AOM Logo September 1998


Above All, To Thine Own Self Be True
The Naim CD 3.5 CD player


Anthony Kershaw

England's Naim Audio has advertised itself primarily as a systems-centered company. Every major audio component, with the notable exceptions of cartridges and turntables, are manufactured in their Salisbury plant. Naim suggests that a most satisfactory high-end system can be created using their products exclusively. Evidently, the idea has worked. Success has been built on thorough engineering and unique design. Thus, founder Julian Vereker MBE, can certainly wear his Queen's honour well. As a Member of the British Empire, he personifies what is truly unique about the British high end audio scene - taking a singular concept and fulfilling its philosophy without succumbing to outside influences. Arrogance maybe, successful yes!

The Naim CD 3.5 CD Player

Short back and sides
Unlike many Naim products, their CD players settle easily into any type of system. I found the CD 3.5 CD player interacting comfortably with all my equipment. The build quality of Naim's product is outstanding and visually follows a pattern of unique line and shape. The 3.5 follows in that vein. A low profile case is highlighted by the most unique of tray assemblies and the distinctive Naim logo. The player looks very becoming.

The dimensions are a slim 17" x 2.5" x 12" (WxHxD). The fascia is bathed in the loveliest shade of sea green and includes the backlit Naim Audio logo, a large LED display and four rectangular buttons (Previous, Next, Stop and Play). The small plastic remote is where you will find all the usual features. The transport is a Phillips VAM 1205 housed in an ingeniously designed drawer. Pulling on the left hand side, the substantial mechanism slides out on its right hinge until it's at a ninety degree angle to the player. Very cool! Digital to analogue conversion is provided by a staged Phillips array. The two chips are the SAA376 followed in the chain by the TDA 1305, the 1305 providing 18-bit conversion.

The rear panel sports some of the uniqueness that is Naim. A slaved power chord is flanked by 5-pin DIN connections for the audio output and connection to an external power supply. The Canadian Naim representative, Terry Richardson, supplied a half meter of The Chord Company Cobra 2 interconnect terminated with a DIN to RCAs. Naim includes an interconnect which has 5-pin DIN termination at each end! They say the 5-pin DIN simply sounds better.

The rear of the unit also holds a solid on/off rocker switch. I left the player switched on at all times during the review period. The unit came to me well-broken in, however, critical listening did not take place until approximately the thirty hour mark. On the whole, the package gave me the feeling of super quality and had the look and feel of a class act.

The Little Devil!
Affectionately known as the puck, the CD 3.5 comes with a magnetized clamp. It does an excellent job of stabilizing the disc, but, be warned - it is very small and, as I found to my cost, can be easily misplaced. Being ever so careful, I maintained the same protocol when placing and removing the puck. Once, however, it found its way into the machine! Removal of the cover is fairly simple and showed this reviewer the absolutely superb workmanship of the Naim product. Happily, there sat the puck among the caps and chipsets, its little magnets wreaking no havoc.

Upgrades?
Naim's CD players (the 3.5 being the entry-level player) are upgradeable through the use of an external power supply. It is the British who continue to extol the virtues of such and Naim Audio are said to offer three of the best: the FlatCap, HiCap and SuperCap. Their comprehensive website (http://www.naim-audio.com) mentions that each of the power supplies improves the sound of their CD players enormously. They must be very fine considering the superlative sound already engineered into the base player.

Audiophilia has reviewed several highly regarded CD players over the past few months, all of which I heard in my listening room. Each had a combination of good to excellent sonics coupled ingeniously with outstanding ergonomics. The Naim CD 3.5 matched the qualities of these other fine players, and, in many areas, surpassed them. The sound was rich and detailed, airy yet substantial, and, most of all, refined. Some have equated its sound to analogue. I don't hear it. No, its little feet are planted firmly in the digital world, and, from the gorgeous sounds I heard, it clearly enjoys its role.

