Naim UnitiLite all in one system Review
The latest member of the Uniti family does everything the bigger units do for a lot less cash. Ed Selley is struggling to find the catch.
There was a time when Naim Audio could be thought of as conservative with a small c. Each device had a single function- CD player, amp etc- and it was at its best kept together as a single make system connected by the DIN connections that the company fitted in preference to the RCA connections used in the main elsewhere. New technology was very carefully evaluated before the company took the plunge- CD had been around eight years before Naim released their first and there were other idiosyncrasies too. Digital outputs did not feature on any CD player until recently.
A few years ago though, the company started a faintly remarkable change in design outlook. Like all processes, it started innocuously enough. The SUPERNAIT integrated was released and to the surprise of almost everyone, it was fitted with a quartet of digital inputs. From there, the surprises just kept coming. Naim released a DAC- an interesting decision for a company who weren’t fitting their players with digital outputs- and a hard drive server. This then precipitated the move into streaming audio. The company now has one of the largest (if not the largest) streaming portfolios out there.
Alongside, these changes, Naim also launched a complete line of products that were an equally radical departure from the company’s traditional position. The Uniti line of all-in-one systems has grown from the eponymously titled unit to a complete range of products. What you see here is the latest member of the family, the £1,600 UnitiLite and from the off, it asks some interesting questions of the model hierarchy. The Uniti2 comprising CD, media streamer, internet radio, digital inputs, analogue inputs and an integrated amplifier is £2,850. The UnitiLite comprises CD, media streamer, internet radio, digital inputs, analogue inputs and an integrated amplifier... for £1,600. Is this a genuine example of someone fitting a quart into a pint pot?
AVForums does not award Reference badges to products very often and no product reviewed in the subjective methodology that stereo audio is evaluated has yet received one. As the decision is subjective, I will do my best to explain why I feel the UnitiLite deserves this status.
Firstly; this is the best all-in-one system I have encountered under £2,000- and over the last two years, I have tried a great many of them. As a combination of performance, features and user experience, it is absolutely and unequivocally the best device of its type that you can buy today. Furthermore, over the time that I have been listening to the UnitiLite, I am increasingly convinced that if I wanted to put together a group of electronics that does everything this one box does for £1,600, I am not sure that I can think of a group of components that would be meaningfully better. Sure- if you get rid of the CD player, the task is easier but then it wouldn’t be the same as the Naim and would still come nowhere near the slickness of the UnitiLite over n-Stream.
I’ve not been in the industry so long as to pretend that £1,600 is anything other than a considerable amount of money. Even so, the combination of features, functionality and performance this British built unit offers is exceptional and has to be seen as impressive value. There is also the ability of Naim to look after its customers and their equipment for decades in some cases which hopefully points to a very long life. If you are looking for a truly exceptional audio system, start looking here.
The UnitiLite is the fourth member of the Uniti family to appear and the smallest model to be built into full width casework. Naim casework variation is something that could rival train spotting for an activity to cure insomnia in the less obsessed, so as briefly as I can summarise, the UnitiLite fits into the slimline Naim casework used in the i and XS Series rather than the larger “Range” casework of the main models. In turn the front panel is finished with the “standard” finish rather than the brushed finish of the XS and higher models. Clear as mud?
This slimline chassis is full to the brim with facilities. As mentioned above , the UnitiLite features a CD player, 192kHz capable media streamer that functions over Ethernet and wireless, internet radio, digital inputs, a USB input for storage media and your iDevice (inclusive of latest Lightning fit models), a pair of analogue inputs and if you have a hankering for a real radio, you can specify a DAB/FM module for an extra £245. This is all given volume courtesy of an internal 50w amplifier.
