Naim DAC digital converter
Equipment Review
Naim DAC digital converter
by Alan Sircom and Malcolm Steward
N
aim Audio never made a DAC, in the same way
that it never made a CD player. In other words,
it doesn’t bring out a product just to fill a range
or even because it’s fashionable to do so. It
brings out a product because it can finally add
something substantial to the line-up. Which is why Naim Audio
has its first DAC.
The development of the DAC shows just how much
commitment the company has to its future. This is a product
designed to bring out the best in its computer-side sources
(such as the HDX hard disk player tested last year, or with a plug
in drive, any passing PC or Mac or even the much-loved and
much-under-rated Squeezebox). That it can be used with a CD
transport or an existing Naim CD player is almost a secondary
consideration.
The DAC itself uses a pair of PCM1704K chips by BurrBrown, a regular feature in Naim players. But before the data
makes it to the DAC itself, the datastream is read into a SHARC
DSP that acts as data receiver, filter for out-of-band artefacts
and acts as a 40bit, 16x oversampler and a buffer. This is aided
by a tin of salmon and a Blackfin DSP chip, which controls both
USB and the DAC, and a reclocking gate circuit directly prior to
the DAC chip (I’m lying about the tin of salmon). It’s also the first
high-end DAC with an Apple Authentication Chip, meaning it
will talk to iPods and iPhones.
Cleverly, the DAC makes jitter a thing of the past, without
resorting to asynchronous sample-rate conversion. Instead, it
references the datastream to one of 10 fixed frequencies and
the SHARC chip picks out the right oscillator to clock-lock
the signal. If the signal doesn’t fit one of those 10 frequencies,
then it falls back on ASRC. Naim did this by hiring a pair of
the sharpest-tool-in-the-box mathematicians to write some
extremely elegant code.
The key thing to the DAC is its simplicity, inside and out.
That being said, the five buttons on the front make it one of
the most button-heavy DAC out there. These can work to
control the files on a USB thumb drive, or select one of eight
S/PDIF and additional USB digital inputs on the rear panel. The
DAC’s big feather in its cap (aside from the
uniqueness of it being the first DAC from
hitherto DAC-deniers Naim) is it can handle
recordings at a sample rate of up to 768kHz
and at 32bit resolution. Of course, you have
to ask whether this makes a difference to
mere mortals armed with 44.1kHz, 16bit CD
files transferred to computer, but it suggests
that Naim’s own music label is going to start
moving from big high resolution downloads
to really big, really high resolution music
downloads soon.
But forget the sort of high-res files that
only studio engineers can get a hold of right
now. How does it sound with regular music,
off regular music CDs? Jolly damn fine, really.
It’s immediately obvious and recognisable as
an upgrade of the first water. It’s obvious
because you listen to something played
perfectly fine without it, play the same thing
with the DAC in place and wonder how
you could ever live with the sound you had
liked or even loved a minute or two before.
It’s more three-dimensional, more detailed,
more transparent, more musical and most
of all more likeable than before. That doesn’t
mean they were ‘nice sounding’; play a piece
of music that was rough-edged and it sounds
just as rough-edged, but you want to listen
to the music more.
Reproduced from HiFi Plus, Issue 71
www.hifiplus.com
Naim DAC digital converter / EQUIPMENT REVIEW
A key recording that demonstrates all of the above is ‘Butterfly’ by Jason
Mraz. It’s a wry, deliberately syrupy-soul track with some of the most dodgy
(and downright rude) sounding lyrics you’ve heard since the 1980s. And on
through the DAC, those lyrics stopped sounding like soft-core porn and started
sounding like sarcasm. Other tracks were given the same treatment through
the DAC. It just gets more out of the music. Whether you flipped between DAC
and no-DAC within a single track or spun out whole albums, the difference
was clear and hard to live without once heard.
“Adding a beefy power supply adds a lot
more to the performance, although more
in the ‘audiophile’ direction than the
‘Naimophile’.”
But there’s that other great Naim concept, too – the upgrade path.
Adding in a beefy power supply adds a lot more to the performance,
although curiously I’d say more in the ‘audiophile’ direction than necessarily
the ‘Naimophile’. The upgrade gives even more image space, solidity and
separation and could get even the flattest of flat earthers starting to talk about
micro-dynamics. The improvement is noticeable and significant, although it
must be said so is the hole that added power supply makes in your bank
balance. The upgrade doesn’t have to happen at time of purchase and is an
easy fit (simply remove the Burndy plug protector and connect in the PSU,
the power feed to the DAC remains in use), allowing you to buy a five or even
seven grand DAC in stages.
Here’s where it gets a bit twisty. I compared the DAC fed from a Naim
HDX and a Naim CDX2 player, in the context of an all-Naim system into Focal
loudspeakers at Infidelity, in Hampton Wick. The HDX alone was not as exciting
as the CDX2; the HDX+DAC was a lot more dynamic, musical and exciting
than the CDX2, but the CDX2+DAC sounded muddied compared to the HDX
on its own. This was true whether or not the DAC was had been through the
‘pimp my power supply’ upgrade. Given the DAC was fine dealing with USB
sticks, HDXs and more besides, I suspect this is down to a simple mismatch,
probably on the CDX2 side. I don’t think it means ‘not for use with CD’!
