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Dream Team – Naim & Focal

Opinion 1

It is known, for about two years now, that the French speaker manufacturer Focal is closely related to the British electronics icon – Naim Audio. To hear about this you did not need to search Internet portals for sensational news, as you just needed to visit any of the audio shows from around the globe, that we dealt with lovebirds here. Funny? Not at all, as I was not able to see any presentation different from the described one, at any time. Of course both brands are also carried by one distributor in any given country. And both things are clearly showing, that someone up there is absolutely convinced, this is the ultimate combination. And everything would be OK, if not for the notorious high amounts of decibels that were administered to the listeners at shows, what I usually perceived as too offensive. I really tried to find something splendid in that sound, but probably due to the not so great rooms they were exposed in, the high volume approach was very capable in preventing me from doing it. And this would have probably continued, if not for a small fact: somehow, during the last Audio Video Show in Warsaw, we were able to initiate, and with big support of the Polish distributor FNCE, finalize testing of the monstrous set of Naim and Focal in my listening room. Does it sound interesting? For sure it does. Because we received a set of Naim Audio consisting of a network player ND555 with an external PSU CD555PS, CD player CDX2, a device that could rip CDs and also be a file server, Uniti Core and the amplifier S1 Statement powering the newest version of the loudspeakers Stella Utopia EM Evo. So what did happen in my room with good acoustics and with the repertoire I find interesting? I promise – if you spend some of your precious time reading what I wrote, the final thoughts will be very satisfying for you, or at least surprising. So please read on.

