Naim HDX

This article, written by Malcolm Steward, first appeared in HiFiCritic magazine in 2008.
Naim HDX

The Naim HDX is not a server. Even though it has a hard disk, to which it rips and then stores CDs, and can feed that audio as streams to a home network, it is not a server. It is, says its maker, a hard disk player: an audiophile hard disk player, no less. That distinction is important: the HDX is not designed to pipe low grade MP3s around the house so that the kids can listen to Britney in their bedrooms while mum wiggles along with Kylie in the kitchen. Although it is quite capable of serving that purpose, it is intended to sit in the living room within the context of the main audio system, where it will deliver genuine CD quality sound — or better — to meet the demands of the discriminating listener.

The HDX is not a flashy device: its appearance is more understated than overawing. In typical Naim fashion the fascia is not bestrewn with bling: there’s a drawer-loading CD-ripping mechanism on the left, a touch-screen display on the right, and two buttons, one to bring the player out of standby and another to open the drive. And there’s a small illuminated logo. That is it until you get to the back of the unit where things become somewhat busier with a veritable host of connections for mains, audio outputs (DIN and phono), Ethernet, an external power supply, USB drives, and keyboard, mouse and display.

Before you can begin using the HDX you will need to provide it with access to an internet connection so that it can perform look-ups for information about the CDs it rips. Should it ever be switched on without being connected to your network, it can effectively be reset by being powered down, connected to the network, and then powered up again. I say network rather than internet here because the HDX will need an IP address to function as designed. To quote the manual: “While the HDX can be used in “stand-alone” mode without any network connection, if its full capabilities are to be realised it requires connection to an “always on” internet service via an Ethernet router/modem with a built-in firewall.”

The HDX can be controlled in a variety of ways other than through its front panel touch screen or with its remote control, perhaps with its display surfacing on a plasma screen. I chose to use a laptop along with Naim’s Desk Top Client software and another laptop, again connecting through the unit’s web interface, which puts the player’s display on the laptop screen. You can do the same with an Adobe Flash capable browser on a mobile phone… assuming that your vision is far more acute than mine.

Pivotal to the success of the HDX in delivering the level of sound quality that will satisfy Naim’s customers and staff is the player’s ability to create bit-perfect rips from all manner of CDs. Until one looks closely into the outwardly straightforward process of copying audio data from a CD to a hard disk it seems an uncomplicated matter. Unfortunately, it isn’t at all a simple task. If you want the full, grimy details you can download a White Paper on the subject from the HDX page on Naim’s website. Basically the HDX rips slowly, multiple times and without the use of a cache to ensure that any re-reads return fresh data rather than the faulty data that might have been presented on any previous occasion. It uses a carefully selected drive to perform the rips because, as anyone who has used a PC to extract audio data from CDs will know, all CD drives were not created equal.

While downloading that White Paper you might also care to grab the one that details the NEMD or Naim Extended Music Database, the software that manages and manipulates the data about all the discs you have ripped to the player’s hard disk. There’s not much point in having all that music stored if you can’t subsequently find and organise it! NEMD aims to make the process of finding and playing an album or track superior to the time-honoured routine of scanning album sleeves on a shelf with which we are all familiar. The software interrogates the AMG – All Music Guide – database every time it rips a disc and, for the vast majority of the time, it comes up with correct data. If it ever retrieves data that is inaccurate, you can make corrections or input your own information manually. In my experience that should not prove necessary very often; assuming, that is, you do not have lots of CDs sourced from, say, the Pacific Basin in your collection. Music databases all seem to favour the Western world’s recordings. None, for example, would recognise my Japanese pressings of Little Feat CDs.

Before settling down to listen seriously with the HDX there is one task to which every user must attend. At the rear of the player you’ll find a small but rather important slider switch marked Signal Ground beneath the DIN output socket. This can be set to one of two positions, Chassis or Floating. It is vital that you get this right if you want to enjoy the HDX to the full. Get it wrong and the sound – at least in my set-up – acquires a lethargic, lifeless quality. I found that Floating was the correct setting if you have a Naim CD player plugged into the system but do try both settings in your own set-up, especially if you have any unusual components or wiring arrangements.

Before I begin relating my experiences of having lived with examples of the HDX, I’d like to address what I’ve already seen written on internet forums by folks who are unlikely to have heard a finalised HDX because at the time of writing the player still has yet to be released. It seems that despite Naim’s best efforts, several people have completely missed the point of the HDX. I read one person enquire whether it played CDs better than a CDX CD player. Pardon me, but why would anyone buy a device that is purpose-built to rip CDs to a hard disk want to use it as a regular CD player? That is why Naim makes CD players, surely? Even though the HDX can play CDs, the device is optimised to do a different job: playing a CD and ripping a CD are not identical disciplines.

Someone else queried why the HDX didn’t rip high resolution discs. Perhaps, as a CD-ripping device, that is not what it is for. (All the hi-res material I played through it was downloaded onto NAS.) Perhaps some folks are expecting too much? I mean, why can it not rip DVDs and Blu-ray discs? Why does it not offer hi-def pictures and 7.1-channel sound as well? And why does it not make toast?

