Bob Barrett is a versatile writer and knowledgeable hi-fi enthusiast whose work for HomeTheaterReivew.com runs the gamut from mid- to high-end home theater to audiophile components and speakers. He also specializes in high-performance and high-end headphones.
World populations are increasingly moving from rural to urban centers, making for larger cities with greater population density than ever before. We are increasingly becoming an urban world. According to urban planning researchers at The Grayline Group, nearly 82 percent of North Americans "live in urban areas and are increasingly concentrating in mid-sized and large cities." At the same time, more and more people are moving into apartments or condominiums for a variety of reasons. The cost of housing has shot up, especially in and around cities. We hear on the news everyday how fewer people can afford single family homes.
There are also a grower number of young people that don't want the responsibility and maintenance of a single-family home. Others want to be near the heart of the action or have the convenience of all their needs nearby. So what does this have to do with audio? Well, audiophiles are included in this migratory pattern too. With a smaller living space, it's more difficult to fit a full-blown audio system made up of several separate components and a multi-channel speaker system. But isn't ultimate playback quality the goal? While conventional thinking of many audio enthusiasts maintains that separates are required to achieve really great sound, British manufacturer Naim thinks differently. And I suspect they're out to prove it with products such as their Uniti line of all-in-one music players. Naim's Uniti line of music players represents the company's answer to many audiophiles' secret wish to access their music library by their preferred method, enjoy intuitive and bulletproof operation, all while enjoying the highest quality music reproduction.
The Naim Uniti Nova ($7,495) is the reference player of the Uniti lineup, sitting above the Uniti Star ($5,995, 70-wpc, with built-in CD player and CD-ripping capability), and Uniti Atom ($3,295, 40-wpc, streaming audio player, DAC/preamp), with the line rounded out by the optional add-on Uniti Core reference hard-disk server. All the players in the Uniti lineup can be used as standalone players or as part of a fully featured, multi-room Naim audio ecosystem. The Uniti Nova has a more robust onboard amplifier than the Uniti Star and Uniti Atom, delivering 80 watts of Class AB power per channel into eight ohms. Its chassis measures 3.74 inches by 17 inches by 10.43 inches (hwd), and it has a high-end, industrial look, with a brushed black anodized aluminum finish contrasted by a high gloss, five-inch color LCD display taking up the right half of the front faceplate. Proximity sensors wake up the display as you approach. There are finned heat sinks running down both sides, with Wi-Fi aerials integrated behind the fins on each side. The aerials are connected to a premium Wi-Fi module supporting both 2.4 and 5.0 GHz (b/g/n/ac). The front faceplate features a minimalist aesthetic, with just a USB input and 3.5mm headphone jack located below the LCD screen along with just four control buttons, including Power/Standby, Play/Pause/ Input Selection, and Favorites to the right.
The Naim logo located on the lower left-hand side of the unit lights up when the player is in use, providing an elegant glow along the base. However, if you find it distracting, it can be dimmed in the settings options, as can the LCD display. But I wonder why anyone would want to with the high-res display making the album artwork look gorgeous and being large enough to be seen clearly from across the room. And if you want to display source, artist, and track information, it's just one button push away utilizing the beautifully designed and backlit Zigbee two-way remote.
The thick, brushed aluminum top plates of the Uniti Nova are CNC-machined for precision fit and finish. Like the other Uniti models, on top there is a prominent and oh-so-smooth lighted volume control that adjusts level in the analogue domain with digital precision. It has an integrated Bluetooth antenna providing aptX HD performance when streaming from a capable Bluetooth device. Under the top plate and volume control, there is a beefy toroidal transformer with six separate windings. A 40-bit SHARC DSP processor is intended to make jitter all but non-existent and improve timing errors. The DSP processor sits beside a large internal buffer and memory capable of storing up to five minutes of data (at 44.1/16) to greatly reduce drop outs.
