Friday, 28 February 2014

Hell Freezes Over?

There's a follow up posting to this story, 3 weeks later here.  Read this post first then check out the follow-up.

As a starter for a weekend of hifi, I guess this is one of the more exotic ways to kick off. 
After the usual week of work, everything was planned and ready to go for the Wigwam hifi show at Scalford with travelling on Saturday and the show itself on Sunday.  Friday evening was supposed to be time at home before disappearing off for a weekend of sonic indulgence and maybe the occasional glass of beer.  But "Richard Is My Naim", my local Naimist and co-conspirator at Scalford dropped a killer call at knocking-off time on Friday evening.  Another black box had arrived.  It needed setting up.  It needed listening to.  Now.  An NDS had landed.
Back Story
In 2 parallel universes, somewhere in North Wales, 2 journeys from CD to streaming have been played out.  Myself predominantly with Linn,  Richard consistently with Naim.
My starting point:  Meridian CD508.20 / Meridian 541 Pre / Rotel power amps / Active Linn Keilidhs.  Via Squeezebox, CA and Cyrus DACs, Cyrus and older Linn power amps, Linn AV5103 pre etc., at the end of 2013 I was at Linn Akurate DS/0/1, Linn Akurate Kontrol/0/D, Linn Majik Dynamik amps and active Majik 140 speakers.  And very happy was I.  Until a "friendly" Linn forum member let me hear a KDSM versus the Klimax Renew (KRDS) streamers.  With the advent of Linn Exakt, a good few Klimax DS/1s (KDS/1) came on the market, the prices fell, and, at the beginning of 2014, a black KDS/1 stepped in to my system and completely re-wrote the rule books.  I could almost see the cogs whirring in Richard's head when he heard how profound a change the KDS/1 brought to my music.
Richard's starting point: Naim CDX2, XPS power supply, NAC252 pre with HiCap PS, NAP180 power and Wilson Benesch Arc standmount speakers.  Then, via the second version of the CDX2, and improved XPS2, NAP250 power amp, NDX with XPS2, he has ended up with NDX / 555PS DR streamer, NAC282 / HiCap pre-amp, NAP250 power amp and Kudos C20 Super floorstanding speakers.  He was also very happy.
So here we have 2 very different ways of getting to a decent quality streaming solution.  And they sound very different too.  Both have bags of detail, but the Linn system is very precise and instruments are really well separated whereas the Naim system sounds more like it wants to get on with everything (like there's not enough time in the day), it has a particularly expansive soundstage and, for me, can occasionally sound a bit strident.  Guess what?  We both think we have the correct answer, but we also seem to respect what the other is enjoying, if that makes sense.
Why Is Hell Freezing Over?
This is a reference to a couple of things.  First, the live album by The Eagles - when they originally split up, one of the band was quoted as saying they would only get back together, "when Hell freezes over", yet there they were, playing live again together.  The second reference is to the relationship between Linn and Naim as companies.  Back in the 1970s, when Linn started out with the LP12 turntable and Naim started out making simple but well engineered amplifiers, the two companies had very similar outlooks - they were out to challenge the establishment and did so very effectively.  When Linn added speakers to their range, and Naim expanded their line of amplifiers, all was well.  The components worked well together and became the "established" route for UK audiophiles.  But when Linn added amplifiers to their range (rumour has it that the Naim MD used one as an office doorstop), then Naim produced a tonearm for the LP12, it all started to go a bit off-kilter.
Despite that, many dealers and customers still work with and enjoy combining the 2 manufacturers' equipment today.
So perhaps this isn't Hell freezing over, but putting the top of the range (almost - more later) Naim streamer on the same rack as the top of the range Linn streamer is probably not something that happens too often.
Naim NDS on a shelf above the Linn KDS/1
Richard's usual streamer solution is Naim NDX with the 555PS DR power supply.  The most recent upgrade step was to swap out the XPS2 for the 555PS DR power supply a good few months ago, and we were both stunned by the improvement this brought in terms of imaging, leading edge attack and more atmosphere to the music.  In source terms, there's only one place its possible to go from there, and that would be to swap out the NDX streamer for Naim's current top of the range NDS streamer.  The NDS can use a single 555PS DR power supply - the one Richard currently uses with his NDX - so its a straight swap, NDX out, NDS in.
Having packed up the KDS/1 into its Linn box, I was round to Richard's house fairly sharpish.  Down to business - get all this stuff up and running to allow us to make the comparison.

