Digital convergence is really hitting its stride. This year I’ve come to know three products that bring it all together in exemplary fashion. First is the iPhone 4, which marries phone, email, GPS, internet, games and a whole lot more into a slender elegant package that’s a delight to use. Second, is the Sync package on my new Ford Fusion. Sync combines AM/FM radio with Satellite radio, throws in a 6 CD changer and a USB input for my iPod, then rounds out the package with Bluetooth connectivity for an iPhone or other Bluetooth enabled devices. It’s truly overwhelming how many listening options I now have. The third device is the UnitiQute with its partner the UnitiServe, from prestigious British high-end audio manufacturer Naim Audio, which is a bit like having the Sync package without the car.
Naim’s beautifully styled UnitiQute features FM and DAB radio (not available in Canada), four hi-rez digital inputs, a USB input, as well as wired and wireless network connections. Throw in a pair of old fashioned analog inputs front (mini-jack) and back (RCA) and pack a sturdy amplifier into its modest frame and a remote control to control all these options and you’ve got the lot. Well almost. There is no phono input, and you wouldn’t expect one would you? But there’s a more glaring omission too – there’s no CD drive. That is deliberate. Naim could have put one in, like they did in the big brother NaimUniti, but they chose not to, to keep the size and cost down. Besides, they would much rather you dispensed with the little silver discs altogether. To that end Naim offers a matching music server, the UnitiServe, which includes a CD drive for ripping your collection onto its capacious (1 Terabyte) memory. If hard discs are old hat in your next-gen household, Naim offers a solid state version, the UnitiServe-SSD at a slightly higher price. The UnitiServe I was supplied with came preloaded with hundreds of CDs, which made my time with the two components all the more interesting. Ripping was simplicity itself. You put the CD in the slot and it pops out a few minutes later all done, appearing under the list of “recently added CDs”. UnitiServe automatically gathers artwork and other information about the CD from the internet.
You can control the UnitiServe from the remote control of the UnitiQute but that’s just one of the many options. You can plug a keyboard and monitor into the UnitiServe and run it from the built in software, or you can type in the UnitiServe’s address into your browser and control it from your computer with the same interface. You can also install a control app on your iPhone or for greater flexibility you can install the Naim Desktop Client on your PC. You get all the usual tools you’d expect to organize, search and play your music and lots of flexibility including the ability to use other storage devices besides the built-in hard drive and playback from a USB key plugged into the rear panel. Naim makes the UnitiServe storage appear as a read-only drive in Windows, so you can setup your own backup schedule, and you can play your music through other media players such as Windows Media Player. Or you can use the UnitiServe’s S/PDIF digital output to feed a DAC of your own choice.
With all this flexibility, let me tell you how I configured these components, starting with the UnitiServe. It plugs into the mains via an external 12V DC power supply, and into my wireless network router via the usual Ethernet cable. I placed it next to my computer, a good distance from my listening room where the UnitiQute took centre stage. I had two choices with the UnitiQute. I could connect it wirelessly or via a very long Ethernet cable the family could enjoy tripping over. Since I have a decent 802.11N router, wireless worked flawlessly. Detecting no sonic difference between wired and wireless, I stuck to wireless. I connected my bi-wired speakers into the banana sockets on the back of the UnitiQute and fed in the analog output of my SACD Player. I also attached a Technics FM Wing Antenna, and an iPod.
How much does all this cost? $2500 for the UnitiQute and $3200 for the UnitiServe (or $3500 for the UnitiServe-SSD). You might be interested in either device on its own or the matching pair. Either way, each is a beautifully finished component, stylish and offers leading edge in technology. I also enjoy the way you can expand upon either device. The UnitiQute can feed an external power amplifier if you outgrow the internal 30 wpc amp, and the UnitiServe can expand beyond its 1500 CD internal capacity by accessing other inexpensive network storage. Further, both can readily accept updated firmware to expand their current capabilities.
The UnitiQute has a well specified linear power supply and borrows its analog section from the NAIT 5i, while the DAC is a 192 kHz/24-bit Wolfson component. The amp delivers 30 wpc into 8 ohms, and 45 wpc into 4 ohms.
But all the flexibility in the world matters little if the sound doesn’t measure up. So I put the UnitiQute, fed by an analog signal from the SACD Player, through its paces feeding three sets of speakers in turn.
The Reference 3A MM de Capo i, a large efficient standmounted speaker (reviewed elsewhere in this issue) turned out to be an excellent partner. Dynamics proved quite strong for a 30 watt amplifier, while resolution and tonality were both good enough to provide many hours of musical enjoyment. The Naim can also boogie, a characteristic shared with all Naim amps. Only in the imaging department did the UnitiQute betray its relatively modest price tag. Where my reference electronics throw a deep, wide solid image with pinpoint location of individual voices, here the voices are harder to locate and the image size shrinks closer to the speakers. The UnitiQute lacks the iron grip in the bass that some high-end solid state amps can offer but at the other end of the spectrum, the top octaves are noticeably open, well balanced and free of grain, a far more important factor.
