Synergy – when a system works in harmony to produce a sound that is as good or better than the sum of its parts – is not guaranteed. Even when two companies work under the same umbrella, that synergy is often hard-won. Such is the case here, with the Naim Audio Uniti Nova and the Focal Kanta No.2. This is a system that comes together extremely well, and while that is fully understandable, it wasn’t always the case.
There has been something of a meeting of like minds between Focal and Naim since the well-publicised Entente Cordiale between the two companies. But after the two joined forces, things were not automatically rosy from a sonic perspective: while there were Naim and Focal partnerships that worked together well, there were exceptions; Focal’s Utopia Grande EM flagship was a loudspeaker in search of a Naim amp partner until The Statement came along.
That has all changed recently, and both the Naim Audio Uniti Nova (tested in issue 153) from the refreshed Uniti line and the Focal Kanta No.2 (out of a range of one so far, tested in issue 155) are examples of that closer working relationship (or at least, Naim doing its listening tests on Focal loudspeakers, and vice versa). They are also interesting inclusions because both eschew the traditional in design terms. OK, so the Uniti Nova is still very much a black box, but the Naim following are extraordinarily traditional and the move away from green logos and matching text (as per the previous SuperUniti, the Nova’s spiritual antecedent) is the kind of thing riots are made of in Naim world. That being said, the reaction to both Nova and Kanta has been – on the whole – very positive.
Now its well-publicised supply issues are mostly behind it, the Naim Uniti Nova is settling in nicely at the top of the Uniti range, a trio of one-box streaming amplifiers with the distinctive top-mounted large volume control and clear acrylic base plate (first seen on the Statement and the Muso) range and a full colour display screen that’s a joy to read.
The Nova and the rest of the new Uniti amplifiers were the result of a four-and-a-half-year project to revise and improve upon the original Uniti platform. Given that previous platform had eight years of front-line use, it’s clear Naim could not afford to mess this up, as it would be around for years. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that high-resolution to the original Uniti was 16‑bit, 48kHz and (if you could get them) 24‑bit, 96kHz PCM files and streaming was what you did with a bad head-cold. More importantly, the original Uniti existed in a pre-iPad world, and although it ported well to that environment, the new digital platform was designed from the outset to live a world of apps. Everything is effectively powered through the app, whether it be a firmware update or complete multiroom access (see box), the Uniti Nova and its kin are made for apps. This could only happen if Naim went right back to basics with the Nova, using what went before as a loose guideline rather than a strict rule-book on how to make a 21st Century integrated device.
That clean-sheet design didn’t just mean the inclusion of new (and welcome) formats into the Naim fold, including Apple AirPlay and Google Chromecast, and it didn’t just mean improved Wi-Fi connectivity, or writing a bit of code to augment the digital filtration of a particular DAC; it meant writing their own unique digital filter. Naim’s Salisbury HQ has a very high boffin count, so custom DSP is entirely do-able.
Nova, however, doesn’t simply tear up the old rulebook; it borrows from that book what best suits the modern listener. For example, its built-in 80W Class AB amplifier is very much in line with Naim’s traditional power amplifier design, but the platform’s front-end is a radical departure because it operates in the digital domain, converting the two analogue inputs into the digital domain, and digitising the preamp outputs. This was probably the most controversial change in the whole Uniti project, as some of Naim’s more ‘trad’ followers objected to the digitisation process on principle. In fairness, though, most just use the Uniti Nova as the sole music device in the room.
Moving across to the Focal Kanta, the loudspeaker occupies a place between and draws technology from the Sopra and the Electra series. Coming in at a height of 1,118mm and weighing in at 35kg the Kanta N°2’s is a fairly compact floor standing dimension. But people might not see that; instead, they are most likely to view the range of colour schemes Focal went for with its latest three-way offering. Thes include four high gloss colour options with a high gloss black shell including Carrara White, Gauloise Blue, Black Lacquer, and Solar Yellow and four Matt Finish colour options with the Walnut wood finish shell in Ivory, Warm Taupe, Gauloise Blue, and Dark Grey– all of which complement the subtle tan/white shades of the flax drivers. Magnetic grilles are included but best avoided for optimum sound.
There is a clear resemblance to Focal’s higher end lines. The bend near the top to facilitate the Focal Focus Time alignment, while not adjustable like the Utopia line was similar to the Sopra’s. The new IAL3 tweeter is similar to the Sopra’s IAL2 utilising the same principles of Infinite Acoustic Loading and Infinite Horn Loading, which according to Focal research “helps with the absorption of waves, thus lowering the tweeter frequency.” Focal’s stated goal is to reduce distortion in every way possible and their continuing research toward this end has, in their view, moved one more step forward with the new IAL3 tweeter.
The Kanta N°2’s Zamac base offers a very firm support while not taking up too much space. Each of the four feet has an adjustable spike that offers options both for anchoring the feet to the floor and for levelling the cabinets. There is also front/back adjustment via the feet to refine and to level the angle of the IAL3 tweeters.
The choice of ancillary is important here, but mostly on the Naim side. If you are streaming from a local network, it’s a relatively easy decision, because Naim’s Uniti Core server is tailor-made for the task, and the combination of Uniti products, Tidal, and Roon are hard to ignore (even though Roon and the Uniti Core have a habit of rescanning Naim’s music library a lot), but Naim’s own app works well for Tidal and the Core’s library. I’d say if you can go for Roon, go for Roon (if only for its musical eye-opening powers), but Naim’s own app is no slouch. Naim makes the cable decision for you (it makes its own) and Super Lumina was used throughout.
