Neodio • NR22 HD CD Player

by Roy Gregory | March 7, 2016


For some time now, a large and steadily increasing body of thought has questioned whether anyone in his right mind should spend money on a CD player in these days of computer audio and file replay. Indeed, many manufacturers have ceased CD-player production altogether, migrating their efforts to standalone DACs, occasionally with the option for purchasers to include a transport for CD replay.

So it should come as no surprise that when Neodio launched the resolutely CD-only Origine player at CES some four years ago, it was met with bewilderment in some areas and downright outrage in others, especially when the €31,500 price was taken into account. Since then the unit has grudgingly sprouted both S/PDIF and USB inputs, although the manufacturer acknowledges that this is purely a response to market pressure. The Origine exists for one reason and one reason only: to extract the maximum musical performance from the CD format. It’s a goal it achieves in spectacular style. This is the best one-box digital replay systems I’ve ever heard -- and one of the best and certainly one of the most musical digital systems of any type that I’ve used, period. It’s also possibly the single most beautifully styled and finished piece of audio equipment with which I’ve ever gotten up close and personal. If you are concluding that the Origine’s brief sojourn in my system left quite an impression, you’d be right. It’s an impression that’s been reinforced with each subsequent encounter -- and believe me, this is one product I go out of my way to meet.

But none of that brings the nearly $40,000 price tag any closer to affordability -- which is where the NR22 HD comes in. One reason that the Origine is so stunningly successful is that it adopts a genuinely clean-sheet approach to the problem of optical-disc replay. From its own specially developed analog master clock to its sophisticated multi-material chassis, its multiple power supplies, and its carefully selected components and exhaustively developed circuit topology, each and every aspect has been reassessed from the ground up. That accounts for the price.

But what happens if you take the essential thinking and components and incorporate them into a simpler and more affordable design? The NR22 HD, that’s what. NR is the prefix used for Neodio’s "standard" five-model line, comprising three integrated amplifiers and two CD players, of which the NR22 HD is the top model. Although all five units share casework that is visually virtually identical, the NR22 HD shares a heavier-duty, fully constrained-layer chassis with the 1500 Signature amplifier, as well as inheriting that unique analog master clock from the Origine. Like the other NR-series products, it stands on three ball-bearing-coupled feet, one sensibly placed directly below the transport. In place of the more expensive player’s three independent transformers, the NR22 HD makes do with separate tappings from a shared transformer, while the DAC section is based on a different, although still 24-bit/192kHz, chipset. The analog output stage is still buffered, high-current capable, high-frequency filtered and fully complementary, with both balanced and single-ended outputs, and you still get the choice of a USB input as well as a coaxial S/PDIF output. At 14 kilos (or over 30 pounds), the NR22 HD is no lightweight -- although that does make it around half the weight of the Origine. Those multiple transformers and butted, laminated chassis panels definitely add to a product’s bulk.

One other aspect of the NR22 HD deserves comment. When I said that it looks virtually identical to the other products in the NR series, I wasn’t joking. That includes the sculpted, laminated front panel (available in the striking silver and black of the review sample as well as all black for more retiring souls or Naim owners) as well as the five circular control buttons and the large, legible, but luridly bright-orange display. Now, five buttons might be plenty for a no-frills amp, but they're a bit skimpy for a CD player. Fortunately there are twelve buttons on the rather nice remote handset, which include the skip, repeat and a multi-function Display button that switches inputs or switches off the light show. There are also volume buttons to drive a matching Neodio amp, if you have one.

So, we know which aspects of the Origine the NR22 HD has retained, but what has it lost along the way? That’s reasonably easy to answer: sonically, it has lost the same weight and carved-from-solid presence that it lost in physical terms. It doesn’t go quite as deep as the Origine and it doesn’t do it with the weight, shape and texture that the bigger player delivers so effortlessly. That, in turn, has a knock-on effect in terms of dimensionality and midband richness, which, combined with a loss of low-level resolution, robs junior of its parent’s uncannily natural perspective and tonality.

But -- and it’s a very big but -- you’ll need a genuinely full-range system to hear this, and in smaller setups the NR22 HD’s balance could actually be a positive, the lack of really deep low-end weight making it faster on its feet and more emphatic, with a more obvious and explicit clarity than the Origine. Crucially, if you couple this quality to the unique and all-important sense of musical flow and phrasing that characterizes both players, the result is a presentation that is engaging, lucid and coherent, with that ability to capture the essence and emotional core of a recording that so often elude digital and keep the vinyl flame alive. Simple answers are so attractive and it’s tempting to put the Neodio's remarkable way with a musical phrase and a musician’s expressive range down to the use of an analog clock, but I suspect that there’s rather more to it than that. Either way, it’s a quality that, once heard, is hard to surrender.

