There’s an old story from the 1950s about President Eisenhower touring one of the first rooms to house a large mainframe computer. The electronic behemoth rang and whistled and flashed, and the head computer scientist challenged the President to ask it a question, any question at all. Eisenhower thought for a moment, then said, “Computer, is there a god?” More bells and whistles and flashing, and out spat a card with the computer’s answer: “There is now.”
Naim Audio’s Uniti ($3795 USD) hasn’t quite been sent from the heavens, but it marks an evolution -- and a revolution -- in audio engineering. Its acceptance of and reliance on computer technology, as well as its complete refutation of the idea that separate components make the best audio system, mark a sea change in high-end audio.
The Uniti combines Naim’s Nait 5i integrated amplifier and CD5i CD player, adds an FM tuner (no AM), and is enabled for Internet access, opening up the listening possibilities to a computer-based music server and Internet Radio.
Were this all it could handle, it would be impressive enough, but the Uniti is just getting started -- it’s outfitted to connect to a home network and play audio files stored on UPnP drives, and also plays audio files stored on USB memory sticks.
The Uniti measures a standard 23.25”W x 9.5”H x 19.75”D and weighs 25 pounds. It retains Naim’s trademark look and sophisticated styling: subtly textured, sharply cornered black metal. In the left third of the faceplate is Naim’s trademark CD drawer: to open it, you pinch a handle and pull it out in an arc. Below that are a mini-stereo input (it accepts analog and digital plugs), a mini-headphone socket, and a USB port. In the center is Naim’s logo, which glows green when the Uniti is powered up, and on the right are the display, and a pad of buttons that nearly repeat the functionality of the remote control.
It’s hardly surprising that any Naim product embodies high-end design standards. Their aesthetic speaks class, and imparts the look and feel of quality. Many power amps weigh twice as much as the Uniti (you can put a brick in a Sony receiver and it, too, would be heavy). But the Uniti is rock solid: I could have sworn it weighed more than its 25 pounds. Its rubber feet make it nearly impossible to budge even slightly, and I can’t imagine it being the slightest bit susceptible to vibration.
Of course, the foundation of the Uniti is the Nait 5i, an integrated amplifier that has remained at the top of its class through many iterations; its 50Wpc into 8 ohms or 90Wpc into 4 ohms should be more than enough to power all but the most ornery speakers. Naim supplies European-style speaker inputs that, in the spirit of safety, accept only banana plugs (no spades, lugs, or bare wire allowed).
Also on the rear panel are the power-cord socket and main power switch. This switch is the only way to turn the Uniti off, so it must remain accessible to the user. Also on the back are sockets for the supplied WiFi antenna or a network cable, and an iPod dock connection that runs off Naim’s n-Link iPod connector cable ($150). There are two five-pin DIN sockets for Naim preamps (the Uniti lacks a dedicated phono stage), subwoofer outputs, a line out, a socket for an FM aerial (not supplied), three standard analog and four digital inputs, and a few other features that are unique to Naim systems.
The Uniti isn’t a simple plug-and-play component, but initial setup took about 30 minutes without my having to read too far into the manual (available online). There are a lot of settings to scroll through via the remote control, but if most users are like me, they’ll find that few of the Uniti’s default settings will need to be changed, the notable exceptions being configuring the network connection and adjusting the front-panel display. More ambitious users can customize the Uniti as much as is imaginable. There are ten input options alone, as well as options for the speaker (subwoofer) and headphone outputs (the headphones respond to their own volume setting, separate from the loudspeakers), and options for customizing CD playback, such as Auto Play and Auto Select. You can even reprogram the keys on the remote, a task that seems reserved for those whose obsessive-compulsiveness might need professional attention.
The Uniti was remarkably skilled at finding the wireless network in my home, a process that, outside my home, is almost always mysterious and too often hit-or-miss. Usually I get to “Select Network” and hope for the best. The Uniti obliterated any frustrations by performing as expected, simply requesting my network password (entered via the remote), and connecting when confirmed.
