This review by Malcolm Steward first appeared in Hi-Fi Plus magazine (UK), in 2012
Many years ago, when I was a young lad, my living room, like those of my friends, featured a coffin-sized wooden enclosure that housed a radio and a record player alongside an amplifier and a pair of loudspeakers. If those loudspeakers were integral to the device then it was called a radiogram, and if they were discrete then the device was a Music Centre or a Stereo. Regardless, one enclosure housed the source components and the amplifier in both types of device. Only when one’s taste and wealth increased did one progress to what were known as hi-fi separates, or individual components. Now, in the subsequent millennium, we see the same all-in-one concept, albeit in a slightly more sophisticated and elegant guise – and without the vinyl-replay element – resurfacing in modern homes. Sure, the record player has gone, as has the monolithic wooden enclosure, but the principle remains the same: reduce the hi-fi system to a single component to which one can attach loudspeakers to suit one’s preferences… and means.
These more modern all-in-ones are not completely new: in the past few years we have seen various combinations of CD player, cassette deck and radio receiver, for example, along with midi systems, but the quality, in particular, of the amplifier, was generally nothing about which one would wish to write home. The result was that these contraptions tended to be partnered with speakers that would never be described as especially refined.
The compact all-in-one, however, is very much à la mode right now. The floor bestrewn with amplifiers and anaconda-girth cables might have been popular with some in the 1970s but it never was a good look, especially in bijou British homes. Even with the benefit of the typical American rumpus space, it is not an arrangement that shouts sophistication at a ‘normal’, non-audiophile visitor. Furthermore, the falling from favour of mechanical replay devices – CD, cassette, vinyl, and DAB’s dismalisation of radio – greatly expands the potential for these devices. They have progressed from their early iterations, as the Linn Klassik, and the Arcam Solo, and now incorporate networked audio technologies – streaming, computer-audio and internet radio – along with far more advanced amplification than before, enabling them to be successful partners with more demanding and revealing loudspeakers.
The SuperUniti is Naim Audio’s latest stab at a ‘melting pot’ product. The new all-in-one design is essentially the result of a meeting between the UnitiQute network audio player and the SUPERNAIT integrated amplifier… with a handful of additional facilities and features. The original NaimUniti incorporated a CD player: however, the SuperUniti does not, lest the name indicates it might. I have said elsewhere that SuperQute might have made a more appropriate name but…
Enclosed in its full-width Naim Reference casework, the SuperUniti contains a 24-bit/192 kHz streaming digital media player, a USB media player, a multi-format radio receiver that includes internet radio, iPod connectivity, a high-res 24/192 DAC, and an 80W (into eight Ohms) stereo amplifier.
The SuperUniti will stream up to 24-bit/192 kHz audio files from a UPnP server installed on a hard disk server, laptop or desktop computer, or Network Attached Storage, provided that the files are in an appropriate format: FLAC, WAV, AIFF, MP3, Windows Media, and Apple Lossless, AAC, and Ogg Vorbis are all supported. Though why anyone would spend this much money on a device and then play MP3s on it is completely beyond my comprehension.
As a Uniti family product the device appeals not only to hardened Naim fans but to a whole new range of customers – people who might not relish multi-enclosure systems knotted together with kilometers of cable just so that they can listen to a few tunes. So the SuperUniti faces a tough task: delivering recognisably Naim standard performance, and providing the type of convenience buyers might attain with any other brand of network audio player and integrated amplifier. (To be honest, the only true, level-playing-field competitor here seems to me to be the Linn Majik DS-M, to which I was listening only a month ago.)
SuperUniti convenience, as far as I am concerned, comes primarily through the free n-Stream app for iPads and iOS devices that allows you to flick through your musical library quite effortlessly and build playlists should you so wish. It will also perform gapless playback with appropriate rips. Please note that I loathe the iPad but I have to admit that there is no better way to operate a Naim streaming device of which I know.
