I had a hard time deciding on the name of this post. Several funny ideas popped into my head, but I finally settled on the title you see. If you are into or considering taking the plunge into computer music, this is for you. It’s longer than my typical entry, but full of great information and some fun along the way.
To set the stage, we need a bit of a history lesson.
When CDs first came out, they offered a huge convenience over the traditional LP. The improvement in sound quality was questionable, but no one ever debated how easy it was to load, play, and skip tracks. Soon we had 6 disc changers followed by hundred disc changers, followed by 200, then 300, then finally 400 disc changers. The convenience of storing all our music in one box was certainly appealing, but managing it, with the crude interfaces of the time was more of a challenge than making a greatest hits cassette tape in 1974!
Then came iTunes. With iTunes we could just drop a CD into the drawer on our computer and store it there. Many people did not realize iTunes came preset to copy our music in a low resolution format to save disc space. However, with iTunes, managing a large library became so much simpler than ever before. Time passed and more and more people started to build up a good sized library of music on their computers.
As with anything, there will always be people pushing for better performance. Originally you had to go from your computer’s analog output or if you were lucky, digital outputs, into your stereo system to get music into your stereo system. Or the savvy user figured out you could send the files from the computer to an Airport Express and connect to it’s digital output and into their system. The audio industry pretty quickly realized a computer did not have the best audio parts inside, but did have this little plug called USB that might offer something better and the USB DAC was born. With a USB DAC, you could bypass most of the audio section inside a computer and in some cases even talk to the clock in the computer to improve the musical timing. The Mac Mini due to its small footprint became a very popular computer to put in one’s system to connect a USB DAC up to. And when the iPad and the free remote app arrived, you did not even need a monitor for the Mac Mini.
Pretty soon people started to figure out the computer itself could negatively impact the audio quality as it output the music, and after-market programs such as Pure Music, Amarra, and others were introduced to manipulate the computer to provide better sound. Then for the real purist, better software to rip CD’s emerged to use instead of iTunes. In many cases these led to a real nightmare of time to manage track names and cover art.
We all know computers can be as reliable as a 1974 Alpha Romeo and there-in lies one of the rubs of using a computer to play back music. There are several settings you have to get correct for a USB DAC to get the signal, and the two devices need to “see” and communicate with each other.
About a year ago, this issue hit me right in the face. My wife and I like to be in dinner groups as we both love to cook. We had joined a new group and had some other couples over for dinner at our house. Over the course of dinner, conversation turned to concerts and then the fact I was in the audio business, and finally most of the guys wanted to hear my system. We all went upstairs where I have both a theater and two channel audio system combined in a room that sounds pretty darn good. Well, I have never been so embarrassed when it took over 20 minutes for me to get music out of my system! There had been some kind of update that screwed up the audio midi set up deep inside the Mac Mini which took me a while to figure out. One of the guys asked why I could just not drop in a CD!
Right then, I realized this must be happening for most people trying to use a computer to play back music and I decided I was going to find something that was 100% reliable, easier to use and sounded as good, if not better than what I had in my home. I was not even sure this was possible!
While most of the audio world had been designing and making USB DACs (which must be connected to a computer to play), a very few companies had been going down another path. Probably one of the very first and most popular was the Logitech Squeezebox. This was a little $300 box that plugs into your network. It goes out and finds all the music sitting on your network and can pull it in using a methodology called UPnP, which is short for Universal Plug and Play. This technology was introduced in 2006. The Logitech has digital out, so I tried it with a couple of regular DACS. The results were ok, but not as good as my reference USB DAC. Plus, its user interface was ok, but not fantastic.
My current set up at that time consisted of a Mac Mini with a couple of OWC fire-wire hard drives connected to it containing my music and another for back up. This still required the music to flow through a computer and for a computer to be on. To fully test UPnP streaming I got a Synology NAS drive with RAID. I copied my music over to the NAS. The NAS drive has the advantage of just sitting on the network. If it is UPnP compatible, any player can just see the music and pull it in without a computer having to be on anywhere. Read that again, yes, with a UPnP player, no computer has to be on anywhere. If I can find a great sounding player, no more embarrassing moments for me!
