Do you remember the Naim Nait? Not the latest thin-flat Nait, but the original Nait… a cut-down, relatively low-powered little box that sang its heart out whenever connected to quality partners. In some respects, the UnitiQute is the Nait for the 2010s, current Nait amplifiers notwithstanding. In other respects, this is the Swiss Army Knife of audio, except that Salisbury isn’t in Switzerland.
I have to admit something of an internal about-face with the name. My first reaction was UnitiQute was a terrible handle, and thought it sounded like some kind of pet-grooming product, rather than the ultimate audio client box. Then I broke the tape on the packaging, got the thing out and… well, it’s qute cute. Matt black and green displays are not normally considered the stuff of cuteness, but there’s something disarming about the UnitiQute that gets it over the first hurdle – it seems to pass muster with domestic management.
In the most basic terms, the Naim UnitiQute is a 30W per channel integrated amplifier with DAB/FM tuner, a line-level input or two, a headphone socket, speaker terminals, a 24bit/192kHz DAC and a bunch of next-gen computer connections. Products like the UnitiQute are driving fundamental change in audio, even down to the terminology used to classify such things. Stop thinking about the Qute as a DAC or an amp or even a receiver; it’s a ‘pull’ UPnP media renderer and access point, with built in tuner and (able to be disabled) amplifier. In other words, it retrieves sound files and digital streamed music from network-connected devices, handles the data conversion and allows the user to control all of this from its own remote handset (alongside the tuner and amp bits), using a standard Universal Plug ‘n’ Play protocol that most things computery can understand. The remote in the box is smart in and of itself, capable of almost at once being the ultimate controller for the technosavvy grandmaster or a simple device for the technophobic grandmother. That said, if you are using the remote alone to navigate through a huge collection of tracks, it can get infuriating.
Speaking of remotes… I think Naim has scored something of an own goal by charging nigh on £25 for its n-Stream iPod/iPad app. I get the logic of paying for it (if the Naim apps were free, they will invariably get a one-star review from someone with the IQ of a houseplant who tries and fails to get it to control their Sonos box), Apple doesn’t allow ‘special-offer’ apps on its store and the app is so good it boosts the functionality of the Qute. And that’s the point; if the app is good enough to drive Naim-loving Applephobes to buy iPads because of what it does for the Qute, I am not qute quite sure it should be a pay-for upgrade.
The reason for concentrating on the remote handsets is that’s the only way you get to drive the Qute. There’s not much to play with on the Qute box, not even a conventional volume knob; instead, the logo itself also acts as a combined volume control and mute button. This takes some re-learning from those well-versed in the ways of hi-fi, but does work well. However, most people faced with a box with no controls on it get flustered.
The UnitiQute hangs off the end of a home network, ideally with a server, computer or NAS box storing all your music (you can also use the UnitiServe… more on that in a later issue). This system can be wired or wireless, although Naim recommends use of a wired connection wherever possible. This also allows streamed internet radio stations (through vTuner’s five-star service), and can even control and play music off USB hard drives and thumbdrives. It’s easier to rattle off the list of digital formats that aren’t compatible than the ones that are. Apple Lossless and anything beyond 24/96 WAV (via UPnP and USB)… that’s it. In fact, it even supports Apple Lossless files, just so long as they come from an iPod, not via a computer. OK, so that’s a pretty substantial omission given the dirty great iTunes elephant in many people’s room, however Mac users can use the EyeConnect UPnP streamer that transcodes Apple Lossless to WAV on the fly – problem solved!
There’s an obvious comparison between Naim’s system and the Linn approach to computer audio replay. At face value, the two are very similar, but Naim’s version of plug ‘n’ play lives up to the term, where Linn’s is more convoluted. Sound quality aside (I feel the Linn is slightly superior, but I didn’t have the two network devices running side by side to compare closely) if you are building a system without the aid of a safety net – such as a dealer with a black belt in the art of Net-Do – the Naim system will work without reconfiguring TwonkyMedia databases.
