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NAIM NAC-N 172 XS PREAMPLIFIER
Naim's new NAC-N 172 XS preamplifier is a great sensory experience. Rafael Todes covers Classical and Jon Myles Rock, to really see what the Naim can do.
RAFAEL TODES, ALLEGRI STRING QUARTET, SAYS -
Looking down the specification of Naim's new NAC-N 172 XS preamp, it is surprising quite how much they have packed into this product – considering its price. I listened to it first through my own system with which I'm familiar, then through the Naim NAP 155 XS power amplifier they supplied. What follows is the sound through my system comprising VAC Auricle Musicblocs (valve) connected to B&W 802D loudspeakers.
Listening to my stock hi-res digital audio collection, starting with the Rimsky-Korsakov “Dance of the Tumblers” on Chesky, through a USB memory stick inserted at the front of the player, I was immediately struck by the fact that the sound is significantly better than that I get from a Windows laptop, running Windows 7, Foobar with JPlay, and using the Halide Bridge as a SPDIF/USB convertor. The NAC-N 172 XS makes my current setup sound smudged and lacking in resolution. The Naim has a tautness in the bass, a speed of timing which makes the track rock impressively. The soundstage isn’t the most cavernous I’ve heard, the Weiss DAC202 does that better, but at £5000 it should!
Having just found out about Hyperion Record’s growing collection of superbly recorded high-res material, I listened to the much under-appreciated Schumann D minor Violin Concerto, beautifully expounded by soloist Anthony Marwood. The preamp/DAC provides a warm, tonally rich account of the sound, without any nasty digital artefacts that sometimes can be present. Its superior sense of rhythm seems to enjoy the pulsating triplet quavers that pervade the first movement.
Listening to a live concert recording I made of my quartet – the Allegri Quartet in Beethoven’s Op18 no6 Quartet 3rd movement, the Naim really captures the heat of the live concert. Tonally the balance isn’t bright, it is mellow at the top and unmistakably ‘Naim’ in the middle, but it reminds me of the digital I heard from the best USB/SPDIF convertors – a taught, rock-solid sound you get with very low jitter. The first-violin’s Amati violin sounds tonally transformed, as does my Brescian Maggini violin, not unattractively so, but it is not strictly timbrally accurate. The top end of the instrument is a little closed-in, giving it a slightly ‘pinched’ sound.
I really appreciated the convenience of operating this preamp/player from my iPhone App; I could stream from any computer in the house easily, and the preamp also includes an Internet radio facility. Having just bought a Magnum Dynalab tuner, it makes Radio 3’s digital efforts via the Naim sound like plastic as there is very little tonal subtlety coming through, nevertheless it’s a useful armchair facility.
Trying out some CD, in the form of Ray Gelato recorded by Linn Records, playing on my Bel Canto CD2, connected using a Chord S/PDIF Indigo Plus S/PDIF electrical cable, shows the NAC-N 172 XS acting as a DAC at its best. The percussion section seemed to have died and gone to hi-fi heaven: the high hat was as crisp as I’ve ever heard it, the drum kit positively sizzled, and the track had a driving energy which brought it alive (resurrection no less!).
Turning to some classical fodder, Nielsen’s 4th Symphony the ‘Inextinguishable’ conducted by Herbert Blomstedt on Decca, a truly miserable epic work that finds redemption at the end, I hear a very different sonic picture emerging. The lack of stage depth of this naturally recorded symphony sounds a great deal less organic than through the Weiss DAC202. There is good textural separation of instruments for the most part, except the midrange which is a little more confused than I am used to, but there is a lack of layering on the stage depth front. The spatial integrity here is wanting. When the first violin section have a solo line, accompanied by the kettle drum, the resultant effect is extremely powerful, due to the preamp’s ability to separate the textures. When the rest of the orchestra rejoins the musical argument, the stage seems to shrink, and that wonderful clarity is lost.