The Brands: Naim and Focal
It’s understandable to question an English and French union. History has told us that for these two European juggernauts striking a harmonious relationship is as much of a one-off as Shakespeare’s Henry V. In 2011, it would seem audiophiles from both sides of Naim and Focal’s merger vs. takeover debate were also in the midst of a 100-year war. Naim’s battalions uttered concerns their brand would relinquish its mission for unceasing refinement to the whims of French novelty. Focal’s brigades feared Naim’s fiercely independent spirit would stifle their revolution. Focal’s revolution and Naim’s refinement. The idea of revolutionizing speaker technology with distillery refined amplification ended the debate. Both children of the ’70s, both fighting against mass-market mediocrity, both committed to being a REFERENCE in hi-fi audio, one the British leader in electronics, the other the French leader in acoustics, they were meant for each other. War over.
Naim is rooted in the premise that the sound quality of a hi-fi system is as dependent on the quality of amplification as it is on the loudspeaker. For quality amplification, Naim asserts that an integrated amplifier is only as good as both the sum of its parts and how those parts work in chorus with each other. Naim hyper-engineers every component with an obsessive attention to materials, earthing, screening, and isolation to mitigate electronic and mechanical interference. The result is reference level amplification that is as commanding as it is spotless. Music amplified by Naim is pure to the point of transcendence.
As dedicated as Naim is to amplifiers, Focal is to loudspeakers. Focal has revolutionized high-end speakers through the sole use of proprietary technologies backed by relentless acoustic research and a willingness to push the edges of innovation with ultra-modern materials and design. With advancements like Polyglass, Kevlar, and Flax cones, beryllium and aluminum/magnesium tweeters, Tuned Mass Damper, and the Infinite Horn Loading systems, Focal’s speaker technologies are at the top of every category from home audio and car speakers to professional studio monitors, PA loudspeakers, and headphones.
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Intensify and Project. Naim and Focal. Since the merger, Naim and Focal have honored each other’s brands with respect and camaraderie. Under Vervent Audio Group’s management, Naim and Focal have retained their independent and effective audio philosophies, engineering principles, and design legacies. Beyond that, by uniting gifted engineers and designers from both sides of the channel, their combined R&D capabilities position them as dynamic leaders in the ever-evolving hi-fi space.
I was fortunate enough to witness the consummation of this union when I received a Naim Uniti Star all-in-one audio player along with a pair of Focal Chora 806 speakers for review. Focal and Naim design and tune their products to complement each other for both audio and brand experience. As products of Naim’s Northern European function-defines-form class and Focal’s romantic, sensual style, it’s clear the designers were inspired.
Naim Uniti Star All-In-One Audio Player (Retails for USD $3290)
Allow me a narrative. You heave the Uniti Star from its humble but secure packaging and rest it on your desk… It pulls you into its gravity field… Monolithic brushed black aluminum, its opaqueness only countered by your desire to light it up… The 5-inch glass LED display is bright and inviting, but the massive volume control stays your hand. . . Assuming whatever intelligence inside isn’t going to blast out some otherworldly content, you’re driven to turn it… Liquid smooth, the display counts up as Tron-colored lights illuminate and track the swell… 50, 70, 80, 90, 100! You’re supposed to hear a manic hiss, a malignant hum, the noise floor lurching up to swallow you with memories of blown speakers and ears… But there’s hardly anything. Just a pacifying suggestion of incendiary power… Rotate the wheel counterclockwise… 60, 30, 0. Exhale.
Back to the future, I easily pair the sleek remote after being prompted to bring it near the display, introduce the Uniti to my neighbor’s wi-fi network, and download the newly upgraded Naim App, which can pull from my Tidal library or you can cast directly from your Tidal App. The Unity Star with the Naim App is loaded with connectivity; Bluetooth, Chromecast, Tidal, Spotify, Internet Radio (Naim Records turned out to my favorite station, brilliant for this system), HDMI, USB, 2 analog ports, and 5 digital ports. Connect your gaming console, television, a small hard drive for a music store of downloads and CD bit-perfect rips, hook up your table, and the entire planet’s musical history is at your command. Before the music starts and I get too right-brained, let me take you through the left-brain stuff.
- An ultra-powerful 70-watt class A/B amplifier derived from the iconic NAIT integrated amps. Naim also packed in the largest power supply possible with optimum SMD circuitry to deliver definitive Naim pace, response, and musicality.