The SuperUniti can, if the buyer wants convenience above all, be used wirelessly: there is even an accessory antenna available that delivers 5dB additional gain for improved performance with Uniti family devices. Regardless, if you want the finest performance use a decent quality Cat6 patch lead for connection to your network, particularly if you wish to exploit the SU’s hi-definition capabilities. (Be sure the connection between the SU and your NAS/music storage device is unshielded CAT6 from end to end.)
Before getting involved with the network side of its performance, let us consider its more fundamental capabilities as an amplifier. Its performance, the company says, is reference level… something along the lines of the SUPERNAIT. This integrated has proven to me that it is more than up to the task of driving ‘difficult’ loudspeakers with total disdain: its 80W output becomes 120W at 4 Ohms and the amplifier, more importantly, can deliver current by the bucket load when required. It is certainly not one of those amplifiers that struggles for breath when faced with the loudspeaker equivalent of a steep incline: it simply carries on sounding totally composed and unflustered. The SuperUniti mirrors that performance closely and under normal listening the amplifier sounds as though it is barely ticking over, even at respectable listening levels appropriate for bands such as Staind. I used it successfully with a variety of speakers from Focal, NEAT and PMC.
The sound of the SuperUniti is refined, polished and communicative even when it was pushed hard. After a long session driving the NEAT XLS to respectable levels with a selection of album rips by Echo and the Bunnymen, the aluminium casework was warm to the touch yet the sound betrayed no sense of strain or distortion: it stayed as clean as when the session began despite the increased volume level. And increasing the volume level is something that is hard to resist with the SuperUniti, given the way the device draws the listener into the performance and renders the impact of music so stunningly visceral.
For example, the intensely rich way that the SuperUniti presents tonal colour and instrumental texture, along with the stable, deep soundstage the unit creates, makes music a tangible solid entity rather than the insubstantial, wispy, vapid creation that some hi-fi systems attempt to pass off as a performance. The Vivid Curve album “Live at Edgefield”, played through the SuperUniti/XLS combination, saw the band live up to the vivid part of its name with iridescent, natural colour and texture present on the didgeridoo and percussive elements on the track “White Ochre.” The power, intensity and sheer believability of those instruments hovering between the NEATs – not to mention the embouchure of the player modulating the timbre of the didgeridoo wildly being made so overtly apparent – was literally breath-taking.
Equally splendid was the way the combination portrayed the vocal prowess of Alison Krauss and the superb accompaniment of her band, Union Station on the album Paper Airplane. Her voice was as sweet and detailed as could be, yet delicate and full of emotive energy. It was also communicative and extraordinarily sensual, given an appropriate song, such as “My Love Follows Where You Go.”
The ability of the SuperUniti to generate an emotional connection with a performer was also demonstrated with its rendition of tracks by psychobilly act, Webb Wilder and the Beatnecks. It truly conveyed the Texas bar room energy of this extraordinarily tight band with ease and conviction. And it certainly conveyed the pathetic humour of “Nashville Bum” (“I look good in cowboy clothes… and I sing through my nose…”) The SU and NEATs truly relished the rhythmic drive of the bass guitar and drums, conveying all their urgency and drive, topping it off with the abrasive leading edge attack of Wilder’s guitar. It capably demonstrated that it could instantly transport the listener from his cosy country lounge to a rowdy Texas road-house. (If it could change one’s cup of tea into a bottle of Michelob, the transition would be faultless.)
I am gradually realising the true appeal of these new all-in-ones. I have been using a NaimUniti and, more recently, a UnitiQute as the mainstay of my office system driving Neat Iota loudspeakers. Both have been and are excellent in such a role: either will accept the input from my PC soundcard and iDock along withUSB connections and a network connection giving UPnP access to music and internet radio. I can see the appeal of these devices as a replacement for a regular hi-fi set-up, and not just in a ‘second’ system, especially now that their performance has been elevated to such musically rewarding levels. While the SuperUniti would not be capable of seeing off my regular full-size Naim/NEAT system, it certainly would not be completely embarrassed put alongside it. I doubt I could have said the same a decade ago when all-in-ones were decidedly the poor relation of ‘proper’ high fidelity. With the arrival of the SuperUniti that is most certainly no longer the case.