These two separates create a synergistic two-box system designed to focus on elemental musicality. There are few solid-state integrated amplifiers and network players near the $3,000 USD mark which can boast of such natural, unforced, tonally-accurate and enjoyable playback.
The XS3 is a classic solid-state integrated amplifier (in the British Isles sense) built on an inclusive feature set, 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 playback. Simply add a turntable to take advantage of the moving-magnet phono stage, a CD, tuner or external DAC/streamer to explore the line stage, or connect a pair of headphones via the quarter-inch socket on the 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 own DIN input connectors. For this review the phono RCA was used along with the supplied DIN connector for the ND5 XS 2.
*Listening 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. Ditto the stock mains cables supplied with each component, which were replaced with Naim’s own Power-Line AC variants, 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 didn't seem compelled to fix what wasn't broken. Other than the new three-stage phono section (gain, passive equalization, final gain/active equalization), updates could be described as subtle sound/performance quality enhancements. Improvements testament to the company's confidence in the previous iteration XS2’s already demonstrated abilities. The changes put in place include upgraded power-amplifier sections that saw the company engineers double the speed of the voltage gain stage (this doubles the speaker output stage reaction time) and an optimised second gain-stage transistor (which equates to an SQ boost). An oversized toroidal transformer is fitted 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 of the company's amplifiers and preamplifiers, is equipped to take advantage of higher-spec'd external power supplies and/or power amplifiers.
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 two are a pleasing aesthetic match. 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) it also features decoupled PCB boards and a floppy AC/mains socket to further isolate the chassis from vibration. The PCM1719A Burr-Brown DAC's clock controls data flow with a 40-bit SHARC DSP to handle any possible artefacts. Visually, 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. A Roon Nucleus+ on the network recognized the ND5 immediately. This is a network player that excels at ‘small scenes.’ It can easily pull one in to focus on the minutiae of recordings like trumpet blaat, high hat shimmer and decay, or drum skin/brush textures, but at the same time it lets you zoom in, it also performs the rack-focus trick of physically pulling you out to take in the bigger picture of the musical structure as a whole. This translates to a feeling of intellectual and emotional connection during playback, which is a practical necessity to believable high fidelity on one hand, but on the other hand can be overlooked by higher-priced competition that eschews listening to music for listening to gear.
The analog source was the Linn Sondek LP12 Majik turntable with Linn Adikt cartridge run directly into the XS3’s moving magnet phono stage. Digital was taken in hand by a Roon Nucleus+ feeding the ND5 XS 2 via ethernet. Spotify was tried a few times via Bluetooth – which worked without a hitch – but all critical listening was done through the network connection.
Sessions started with Harbeth M40.1 monitors, and then switched over to Audio Note AN-E/SPe HE loudspeakers for the review focus. This was done to compare the XS3 with higher sensitivity transducers (97.5dB/8ohms for the AN-E vs. 85dB/6ohms for the 40.1). Both the Harbeth and Audio Note rewarded with excellent dynamics, punch and a gentle touch to music that complimented the Nait’s oft-discussed PRaT. The ability of the XS3 to deliver the various sonic terrain of albums in both the analog and digital realms was convincing in its scale and presence and through the higher sensitivity AN-E, the amplifier was almost dead quiet with one’s head just 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 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 the gear, then the XS3 and ND5 will not disappoint. Even an audiophile might find themselves in the unfortunate position of having nothing to complain about from this duo. Whether it was the phono or line stage of the XS3 passing along the signal, acoustic guitar strings sounded like real guitar strings being played in the room with one, as did the alloy splash of a cymbal or high hat. Piano notes had weight and seemed to strike out from the air between the speakers with felted-hammer impact.
The metronomic 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 wields on “The Drum Thunder Suite” is an exhausting exercise for some amps, but the Naim never conveyed anything but headroom for the aggressive beatdown 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 on “Figure 8” is clearly unraveled through the XS3 without any blurred lines between instruments and voices. The Linn Adikt cartridge is not what one would describe as a heavyweight, but it is capable and dynamic, 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 did not possess, and came across with similar swagger on 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. 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 sustained keyboard notes throughout are clearly delineated from the rest of the mix.
Teaming up with guitarist Tim Harrington and cellist Paul Wright of Tall Heights, Ryan Montbleau’s cover of Tracy Chapman's “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 on this cover begs to be played loud, with the ND5 revealing exquisite timbral and tonal instrumental colour, and outstanding resolution to vocals.
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 hall, 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-impactful bottom-end texture on some of the lowest notes I’ve heard through the Audeze or HIFIMAN HE1000se. The XS3 head amp never had an issue reproducing a convincing musical experience, and matched what the amp was producing through the speaker terminals.
In conclusion, if you prefer powerful dynamics, musical integrity, pleasing timbral and tonal colour, a top end that is as open and grain free as a low end that 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 focus instead on what they’re listening to. At this price point and specification it is difficult to fault these two high-fidelity playback devices.