- Custom integrated CD drive and bit-perfect ripper to create WAV or FLAC files from your CD library and store on a USB drive, SD card, or serve up to any UPnP™ device on your home network. The state-of-the-art ripping engine ensures faultless replicas even from badly damaged CDs.
- 4th generation hyper-accurate and powerful 40-bit SHARC DSP processor that eliminates jitter and up-samples incoming data to ensure optimum clarity without the digital timing errors characteristic of streaming music.
- Powerful and versatile streaming board for adapting to new tech and effortless connections with other Naim wi-fi systems, including Mu-so.
- The elegant brushed black aluminum casing is flanked with finned aluminum heat sinks (reminiscent of Naim’s Statement flagship amplification system) to extract heat and maximize thermal stability for increased longevity and sonic performance.
- CNC-fabricated brushed aluminum top plates for absolute precision and an ideal enclosure to protect internal components.
- The CD slot is so slick it looks like it would sci-fi disappear after ripping and swallowing your entire CD library.
- The massive audiophile volume control is reminiscent of Naim’s NAC-N 272 preamp design but with the silky feel of their reference Statement amps. It adjusts level in the seamless analog domain but to a premium digital resolution. It glows just enough for use in moodier settings while lights illuminate and track your volume, which is also tracked digitally on the display.
Glass display and intuitive remote control
- A polished glass full-color 5” LCD displays album artwork and content in stunning detail. The screen’s proximity sensors wake when you approach the machine to display music metadata, audio input information, and track info. Besides a full menu on the display, there’s also a selection of front-panel buttons for essential functions like “stop” and “play”.
- The upgraded Naim App gives you intuitive control over a variety of Uniti products- you can have up to 9 of these (handy if you take over the Playboy Mansion). You can access all of your music, internet radio stations, streaming services, playlists, and explore artist information.
- Update the system wirelessly with a single tap.
Focal’s Chora 806 Bookshelf Speakers (Retails for USD $990)
- TNF Aluminum/Magnesium tweeters are rigid and light to deliver soft but precise high-end.
- Poron Memory foam surrounds (derived from iconic Focal Utopia tweeters) reduce distortion by a third between 2,000Hz and 3,000Hz, which is precisely where your ears notice everything.
- Focal’s signature inverted dome delivers expanded spatialization and very low directionality to keep the listener in the sweet-spot wherever they are in the room.
- 6 1/2” (16.5cm) bass/midrange woofers are equipped with proprietary Focal Slatefiber cones and feature aligned non-woven carbon to achieve higher rigidity and better damping. This “slate” effect also provides lightness to complete the holy trinity of ideal driver design- rigidity, damping, and lightness.
Touted as a bookshelf speaker, the build quality is far superior to my actual bookshelves. If you experience this, you can also opt for some killer Focal stands (USD $290). My review units came in black, which along with the minimalistic shape, comes off modern, unassuming, and looks great anywhere. The slate color of the Slatefiber cone adds a techy, luxurious note. Light or dark natural wood stains are also available.
What first? I can break out my CDs! It’s been a long time. The Uniti Star’s CD drive is reference-level featuring bit-perfect ripping. I bet the player could even forgive my Bob Marley “Kaya” copy that ended up as a coaster at a Madison frat house. Not just yet, I’ll rip some favorites later. 16/44 is good, but I need 96/24 for this ceremony. Look at that, my Tidal Master tracks are conveniently located on the Naim App home screen.
Let’s go in deep with Steely Dan “Babylon Sisters”-
It’s alive! This track is all about separation and space. On the Uniti, from Purdie’s first drum fill into Fagan’s open Rhodes, from Becker’s reggae clip into the vocal, what was once separated by an LA studio’s width is now coming from different solar systems. That’s why it’s alive. When you hear genuine separation, when you hear musicians in their own space, when you hear where they recorded from and how they were positioned in the mix (width-panning; depth-reverberation and delay), you finally hear their message. Hearing each player’s message loud and clear is essential to hearing the soul of the performance.