In use, I can see why Naim recommends a wired connection, because the UnitiQute 802.11g wireless kung fu is not strong, and cannot stream 24/96. Yet, it’s a measure of just how good the UnitiQuite acquits itself in the sound department that this grumble quickly melts away. More importantly, it’s here where the old Nait begins to poke its green and black little head out. The Qute is so sonorous, engaging and entertaining, you just can’t help loving what it does. The 30W rating (45W into four ohms) belies a surprisingly powerful little beast; it won’t drive everything but is exceptionally comfortable powering the sort of speakers you’d normally partner a Nait with – Focals, Neats, smaller Sonus Fabers, Spendors (the A9s were a fine – if unexpected – fight-above-its-weight choice), Totems, Viennas and so on. I also used it with the excellent Triangle Colors, the Amphion Argon3 and even – briefly – the Kiso HB-1 for the ultimate in ‘mullet’ systems. Each time, the UnitiQute gave a great account of itself.
It’s almost a cliché to discuss Naim and timing, but the simple truth is there is something about the UnitiQute that temporally hangs together better than many other similar devices. It’s not a rhythmic urgency, but an order and accent on getting the beat right that is so very attractive to so many people. This doesn’t just hold on Nirvana or ZZ Top records, you even get the sense of rhythmic flow that set Rosalyn Tureck apart from her peers when playing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. This mono recording from the mid-50s is all about the metre of the pieces and a less rhythmically-savvy system would leave it sounding nothing special. In fact, the UnitiQute makes a case for a rediscovery of the importance of tempo in music in the computer age, because it seems easy for computer audio systems to focus on the expansiveness of the sound at the expense of its internal timing.
The rest of the presentation is hardly a weak spot. The Qute is dynamic enough to take advantage of the best FLAC files, but not so overtly dynamic as to make a hash of less than perfect low-grade MP3. It’s coherent, especially at low levels (it has a level-compensating bass output option), articulate and detailed and – while it doesn’t make a strong play at throwing out a wide or deep soundstage – it images a lot better than the ‘big mono’ sound of classic chrome bumper Naim gear. Including the classic Nait. In short, it makes computer music just as much fun as the Nait did to vinyl two and a bit decades ago.
Naim traditionally provides an upgrade path for its users, by means of external power supplies, bigger better power amps and so on. The UnitiQute is even more direct than that… you just buy more UnitiQutes. How it works is like this; perhaps you have a Naim Uniti as the main system and you want to share the love and give someone else in the family access to the same goodies the Uniti has in microcosm. Out comes the UnitiQute, and sits in the family room. Pretty soon, another appears in a bedroom. Or two. Then the kitchen gets Quted. Pretty soon, you are finding ways to run power and comms cables down to the garden shed.
The thing about the Qute is it does so much so easily, you quickly come to expect the same everywhere. In other words, the UnitiQute will make you demand more UnitiQutes. It doesn’t need to do this for functionality or upgrade potentials; you will be the one driving the inevitable rise of the UnitiQute.
SPECS & PRICING
Naim UnitiQute network player
Audio Inputs: 3.5mm front-panel socket, line-level stereo RCA input at rear
Antenna Inputs: Wi-Fi, F type, (plus PAL adapter)
Digital Inputs: 5 S/PDIF (2 optical, 2 coaxial/BNC 75Ω (plus RCA adapter), 1 digital/analogue 3.5mm jack)
USB Input: front-panel socket
Other Inputs: Ethernet and iPod (digital via USB socket), RS232
Audio Outputs: Speaker output, preamp output (RCA), headphone
Tuning Range: FM 87.5 - 108Mhz DAB Band III and L Band
Signal/Noise ratio: 80dB
Power output: 45W per channel into 4Ω, 30W per channel in 8Ω
Audio Formats Supported: Internet radio (Windows Media-formatted content, MP3 Streams, MMS), Playlists (M3U, PLS), MP3, AAC (up to 320kBit/s, CBR/VBR), Windows Media-formatted content-9 (up to 320kBit/s), FLAC and WAV (up to 24bit/96kHz via UPnp and USB only), OGG Vorbis
iRadio Service Provider: vTuner 5* full service
Languages: English, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Chinese, Dutch
Dimensions (WxHxD): 20.7x8.7x31.4cm
Manufactured by Naim Audio Ltd