This was the audio buzz of CES, and not in the wrong way. Although many rooms at the show were frighteningly empty at times, Naim Audio’s room was not one of them – there was a steady through-flow of visitors looking specifically at the new £545/$999 Mu-so Qb. Following in the footsteps of the Mu-so, this new, small, cube of sound is designed to reach a new set of music lovers.
In a way, this new device has the toughest job to do of all the products in the Naim line. On the one hand, it has to stand alone, inviting new listeners to join the club. On the other hand, it has to be exciting enough to entice existing Naim users to add more rooms to the mix. On the, er, third hand, it needs to be the perfect introduction for people who want something a bit better than a Sonos Play (which is harder than it seems, it’s a very good package at the price), and on the fourth hand it needs to do all that while being simple enough for almost anyone to use, with or without aid from specialist retailers. All in a package better thought out than this Shiva-esque paragraph.
The original Mu-so works in part because it combines the elements that makes good traditional audio in a more modern aspect: it’s basically amps and speakers in a wooden cabinet. The size and complexity of the Mu-so Qb shape (it looks like an olmec stone head under the grille) meant wood was out of the question at the price, so the cabinet is made from a tough glass-filled polymer. From the front there are two angled tweeters, two slightly less angled midrange units, one ‘racetrack’ bass units, and two well-made passive radiators firing out to the sides. Both the tweeters and midrange drivers are driven by their own 50W amplifiers, while the bass is powered by a single 100W device. Naim could have gone for exotic DSP to create more of a stereophonic sound, but instead went for a less processed sound with a slightly-stereo presentation. It uses the same 32-bit digital processing as the Mu-so, however.
Mu-so Qb’s rear panel is a heatsink for the amplifier and digital audio circuitry, and it gives the device some weight, solidity, and surprising tactile advantages – you can’t help putting your hand reassuringly on the heatsink when first installing it. Like its bigger brother, the Qb sits on an acrylic sheet that has three levels of illumination and a white Naim logo, and the top plate is given over to that super cool touch multiway controller, volume control dial.
The device is ludicrously easy to install, with one notable caveat. Take it out the box, power it up, and play. That’s it! OK, so you need a device to control the Mu-so Qb, and that means an iOS or Android phone or tablet, and Naim’s own app. Nevertheless, once you installed the Naim app, the process needed to add a new Mu-so is unfeasibly ‘light-switch’ easy. The caveat is there is no display as such on the Mu-so Qb, just different coloured lights in set-up: if you live in a place of massively contended wireless internet, there’s no obvious way to make sure your Mu-so Qb has glommed onto the right wireless router. In most cases, it will take you longer to take the Qb out of its box than it will to get it up and running.
There are a range of options, inclusion display brightness, loudness options, two alarm functions (it makes one hell of a clock radio), and the optimum installation configurator (is it less than or more than 25cm from the wall!). You can even get different colour moulded grilles for the Qb, and ‘skin’ your app to match.
Mu-so Qb – and for that matter, the original Mu-so – can play digital sources (wired through USB or optical digital, or wireless through AirPlay and Bluetooth), or stream digital audio from the wired or wifi ethernet, whether local UPnP network streaming or from online streaming sources. The box comes with a voucher for a month’s free Spotify Premium, and there’s also a 90 day Tidal trial (both are fully integrated into Mu-so Qb’s system). There is also vTuner internet radio services, and even a 3.5mm analogue input jack. Multiroom use is entirely possible (although currently there is no planned provision for turning the Qb into a master-slave stereo pair in one room) and just as easy to operate and install as that first Mu-so.
Technologically, then, Naim Audio’s Mu-so Qb ticks all the boxes. But does it sound any good? We are going to defer to our upcoming review for that aspect in greater detail, but in a nutshell, it sounds a lot better than you might expect. It does very well with voices: a day into using the Qb it became a part of the morning ritual, playing The Today Programme from BBC Radio 4’s HD internet radio channel around the room at a shake out the sleep dust level. And when it comes to music it’s similarly fun, projecting a good sound around the listening room. OK, let’s be totally honest here, this is no high-end performer and in absolute terms there are a few undernourished strings when hearing the sound of open guitar chords, the sound is slightly boxy and where the Mu-so was bass-heavy, if anything this errs on the side of upper bass warmth and not much else. But this is coming straight after a system where one single power cord cost almost 23x as much as the Mu-so, and the loudspeakers have about eight times the cabinet volume.
Coming back down to earth, and looking at the Qb for what it does, where it does it, and the price it does it for, the ‘Qb’ in Mu-so Qb clearly stands for ‘Quite brilliant’. It’s music stripped down of all that pretentious nonsense that good audio can sometimes add, and it’s got that intrinsic fun factor that a good clock radio has, only a lot, lot bigger sounding. Whether it’s the effortless of the set-up, that it looks pretty damn good, the fact it doesn’t overdrive the room, the sheer clean-ness of the overall sound, or just the fact everything works together in a package that’s about the size of a teapot doesn’t ultimately matter. Ultimately, I’m not surprised Mu-so Qb was one of the big hits of CES – it puts a smile on your face!
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