My only real grumble about the Naim DAC is that it will spend most of
second opinion
Naim refuses to produce “me too”
products; those that exist merely
because every other manufacturer
has one in its portfolio. On the contrary,
Naim insists that its products perform
better, fulfil more requirements, or,
ideally, meet both of those criteria. The
DAC is no exception.
Listening proper began with rips of
Jose Carreras performing Ariel Ramirez’
‘Misa Criolla’, starting with the Kyrie.
On a bare Naim HDX, the presentation
was excellent. Adding the DAC was
dramatic to say the least. Carreras
came closer to the listeners and his
voice gained in terms of detail and
expression: not only could I visualize
him and the choir behind him much
more clearly but the music began
to communicate with me far more
effectively. Adding the XPS to the
DAC, and the transformation of the
performance was astonishing.
Sure, the DAC was digging out far
more information and was constructing
a three-dimensional acoustic, but the
biggest leap forward was in terms of
the sheer communicative ability. Every
element in the mix, especially Carreras’
wonderfully pure upper registers,
was making its presence felt and
establishing its relevance to the music.
The DAC performed real magic with
this striking 1987 recording, transforming
it from being excellent on the HDX to
downright bloody magnificent on the
full Monty, HDX/DAC/XPS.
The next album was an old
favourite that I had recently ripped
to the HDX, Los Lobos’ rather...
experimental Kiko. The DAC enjoyed
this greatly, because it gave it so much
to work with. The upshot was that after
listening to the entire album – several
times – I came away with a new-found
respect for David Hidalgo and the
boys. Their rhythmic cohesion suggests
that there is some sort of telepathic
communication going on between
them. The DAC highlights this aspect...
Reproduced from HiFi Plus, Issue 71
www.hifiplus.com
EQUIPMENT REVIEW / Naim DAC
its first year or two being demonstrated in the context of Naim electronics.
Nothing wrong with that… except people not in the Naim camp might wrongly
think of it as a product for Naim users only. That’s missing the point altogether
– think of this as a gateway DAC.
You see, the DAC has all the usual attributes of the Naim sound (a
very ordered, dynamic and musically-focused presentation) but also comes
with the sort of performance aspects that would charm any other brand
of audiophile (great stereo, image depth, scale and tonal accuracy). You’d
struggle to imagine a guy with a system comprising single-ended triodes and
horn speakers signing up for a Naim CD player, but you’d struggle to imagine
them not liking the sound of the Naim DAC. Yes, it’s a product that every
Naim HDX owner will be salivating over and the queue to hear and buy one
among that user-group is growing almost hourly. However, it’s also the DAC
that would make non-Naim ‘muggles’ start to think kindly of products like the
HDX. Pretty soon, they start using black boxes on a daily basis and begin
upping the dosage with an amp, then a power supply or two.
That’s the thing about the Naim DAC… it’s addictive. +
Technical
Specifications
Naim DAC digital converter
Audio Outputs: 2 (RCA and DIN,
selectable)
Line output Fixed: 2.2V
RMS
Frequency Response: 10Hz to
20kHz +0.1dB/-0.5dB)
THD: <0.002%
Inputs: Digital Inputs: 8 (2 coaxial BNC,
2 coaxial phono, 4 optical toslink)
USB:
2 (one front one rear, the front overrides the rear)
Control: IR input: front and rear
panel IR output: rear panel socket
Formats: Audio files supported: USB =
WAV (LPCM up to 768kHz / 32bit)
Sample Rate: USB 32kHz to 768kHz,
24bit
S/PDIF 32kHz to 192kHz, 24
bit
iPod, iPhone 48kHz max
second opinion (CONTINUED)
Supply Voltage: 100V, 115V, 230VAC,
...of the band’s performance not just because it is especially adept at
50/60 Hz
Power Consumption: <30VA
resolving leading – and trailing – edges but because of its control at the
(max inc iPod charging)
frequency extremes.
Shipping dimensions
(H x W x D): 240 x
Listening to music through the Naim DAC proved it could be
590 x 500mm
both an educational and a visceral experience: not only does it
Dimensions (H x W x D): 70 x 432 x
reveal exactly what is being played but it also strongly suggests why
301mm
the performer played it that way. It is a facility that is infrequently
Weight: 5.6kg
encountered with DACs – or, indeed, any other components. Little hi-
Colour: Black
fi displays such genuine true musical empathy. Even less understands
Finish: Anodised fascia, painted case
there is so much more to creating a satisfying performance than simply
putting the right notes in the correct order. It takes far more than that
Price: £1,950
to allow a listener to forge an emotional connection with a recording...
and whatever that ‘more’ element is, the Naim DAC has it in spades.
One final point, I tried connecting the DAC with an early sample of
Manufactured by
Naim Audio Ltd
Naim’s DC1 Digital cable but comparison with the Chord Company’s
URL: www.naim-audio.com
Indigo Plus digital showed that the latter sounded distinctly superior in
Tel: +44(0) 1722 426600
my system. In truth, I felt that Naim’s cable did the DAC no favours at all.
Chord cable or not, the departure of the review DAC was a
harrowing experience and I am finding the wait for my own sample
seemingly interminable. I only hope that those in front of me in the
queue appreciate just how very fortunate they are.
Malcolm Steward
Reproduced from HiFi Plus, Issue 71
www.hifiplus.com
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