This is going to be my first and last post on the subject, so I’ll try to be as clear in my opinions and suggestions as possible, reasonably concise and hopefully useful. Here I go.
1 - I am sure there is a number of music lovers who are curious about the new technology but are uncertain about putting all or most of their CDs on a HD, or about buying files from sites, or are not ready to give up the reassuring, old fashioned habit of standing in front of the bookshelf deciding which CD to extract and listen to, vaguely conscious that music is a sort of duty one has to oblige after dinner instead of watching TV. They also may be aware that the world offers more than one solution for the streaming option, and that Naim itself makes gear in three different ranges, the Classic, the XS and the Uniti. Last, such type of music lover may have not reached a point where he knows for sure if he’s after quality or convenience, and if a ripped or dowloaded file actually sounds equal to, worst than or better than a CD.
I have been like this for years. I hated the idea that sound could end on an unreliable HD, I knew nothing about home networks and was witnessing a frightening diffusion of the most promoted audio piece of gear of the last ten/fifteen years, the DAC. I remember that years ago, facing a review of the Slim Devices (then Logitech) Transporter, I re-read it a number of times trying to understand what the thing was and what it was supposed to do.
Meanwhile, like I believe some of the people here, I was periodically dissatisfied with the global result I got from my system, and blamed all possible variables bar one: the amp, the speakers, the room, the recording, the cables, the interaction of all the former, my ears; but never, inherently, the CDP. I didn’t want to move (back) to LP, so I ended up changing a shameful amount of gear and only gained a reputation of restless, idée-fixed amateur. Does this ring a bell for you, Shy or Undecided or Lazy friend, or all of the three?
2 - While the number of people who abandoned optical replay of CDs in favor of streaming music from an HD-based source (a Network Attached Storage, or NAS: basically a box with a HD inside enriched with a mini operating system and the ability to be seen by the modem/router in your home; or simply a computer) increased exponentially, and so the system’s detractors in equal proportion, I had a few chances to compare the two ‘paths’ in reliable ways, and had to admit ten times out of ten that in general the ripped file sounded mysteriously ‘better’ than the real-time spun CD. This can be explained scientifically and, I dare say, objectively, BUT I WON’T DO IT. So I went on fighting audio dissatisfaction with the means I had. As due experiment homaging the scientific method, I ripped a few CDs on my MacBook Pro 13", early 2011, but then I had no way to fully deploy the result safe sending it in wi-fi to my wife’s Marantz Consolette (a sort of MU–SO, with the worst display and app I have ever seen but a very decent sound), being glad with the result but not so much to make me do the jump.
Now, there are basically two ways to use an Hard Disk or Solid State Drive-based device, like a NAS or a computer, as source: a classic, prudent way, connecting the device with a wire to a DAC then to an amp, or to an amp with a DAC onboard; or connecting the device to the home network, at one end of which is the receiving device: the streamer.
There are important differences between the two methods: the first usually uses the USB port of the source device and a USB wire to the DAC, either one with a USB input or with a S/PDIF and an interface; the other uses the Ethernet out of the device with a CAT5/6/7 wire into the modem/router. If this is the method of choice, it must be remembered that the Ethernet port of the computer or NAS outputs ‘raw’ data, i.e. data which haven’t been ‘treated’ by the computer or NAS; they can even be linear PCM data, but this needs the CD to have been ripped that way, and not all streamers (the box that receives the data at the end of the home network and changes them in an very normal analogue signal to feed an amp) manage linear PCM.
What’s the advantage in the ‘Network way’? A computer is built to output packets of data of various nature, alternatively, working at mind-boggling speed on very different files simultaneously; so the receiving device takes what comes, and the USB output port of the PC, Mac or NAS provides a packet of data already clocked, so that the receiving device do what it can best with what it has. The PC, Mac or NAS is in command. Now there are, since years, DACs (those inside streamers too) which work in the so-called isochronous-asynchronous mode, which means that the receiving device commands the PC, Mac or NAS and takes the flow of data in charge, thus getting rid (or almost getting rid) of those minimal timing imperfections called jitter.
In the ‘Network way’, the data from the outputting device (PC, Mac or NAS) bypass most of the device’s hardware and are received by the streamer as pure as can be, given the way they have been stored. It will be the streamer’s task to clock, decode them and make them an analogue signal to feed the amp. Hence, the quality of the streamer suddenly becomes capital.
3 - The outputting device.
I use a MacBook Pro, 13", which is a magnificent PC that still has a slot for ripping CDs. I have modded it since the day I bought it: it now has twice the RAM memory and a 500 Giga SSD instead of its original 320 HD. I did the job myself.
Now a lot of people here will swear two things: a), that CDs MUST be ripped in the most complete, closest to the original format: WAV or AIFF (respectively, the bit-per-bit, uncompressed formats by Microsoft and Apple); and, b), that no ripping machine will do the job better than a Naim one. AIFF has an advantage over WAV: it takes care of the so-called metadata (cover art, mainly), while WAV doesn’t. Naim latest streamers allow for two options: WAV and FLAC. FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec. WAV is not compressed: each bit is taken and lovingly written on the HD or the SSD as it is; FLAC is compressed. The key words are, understandably, free and lossless. Apple’s lossless format is ALAC, and I leave it to the reader’s brains to decode the acronym. Lossless means that the file is ‘compressed’, taking less space on the Hard Disk or Solid State Drive, but loses NO DATA. Lossless. I rip in Apple Lossless (ALAC), and the few times I have pushed my residual paranoia to verify, I burned a CD-ROM from the ALAC ripped file discovering two interesting things: that the file, being burned on the CD-ROM, ‘unfolds’ and becomes a full-bit AIFF again, and that it does sound very very good.
