Naim mu-so All-in-One Streaming System Review
Naim is well out of its comfort zone with its latest product, will it sink or swim?
Naim mu-so - What is it?As a profession, journalists (review journalists in particular) tend to overuse the word ‘bold ’- and to be clear I’m am not excluding myself from this. When we look at this objectively after the event, the use of the b word suddenly seems less valid. A television with ‘bold’ styling is generally still a screen with a surround (and in case you think I’m picking on the AV category in particular - a ‘bold’ supercar is still generally a low slung device designed to stretch necks and remove knickers regardless of whether the engine is petrol, diesel or electric). If the product in question bears any relation to what went before, it probably isn’t that bold.
With particular regards to Naim audio, ‘bold’ has been trotted out a fair few times over the last ten years. As Naim has a very particular way of making systems and even more specific ways of connecting them, any deviation was seen as ‘bold.’ A DAC was ‘bold’ for a company that previously didn’t even fit digital outputs to CD players. Streamers were ‘bold’ for a company that waited a decade to build a CD player. Then the move to all-in-one systems was ‘bold’ because it moved away from the very specific roles that Naim equipment had until now. Ultimately though, all of these devices look like Naim equipment, interact with other bits of Naim equipment and are built in the same way and in the same place as Naim equipment. Their boldness is relative.
With this in mind, what you see here might actually qualify for classification as ‘bold.’ The mu-so is a product that is completely standalone. It uses technology and ideas that have not been seen in any piece of Naim equipment up to this point and is assembled in a different location to the rest of the range. In styling terms, the only existing point of reference is an amplifier that costs as much as a house. When it goes on sale through retail channels that have never seen a Naim product up until now, it will effectively be judged for what it is, not where it is from. Can mu-so be bold and brilliant?
Nain mu-so - Design and ConnectionsIn classification terms, mu-so is an all-in-one system. Unlike any member of the Uniti family which are also classified as such, the mu-so is genuinely standalone because in a first for Naim, the speakers are part of the design. This is a fairly big jump for Naim as even though they make speakers, the very ethos of mu-so put it in a different category to anything they have made before. Every other product can be used as the basis for a Naim system that will take you up to the company’s Statement pre/power. Now, I don’t believe that every Uniti product (or even a majority of them) gets augmented at all, let alone to the lofty heights of the high end but the fact remains you can. The mu-so is entirely standalone with no upgrade path. It can’t be judged on what you can turn it in to only what it is.
And what it is, is a 24/192kHz capable streaming client with internet radio, AirPlay, Spotify Connect, Apt-X Bluetooth with USB, optical and analogue inputs. These are then passed to six 75 watt digital amplifiers each driving a custom made drive unit. While there are six drivers and no small amount of power, the total radiating area is not that high and to this end the mu-so makes use of a bass port that vents to the lower left hand side of the enclosure and a 32 bit DSP to help fine tune the performance of the mu-so to be as close to Naim’s ideal regardless of volume or location.
Like a number of systems breaking cover at the moment, the mu-so is something designed for a life outside physical formats. There is no CD provision and even the DAB/FM functionality of the more conventional units has been removed. The mu-so is almost entirely non-functional without a network (wired or wireless) and a smartphone or tablet. The good news is that this smartphone or tablet can now be Android as the updated app is finally cross platform after years of being Apple only. This is slightly ironic as the mu-so will become the first Naim product to be sold in Apple stores but at the very least, the Naim is more happily open platform than similar family products up until now.
How come it doesn’t look like other Naim equipment?
Unless you have been holed up in a bomb shelter for the bulk of the 21st century, you are probably aware that Naim equipment is black with green illuminations. The mu-so is neither of these things being predominantly silver with white illuminations. This means that it really only has one visual stablemate in the whole range and you’ll need a pair of decent binoculars to see it from where the mu-so sits. The white lights, use of acrylic and the large sunken control are all shared with the no-holds-barred flagship Statement pre-power. As you can have 156 mu-sos for the price of a Statement, the number of people who will be shopping for both is likely to be small.
This shouldn’t be taken to mean that the mu-so looks anything other than rather lovely though. Naim normally manages to photo their equipment in such a way as to look seriously cool in a minimalist sort of way. In the case of the mu-so I think the photos make it look it larger than it is and don’t always pick up on the details. In the flesh, the proportions are happier, the general level of fit and finish is extremely good and touches like the acrylic base (that allows the product to ‘float’ above what it is sat on) really do work. The control on the top panel is truly lovely too. The touch panel section is responsive and easy to read (and similar in responsiveness to the one on the Focal soundbar suggesting this may be a logical area of parts sharing) while the rotating outer volume control feels truly excellent.
As a result, the mu-so is a very lovely thing to have around and is very pleasant to use. Even the remote is attractive which, given that on devices like this it exists solely as a means of making it do something when your phone or tablet is flat, is a nice touch. The aesthetic is something that works well in a number of locations and doesn’t require you to be a Naim devotee to appreciate. A selection of different coloured grilles will also be available too.
