Of all the systems tested in this issue, this was the most predictable. When the Kantas were first launched, a few UK journalists were given a sneak peak, and they were being played through a larger Naim separates system. That worked extremely well, and people at that event already began to speculate how the the Kanta would fare next to the then hard-to-get Uniti Nova. And the combination deserved that speculation, because it performs in exactly the way we all expected it to. This isn’t expectation bias, and it isn’t boring conformity... it’s that these two devices are exceptionally well made and fit well with one another.
The new Uniti models were a sonic change in tone compared to the predecessors. Not on a massive scale, but there has been a distinct progression from the more rounded, but fun sound of early Naim to the brighter, more detailed, and upbeat sound of this latest iteration. In fact, I don’t mind that progression, because the old Naim sound is arguably out of step with modern audio, a lot of modern recordings and mixes, and most modern loudspeakers.
Both products have a common presentation of making a good, fast, and dynamic midrange, and moving out from there. This makes the pairing exceptionally good with vocals. I played ‘Personal Jesus’ from American IV: The Man Comes Aroundby Jonny Cash [American Recordings] and Cash’s end of his time voice is as powerful as it is poignant. Any imperfection in articulation in a system would come across as almost musical heresy, but here it was pitched perfectly. The gravelly, broken voice, with Cash fighting his own failing body comes across perfectly and the sound invites you to listen to ‘Hurt’ and the rest of the album.
The sound really fills out from there, adding bass depth and some forceful slam to the bottom end and some refinement and eloquence to the treble. Nothing is harsh, but similarly, nothing is artificially softened. Moving over to Neil Young singing ‘Southern Man’ [After The Gold Rush, Reprise], the sound remained light, boppy, and bouncy, but the added depth to the bass made you more aware of the left hand of the piano player underpinning the track throughout. Yes, the guitar (and Young’s voice) wailed sonorously, but it was that solid piano that sold the system to me.
As you might imagine, rhythm is a strong suit (it’s an obsession at Naim, and it’s one that seems to have rubbed off across the Channel too). Enter, er, ‘Enter Sandman’ [Metallica, Elektra], which stands or falls depending on the quality of that gut-churning rhythm. It’s not a great recording, but it is one of those you-can’t-help-headbanging moments, and this pairing puts you right in the theoretical mosh pit.
In case you think this Naim and Focal pairing is really only good for rock, guess again. I played the ‘Un Bal’ from Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique [Linn Records] and it behaved flawlessly, teasing out the playful themes with charm and portraying each with tremendous detail and the kind of dynamic range required to portray this recording with the right sort of scale. And ‘scale’ is the one of the system’s great strengths, moving from large scale recording to tiny jazz clubs, and everything in between, with aplomb. OK, this is more about dynamic scale than image size, but even on the size and shape of the imagery, this is a system that does well. I’d say this is not the choice for the soundstage freak, though.
The imaging on this system is good, and best described as ‘tidy.’ Instruments are presented with good solidity and sophistication, and the soundstage is slightly wider and deeper than the boxes, but it’s not the pinpoint precision that stereo image freaks crave. I prefer balance in a system!
A good system has limits, and the limits here are entirely understandable and predictable, too. The performance threshold is broad, in that you can play this system loud and you can play it relatively quietly. But push it too far in either direction and you understand what more buys you. Funnily enough, the most noticeable part is the lower-level playing, which can get uneven when played at whisper levels. Loud is better handled; there is some thickening of the sound, some shutting down of the image, and – if pushed to the max – the system can get too bright. But mostly it covers its tracks. Similarly, with the loudspeakers, swapping out normal listening room sizes for barns or wardrobes and the Kantas are either overawed or overdriving. This system sits in its own goldilocks spot in the audio hierarchy, and that applies to listening levels and rooms, too. But for most of the people, most of the time, the Focal and Naim duo make a very strong case for ‘stick a fork in me, I’m done!’ There’s no upgrade path because there’s no need for an upgrade path. These two are self-contained greatness.