Naim glorious Naim. In a market dominated by commodity products designed to meet price points rather than elevate performance into art, this British stalwart of 32 years standing is more national treasure than tweak-shop.
Tested here is a complete Naim electronics and loudspeaker package that refl ects the priorities which have driven the company through its history. Look elsewhere if you want a system with the greatest feature count: the processor here does not support DTS 96:24 for example, and you'll look in vain for auto setup and similar features.
The system tested is loosely based on one of Naim Audio's high-performance stereo systems. The NAP250 power amp, in particular, is closely based on Naim's longrunning Naim 250, which was introduced in the company's early days, and whose performance has rarely been exceeded. The power amp responsible for the other three main channels is the slightly lower-power NAPV175 threechannel amplifier.
The system is not as powerful as some on paper, but real world output is bolstered by the strong current yield, and the discrete design which means that power is sustained when all channels are driven together.
Despite its name, the AV2 does not include video processing. It is a multichannel audio processor, which can be used freestanding or as an adjunct to Naim's NAC252 stereo preamplifi er. This is how I used it, along with another component, the outboard SuperCap power supply.
The other key component in this system is the DVD5, also a DVD-Audio player. This is a sophisticated component, designed and built entirely in-house, and intended from the ground up for upgradeability. An example is the forthcoming external video input and 720p/1080i video upsampler.
There are some idiosyncrasies. For example, the usual forest of phono interconnections is largely absent (though some phono inputs are available for compatibility with 'foreign' hardware), replaced by a range of different types of connector, including DIN and BNC, and some more exotic multiway connectors. One effect is to thin out the cables required, and another is to make it easier to connect, reducing the possibility of transposing channels.
The main reasoning, however, is Naim's conviction that its connectors have superior earthing, and that they sound better than more conventional interfaces.
The control system is simple and straightforward, with good onscreen menus from the DVD player, though setup routines are not entirely consistent from component to component.
The speaker system is based on four compact satellites, supplied with stands, for the four corners of the room, a more or less conventional looking centre speaker which can be placed just above or below the TV screen, and a sealed box subwoofer.
The latter is equipped with a high performance linear (not digital) amplifi er, whose design is based on Naim's full bandwidth amplifi ers. The subwoofer is solid and heavy, and has its own remote control and display which can be used for setup, and to adjust operation in day to day use. There are no gimmicks here. No biwire speaker terminals for example, but build quality is great, and the speakers are dressed in real wood veneers rather than vinyl wrap. Beautiful.
I fi rst used the system in stereo mode. The DVD5 is voiced a little differently to Naim's dedicated CD players, but it is of a similar standard, which is very unusual in any DVD player, and the rest of the hardware makes no compromises simply because it is designed for multichannel operation. This is a fundamental reason why video switching is not included in the AV2.
In two-channel mode, driving Naim speakers and other high-grade designs that were on tap during the review period, the system sounded very much in character, which means detailed, tuneful, very well integrated through the bass and mid-range (when using the Naim subwoofer), with a strong sense of drive and forward momentum, and an impressive dynamic range, an area where Naim has always excelled.
But the system is a natural for multichannel audio and (particularly) video. In the early days of the DVD5 gestation there was talk of including Super Audio CD as an option, but in the end this was not to be. DVD-Audio playback is fine, but implementation suffers, of course, from the relative paucity of the DVD-A catalogue.
No such problems with DVD, of course. The Naim turns out to be a refined amplifier, with a decent but perhaps not exceptional surround sound decoder attached. Dolby Digital sounds a little flat and mechanical next to DTS, where the option exists to hear both versions side by side, but in both cases, the Naim retains its ability to provide strong separation, which makes the dialogue track highly intelligible - even in cases like the Lord of the Rings trilogy where voices, music and special effects seem to live in each other pockets.
It was with diffi cult soundtracks such as that of Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down and Apocalypse Now (from the credits onwards) that this Naim was really able to demonstrate its sublime intelligibility and consistency from the quietest through to the loudest volume levels. It retains the density of the sound, and its tactile quality (the bullets whistling past in Saving Private Ryan) in a way that made me involuntarily duck on a couple of occasions, despite my familiarity with the fi lm.
There are systems that do more, and there are those that do at least some things better. But the Naim's appeal is very unique. It is phenomenally lifelike in the way it deals with dynamic material, music- or film-based, and it is capable of generating a soundfield that is just that - a fully consistent, wall of sound that is stable across a wide volume and spatial range.
Clearly the system is aimed at existing Naim customers, and at those for whom stereo music reproduction is as important as multichannel operation, but there is a great deal of flexibility in how this package can be configured. The system tested is just one of a number of available options, and is certain to be improved over the years ahead without fear of obsolescence. Glorious.