When Naim released news of their forthcoming network streamers (ND5 XS2, NDX 2, ND 555) it became apparent that their hierarchy is not as straightforward as you might expect. I had imagined that each of the three would have the same basic streaming engine and DAC and that the power supplies would be upgraded with every move up the range, but while the engine is I believe the same almost everything else changes with model, not least the surrounding architecture. This applies to a lesser extent with the Uniti range of streaming amplifiers from whence the streaming engine within the ND models derives, we looked at the base Uniti Atom last year and found it to be highly entertaining and when used as a source, remarkably revealing. The Nova is the biggest Uniti model but shares the same feature set that includes Chromecast, Bluetooth and Airplay reception with digital inputs including HDMI, built in Tidal and Spotify Connect and a readiness for Roon control software.
Nova is twice the width of Atom to make room for a bigger power supply and the largest mains transformer in the Uniti range, Uniti Star, the next model down, has the same size case but a distinctly smaller transformer for an amplifier that is specced as being only 10 Watts less powerful than the Nova’s 80 Watts. And given that the Star has a disc drive onboard yet costs £700 less indicates that budget has been allocated to the amplifier in the bigger model. It certainly sounds that way, in many respects the Uniti Nova is all the audio electronics most people need. The Atom is a great product but its relatively low power means you either need horn loudspeakers or a small room to get a good result, the extra power supply reserves available on the Nova alongside the many other tweaks that Naim gives to its top line products mean that only those seeking the holy grail of audio nirvana need look further.
It’s one of those products that makes reviewers lives difficult, you put it in the system, let it settle down and before you know it the music is flowing and the notion of taking notes and making odious comparisons goes out of the window. The Nova has a musicality that makes it very hard to be entirely objective about, but I tried and discovered that it’s not powerful enough for some speakers, or to be more accurate not powerful enough to deliver the lowest bass with some speakers. But such is the musical coherence and transparency of the Nova that you don’t feel like you’re missing out in the seismic arena until a bigger amplifier is substituted. I found with the Atom that using an external power amp was beneficial in a lot of cases, here that was by no means always the case. Usually something was lost when a more powerful amp was used and that something tended to be timing, the sense that the musicians are playing with one another and interacting is a fragile one and while a Naim power amp might be able to retain it there aren’t many other amps that work better than the Nova does on its own. And that’s not to say that you don’t get serious low end out of it, with speakers that aren’t a bitch to drive (to coin a phrase) such as the Dynaudio Special Forty standmounts the low end had surprising depth, especially with electronically derived sounds such as those on Jon Hopkins’ Singularityalbum. This amp speaker pairing proved particularly fortuitous but it wasn’t the only one, my reference PMC Fact.8 floorstanders also worked a treat and ended up in partnership for several months of top light entertainment during which time I failed to take enough notes, such was the strength of diversion the system provided.
I also used a variety of other components and these helped to reveal that the Nova isn’t the quietest digital source money can buy, there are streamers and DACs that show you finer detail by digging further down into the quietest recesses of recordings. It should be noted that none of them were also amplifiers, there are inevitably compromises involved with integrating a streamer with an amplifier and it’s at low levels where this is most likely to be heard. Imaging too is not always it’s forte, if you are after precise definition of instruments and voices in distinct acoustic space it may be possible to get better results with separate components but you would have to concede musicality and integrity of sound to do so. Back in the day Naim were almost proud to make amplifiers that gave imaging a low priority, but things have changed as its products have become more sophisticated. Yet the core ethos behind the brand is musical communication and that trumps imaging every time. I had a more pricey streamer/amp combo in and it was quieter and more precise but it didn’t make me want to listen to more music in the way that the Nova did. I also tried external DACs, some quite ambitious ones, and these delivered a crisper, shinier version of events compared to the relatively warm and relaxed balance of the Naim, but the detail that was illuminated did not enhance the musical experience in the same way.
One instance where the imaging did come through in spades was with Eclipse TD712zMkII speakers, these single driver designs just disappeared when I put on a good recording (Wartburgby Micheal Wollny Trio), leaving the band four square in the room. The Eclipse are particularly good at this trick thanks to their cabinet design but nonetheless it has to be said that the Nova did the job with them, even pulling out kick drum power and sweet sax tone. Bass was proved to be a little light when a bigger amp was brought into the equation but this was one of those occasions where the coherence of the Nova alone made it the more inspiring choice. Using its DAC with a very good external streamer did prove to be beneficial in most respects but the streamer in question cost not a lot less than the whole Nova so this was hardly unexpected, it did however prove that the DAC inputs are highly capable. I also did the opposite and used the Nova as an analogue source quite a bit and got great results every time, you have to stick the volume up to max as there’s no fixed outputs, but in that guise it worked a treat and made a variety of amplifiers sound very good indeed.
The digital inputs usefully come in both BNC and RCA variants. BNC is the best but if you don’t have the right cable then the RCA input is better than using a converter. It also has an HDMI connection for the telly, which could be handy if said screen is in the vicinity of your system. There are also analogue inputs and a vestigial 5-pin DIN for the Naim die-hards, mind you given how good most Naim stuff sounds I sometimes wonder about investigating this connection next time I get the opportunity.
Build and finish are very nice, especially if you like brushed aluminium, a big knob and the colour black. But the large album artwork on the five inch display offsets the blackness very effectively, I was surprised that a few visitors didn’t like this, most did and I am in agreement with them. Most of the operation is carried out with the Naim control App which while not the most solid in the business is pretty reliable most of the time and probably more so if your iPad (or Android device) are less than seven years old, I believe you’re supposed to throw them away after five! The remote handset is a little of a snowflake that turns on if you look at it askance, it’s motion sensor being a little bit too sensitive for extended battery life, but it’s great to have the ability to change volume and pause playback without having to wake up a touchscreen.
As mentioned earlier the Nova is the complete package for the streaming generation of music lovers, whether your tunes are stored on a hard drive (USB or NAS) or you want to stream from the Cloud it will turn them into an engaging experience that you want to repeat whenever possible. The Chromecast feature is also handy if your preferred streaming service is not provided, I used this with Qobuz and got great sound if not entirely glitch free streaming. All in all however this is a fabulous piece of kit that will keep all but the obsessed happy for years if not decades to come, it really does put the one box solution on the high fidelity map.