Naim ND5 XS Network Streamer Review
ND5 XS is the least expensive of the Naim UPnP streamers but it's still a bit special
IntroductionWhen I tested the Naim UnitiLite last year, I found that after some time using it I had little choice but to pin a Reference Status badge on it. Not only was it the best all-in-one system I had tested anywhere near the price, I was also a bit stumped as to what I could think of as an alternative system made from separate components that I would definitely choose in its place. As opening reviews for any brands go, it made a bit of an impact.
As a result of this, two more Naim products will be heading through the AVForums review process. Steve Withers will be looking at the new DACv1 and NAP100 which are designed to perform in a computer fronted system as a duo of half width components. First though is a look at what Naim offers when you step up from the UnitiLite and start looking at their separate components. The ND5 XS is one of three network audio players in the Naim range and is the least expensive. I hesitate to use the word ‘cheap’ because £1,975 is a substantial sum of money and if you elect to partner it with the optional XP5 XS power supply, the total price rises to still more significant £3,570. With UPnP streaming frequently included in many AV receivers and no shortage of competition, does the ND5 XS justify the investment it demands?
DesignThe ND5 XS was the second of the Naim network players to be launched behind the more expensive NDX. The key difference between the two units has its origins in the slightly arcane way that Naim equipment is arranged into ranges. The NDX is a member of the ‘Classic’ range while the ND5 XS is part of the ‘XS series’ of components. These fill the gap between the entry level pieces of Naim equipment and their more upmarket brethren by being a halfway house between the two. XS components come in slimmer casework than the ‘Classic’ components which they share with the entry level ‘i’ models but it is finished in the same way as the ‘Classic’ models. As such, the XS units can be assembled into systems within their own group or used in partnership with more expensive models.
This does mean the ND5 XS is visibly different to the NDX on the outside but their paper specification is extremely close. The Naim is capable of receiving material up to 32/192kHz via their Ethernet or USB inputs and they can be connected to a network via wired or wireless connection. The standard catalogue of lossless formats is supported with WMA lossless being given the cold shoulder which seems to be happening more and more these days.
As well as UPnP, the ND5 XS is fitted with a single USB input on the front that allows for connection of a stick or USB drive to read files from. It is also Apple device compliant that means that any iDevice including the latest generation Lightning models can be connected to the front and played directly via the internal DAC’s. The system is extremely reliable but has the same limitation that this method of replay does on all devices in that it directly accesses the iPod section of a device and means you can’t use it as a quick and dirty Spotify plug in for example.
Further connectivity comes in the form of a trio of digital inputs; one RCA, one optical and one BNC (still technically the ‘best’ electrical digital connection even if it is somewhat out of favour these days). These allow for sampling rates up to 24/192kHz to be inputted to the Naim for decoding which means that the ND5 XS is also a fairly useful DAC. It would be able to handle an optical disc player while you prepared your collection for use with a streamer. The decoding itself is a variation on a now standard Naim theme comprising a Burr Brown chipset and separate DSP to upsample the resulting signal.
The Naim can also be upgraded to include an FM and DAB module for an additional £275 but in truth, I am not sure many people will feel the need to do so. The ND5 XS has internet radio based on the superb vTuner implementation and this allows for you to reach all the stations (plus thousands more) that the module can, inclusive in the price. Unless you are a fanatical Radio Three user (in which case you almost certainly have an impressive FM tuner already), it seems like a fairly specialist option.
In terms of outputs, the Naim has the DIN plug of which the company remains extremely fond but this is joined by a conventional pair of RCA outputs and a coaxial digital output. This last connection might seem ordinary enough but it was absent from Naim equipment for years. The company has managed to move from being the seller of stripped back CD players to offering extremely flexible digital products without collapsing in a mass of contradictions. The market demands more flexibility from products and Naim has sought to meet that requirement without compromising on the areas they take extremely seriously.
To this end, the internals of the ND5 XS are arranged in a distinctive way to take into account areas that Naim consider extremely important. Circuit boards are isolated on a distinctive bayonet type fitting that separates them from the already damped casework. Key electronic components are shielded away in ‘rooms’ on the circuit board to further isolate them. Internal wiring runs along specified pathways with certain types of cabling grouped together. The result is extremely neat if ever so slightly obsessive compulsive. The other feature is the power supply which is on the large size for a digital source device. It is worth pointing out that although it is already over specified Naim considers this a convenience feature.