I don’t envy Naim as it enters this new market sector. Some people seem to be piling paradigms high and waiting for the company to fail as it tries to shift them. Also I suspect that its potential customer base will now stretch well beyond old fogeys like me to embrace the new young fogeys with their iPhones and all that high-tech, disposable paraphernalia that seems so important to them. Unlike those people, I couldn’t care less if my mobile phone won’t control my hi-fi; I have enough trouble working a bloody remote control! When one approaches the HDX from what I consider to be a rational perspective – i.e. mine – it appears to be a very useful addition to the audiophile armoury: it will rip one’s current CD collection and then replay it far more conveniently and better than the vast majority of CD players. And it will also take downloaded music – standard or hi-res off another drive – NAS, network share or USB – and convey that to one’s ears with identical fidelity and convenience. What more could the increasingly lazy audiophile that I am fast becoming want?

In order to audition the HDX I powered it with an XPS power supply and then plugged it into my regular home system, a Funk Vector LP12/ARO/Lyra Clavis DC/Naim SuperLine/Hi-Cap, Naim CDS, NAC52/Super-Cap, NAXO 362/Super-Cap, NAP250 (x3), and DBLs with all the sources and electronics on a trio of Quadraspire Sunoko Vent supports. Network connections were all through Cat5e cables into a steel-enclosured (hence properly shielded) 100MB Netgear switch. The XPS is not strictly necessary because the HDX can power itself but I figured that as it had been provided it would be ungracious not to use it. The HDX communicated with the pre-amp though Naim Hi-Line or Chord Company Indigo interconnects, whichever was the most appropriate for the equipment layout that I was using at the time. (I regard the Hi-Line as a fit-and-forget cable, and not one that encourages frequent playing-with.)

As one expects from any Naim product, the HDX delivers flawless pace, rhythm and timing – in this instance magnified and rendered all the more impressive by the stillness and quiet behind the music that lets previously inaudible nuances emerge with delightful clarity and ease. For example, I wasn’t previously aware of all the low frequency information on Nils Lofgren’s ‘Keith Don’t Go’ and ‘Wonderland’ on his Acoustic Live album. When I say low frequency information I do not mean bass notes but more of a pressure wave: a sense of those notes or strikes upon the soundboard setting a volume of air in motion within his Takamine acoustic. At times it was as though the system was delivering the scrutiny of genuine studio monitors: this extended to defining note shape such that it was easy to tell whether individual notes were picked with his fingers or a plectrum. Enquiries subsequently revealed that Lofgren plays with a thumbpick and his fingers, which explained the clearly audible variations in attack on the different strings. Far more important, however, was the system’s ability to create a believable impression of a man and his guitar singing and playing at the end of my room. And this was no paper thin ‘image’ but a near palpable entity playing a guitar whose sound had depth, body, a life-like tonal spectrum, dynamics and projection.

Therapy’s Troublegum CD made different demands on the player. The staccato guitar chords and tight bass and drumming, especially on the first four tracks and the seques between them require a player that can precisely define the starts and stops of notes. If it fails then the recording can sound a shambles, reminiscent of many of the punk bands of 1977 who seriously believed that they didn’t need any skill beyond being able to stand on their hind legs to make music. The HDX exerted a grip so tight on this music that if the feel hadn’t been so natural, and unlike a Phil Collins track, you would have thought that every instrument had been viciously gated. Even when Andy Cairns let his guitar sustain or feedback creating an aural curtain for a few moments that did not stop one listening through to hear pecisely what the bass and drums were doing.

The HDX remained equally as organised and disciplined no matter what sort of music one played through it: it never sounded sterile or ‘hi-fi’ because it consistently maintained the composition’s impetus and flow. Regardless of the musical style or genre, it always allowed the listener to focus on one aspect of the work or one instrument and follow it… even when enjoying the left-field excursions of Tom Waits or Captain Beefheart. Helping it in this respect seemed to be its ability to explore the frequency extremes quite effortlessly and without drawing attention to itself. That bandwidth extension also contributed greatly to the player’s ability to create the impression of a real voice, rather than a vapid, unconvincing pastiche, emerging between the speakers. This facility could be quite disturbing at times. Tom Waits guttural utterings emerging between your speakers when you are not expecting them can provoke unnerving disquiet after a glass or two…

And there’s a thought: as I sat listening to Waits sing ‘Flower’s Grave’ from the album Alice, thinking how achingly beautiful his voice sounded, it struck me that it will likely take a rather special system to extract the maximum benefit from the HDX. I’m not saying that the SUPERNAIT and Neat Petite combination I also used wasn’t thoroughly enjoyable but simply that it didn’t give the HDX the same opportunity to flex its muscles that the tri-amped DBLs afforded it. There are, quite frankly, times when one truly appreciates 15-inch bass drivers and that, it might surprise you to know, is not always when one is listening to bodybuilder bass players and other low frequency terrorists. The credibility that true bass extension can add to the human voice can be surprising; in the same way that a duff tweeter can destroy the accurate portrayal of a bass guitar.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the HDX’s performance is its seemingly total musical empathy and agnosticism. It appears to tailor its presentation to extract the most enjoyment and communication from whatever music you choose to play through it. If the music demands refinement then the player exhibits poise, polish and delicacy. If, however, the music is likely to benefit from a more forceful presentation, then the HDX can be equally brutal. And if the composition demands a combination of both these elements it promptly delivers it. I never once detected a hint of this player sounding in the least bit forced or as though it were operating under duress. Its presentation always had an easy-going naturalness and absence of any artificiality that one doesn’t typically associate with digital media.

