Naim Mu-So Qb Review
Can Naim make their philosophy work at £600?
What is the Naim Mu-So Qb?The Mu-So Qb is an evolution of the Mu-So all in one system. Naim has taken the core functionality of the Mu-So and reduced it in size and price. While this sounds simple, it has involved some significant revisions to the way it is designed and built. It pitches into a keenly contested sector of the market where excellent products like the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air and the Geneva AeroSphère already make a very strong showing.
The Qb has some wider aspirations resting on it too. Prior to the Mu-So being launched, Naim calculated that they added between 3 and 4,000 new customers a year. Mu-So has added to this exponentially, with nearer 20,000 new Naim customers as a result. Natually, only a small percentage of these people will augment their Mu-So with Naim range equipment but even so, it represents a significant growing of the business. By hitting a new price increment, Naim hopes to improve these numbers still further.
Of course, if this was easy, everyone would be doing it. The Mu-So Qb needs to appeal to new customers, compete against well thought out rivals and still sound and behave in a way that leaves people wanting to listen to more members of the Naim family and hopefully consider buying more of the company's equipment in the future. This is a fairly hefty set of challenges for a little square box and the Qb needs to deliver- can it meet expectations?
SpecificationsThe Qb is very clearly a descendent of the original Mu-So and manages to retain the functionality of the larger model. This means that the Qb supports Bluetooth, AirPlay, Spotify Connect, Tidal and Internet Radio services- including the new BBC HLS streams. It can then access a music library over UPnP and sample rates of up to 24/192kHz (via wired connection- it tops out at 48kHz over wireless, presumably for stability reasons). This is a very significant specification sheet for an all-in-one speaker and it serves two purposes. It means that judged against its immediate competition, the Qb looks a very competitive proposition and also ensures that if you have a Naim streaming system and add a Qb to function in another room, it will mirror the functionality of the main system. The only thing it can't do is play DSD files but then again, no product of this nature can as far as I am aware.
Naim has also retained the single optical input, 3.5mm analogue stereo input and a USB connection that supports direct connection of an iDevice and USB sticks. Network access can be made using an ethernet or wireless connection and in both cases, the process is aided by a multi colour status light on the rear that will give you a reasonable idea of what the device is up to.
This means that choosing between the Qb and the original Mu-So on specs alone is largely pointless. The differences are all to be found in the form factor and the audio hardware of the two products and here they differ considerably. Underneath the exterior of the Mu-So, it mixes some fairly sophisticated use of DSP and multiple drivers with a chassis made in part of MDF and a long slim conventional bass port. This is simply not an option with the Qb. The bass port would take up too much space and MDF won't work effectively for the enclosure.
To this end, the Qb swaps the bass port for a pair of passive radiators on the sides which augment the low end extension without taking up as much vital real estate. The other significant change is the use of a moulded glass filled polymer chassis to mount the drivers in. This looks a little like the head of Marvin the Android from the original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy but is immensely rigid and takes up a great deal less space than an equivalent MDF version. Into this frame are mounted the passive radiators, a single bass driver, a pair of midrange drivers and a pair of tweeters.
Each driver has its own class D amp which is mounted in a single large board on the rear plate of the chassis along with the decoding and control equipment. The result is a very tidy use of internal space. Technically the Qb is actively producing sound on three sides of the unit but the radiators have very little active output, serving only to augment the bass. This is helped in no small part by the sole control (save for a network reset button) on the Qb being the large integrated display and control on the top of the chassis which is shared with the Mu-So- and the flagship Statement preamp. This allows for volume and input selection from a single point on the unit.
This is a very comprehensively specified unit but something has had to give, in this case, the remote handset. This is available as an option but I'd suggest living without it at least initially to see how you get on. Like other Naim streaming products, the Mu-So uses a bespoke app which is available for both iOS and Android and is excellent on both platforms. There is the standard caveat that starting the app and applying control is never as quick as simply pointing a remote at the device but if you are able to reach it easily, you can make a very quick volume adjustment using the main control.
DesignThe Qb takes most of its design cues from the Mu-So but the end result is- dare I say it- better looking. The Mu-So is a device that looks better in the metal than in the photos but the Qb takes the design aesthetic, partners it with genuinely pleasing proportions and the result is gorgeous. The Qb is taller than the Mu-So but still less than 30cm tall and wide. This makes the controller on the top more of a focal point and gives the Naim the air of a beautifully finished science fiction prop. The acrylic bass is also lifted from the Mu-So and like the bigger unit, depending on the elevation, it makes it look like the Naim is floating. If you live in a world of Georgian furniture and listed buildings, it might not work but for almost everyone else, this is a fantastic piece of industrial design.