One musical example should suffice. Play "Let’s Do It" from the double-disc set Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Song Book [DCC GZS(2)-1079/1] and the first thing you’ll notice is that the normally mushy bass has taken on a sense of shape and pitch -- the NR22 HD’s bottom-end articulation coming into play -- while the guitar has a delicacy and poise to its lines, phrases that can, all too often, sound schmaltzy and hackneyed. Already the Neodio’s ability to cut to the heart of things, make musical "words" legible and collect them into "sentences," is coming to the fore. But it’s once Ella starts singing that you feel the player’s full force. The backing instruments have already established that lazy rhythm, seductive now, rather than lagging or lacking interest, but the way she shapes her vocal phrases, elongates some syllables or glides through others, maintaining a perfect counterpoint against the backing, effortlessly using the underpinning rhythm to add emphasis to her vocal, while her own enunciation adds a deliciously ironic or risqué lick, reveals just why this is Ella, why we all still listen to Ella, and the difference between her and all the white-bread wannabes. Above all it elevates the song above the familiar and makes it something special -- a special something coming out of your home audio system, and that’s no mean trick.

What I’ve just described is testament to the player’s sense of natural temporal integrity, its ability to pass data without the resulting music sounding processed, to breathe with an easy, unforced sense of pace while allowing different rhythms to coexist. The instrumental anchor to Ella’s fluid vocal elasticity is just one example, but once you’ve heard it you’ll hear it whatever you play -- and you’ll miss it when it’s not there, just as vinyl lovers miss it when they listen to (most) digital systems. It’s there on music you thought was way more straightforward and on music that’s massively more complex. It’s there, helping to differentiate the truly great performers from the more mundane, but also bringing a sense of life and vitality to what might otherwise be considered musically run-of-the-mill.

Does that mean that the NR22 HD sounds "analog"? No. It means that it manages to preserve and present CD’s strengths whilst ameliorating some of its more intrusive weaknesses. It’s clean and it’s linear top-to-bottom, with crisply scaled dynamics. It also sounds remarkably stable and, as already stated, musically fluid -- contiguous (as Harry Pearson would have had it) in both frequency and time domains. What it isn’t is warm, clogged, veiled or rounded -- in the style of so many CD players trying to sound like analog. There’s no tube output stage trying to soften nasty edges or add a bit of color or warmth that might be appealing but is as real as the airbrushed photos in weight-loss ads.

Play bigger, more complex and more dynamically demanding material and you’ll quickly appreciate how the NR22 HD makes sense of the interlocking musical strands, how it responds to overlapping dynamic demands and how it brings clarity of purpose to the musical performance. Play the oh-so-familiar opening to Mahler’s Second Symphony (Maazel and the VPO [Sony SX14X 87874]) and the Neodio player not only manages to create a coherent sense of space that envelops the rumbling, grunting basses on the extreme stage right, but captures the tremulous violins on the left, maintaining the tension in their sustained, hanging note, while bringing an urgent thrust to the repetitive low-frequency phrases. As the opening builds, the woodwinds are perfectly located, both in space and in terms of their musical relationship with the bass figures. As the piece gets bigger, building to that first, massive detonation, each instrumental layer is added as a distinct musical element, its overall contribution as clear as its individual texture and character.

But what is really special is the way the NR22 HD maintains the sense of poise and overall pace within the piece, particularly the measured opening passage. You can hear Maazel’s mastery of tempo, the way he is holding the orchestra down and back, allowing the basses' quick darting flurries followed by a definite pause, setting the pace on the woodwind phrases, establishing the steps between notes. There are digital players, notably the Aesthetix Romulus, that will give you a bolder and fuller presentation, with greater warmth and richer colors, but none of them match the sheer musical articulation, the effortless control of pace and tempo, that sets the NR22 HD apart, not just from them but from digital replay in general.

If there is an overarching criticism of the NR22 HD, it lies in the area of tonality and the generosity that goes with it. Some digital players are naturally forgiving; this isn’t one of them. If the recording is on the lean side, you’ll hear just that. If it’s tubby and overweight, you’ll hear that too, although the NR22 HD’s overall character is itself slightly lean, stripping harmonic tails while revealing texture. It doesn’t rely on a rose-tinted view of the musical event. Instead it latches on to the sense of purpose and direction in the performance -- whether it’s beautifully recorded or not. It all comes down to timing and organization, and the NR22 HD is a master of both, managing to achieve them without clamping the music in an iron grip. This light touch and lack of dynamic or rhythmic constraint are what give the player its engaging fluidity. They also bring performances to life.

Let’s take one more example, but this time let’s make it low-brow. I’m not sure that even their most ardent fan would hold up the Evinrudes as paragons of the recorded arts (Drive Me Home [Flying Sparks TDBEP 0057]). The name says it all really. Compact, raw, powerful and ear-splittingly loud, this is a rock duo with serious attitude, a touch of new country and penchant for vintage gear. The title track drives the message home, all edgy guitar and pounding drums, vocals with a sneer and none of their bite softened -- and the NR22 HD drives the whole pounding, snarling, pissed-off mess straight into the room.

Somebody take me home before I tell the truth,
I’m a little angry, maybe a little too stoned.
You’d better cover my mouth.
You’d better drive me home.