Linn, out of Scotland, had been making some waves with their network players. A few of my dealer buddies were telling me they were very good, so I decided to try some of their devices. I first got in their player for around 2k. It did not impress me, so I asked to hear the $3500 player and $7500 player. Neither one sounded as good as my reference DAC. Plus, I had purchased quite a lot of music from HD Tracks. I’d bought it in Apple’s zero compression version of WAV called AIFF. The Linn gear would not even play AIFF files so I had to go through the pain of converting them to WAV to even be able to hear them. Needless to say, I was disappointed and starting to get discouraged that there may not be a better solution.
I did a bit more digging and stumbled upon another UK company who actually had a better selection of UPnP players than Linn. This company is out of Salisbury, England and is called Naim. They’ve actually been around since 1973, but had never made much noise in the United States. Most European audio companies who business in the US will set up an importer who handles the brand along with other brands they import. I called up the current US importer to try and see if I could bring in some of their gear to play with.
Well, this turned into a huge political quagmire. Unknown to me at the time, Naim of the UK had decided they were going to change US importers, and so the current importer was not really excited about helping me out. I kept getting delayed until they finally told me what was going on. Meanwhile another dealer friend of mine had become a Naim dealer around the beginning of 2014 before the change was told to the current importer. We’d been wanting to get together and talk about business so he came by NC and brought with him the entry level Naim UPnP player. It sells for $2300. I still had some of the Linn gear at the time and to me, it sounded better than the best piece I had, but my reference USB DAC, still sounded better. I did get to see the Naim tablet interface which really impressed me (more on it later). The best thing though, was it played every format I had and worked perfect every single time with zero glitches! Now I had hope!
Fast forward 4 months and the new importer came to see me with a pallet of gear for me to try. I spent almost an entire day with them learning about Naim both from an historical and technical standpoint. The new importer was really just new to the USA as they had been working with Nain as the Canadian importer for almost 20 years so their product knowledge was really good. I go through this process with every new brand considered by Audio Advice. During the Q&A period, I am always able to ask a few questions or inquire about a feature set I wish the unit had and I’ll get either an “I have to get back with you” or a no. This was the very first time in my almost 40 years of doing this I could not “stump the band”!
I could not wait to get home and try this stuff out. My first test was of the $4000 ND5XS player. After the first couple of notes, I was blown away. I was hearing subtle nuances in my music I had never ever heard before. The sound was very relaxed, yet incredibly involving. The solution was at hand!
During my conversations with the Naim team, they told me they believed the initial rip of the CD was crucial to the sound. They had sent me their special ripper. I have to say, I was a bit skeptical of this, as I had gone to great pains to carefully rip my music. They have two versions of this piece, one with internal storage and one with external which both just sit on your network. I took a couple of my favorite CD’s and ripped them through their machine. The iPad app lets you choose the music source, so I could easily compare between ripped through iTunes and ripped through Naim, played back through the ND5XS player. Oh my gosh, the improvement was huge! It was just more of the same kind of difference I heard between the $4k player and my reference DAC.
I thought to myself, how can this get any better? Well, when I connected up the $6k NDX streamer, my question was answered. WOW!! More of the same again!
The Naim sound just flat out gets you involved in the music. At first listen, it does not bowl you over, but after a couple of minutes, you realize you’ve forgotten you are listening to a stereo and are simply enjoying the music. I have about 100 songs I use as reference tracks when I compare things. Typically, I play the first minute or so of each and move on. With the Naim, this was not the case. I found myself listening to each and every song in its entirety!
If you’ve read all the way to this point, you probably want to know more. I’ve decided to break this up into another post where I’ll go deeper into the Naim product. All I can say is, I’ve found nirvana for digital music. And no computer needed!