We can’t help feeling Naim’s got a problem on its hands with the new Naim UnitiLite: the latest arrival in its Uniti range of streaming players is simply so compelling a device, at least two of its other models will find themselves under serious threat.
It starts at £1650 – over £1000 less than the latest version of the original Naim all-in-one, the NaimUniti2 – and its comprehensive specification could also make the Naim UnitiQute, even recently reduced to £995 for the 96kHz/24-bit version or £1395 for 192kHz/24-bit, look somewhat less attractive.
Naim UnitiLite: Tech specs
You see, the UnitiLite has just about everything going for it, including CD playback, streaming of content at up to 192kHz/32-bit (depending on format), internet radio, iPod/iPhone connectivity (and iOS app control), five digital inputs and 50W per channel amplification, all in a slimline enclosure.
In fact, apart from speakers, there’s not much you need add here – the only option is the factory-installed FM/DAB radio tuner module fitted to the review sample, adding £245 to the price to bring it up to £1895.
Unbox the UnitiLite and two things will immediately strike anyone familiar with past Unitis: the new model is both the slimmest yet and has a new disc-loading mechanism, a conventional drawer replacing the swing-out loader found on previous Naim CD hardware.
Quite how much shorter of stature the UnitiLite actually is may not be apparent from pictures, but it quickly becomes obvious when you stack the newcomer up with the NaimUniti2 or UnitiQute.
Naim UnitiLite: Design
Like the Uniti2 it’s a full width enclosure, just over 43cm wide, but it stands just 7cm tall, a full 1.7cm shorter than the original; by comparison the UnitiQute is also 8.7cm tall, but half-width, at almost 21cm.
In the flesh – well, in the familiar black powder-coated metal, anyway – the UnitiLite looks even slimmer: the display fills more of the depth of the front-panel, the nine control-buttons beside it are more tightly-packed, and the front-panel USB, headphone and combination line-in/optical digital input sockets are lined up underneath the disc drawer.
The rear panel also has relatively little wasted space: as well as a wired network input and a connection for the wi-fi antenna supplied, there are two optical and two electrical digital inputs, two analogue ins and an F-type screw connection for an FM/DAB aerial should you go for the version with the optional tuner module.
One of Naim’s favoured four-pin DIN sockets provides preamp-level output, so you could add on an external power amp, and the speaker outputs are on four 4mm sockets.
Naim UnitiLite: Set-up
It’s also worth mentioning at this point that the set-up menu offers input trims, the ability to rename inputs should you wish and, on the analogue inputs, the option of setting fixed gain, bypassing the volume control.
That’s handy should you want to integrate the UnitiLite into a surround system built around an AV receiver with preouts, using the Naim to drive the left and right speakers and the receiver’s internal amps for the remaining channels in the surround rig.
Other connections run to an input for external remote control and a micro-USB socket for future firmware upgrades, while the UnitiLite also has a switch to float the signal ground should you have hum problems when connecting external sources and components. Such as, for example, that AV receiver we just mentioned…
The new CD loader, while lacking the silent smoothness of the manually-operated swing-out mechanism used in the NaimUniti2, feels pretty solid as it slides out on its two metal guides, though of course it lacks what some feel is the most Naim thing about the company’s CD players (and others consider a major pain) – the separate magnetic clamping puck to hold the disc onto the spindle.
For good or bad, this is a Naim product that’s just like almost every other CD player to use: open drawer, drop in disc, close drawer, play.
However, though the swing-out ‘player in a drawer’ may be gone, the ’Lite retains the best feature of the other products in the Uniti series: as well as using the front-panel buttons and the conventional remote, the whole system can be ‘driven’ using the company’s n-Stream app running on an iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad.
It’s a very well-sorted app, and allows very simple access to music streamed from a home server, or internet radio stations (which can be set up using Naim’s vTuner web page).
Naim UnitiLite: File formats
What’s more, this is no lightweight when it comes to the range of file formats it can play: should you manage to find any suitable content, it can handle WAV and AIFF files all the way up to 32-bit/192kHz, as well as FLAC up to 24-bit/192kHz, Apple Lossless to 24-bit/96kHz, WMA and Ogg Vorbis to 16-bit/48kHz, and MP3 or m4a up to 320kbps.
Oh, and CDs of course, which it does very well indeed – at least once you’ve fathomed out how to open the player to put a disc in (hint: it involves the ‘stop’ button).
