Naim CDS CD player

This review, written by Malcolm Steward, first appeared in September 1991 in Hi-Fi World (UK) magazine.

Naim CDS

Since the dawn of compact disc arguments have raged about the medium within the hi-fi fraternity: how many bits are best, should DACs be on- or off-board, should connections be optical or coaxial? Whilst all the carry-on has been carrying on many participants have forgotten the original debate: could CD match or better vinyl? For some there was no question: CD was digital therefore it had to be superior. For others the doubts and reservations lingered.

One company which found itself in the camp which expressed reservations about CD’s sound quality and, more importantly, its ability to portray musical performances, was Salisbury’s Naim Audio. This was interpreted by some observers as an adherence to a dogmatic belief in vinyl. That wasn’t the case. In a conversation I had some four years ago with Naim’s Managing Director, Julian Vereker, he admitted that there was no reason why compact disc machinery couldn’t be made to work as well. In some respects, he added, it had distinct advantages over record-playing equipment, but at that time no hint was given that the company’s interest was more than academic.

It transpires that Vereker had been introduced to a bread-board CD player, lashed together with string and Blu-tack, which showed sufficient promise to motivate him to investigate compact disc in depth. Of a large selection of discs played on the Sellotape special he heard one that hit his musical nail. If CD could do this once, he decided, there was no reason why it couldn’t do it all the time. It had the potential to be musically rewarding. Five years later Naim have turned that belief into a £2937 commercial reality.

The company had determined only to build a player which didn’t need excuses to be made for it. There was no desire to produce a machine about which people could say “It sounds good… considering it’s a CD player.” It had to be good, period. Good enough to match the best vinyl sources available. To those who interpret this move as a betrayal of faith I would add that Naim hasn’t lost interest in the advancement of the state of the vinyl art. Given good luck and a following wind I suspect that there might even be announcements in that department in the not-too-distant future.

Back on the silver disc front, the Naim CDS (Compact Disc System) is a two-box player, superficially not unlike a host of other such machines. Housed in a pair of the company’s `full-width’ aluminium cases it comprises not a transport and convertor, as is the norm, but a transport/convertor and separate power supply unit. Naim’s research showed that removal of the DAC circuitry to a remote box caused as many problems as it cured, but that divorcing the power supply was wholly beneficial. The two units are connected by a hawser-like interconnect similar to that used in the NAC52 preamplifier system. Mains is fed solely to the power supply box, and the player’s output is derived from the transport/electronics unit. No optical output is offered, just one electrical connection via a bayonet-locking DIN plug. As ever, Naim insist that users do not modify the cables or substitute different leads in place of those supplied with the player.

In use the player differs little from other high-end machines. It is a top loader, the disc tray being accessed via a smoked perspex lid. Discs are clamped to the drive mechanism whilst being played by a small magnetic puck, which users are advised not to lose: the machine will not function without it and although tiny it’s very expensive to replace! The player’s facia houses a discreet green display window containing only four elements – an alphanumeric display, and illuminated legends which indicate whether the display is showing the track playing or time elapsed, and whether repeat play mode is selected. Controls are provided for major transport functions – play, stop, pause, previous and next tracks. All other functions, including programming, fast forward and reverse, and repeat, are assigned to the supplied remote control handset, a unit which is styled to complement that of the NAC52 preamplifier.

Installing the CDS requires close attention to be paid to the instruction manual. Not only is the disc transport provided with a suspension system to isolate it from vibration, but so is the player section’s main circuit board. Captive bolts must be loosened both within the disc tray and underneath the player’s case before any attempt is made to use the machine. Whilst it will function with the circuit board clamped it will not give the best performance. Naim has taken a lot of care to optimise the CDS’ suspension and warns against moving or even tipping the player more than 15 degrees off horizontal once the transit bolts have been slackened.

The final note for those installing the player: the transport portion’s feet, although superficially identical to the domed rubber items found on all Naim electronics, are, in fact, metallic. Those who, like myself, use glass-topped, Mana Acoustics support furniture need to exercise due caution when positioning the player! Not only is the player sensitive to its location it also proved to be very discriminating with regard to compact discs themselves. Given suitable examples, those which are well recorded, clean, and not treated with markers pens or other `enhancements’, the CDS showed that it was capable of providing the kind of satisfaction I’ve previously only gained from vinyl. Facets of its performance, like the accurate recreation of pitch, incisive, consistent timing, and, most importantly, the sense of some human involvement in the music were particularly noticeable.  With pristine, high quality discs the player excelled. With poor recordings – and God knows the record companies have inflicted enough of those upon us – the same magic wasn’t evident. It didn’t make a meal of their imperfections but it was honest in its treatment of them. It might have subjugated their impact by bringing out more music than your average machine but it didn’t paper over any cracks.