Associated Components

Analogue: VPI HW-19 Mk. III/Audioquest PT6/Benz Micro Glider .88mV, Rega Planar 3/RB 300.
Digital:Anthem CD 1, Copland CDA 266, Arcam Alpha 6.
Preamplifier: Audio Research SP9 Mk. II
Power Amplifiers: Atma-Sphere M-60 Mk. II Reference monoblocks, Jadis Orchestra integrated, Aragon 2004 Mk. II, Sonic Frontiers Power 1, SimAudio Celeste Moon W-3, Audio Research D130.
Loudspeakers: Gallo Acoustics Nucleus Solo
Cables: Interconnects: Audioquest Emerald, Kimber PBJ, Wireworld Polaris III, The Chord Company Cobra 2. Loudspeaker: van den Hul M.C. The Sky-Line Hybrid, Monster Cable XP.
Accessories: Black Diamond Racing Cones (Nos. 3 and 4), LP#9 stylus cleaner, Target wall shelf and stand, Seismic sink, BBC boards.

Sound
I heard many recordings over the three month review period. The following were chosen for no particular reason other than they are disparate in style and sound. However, all are fine examples of the art and are recommended for any digital collection.

Two Naxos CDs demonstrated the superb balance and beguiling tonal quality of the 3.5. First up was the wonderful Queensland Symphony Orchestra (8.553526) playing the Malcolm Arnold English Dances for all they are worth. Cymbals shimmered, woodwind harmonics added sparkle and the orchestra blazed, all helping to add to a real experience. The Naim took everything this powerful CD threw at it and replicated the tone of the orchestra vividly. The sound was completely grain-free but remained interesting and involving. The antithesis of this quality has been my main gripe with even the most expensive digital products. Many have a smoothness but rob life, while others excite yet eventually tax. I never experienced these misgivings with the Naim.

Other than Idil Biret's fabulous musicianship, a wide and deep soundstage was the highlight of the second Naxos disc. Budget Brahms never had it so good. Ms. Biret's series of the complete piano works of Brahms is a joy, in particular, theSonata Nos. 1 and 2 (8.550351). She can pound the piano accurately while producing glorious tone - a rare combination. The opening of the CD captures that tone perfectly and in the most beautiful acoustic of a Heidelberg studio. I chose this disc to experiment with cable changes. The player replicated the changes with clinical accuracy - Biret's piano moved up and down the soundstage quite comically. At all times, though, the piano tone was magisterial and never clangorous.

Vocally, I chose a Chesky CD (JD152) of Christy Baron performing modern and not-so-modern standards. Again, the Naim rendered the soundstage accurately with Baron's light and jazzy mezzo imaged beautifully. I like this CD for its innocence and simplicity and Baron's ability to swing when needed. Unlike many jazz singers, Baron emphasizes the melody, allowing her improvisational technique to add just a smidgen of flavor. Great backing trio, too. Through the Naim, very enjoyable and realistic.

For a change of pace, try Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club (Nonesuch 79478-2). A more enjoyable sixty minutes would be hard to find. Produced, recorded and performed superbly, Cooder and his Cuban associates jam, funk and mambo for all they are worth. The sound is fantastic! Depth of field is natural for the recording space - each soloist take turns front and center while the accompanying instrumentalists relegate themselves to a subordinate role. This rich concept album sounded magnificent via the 3.5 with the sometimes thorny and complex textures unraveled with remarkable ease.

During Mr. Cooder's presence, I coned the player! The Black Diamond Racing Cones are an inexpensive way to upgrade your system, and here at Audiophilia, we love them. With the points down, I placed them under the 3.5 with the gentle result being a slightly more transparent view (the Naim then started to match the very transparent Anthem CD 1). It is much to the CD 3.5's credit that the difference was marginal when coned and un-coned. Other players in house demanded the BDR cones, their apparent weaknesses more pronounced.

Summary
I loved the sound of this player and discovered many musical subtleties while listening, not the least being its superb recreation of instrumental articulation and its caressing tone. Yet, with the advent of DVD and DSD, and their implied purge of present technology, prospective purchasers might think twice before buying a new and relatively expensive CD player. But time in the audio universe can move slowly. Sixteen, eighteen and twenty-bit players will be around for a while. As such, the Naim CD 3.5 will be an excellent investment. It will reward its owner with real pride-of-ownership and wonderful sound. Very highly recommended.

CD 3.5 CD Player
Manufactured by Naim Audio Ltd.
Southampton Road, Salisbury, England, SP1 2LN
phone: +44 (0) 1722 332266, fax: +44 (0) 1722 412034
web: http://www.naim-audio.com, e-mail: sales@naim-audio.com
Price: US$2150.00
Source of review sample: Dimexs Ltd. (Canadian Distributor)
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