A bit untidy with Ethernet and power cables. Left hand rack consists of Naim NAC282 pre-amp, Naim NDX, Naim HiCap PS for the 282, Naim 555PS DR for the NDS, Naim NAP250 power amp.  In the foreground the Kudos C20 Super (in cherry veneer).  Racks are by Quadraspire.


Get Set, Before Go
An unmanaged switch was connected into the Devolo Ethernet over mains plug to allow 2 x Ethernet connections.  The KDS/1 was hooked up to the network, and with the wifi password sorted out, was pointed at the correct UPnP database from my Android phone (using BubbleDS control point) and that was sorted.  Linn Silver interconnects into the back of the NAC282 (actual phono sockets!) and that was ready to go.
The Naim is a little more complex as it needs two very large ("bundy") cables connecting - both of these are intended to be connected to the 555PS DR power supply.  It took us a while to work out which is which cable - apart from the different arrangement of pins in the plugs, there's not much to go on.  Until we worked out that one cable had a single white band at one end with the other having 2 white bands.  Turns out that this correlates to input 1 and input 2 on the back of the NDS.  Easy when you know how!  One more cable to carry the signal to the NAC282 pre-amp and we're good to go.  The NDS pops up on the iPad and music is available from both sources.
Where Did That Come From?
The previous weekend I'd been at the Bristol show organised by Audio-T and WHF magazine.  Naim had been there, with their first European public demo of the Statement amplifier which you can read about here.  Turns out that what we had there in front of us right now was the NDS streamer that Naim had used in that demo in Bristol.  Surprisingly, they seemed to have used a brand new unit that weekend, so perhaps it got better over the weekend and those who heard the system on Sunday may have heard something more enjoyable than the demo I was lucky to get into, first thing on the Friday.  So it had some burn-in time, but not a great deal.  My KDS/1 has about 15 months use, so no chance of any burn-in issues there.
Worth pointing out, at this point, that the KDS/1 and the NDS with a single 555PS DR are pretty much on a par, price wise.  The KDS/1 is the top of the Linn range at the moment (of the conventional streamers that is, excluding the Klimax Exakt DSM which is a different kettle of deep fried fish in technology approach), but the Naim NDS can be upgraded further by the addition of a second 555 PS DR power supply.  Apparently one serves the analogue circuits, the other the digital circuits, hence separating stuff even further.
Listen Up
Testing my memory a bit now, but I think this is what we listened to:
Steely Dan - Any Major Dude
Fleetwood Mac - Rumours (24 bit)
Ane Brun - Worship
Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit
James Taylor - Gaia
Eagles - Hotel California (Live)
Eagle Eye Cherry - Shooting Up In Vain
Some Radiohead, which I choose not to remember, and some other stuff I can't remember due to advancing age (probably).  Maybe Richard will be along soon to provide an update - although he is one year older than me, so maybe that's unlikely  ;-)
Strangely, for us, Blues Company didn't feature at all.
So What?
Well, that's a very good question.  So what?
I like my Linn system.  Richard likes his (almost all, but thank goodness there are no Ovators in the area) Naim system.  Can you guess where this is going?
I've suggested a "Part 2" where we put the NDS into my Linn system.  The NDS is on demo at the moment, so we're not sure if we'll find a mutually available time to give that a go.  If it happens, you'll read about it here.
Interestingly (maybe?), this bake-off fitted with the Scalford Hifi Wigwam show weekend very well.  How so?  Did it sound like vinyl, played through valves and a set of extreme home made horns?  No.  No.  Not at all.  The alignment is this - Scalford is about variety and variety, with some added variety.  For example, when exhibiting with my budget system and playing a Yello DVD (with a projector too), we had some people who walked out in less than 30 seconds (I think 3 minutes would be a fairer time to decide, but hey, I'm kind of known for being unreasonably reasonable, sometimes), and some who watched the whole video end to end - 40 minutes.  Equally, I like to give every room a try, but some I stay in, others I find 3-5 minutes with a couple of different tracks and I want to move on.  There is a theme with the Wam - there are some systems that do lots of things very well, but there are many systems that do one or two things exceptionally well, but don't do all the other things well at all.  And that's what it seems to be about - enthusiasts playing what they think is right, whether you, dear visitor, like it or not.
Variety.  See?