Switching to the smaller and less efficient Totem “The One” gives the UnitiQute a bigger challenge, since the amp is now working harder to produce realistic volumes of sound. Even at 80 out of 100 on the volume scale, the UnitiQute sailed through this test. The Totems love power, so I was worried that the 30 watts on tap might be problematic but these must be 30 really good watts since I was able to power through big orchestral works like the Brahms Symphonies with no signs of strain. The Totems sounded like much bigger speakers, although lighter in texture than through more iron-fisted amplifcation like the reference Bryston 4B SST².
Then I hooked up a big floorstander known for demanding a fair chunk of current, the Wilson Benesch Act 1. Surely this would leave the little UnitiQute gasping. Wrong again. Test passed with flying colours. The sound was bigger and more open than through the smaller speakers, better fitting the big orchestral works and even more vibrant and musical in chamber music and jazz. It is only fair to say the Act 1s sound much better still with state of the art amplification, but for an amp in this price range to do this well is impressive indeed.
The UnitiQute did a fine job with my iPod collection. I could conveniently browse through the Music and Podcast library and the sound quality held up very well. I should add that you have to use the remote control since there are no visible controls on the unit itself – just one, a mute switch, concealed in the Naim logo. Fortunately Naim does supply a simple but elegant remote control with spectacularly good ergonomics. Everything is where it should be and works the way you would expect. If it doesn’t, Naim provides a lot of configuration options so you can make it work the way you want. You can also download an iPod/iPhone app (for about $40) to control the UnitiQute.
When playing an iPod source, the energy level generated was palpable – this compact unit has cohones! There’s a very good reason for this. The UnitiQute is reading the digital output stream rather than the analog stream read by almost every other available component, thereby bypassing the inferior DACs built into current iPods, iPhone as and iPod Touch devices. It can even read the Apple Lossless format for CD quality encoding, along with AAC, MP3 and WAV formats. Kudos, Naim!
My one disappointment was FM radio, where my indoor antenna, good enough for some more sensitive tuners, proved inadequate in feeding the Naim. Your mileage may vary but I suggest a proper roof mounted antenna if FM is your thing. But don’t despair, because the UnitiQute more than makes up for this with splendid coverage of Internet Radio, streaming over its wireless (or wired) link. There is such an embarrassment of riches available on Internet Radio, and it’s so easy to find your own special poison, through categories like Jazz, Classical or Comedy that you can search through and bookmark.
You can also plug a flash drive into the front USB input socket and play music that way. It makes me wish I had the complete Beatles Album set EMI recently released in that format, but you can roll your own as I did. Everything works just like it would on a computer, except of course for the sound – it’s hi-fi, not computer audio.
But wait, there’s still more. There’s the Universal Plug ‘n Play option (UPnP). First it found my large collection of music organized in my iTunes library – Podcasts and all. Then there’s the potentially enormous library of music that the UnitiServe can deliver. Being able to search by composer, performer or genre make a large collection so much more accessible, and Naim builds on this with support for a wide range of digital formats, including WAV, MP3, AAC and FLAC.
We’ve checked out the speaker output, but there are more output options. There’s a digital output, a preamp output to feed your existing system or a subwoofer, and a built-in headphone output. This does not replace a dedicated headphone amp for driving high-end phones such as the Sennheiser HD800, which felt a bit underpowered here, but will do perfectly well with more sensitive phones.
I put the UnitiQute through its paces, connected into a reference system through a Parasound JC2 preamp. This is an important test since this would be a great upgrade path if the analog output is up to scratch. Would the imaging and resolution limitations disappear? I used the SACD player input for this test. Ideally I would have connected the analog output directly to the Bryston power amp, but I wanted to feed everything through the Parasound so I could control the volume of all inputs on the same preamp remote control. I set the volume on the UnitiQute to match levels (86 worked for me) and left it there. So this is a bit of an unfair test. I’m comparing the balanced output of the SACD player to the unbalanced output, passing through the preamplifier and volume control section of the UnitiQute and an extra set of unbalanced interconnects. And would you believe it, it was very hard to tell the difference. This is an absolutely superb result and proves to my satisfaction the internal preamp performs very well and is fully capable of driving a much more expensive power amp. Any criticism of sound quality I may have had relates primarily to the UnitiQute’s power amp section which can easily be bypassed.
If you want a multiroom system, all you need is a single UnitiServe (capable of feeding six independent streams at once) and a UnitiQute and speakers in each room, networking wirelessly. Simple, elegant and attractively priced.
Let me clearly state that these components put Naim into a class of its own in compact high performance digital convergence. It’s not just the list of supported inputs and formats that impresses, nor even the excellent sound quality. It’s the sheer panache with which all this is carried off, from the sturdy curved compact chassis to the extraordinary range of configuration options and the ease with which you interact with all this sophistication. I once met the late Julian Vereker, Naim’s founder at their head office in Salisbury England. He would have been proud, astonished and delighted at this turn of events.
Naim Audio UnitiQute
Price: $2500 CAD
Naim Audio UnitiServe
Price: $3200 CAD ($3500 for the UnitiServe-SSD)