As the control app will be the other main point of contact with the Qb, the good news is that this is a fine piece of software. Navigating around the functionality of the Qb is fast, self explanatory and should be no issue for new customers or existing streamer users adding it to the roster. As well as standard points of control, the app offers sound processing control of the device as well as illumination levels. You can also change the app background colour and order different colour grills for the unit itself.
Any drawbacks?The Naim is well specified and well built for the price but compared to some rivals it can look a little small. Compared to the Geneva AeroSphère which is only another £50, the Naim is down on radiating area. The lack of remote will possibly irritate some customers but as noted, the control app is extremely good. In supporting Tidal and Spotify, the Qb has got some reasonable streaming options included but there is no sign of Apple Music as yet which is becoming a service of some note. It is of course possible to send these services via AirPlay and bluetooth.
The Qb takes most of its design cues from the Mu-So but the end result is- dare I say it- better looking
How was the Mu-So Qb tested?The Naim has been used as a standalone unit. Placed on my wireless network it has been able to access streaming services and my music library. Bluetooth has been tested via iPad 3 and Motorola Moto X and both these devices have been used for ap testing as well. The review sample of the Qb had been run prior to arriving with here and this required a network reset but this didn't cause any issues and I was up and running 3 minutes and 40 seconds after opening the box.
What does the Mu-So QB sound like?The review sample came with the Loudness setting engaged in the app. Whether this was to do with the run in process or if the Qb ships with it switched on, the first thing you need to do is turn it off. I can see the benefits of it; at low volumes it serves to fill the sound a little and make the Qb sound a little bigger than it is. As you increase the volume however, it makes the Naim sound a little leaden, bass heavy and- dare I say it given it is a heresy in Naim terms- slow. With the loudness setting engaged, the Qb sounds like a step too far for the Naim sound to make the transition.
Pop into the app and turn it off though and things improve considerably. As you might expect, the volume level like-for-like drops a little but this isn't really an issue because the Naim has considerable reserves of power on tap. At no stage have I really exceeded half volume on it and it is well and truly capable of filling a
UK lounge with sound. And a very good sound it is too. With the loudness off (I'm not going to say with the processing off as the Qb is reliant on the DSP to do what it does) it sounds much more like a Naim product.
This means that the performance is smooth and fast and possessed of the energy that the brand is renowned for. It takes material like the self titled Nothing but Thieves debut album and Conor Mason's vocals have the bite and attack that they need. The Qb has the fundamental ability to sound fun and to do more than simply give you a simple facsimile of the music. On a more prosaic level, it also manages to sound like a single well sorted driver rather than five active and two passive ones. The handover between the different drivers is smooth, even and well handled and even complex pieces of music are dealt with in a self explanatory way.
It isn't perfect. Far more so than the larger Mu-So and even the Geneva AeroSphère, it sounds like a single point of sound than a stereo one and there is a slight graininess to the upper midrange with complex material that never fully goes away regardless of listening level, but these are never so severe that they detract from the positive qualities of the speaker as a whole. The positioning of the status light on the rear does also mean that you can't simply see at a glance if there is a problem with the speaker- unless you can also see the rear but again, given that the Qb has been completely stable since it was installed, this should not be a significant issue.
The Performance of the Mu-So Qb is relatively consistent across the different inputs. This does mean that while it is 24/192kHz capable once hardwired to the network and plays media of this nature without any issue, it doesn't sound radically different when you choose the same album and play it at CD quality via Tidal. What this does mean though is that everything the Qb does is possessed with the same positive qualities that the Naim displays over UPnP. This means it doesn't really matter what you choose to do - be it listen to a spot of 6 Music, check your weekly playlist on Spotify or sit down and listen to an evening's worth of streaming from your music library - it will deliver a truly excellent performance with all of it.
The Qb has the fundamental ability to sound fun and to do more than simply give you a simple facsimile of the music
- Sounds big and involving
- Looks fantastic
- Excellent feature set
- No remote supplied as standard
- Slight midrange graininess
- Can sound a bit artificial with loudness selected
Naim Mu-So Qb ReviewAfter the Mu-So turned out to be a commercial success, it was fairly inevitable that Naim would look to expand the family. What makes the Qb stand out is that Naim has clearly taken their time about doing so in order to deliver the performance level they were demanding. The result of this process is a device that has the same functionality as its big brother - making it one of the best specified products in the category - with arguably better aesthetics and a significant chunk of the performance of the Mu-So in a smaller, more affordable box.
I'm also pleased to say that the Qb embodies many Naim values in the way it sounds. This is more than a device for background music but a genuinely enjoyable and involving little machine. In a more commercially brutal sense though, this doesn't matter as much as the fact that when you walk into John Lewis and look at your options at £600, the Mu-So Qb is the pick of the pack and an unquestionable Best Buy.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £595.00
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