Naim Audio UnitiServe Music Server

by Jason Kennedy | December 31, 2012

Naim has come a long way from the crudely finished and basically equipped amplifiers of its heyday. It now has three ranges of electronics and a technologically advanced selection of loudspeakers to its name. It has also  established itself as one of the key players in the emerging market of streaming audio. Unlike longtime associate and streaming advocate Linn, Naim has not abandoned the CD player. Its top source component is just such a beast, but the introduction this year of a streamer in its middle NDS range reveals in which direction the company is moving. Naim gained useful knowledge about streaming data from the NaimNet multi-room system, and their first domestic streamer, the HDX, was essentially a variation on a multi-room server. Since then Naim has thrown itself wholeheartedly into this new market with dedicated streamers, complete one-box solutions and, in the UnitiServe, a ripper-cum-hard-disk-server.

UnitiServe is a network server with either a spinning or solid-state drive that automatically rips discs that are inserted into the only feature on its front panel, a slot drive. It serves up data via its Ethernet connection to a maximum of eight UPnP streamers (renderers), but it also has a digital output, so you can use it with your choice of DAC. It can handle digital files up to 24 bits and 192kHz, but it only rips Red Book CDs, so high-resolution files have to be loaded with a computer. It is designed for screenless operation, though its back panel includes VGA, composite and S-video connections for a monitor and both PS2 and USB sockets for a mouse and keyboard, which would let you run it without a touchscreen. The USB sockets can be used for USB source devices; Naim recommends sticks rather than drives for storage.

The UnitiServe gained another terabyte of storage in early 2012, bringing its capacity to 2TB, enough for about 2400 albums in .WAV format. Another change is the introduction of a partition for material that’s already in digital-file form. Named "downloads" for the obvious reason that many users are buying music straight from the 'net, this partition, as well as the one for ripped discs, can be accessed by a computer on the same network as the UnitiServe, which means that you can also back up your rips without installing a separate NAS. Of course, the automatic NAS backup route (RAID) is the better way, because hard drives have a knack of failing just before, rather than just after, you get around to doing a manual backup.

The latest version of Naim's n-Serve app is not only free (it didn’t used to be), but it will let you find artwork for albums that the UnitiServe cannot via the Internet and change metadata, all of which is likely to be easier on an iPad than an iPhone or iTouch. (But as I discovered, it can be done.) A variation on this app exists for Macs, which allows you to modify metadata with the ease afforded by a big screen and a keyboard. I used it to rename albums that the ripper couldn’t identify -- homemade compilations and private pressings -- and to change the odd incorrect titles that sometimes came up.

The simplest way to set up this (or any other server) is to connect it to one of the ports on a wireless router with an Ethernet cable, but Naim is of the opinion that it’s advantageous to put a second router and a switch in between the two. This has two benefits: It creates a second network that isolates the audio system, and it increases reliability. The second router is not critical in situations where there is only one or two computers on the network, but its usefulness increases with the amount of devices being run on the main network. Naim supplied an Apple Airport Express WiFi base station and a Netgear gigabit 8-port switch for this purpose, and I wired the network with CAT6 Ethernet cable.

As a ripper the UnitiServe will only rip to .WAV, but because it looks up metadata online, you avoid the main pitfall with that format, specifically that .WAV files don’t carry metadata with them. It can only rip full albums, although I guess that if you only wanted individual tracks you could delete the unwanted ones, but it makes more sense to create playlists for favorite tunes. Ripping is neither a rushed nor particularly quiet affair, although it is very straightforward; just stick in a disc and let the UnitiServe do the rest. I managed to feed it a couple of albums that caused mild titling confusion, but, as outlined above, that was easily remedied with the n-Serve app.

I used the UnitiServe in its traditional network-connected form and via its S/PDIF BNC digital output. The latter direct-to-DAC approach cuts out the character of the streamer and is closer to the result achieved with a computer connected to the same converter. Naim had supplied a SuperUniti streaming amplifier so that I could enjoy the benefits of this approach, and it did make a pretty convincing case for sending the signal via a network. It’s not an approach for those who lust after tonal richness nor perhaps those seeking maximum detail for their money, but it does have a very strong sense of musicality, which translated into wanting to play more albums more often. It certainly increases the likelihood that you (or other cohabitants) will choose music over alternative sources of home entertainment.

How it does that is hard to pin down, but the key is timing. This is the quality that Naim holds most sacred, and if the results delivered in this situation are anything to go by, Naim would seem to have a point. The UnitiServe makes a pretty impressive streamer even when used with another amplifier. It is more dynamic and revealing than competitors that I’ve tried and makes me keen to hear one of the company’s standalone units. The NDS would be very interesting indeed.

