REFERENCE AUDIO – WITHAM ESSEX
BOB’s Review Series - No 13 – Nagra System Comprising: CDC CD Player, Tube DAC, Classic PSU Power Supply, Classic Pre-Amp and Classic Stereo Power Amp.
Introduction – Switzerland, the home of fanatical attention to detail, exquisite craftmanship and legendry products is also the home to Nagra. With history going back to 1951 when Stefan Kudelski designed his first miniature recorder for Nagra, the Nagra 1, it has a right to think of itself as well established. It’s reel to reel recorders designed for professional on-location recording are what most people associate with Nagra, but I suspect few will know that Nagra has won two Oscars, in 1978 and 1991 for contribution to culture and science. It had always specialised in serving the professional market and it wasn’t until the mid 90’s that Nagra turned its attention to home audio. In 2012 the high-end Hi-Fi arm was spun off to become the Audio Technology Switzerland SA and is still overseen by the founding Kudelski family.
For anyone who has found time to read any of my previous recent equipment reviews of the products sold by Nintronics I can only thank you for your effort. Some have been a bit longer than I had intended but all have followed a similar format of Introduction – Technology – System Components – Performance – Summary but this time as I’m reviewing a complete system from one of the most renowned Hi-Fi manufacturers and I felt a different approach was needed.
Writing a system review at home rather than in the showroom results in much more disruption and reorganisation of my own system than does a single component review. After setting up the Nagra system much listening and note taking took place and after a few false starts at a review I realised that it might be best to go straight to the conclusion and then explain by way of a short story how I got there and what in my long-lived passion as an audiophile has informed my thinking when reviewing this system.
With this in mind I have started this review by placing my conclusions first and then going on to explain my thinking. I hope you find it interesting and informative.
I will however still include all the usual technical bits about the Nagra system at the end of the review.
Conclusion (or the Executive Summary if you are that way inclined) – There is no doubt in my mind that this is the best system I have ever had the pleasure of listening to at home. Everything I listened to whether from the CDC (used as both a CD player and a transport), streaming via my Innuos server or from good old FM radio was simply better in every aspect than I had heard before at home. So much so that all the normal ways of describing improvements such as bigger soundstage, better engagement, increased resolution of fine detail, detailed harmonics and timbre etc all just seemed to merge into one line of thought – this is simply better listening experience such that it’s hard to describe exactly how, where and why it’s better. It’s just so involving and such a joy to listen to that taking notes became something of a chore as I just wanted to listen to as much music as possible during the limited time I had this system at home for review.
Informed Thinking - As a teenager most of my early listening was from my Dad’s one box stacking turntable with built in mono amp. I don’t remember the make but do remember it was blue and could stack a number of records, LP’s or singles for sequential play, I’m sure you know the type of player I’m talking about; the make is long lost in my memory. Soon after this Dad bought a stereo radiogram, one of those that looked like a wooden sideboard but had speakers at both ends and a lid that opened to reveal a turntable, amplifier, tuner and a cassette deck, it was probably made by HMV or Fergusson, but I really can’t recall the make. I spent hours listening via headphones to T Rex, stereo was such a novelty back then and ‘Get It On’ sounded so good in stereo to a teenager brought up on mono replay. Strangely enough I rarely listen via headphones these days, I guess the memory of cans from the early 70’s has put me off.
Then around 1975 or ‘76 I purchased my own very first HI-Fi separates system from a shop near Bell Corner in Walthamstow called Speakers Corner. It comprised an Armstrong amp and tuner (the ones with wooden sleaves), a Dual turntable, a Tandberg Cassette Deck and a pair of Celef Monitor speakers. I was in love. The memory of that system still stays with me today and that’s the point of this story, systems change and evolve over time and technology changes even faster, but the memory stays with you and helps to inform your next move.
For me the journey so far has been interesting, exciting and challenging but the main lesson I’ve learned is always to take professional advice, preferably from your favourite dealer, don’t overcomplicate your demo listening and always plan a way forward with your dealer that enhances your system rather than making changes for change sake.
It’s fair to say that I have always been a sucker for good looking as well as good sounding well-made hi-fi separates and for some reason monobloc amps have always featured in my most memorable systems (Aurex, Meridian, Denon, Muse, Nestorovic, McIntosh and Michi). I have also always been drawn towards the smaller sized components although my current Mich M8’s go against the grain. My Hi-Fi journey really took off in 1979 when, in my first year as an architectural student in Cheltenham, I discovered a Hi-Fi shop selling the Toshiba Aurex System 15 components and I purchased the whole system including preamp, tuner, Adres noise reduction system, cassette deck and two power amps which I run as bridged monoblocs all still using my Celef Monitor speakers. I still have that Aurex system today but made the mistake a couple of years ago of sending the cassette deck for repair to a reputable repairer never to see it again. If anyone knows where I can get a replacement C-15 cassette deck please let me know, even a non-working one will help fill the gap. That system followed me everywhere and it is still working more than 40 years later. Clearly the bug for one-make systems and especially those offering compact well-made components with monobloc amps was developing way back then.