Of all the systems tested in this issue, this was the most predictable. When the Kantas were first launched, a few UK journalists were given a sneak peak, and they were being played through a larger Naim separates system. That worked extremely well, and people at that event already began to speculate how the the Kanta would fare next to the then hard-to-get Uniti Nova. And the combination deserved that speculation, because it performs in exactly the way we all expected it to. This isn’t expectation bias, and it isn’t boring conformity… it’s that these two devices are exceptionally well made and fit well with one another.
The new Uniti models were a sonic change in tone compared to the predecessors. Not on a massive scale, but there has been a distinct progression from the more rounded, but fun sound of early Naim to the brighter, more detailed, and upbeat sound of this latest iteration. In fact, I don’t mind that progression, because the old Naim sound is arguably out of step with modern audio, a lot of modern recordings and mixes, and most modern loudspeakers.
Both products have a common presentation of making a good, fast, and dynamic midrange, and moving out from there. This makes the pairing exceptionally good with vocals. I played ‘Personal Jesus’ from American IV: The Man Comes Aroundby Jonny Cash [American Recordings] and Cash’s end of his time voice is as powerful as it is poignant. Any imperfection in articulation in a system would come across as almost musical heresy, but here it was pitched perfectly. The gravelly, broken voice, with Cash fighting his own failing body comes across perfectly and the sound invites you to listen to ‘Hurt’ and the rest of the album.
The sound really fills out from there, adding bass depth and some forceful slam to the bottom end and some refinement and eloquence to the treble. Nothing is harsh, but similarly, nothing is artificially softened. Moving over to Neil Young singing ‘Southern Man’ [After The Gold Rush, Reprise], the sound remained light, boppy, and bouncy, but the added depth to the bass made you more aware of the left hand of the piano player underpinning the track throughout. Yes, the guitar (and Young’s voice) wailed sonorously, but it was that solid piano that sold the system to me.
As you might imagine, rhythm is a strong suit (it’s an obsession at Naim, and it’s one that seems to have rubbed off across the Channel too). Enter, er, ‘Enter Sandman’ [Metallica, Elektra], which stands or falls depending on the quality of that gut-churning rhythm. It’s not a great recording, but it is one of those you-can’t-help-headbanging moments, and this pairing puts you right in the theoretical mosh pit.
In case you think this Naim and Focal pairing is really only good for rock, guess again. I played the ‘Un Bal’ from Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique [Linn Records] and it behaved flawlessly, teasing out the playful themes with charm and portraying each with tremendous detail and the kind of dynamic range required to portray this recording with the right sort of scale. And ‘scale’ is the one of the system’s great strengths, moving from large scale recording to tiny jazz clubs, and everything in between, with aplomb. OK, this is more about dynamic scale than image size, but even on the size and shape of the imagery, this is a system that does well. I’d say this is not the choice for the soundstage freak, though.
The imaging on this system is good, and best described as ‘tidy.’ Instruments are presented with good solidity and sophistication, and the soundstage is slightly wider and deeper than the boxes, but it’s not the pinpoint precision that stereo image freaks crave. I prefer balance in a system!
A good system has limits, and the limits here are entirely understandable and predictable, too. The performance threshold is broad, in that you can play this system loud and you can play it relatively quietly. But push it too far in either direction and you understand what more buys you. Funnily enough, the most noticeable part is the lower-level playing, which can get uneven when played at whisper levels. Loud is better handled; there is some thickening of the sound, some shutting down of the image, and – if pushed to the max – the system can get too bright. But mostly it covers its tracks. Similarly, with the loudspeakers, swapping out normal listening room sizes for barns or wardrobes and the Kantas are either overawed or overdriving. This system sits in its own goldilocks spot in the audio hierarchy, and that applies to listening levels and rooms, too. But for most of the people, most of the time, the Focal and Naim duo make a very strong case for ‘stick a fork in me, I’m done!’ There’s no upgrade path because there’s no need for an upgrade path. These two are self-contained greatness.
The combination works better than it should in hierarchy if not electrical terms, and the synergy concept is beautifully worked here. Yes of course other brands are available, and both Nova and Kanta work fine in partnership with a range of loudspeakers and electronics respectively. But the two work together remarkably well.
Multiroom without tears
Naim Audio has incorporated some form of multiroom systems for years, with some success. However, the multiroom industry today is divided between millionaires with plant rooms designed to control lighting, heating, home security, audio, video, telephony, internet access, and home automation across several dozen rooms in a modern oligarch’s palace… or an iPad!
Like an increasing number of companies, Naim realised everything is about the app now. The app represents the nerve centre of any audio system, and if multiroom capability is demanded, the app is the place to meet that demand, head on. In the latest version of Naim’s own app, coupled to latest versions of the firmware on Naim’s latest generation of streamers, servers, and Muso one-box devices (like the Muso Qu-be pictured above), multiroom connectivity is ‘unlocked’.
A Naim multiroom system allowed both independent play in different zones (Richmond Fontaine through the main system, The Fall on one Muso, Nick Cave on the other, and lots of family therapy all round) or Party Mode (five devices playing in sync), controlling volume in each room if needed. Where this didn’t quite work was with old and new streaming generations, but the latest app makes for two-way ‘conversations’ between new products, and one-way to old. Cool!
PRICE AND CONTACT DETAILS
Naim Audio Uniti Nova
Manufactured by: Naim Audio
Tel: +44(0)1722 426000
Focal Kanta No.2
Price: £7,000 per pair
Telephone: 0845 660 2680 (UK only)
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