Before we move on to the main topic of our meeting, I need to talk a bit about the set visiting my listening room. Starting with the loudspeakers, the Focal Stella Utopia EM Evo, we can immediately say, we deal here with big things. Not only high, as they reach 160cm in their highest point, but also wide and deep, both dimensions reaching around 55 – 60cm. But this is not all, as the speakers is stabilized by a very big plinth, extending in both directions, as well as the weight of 160kg each is a true logistic challenge. Looking at the design of the tested speakers, Focal is one of the few companies, who try to optimize the phase coherence of the speakers using a special setup of the cabinet. How? In the easiest way possible, by dividing the cabinet into separate modules, which are then bound together by an archway around the tweeter housing. So the element closest to us, listeners, is the lower module, with the 34cm bass driver, then we have two midrange drivers, placed in a d’Appolito setting, one below and one above the tweeter. The latter has a concave beryllium membrane, while the midrange and bass drivers have sandwich type (in terms of construction) cones. Another point of consideration for the client, is a kind of switchboard, placed on the back of the midrange module, where we can set the desired tone characteristic using a few jumper cables. But even this does not exploit the topic, as trying to best the reproduction of bass, the French engineers have made a kind of electromagnet from the monstrously big magnet mounted on the back of the carcass of the bass driver, winding it in another solenoid, and it can be used to change the characteristic using control boxes, placed behind the speaker, adjusting the amount and contour of the bass. I must confess, that this was a very interesting solution, and after a few weeks of playing around with it, it seems to be very thought through and have a very positive influence on the sound. Additionally the bass-reflex ports were placed firing down, which allows to exclude the influence of the positioning of the speakers on its function, as the plinth is always placed at the same height versus the floor. Finishing the description of the speakers, I will just mention, that the terminals were placed on the plinth behind the main chassis.
Moving on from the French speakers to the British electronics, I will allow myself to omit the description of the CDX-2 player, as we were testing it not so long ago, and describe the other parts of the puzzle. So let us start with the file player ND555. This is a very complete device, offering an option of a streamer working with the internal digital-to-analog converter. But this is not all. The 555 can accept digital signals and output both, digital and analog ones, what makes it a very versatile product. Regarding the looks, then the streamer, as well as the external power supply, designed to improve its performance (both have three fives in their name) share the cabinets known from other Naim products, differing only by the control buttons required to operate them. In case of the player we have a color, very readable, display, unfortunately not a touchscreen, but with four function buttons placed just next to it to the right. There is also a USB port on the left hand side of the front panel. The PSU has only a power switch on the far right, the rest of the cabinet is very similar to the player. However things are different when we look at the Uniti Core, it has a chassis of different shape and different functionality. It has more the shape of a shoe box, with a slit in the top part of the front, used to insert CDs for ripping. Below this slot, to the right we have a button used for ejecting the disc and initiating the unit. Of course the device would not be complete without an USB port placed on the left, similar to the ND555. Regarding compatibility with the rest of the system – the Uniti Core offers only digital outputs. But there are absolutely no shortcomings there, as we have a LAN, USB and a SPDIF output. But this is not all. You may be surprised, but this device offers also the functionality of a streamer. But only as a digital sound source, so you will need an external DAC to be able to listen to music. I know, this might be a bit cumbersome, but it is nice to know, that buying this CD ripper, and having a DAC, we can have a functional streamer at our disposal. Now, once we have gone over the smaller items, let us turn to the main element of the Naim Audio system, the top of the company’s catalog, the amplifier (in fact this is a preamplifier and two power amplifiers, but those are sold as one complete set) called Naim Statement. Let me put it this way. If you claim, that in your life as audio-maniac, with a lot of experience, you have seen everything already, I can assure you, you did not. In case of the top amplifier from the British, we deal hear with a true monstrosity, with about one meter height and when placed slightly spaced together, about 60cm wide. And this thing weighs about 300kg, which makes it absolutely certain, even in the worst case scenario, it will not get stolen. Funny? Absolutely not, this is just the truth. But how does this look like? In this case we are talking about three narrow columns, made from black, brushed aluminum, which, just to break the monotony, or as I see it, make this abomination a piece of art, have white, matte acrylic elements included on about one third of their height. You could argue, this is banal, but I assure you it is not. Such thing has a very nice look when you dim the light in your listening room, and after a few weeks, it turned out to be one of the main acceptance points for the whole thing. Regarding the connections and manipulators of the amplifier, things are as follows. The front of the preamplifier has a line of symbols, covered by an acrylic strip, that informs about the selected input. On the top panel, there is a very large volume knob, which also lit, and four buttons: input selector, power button, dimmer and mute. The power amplifiers, placed on both sides of the preamp, look a little bit different, as due to need of dissipating the heat generated by them, the manufacturer placed wavy radiators on their sides. Those are very nicely looking, and underline the attention the manufacturer is paying to every, also the visual, detail. The top covers of the poweramps have two buttons that cover some of the same functions as those in the preamplifier, namely power and dimmer. If you want to apply the British trio for usage in your system, the set of inputs and outputs covers terminals in DIN, RCA and XLR standards. Also a word of warning – the sockets looking like typical LAN, are used for communication between the individual elements, and this may result in some trouble, when you are not careful. But you should not worry too much, as with every purchase, the distributor will make sure, the system is setup correctly in its final place. Finishing this, maybe a bit too long paragraph, but I think absolutely justified looking at the level of the tested system, let us mention the cabling. Also here you also should not worry too much, as I will not spend many sentences on this. Cabling issues could be resolved in two ways here, and the distributor decided to push us to one solution, providing a complete set of top Naim cables to fully connect the system.