That CD player gives it a major advantage over the UnitiQute – at least for those of us who haven’t quite got round to ripping our entire disc collections to computer storage just yet – and it’s good to see that while the new mechanism is both more compact and presumably less expensive than that in the NaimUniti2, the provision here is certainly much more than a makeweight.
Naim UnitiLite: Sound quality
Combined with the onboard amp, this is a player capable of giving a big, dramatic and exciting account of discs, while still showing excellent refinement in the way it keeps basslines good’n’tight while getting just the right mix of sting and sweetness in the treble.
It’s an obviously Naim sound, which is why we kicked off this review by saying we reckon the UnitiLite may cause some problems for sales of its bigger brothers – even though compared side by side, the NaimUniti2 does deliver more, both in terms of punch and slam, and the sheer amount of detail in unearths from everything from CDs to hi-res audio files.
The sound of the NaimUniti2 has more swagger, more confidence, more solidity – in simple terms, it just gives you more of the music, and that’s as true when playing the overblown histrionics of the latest Muse album or the ‘first one was so successful we decided to do exactly the same again’ second album from Mumford & Sons.
However for many listeners – and in particular those without huge rooms to fill, or wanting to use the system with compact loudspeakers – the UnitiLite will deliver a lot of what a NaimUniti2 will, and do so while still leaving enough change from the Uniti2’s price-tag to buy a very decent pair of speakers indeed.
Partnered with the ridiculously over-achieving little Neat Iota speakers, there’s no denying that the UnitiLite is capable not only of making a highly involving sound, but of showing the advantages of full-fat CD quality – or, even better, hi-res music files – over data-reduced MP3.
Naim UnitiLite: Internet and DAB/FM radio
Not that the junior Naim sounds rough or nasty with those radio stations broadcasting at low data-rates via internet streaming: one of the strengths of the Uniti range from the outset has been how well it handles the data-reduced stuff, then goes on to enthral the better the signal you throw at it.
That’s especially true if you opt for the FM/DAB radio tuner module, which is very good indeed, and gives you the choice on many stations to compare internet stream, DAB and FM: given a good outdoor aerial to deliver decent signal to the UnitiLite, we’d go for FM anytime.
However, it’s when you play high-quality music files through the Naim that you hear what it can really do: it has more than enough power to fill a decent-sized room with music without showing any signs of amplifier section stress, and keeps things completely in control even when you push it hard.
Naim UnitiLite: High resolution audio
Hammering out the opening track from the latest Muse album in 24/96, the Naim more than raises a smile with the music's nods to Bond soundtrack motifs, while a spot of close-miked Nick Lowe from his 2009 Quiet Please ‘best of’ set, in CD-quality FLAC, shows how just well it keeps things under control while still delivering excellent insight into the warmth and ambience of a recording.
Similarly with Simon Keenlyside and Malcolm Martineau's War Songs set, a 2012 Gramophone Award-winner, the Naim does a fine job of presenting both Keenlyside's rich voice and pianist Martineau’s sympathetic accompaniment, placing both in an entirely realistic acoustic while at the same time having more than enough power in reserve to deliver the dynamics of both voice and instrument.
The effect is striking and moving in the disturbing An Incident, describing a soldier dying from a wound in the head, and beautiful in the other arrangements of wartime poems.
But the Naim is just as capable at unravelling larger scale musical pieces, as is clear when playing, for example, the Allegretto second movement of Beethoven's 7th from the excellent set of symphonies by Daniel Barenboim and his young West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: the sound has superb detail in the hushed opening of the movement, and holds its composure beautifully as it builds to its climax.
Naim UnitiLite: Verdict
As an all-round performer, the UnitiLite is going to take some beating: yes, it’s bettered by the NaimUniti2, which after all is over £1000 more, and if you don’t need either CD playback or the ability to handle 192kHz/24-bit content the basic UnitiQute, at its recently-reduced £995, is extremely tempting.
However, balance out price, facilities and style and it’s hard to argue with the slimline UnitiLite: it’ll drive virtually any sensibly-priced speakers you throw at it, from the usual sub-£500 contenders to the likes of the Neat Iotas or even Tannoy’s Revolution DC6s, is a delight to use under the control of the n-Stream app and is compact enough to slip onto even the shallowest of shelves.
As the old saying goes, what’s not to like?