For something that does as much as this, the front of the UnitiLite is impressively free of clutter. Moving left to right, there is the CD mechanism with USB, headphone and auxiliary input underneath, the central section with the all important illuminated logo and on the right, a display and nine control buttons. These buttons have mixed functionality depending on what you are asking the unit to do at the time but in use it all seems fairly logical. The reason that Naim can be as sparing with the buttons as they are is twofold. The first is that the supplied remote handset has rather more buttons and unlocks more functionality. The second is n-Stream.
n-Stream is the Naim iDevice control ap and is available for free via the ap store. It is designed to control the entire range of streaming devices but comes into its own with the Uniti’s. As well as allowing you to browse your streamed media and internet radio stations, the ap can be used to select inputs, control the CD player, control volume and set alarms. If you have an iDevice, it is unlikely you will ever go near the remote control let alone the front panel. Sadly n-Stream at the time of writing does not have an Android equivalent but hopefully this will be addressed in due course.
The digital side of the UnitiLite is described as a version of the basic platform that has been used in the bulk of Naim digital products since the DAC broke cover. This is a Burr Brown unit that is then partnered with DSP’s and filters of varying complexity depending on how high up the Naim food chain you are at the time. This is capable of handling data streams of up to 32bit 192kHz in the case of the streamer and coaxial digital inputs and means that the UnitiLite is well covered should you get into high resolution audio. It also supports ALAC which is useful for anyone migrating from iTunes. CD playback is limited to CD and CD-R discs and doesn’t support MP3 discs but given you can stream the same files over a network this is hardly the end of the world.
With the feature set as comprehensive as it is, there aren’t many ways you could improve the UnitiLite. The lack of a USB input suitable for attaching a computer is a partial oversight but a USB/SPDif convertor would allow a coaxial input to function in the same way. By the same token, AirPlay would be a more flexible iDevice connection but this is still not commonly found on more specialist equipment and Naim has offered some feature upgrades in the past.
One feature that might be more perplexing is the lack of standby. Historically, Naim equipment was intended to be powered on all the time and many owners still do but at this less “committed” end of the market, I feel it is something of an omission. The UnitiLite has a rocker type switch on the rear panel and that is your lot. Once it is on, the display can be made to power off after a period but ultimately the unit is drawing current all the time. Given how many other challenges Naim has overcome to build these units, I am sure that they could overcome their objections to a standby mode.
The amplifier is a 50 watt unit and unlike many other all-in-ones (including the very excellent Elipson Music Centre we reviewed recently) Naim has made the decision to stick with a conventional class A/B amplifier for their products rather than move to class D. Given the company’s heritage in this area the decision makes reasonable sense and despite not having a single vent or grille anywhere on the casework, it barely ever gets warm let alone hot. 50 watts is about average in this category but historically Naim amps seem to have output beyond their figures so in reality there should be no problems with most speakers you are likely to connect to it.
The overall fit and finish is good too. Naim equipment is never especially visually dramatic and compared to the Elipson, the UnitiLite is rather subdued but the more time you spend with it, the more sense it starts to make. The casework, is solid, well damped and exactingly assembled. Naim has been fanatical about minimising the effects of outside interference on electronics and the UnitiLite has many of the treatments and applications that is fitted to the more expensive equipment.
The details are excellent as well. Little things like the feel of the front panel buttons help create the feeling that even though you are playing in the “shallow end” of the Naim range, this is still a piece of high end equipment. The only real area where there is even a sense of any form of economy is the CD mechanism. Taken in isolation, it looks perfectly ok but it has been fitted in place of the distinctive “bendy” transport used in the CD players and the larger Uniti 2. There probably isn’t the space to fit this mechanism into the UnitiLite but it makes the little unit feel fractionally less “special” than the bigger versions. Another issue that is shared with the other Naim streamers in that the display is a little hard to read at a distance but as the information is relayed over n-Stream this is more of a minor niggle than a critical failing.
Unlike most of the Naim range, the back of UnitiLite shouldn’t been too alarming to a newcomer to the brand. Most of the connections are entirely conventional- even the coaxial inputs are RCA rather than the company’s preferred BNC. There is a solitary DIN plug on the rear panel and this is the pre-out. This is a perfect match for a Naim power amp (of which there are several) but less useful for anyone thinking about a 2.1 speaker setup. The speaker connections are designed for 4mm plugs but Naim supplies block plugs for bare wire connections.