The display can be programmed to illuminate for anywhere from ten seconds to an hour. Heat -- of which the Uniti generates a significant amount -- is bad for the display, so keeping the display on for more than an hour at a stretch would be unwise. Fortunately, the blank display comes back to life whenever the remote is used (or simply if you press the Disp key). The remote is essential to the Uniti’s operation, even if the buttons on the front panel perform the same tasks: the Uniti, meant to be engaged from a distance, isn’t really a hands-on machine. Thankfully, Naim has designed a slim, sleek, solid plastic remote that is substantial and weighty without being the least bit clunky, and that balances comfortably in the hand.
The Uniti took the place of my NAD C 325BEE integrated amplifier, the Oppo Digital DV-970H DVD player I’ve been using to play CDs, the Tivoli radio I’ve been using as a tuner, my NAD iPod dock, and all the interconnects that link that system. It also at least postponed my desire to acquire a standalone Internet table radio. Consider that: The Uniti upgraded and replaced four beloved components and their cables -- and added the riches of the Internet -- in one fell swoop. And it has the ability to change with the changing digital times with features I didn’t readily need to use.
Sound and functionality
At this point, the reputation of Naim’s Nait line of integrated amplifiers is beyond reproach. Silky-smooth throughout the entire audioband, they’re responsible for the captivatingly clean and endlessly satisfying musical reproduction delivered by the Uniti, whatever input was selected. The NAD C 325BEE is a respectable, workmanlike amp more admired for its bang for the buck than for its nuance, subtlety, or refinement. These qualities, however, are exactly what the Nait 5i is known for. On the other hand, it costs three to four times the NAD’s price. But even on its own, the Nait might just be worth it.
The Nait 5i brought out the best from whatever it played. I loaded disc 3 of King of the Blues, which covers B.B. King’s career from his rawly recorded early tracks through the slick, heavily produced work of the 1980s and early ’90s (MCA MCAD-D4-10677). “Chains and Things,” however, comes from his commercial and, arguably, artistic apotheosis in the mid- to late 1960s, and in the tray of the CD5i section of the Uniti, there was clear separation among B.B.’s stinging embellishments, his controlled, slightly desperate vocals, and the bedrock backbeat laid down by his band. My reference speakers are a set of B&W 303s -- well-balanced bookshelf monitors that don’t go terribly low (due to obvious size limitations) but do exceptionally well with voices, and generally get the midrange just right. The combo of CD5i and Nait 5i was able to go just a little bit lower than my NAD-Oppo pairing, and took me a bit by surprise. “The Thrill Is Gone” delivered drama and gravitas, the strings accounting for the emotional highs, while the slightly richer, fuller, more enveloping bass kept B.B.’s lament grounded in a reality that was all too present. Using the Uniti to play CDs gave me a top-of-the-line feeling I never quite get from my solid but entry-level gear. The proof was not just in my mind but in my ears.
These days, much of my CD playing is done for product auditions. I confess that the listening I do for pleasure is almost always to Apple Lossless files via my 80GB iPod. Hooking up an MP3 player to an integrated amplifier has become common practice (the front-panel audio input offered with the NAD C 325BEE was the main reason I upgraded from the NAD 320). I jacked into the Uniti with a simple Belkin mini-to-mini patch cord, put the player on Shuffle, and let it rip. Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky,” from Dark Side of the Moon (CD, Capitol C2 81479), was resolved and detailed, and its bits and pieces -- the soaring, moaning voice, the delicate piano, the drums -- added up to a great, soulful whole. The Uniti dug deeper than the professional sheen Floyd is famous for; it plumbed the music’s depths.