The Uniti Nova has a greater number of inputs and outputs than the other Uniti models, too. Audio inputs include two coaxial S/PDIF (up to 192 kHz/24-bit and DSD64), two Optical TOSLink (up to 96 kHz/24-bit), one BNC digital (up to 192 kHz/24-bit and DSD64), one HDMI ARC port so you can connect a TV, one SD memory card slot, two sets of RCA sockets, two five-pin DIN sockets (not much use for North American audiophiles, but a more common analog audio connector in Europe), and two USB Type A ports (one on the front and one on the rear). There are also three audio outputs consisting of one pair of speaker level connections, one RCA sub/pre, and one 3.5 mm headphone jack. There is also an ethernet socket network connectivity.
There are so many audio formats supported by the Naim Uniti Nova that it's practically format agnostic, including WAV (up to 384 kHz/32-bit), FLAC, AIFF, and ALAC (all up to 384 kHz/24-bit), MP3, AAC, OGG and WMA (all up to 48 kHz/16-bit), as well as DSD (64 and 128). Using a USB connected drive and an SD memory card allows you to store up to 20,000 tracks on the Nova or other connected Naim players on the same network. For radio listeners, there is an FM radio module available as an option. In addition, the vTuner app is built in, allowing access to practically every FM station that is currently streamed over the Internet. Streaming is also possible using Apple AirPlay 2, Chromecast Built-in, TIDAL, Spotify Connect, Bluetooth (AptX HD), and UPnP servers (hi-res streaming). With Chromecast Built-in, there are hundreds of apps available for streaming, including Qobuz, Deezer, Pandora, and Soundcloud, just to name a few. In addition, the Uniti Nova is Roon Ready, so it can serve as a Roon endpoint.
I hope by now you're getting the idea that the Uniti Nova comes packed with playback options. But with so many options, sometimes usability becomes the issue. And of course, the other question I had was, "How does it sound?"
The first thing I noticed when I removed the review sample from the box was its serious heft, with the unit tipping the scales at 28.7 pounds. Nope, there's no digital amp here, which is much more typical of all-in-one players these days. There is a large toroidal transformer with six separate windings and I suspect that transformer is responsible for a good portion of the Uniti Nova's weight. I connected the music player to my Aerial Acoustics 7T floorstanders via Transparent Audio speaker cables finished with banana plugs. As with the other members of the Uniti line, the Uniti Nova is meant to be outfitted with Naim's speaker cable soldered to their unique speaker plugs. Since Naim doesn't include the speaker cable and their speaker plug sockets happen to be the same diameter as bananas, I tested the banana-outfitted Transparent Audio cables and found them to be a perfectly acceptable alternative. I connected the included power cord and downloaded the Naim control app to my iPad Pro. Next, I pushed the power button on the front of the unit and proceeded with setup.
In Dennis Burger's review of the Uniti Atom, he outlined the simple steps involved in the initial setup of that unit. With setup the same across the Uniti line, I won't rehash the steps here. The whole process from opening the box to ready to play music was straightforward, taking less than fifteen minutes. I will mention that I loaded several DSD encoded albums onto an SD memory card and inserted it into the card slot on the rear of the unit. The SD card slot is an option not found on the less expensive Uniti players. I also inserted a USB solid state drive loaded with Hi-Res AIFF and FLAC music files into the rear USB slot.
I used the Naim Uniti Nova for about a month before getting down to the business of critical listening. During that time, I used a pair of Focal Stellia headphones (review forthcoming) plugged into the Unit Nova on numerous occasions. The headphone amp on the Uniti Nova was much better than I'm used to experiencing on most receivers and integrated amps. Usually the headphone amp seems to be a compromise feature that's only added to tick the box on the product features advertising.