I did a great deal of listening with the UnitiServe connected to a Resolution Audio Cantata, a DAC/preamp/CD player with lovely casework. The combination has effectively ousted Apple Macs from my audio system because it comprehensively trounced both of the computers I have. The quad core iMac is the better of these two, but it sounds weak, tonally thin and dynamically restrained by comparison to the UnitiServe. In some respects it seems more neutral, but in all respects it's less realistic, pianos sounding considerably more real with the UnitiServe and musicians having more energy and vivacity.

However, it was difficult for me to level the playing field completely for this comparison. For a start, it’s S/PDIF versus USB, and second, I don’t have examples of both cable types from the same manufacturer. Instead I am using the best coax cable and the best USB cable that I’ve found, and in truth more research has gone into the latter because USB cables are being launched by all and sundry these days. The Vertere D-Fi DD retails for 150, and it is by far the best production USB cable that I've heard. It has speed and musicality that put it way ahead of the field. The coax is the Atlas Mavros (260), and with my DAC this needs a BNC-to-RCA adapter at the UnitiServe end, so it’s more expensive but slightly compromised by this extra junction.

Nonetheless it delivers a signal that the Cantata can turn into musical nirvana, as became apparent when I played a FLAC of Frank Zappa’s "Yo Mama" from the downloads folder. I admit this isn’t a regular test track but something I usually hear from vinyl, and that makes it all the more impressive that this digital rendition proved so transporting. Initially it was Patrick O’Hearn’s bass playing that caught my attention, but when Zappa whipped out his Gibson SG and let rip it was a profoundly moving experience. I’ve always liked the track, but never has it gotten under my skin quite so effectively.

The UnitiServe works rather well with high-res material too. The 24-bit/96kHz version of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours has become a staple review album for me, so I know tracks like "Gold Dust Woman" pretty well. When the speakers disappeared and Stevie Nicks emerged in the room with all the luxury of that fabulous recording around her, I knew that the UnitiServe was doing something rather special. If I turned my attention to the mix, which was not easy, it became apparent that an awful lot of detail was being delivered, and it was this that created such a beguiling illusion. It really is about time that someone brought out the first Buckingham/Nicks Fleetwood Mac album at higher resolution.

The other key feature that I have somehow managed to leave until this stage in the review is that the UnitiServe is the best Internet radio I’ve found. Not only can you access any of the world’s myriad stations either directly with the handset or by adding them to your favorites list via the vTuner site, you can access many radio shows that have already been aired but are still available in "listen again" form online. The shows I like come from the BBC, but there are other stations that have the same facility, yet this is something that not all streamers can deliver. Live radio also sounds excellent too -- where bit rate and programming allow, of course. BBC Radio 3 broadcasts at 320kbps are remarkably distracting, especially when there’s a live concert on the air.

No matter how you use the UnitiServe it delivers rich, powerful and totally engaging sound that is hard to imagine being bettered by a computer -- it wasn't here. Added to this, it offers an ease of use and reliability that you just don’t get with computer audio. The fact that it needs to be connected to a network might seem daunting, but in reality it requires no more than a length of Ethernet cable, and that stuff is really great value by anyone’s standards.

The UnitiServe is rare product for Naim: designed to work with the company’s streamers in the context of a Naim-based system but equally at home connected to the DAC of your choice. What’s not to like?

Price: $3695 with 2TB hard drive, $3995 with solid-state drive.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

Naim Audio Ltd
Southampton Road
Salisbury, SP1 2LN, England
+44 (0) 1722 426 600

The Sound Organisation
159 Leslie Street
Dallas, TX 75207
(972) 234-0249

Associated Equipment

Analog: SME Model 20A turntable and SME Series V tonearm; van den Hul Colibri and Condor, Rega RP6 phono cartridges; Trilogy 907 phono stage.

Digital: Resolution Audio Cantata CD player/DAC/preamp; Cambridge Audio DACmagic and Arcam rDac digital-to-analog converters.

Preamplifiers: Townshend Allegri, Border Patrol Control Unit with phono stage.

Power amplifiers: Valvet A3.5 monoblocks.

Loudspeakers: ATC SCM150ASL Pro active, B&W Nautilus 802D, PMC Fact 8.

Interconnects: Townshend DCT 300.

Speaker cables: Townshend Isolda DCT.

Digital cables: Townshend DCT Digital, Atlas Mavros, Vertere D-Fi DD.

Power cords: Living Voice LVPC, Russ Andrews Classic Powerkord.

Equipment rack and supports: Townshend VSSS equipment stand, Townshend Stella speaker stands.