And whilst I wouldn't accuse either the Linn, nor the Naim, of doggedly pursuing a very narrow set of goals, you can very much hear a house sound from both devices, even in a predominantly Naim system (hence my suggestion we do this again in a Linn system at some point, to get some balance, maybe).
How is it that 2 expensive, highly engineered solutions, using exactly the same source material across exactly the same network, create such a different feel?  What's happening to those bits and, further down the chain, those analogue waves that crunches them out so differently, and yet with some commonality?
What's common?  Detail, layers upon layers of intricate detail.  Tiny nuances in voices, subtle touches of cymbals which are normally hidden underneath other cymbals or percussion on lesser components.    Bass lines that aren't one instrument, but are 2 or 3 that play tunes that intertwine with each other.  That extra level of control that is only stunningly apparent when its there, and then when you step back to a lesser component and notice that the looseness is back.  It amazes me that what sounds great on a system is suddenly put into a perspective of inadequacy when you hear it done "right".  What is "right" anyway?  I wasn't there at the recording so I don't really know, and yet its somehow obvious.  A bit like colour in a photograph - its often obvious what's been changed in Photoshop (other programs are available), yet you weren't there to see the real thing - you just instinctively know its not right, not natural. And rhythm.  Both of these players time superbly.  Tap tap go the toes - its involuntary, its pretty much inevitable.
What's different?  Everything else. 
The Linn sounds so much like its fully in control.  The music will do what the Linn tells it to do.  The instruments are carefully "placed".  The imaging is immaculately controlled.  You can imagine the subtlety with which a string is plucked, a cymbal brushed, a sigh is delivered.  Its precise.  And yet, it flows so smoothly.  There's something about the Linn that makes the music feel crafted by hand with skill and attention by musicians who care. Not lacking in attack, but instrument attack is precisely delivered - starts and stops are there to be heard.  Decay is beautifully extended yet the instruments don't blur together.  Clearly this works brilliantly on material such as James Taylor, the Eagles and Eagle Eye Cherry.  Does this make Nirvana and Radiohead polite and lacking in bite?  No, strangely not, the bite and anger is there, the emotion flows through.
The Naim is clearly a Naim component.  There's very little chance that you would mix up the 2.  It punches, it attacks the music, there's no doubt whatsoever that it means to get on with the job, to tell you that this is the way the music is, get on and enjoy it, or get out of my way.  Its a much more raw experience than the Linn, and I think that's what Richard enjoys - he takes this as being more emotional, more like real life.  For me it gets too much at times - pushing my limits of enjoyment, getting close to the point of aggression and boarding on harsh.  Its not my cup of tea, but I can absolutely hear the appeal.  The Naim has a tiny more expression in the vocals, especially female vocals - just a bit more texture, if you like.  It also has a wider soundstage, filling the room more from left to right, but not quite so much front to back - delivering this as a counterpoint to the precision of the Linn.  Sometimes the decay of instruments is lost a little in the mix, in comparison with the Linn - perhaps that's something that contributes to the need to move on, to deliver the next bit of excitement.
So there it is.  Not much of a conclusion really, is it?  Guess what?  I'm very happy to have chosen the Linn, but that's not a slight at the Naim which I fully respect for what it does and what it achieves.  Put the Naim in a Naim system and you get exactly what you might expect, just more of it, to a finer level of detail and with that extra bit of passion.  I suspect that Richard will also choose the Naim.  He's leaving it playing during the week, so maybe a bit more time on the NDS will change it further.
But I'm left with a bit of a nagging doubt, and we discuss it a number of times over the weekend at Scalford.  Is the NDS worth the asking price over and above the NDX?  On the basis of this session, upgrading the NDX / XPS2 to NDX / 555PS DR delivered a bigger step.  Yes the NDS is better than the NDX, but it hasn't delivered as much as the power supply change.  Seems counter intuitive really doesn't it?  Surely a different DAC, analogue output stage and improved physical isolation makes a bigger change than a better, beefier, tighter power supply change?  Not on this showing it doesn't.
Lets see what the week's extra burn-in brings.  For this test I come away happy with the KDS/1, Richard comes away wondering about that 10 year old Porsche Boxster...
There's a follow up posting to this story, 3 weeks later here.

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