These two separates, when put together, create a synergistic two-box system stripped of extraneous features. Focused on the essentials of great audio reproduction, the XS3 and ND5 XS 2 create an elemental musicality. There are not many solid-state integrated amplifiers or network players I’ve experienced around the $3,000 USD mark, which play in such a natural, unforced, tonally-accurate and enjoyable manner.
Comparisons? The XS3 puts me in mind of a Sugden A21, with more boogie factor, but lacking the rarified presence and timbral air that the A21's pure Class-A topology endows it with – it also has a tonal clarity and transient smoothness reminiscent of a Sonneteer Campion – neither of which possess a headphone amp or phono stage.
The XS3 is a classic (in the British Isles sense), solid-state integrated amplifier built on an inclusive feature set and inhabiting a traditional alloy chassis and enclosure with an Alps Blue Velvet volume pot, Reed relay input selection, a galvanically isolated microprocessor control section, and microphonic-isolating PCB mounts. Six years since the Nait’s last update, the XS3 is built for those appreciative of vinyl, line-level and headphone pursuits (which covers a lot of music lovers). All you need is to add a turntable to take advantage of the moving-magnet phono stage, a CD, tuner or external DAC/streamer to plumb the line stage, or connect a pair of headphones via the quarter-inch socket on the front fascia to access the single-ended Class-A headphone output. There are five analog inputs alongside the phono RCA jacks and four of Naim’s DIN input connectors. For the review, the phono RCA was used along with the supplied DIN connector from the ND5 XS 2.
*Note: I started with the standard Naim DIN cable supplied with the ND5, but after swapping-in a Naim Hi-Line cable, the original DIN was returned to the box as the Hi-Line significantly bettered it. As well, I started with the stock mains cables supplied with each and after a couple weeks I replaced those with Naim’s own Power-Line AC variants, which stayed put after delivering a noticeable increase in resolution, micro/macro dynamics and sound stage size.
If you enjoy listening to music the most, as opposed to listening to only the gear, then the XS3 and ND5 will deliver enjoyment for years.
With more than a half-decade between updates, Naim doesn’t seem keen to screw with what isn’t broken. Other than the new three-stage phono section (gain, passive equalization, final gain/active equalization), changes have been what I would describe as subtle, sound and performance quality enhancements. Improvements testament to Naim’s confidence in the XS2’s already demonstrated abilities. The changes put in place are upgraded power-amplifier sections that saw the company engineers double the speed of the voltage gain stage (neat trick, as this doubles the speaker output stage reaction time) and an optimized second gain-stage transistor (which equates to an SQ boost). An oversized toridal transformer is also jammed into the low-profile casework of the XS3, which like its predecessor, is capable of 70 Watts into eight ohms, 100 Watts into four ohms.
Since Naim is a firm believer in the sonic benefits arrived at through higher-quality power supplies, the XS3, like most Naim amplifiers and preamplifers, can take advantage of external power supplies and power amplifiers to improve sonically upon what is there already. I did not pursue this avenue for this review, focusing instead on what the single-box integrated itself could deliver.
The ND5 XS 2 is Naim’s “entry-level network player,” equipped with the same chassis dimensions and cosmetic treatment as the XS3, so the pair are as pleasing a visual match as a sonic one. Constructed around the company’s latest low-noise, high-speed 32-bit/384kHz (DSD128) ethernet streaming platform (high-res UPnP, AirPlay, Chromecast, aptX HD Bluetooth, Spotify Connect, TIDAL, Roon, Internet radio, multi-room playback, pretty much every format capability, etc.) it also features decoupled PCB boards and a floppy AC/mains socket. Technically speaking, it has your bases covered, with the PCM1719A Burr-Brown DAC clock controlling data flow with 40-bit SHARC DSP smoothing out any artefacts. It’s the antithesis of clutter; other than the power button and a USB port on the front there’s nothing else to physically interact with.
Comparisons? If you’ve ever heard the bouncy Rega DAC-R and liked what you heard, then you’ll enjoy the ND5 XS 2 as it has all that DAC-R colour, albeit with a more refined solidity, a tonal balance closer to neutral, and a far clearer window of resolution onto the recorded event. From a streaming standpoint its Roon integration made set-up and control a no-brainer, as the Nucleus+ recognized the ND5 immediately. This is a network player that excels at what I call ‘small scenes.’ It can easily pull you in to focus on the detailed minutae of recordings (Trumpet blaat! High hat shimmer! Drum skin texture!), but at the same time it lets you zoom in, it also does the rack-focus trick of physically pulling you back to take in the bigger picture of the musical structure as a whole. This equates to a feeling of both intellectual and emotional connection to playback; cerebral, surprising, enjoyable and celebratory. Simple accomplishments that are sometimes overlooked by higher-priced competition who eschew listening to music for listening to gear. As with all things hi-fi, YMMV.
I ran the analog side of source with a Linn Sondek LP12 Majik-spec’d turntable and Linn Adikt cartridge run directly into the XS3’s moving magnet phono stage. As mentioned, the digital side was taken in hand by a Roon Nucleus+ feeding the ND5 XS 2 via ethernet. I ran Spotify a few times via Bluetooth for fun – which worked without a hitch – but for serious listening stuck with the network connection.
