Naim UnitiLite review

High-end audio is always fun, there's lots of money to spend, but some very nice kit when you've plucked up the courage to plonk down the cash on your dealer's counter. But at a shade over £1,600, is the Naim UnitiLite worth the money, and what will it add to your home entertainment?

We hooked it up to some expensive headphones and some even more expensive speakers to find out how it performed and to find if we fell in love with it, or if it's just an expensive way to drain your wallet and fill up your house.

Design

At first, the Naim seems a bit industrial. It's hewn from a slab of metal that gives it a formidable weight. There are buttons on the front panel that are circular, and a big mono screen that's got a green hue that matches that of the button backlight.

There's a chunky CD tray too, along with a line-in, and a headphone jack. A single USB socket is also to be found here, which can be used for your iPod or music from a portable drive.

Around the back, things start to get a bit more busy. There are two coaxial and two optical audio inputs along with two pairs of RCA jacks for analogue audio in. There's a pre-amp out, with what looks like a DIN connector - that's a blast from the past - and there's USB for updating the firmware, and an Ethernet socket for connecting to the internet.

If you want, you can add an FM/DAB module too, but ours didn't have this installed, so the aerial socket is blanked off.

There are also speaker ports, these have a NAIM speaker connection fitted, which we'll touch on later, but they should be able to take a banana plug too.

Networking opportunity

Another massive selling point for the Naim is that, unlike our other much-loved audiophile system, the Linn Kiko, it can talk to your wireless network. It's also absurdly easy to set up too, with a logical system from entering your password and a process that just takes a few minutes.

If you're not into wireless, then there's also an Ethernet socket, and it requires less configuration. Simply put a cable in the back, and you're off. Unless that is, you've got a funny network set-up, but if that's the case, getting the Naim working will be child's play for you.

The networking here allows you to listen to music via DLNA, or to use the internet radio tuner to pick music from any one of the millions of online radio stations broadcasting over the net.

iPod

We're rather fond of the iPod support too. Simply plug your Pod into the USB socket, navigate to the right inputs - it's called, iPod, strangely - and you're off. You can browse all the music stored on your iPod/iPhone or even iPad. It's simple, but with iDevice ownership so high, it makes a lot of sense.

We tested it, and it sounded great, but then it's really not significantly different to playing music from any USB device, in that the transfer of audio is digital, and decoding is handled by the Naim.

Silly, silly mistakes

Our feelings about the UnitiLite are almost all positive, but there are some things that really got on our nerves. First, there's the CD eject button, or, more accurately, the lack of an eject button. You've just paid £1,600 for a home audio system, you'd expect a button wouldn't you, but instead you have to press and hold the stop button when in CD mode. This means a) you can't access the CD tray when the player is doing anything else, and, b) you have to read the manual to learn how to open the CD tray. Well you don't, because we've just told you, but we did, and it was humiliating.

Second is the speaker ports. Quite simply, these aren't good enough. Apparently there were some problems in the past with Europeans plugging their speakers into power outlets, this is because the Europeans have stupid plugs and because they are all mad. Honestly, we don't think anyone DID this, but the decisions was taken to produce a custom socket that had a custom plug that wouldn't fit into a wall outlet and kill speakers, or anyone touching them at the time. What it has done is generate the worst speaker bindings we've ever seen on any hi-fi, including those cheap ones with the little spring clips. Happily, we're told - despite the DIRE warnings in the manual - that it's fine to keep using banana clips.

And our final irritation goes to the optical digtial inputs. These are located on the back, which is fine, and they work as you'd hope, and there's a really good selection too - two optical, two coaxial - so it's mostly positive. The problem is, the optical socket is recessed slightly, which means that almost no cables will fit properly. There's probably some audiophile solution to this problem that costs tens of hundreds of pounds for a cable, but we just wanted to plug in our computer, and we only have one cable suitable - our Creative soundcard is brilliant, but needs a special connector for its optical port. In the end, we used analogue for the PC, which was fine, but still annoying.

And that's it for the problems. These all annoyed us, but when you hear this machine go, the irritation does sort of melt away.

Performance

For all its slightly silly faults, when it comes to making a sound, we can't fault the Naim at all. Its sound quality really is second to none. To test fully we hooked it up to a £4,000 set of speakers and had our breath taken in a most pleasurable way.

It's also worth remembering how lovely it is to listen to a CD. Most music these days has been compressed, and even with high-quality music from iTunes or Amazon MP3, you're still missing out in comparison with the original audio. A CD offers a promise - usually - of very high-quality sound, unless you put a Justin Bieber CD in, and then you deserve to have your licence to listen to music revoked.

Once we'd got a disc into the Naim, we were happy to hear everything from Magnetic Man to Adele rendered in stunning clarity. We have to admit, even people who aren't massive Adele fans, listening to her voice on the Naim, with some good speakers was nothing short of captivating. And it proves what we've become used to in terms of compromised audio.

Overall, this is one of the best-sounding audio systems we've heard. Through speakers or headphones, it manages to hit the nail on the head every time. It's also lightning fast, with brilliant on-display prompts that scroll like we've never seen before. Giving you loads of information about what you're listening too, but without feeling like you're pushing treacle up hill.

Verdict

The Naim UnitiLite is certainly far from logical at times. Prepare yourself for a fight with the speaker bindings and optical digital inputs, but aside from that - we've solved the open CD tray button for you - it's a lovely piece of equipment to use.

It's built to last, sounds glorious and its large buttons and mono screen are all, surprisingly, pleasing to look at an use. It looks like one thing, but using it is quite another entirely and it doesn't disappoint at all once you start using it. At least, not visually, but it can be a bit baffling in terms of how the menus work.

Sound quality aside, we love the network streaming - you can add FM radio via an optional module if you wish - it's brilliant. Plug it in to your network and it will find DLNA servers - including Windows Media Player's own sharing, built into windows. It sounds great with this material too, and it proves that audiophile hardware doesn't have to have a stuff "vinyl only" attitude.

It's expensive though, but if you've got the money and can bear the minor weirdness then this is without doubt a wonderful piece of kit.