A Cautionary tale of a SuperUniti and a Cat5 cable.
Thirty years ago, when I was still a school boy, my holiday jobs were just enough to get me to the bottom end of some real British hifi, but names like Linn and… er… Naim, were out of reach. Six months ago, after half a lifetime of being very happy with my trusty Rega Planar 3, A&R A60 and Heybrook HB2s, I finally decided it was time to invest in something new and this time Naim was at the top of the list.
Being an old-school purist, I assumed I was looking for a CD player and an amp (new speakers would have to wait). However, when I called a Naim dealer for a chat, I was told that streaming was the way to go. I wasn’t keen and the dealer said he’d happily sell me a CDP if I wanted, but he suggested I came in for a listen. I did. He’d set up a Linn Majik DSM, a SuperUniti and a CDX2 as a CD comparison. The result was that the CDX2 spinning discs didn’t sound (to my ears anyway) any better than the SU streaming – I’ll be honest, that was a big surprise, and given the convenience of streaming, I was sold. And so was the SU – I didn’t like the Linn, it was just a bit too analytical, probably very accurate, but not for me. I placed an order for a SuperUniti, and waited for Naim to build it for me.
A couple of months later I got a call to say the SU had arrived and an installation was arranged. My house had already got various Cat5 cables running through the walls, left by the previous owner. The installer found cables connecting my office to my living room, which meant I could rip on my Mac in the office, feed the files to a NAS in a cupboard in the corner of the living room and then the SU itself was connected to the NAS via a switcher and another stretch of Cat5 that was already in the living room wall. All very neat.
Once everything was set up the installer left with the comment that Naim kit takes a lot of running in when it’s new, so don’t expect it to sound great at first. He wasn’t joking. It sounded horrible. Admittedly the SuperUniti was feeding 30 year old Heybrook HB2 speakers, but even so, to my ears it wasn’t a great advance over my A60, and in some ways it was worse…
Forums like this one confirmed that Naim kit does get better with time, so I vowed to be patient, but as the months went by the sound didn’t get better. It was thin, hard and reedy, but at the same time, felt as though the top end was heavily rolled off. I knew that Naim had a distinctive sound, but this was ridiculous. How could so many people actually like this sound? I re-read all the reviews, I read forums, I got friends round to reassure me. They were polite, but the feeling remained, this was hugely disappointing for a black box that cost three and a half grand. Actually it would have been disappointing if it had cost a tenth as much.
I spoke to the supplying dealer who was convinced the problem was with my ancient Heybrooks. Maybe, but they hadn’t sounded bad when I took them in for my original demo and nor did they sound bad with the old A60. Perhaps it was the way I was ripping files? But then the dealer had put some demo tracks on the NAS he’d supplied and they didn’t sound that great either.
Miserably I began to consider that I just wasn’t a ‘Naim person’. Perhaps my sonic appreciation just wasn’t subtle enough to understand why this was good sound… Could that really be the case? Hey, but hadn’t the SuperUniti sounded pretty super at the demo? Even with my speakers.
Perhaps the SU was faulty? But then again, it was built by Naim, the same guys who have an almost religious pursuit of perfection. Could it really be that my handbuilt black box had been let out of the factory without being properly tested?
After a lot of experimentation I discovered something odd: The sound from compressed MP3 files on my iPhone sounded better than the full res FLAC files on my NAS. Was FLAC overrated? Should I be ripping to WAV? Then I tried connecting my old Denon CDP and spinning some discs. They sounded better than the ripped FLAC files too… But at the original demo hadn’t a £4k CDX2 failed to comprehensively outshine the FLAC files? Finally I tried short circuiting the Cat5 cable that was buried in the wall of the living room and connected the SU directly to the NAS. Suddenly it was as if a door had opened and the lights had been turned on. There was treble. There was bass. Actually it sounded awesome – even through my long serving Heybrooks. Sure better, newer speakers would probably reveal even more talent, but the SU/Heybrook combo was actually, suddenly, sounding pretty damn fine.
Now I come from a background in TV production, we have lots of cables going everywhere all the time. Back in the days of analogue there were engineers to set everything up and measure stuff with vector scopes and waveform monitors, but in the modern era of digital signals it’s generally assumed that if a signal gets through, then it’s going to be OK. So it had never dawned on me that there might be a problem with the link between the NAS and the SU. If the signal was getting through then it would be OK right? Seems I was wrong. Very wrong. The cable is buried in the wall so I still don’t know exactly what’s wrong with it – there may be a nail through it for all I know, but what I do know is that the data it was supplying to the SU wasn’t the full deck.
And why am I writing this? Well, partly because I’m so happy that I’ve finally realised why Naim is as legendary as it is and I wanted to share that thought with fellow enthusiasts, and to declare that I am a ‘Naim person’ after all. But also because, there just might be, somewhere out there, someone else who’s splashed out several thousand pounds on a Naim streamer only to be bitterly disappointed, but can’t quite figure out why. If that’s you, then check the connection between NAS and streamer, just because you’re getting a signal, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting the whole signal – and as I discovered, that can make a big, big difference.