For wooden boxes I started with a pair of Harbeth M40.1 monitors, and then switched over to a pair of Audio Note AN-E SPe/HE loudspeakers for the second half of the review – which is what I wrote about. This was because I wanted to hear the Naim integrated with a speaker of much higher sensitivity (97.5dB/8ohms vs 85dB/6ohms). In both instances I was rewarded with excellent dynamics, punch and a gentle touch to music that complimented the Nait’s oft-discussed PRaT. It’s ability to deliver the various sonic terrain of albums in both the analog and digital realms was convincing in its scale and humanity, and even with the much-higher sensitivity of the AN-E, the amplifier was almost dead quiet with one’s head just several inches from the tweeter. Swapping out the NAC A5 speaker cable for TelluriumQ Black speaker cable removed both a slight veiling and hardness to strings in the upper midband, along with further opening the sound stage scale and allowing for deeper, tighter low-end response. AC power was passed along by a SuperWiremold Deep Cryo-9 power strip.
If you enjoy listening to music the most, as opposed to listening to only the gear, then the XS3 and ND5 will deliver enjoyment for years. That said, turning a critical ear to the music, even an audiophile might find themselves in the unfortunate position of having nothing to complain about. Perhaps admitting that whether it was the phono or line stage of the XS3 passing along the signal, acoustic guitar strings sounded like a real string-on-fiingers guitar being played, as did the alloy spash of a cymbal or high hat – they were unique, more real than intimation. Piano notes had weight and seemed pluckable from the air between the speakers with a felted-hammer impact.
The metronomic pulse of drumming characterizing the hard-bop style which Art Blakey provides to his Messengers on 1958’s Moanin’ shows the XS3 phono’s ability to emphasize the pace, rhythm and timing the brand has built its reputation on. Creating the impact of the mallets Blakey weilds on “The Drum Thunder Suite” is an exhausting exercise for some amps, but the Naim never felt like it had anything but headroom leftover for the aggressive pounding laid out on the skins.
Silicon-influenced bass, guitar snarl and percussive wail are portrayed with a dense punch throughout Tahliah Debrett Barnett’s (FKA Twigs) third EP M3LL155X. The crush of synths, electronic feedback, resonance and vocal manipulation of “Figure 8” is clearly unraveled through the XS3 without any blurred lines between instruments and voices. I wouldn’t described the Adikt as a heavyweight, but it is cheerful and plucky, and the XS3 passed these characteristics along clearly.
Just as adroit, and just as satisfying on the digital side as the LP12 was on the analog side, we have the ND5. Genre favouritism it does not possess, and came across with the similar swagger to hip hop, rap, electronica and heavy metal as the XS3 phono. The ND5 was able to present mixing details such as the distant bell ringing well behind rainfall and thunder on the sound stage during the introduction of “Black Sabbath” with not only abundant resolution, but cooling blue timbre and tone too. The slappy funk of the bass line on “Around The Way Girl” by LL Cool J is driven forward with punch without ever overpowering the delicate synth work floating amongst the percussive underpinnings of the track. In particular the unarpeggiated keybord notes throughout are clearly delienated from the rest of the mix.
Teaming up with guitarist Tim Harrington and cellist Paul Wright of Tall Heights, Ryan Montbleau’s cover of “Fast Car” takes on depth, texture and intertwined layering of both vocals and instruments that require conciseness from a DAC to maintain fidelity to the recording. The stark mastering of this Tracy Chapman cover just begs to be cranked up, and the ND5 lets all its acoustic glory wash over the listening room like a surge of tidal waters that suddenly soak you because you didn’t realize you were that far out into the mix. Again, this takes me back to the pairing’s ability to draw one into the music.
Let’s talk about big spatial bloom from dense orchestral arrangements like that experienced on the opening cut to The Bee Gees 1969 concept album Odessa. A brilliant, meandering opus that sowed discontent among the brothers Gibb and led to Robin leaving the group for a period of time following intense arguments over the LP’s artistic direction. Through the XS3 Class-A headamp the Audeze LCD-4z listening sphere is convincingly transformed into a cavernous concert call, with various string, woodwind, piano and harp flourishes extending well beyond the usual boundaries in the horizontal and vertical planes. Double bass arco notes produce physically-felt bottom-end texture between some of the lowest octaves I’ve heard through either the Audeze or the HIFIMAN HE1000se, which I also grabbed for comparison. The Naim’s headamp never had an issue reproducing a convincing musical experience, and was a sonic-signature matchup for what the amp was producing through the speaker terminals. This made for long, non-fatiguing headphone listening sessions into the wee hours of the night on several occasions.
In conclusion, if you prefer speed, musical integrity, believable timbral and tonal colour, a top end that is as open and grain free as a bottom end is tight, fleshed out and textured, then the XS3 integrated amplifier and ND5 XS 2 network player will provide years of enjoyment. They not only satisfy the expectation for fidelity to source – in both the analog and digital realm – they help one forget what they’re listening on, and lose themself instead to what they’re listening to. At this price point and specification I can find no fault with these two high-fidelity playback devices built by hand by the good men and women of Salisbury, England.