As a result, the mu-so is a very lovely thing to have around and is very pleasant to use.
Naim mu-so - How do you set it up?As a self-contained system the mu-so was tested in some different rooms in the house but consistently on my home network reading files from my NAS drive. AirPlay was tested via iPad3 while Bluetooth was given a shakedown by my Nexus 5 and T530 ThinkPad which is Apt-x capable. The material used included the usual collection of lossless and high res FLAC, Spotify and internet radio and some general PC audio via Bluetooth.
Naim mu-so - Any drawbacks?Generally, the Muso is simplicity itself to use and place and the only negatives are minor. The input board is tucked under the right hand side (in the mirror location to the bass port) and this makes accessing them ‘on the fly’ a little tricky and depending on where you place the mu-so, the top mounted display might not be immediately visible but given that all information feeds back to the ap, this is hardly the end of the world.
The single digital input of the mu-so limits the usefulness in a TV context but I suspect this is a category that Naim is leaving to sister brand Focal. While the mu-so has some dimensions in common with a ‘fat’ soundbar, it is unlikely to be a first choice used in this manner. Of more interest going forward is whether Naim can convert mu-so customers into true aficionados of the brand given that doing so means starting from scratch (although the mu-so can easily move to another room in this instance). I genuinely don’t know the answer to this at the moment but I worry that the buy-in might prove a little high for many mu-so customers. I’m happy to be proved wrong.
Nain mu-so - Sound Quality
How does the mu-so sound with streamed files?
Putting the mu-so on a network is simplicity itself. Thanks to the same facility that Monitor Audio uses in the A100, an Apple device can be persuaded to ‘port’ the network settings across to the mu-so and from there you are on the network. Once on there it proved entirely and constantly stable in all locations. More importantly, the Naim sounds far, far bigger than it has any right to. I’m not always a fan of processing an audio signal to make it do something that physics should be baulking at but the effect in the mu-so is unnervingly natural and at times startlingly effective. With Carbon Based Lifeform’s Supercede, the first heavyweight impact of the bass is just that- heavyweight. The impact and scale that the mu-so has is radically in advance of what a speaker of this size ‘should’ have but it never sounds wrong.
Instead, this scale is used to give plenty of bandwidth and space that means that voices and instruments are uncongested, weighty and believable. The high res recording of Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo is something that manages to sound ‘right’ and also enjoyable. Not ‘enjoyable for a lifestyle system’ or ‘good for under a grand’ but unambiguously and consistently entertaining. Neither is the mu-so short of grunt. In the time that the review sample has been here, I have had to push it past the halfway point once. The 75 watt per driver feels entirely believable in use.
It is not a sound that really works as a background noise though. The mu-so is constantly striving to grab your attention and be the focal point of a room. It is never harsh or forward but there is a sense that as a hifi manufacturer Naim has less interest in something that purrs quietly through ‘nice’ music as it does giving you a performance that will be the only thing on your mind. The mu-so might not look entirely like a traditional Naim product but in this regard it certainly behaves like one.
The impact and scale that the mu-so has is radically in advance of what a speaker of this size ‘should’ have but it never sounds wrong.
How does the mu-so sound with compressed audio?
This has typically not been the strongest area for Naim equipment as it tends to show up the limitations of less than perfectly recorded material - much as I admire the diligence with which Naim assembles their own playlist of internet radio stations, I suspect it is as much to do with encouraging them to stay away from low bitrate ones. The good news is that the mu-so is happier using its Spotify Connect and internet radio abilities than its bigger brethren. Whether this is a facet of the DSP aspect of the mu-so making a silk purse from a sow’s ear is unclear but the Naim is able to make use of its additional inputs and do so in a way that is perfectly listenable under all but the most extreme provocation.
A key part of the mu-so that makes is so effective across the various inputs is the latest version of the n-stream app. This has never been anything other than pretty slick but the latest version is fast, bombproof and totally and utterly logical to use. The new gui can have different backgrounds selected and should look good regardless of your setup preferences. The Android version was only tested on a phone rather than a tablet but it also looks excellent in the new format too.
- Exceptional sound from a relatively small box
- Handsome appearance
- Useful facilities
- Not ideal for background music
- Fairly large footprint
- No upgrade path
Naim mu-so All-in-One Streaming System Review
Should I buy one?
Clever lifestyle audio products are now very thick on the ground and the mu-so pitches into a field where the hi-fi credentials of the brand that makes it matter less than sheer shelf appeal and the aptitude of the design. As a Naim user I appreciate the backstory that lead up to this point but a customer browsing through the electronics wing of a large John Lewis probably won’t care.
What they will care about is that the mu-so is a seriously capable product that delivers on industrial design, features and sound. You can have no interest in the brand whatsoever and still appreciate that this is a clever and extremely effective piece of equipment that sounds bigger than it has any right to and can be as effective with high res FLAC as is it with Spotify. I don’t know how many mu-so customers will move to the higher echelons of Naim but I do know that they are buying a very fine product regardless. In this case bold is beautiful.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £895.00
Ease of Use9
Value for Money8
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