As an all-in-one, the UnitiLite was fairly self contained in terms of setup. Placing it on my network was simple and it found my UPnP servers without incident. I used a variety of speakers with the Naim to see what happened at various price point. I kicked off with a pair of Mordaunt Short Mezzo 1’s which are comparatively “cheap.” I then tried it with a pair of My Audio Design 1920s’ that are roughly £1,000 before attaching my “main” speakers, a pair of Neat Momentum 4i’s which are a rather more challenging electrical load and at £3,225 are a bit more expensive than you might normally use with a £1,600 all-in-one.
For listening, I mainly used FLAC files ranging from 16/44.1kHz to 24/192kHz but also tried ALAC and naturally tried CD as well. I used my iPhone 4 for control and via the front port and tried a variety of digital sources including a Sky HD box and a Cambridge Audio iD100 iPod transport.
Starting with the Mordaunt Short’s, the Naim is impressive from the outset. Historically Naim equipment had a slightly “marmite” quality to it. If you liked what it did, very little else would do but it was fair to say that it wasn’t a sound for everyone. More recently, the sonic signature of the brand has changed slightly and the UnitiLite has an incredibly even handed quality that is exceptionally easy to listen to.
There are still some aspects of the performance that are definitively Naim though. With something up-tempo like Django Django the UnitiLite is effortlessly fast and agile. Timing is a hugely subjective area but spend any time with the Naim and you will be given a masterclass in how it works. Everything starts and stops with exceptional speed and agility. Bass is punchy and detailed but it never has a moment of bloat or overhang. With anything other than Gregorian chant music or something similarly free of tempo, there is an element to the Naim’s presentation that it is exceptionally engaging.
Over this rhythmic ability, the UnitiLite has impressive tonality. Like the other units that make use of this digital chipset, the presentation is slightly “dark.” This should not be confused with dullness or even warmth but there is a complete lack of brightness or hardness when the UnitiLite is pushed or given less than perfect recordings. The Naim manages to sound impressively real with voices and instruments and also produces a relatively impressive soundstage which has never been an absolute priority for Naim.
Like other devices capable of replaying high resolution material, the Naim sounds fantastic with these big digital files. Whether high res sounds good because it is very well recorded or because there really is a benefit to the larger files is an argument for another day. The ability of the UnitiLite to handle high res audio is no bad thing in terms of future development though. Give it a decent CD like Martha Tilson’s Machines of Love and Grace and it is clear than that the optical drive of the UnitiLite is not a poor relation though.
The review sample wasn’t fitted with the DAB/FM module. This wasn’t too much of an issue however because the internet radio functionality is extremely good. The system is powered by vTuner and the quality of the major stations is the easy equal of them replayed over DAB. A unique feature of the Naim streamers is a category known as Naim’s choice which is a handpicked list of high quality stations from around the world. Some of these stations are excellent and a welcome addition to the list of “known goods.”
Moving up the speaker price points, the same basic behavioural traits of the Naim stay in place but it also shows that it is capable of handling more expensive options. The Neats do begin to show up the absolute limits of the internal amp but this is hardly a surprise and the Naim hangs on for longer and goes rather louder than you might expect. If you were buying a UnitiLite and looking to buy speakers at the same time, you can be confident that the results with cost effective speakers will be great and only get better up to and including speakers at the £1,500-1,750 point.
The more time I spent with the Naim, the clearer it became that this isn’t simply a great all in one system, but a fantastic piece of hi-fi full stop. My “full time” system is also Naim and costs roughly four times as much as the UnitiLite. Despite this, all the aspects that appeal about my main system are present and correct in the UnitiLite. It doesn’t go as loud, dig as deep or have quite the same sense of life but it is still one of the most musically satisfying pieces of equipment I’ve used in a while.
What is equally impressive is the experience of using the Naim day to day. Historically, when you chose British hifi, you tacitly accepted that you did without some bells and whistles in the pursuit of sound quality. In the case of the UnitiLite, when used with n-Stream, I can safely say that the experience is as slick and cohesive as any product I have encountered. The iPhone version of n-Stream is impressive and I’m led to believe that the iPad version is better still.
If you are interested in buying the Naim UnitiLite,
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Suggested price: £1,600
Reviewed 25th November, 2012 by Ed Selley
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