So sings Sherry Cothran over her howling, outraged guitar, a pumped-up, propulsive drum track and forward-leaning bass line driving her on. It’s a song that captures those all-restraints-off, in vino veritas moments that immediately precede the sort of social meltdown we’re all familiar with, even if think we haven’t perpetrated. It’s no place for niceties and there are none. The Neodio NR22 HD serves it up raw, messy and still quivering with that strange mixture of anger and embarrassment.

That’s the point really. If the song needs seductive, then the NR22 HD delivers it. If the symphony demands power, restraint or pathos, then the NR22 HD can deliver those too. If it wants to be edgy angry and nasty, it can be; if it wants to be girl-next-door demure, then it is. Unlike a lot of CD players that draw a veil over the music to make things more listenable, the Neodio NR22 HD burrows inside it and sorts it out. This is no one-trick pony. It’s a groove excavator, a time machine and a witness rolled into one. It’s confident and emphatic, instilling music with a progressive attitude, a can-do forward momentum that makes listening engaging and rewarding -- and it does it whether you have speakers the size of a shoebox or a shower cabinet.

The NR22 HD doesn’t have the weight, bandwidth or spatial capabilities of its parent player, but that also gives it an appealingly quick and direct character, a communicative clarity of detail and purpose that wakes systems up. It’s built around that sense of easy, open order and unrestrained momentum, and it plays beautifully with smaller speakers that gain stature with a healthy injection of attitude, be they stand-mounted compacts or the slim floorstanders so many of us actually use. I’m not sure if it was part of the design brief or a happy accident, but this is one CD player that’s going to dovetail perfectly with real-world systems, yet still be able to grow with them.

Neodio started out building amps, a first cousin to Lavardin with shared DNA. The uncluttered, pristine clarity that characterizes their shared technology is also clearly recognizable in the NR22 HD. There’s no padding, no blurring and no muddle. There is a place for everything and everything just seems to fall right where it should be -- no fuss, no bother, just music. It’s not perfect, nor is it hard to put a finger on its failings (such as they are). But what’s more important is that its strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses, the former being musical, the latter largely cosmetic.

So no, the NR22 HD isn’t an Origine, but then (thankfully) it doesn’t cost Origine money either. What it is is probably the most musically engaging one-box digital player available at or near its price, as well as one that is well-tailored to the systems it’s going to find itself working with. Optical disc might be dead in some quarters, but in others it seems to be just getting started -- and if the NR22 HD is anything to go by, the CD's musical future looks more promising than ever.

Price: €11,400.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

Seven Audio
Bordeaux, France
+33 (0)5 56 40 19 50

Associated Equipment

Analog: VPI Classic 4 with SDS and VPI JMW 12.7 and Tri-Planar Mk VII tonearms; VPI Classic Direct turntable with JWM 12" 3D tonearm; Kuzma Stabi M turntable with 4Point tonearm; Allnic Puritas, Kuzma CAR-50, Lyra Etna, Dorian, and Dorian Mono cartridges; Stillpoints Ultra LP Isolator record weight; Connoisseur 4.2 PLE, Simaudio Moon 810LP, Tom Evans Audio Designs Master Groove phono stages.

Digital: Audio Research Reference CD9 CD player, Wadia S7i and 861 GNSC CD players, CEC TL-3N CD transport, Neodio Origine CD player, Naim UnitiServe music server.

Preamps: Audio Research Reference 5 SE and Reference 10, Connoisseur 4.2 LE, Jeff Rowland Design Group Capri II, Naim NAC-N272.

Power amps: Audio Research Reference 150 SE, Naim NAP-300DR, Jeff Rowland Design Group Model 125.

Speakers: Wilson Audio Sasha W/P Series 2, Wilson Benesch Square Five.

Cables: Complete looms of Nordost Odin or Valhalla 2, Crystal Cable Dreamline Plus or Fono Acustica Virtuoso from AC socket to speaker terminals. Power distribution was via Quantum QB8s or Crystal Cable Power Strip Diamonds, with a mix of Quantum Qx2 and Qx4 power purifiers and Qv2 AC harmonizers.

Supports: Harmonic Resolution Systems RXR, Hutter Racktime or Quadraspire SVT Bamboo racks. These are used with Nordost SortKone or HRS Nimbus equipment couplers and damping plates throughout. Cables are elevated on HECC Panda Feet.

Acoustic treatment: As well as the broadband absorption placed behind the listening seat, I employ a combination of RPG Skyline and LeadingEdge D Panel and Flat Panel microperforated acoustic devices.

Accessories: Essential accessories include the SmarTractor protractor, a USB microscope and Aesthetix cartridge demagnetizer, a precision spirit level and laser, a really long tape measure and plenty of masking tape. I also make extensive use of the Furutech anti-static and demagnetizing devices and the VPI Typhoon record-cleaning machine. The Dr Feikert PlatterSpeed app has to be the best ever case of digital aiding analog.