After college I returned to work in London and not too long after that Meridian launched their 200 series of shoebox sized components and I just had to buy them. What was not to like – a one manufacturer compact system with monobloc amps. I bought the whole system. I did eventually upgrade to their full 600 series including the now rare tuner and the ADC but was not so taken with their later 500 series. Unfortunately, I no longer own those fine 600 series products, but I do again have a full 200 system purchased on the second-hand market and set up as my second home system.
The Nagra system I’m reviewing here does have the same if not better visual appeal and quirkiness of use of those earlier smaller jewel-like components from Aurex and Meridian but the Nagra is in another league in terms of build quality, component selection and truly unbeatable sound quality. This system does of course have a stereo power amp rather than monoblocs, but it does have the ability for an owner to purchase a second Classic Power Amp and use them as bridged monoblocs. So, win-win really.
I was fortunate to be given an opportunity to look inside the Tube DAC with the lid off and what amazed me most was the size, quality and number of the components used, clearly not a crammed circuit board solution and It’s obvious where the Nagra design team have spent money. Nagra are also famous for their use of valves (tubes) in their equipment and they are present in this system in the Tube DAC and the Classic Preamp. Hopefully I’ll get a chance one day to review some of their 300 series valve amplifiers that use the legendry 300B valves. Then of course there is the reference HD series of components……you never know.
My leaning towards small kit and build quality over the years has for sure guided me towards Nagra but it has taken me a long time to try something at home and the wait was worth it. Over the years I have owned many different systems, some built on separates from one manufacturer such as McIntosh and some built on components from different makes but it was not until I heard this complete Nagra system at home that I realised my search has come to its end. All in need now is to win the Lottery, big time.
I hope this ramble through some of my early history as an audiophile has been of interest and helps to place into context why I like this Nagra system so much. I’m sure I would have liked it anyway just for the looks and build quality but the fact that it also sounds so good is the icing on the cake.
PS: There is much more I could share about the equipment I have owned, perhaps another day.
Summary - The best system I remember hearing before this was at an audio show a few years ago where Naim showcased their top end 555 systems as a source and using their new at the time Statement Amplifiers to feed Focal Grande Utopia speakers (probably a system in excess of £400k today), I could have listened all day to that system. Memory of this has long remained with me, but it was very expensive and working at Nintronics has shown me that there are many equally good alternative systems worth considering. The Nagra system reviewed here with my Marten speakers is nowhere near the price point of the Naim/Focal system but it’s no less entertaining and memorable in the way it can present a musical event in your home and would now be my first choice as a go to system.
A final clincher for me is that for quite some time now I have been trying to remove an annoying buzz from my home system that to be fair is only really noticeable when powered up and the music has stopped. I’ve always thought it must be a grounding issue and I’ve tried many things to cure it with some success in reducing but not eliminating it entirely. But with the Nagra system in place there is no hum or buzz whatsoever, it’s completely silent and that must say a lot about the quality and design integrity of these products.
Nagra often describe their products as having better harmonics, transients and a warm and musical sound and I can only agree with this. I’ve heard that Nagra ‘don’t do dynamics’ but that’s not what I found with this system which is as dynamic as you could possible need in a normal sized home environment. I did find that they clearly work much better together as a system than they do as individual components inserted into another manufacturers system as I found out when experimenting by gradually reducing the amount of Nagra components in the review system by substituting Nagra items with components from my own system.
Firstly, I disconnected the Classic Amp and reinserted my Michi M8 monoblocs. The buzz and hum came back immediately, and the music sounded brighter and less involving, which I guess is understandable because the pair of M8’s cost far less than a single Nagra Classic Stereo amp.
I then replaced the Nagra Preamp with the Michi P5 preamp and the buzz actually reduced quite a bit (probably a compatibility thing), but the sound once again took a further step toward being less involving and less enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong here the Michi amps and built in DAC are really very, very good and are excellent value for money but at around 20% the cost of the Classic Nagra gear they just can’t compete on a level playing field, but they do put up a very good fight giving 90% of the sound for 50% of the cost of the Nagra amps.
The next day I reinserted the Nagra amps and took out the Michi’s and immediately I was drawn back into the shear emotional impact that Nagra brings to a listening session, and of course the buzz was gone again. Eight hours later and I’m still enthralled but disappointed at the same time. Enthralled because the Nagra system is so very good in all regards and disappointed because it will be going back to the showroom soon.
