POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 18
CDX2 CD player
as reviewed by John Brazier
A company name like Naim gives me ample opportunity to punctuate this article with pun after pun. In fact, I can scarcely recall a review for a Naim product in which there was not a least one pun, usually within the first paragraph. I will try to refrain. This review came about from a request to review Naim's CD5x CD player. I had been listening to the 5i when I got wind that a 5x was available, and contacted Chris Koster of Naim North America (NANA). We spoke for some time, as I wanted to educate myself about the product line and, more importantly, to get a sense of the Naim philosophy.
I learned that Naim was founded in Salisbury, England by Julian Vereker, who led the company until his death in 2000. It was his belief that "a passionate and committed interest in music is the foundation stone of Naim Audio [and] that passion has enabled us to design and manufacture what we believe to be the finest sounding range of audio equipment available in the world today." Naim has proven to have legs in the capricious high-end audio biz, although I am told that the bulk of the Naim legionnaires are on the other side of the pond. I first became aware of the company when they made a splash with the CD3.5 player. Unfortunately, I was never able to give the CD3.5 a listen.
Prior to contacting Chris, I spent some time surfing the internet for information, and landed at www.naim-audio.infopop.net, a message board for all things Naim. It is amazing what you can learn by just lurking at a site like that. Reading post after post, I began to see a pattern. "The CD5i is a great player!" "Oh, but the CD5x is even better!!" "Add a flatcap (external power supply) to the 5x and it is almost as good as the CDX2 for about the same price!!!" Fellow PFO writer Jim Grudzien was reviewing the 5i, and I borrowed it from him, but it did not seem practical or efficient for PFO to review two Naims from the Series 5 line, so I asked Chris about the chances of getting the CDX2, which is in the Reference Series. It just so happened that Chris was going to be in L.A. right after CES, and better yet, would have a CDX2 with him. Sign me up!
Chris delivered the CDX2 early one evening in mid-January. He removed my player and put the Naim in its place, then listened, adjusted its position to ensure that the player was solidly in place, and deemed everything satisfactory. I was dumbfounded at the immediate and impressive system transformation that had occurred. The first thing that bowled me over about this player was its dynamics. I was listening to the CD5i prior to the installation of the CDX2, and before that, my reference setup consisted of a Rega Planet used as a transport with the upsampler/digital correction engine combination from Perpetual Technologies. None possessed the dynamic range of the CDX2. I believe that the first CD within Chris' reach thats night was a Fiona Apple disc. I had never had such an experience, not even in the days of my DBX Dynamic Range Expander. As my listening sessions multiplied, I never wanted more dynamics, as they were both realistic and completely satisfying.
The second thing that impressed me about the CDX2 was its body, by which I mean the way in which it completed the musical image and gave it weight and structure. When Chris hit "Play" on that Fiona Apple disc, the piano, drums, and voice immediately became more believable. Before that point, I had only had a representation of music in my home. After the arrival of the CDX2, musical events happened, right in my living room.
In same vein, but less obvious, was the CDX2's speed and timing. I spent about two months with this player, and it was not until the second month that I was able to fully delve into what this player has to offer. My Reference 3A MM de Capos are speedy speakers, so I had become attuned to and comfortable with fast transients, but now they were even faster. Fast speakers with a faster CD player make an interesting combination. At times, the system sounded at best rushed, and at worst unnatural, but I should explain a bit more. In the second month, I switched from the Berendsen IPO-80 integrated amp (see my review) to the Edge G3 integrated (review coming soon). The IPO-80 has a slightly laid back presentation, whereas the Edge is, like everything else in the setup, very fast. At times, the new combination had my eyeballs spinning. As usual, system matching can be very important.
One of my not-so-favorite films of last year was Garden State, but that does not prevent me from enjoying the soundtrack. A soundtrack used to be nothing more than a collection of over-compressed, third-generation recordings slapped onto a disc, but over the past five years or so, a couple of things have happened: (1) filmmakers have recognized that a groovy soundtrack aimed at the right demographic can sell movie tickets, and (2) a film that has a groovy soundtrack can in turn sell a lot of CDs for the artists that appear on it. I was caught by the music of Garden State, if not by the film itself. On Zero 7's "In the Waiting Line," a few female voices harmonize with others, not harmonizing, who sing backup. The CDX2 swept me up and into the music-scape. The soundstage was huge and expansive. Lesser CD players had confined the soundstage to the edges of the room, while the CDX2 went well beyond my preconceived notions of what a soundstage is, much less how big it should be.
Nick Drake shows up on the Garden State disc, playing "One of These Things First." Most notable was the relationship between the fingering of the piano and the picking of the guitar. There is a time when both are in synch, yet the CDX2 separates the instruments and gives each its own space. Piano is the most difficult instrument to reproduce, but on this track, the piano, off in the distance, was crisp and full. I have been most comfortable using the term "body" when referring to the human voice, but this piano had it all, including body. Curious, I pulled out Two Hands, a CD on which Leon Fleisher plays Bach and Chopin. The CDX2 reproduced the complete range of the piano, from the striking of the deepest strings to the pinging of the highest. The CDX2 did a truly remarkable job of bringing the grand piano to life.