Before I start the description of the sound, I need to remind you, that all the exhibitions in Poland and abroad, with an identical setup, ended with their sound being only acceptable, what did not leave me satisfied, taking into account their technical advancement. Both manufacturers were praised for their products apart, but together, they sounded mediocre. Why was that? I do not know. But trying to respond to this question was exactly that, what moved me and Marcin to propose the distributor to move the complete system from the Audio Video Show directly to our listening room, what resulted in today’s test. But I will also assure you, that we did not count on our requests being taken seriously, not in our wildest dreams. Till today I do not know what moved the distributor to this decision, was it the madness of the show, or the tiredness after those days of presentation, but whatever it was, we are happy the decision was positive. So when the set with a cosmic price tag arrived in our room, not without some logistical issues, the main question is: “How did this system perform at home, compared to the performance from the show?”
So how did it perform? Well, the tested system is a typical example confirming the well known truth, that shows are for watching, and not for making up your mind about the sound of presented systems. When the electronics reached the desired quality level, after a few days after installation, already listening to a few discs showed, that there is no trace of any shouting, or hyperactivity. Yes, compared to my reference system, the sound was more neutral, yet still very close to my heart. There was less euphony, what should be seen as avoiding of overdrawing of the midrange, something I like very much, but still phenomenal. There was momentum, energy, when needed it was soft or vivid in the treble, but most of all, the whole had an incredible ease of playing, surprisingly rare, even within High End systems. Regardless of the level of volume, the amount of decibels, the music was readable, free from distortion and from any muscle stretching, which is bad for the sound. Do you want more? There you go. When we have already addressed the main items making up the musical spectacle, I cannot forget about the abilities of the French-British set in terms of the phenomenal 3D imaging. I know, many of you have such things from much cheaper constructions. But I ensure you, that with a good source, that what happened in my listening room, is reachable only for the best of the best. Yes, yes. Those wide, high and deep, white monsters disappeared from my listening room easily, at the same time generating unsurpassed amounts of back planes. And if I may confess, and I am a bit ashamed, but being absolutely hones, they did it better than my Isis. Have I gone mad? I was really wondering, if I did, but repeated, detailed analysis was cruel for me every time. Even more, after a few weeks of intensive testing, taking into account the last few years of reviewing audio components, this was the second time I had the idea, to switch my system for the tested one, amplification and speakers together. Are you surprised, that I am writing this in relation to the Focal speakers, which are regarded as always screaming? Please do not worry, I am also a bit confused, but it is a fact, that I proposed the distributor to take my set instead of the tested one. Unfortunately, or fortunately, both are in different pricing levels, so the idea was quickly rejected. So how was this possible? The key word, or rather key words are: room acoustic adaptation, appropriate musical material, listening without many people in the room at comfortable volume levels, a little bit of trickery with the amplifier interconnect and finally using my CD player.
Why did I use my CD player only at the end of the test? This was meant to be a test of complete set coming from one distributor and that was the reason, most of the test was done in the mentioned configuration, and the CEC/Reimyo player was just to be the dot on the “i”. But to alleviate any suspicions, regardless of my unwillingness to have a file player in my system, the tested streamer ND555 was a true fighter, compared to the competition we had the opportunity to listen to. Even better, this Naim file player presented internet radio better, that the CD player CDX2, what is a brute sign, what kind of improvement was achieved in similar constructions during the last few years. Maybe it is not yet the level of my player, chosen from the best disc players in the world, but placed against the background of other, very good players, that have visited me, the 555 sounded very well. And how was the sound with some individual discs? Looking at the vast amount of text I have already written, which is not easy to look at, and I am not even talking about reading it, I will not talk too much about discs. Why? Because each genre was just reproduced just splendidly. As the first one I will recall something heavier, “S&M” Metallica. If you think, that the presence of an orchestra has had even the slightest taming influence on how those rock guys perform, then you are mistaken. Those were still untamed guys, and the Focal/Naim set showed it in every aspect. Was it the percussive earthquake, or a stream of dense and heavy guitar riffs, the tested system reproduced the cacophony of the sound created by the musicians with ease. There was just a wall of sound, received clearly due to the lack of distortion, with the vocalist singing in its center. If this is not enough, then let me tell you this: similarly phenomenal, I would say it sounded even better, was the electronic music from the group Acid “Liminal”. Usually I listen to it only during testing, but I have not heard such a convincing presentation for a long time now, so returned to such kind of music a few times. Finally I mention the kinds of music, that should be the so called “killers” for the white French speakers, held on a short leash by the amplification, namely jazz and ancient music. And I was surprised again. I was quite certain, that jazz from ECM, like the Bobo Stenson Trio “Cantando” would fare well. The tested set managed the control of the bass, neutrality of the midrange and the shine of the treble, what combined with the good placement of the ensemble on the vast space it created turned on a light in my head “why should I not try to play something for the soul?”. I do not know how to tell you, because in the beginning I felt a slight departure from the magic of the slightly colored church music, but after a few days of accommodation, and the mentioned change of the source to my CD player, it turned out, that the colder, but having more vitality, world of Claudio Monteverdi became even more engaging. I do not know, maybe I am getting older, maybe this is the effect of getting used to that kind of presentation, but I really liked it. Yes, in case of a switch, which will not happen, for very to the earth reasons, I would be searching for a tad of sweetness, but I assure you, that would be something similar to adding a spice, and not trying to bend the electronics to my requirements. Are you surprised? Yes, I also am, writing this words, but currently I have no sane rationale for my conclusions. And that all in relation to the Focal speakers, which are regarded by many audiophiles as devoted from manners and sonic culture. This is the reason, that being honest even in case of options, which were to date far from my preferences, I am informing all, that when somebody will complain about the tested system in any conversation, then, based on what I heard in my listening room, I will be protecting it with my whole heart.