Not so with the Uniti Nova. Naim seems to appreciate the fact that many customers shopping in the price range of the Unit Nova are going to also have a premium pair of headphones too. While I didn't really start digging in for any critical listening until a month or so had passed, it only took a day or two to really start to enjoy the simplicity of its operation. Currently I have subscriptions to both Tidal and Qobuz. Most of the time I used the Roon app on my iPad Pro to view my combined libraries and control music playback. When accessing the USB drive and SD Memory card files, I used either the remote control or the Naim control app. The first time I tried to access the files on the USB drive and SD Memory card, I needed to refer to the online instructions. Other than that, every other action was straightforward and intuitive.
As I usually do when beginning listening evaluations, I started off with well-recorded female vocals. One of the tracks I listened to was the song "Saint Honesty" (Qobuz, 96/24) by Sara Bareilles from her T. Bone Burnett-produced album Amidst the Chaos (Epic). The gospel undertones of the track revealed the warmth of her lower register, rich with layered textures. At the 3:31 minute mark, Sara reaches into her upper range and takes a high note steadily higher for well beyond ten seconds. The vocal was reproduced with such stunning clarity and tone that it gave me goosebumps. The soundstage recreated was wide, with plenty of space between the piano at center stage, the drums behind, and electric guitar to the right. Through the Uniti Nova, Sara's voice reverberated off the sidewalls of the room, with the extended decay creating what felt like a vast acoustical space.
Next, I queued up "American Dream" (Qobuz, 192/24) by folk singer J.S. Ondara from his album Tales of America (Verve Forecast). This emotionally charged acoustic recording really highlighted the Uniti Nova's exquisite pace and timing, as well its ability to recreate a believable three-dimensional soundstage. Ondara's voice was locked in front and center, with the background vocalist a bit further back and to the right of centerstage. The fiddle was to the far left just outside the left speaker, the double bass was left of center, drums center rear, as is typical, and the acoustic guitar was farthest to the right. Each of their positions was well defined and distinct, with plenty of air between them. Attack and decay of the individual instruments was quite natural sounding, adding a greater sense of realism to the acoustic space. The emotion of Ondara's voice came through in spades with the Uniti Nova's ability to provide so much detail.
To evaluate the bass performance of the Uniti Nova's amps, one of the tracks I listened to was "Love Is a Bitch" (Tidal, 44.1/16) by Two Feet (aka Zachary William Dess) from his EP Momentum (Majestic Casual Records). This track is comprised of Dess's breathy vocal accompanied by an electric guitar and underpinned by a heavily synthesized deep bass groove that explores the lower depths of the audible range. If an amplifier isn't up to the task, this track can sound like a muddled mess when the electronic bass notes kick in. Through the Uniti Nova, though, the track delivered the lower registers with definition and impact but none of the muddiness I've heard from less beefy amps. Cranking up the volume on this track, I definitely felt the bass hit my chest and come close to loosening a filling! Okay, maybe that's a stretch, but you get my meaning.
I listened to several selections of symphonic music to test how well the Nova could reproduce the dynamics and scale of a large symphonic orchestra. This past January, the LA Philharmonic Orchestra celebrated the music of John Williams with a few performances of his compositions at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. My wife and I are both fans of John Williams' music and were fortunate enough to attend one of the performances. It just so happens the live performances were recorded and released in March. Listening to the track "Jurassic Park: Theme" (Qobuz, 96/24) from the album Celebrating John Williams by Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon), I was taken back to that special night in January. The piece sounded spectacular through the Nova, from solo French horn at the beginning of the track to the other brass and wind instruments joining in, followed by the string instruments, percussion, and timpani, with the soundstage growing wider as each section joined.
The Uniti Nova portrayed that majestic soundstage like no other all-in-one player I've heard before. Given the confines of my listening room, I could place the different instruments in space. The Nova is fast, too, keeping pace with all the changes in the music and delivering it with tremendous transparency, energy, and detail. The bass notes of the timpani were clear, defined, and impactful. While nothing can duplicate the live performance heard in the Disney Concert Hall that night, the Uniti Nova let me have a good dose of the grandeur I remember. Isn't that what our audio systems are supposed to do? Bring us closer to the music?
