Naim ND5 XS2 Network Audio Player Review
Naim goes ex-display
What is the Naim ND5 XS2?The Naim ND5 XS2 is the entry level model in the new range of Naim standalone streamers. ‘Entry level’ is a relative term when it comes to Naim and it will set you back no less than £2,300. This obviously puts the ND5 XS2 in fairly rarefied territory in terms of sources we have reviewed here. It is also one of the occasions where we also have a review of its predecessor so we can make some meaningful comparisons at the same time.
Only, in this case, the comparisons run a lot deeper than that. I did, in fact, live with an ND5 XS for almost the complete lifespan of the product. Combined with an external power supply it was a breakthrough moment in streaming for me combining, as it did, absolutely outstanding audio performance with an interface that was up to the job of being used as a workhorse, day in day out. It’s a testament to how solid the basic platform was that, even now, it still behaves and runs in a way that some brand new streaming products can’t emulate.
As such, its successor has some big shoes to fill. There is no shortage of increasingly well crafted competition and some different takes on how you can build a streaming front end at this price point. Is Naim still among the best options or have things moved on? Time to find out.
Specification and DesignThe ND5 XS2 is built around the same streaming platform as the Uniti products that have passed through over the last eighteen months. This was Naim’s first all new platform since their very first one and the most important thing it did was to take all the functionality and features that had been added over time and rationalise them into a single board. This drive to rationalise has then been combined with all the experience and feedback of the last decade to further improve performance.
The headline supported formats of the new streamer are not significantly different to the old ones though. The ND5 XS2 supports up to 32/192 PCM and DSD 128 with the spread of formats that one would expect for a premium product which is to say everything except WMA Lossless - and I'm not sure if anyone even expects that any more. This spread is ironically becoming more rather than less important. The target market for this sort of product includes people coming from more affordable streamers as well as first timers. People bringing their existing ripped libraries to the party might have an iTunes shaped origin point (with ALAC and AIFF in predominance) or a more conventional dBPoweramp starting point with FLAC and WAV.
Partnering the ability to stream your own music, is the ability to access other content. By virtue of sharing its guts with the Unitis, the new ND5 is a very flexible device indeed. It offers, AirPlay, aptX Bluetooth, and Google Cast (the latter, a ‘full fat’ example of the breed with 24/192 capability) and a selection of digital inputs. Like the rest of the Naim family, it has Spotify Connect for ‘quick and dirty’ and Tidal for more considered listening. This does not include MQA support for Masters - Naim is part of a rump of companies that have no interest at all in going down that rabbit hole.
This functionality means that an ND5 XS2 can act as a fairly comprehensive media hub, handling everything from your Hi-Res content to quick bits of Bluetooth connectivity to give more oomph to something you’re looking at your phone. What I still find faintly incredible about this is that it is Naim that is doing this. When I got into Hi-Fi in my early teens (and with hindsight, getting into heroin would have been cheaper), Naim products were the coarsest of hair shirt minimalism. It had taken them a decade to make a CD player and it didn’t even have a digital out. Each Naim product did one thing and one thing only. That, in 2019, they make something in their ‘serious’ range that has this functionality still boggles the mind a little.
Of course, some Naim idiosyncrasies remain. The XS2 is still designed to use a DIN connection to a matching Naim amp by preference, although RCA remains as a backup, and the casework is designed around the twin aims of isolating the electronics within from external noise and vibration and ensuring that the signal that makes it out the back is as clean as possible. It’s a solid feeling piece of kit though and nice touches abound like the excellent quality mains lead built for the task and supplied in the box. You can have some strong opinions on the efficacy of such things (and I know most of you do) but at the very least Naim isn’t asking you to pay extra for it.
Of course, it is now time to confront the elephant in the room. The ND5 XS2 does more than its predecessor but you wouldn’t know it to look at it. It does, in fact, have more in common visually with the outgoing XP5 XS power supply. It has no display and no controls barring a standby button. Neither is there a remote control - and this isn’t a cynical upgrade push either because there is no IR receiver to use one after market. To function, the ND5 XS2 is completely dependent on the control app.
Let’s deal with the good bit of this first. Naim’s app is one of the best in the business. For iOS in particular (although Android is far from shabby too) it is in a select category of apps that can be considered largely viceless. I particularly like the Tidal integration which emulates Roon and integrates elements of it into a single library. If you connect a 3.5mm jack to jack cable, it is also possible to control the volume of a matching Naim amp or preamp. In stability terms, both the operating system and the app are good enough to handle the lack of hardware control and feedback. You can also use the Naim as a Roon endpoint if you want an even swisher control interface.
As a 38 year old traditionalist, I am less well equipped though. My issue is that stopping the Naim in a hurry is not easy. If somebody phones you on the device you’re using to run the app, your options are effectively to mute the amp or turn it off. Some feedback from Naim and dealers suggests that owners are encouraged to have a dedicated tablet to act as the control point and this will minimise (but not eradicate) this issue but it’s more cost on top of the £2,300 you’ve already spent. I also miss the display that comes with the Unitis and the more expensive standalone streamers. It’s a great feature and it factors into a conversation about what sort of system you want that we need to have at the end. It is fair to say that most of the Naim’s key rivals are not anything like as minimalist though.