Should you did not notice while reading this quite long text, that you have already arrived at the conclusion, then I assume, you were interested by what I wrote. And frankly speaking, it does not matter, if this interest was for good or bad reasons. Already the fact, of moving the reader to think about the sound, which is controversial, to say the least, at shows, should be treated as a kind of success. From my end, I can only assure, all of you interested in having a listen, that all my conclusions are coming from a test, which lasted for a few weeks. And if those are opposite to the opinion of many listeners, this is just the result of fighting the unfavorable listening environment at the shows, where many listeners try to visit a small room. Yes, cheap systems sometimes are able to achieve positive results even with very acoustically challenged shows, but in fact, expensive systems are automatically directing you to try and find a flaw in them, and not a true assessment of the whole. How do I know that? Of course from my own experience, which was brutally brought to earth during this test. And this is something I wish you all could experience at your homes.

Jacek Pazio

Opinion 2

Having many years of experience, when we went to the last Audio Video Show, and documenting the systems presented there, we always looked at them not only through the lens of the camera, we carried around, or from the view point of the audiophile-music lover, but also as potential subjects for our reviews, more thorough, but also not biased by the randomness of the exhibition. The result of the November chases will become clear during the coming months, but already now, with a bit of pride, that we were able to achieve this, but also with the admiration to the Warsaw based distributor FNCE, who took a crazy decision and provided the logistics, we can invite you to read the review of a “dream system”, one of those widely advertised before the show. And if we add to this information, that this system was presented on the national stadium (actually we should call it the PGE Narodowy Stadium, according to official nomenclature) and its total weight (net) surpassed half a ton easily, then it should be clear, that we will be moving on a very high level. To make things even more interesting, about 40% of the weight was coming from the amplifier! Yes, yes – the amplifier weighs 264kg and is surely a heavy weight player, but it still had to step down from the podium, as the pair of speakers brought hefty 340kg on the scales. Adding to this the armored flight cases, solid wooden boxes and some peripheral items (I will mention those in a moment), we can really say, that on Monday, we received the least mobile system ever, which can be seen as an immobility, during the last five years of the SoundRebels history. Looking from the direction, in which the sound flows, the system was composed from CD player CDX2, server/RipNas Uniti Core, streamer ND555 with the dedicated power supply 555PS and the pre+power Statement S1 from Naim as well as the loudspeakers Focal Stella Utopia EM Evo connected with a complete set of Naim cables.

According to the manufacturer’s request the electronics was placed to the side, and not as it usually is between the speakers, but looking at its size, especially when we take into account the Statement, seems to be quite logical, as the presence of the almost 300kg heavy obelisk would not be beneficial for creating the sound stage. While the British amplifier did not need any support, the sound sources were not as self-sufficient, thus we received the Fraim Base to place them upon. The top shelf was occupied by the CD player CDX2, we reviewed some time ago, just below it the flagship streamer ND 555 with the dedicated power supply 555 PS. Between those two we were also able to squeeze the inconspicuous, yet very useful, server/ripper Uniti Core. The power was on us, so we used our power strip Power Base HighEnd for the system.

