Naim 555 / 555 DR
This is $41k’s worth of kit, with a compulsory separate power supply, just for streaming? Yet Naim’s 555 network player performs to its price.
We confess that as we lugged three boxes — two large heavy ones, and a medium lighter one — from the car up the many steps to the music room, we couldn’t help thinking that this seemed a lot of weight for a streaming source. The heavier boxes contained not one but two required components — Naim’s top-of-theheap ND 555 network player itself ($26,700), and the 555 PS DR ($15,800), the required standalone power supply. Bought together they confer a small saving, totalling $41,000.
The third and lighter box contained two black accessories boxes, one of which yielded a pair of finger-thick cables terminated in large multi-pin Burndy ring-locking connectors, and the other opening to reveal a remote control, documentation, three antennas, and an extremely highly engineered version of a kettle mains lead (Naim’s Power-Line, to use its proper handle). This last connected to the power supply, and from this the pair of thick cables then connected to the ND 555 itself.
Why two cables? Because they deliver separate supplies to the ND 555’s digital section (the inputs through to the DAC) and analogue sections (the current-to-voltage converter and analogue filter section).
Phew. Naim clearly doesn’t mess around when it comes to power provision. But then this is part of Naim’s range-topping 500
Series, the best
Naim can deliver:
“the result of a single-minded pursuit of musical performance with a narrow focus on enhancing the aspects of music that matter to us most: pace, rhythm, timing and ultimately, emotive power.”
‘Elite’ this combo may be, yet it shares all the convenience of Naim’s successful Mu-so wireless players.
With Spotify Connect and Chromecast onboard, Bluetooth and AirPlay too, there are many paths to playback.
In terms of physical inputs there are two optical digital (good to 24-bit/96kHz) and two coaxial digital plus an unusual coaxial BNC socket (all good to 24bit/192kHz), plus two USB-A slots to which drives or sticks of music can be attached. File-type support is good, with MP3, AAC, OGG, WMA, then FLAC, AIFF, ALAC to 24-bit/384kHz, and WAV right up to 32-bit/384kHz; also DSD 64 and 128 (although see below).
Some of these options, of course, offer better inherent quality than others. To experience the best that the ND 555 has to offer, you should play files over your network, using
Naim’s app for navigation, or Roon. In this way you can enjoy up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM playback. And when doing so, you won’t be thinking about the many technical innovations and modifications that Naim has packed into the circuits. Instead you’ll simply be loving your music. Because we thought the Naim ND 555 sounded simply thrilling.
But first, let’s get into some of that tech. As noted, high-quality power provision is a key priority. In addition to “the best external power supply we’ve ever made”, the ND 555 makes extensive use of Naim’s DR discrete component voltage regulators, which have a low current draw and promise both lower noise and much faster voltage recovery than the previously used monolithic regulator. Four DR regulators power the DAC; others feed the sensitive analogue circuits. There are, in all, 13 of these DR regulators in the NP 555.
Naim highlights also the use of low-voltage differential signalling (LVDS) to route both the digital audio signal and the clock; it says this low-noise, high-speed method minimises timing errors because of its speed and also reduces radiation thanks to its low noise.
And there is a large buffer of RAM onboard, sufficient to store a full five minutes of red-book CD audio to guard against any bottleneck in streaming; Naim nicely calls this a ‘stream-catcher’.
This allows a new system of master clocking to be employed, with the DAC clock rather than the source governing the rate at which audio data is streamed in. The clock is kept close to the DAC chips and sent to the streaming card again using the high-speed low-noise LVDS signalling.
The data is over-sampled at exact multiples to a rather extreme 40-bit accuracy before being fed to the DAC, which is, perhaps surprisingly, a Burr-Brown PCM1704, a discontinued chip. But Naim considers the PCM1704 to have exceptional sound quality, being a true R2R ladder DAC using repetitive arrangements of precise resistor networks; extremely accurate trimming of the resistors is required to achieve this high performance. Newer delta-sigma DACs are easier to manufacture and may measure better, says Naim, but it considers the PCM1704 to be the best-sounding DAC chip ever made (and specifically uses only the highest-performing PCM1704U-K variant in the ND 555). When production ceased, Naim acquired a stockpile of these DACs, though in order to keep enough spares on hand, it admits that this may be the last commercial product ever to use this iconic device.
One potential issue — this type of DAC design won’t handle the continuous one-bit stream of DSD directly, so DSD streams are converted in the ND 555 to PCM by the SHARC DSP. But this is 352.8kHz, 40-bit floating point PCM, later upsampled to 705.6kHz/24-bit for the DAC conversion, and since it is low-pass filtered to remove DSD’s ultrasonic noise, the result might even improve on performance.
