Review: Naim Audio CD-3.5 CD Player
The Naim CD 3.5 warrants serious consideration from anyone seeking a “class A” CD player. Now that these units are ageing and have been replaced in the Naim line by the CD 5, there seem to be many available on audiogon (where I got mine) at very reasonable prices. I know of no better player for the money, and few better regardless of price.
I’ve had my 3.5 for about two years now. It replaced a Naim CD 3 that succumbed to an irreparable mechanical problem. I use a Nait 3 integrated amplifier. Yes, I’m a devotee of the “Naim sound.” Why? Other Naim fans refer to intangible qualities such as “rhythm and pace.” I honestly don’t understand these terms. To me, Naim has a very musical presentation. Not scientifically neutral to the nth degree, but not overtly colored either; a good balance tending just slightly toward the euphonic. One or two steps short of high quality tubes, perhaps, without sacrificing the good qualities of solid state like power, bass response, and stability. People seem to be drawn in when listening to Naim gear. Some things Naim gear does not do. It does not, for instance, create the most realistic or holographic image possible -- although Naim does an ok job here, it is not the best in the business. On the whole, in my experience Naim gives listeners the cheapest access to true audiophile sound. You’d have to spend a lot to get better performance than offered by Naim’s bottom of the line range. Once you get into the five-figure prices of the top of the line gear, well, there’s certainly good competition there. But when you can do so well in the (relatively) moderate price range, you might not need to venture higher.
The CD 3.5 has all the typical Naim qualities. It does not have the ruthlessly revealing and sometimes harsh, but undeniably aggressive and exciting characteristics of Naim’s higher-priced lines. For many of us, this is a good thing. The CD 3.5 particularly excels at reproducing acoustic instruments. It also has a peculiar ability to interpret CDs made from old analogue recordings.
Two cases illustrate these points. In a direct A/B comparison between the Naim and the original Rega Planet (considered by most to be a fine player), the Naim made the Rega sound like nails on a chalk board when listening to a Brahms chamber recording from the ‘60s. The cello was soft and full on the Naim, while the Rega (which sounded fine until you heard the comparison) made it seem scratchy, even annoying. On the other hand, in a direct comparison between the Naim and a similarly priced Krell player (it was more expensive when new) owned by a friend, they sounded indistinguishable when playing the more recent (late ‘70s) Rush album Permanent Waves (we actually had two copies of this disc so were able to switch back and forth while the players auditioned simultaneously).
That’s not to say the Naim and the Krell sound the same all the time, though. The Krell, true to its reputation, definitely has more “slam.” This is especially apparent on recordings with prominent drum sounds, like the song Talk to Me on Peter Gabriel’s Secret World Live. The strong drum and bass guitar hits at the beginning of the opening measures were fast and literally hit you in the chest with the Krell. They were merely accents on the Naim. Drums seem to have more body and elongated sound through the Krell, and deep, bottom octave bass (if your speakers can reproduce it) is more audible. The CD 3.5 does a respectable job in these departments, but the Krell is the star performer. However, the CD 3.5 has that magical midrange, whereas the Krell comes off as cold and analytical in comparison. If only I could combine the best features of the two! Which was better? If you are addicted to slam go with the Krell. Once we had finished the A/B comparison with the Krell, my friend and I spent the next four hours listening to everything, from audiophile early music discs to recently released rock, on the Naim. Draw your own conclusions.
I must mention that another area where the Krell scored over the Naim was in build quality. Naim has disappointed me a little in this regard. I mentioned how my prior player eventually developed a problem that couldn’t be fixed, and the connections on the backs of my various Naim pieces seem fragile. Naim gear is not built to the same “bullet proof” standard as, say, Krell or Bryston (renowned for its 20 year guarantees and good engineering). Also, you may find the quirky manual door and magnetic “puck” on the CD 3.5 (features designed to reduce resonance) annoying. The act of inserting a disc into the CD 3.5 is more akin to putting an LP on a turntable than the typical mechanized loading of a CD player. Fortunately owners of this level of gear tend not to subject it to too much abuse, and a manual CD door is a small price to pay for good sound.
Should you get an external power supply (i.e. the flatcap)? I did, once again through audiogon. Naim puts a lot of emphasis on power supplies and pioneered the external power supply in home audio. True Naim exponents take the value of external power supplies as an article of faith. I must not be one, though; I found the flatcap to be a mixed blessing. The CD 3.5 has a brighter sound than its predecessor, the CD 3. This results in improved imaging and clarity, and a greater sense of realism. However, the CD 3 had an incredible midrange that to some ears (i.e. my wife’s) made the unit sound better than the 3.5. On the whole I would take the 3.5 over the 3, but I missed the 3’s midrange too. The flatcap brought the CD 3.5’s midrange close to the 3’s without sacrificing the highs. However, it made the bass seem less tight, more bloomy. On balance I accept this tradeoff, but others might not. Think twice before investing in the flatcap, even at used gear prices. It represents a significant extra investment that may not be worth it to you. Most listeners would be happy with a CD 3.5 standing alone.
To sum up, the Naim CD 3.5 is a first rate player, fully worthy of the Stereophile Class A rating it held until the introduction of the CD 5 which now enjoys the same honor. It will handle just about anything with musical aplomb, and will handle many things with a quality few other players can match. If your taste runs to more aggressive, drum and bass-heavy music and you have a couple of grand to spare you might find another player that edges it out a little and for a significantly higher price. But if you listen to a wide variety of music, or if you concentrate on classical or acoustic jazz listening, you’d be hard pressed to find a better sounding player at any price. And for what it goes for used, it’s a stone cold bargain.
Flat Cap power supply
Nait 3 integrated amplifier
Dunlavy SC IV speakers
Krell, Rega, Linn