It cannot be hidden that the so called “peripherals” were not the worst, still the show was stolen by the three segment Statement, at least when talking about the electronics. It calls for respect and true admiration already with its posture, which reminds a bit of the Star Wars imperial cruisers, carrying Darth Vader’s signature fear and doom. It is a kind of art, to design something with appropriate attention to detail and reverence, which is a big piece of machinery, but does not look bulky or shapeless. The amplifier looks completely different, as due to the split in the preamplifier and power amplifier modules, adding a backlit acrylic plate and appropriately shaped heat sinks the manufacturer created an intriguing shape, which can participate in design and modern art contests. And when we take into account, that from this dark obelisk we can get amounts of power, which are even a bit absurd for a household, as it generates 746W at 8Ohm and 1450W at 4Ohm, then we should consider changing our electricity tariff and negotiate the rules with the electricity supplier. Fortunately the handling of this amplifier does not differ from the current standard, so you do not need to get a degree in robotics to operate it, and looking at the very common and surprisingly inconspicuous, plastic remote, we can say, that the daily handling will not be any different for the family, than with any of the normally sized competition.
However putting comfort in the first place, we lose some of the certain mystery of physical contact with the device. If you think, that I am now exaggerating, them please have a look at the top plates of both power amplifiers NAP S1 and the preamplifier NAC S1 and everything should become clear. Brushed aluminum of the pairs of buttons, surrounded by a white-blue glow is only the beginning, delicate design accents leading the user to the main dish, the big, also lighted, volume knob, located in a spherical niche; the same kind of volume knob was put on top of the Uniti Nova device, we tested not so long ago. If we add to this the display of the active source on a acrylic strip mounted just near the top end, the we can just compliment the usability of those solutions.

During the last decades, Naim managed to acquaint a large number of their acolytes, that the unification they prefer, means that in 99% cases, from which the deviation is the mentioned Statement, you pay only for what is inside, and not for any designer extravaganza on the outside. This is the case with the top, newest generation streamer ND 555, which arrived with the dedicated, externa power supply 555 PS DR. Based on a 40bit SHARC processor, and the Burr-Brown DAC chip PCM1704, which can use the LVDS (Low Voltage Differential Signal) and provides support for PCM 32bit/384kHz as well as DSD128 it looks exactly as its brethren. A solid, brushed aluminum chassis, 5” TFT display and only four green lit buttons make for the natural camouflage. And one remark about the user experience. Naim provides a dedicated app for iOS and Android, so you should use it, as handling the mentioned streamer without it seems to be pure nonsense.
The most modest representative of the British crew is the Uniti Core, a small device, that has the functionality of a RipNas. It not only has a built-in 2TB disk for our files and is able to feed our external streamers and DACs with them, but it can also rip the CDs we already own.

We cannot hide however, that the most imposing statue is presented with the snowy white (Carrara White) Focal Stella Utopia EM Evo, with the proprietary drivers mounted on the characteristic, arched baffle. There, between two 16,5cm midrange drivers with “W” Power Flower membranes we have an inverted dome tweeter IAL2 (Infinite Acoustic Loading), and below, in a dedicated chamber, the manufacturer placed a “W” membrane, 3rd generation 33cm diameter woofer. While the front seems to be quite classic, then the segments of the cabinet, “cut” in segments dedicated to appropriate drivers, and the back plate, cannot be regarded as such, despite the first impressions. And it is not about the solid WBT sockets moved to the massive plinths, but a kind of switchboard, hidden behind a movable panel, which allows, together with an external module for bass adjustment, for 243 combinations of different settings. With regard to the above we can either decide to use the manufacturer presets – as set by the factory or distributor, or another good soul, or we will lose a few/dozen/tenths of evenings trying find the best setting. People who get nervous with such things I advise not to look there and have faith in what the distributor has set, because once you start fiddling with the settings you will never stop chasing your imagined rabbit.

