 500's are remarkably strong on imaging cues – something else that I didn’t think was particularly important in Salisbury. You can’t beat a good misconception!
Replacing B&W 802D speakers with Guru QM60s and transplanting the whole system to another room revealed a few more aspects of the system’s capabilities. The QM60s have uncanny dispersion, producing a tall, wide and deep soundstage that dwarves the speakers themselves. The second thing that hits you is the low end welly. This isn’t a small loudspeaker but neither is it all that large yet it’s capable of delivering surprisingly low notes. With Burnt Friedman’s Just Landed album of Deutsche dub there are plenty of these to enjoy in a tuneful rather than bludgeoning fashion thanks to generous helpings of reverb and the aforementioned spaciousness. Rather less weighty but equally engaging is Fred Frith’s Hard Time Killing Floor Blues, as savage a piece of solo acoustic guitar as you’ll find. Here the attack is delivered in full effect along with the natural acoustic of the recording. The piece that follows it is far from accessible but this system goes a long way to letting you hear the music, however hardcore it might be. How appealing it sounds depends on the recording and some can be a little too forthright but even those deliver more musical coherence than usual.
The ability to put the music before the sound is probably this system’s most impressive attribute. This does mean that those purely into hi-fi may not find what they are seeking, tonally there is no tendency to lushness and while the imaging is full scale it’s not as precise as you get with other high end systems. But it makes you want to keep on listening and delivers the musical message with consummate ease. This becomes more apparent with exposure, especially exposure to albums that need to be reviewed but don’t exactly appeal. One such incident occurred with the Katia Labeque/Gonzalo Rubalcaba piece Besame Mucho, this sounded pretty incoherent and self indulgent on the system I usually use for reviews but was transformed into palpable music by the Naim/Guru combination. Which is a pretty useful trick for a system to be able to deliver if you value diversity and have catholic musical tastes. I doubt that it could do the same for me with Schoenberg but this is because I am a philistine when it comes to the second Vienese school. The system’s ability to transcribe discs into coherent music is what makes it worth the admittedly high asking price. You can get systems that have more grip, more dynamics and better imaging but I’ve not come across any that approach it for sheer musical engagement.
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