My final substitution was to return to the Michi amps but instead of using the built in DAC I substituted the Nagra Tube DAC and Classic PSU and the difference was remarkable. I guess it should be as the Nagra DAC/PSU pair are almost ten times the price as the whole Michi P5 Preamp. Is the Nagra worth that added investment, well I am actually very happy with the Michi Amps and would encourage anyone to come and listen to them but if money allows then Nagra is the way to go, they are so much more engaging.
The Technical Bits
System Components – For this review the Nagra system replaced most of my entire home system with the exception of the speakers. It came in five boxes, so I had to do some rearranging to house them suitably. Mains cables and leads were mostly by Jorma Design. Having discussed connection options with the distributer I settled on RCA over my normal preference for XLR because, unless specified otherwise at time of purchase, the Nagra system runs unbalanced. This review took place without the custom made Nagra VFSL supporting plates for each component which come in at £1,650 per equipment support. The Classic PSU used was the standard version with 2 active outlets connected in this instance to power both inputs to the Tube DAC.
Technology – With so many components involved in this system review I will try to keep the technical details to a minimum but there are a few things to note about Nagra equipment and that is that the choice of components used to build a system is very much down to the user’s individual requirements and source needs as many of the individual items are configurable at the point of order.
Classic PSU – £12,000 - designed to power up to three source components it comes as standard with two active outputs and the third is an option that can be included at point of order for around £1,500. The one I have on review is the standard model with two active outputs that I used to power both digital and analogue inputs on the Tube DAC.
Tube DAC – £18,500 - built by Nagra using technology and design experience from their upmarket HD DAC. The Tube DAC doesn’t have an onboard power supply and therefore must be powered from the Classic PSU where it requires two outputs to feed its separate digital and analogue inputs. Digital inputs include 2x S/PDIF on RCA, 1 AES/EBU, 1 Optical and 1 USB. Outputs on RCA and unbalances XLR. The RCA, XLR and Optical inputs run up to 192kHz 24 Bits and the USB up to 384kHz and 32 Bits plus DXD or DSDx2 256kHz. It has a single valve in its output circuit, type not specified.
Classic Pre-Amp – £14,500 - this is a valve pre-amplifier running in class A and including 2 x 12AX7 and 1 x 12AT7 valves. It includes a headphone amp and has 1 XLR and 4 RCA inputs and 2 XLR and 1 RCA outputs including a cinema bypass facility. This is an unbalanced device, but it can be specified with additional transformers at the point of order to enable it to run in full balanced mode. Ours is the unbalanced version. The front panel includes a toggle switch that changes the output from +0dB to +12dB for use with less sensitive power amps where a stronger signal is required. I mostly used the +0dB setting finding it more than adequate for the Classic Amp.
Classic CDC CD Player – £14,500 - Nagra make three Classic CD Players, the CDP is a traditional CD player with built in DAC (£12,500), the CDT is a transport only (£11,500) and the CDC we have here is a player with DAC and pre-amp stage built in. All three have digital outputs for connection to an external DAC on RCA, AES/XLR and Optical. Analogue outputs are on XLR and RCA, both unbalanced. They don’t have digital inputs so can’t be used as a DAC for other components. The CDC also has a headphone output with volume control as does the Pre and the DAC.
Classic Power Amp – £13,000 - a 100w power amp running in Class A for much of its output before turning to Class AB. It can be run as a stereo amplifier or it can be bridged to run as a 200w monobloc, but you then of course need to buy a second one for stereo use. It can also be run in bi-amp mode but again you would need two for a stereo system. Inputs on RCA and XLR are provided. It runs warm after a few hours use so keep it well ventilated.
Common to all Components – is the inclusion of Nagra’s renowned Modulometer that provides different information depending on the component it serves. Mains voltage on the PSU, and output in dB on the Amp, Preamp, DAC and CD Player.
System Building - Nagra equipment is always going to be expensive for a number of very good reasons and although the Classic range on review here is their current entry level it is still a significant investment for most of us. Top of the range is their HD Reference Line.
There are many ways to build a Classic Nagra system including the use of the VPS valve phono stage instead of a CD player if vinyl is your thing. Nintronics will be able to help you to build and install a system around your specific needs.
Unless you are very lucky a Nagra system won’t be your first foray into Hi-Fi, but it could, and probably should, be your last.
Through all my buying history I have found that brand components do seem to work together much better than the pick and mix approach. I accept not everyone agrees with me on this and that some manufacturers are better at one thing than another but in the main I believe that when manufacturers turn their attention to whole systems, they generally work and sound better that way.
Bob – Team Reference Audio