Ripping CDs, I address the rips to the iTunes folder, but:
- iTunes only enters in the game for visually and logistically managing the files, or if I am using a USB/DAC/AMP path and iTunes needs to be used as controller. iTunes has friends and haters; I am neither, but my iTunes is a slightly older version (10.3. something, the native El Capitan one) which has much less idiosyncrasies than the latter releases. Since I also have a desktop system, with a nuForce DDA-100 fully digital amp, I am bound to exit my music from the USB port (I have no fancy for spending hundreds on an USB/SPDIF interface) and use iTunes. But for my main system, I go Network.
A Mac has a small flaw: it cannot be seen, as it is, by the home network. It needs an app to make the connection. So, if you plan to use a Mac instead of a UnitiServe, a Melco, a Core or whatever, just download a thing called Asset. Asset is the closest to what God or a Government should be, if such entities really existed: it’s free, small, unobtrusive, knows what it’s doing, does it perfectly, keeps count of each and every file in its charge; in a word, it works. And it asks nothing in return. It will immediately update the number of files each time you add some, doesn’t start automatically so you don’t have any feeling of informatics invasion. It’s necessary, but enormously discreet. When I am playing music from my Mac into the main system (later about the streamer) iTunes is not even open: through Asset and the network, my streamer sees the music files directly in their folder and masters them as if iTunes didn’t exist.
N.B. My Mac is not connected to the modem directly: I use a switch. A switch is a small box very similar to a modem/router (it has 4, 5 or even 8 ethernet ports on its rear) but is made to do one thing only: its ports are electrically isolated from each other and only the couple of devices in reciprocal dialogue (Mac and streamer, Apple TV and TV set, etc.) are in pure and direct communication, avoiding interferences. A switch is connected to one of the LAN ports of the modem and then you connect everything that must be available on the home network to it.
4 - The receiving device.
Now the tough part. I have owned, in the previous 20 years or so, all of Naim CD players after they became olive, bar the 555. Some more than once (2 x CD3s, 2 x CD5s, at least 4 x CDX2s) until the call of the new technologies started to knock at my mind’s door. In short, I changed my last CDX2 for an ND5 XS2.
Oscar Wilde is said to have said ‘only the superficial doesn’t judge by the appearance’. I couldn’t agree more: what immediately drew my attention to the entry level of the non-Uniti streamers was the lack of a display and the lack of PSU upgradeability. This suggested to me something I thought obvious: that Naim has saved money where it didn’t serve and has used it where it was essential. A display as large as a VISA is totally useless from a 3 mt. distant couch; and the lack of PS upgradeability accomplishes two capital tasks: takes any temptation to add an external PSU away forever, and suggests the idea that Naim has put the best possible (commercial issues-wise) PSU inside.
The ND5 XS2 is, in my opinion, giant Value for Money. Of course, either it’ll persuade you that it will do its best without the need of an external PSU whatsoever, or you won’t buy it. I bought it. I then downloaded the app from the App Store on both my iPhone 6 and my iPad and it immediately saw Asset, then my files collection, each and every cover art included. I am now taking some time to rip CDs to the Mac, and this is far from being a boring and time wasting activity: it allows for a fundamental task which each of us should face sooner or later: skimming the record collection. It’s incredible how many CDs, at the moment of deciding whether they go on the Mac or not, don’t. I have, instead, bought a good quality CD container from Amazon and am filling it with those CDs (we ALL have some) that are not good enough for the big and costly system but perfect for car listening. This also gets us rid of the question ‘why did I buy it’?
4 - Conclusions.
Frenchmen say Le mieux c’est l’ennemi du bien. How true. Some here won’t consider anything less than a ND555 with two 555PS, with the same stubborn faith that at the second PS or the third SuperLumina cable life will eventually pop up out of the speakers, like young Frankenstein never lost the faith in his ability to resurrect the creature; I, with what I have (ND5 XS2 and a Nait XS2) have gained a very good sound, organic, lively, a tad assertive but full of everything, all in its place, an audibly more steady placement of instruments and the pleasure of finding all the covers where they should be on my iPad.
True, the app is not Naim’s masterpiece; but once you’ve come to terms with it, it’s ok. So:
- A sane MacBook Pro, not too old and stripped down of everything useless, will do a vey satisfying music server;
- Spare the money for Audirvana (how can one buy something with such a name anyway?) or the like and for any fancy DAC: Naim has taken some time and money to give you good sounding hardware, and their streamers are thought to work mainly in Network mode;
- Add a switch to your modem: mine is a Netgear and it must have cost me around €30.
- The ND5 XS2 won’t make you regret any CDP you have possessed. The only CDP I have heard that made me want to give away my CDX2 was a rega Apollo, €300; and I have had a 25 years old Marantz (for free) whose laser was as good and fast as if it was one week old: the urban legends about Naim lasers’ life span is a very dubious matter and should be the object of serious reflection.
- 16/44.1 has nothing wrong. It’s the optical replay protocol which is inherently flawed. It took me a whole life to accept it, but so it is. Ask yourself why only those who still have a 1989 player and those who spend between 25,000 and 100,000 in a CDP are more or less happy. Expectations (or their lack) can mask (or unmask) perception completely.
- No need for audiophile LAN cables: when you start considering ‘audio grade’ LAN wires you are on the way to start the trip all over again, with just a different type of source.
- Apple Lossless is perfect for music enjoyment. I have already 130 albums in my Mac and an enormous amount of free space on the SSD.
- Stay at large from those ‘friends’ who tell you ‘come with a HD and I will give you 2 Tera of music’: what music, to begin with? And, most of all, music by the kilo? Are we seriously at such a stage of alienation?
- Less is definitely more.
Hoping not to have bored anyone to death,