The Naim Audio Uniti is a music centre with network capabilities for high-end audio, that can form the heart of a comprehensive home entertainment stereo system

Go back to the 70s, and the music centre ruled supreme. It offered a one-stop solution for listening to records, radio and cassette, all under one easy-to-lift plastic lid.

Real hi-fi purists preferred the superior sound and versatility of separates, of course, but this came at the cost of complexity, messy cables, price - and even the possibility to make a worse sound by marrying together ill-matched components.

Naim Audio - where Naim is simply pronounced 'name' - is a brand that knows the sounds of the 70s well, building up a near-cult following as a hi-fi company making no-nonsense amplifiers from 1971, adding loudspeakers in the 80s and progressing through to complete hi-fi systems with highly tuned CD players by the 1990s.

The company is still based in Salisbury, where it designs and manufactures audio components ranging from an entry-level amplifier for £780, to complete systems comprising a half-dozen or more boxes of electronics for upwards of £50,000. Naim Audio is committed to music reproduction - and creation, owning its own recording label.

Like some other music-centric British audio specialists, it held out against digital audio for many years, then against the fripperies of multi-channel sound, home cinema, iPod systems, computer audio, and the renaissance of the one-box stereo system.

And now its combined nearly all those bête noirs into this Naim Audio Uniti, its first music centre. But boy, has Naim made up for lost time with this condensation of high-fidelity goodness into the Uniti music system.

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In days of yore, when all amplifiers glowed in the dark through valve illumination, you simply couldn't hope to put too much hi-fi into one chassis, due to the physics of heat and interfering magnetic fields from massive iron-cored transformers. Solid-state transistor amplifiers, when made the proper hairy-chested Class A way at least, were little better in their requirements for a room to breathe.

Yet in this relatively compact Naim Audio Uniti box - built around Naim's trademark matt black, all-metal casework with green-lit Naimbadge - lies a solid 50W linear amplifier.

(That's a true analogue amp, as distinct from the so-called digital amplifiers found in most consumer electronics today, in everything from MP3 players up to budget home cinema systems. Such Class D amplifiers and their spawn are power efficient but sound sterile and lack the finesse of tradional linear amplifiers.)

The two-channel amplifier in the Naim Audio Uniti is joined by a swing-door loading CD player; an FM tuner; a DAB tuner; a dock input for an iPhone or iPod; and a USB port for plugging in a drive full of music.

Then there's the network connectivity. You can put the Naim Audio Uniti onto a home network, via its ethernet port or WiFi wireless receiver, at which point it's open to play streaming audio from internet radio, or perhaps more locally from a UPnP server in your own home.

An example here would be a NAS drive hosting perhaps a terabyte or more of ripped CDs. A new firmware update now allows the replay of 24-bit, 96kHz audio, a format that's becoming increasingly available to download from audiophile music shops, and one which comfortably bests CD's 16/44.1 digital audio.

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We tried each of those sources, using the Naim Audio Uniti with Naim's own entry-level standmount speaker, the n-SAT, and additionally with our reference Bowers & Wilkins 802N monitors.

The n-SAT (£790/pr) is itself a relatively compact two-way speaker, suited for smallish rooms or used as part of a set of five for surround-sound setups; but its nevertheless well focused on the essentials of music making. The full-range B&W 802N meanwhile showed the full-bandwidth experience, with the Uniti able to drive these efficient but current-hungry smoothly and to high volumes with little strain.

Naim Audio components were once renowned as being removed from the navel-gazing nuances of esoteric audio; more satisfied with getting the essentials of foot-tapping, honest-to-goodness finger-snapping tune playing than, say, to seek out depth of stereo soundstage and supersonic treble extension.

Not for Naim kit was the kind of hi-fi revelation that might well tell you what brand of strings the guitarist was strumming the day he laid down that track in the studio.

Yet modern-day Naim knows a thing or two about detailed and open sound; and the Naim Audio Uniti continues the trend, keeping its metaphorical hand on the tiller to steer it through natural, well-timed music while still not denying you a degree of three-dimensional landscape painting.

Playing compact disc has something of the ritual attached to it, as you must manually pull open the heavy swing-door mechanism and place a magnetic puck over the disc before fastening the door closed.

From CD we tried Air's timeless Moon Safari, and enjoyed the multi-layering of string synths, vocoded vocals and the organic rolling beat of electric piano and real electric bass.

Naim Audio Uniti

Naim Audio Uniti offers surpisingly easy control with just nine buttons and a clear OLED text display

At the other end of the quality spectrum, internet radio is not renowned for audiophile quality: it varies wildly depending in part on the bit-rate of the broadcast; although at its best with MP3 streaming at or above 128kb/s, it typically trumps the sad state of overtaxed DAB radio.

Surfing through international stations, we heard the Uniti make the best of such live streams, the diversity and exoticism of world music sometimes letting you forgive the grainer sound quality.

Using the optional Naim iPod cable (£95), you get the benefit of direct digital audio piped into the Uniti's 24-bit digital-to-analogue converters (DACs), with recent models of iPod anyway. This preserves the original sound quality of digital files, rivalling the performance of CD - and with the added attraction of being able to skip tracks from the handset.

Unfortunately the cable offers no physical cradle or stand to support your iPod. For less critical use with a portable MP3 player, there's also a readily accessible 3.5mm mini jack analogue input on the front panel.

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Control and ease of use of the Uniti system, never an easy issue when you pack so many features into one unit, rank as quite superb. With just nine buttons to play with on the fascia (many more in the remote handset), and a text-centred OLED illuminated display, the interface falls just short of being totally intuitive.

There will be a brief period of learning your way around some setup menus, but once you're there it's simple to get the best out of, say, streaming iRadio from Siberia, a CD in the drawer, and your archived music collection in a NAS drive under the stairs.

And with inputs to spare, digital and analogue, the Uniti is well suited for hooking up to a Freeview or satellite set-top box, as the nexus for your lounge's television and film sound.

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Naim Audio Uniti: Specs

  • CD player/FM radio/DAB radio/internet radio
  • integrated 50W (8 ohm) per channel stereo amplifier
  • UPnP streaming audio player
  • 3.5mm headphone jack
  • 802.11b/g wireless
  • ethernet
  • USB 2.0 input for playback from flash storage
  • iPod input via dock cable
  • 3 x RCA phono analogue inputs
  • 1 x DIN ‘phono’ input for use with separate Naim RIAA phono stage
  • 2 x coaxial S/PDIF and 2 x Toslink optical inputs
  • FM 87.5–108MHz, DAB Band III and L Band
  • 87 x 432 x 314mm
  • 11.3kg
  • CD player/FM radio/DAB radio/internet radio
  • integrated 50W (8 ohm) per channel stereo amplifier
  • UPnP streaming audio player
  • 3.5mm headphone jack
  • 802.11b/g wireless
  • ethernet
  • USB 2.0 input for playback from flash storage
  • iPod input via dock cable
  • 3 x RCA phono analogue inputs
  • 1 x DIN ‘phono’ input for use with separate Naim RIAA phono stage
  • 2 x coaxial S/PDIF and 2 x Toslink optical inputs
  • FM 87.5–108MHz, DAB Band III and L Band
  • 87 x 432 x 314mm
  • 11.3kg

OUR VERDICT

This is an all-in-one music system from a pedigree audio specialist that can take on just about any stereo duties you care to try it with. And much more than just tick boxes for the feature-chasing consumer, it plays real music with real talent, nurturing the mid-fi sounds of internet radio as much as majoring on traditional music CDs and network audio. It may look expensive compared to ephemeral lightweight consumer electronics, but the Naim Uniti is built to perform, and built to last.

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