The late Julian Vereker, the sharp-minded former racing driver who founded Naim Audio and designed its first products, did so because he wanted audio amplification of a quality he felt no one else was making at the time, reasoning that if he wanted such a thing, so might others. Thus came about Naim's first domestic-audio product, the distinctive NAP200 solid-state amp (1973).
Throughout the 1980s, I closely followed Naim's work, buying a few of their products, lusting after others, and seeing in many of them the same originality of engineering that had characterized the NAP200. At the time of its introduction, there was nothing else on the market remotely like the Naim Nait integrated amplifier (1983)and the same could be said for Naim's NAT 01 FM tuner (1984), SBL loudspeaker (1986), Aro tonearm (1989), CDS CD player (1991), and Armageddon turntable power supply (1995).
That begs a question, variations on which arise almost every time I talk on the phone with some of my Naim-loving contemporaries: Do Naim's current products embody the same originality and uniqueness as the above-mentioned Naim classics? In the past few weeks, while living with Naim's new entry-level network player, the ND5 XS 2 ($3495), I may have come a little closer to finding the answer.
Introduced in September 2018, the ND5 XS 2 is distinguished from its predecessor, the ND5 XS, by its use of Naim's new streaming platform, which is based on a low-voltage, differential-signaling (LVDS) serial communications protocol. According to Paul Neville, Naim's R&D director, "LVDS uses 10x lower voltage compared to standard logic, and noise is reduced proportionally." Neville also said that an LVDS system "has impedance matched terminations at the send and receive ends, [thus] reducing reflections that can cause RF." (Naim's longstanding belief in the sonic superiority of impedance-matched terminations is what drove them to use BNC rather than RCA jacks on their older analog preamplifiers and integrated amplifiers.) According to Naim's website, the LVDS protocol's higher speed gives the ND5 XS 2 the ability to handle "all HD formats at up to 32 bits/384kHz, or DSD 128." Naim also claims that their LVDS-based streaming platform supports dual-band WiFi.
The ND5 XS 2 includes native support of Chromecast, Spotify, and Tidal, and is Roon-ready. My review loaner didn't support Qobuz, but Naim says that that they are currently working on integrating native Qobuz support.
Notably, and in common with Naim's other two network players, the NDX 2 and ND 555, the ND5 XS 2 contains its own D/A processor, based on a Burr-Brown PCM1791A DAC chip. In this player, the processor is addressed by four digital inputsone BNC, one RCA, two TosLinkand supports up to 24-bit/192kHz inputs and DSD over PCM up to DSD64 on all but the TosLink optical inputs, which are limited to 24/96. Also included are two USB Type A socketsone front, one rearfor use with portable media. Through these, the user can play a variety of file formats, including: WAV, up to 32/384; AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, all up to 24/384; DSD, up to DSD128; and various lower-resolution codecs. The ND5 XS 2 does not unfold MQA files.
Apart from an on/off switch, an illuminated Naim logo, and a USB port, the ND5 XS 2's front panel is virtually featureless: To use the ND5 XS 2, its owner must have a smartphone or tablet computer, on which the player's downloadable control app can reside: The player itself has no user controls, and a remote-control handset is neither included nor available. A WiFi-enabled router, connected to the Internet, is also required to explore and exploit all that the player has to offer.
The ND5 XS 2 is built into an enclosure of a size and style similar to that of Naim's CD5 XS CD player, measuring 17" wide by 2.5" high by 11.75" deep and weighing 14.6 lb. Its top and sides are extruded aluminum with a black powder-coat finish, while its front panel is machined from aluminum, then brushed and anodized black. The case proved impenetrable; for all I know, the inside is finished in some other color. But I kind of doubt it.
Installation and Setup
In the manner of so many contemporary consumer goods, the ND5 XS 2 is packaged with a slim booklet containing only the most basic setup instructions. As such things go, and with exceptions (see below), this Quick Start Guide is acceptably good. It begins by instructing the user to connect the player to an Internet router with a wired or wireless connection; the former requires an Ethernet cable (not included), while the latter requires the user to fasten two screw-on WiFi antennas (included) to the appropriate sockets on the player's rear panel. A Bluetooth antenna (included) is also recommended for installation. I chose to start with the wireless approach, and later checked my results by switching to an Ethernet connection. (I heard no differences.) I then obeyed the Guide's directive to download the Naim app to my iPad. When I first launched the app, which appears to have no name other than Naim, it initiated its own setup instructions, which I followed to the letter.
I ran 1.5m-long Audio Note AN-Vx interconnects from the Naim's RCA analog output jacksa stereo DIN output socket is also providedto one of the line inputs of my Shindo Laboratory Monbrison preamp. With the powered-up Naim thus connected to my system, and with Naim's nameless app now open before me, I selected from the latter the Tidal icon, chose a familiar album, hit Play, and heard . . . nothing at all. The text at the bottom of my iPad's screen scrolled in a manner suggesting that streaming was indeed taking placeand since I knew, from minutes-old experience, that my system was functioning properly, it was clear that the ND5 XS 2 itself had fallen short. Then I remembered my experience with the CD5 XS CD player: Naim products equipped with two types of analog outputs require the user to select one or the other . . .
For something more in-depth than Naim's Quick Start Guide, one must go to Naim's website, then Customer Support, then Support & Information, then Product Manuals, then click NDX, then click the listing that includes on the same line both the product name and the desired language (there are no listings for the ND5 XS 2only for its predecessor, the ND5 XS). I did so, and in Section 2.8.2 (Audio Signal Outputs), I was informed that output sockets are selected and configured via the NDX/5 XS's Analogue Outputs and Digital Output setup menus. I went to the pertinent manual sections and saw that, indeed, the making of setup selections was a very real possibilitybut how? Backing up to the first entry in Chapter 4 (Setup), I saw that I could "enter . . . setup mode by pressing the handset setup key." That would be lovelyif only a handset were supplied with the ND5 XS 2. Obviously, I was wasting time looking at the manual, which also covers Naim's handset-equipped NDX2.
I went back to the Naim app, noticed the little gear icon, pressed it, and saw a list of Settings, including the all-important Output settings. Hooray! I went there, saw that DIN had been selected, chose RCA insteadand heard music. All was well. I suggest that Naim mention this in their Quick Start Guide, or ensure that all of their source components are shipped with both outputs activated. The latter is a selectable option, albeit one that Naim has described in the past as offering slightly lower sound quality than if only a single output is activated.
Most of the other setup chores were straightforward. To listen to Internet Radio, I chose that icon from the Naim app's home screen and was off and running. Having done that, I could sort and ultimately select stations by genre, country of origin, and other logical criteria. Similarly, to listen to files stored on a thumb drive, I inserted the drive in one of the ND5 XS 2's two USB ports, selected the app's USB icon, and prestoonce again, I was off to the races.
Pairing a user-supplied smartphone with the Naim's Bluetooth input option isn't covered in the Quick Start Guide. Through trial and error, I found that getting my iPhone to communicate with the Naim depended on my turning off and then turning on all associated products and functions in just the right order. And although Naim's implementation of Bluetooth sounded no worse than any others I've heard, it was nevertheless not worth the trouble: As with just about every other Bluetooth-as-serious-audio-source effort I've experienced, the sound quality was to Tidal as soft-serve ice cream is to the real thing, only filled with slightly more icy particles. Don't bother.