Naim's qutest streaming amplifier is 2 and for its birthday the engineers in Salisbury gave it a new antenna and access to more music than you can shake a baton at.
Why review this 2014 revamp of Naim’s most affordable streaming amplifier now? Because alongside the rest of the Uniti range it recently gained two features that are designed to increase its popularity with a wider audience. These are the ability to receive Bluetooth signals from smartphones, tablets etc, and Spotify Connect, of these the latter is by far the most interesting to those after top notch light entertainment. Bluetooth requires an extra antenna and is supposedly great for instant access to the collections of friends and families but in my experience it’s marred by an inability to stream without stuttering. I asked friends and acquaintances to make sure that it wasn’t just my phone and tablet and it isn’t, but it would seem that this is not a universal problem and for some Bluetooth provides a seamless musical experience. I will continue to investigate this but for moment I can’t comment on its sonic qualities. (Since posting this review I took the Qute to another place and tried the Bluetooth there, it worked seamlessly even displaying aptX when receiving signal from my Android phone, so there is something odd going on in the listening room. Investigation to follow).
So Spotify Connect it is then. To use this feature you need a premium account that will set you back £9.99 a month, but for this you get a 320 kbps bit rate, which many describe as CD quality. As the latter has a 1411 kbps bit rate this is clearly untrue but in practise it’s a lot better than the 128 kbps of the free Spotify service. In fact it’s pretty damn listenable when you have the novelty of a world of music at your fingertips. It is still a little hard edged and compressed by lossless standards but works perfectly in those situations where you are not listening too hard or don’t want to play loud. Background music as it were, as varied and diverse as you like.
I quite like Spotify’s explore option which gives playlists for specific genres, usefully specific ones at that rather than the broad terms found on other music services. So I was able to try ‘funk rock’, ‘nu jazz’ and ‘future vision: the new jazz’ and find material old and new that appealed to my taste. For the newcomer it seems like the whole world of music is available which has got to be a good thing. Other options include finding the music of your favourite artists and following them, which lets you know just how popular or otherwise these acts are, on Spotify at least. I was able to find some new to me artists that inspired considerable time wasting trying to find hard copies of their work! I guess the diversion factor wears off with familiarity but it’s a lot of fun too.
The deal with Spotify Connect is that rather than sending the music signal from a phone or tablet as per standard Spotify, you are controlling what is streamed directly to the player. Which means higher sound quality and no need to run the batteries down on your touchscreen device. I still managed this with an iPad but that was the discovery process going on for a while.
The UnitiQute 2 is a very entertaining piece of kit, not the most powerful but when partnered with the right speakers it can produce enough level for most small and medium sized rooms. I used Focal Aria 905 standmounts which are very good at revealing the strengths of this amplifier, these being a good sense of openness and spot on timing. It’s not big on grip but makes up for it with life and vitality, and bass lines that drive the music along. I made quite an interesting comparison with a Revox Joy S120 that has similar features in casework of much the same size but with a nicer finish, hence the higher price (£2,090), and you do get more power out of its PWM digital amplifier (120W). This made it very good at the dynamics in large orchestral works but less effective at delivering the ‘air’ in the music. It has a Bluetooth receiver but no access to music services like Spotify Connect. The Revox is quite a convincing streamer/amp but the UnitiQute 2 has a naturalness that is rather more appealing, it is relaxed and revealing with quite a knack for engaging the ears and mind.
The Kouyaté Neerman album that Reuben reviewed contains a combination of African rhythms and French drum and bass, it’s very percussive and underpinned by big bass lines. This is levened by the open sound of a kora and spiced up with some slightly mad electronica all of which are fleshed out very effectively by the Qute. I also enjoyed Bugge Wesseltoft’s collaboration album OK World on Spotify Connect, without an uncompressed comparison to hand this sounds very nice indeed. It lacks scale as is often the case with MP3 but this does not impinge on its appeal so long as the system is sympathetic rather than warts and all revealing.
I also contrasted the Qute’s amplifier with a digital integrated, the Nu Force DDA 120, this proved quite favourable for the Naim as well. Its timing qualities are in another league which means that the funk of Primus’ Jerry Was A Racecar Driver is far more obvious. This via Spotify Connect and not the most comfortable of sounds in that context, but there’s no denying its groove.
It was also interesting to contrast material streamed via the network and through a coaxial digital cable directly from the Unitiserve to the Qute, which made a very strong case for the network approach. Despite the use of a more expensive coax cable the Ethernet connection provided higher resolution with greater involvement and beauty in the sound. So either network connections are intrinsically better at transferring data or the digital in and outputs are weak points in these products.
The latest version of the Unitiqute is a highly musical and entertaining piece of kit, it’s no powerhouse as the specs suggest but with the right speakers this does nothing to undermine its ability to reveal and engage in equal manner. I also like the latest Naim control app which is intuitive and looks good. As you might guess Bluetooth is not really my bag but as I have had the same experience with a number of receivers it’s safe to say that the Qute is not the problem. Spotify Connect proved a far more positive experience, making it really easy to check out new music at a quality that’s good enough to let you know whether it’s worth purchasing. I tried both the CD quality streaming services recently, Quboz and Tidal and while the sound is clearly better, limitations to the catalogue and the £20/month asking price are less appealing. That said it’s time that Naim got at least one of these services onboard, they are all about sound quality after all.