For example, the HDX sailed through the Christopher Warren-Green and the LCO’s playing of the magnificent Dave Heath composition, The Frontier on the Minimalist CD. It captured the music’s gestalt effortlessly, switching effortlessly between the lyrical, almost romantic passages and the angularity and aggression of the pizzicato or bow-slapped bass intrusions. Every element of the piece was portrayed with impeccable timing – Heath is a modern composer and expresses rhythms quite demonstrably – and luxuriant tonal colour. Overall, though, the HDX captured the orchestra’s dynamic approach to this music: all the members stood while playing and were encouraged to address their instruments with the same vigour and commitment as if they were playing solo. That passion and energy emerges equally strongly from the portrayal on both the CD and from the HDX hard disk.

The final test came with one piece of classical music that I have heard many systems render unlistenable, Edgard Varèse’ avant-garde and highly evocative ‘Amériques’. The HDX appeared to understand this music completely and present it exactly as it should be portrayed; dynamic, rich in instrumental texture, relentlessly powerful and, at times, near overwhelming. Despite its lack of conventional melodic elements —where these exist they appear designed merely to punctuate the music’s rhythmic development — the music succeeded in providing me with a vivid and thoroughly enjoyable impression of the sounds that the young Varèse must have heard drifting through the window of his New York apartment; the introduction to America that inspired this moving composition. The HDX wonderfully recreated the dynamics of this percussion-heavy work and then demonstrated its facility for chiaroscuro with the following, unfinished piece, ‘Nocturnal’. Here it magnificently contrasted a solo soprano voice with the orchestra and equally florid percussion interjections. I particularly enjoyed, and not just with Varèse, the way the HDX seemed able to unearth and fluently convey music’s sub-texts, underlying messages and humour.

Another interesting thing about the HDX for me was the way it has altered my listening habits: while changing LPs or CDs requires a degree of premeditation and physical effort, selecting then changing tracks on the HDX requires no more than a mouse click. One minute you are listening to the tone blocks of an orchestra playing Varèse, the next Black Grape’s Shaun Ryder singing ‘In The Name of the Father’, and in the blink of an eye you’re grooving to Robert Ward playing and singing on the Black Top Blues-A Rama compilation. Finding music to complement your mood was never as relaxed or relaxing.

And while the HDX will not rescue a poor quality recording I have found a number of discs that sound distinctly more palatable and musically together on it than they do on a CD player because of the new machine’s freedom from the mechanisms that hamper CD replay. One such disc was the eponymous Dr Feelgood album where the HDX exhibited enhanced dynamic contrast that lent its timing a sharper edge and provided a keener sense of space around notes. Its presentation had a more refined quality that was especially noticeable on hi-hat, which sounded far more convincing: you could hear the rush of air escaping as the hi-hat closed and the change in timbre when the two cymbal elements came together. As a result Feelgood felt better!

Ultimately, I am delighted that Naim has produced a musically rewarding hard disk player of this calibre. I hope that buyers will accept and appreciate it for what it is rather than try to impose their possibly unrealistic expectations upon it. That is always a danger with a paradigm-shifting product and the HDX certainly represents a shift for my paradigms. The only negative aspect I have yet detected with it is that it will not rip vinyl. Mind you, I do have an ADC kicking round, and if I could get some cables to provide a suitable interface between it and my pre-amp and then work out how to incorporate those tracks into the database we could be in business…

The HDX does what it was designed to do no less than brilliantly. Musically it is wholly satisfying and equally as rewarding to listen to as my CDS, and that, I assure you, is high praise indeed. And it makes such a refreshing change not to have every horizontal surface in the room strewn with CD cases. My goodness! I cannot believe I wrote that last sentence. It suggests that the HDX has forced me to acquire a lifestyle!

Notes from 2012:  be aware that my system has undergone several changes since I wrote this review. For starters. my current HDX is an HDX-SSD (Solid State Drive) model which stores music not on an internal hard disk, which it stlil has to contain its operating system ans utilites, but on Network Attached Storage that I constructed specifically for that purpose. The unit also connects to my network through a Gigabit switch that has replaced to 100MB one used for the review. It is also worth noting that the HDX-SSD is connected to a Naim DAC that is powered by an XPS power supply unit and that my reference speaker is now the Neat Ultimatum XL10 rather than the DBL.

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