This is because like many other components in the range, the ND5 XS can be upgraded after purchase with an external power supply. Naim external PSU’s are a mastermind specialist subject in their own right but they divide into multi-purpose types that can be used with a variety of equipment and then into dedicated analogue and digital supplies. The ND5 XS is designed to work with the digital supplies that come in at various price points. The most common candidate is the XP5 XS which is a dedicated digital power supply that attaches to the ND5 XS via a ‘Burndy’ cable. This is a single umbilical with a locking plug connector that for the first couple of goes at fitting also doubles as a handy Krypton Factor challenge. With a 400va transformer, tantalum output capacitors and the same careful layout as the parent unit, the XP5 XS completely bypasses the internal power supply of the ND5 XS which from then on isn’t plugged in at all.
The final feature of the ND5 XS is the N-Stream iOS app. This is used across the Naim UPnP platform and for good reason. It is a fast, intuitive and entirely stable control interface that works extremely well and makes browsing large libraries exceptionally easy. One clever (although not unique) feature is that the ND5 XS can connected to a Naim integrated amp or preamp via 3.5mm jack cable and send volume commands via the N-Stream App. When I tested the UnitiLite there was no update on when an Android version might appear and unfortunately this is still the case. As Android tablets have come a very long way from something that you bought if you couldn’t afford an iPad, this may need revision sooner rather than later.
In terms of construction, the ND5 XS might use the slimmer Naim casework but it still feels extremely solid. The finish is flawless with minute panel gaps and nothing in the way of cabinet resonance. The button layout on the front is the same as the UnitiLite and perfectly easy to use if the remote isn’t to hand. The display is not the easiest to read at a distance but like most streamers it is effectively a secondary to the app. Like other members of the Naim range, the only means of turning the ND5 XS off is via a rocker switch on the back. This is a Naim tradition and my inner energy conservationist has never been wildly keen on it but it is how the company does things. The Naim will go from inert to connected to network and streaming inside of three minutes and for me, the thorny issue of warm up is addressed in about twenty minutes. Turn it on for the weekend, switch it off before you go to work seems to work well as a method.
SetupThe review sample has actually spent the best part of a year as part of the equipment I use for reviewing. To this end it has been connected to a huge variety of amplifiers, most recently, the Pioneer A70 I reviewed last month for AVForums. It is generally connected via DIN to a matching Naim SUPERNAIT amplifier and the then to a pair of Neat Momentum 4 loudspeakers and for some of the review this was also the case but it was taken out of an all Naim as well. This meant connecting it to a Cambridge Audio 851A integrated amplifier and a pair of Audio Note AN-K speakers. The digital inputs have been connected to a number of items but most commonly a Pure iD20 iPod dock which means I can use an iPhone as an impromptu Spotify source.
Listening material is generally FLAC with ALAC and WAV available as specific test material. Naim is an advocate of completely uncompressed storage and has evolved effective WAV tagging to facilitate this but for wider use, the bulk of my collection is FLAC as it works in much the same way on everything I use it on. Internet radio from Naim’s ‘preferred station’ list as well as some favourites of my own are routinely used.
Sound QualityIf you moved to listening to the ND5 XS and a matching Naim amplifier straight after listening to the UnitiLite, you would find any number of similarities between them to recognise that they are from the same manufacturer. The ND5 XS is slightly ‘dark’ in terms of tonality but this is more a complete lack of top end harshness or aggression than a reflection on the ability of the Naim to pull detail out of recordings. Everything is presented in a calm, matter of fact and utterly unforced way that is extremely easy to listen to for extended periods.
The other overriding feature of the ND5 XS is the bass performance. The price of good digital has massively reduced over the last few years but the Naim has a low end shove and detail to the bass response that I have yet to really find in less expensive equipment. Even during my recent review of the Q Acoustics Concept 20 - a speaker that bottoms out at 67Hz - the Naim imparted an energy that the DAC of the Pioneer A70 with the same lossless files simply couldn’t match. Like the top end, bass never dominates the proceedings but if you switch to less able digital sources, you suddenly find yourself wondering where some of the energy of the performance has gone. Even with pieces with limited low end extension - something like Mazzy Star’s beautiful Into Dust the Naim fills out the performance in a way that is extraordinarily satisfying.