OK. It seems that weight and price stopped being a testimony, or a determinant of sound associated with High-End, but in this case, firstly we do not deal with brands that appeared out of nowhere, and are trying to position their products by the price alone, or by adding useless kilograms. Secondly, those are not one-off products, but models built-up over the years with lots of solid engineering knowledge and laborious laboratory tests confirmed with long term listening sessions. Yet, in the back of my head I always had some stereotypes, regarding top of the line flagship devices, or almost flagship in case of the speakers, fueled by some whispers of “friendly” people. In short, it was about the very intensive polarization of the opinions about both brands, tested today, as on one hand their acolytes become stunned with delight, while their vigorous adversaries are at the verge of making a public execution. Fortunately the listening sessions, and the more or less coherent remarks resulting from those, we are doing only as a kind of convoluted hobby, which we could not call work in any case, so we do not have to prove anything to anyone. And with that we have a golden rule, which tells, that this game is based only on subjective assessments and our individual preferences, both regarding repertoire and sound, and you do not need to agree with our opinions.

So how does the British-French system supplied by FNCE sound, or rather, how did it sound in our official listening room? If I would write in the first sentence, that it sounded phenomenal, then … I would not be diverting from the truth by a hair, but I would also be very negligent, sliding only on the surface of the mentioned truth. A truth, which, as it often happens, was not so surprising as it was … shocking. It is common belief, that, if anything else, the Focal must always, and I underline, always, emphasize on the upper notes, and while with higher models the refinement is higher, but those can never be described as “sweet”. Yet together with the Statement and the ND 555 (that was the configuration that played most often) I can say with full confidence about the resolution, so obvious for the beryllium tweeters, but a resolution placed in an almost caramel … sweetness. Are you surprised? Please believe me, we also felt a bit strange, but when our first surprise went over, we immediately started checking, if this is not the “fault” of specially prepared repertoire. This is the reason we directed a stream of data with a repertoire we know by heart, namely “Brothers in Arms” Dire Straits, to the ND 555. It seems to be a show classic, played so many times it hurts, seemingly unobtrusive, but still less hated than “No Sanctuary Here” Chris Jones, but full of iconic guitar solos, so if the treble would stand out from the crowd, we would immediately notice it. Yet, we did not record any anomalies and it became apparent, that the Utopias sound as good as the accompanying electronics allows it to, so putting the blame on them for a badly combined set seems to be a bit unconscionable. The midrange was presented in an equally inviting way, and there was another curiosity related to it, as it could not be described as saturated, in such a way as for example presented by the modified, paper Seas used in the Duke Trenner&Friedl, but the duo of the 16,5cm midranges working in each of the speakers, and named in a very hippie way Power Flower, was absolutely far from any antiseptic, morgue type sterility, being able to boost saturation of Knopfler’s vocals without problems.
It was similar with the lovely, minute Chie Ayado, who, on the concert “Live! The Best”, containing, amongst others, recordings from the Tokyo STB 139, known also as Sweet Basil, or Sapporo Concert Hall Kitara, charmed with her low, surprisingly powerful and … black voice. I am mentioning this disc, as on the Focal and Naim it sounded not spectacular, but absolutely phenomenal. Despite the holographic three-dimensionality of the generated stage, the set was able, phenomenally operating with lighting, to “cut” the vocalist, playing on the piano, from the velvety black background, reach a truly fairytale intimacy and at the same time preserve the impression of being in a much greater hall than our official listening room.
When we talk about the mentioned spectacular sound, then I must confess, that both the Statement as well as the Stella Utopias are a true dream team in terms of dynamics, swing and immediacy. Rough like a bovine tongue “Playing the Angel” Depeche Mode starts with a siren capable of waking up the dead in “A Pain That I’m Used To” and it was its howl that painfully reminded us, what was meant by the guy, who created the concept of “the trumpet of Jericho”. Yes, using the Naim and the Focal, you can lead demolition activities, albeit with their accuracy being limited to two blocks. The wall of sound generated by the tested set was perfectly coherent, controlled in a way unattainable for most competition and at the same time phenomenally differentiated. It was like making hundreds of pictures using a Hasselblad camera equipped with a macro lens and then put them together in one big picture. A picture, which would not hide anything, but in contrary, show details usually not seen by the naked eye or omitted. This was not 4K, but 8K and that in reference edition.
I would not be myself, if having the occasion and lack of opponents able to blow my plans (Jacek stopped trying to put me on the good path long ago), I would not reach for repertoire, which is avoided like a devil avoids holy water during audio shows like our Audio Video Show, or the Munich High End. First I used the twisted like a snails home and narco-psychedelic “Elephants on Acid” Cypress Hill, where the oriental sitar parties combine with latino-rap and fat beats. But this what the Cypress guys did on “Pass the Knife” https://tidal.com/track/94929869 , at least in terms of the lowest octaves, is pure masterpiece. Even at not so high levels of volume the almost infrasound bass covers the ears. Additionally it does not come from the speakers, but engulfs us like a cocoon and tightens upon us with time. Strong thing. Another position was the jubilee edition of “Rage Against The Machine – XX (20th Anniversary Special Edition)” Rage Against The Machine, were there was not even a single moment to grasp a breath, and the texts shouted by Zack de la Rocha drilled into the brain with unstoppable impetus. If someone would now say, that this is not music, which should be listened to on such a stellar priced and at the same time so sublime due to it being High-End, then I would kill that person by laughing, because that what was presented by the tested system, was dangerously close to attending a concert of RATM. You just needed to turn the volume knob higher and it was 1992 again, and I had hair reaching my arms, and I could wave them with joy.
For desert I left a truly hellish duo – the iconic “Seasons in the Abyss” Slayer and contemporary, and at the same time from Polish descent, “I Loved You at Your Darkest” Behemoth. Yes, yes, listening to something like that for most “normal” reviewers would be a sacrilege. Fortunately I have never declared normality, and I am not bound to follow courtly etiquette and conventions and I listen to what I like at a given moment. But let us return to the main topic. Despite the obvious stylistic coherence, the recording differences were shown clearly, and it became apparent, that present day has its advantages, as Nergal and his band sounded much better in all aspects. There was a true, fully palpable depth, sorted gradation of planes, pinpointing of virtual sources and selectivity, and when the underage crowd came to voice, you could feel the fun they had from the adventure with the “Price of Darkness”. There were no offensiveness from the treble or the midrange, and cause the repertoire was not the lightest, or the most pleasant, so the energy coming from the speakers pushed into the listening chair like tropical storm wind.