“New York State of Mind” may be Billy Joel’s greatest, most versatile song. Its fine craftsmanship resists oversinging, and Joel’s own version was brash and knowing, the Uniti able to get just a little wistful along with the singer-songwriter. The Uniti’s spatial cues were right on target: each musical element -- Joel’s voice out front, the drums giving the song height, the sax first recessed and then coming forward -- was clearly delineated and crisp without being antiseptic.
The Uniti’s front-panel input behaves as any other: the iPod was the source, and the device itself controlled its internal organization. Shuffle play can be as seductive as an online session of World of Warcraft, the hours vaporizing in a cloud of random segues, the listener hanging on for another three or four minutes, over and over, to find out what might come next. Unfortunately, without the benefit of a dock connection, the iPod inevitably runs its battery down. The Uniti’s n-Link cable charges the iPod, but also takes over navigation. You can’t search through your playlists, tracks, albums, and songs as you would with the iPod’s click wheel, but instead you can use the Uniti’s handset and display to monitor your progress. I was disappointed, however, when I couldn’t seem to retain the random sequence I’d begun while away from home. I could Shuffle songs in total, but I couldn’t Shuffle by playlist, at least not without starting over. I would have preferred to avoid repeating songs I’d already heard.
CDs may be disappearing from my life, daily replaced by a larger iTunes database, but the feature that makes the Uniti a revolutionary product is its ability to stream Internet Radio. And not just stream it, mind you, but stream it in the sort of high-quality sound you experience in its more “traditional” modes of music making.
Once the Uniti is connected to a network, wireless or otherwise, the world is suddenly available at the tip of a thumb. Navigating with the Uniti’s handset is plain, simple, and straightforward. The iRadio menu offers Genre, Location, Podcasts by Location, and Podcasts by Genre. Searching by Location funnels to Continent and Region, then to Country, then by Stations within that country: conventional radio stations that broadcast over the Internet as well as Internet-only offerings. Japan, Poland, Nigeria, Argentina, Nebraska -- you name it. There are more than 300 choices in New York State alone. The mind boggles.
I jumped from the BBC to techno from Tokyo, to “Smoke on the Water” and similar rock classics on Cyber FM, to the Texas Tornados on Tucson’s KXCI. Internet Radio is not for those inclined to attention-deficit disorder. (The Uniti’s 40 presets will help you focus your choices.) The sound was as reliable as FM or CD, better than adequate in even the most obscure case, and a stake through the heart of terrestrial broadcasting. My Tivoli AM/FM tuner is officially on notice. Come to think of it, so is my TV. Who has time to watch television when thousands and thousands of songs and voices are available to be uncovered by the Uniti?
Not only does Naim innovate with the excellence of its integrated amplifier and CD technology, their engineers have delivered a remarkably versatile all-in-one integrated amplifier system that suits the age of consolidation as well as the age of the Internet. The Uniti is upscale -- in appearance, in sound, and, let’s be fair, in price.
To spend $3795 on a Uniti is a lifestyle choice, a cliché commonly misapplied but here apt. The Uniti is not for the casual listener. It simply has too much to offer not to be used and loved for all it can do, no matter how attractive or appealing its package, or how enticing the idea of a single component taking the place of four or five boxes and their attending cables.
The Uniti, a pair of speakers designed for 50Wpc of power, and a set of solid speaker cables terminated in banana plugs, and you have a state-of-the-art sound system that begs to be a way of life.
I’ve owned power amps and preamps, rack systems and receivers, turntables and CD changers, and more radios than I can remember. The Naim Uniti, however, is a component for listening in 2010, with an eye and an ear to 2020. Sure, it plays CDs and plays them well, but the Uniti’s real benefits -- its integration with the Apple iPod and its ability to stream Internet Radio -- render everything else redundant at best, and at worst, obsolete.
. . Jeff Stockton
Naim Uniti All-in-One Audio Player
Price: $3795 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Naim Audio Ltd.
Salisbury SP1 2LN
Phone: + 44 (0)1722-426600
Fax: + 44 (0)871-230-10-12