I used the player in a variety of systems but predominantly with my regular active SBL set up, in which it gave its most revealing performances. Other players have proved significantly better than average in terms of information retrieval – the Micromega Trio, for example – but the CDS easily surpassed all that had gone before it. Other players have proved more
listenable than the majority – here the Arcam Delta 170 transport with various outboard DACs deserves an honourable mention – but the Naim player proved especially vice-free. I felt more comfortable than ever before since its arrival a couple of months back, and I’ve learned a lot about the CDs I’ve accumulated over the years. A significant quantity which I thought I
knew intimately have sprung surprises in terms of their content. Sice first laying hands on the player I have spent a lot of time
segregating discs into those which sound awful, those which sound acceptable, and those which actually play music. The latter pile is still the smaller of the three but it’s growing, I’m pleased to note. All subsequent comments with regard to the CDS refer to its use with the latter two categories of discs.

The Naim player doesn’t turn CDs into LP clones: the positive individual characteristics of each medium remains distinct. It does, however, do away with CD’s less savoury aspects and allows the listener greater access to, and appreciation of,  a disc’s musical content. In this respect the player is analogue-like. Lest that suggests to you any `softness’, undue warmth or euphony, allow me to dispel that notion. The CDS is incisive and packs a killer punch. But it is also impressively delicate and shows respect for the finest of detail.

I spent a happy half-hour listening to the Technics/Conifer recording of Prokofiev’s Symphony in D, Op.25, performed by London Musici, a work with which I can claim some first hand experience having been present at the session when it found its way onto tape. It’s a favourite disc and one which has seen a lot of service on a multitude of players. But hearing it on the
CDS was the closest any machine has taken me to that performance since I sat behind the desk listening to an off-mic feed. Orchestral crescendi recaptured the authority, scale and sense of effortlessness that I had witnessed that afternoon. Tonal colour was truly vivid and contrasting. Tiny nuances and inflexions brought the playing to life with astounding vigour.

The player also showed adroitness in the less tangible area of recreating atmosphere and conveying the emotional aspects of the performance. This I suspect was due in some part to its temporal acuity. The magnificent overall flow and subtle modulations of the tempi had a spellbinding impact. In a manner unlike that of the multitude of other number-crunchers the CDS painted a credible picture of a real band playing real instruments, with sympathy, understanding and feeling. It stirred
within me extremes of tension and release, which no other player has matched.

Faced with music of a less inspiring but more pyrotechnic nature, an American copy of the Mobile Fidelity’s UDCD gold pressing of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, the Naim player showed that it could hack it, and hack it good, with sonic spectaculars. Extremes of dynamic contrast? How about the panning helicopter at the end of “Another Brick In The Wall Part 1″?  Was that a seismic disturbance or did that low frequency throb really emanate from the speakers? Compare that awesome bass grunt to the delicate decay of a cymbal, fading gently into inaudibility, its tonal colour altering subtly as the metal stopped resonating.

Creeping out from behind the sofa, I returned to playing real music: Ron Kavana’s “Home Fire”, a spontaneous, all-acoustic recording of contemporary and traditional Irish music. With this deliberately unsophisticated recording the Naim player was at its considerable best, showing the listener to a seat in close proximity to the musicians. All the human warmth and character it brought out made the performance utterly compelling and natural, with no electronic gauze intruding upon the
proceedings. And none of the welter of detail evident ever intruded upon the sense of cohesion and integration, everything taking its rightful place within the music’s structure. Another Special Delivery disc, Gregson and Collister’s “Love Is A Strange Hotel” proved equally convincing, both in the lack of artifice about the singers’ voices, and the realism with which the
CDS portrayed the piano, with all its overtones, body resonances, and position within the studio contributing to its sound.

The $64,000 question: Is the CDS better than a record player? That remains, for the time being,  damned near impossible to answer with any semblance of authority. Without knowing the lineage of the CDs and LPs I had chance to compare I wouldn’t like to stick my neck out. In most instances I felt as comfortable with both, although there were occasions where I was
inclined to express a preference for one particular format. It was unquestionable, however, that the CDS had reduced the division between the media by an uncomfortable margin. Throughout the A/B testing I had been using a particularly well set-up Pink Triangle-modified LP12, fitted with an ARO tonearm and the exquisite Lyra Clavis moving coil: an act that’s
impossibly hard to follow. With a slightly less capable turntable I might have been tempted off the fence. But for the moment I’m staying put, thankful that this is a fence I’m not ashamed or unhappy to sit on.

In fact, the longer I live with the CDS the less inclined I feel to pitch it into battle with my record player. The superior medium debate is becoming immaterial to me. Compact Disc is here to stay whether we like it or not. With the advent of the CDS, at least confirmed vinyl addicts can finally begin to enjoy it.

Those not torn between two formats and already committed to CD should not feel excluded from the fun. As the Naim CDS presents music with so much more charm and grace than the other machines I’ve encountered, CD-users should feel tempted to compare it with their current players. I’m sure that they too will be pleasantly surprised by what it achieves.

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