Starting to summarize the things I wrote, I would like to mention, that we tortured the tested system for almost a month, so any accusations of overexcitement and first enchantment we can exclude from the start. Additionally, during the few weeks, we conducted listening during various moments of the day and night, so the anomalies related to different power states did not influence our final verdicts. And those, at least in my case – writing this text I do not know Jacek’s opinion yet – are oscillating around the perfect one.
And this without any fact stretching, because this is an effect of an incredible synergy of the system proposed and configured by FNCE, were absolutely nothing was left to chance, and that, what the system presented during the past Audio Video Show, turned out to be only the prelude and invitation to that, what was really hidden inside it. So if you have the proper amount of money, and at the same time you have no time or no patience to plough trough tons of different gear, with those experiments ending in big failures many times over, then please try to listen to this configuration in your listening room, because that what it is offering, really deserves the highest praise. Because this is a complete system, tailored, playing absolutely every kind of repertoire, even the “non-audiophile” one, and at the same time taking into account not only the synergy between the individual elements, but also the current market expectations. On one hand it is focused on the files, but on the other, it also stretches a helping hand to all those, who have big CD libraries, offering them a way to easily digitalize the physical carriers. And because in this setup, the ND 555 showed mercilessly its supremacy to the CDX2, if I would be keeping the test configuration, I would make a slight change to this French-British set … staying with my Ayon.