I openly confess to being an audiophile, but I also admit I don't sit around listening to traditional audiophile test tracks all day. While I love dynamic rock music as well as jazz and classical music, I also follow the current trends in pop music. So, I want my equipment to play nice with any genre of music. To put the Uniti Nova to the test, I queued up the just-released duet "Señorita" (Qobuz, 44.1/16) from Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello (Island Records). I wanted to hear how the unit handled an example of today's heavily compressed pop music. Thankfully, its strengths of transparency, accuracy, and detail came through to deliver an extra liveliness to the track, without any harshness. The finger snaps that serve as the rhythmic background throughout the track had an extra crack to them. The emphasized bass drum that serves as a foundation for the track sounded punchy and tight in my listening room, but never boomy. Harmonies sounded accurate and detailed, but with a warm tone and lots of layers to make them interesting.
There's very little not to love about the Naim Uniti Nova. I have to resort to nitpicking to find anything at all to discuss here. The Uniti Nova's DAC is not MQA compatible, so the final unfolding of Hi-Res MQA files won't occur. The Naim Uniti Nova is Roon Ready, though, which means with a Roon subscription, users can enjoy MQA music to the fullest resolution possible. Or you could opt for a Qobuz subscription and stream high-resolution FLAC files natively without the need for special hardware or software.
Another quibble already mentioned is the rather unique speaker connectors that Naim provides, but I found banana finished speaker cables to be a perfectly acceptable workaround.
Finally, I suppose those with expensive full-size cans with a quarter-inch plug might be disappointed to find a 3.5 mm headphone jack on the front of this unit.
Comparison and Competition
There aren't that many one-box solutions on the market today that do it all like the Naim Uniti Nova. The Mark Levinson Nº5802 integrated amplifier ($7,000) is a more traditional big box integrated in the same price range and can play high-resolution digital files. However, it lacks the ability to connect a television or act as part of a seamless multi-room audio system like the Uniti Nova. It also lacks the ease of operation and the color LCD display. In fact, I can't think of another all-in-one product that comes close to the Uniti Nova's functionality, ease of use, and unwavering control of the entire frequency range, from the deepest chest-thumping bass to the most delicate highs. I think that makes it a great value versus more traditional integrated of similar quality. Its nearest competitor may well be its little brother the Naim Uniti Star.
Another option that's somewhat similar, although not quite as fully featured, is NAD's M10 BluOS Streaming Amplifier ($2,749.99). The M10 also features an HDMI port (eARC in this case), as well as a big front-panel display. It isn't Roon Ready, but does support MQA decoding, although its only support for DSD files is via conversion courtesy of the BluOS desktop app.
I went into this review a little bit skeptical, but I came out a believer in the Naim Uniti Nova music player. It's an exquisitely designed all-in-one audio player that in my opinion sets a new audiophile standard for quality music reproduction from a single box this feature-laden. The intuitive nature of the operating system and Naim Control App, combined with the simplicity of the excellent remote, result in bulletproof functionality. What's more, it's a joy to use, being completely devoid of any of the glitches that typically accompany all-in-one products to one degree or another.
But the Naim Unit Nova isn't typical. And based on my experience, I expect its Class AB amplifier will pack more than enough punch for all but possibly the most demanding (aka inefficient), extra-large floorstander loudspeakers. Even the most finicky audiophile would be more than satisfied with the Naim Uniti Nova paired with a good pair of stand-mounted bookshelf speakers such as the Focal Kanta No. 1 or Sopra N°1, or the Aerial Acoustics 5T. Or for larger spaces, speakers such as Focal Kanta No. 2 or Sopra N°2 floorstanders, Revel Performa F228Be or Aerial Acoustics 7Ts should all be great matches.
• Visit the Naim Audio website for more product information.
• Check out our Audio Players category page to read similar reviews.
• Naim Uniti Atom All-in-One Wireless Music Player Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.