This functionality means that an ND5 XS2 can act as a fairly comprehensive media hub, handling everything from your Hi-Res content to quick bits of Bluetooth connectivity to give more oomph to something you’re looking at your phone
How was the ND5 XS2 tested?The ND5 XS2 was connected to a Naim Supernait 2 integrated amp and took a network feed from a Melco N1A. Speakers used have included a pair of Neat Momentum 4 Floorstanders and Acoustic Energy AE1 Classics and Revel M16 standmounts. All equipment was connected to an IsoTek Evo 3 Aquarius mains conditioner. The digital inputs have been tested via an LG 55B7 OLED TV running a mix of broadcast and on demand TV. The control app has been tested via iPad Air and Essential PH-1. Test material has included FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, DSD Netflix, Spotify, Tidal and Deezer (via AirPlay).
Sound QualityThe ND5 XS2 faces some stiff competition at this price. Unusually, some of this comes from its own stablemates. The Uniti Star and Uniti Nova in particular are one box systems that can take the fight to equivalently priced separate systems, so the ND5 XS needs to be good in order just to make sense in the context of the range. It is perhaps just as well then that it does deliver.
First up, the overall presentation of the XS2 reflects on the ongoing journey that Naim themselves have been undertaking. Comparing the new streamer to its predecessor is illuminating. In many reviews over the years, I’ve spoken about its slightly ‘dark’ tonality. Compared to many products that have passed through, it has a top end that is understated and absolutely free of over-emphasis. It’s one of the main reasons I love it because it makes for a supremely easy product to listen to for long periods. It does mean that the top end sparkle that some devices can bring is absent though.
The new streamer isn’t an order of magnitude different - Naim doesn’t do night and day changes - but there is a greater emphasis on the higher frequencies. It never tips over into being well lit, let along bright but there is an additional sweetness to the upper frequencies that is consistently present and adds to the feeling of involvement. The beautiful The Darkness Between The Leaves gains a greater feeling of involvement as a result. Vocals are better emphasised and the distinctive harp work is more pronounced and detailed. It’s still considered and refined enough to be something that should be hard to provoke unless you go for wildly unsuitable speakers.
This has been done without affecting the sense of drive and timing that pretty much define Naim equipment. It’s a maddening concept to try and put into words but with all the speakers on the test, there is an inescapable feeling that everything is utterly together. The ballistic Super Zodiac by The Comet is Coming is a frenzied mass of synth and percussion. Even on very accomplished equipment, it can sound a bit wayward. Here, it snaps into place with absolute precision. If you’re ever going to pretend you’re air drumming while being electrocuted, this is the moment you’re going to do it whether you like it or not.
Combining that sweet and inviting tonal lift with the sheer clout that makes a Naim product what it is, represents a useful step forward over what has gone before. Combined with the Supernait 2, the ND5 XS2 will outperform a Uniti Nova although, at an additional £1,350 with fewer digital inputs, we should probably expect nothing less. The details that mean one brand’s equipment differs from another are deeply subjective but this is still a pairing that delivers for me in a way that some brands fall short with.
This is combined with a flexibility that is genuinely useful. Having AirPlay on a £2k+ streamer might seem pointless on paper but being able to send Deezer to the ND5 XS2 and not eat into my restricted bandwidth is extremely handy. Its performance as a decoder for my TV is also extremely good. I’ve now been living without multichannel for nearly a year and, honestly, the ability of devices like the ND5 XS2 to deliver a sonic performance that does justice to the image on screen means that it is highly unlikely that I’m going back and that I’m unlikely to consider a sound bar either. In a perfect world, I’d have loved the ability to spec an HDMI ARC connector as fitted to the Unitis but I’ll make do with optical.
I’ve now been living without multichannel for nearly a year and, honestly, the ability of devices like the ND5 XS2 to deliver a sonic performance that does justice to the image on screen means that it is highly unlikely that I’m going back
- Sounds superb
- Flexible specification
- Excellent app
- Some control limitations
- Not cheap
Naim ND5 XS2 Network Audio Player ReviewSo begins one of the most interesting summaries I’ve had to write in a while. Reaching a completely balanced conclusion with the ND5 XS2 is hard and I will do my best to explain why. This is an exceptionally well-engineered piece of kit. Sonically, it manages to move the game on from its already supremely talented predecessor. It still kicks ass and takes na(im)mes when it comes to the beat and emotional content of music but it partners this with a sweetness and tonal richness that broadens the appeal still further.
Against this lurk two issues. The first is that the Uniti Nova and Star really do get pretty close to the performance of the dedicated streamer. Were it my own money (and it isn’t because I don’t have any), I don’t know if I could ignore the saving to the Nova or Star unless I had a bigger room and confidence that further upgrades would follow. The second is I’d have more confidence in this belief if the control functionality was a little less Spartan. Living with the ND5 XS2 has had just enough moments of frustration at certain points to have me looking slightly wistfully at its ancestor with its display and remote.
On balance, this product is too good to be written off just because I’m a traditionalist who likes remote controls. Get the ND5 XS and venture onto the classifieds to buy a tidy iPad Mini you can keep unlocked and I’m sure it will be fine. Make this tiny allowance and you’ll have access to a phenomenal digital platform that comes enthusiastically Recommended.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £2,299.00
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