This is partly down to the deeply subjective area of timing. As I have stated in previous reviews. The speed that a system is able to handle rhythms and changes to tempo and dynamics is extremely - dare I say it over-ridingly - important to me. The Naim is able to keep the basic timing and presentation of music intact in a way that only really becomes obvious when you listen to something less completely assured in this regard. What is important with regards to this latest generation of Naim digital products is that they are able to do this while retaining a far more honest tonal balance than some of the older Naim digital products which were far more ‘Marmite’ in terms of their presentation.
This means that when you take the ND5 XS out of an all Naim safety net, it still delivers much the same set of attributes as it did with a matching amplifier. The Cambridge Audio 851A is rather different to the SUPERNAIT and the Audio Note AN-K has virtually nothing in common with the Neat Momentum 4 but the same assured presentation and impressive detail remains across both sets of partnering electronics. Tradition has generally suggested the Naim equipment is best dealt with in an ‘all or nothing’ approach but the ND5 XS would easily find its way into non Naim systems and work extremely well while it did so.
The performance from the digital inputs is - as you might expect - to all intents and purposes identical to the UPnP section. The Naim is an effective DAC in that if you like what it does as a source, you should be happy with what it does with other digital sources. It is also a tremendously effective internet radio. Anything over 128kbps as a stream is perfectly listenable and the 320kbps streams are genuinely enjoyable. While I am sure that the additional DAB/FM module is extremely good, I cannot see much of a requirement for it based on the performance of the vTuner section.
Adding the XP5 XS to the system has an effect that is subtle but still useful. None of the characteristics of the ND5 XS change when you do so but all of the positive attributes are augmented, with a further improvement to the bass response and the tonality. The nature of the connection between the ND5 XS and the XP5 XS does make a/b testing very tricky but there is enough of a boost to performance to suggest that what is going on is not psychosomatic.
The problem for the ND5 XS is that these gains come at the cost of the unit that is almost the same as the item it is designed to boost. The XP5 XS also works with some more costly Naim items where the cost balance shrinks back to the 50-60% proportional cost of most Naim upgrade PSU’s but for the ND5 XS, it is a significant cost. The thing is that you can add it at any time and the performance without it is still seriously impressive. If nothing else, it provides an upgrade option other than trying to sell the ND5 XS and buying the next model up.
The Naim’s limitations are relatively slight and like many digital products come down as much to your personal subjective preferences as to any issues with the unit. The soundstage is relatively constrained compared to some of the similarly priced competition. The Naim tends to produce a sound that occupies the space between the speakers rather than extending out beyond them. This gives impressive focus to performances but can sometimes reduce the perceived scale. There are also some competitor products that can offer a slightly richer tonality. Arcam’s D33 DAC can sound slightly richer and more vibrant with voices but can’t hold a candle to the Naim in terms of timing and bass impact. Ultimately, if you have £2,000 burning a hole in your pocket, you have no shortage of choices, some of which may appeal more to you at an emotional level than the Naim. Equally, if you do like what the ND5 XS does, not much else at the price will do.
- Superb sound quality with huge detail and excellent bass
- Comprehensive functionality
- Very solid build
- Some limits to soundstage
- Power supply is a significant cost
- No shortage of competition
Naim ND5 XS Network Streamer Review
The Naim UnitiLite managed a Reference Status badge in Naim’s inaugural review on AVForums - some months later, I still cannot think of either a single box or collection of electronics I would recommend to somebody in place of it. Against this barnstorming performance, the ND5 XS has to content itself with merely being exceptionally good. This is a unit that balances impressive real world functionality with truly excellent performance. I’m not going to pretend that it is cheap and there are units that cost less money that on paper at least, look to rival the ND5 XS. This doesn’t really tell the whole story though. The way the Naim goes about performing is simply a class above most offerings. It is unconditionally stable, beautifully built and capable of exceptional performance with both lossless and high resolution material.
It also comes with upgrade potential built in. The XP5 XS gives you the wherewithal to take the positive attributes of the ND5 XS and make them that little bit better. It isn’t cheap and many customers will decide they can live without it but it's there if you need it. Streamers are a massive growth area for manufacturers at the moment but the Naim ND XS is an object lesson in how to do it properly. This is a device that stands on its own merit and should be considered for many different systems.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £2,145.00
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