Marcin Olszewski

Our reference system
– CD: CEC TL 0 3.0 + Reimyo DAP – 999 EX Limited TOKU
– Preamplifier: Robert Koda Takumi K-15
– Power amplifier: Reimyo KAP – 777
– Loudspeakers: Trenner & Friedl “ISIS”
– Speaker Cables: Tellurium Q Silver Diamond, Statement
– IC RCA: Hijri „Million”
– IC XLR: Tellurium Q Silver Diamond
– Digital IC: Harmonix HS 102
– Power cables: Harmonix X-DC 350M2R Improved Version, Furutech NanoFlux NCF Furutech DPS-4 + FI-E50 NCF(R)/ FI-50(R), Hijiri Nagomi
– Accessories: Harmonix TU 505EX MK II, Stillpoints ULTRA SS, Stillpoints ULTRA MINI, antivibration platform by SOLID TECH, Harmonix AC Enacom Improved for 100-240V, Harmonix Room Tuning Mini Disk RFA-80i
– Power distribution board: POWER BASE HIGH END
– Acoustic treatments by Artnovion
Analog stage:
Drive: SME 30/2
Arm: SME V
Phonostage: RCM THERIAA

Distributor: FNCE S.A.
Price list:
Naim CDX2: 22 999 PLN
Naim Uniti Core: 9 999 PLN
Naim ND 555: 69 999PLN
Naim 555 PS DR: 37 999PLN
Naim S1 Statement: 890 000 PLN
Focal Stella Utopia EM Evo: 399 998 PLN
Fraim Base rack: 4 599 PLN

Technical Details
Naim ND 555
Supported audio formats:
WAV – up to 32bits/384kHz
FLAC, AIFF, ALAC – up to 24bit/384kHz
DSD – 64 and 128Fs
MP3, AAC, OGG, WMA,M4A – up to 48kHz, 320kbit (16 bit)
Streaming: Chromecast built-in, Apple AirPlay, TIDAL,
Spotify® Connect, Bluetooth (AptX HD), Internet Radio, UPnP™ (hi-res streaming), Roon Ready

Audio Inputs:
2 x optical TOSLink up to 24bit/96kHz)
1 x coaxial RCA up to 24bit/192kHz, DoP 64Fs)
1 x coaxial BNC up to 24bit/192kHz, DoP 64Fs)
USB – 2 x USB Type A socket (front and rear – 1.6A charge)
Audio Outputs
1 x RCA pair
1 x 5-pin DIN
Connectivity: Ethernet (10/100Mbps), WiFi (802.11 b/g/n/ac with external antennae)
Dimensions (H x W x D): 87 x 432 x 314 mm
Weight: 12,25kg

Naim Statement S1
Analogue Input: 1 x XLR
Audio Outputs: single Binding posts for spade & 4mm banana
Power Output: 746W / 8 Ω, 1450W / 4 Ω, 9kW burst power into 1 Ω
Dimensions (HxWxD): 940 x 256 x 383 mm (each)
Weight: 101 kg (each)

Analogue Inputs: 3 x DIN, 3 pairs RCA, 2 pairs XLR
Audio Outputs : 1 pair XLR, 2 X Unbalanced (4 pin DIN sockets)
Dimensions (HxWxD): 940 x 270 x 412mm
Weight: 61.5 kg

Focal Stella Utopia EM Evo:
Type: 3-way, floorstanding bass-reflex
Drivers: Electro-Magnetic 33cm ‚W’ woofer, 2 Power Flower 16.5cm ‚W’ midrange drivers with TMD suspension and NIC magnet IAL2 pure Beryllium inverted dome 1″ (27mm) tweeter
Frequency response (+/- 3dB): 22Hz – 40kHz
Sensitivity (2.83V / 1m): 94dB
Nominal impedance: 8 Ω
Minimal impedance: 2.8 Ω
Filtering frequencies: 230Hz / 2,200Hz
Recommended amp power: 100 – 1,000W
Dimensions (H x L x D): 1,558 x 553 x 830 mm
Weight: 170 kg