NaimUniti: rearranging the way you listen

Apologies to anyone waiting over the weekend for my blog giving my first 'hands-on' impressions of the NaimUniti: I didn't get round to writing it simply because I was having too much fun.

Regular Forumites will know that I went down to Naim Central in Salisbury to pick up the system last Thursday. Spent some time listening in the company's impressive main dem room; got to take a peek at some new products due to be rolled out at the Munich High End Show later this week; and saw the tiny development room in the factory where new products are tweaked.

Apparently blinds have had to be installed to stop weekending Naimees peering through the window to see what the company's up to. Yes, really...

Naim is growing

And just as an aside, things seem to be going rather swimmingly at Naim at the moment: extra production lines have been installed to keep up with demand, with the Nait XS and NaimUniti being the big sales stars of the moment, and even products such as the HiCap are selling very well indeed. And that's got to be a design with the better part of three decades under its belt.

Anyway, back to NaimUniti – and yes, it is one word.

Came back with a unit in the boot, and every intention of getting it up and running Thursday night, but a particularly knackering drive back – rain, traffic – and a full schedule meant it got powered up and left to cook, but that was all.

Saturday morning I decided to bite the bullet and start to tackle it. But then the Uniti – oops, NaimUniti – doesn't take much tackling. Plugged in, it found the wi-fi network, asked for the security key and, with that typed in, was all set to go.

Bit of 'new readers start here': the £1995 NaimUniti combines in one box a CD player derived from the company's CD5i, using the same swing-out transport found in the CDX2, and a 2x50W amplifier based on the Nait 5i. So that's the better part of £1650's worth of equipment replaced by a single box already. Sweet...

However, you also get:

- An FM/DAB/internet radio tuner, with 40 presets available transparently across all three radio systems

- A five-input – two optical, two electrical and one front-mounted MiniTOSlink – digital to analogue converter

- Five line inputs including one on a 3.5mm socket on the front panel, and a powered DIN to allow a Naim phono stage to be added

- Unity gain on the line inputs to allow the system to be integrated with an AV processor or receiver

- Line-out, preout and twin subwoofer output sockets

- Music streaming from computers or NAS devices via Ethernet or built-in wi-fi

- iPod connectivity with the addition of an optional n-Link cable, yours for £95

- Front-panel USB for memory key music

- Oh, and a headphone socket

In fact, the only thing you don't get is a pair of speakers, but given the heritage of the amplification here, the system is more than capable of driving some pretty serious boxes.

Simply addictive

It's a comprehensive package, and could all too easily be fiendishly complex to use, but the ease with which the NaimUniti sets itself up and installs is just the precursor for how simple – and simply addictive – it is to live with.

Within minutes I was streaming music from my newly-installed 1TB NAS over the wireless network, and iPod connectivity was tested with another new acquisition, a 16GB iPod nano. Yes, I've finally had to bite the bullet, simply because so much equipment now comes with iPod and/or wireless capability, so the home testing rig has had to be updated.

What hasn't changed? Well, having tried the NaimUniti running through various small speakers I ended up with it inserted between the front channel preouts of my AV receiver and my PMC OB1 floorstanders, enabling ongoing testing over the next few weeks while still being able to switch back to normal domestic mode at the push of a button. One command tweak on the Harmony remote, and it all happens seamlessly.

Not that much TV or DVD material has been watched over the past couple of days: been a bit too busy in silly grin territory, streaming music from the NAS, listening to internet radio from places as diverse as Minneapolis and Shizuoka – oh, and giving the Passionato online classical music shop a bit of a hammering.

Watched the excellent Birth of British Music programme on Handel the other night, and within a very short time had the Water Music and the Music for the Royal Fireworks bought, downloaded as FLAC files, on the server and streaming out through the Naim. Great fun, but this could start to get expensive...

I'm going to leave it to my colleagues on the test team to give you their definitive views on the sound quality – I'm off to the Munich show, so for the next week the NaimUniti is going to be in their hands for the full workover before I get it back for a forthcoming Gramophone review.

Toe-tapping from the States

But I'm looking forward to getting back and exploring the capabilities of the system some more: only yesterday I found myself enjoying and toe-tapping along with the music being streamed from one of my favourite US radio shows – American Public Media's A Prairie Home Companion – completely ignoring the fact it was 'only' streaming at 64kbps.

The music sounded good, with voices and instruments well-defined – what more could one want on a Sunday afternoon?

Baroque around the clock

Mind you, it doesn't take much hunting to find stations streaming at much higher bitrates, such as the excellent classical stations coming out of Hilversum in the Netherlands. These run at up to 256kbps, with names such as 'Baroque around the Clock' (see what they did there?), and for soundtracks fans there's even a channel solely running film music.

Look further and there are even higher bitrates on offer: MR3-Bartok from Hungary offers up to 320kbps, and sounds superb.

I've also been playing around with different encoding formats for rips, and even trying rips made on different devices, which is where things get really interesting, and a little spooky, given that one should be hearing exactly the same thing when all the parameters are the same, but in fact subtle differences are there to be heard.

I can feel a good few more lost evenings and weekends coming on..

Andrew has written about audio and video products for the past 20+ years, and been a consumer journalist for more than 30 years, starting his career on camera magazines. Andrew has contributed to titles including What Hi-Fi?, GramophoneJazzwise and Hi-Fi CriticHi-Fi News & Record Review and Hi-Fi Choice. I’ve also written for a number of non-specialist and overseas magazines.