Physical design, both in terms of layout and in terms of construction, is addressed with similar levels of attention to detail. The PCBs are suspended on sprung sub-chassis systems with heavy brass plates — like several-kilograms-of-brass heavy, the mass delivering a low natural frequency for the six steel-coil springs which support the plate, and minimising the effects of microphony. The digital circuits are enclosed within a nested Faraday cage, a six-sided aluminium box that protects the analogue circuits from RF emissions.
With all three power cables in place, the last given the cleanest possible connection direct to the frankly dubious power supply of Sydney’s North Shore (just the 246.2V coming through on the morning of set-up), we powered up the power supply. The ND 555 also lit up in response, with a fiery colour splash on its five-inch front-panel screen, soon replaced by a monochrome set of source icons.
We waved the wonderfully weighty and stylish aluminium-cased remote control in its direction, not that waving was required, since Naim has moved to Zigbee RF remote control, replacing its traditional infra-red remotes, and removing the need for line-of-sight between the remote handset. You have to pair it, like in the olden days. Hold this button, that button, two Hail Marys and an Abracadabra, and the remote is working — at least once you’ve mastered the Naim iconography. The star means favourites, yes; four squares with one filled means multiroom (of course!); a beaming box means internet radio; a box with a down arrow means digital input… Owners will, of course, learn these soon enough.
And besides, in the app the symbols are accompanied by text labels. Naim’s apps have been through quite radical deconstruction in recent years, more utilitarian than the
metadata-scraping sleeve notes provided in earlier versions. This is not a bad thing; it’s fast, solid and reliable, whether browsing music shares on the network or accessing streaming music services, though these are limited to the main contenders of Spotify Connect, Tidal, and internet radio.
Naim’s app is not the only way to address the ND 555. It’s fully Roon Ready, and popped up immediately in Roon’s audio devices list, ready to be configured. Three times, in fact, since it also appears as a Chromecast and an AirPlay device. Roon integrates solidly with Tidal, as it does with Qobuz, which is now finally available officially to Australia.
Roon also allowed us to A-B switch easily between the Naim and our favourite but significantly cheaper USB DAC. At first, listening to the ‘New Blood’ orchestral version of Peter Gabriel’s Intruder (24/96), there seemed at first very little difference between our reference and the ND 555… until things rose to a climax. Then our reference DAC slightly flattened the sound, losing the sense of space around the individual elements, whereas the Naim’s delivery remained entirely threedimensional and clear.
Them Crooked Vultures’ New Fang is a blistering track which can similarly wall up on lesser gear; the 555 allowed the Kashmir-like left-channel strings to rise above the rhythmic lock between John Paul Jones and Dave Grohl, while the vocal held solid in its own little bullhorn-Elvis world: this is a 21st-century Black Dog, and its energy can simply overload and smear all too easily. Not here. Every piece in the whole was kept utterly clear, simultaneously isolated but connected. We’ve never heard it better.
We sampled the Streisand album ‘Walls’, the ND 555 delivering it lush yet clean, resisting an edginess to her vocal on the title track which our reference DAC had added; things were more natural through the Naim.
By the time we’d had our eyes moistenied by a recent live version of Wild West Hero by Jeff Lynne’s ELO, and then tranced out entirely through Ry Cooder/VH Bhatt’s Ganges River Blues at 24/96, we thought — well yes, maybe there is something different here, something beyond, something which is delivered by the cumulative details to which Naim dedicates its engineering team.
We didn’t get to listen quite as long as we’d have liked, but our week with the ND 555 in our system included enough moments of magic that we were entirely convinced by its ability to consistently thrill, by the quality of its conversion, and the extreme efforts at ensuring the results are delivered at the highest, cleanest and lowestnoise levels of performance.
Naim’s second greatest achievement is to bundle this with such ease of use. Via Naim’s own app or using Roon, you can run the many music sources from your phone or tablet, shifting from Tidal to your own tunes, even shouting ‘Hey Google, play Miles Davis on the Naim’ and having your Google device have Chromecast pop the ND 555 into Spotify Connect mode. There’s multiroom operation possible — a ‘party mode’ addresses up to six Naim streaming products under control of the app.
This is no audiophile-only device. It requires no effort and just a little familiarity (those remote symbols) to operate. It offers everyman ease of operation backed by sensational audio performance. A triumph, and a fine way to close off our streamer round-up.