On the other end of the spectrum from Two Hands is my Righteous Babe, Ani Difranco, and her latest, Knuckle Down. "Parameters" is a spoken-word ditty in which Ani's words roll off her lips with a stunning realism that makes the hairs on my neck tingle. Accompanying her is a lone guitar, picking along morosely. The mood was clearly and astonishingly apparent. The lesson here is that the speed, speed, speed of my setup was not enough to outpace such a mellow, musical, and emotional piece of music.
The bass was exceptionally tuneful and, for my money, as accurate as you can get. I think it was the bull fiddle in "Trouble Man" on Ricky Lee Jones's It's Like This that caught me. The notes hung in the middle of the room, lingering and deep. I could easily discern the sound of each string as it was pulled taught by a calloused forefinger and released. My notes read that the bass notes were "muscleculating," and I still recall them muscleculating throughout the room. In the funky bass department, there is always Erykah Badu, Alicia Keys, and Macy Gray to find out how low your system can really go. The CDX2 took my setup to ribcage-rattling lows, yet there was only the engineered sound of bloom. Otherwise, the bass was deep, rich, and taught.
This is a great one-box CD player. With the DAC/transport world constantly in flux, it is hard to decide which way to go. My reference for the last six-and-a-half years has been Mark Schifter's Perpetual Technologies P- 3A DAC/P-1A Digital Correction Engine, tethered with an Acoustic Zen custom digital cable. I have been very satisfied with this combo. At just under half the investment of the CDX2, the PT gear has also been an economically prudent choice. Comparing the two was tough. The CDX2 has control, speed, body and structure, while the PT is warm, smooth, and fulfilling. What the CDX2 has, and the PT gear will never have, is cohesiveness. Given the importance of system matching, the one-box player eliminates a few decisions—i.e., which DAC to which transport, with which interconnect—whereas the Naim product is what it is, with everything in one box. Comparing them for sound, I tip my hat to the CDX2.
The only objection I had to the player was minor, and easily overcome. Naim takes a minimalist approach to design, and the CDX2 is no exception. The company has always used a manual tray with a magnetized puck to hold down the disc. I was skeptical about this, as the Homer Simpson in me thought a product of such high pedigree should be oh-so easy to use, but after a week or so, the extra steps became second nature and I forgot about them. Naim has practical reasons for this design, but I think most consumers are more concerned with the mechanics of opening the door and the possibility of losing the puck. You get two, so hide the second one for the inevitable day!
As Chris Koster's visit that January night came to a close, he stated matter-of-factly that I needed the Naim-endorsed Wiremold power strip. He explained that even though the Wiremold retails for only $85, it is the only power strip that Naim has found that does not degrade the sound. Chris also expressed the opinion that my expensive Acoustic Zen RCA-to-RCA interconnects would be bettered by Naim's own DIN-to-RCAs, at a more modest price. Chris was eager to prove his point, so a week later, the Brown Truck dropped off a Wiremold outlet strip and a $70 DIN-to-RCA cable. I immediately placed the outlet strip in the system. The sound became cleaner, the darkness between the notes darkened, and the bass was a bit tighter. I was surprised at the strip's performance, and it has remained in service ever since.
Naim has for many years relied on DIN-to-DIN (and only DIN-to-DIN) connection between its components. Only recently have they offered an RCA option so that their components can be compatible with those from other companies. It was only after at least a month of listening that I decided to substitute Naim's DIN-to-RCA cable for my beloved Acoustic Zens. Much to my surprise, the Naim interconnects held their own, losing only a tiny bit of detail and transparency. While the Wiremold will stay in place, I suspect the Naim interconnects will not. Although I have not felt compelled to get the Acoustic Zens back on line, I suspect that I will feel much more at home when they are.
In case you can't tell, I think the CDX2 is a wonderful CD player. Its "one-box-ness" is mirrored by its cohesiveness throughout the frequency range. This cohesiveness should not be overlooked or underestimated. Comparing it directly to my three-box/two-cable combination, I sensed something missing in the more complicated setup. I loved the solid nature of the CDX2's sound. In fact, I liked the CDX2 so much that it has made me rethink the direction I was going to take in building my system. I want to keep this player and build a two-channel setup around it. The only caveat I have is that if the rest of your gear is speedy, adding the CDX2 will make it much more speedy.
You will notice that I never made a Naim pun, but I will share an anecdote that most Naim-ers will already be aware of—the company name is, in fact, "name." For lack of anything better, Julian Vereker named the company "name," but changed the spelling to "Naim" so it would not appear too silly. John T. Brazier