How does the Uniti deliver such expansive separation and space? Out-and-out quiet and clean helps. The lower the noise floor the easier it is to hear the subtle reverberations and reflections that allow your brain to work out where sound objects are coming from. Pacing is key. The Uniti Star’s pacing and response are so precise they retain the absolute integrity of the recording. That “integrity” in the case of “Babylon Sisters” is surgical attention to phase coherence via mic placement, which equals timing, which equals pacing, which equals space (yup, time equals space). Basically, Steely Dan used precision timing to create space, and the Uniti retains that timing and therefore space with precision pacing and response.
Of course, you have to have great speakers to deliver all this hard-work-made-to-sound-easy to your ears with equally great response. Focal Chora 806 speakers do precisely that. I have to hear the Purdie Shuffle at least once a day or my universe begins to collapse. Sometimes paying attention to eighth notes over triplets over quarter notes on a single hi-hat can be abrasive like cans behind your second wedding. Focal treats high-end with the same respect Purdie treats his hi-hat… rigid but light. Each note is so utterly bright and responsive you hear the tickety tock of wooden sticks using the metal hi-hat like a tap dance floor. It’s sticky, warm, and only sizzles when you want the heat. When the trumpet stabs at the same 11k to 16k frequency, it’s from another space, no interference, so liquid and luscious you chase the reverb tail, miss it, and climb back up the shuffle desperately wanting more.
Something modern with a little more bottom, Charlie Puth “LA Girls”-
Again, the Uniti and Chora’s precise response and pacing steal the day. Dry Kick, Dry Bass, down the middle, they’re so glued together I had to check if the beat was programmed… it wasn’t. The bottom end is beyond tight. Every bass note fills the room in equal measure, which is very rare. Usually, you either lose the 5th below or above the root since the mixer tunes the bottom end for bass and kick at the root. The Chora’s woofers dampen just right balancing out the bottom while the Uniti’s A/B class amp saturates just enough to retain psychoacoustic low-frequency harmonics delivering low-end even when it’s hardly there. Synergy and magic, I had to stop dancing to type. Despite how silly I looked, dancing around, by the way, was the ultimate sweet-spot test for the Chora’s inverted domes. Just about every off-axis angle in the room delivered a full-spectrum soundstage that was only slightly hampered by acoustic artifacts in the room. Having such a wide sweet-spot isn’t only ideal for movement but also for entertaining.
Bottom and top, fellow Headphone Guru Jason Miles “Black Magic”-
I love this modern jazz track because it travels but doesn’t leave anything behind. The bubbling drum track is Naim punchy with sizzling cymbals that sound sincere on the Focals. Keys lead the way through the midrange by a show-don’t-tell mentality that only comes from maturity in performance and delivery (by both artist and audio system). The low-end wanders and teases but never leaves you. The top-end pulls the strings like a master puppeteer at all the right moments without sounding forward or showy. Sometimes a song and system simply make love. Sorry, I listened in, Jason ;).
Let’s get mean and challenge the system, Chopin “Funeral March”-
No, the quarantine hasn’t finally caught up to me. Nothing challenges an audio system more than dense piano, and the “Funeral March” is as dense as it gets. Big angry chords pounding and plotting to distort your system. It works every time- plooooom blaaaamm crackle and pop. But no, not this time! I mentioned above that Focal and Naim design and tune their products to complement each other. This is living (or dying) proof. Harmonic distortion is so complex and infuriating to mitigate I keep an apology form letter at my recording studio for piano players who play cluster chords or pounce on the mid lows. From now on, I’ll just let them hear it through this system and change my phone number when they leave. I can’t pretend to know how Naim and Focal slew this dragon without dynamic compression. I’ll leave some space here so their engineers can whiteboard something to their product marketers who can translate it into concise audiophile jargon that their CTO can red mark to protect IP…
Another challenge, bring out the big guns, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog, “Nothing But A “G” Thang”-
I like to use this kick drum to quell arrogant surround stereo owners who are desperate to show off their new sub, which they cornered in some cabinet. Turn it up and the only thing that shakes is the new owner. Is that a kick drum or sputtering beatbox? But this system handled it at every level that I could handle. Around the time the digital display proudly said 79, the police politely knocked on my door and asked if they could use the system for riot clearing.
None. I sensed some over-intensity around 5.4 kHz on the Chora 806s at my (new) home listening room that I hadn’t heard at my studio. Then I realized my overly reflective back-wall mirror closet simply needed to be open. Problem solved, placid top-end. Note to listeners/readers- your room is just one giant speaker, and it’s a lot easier to adjust objects in your room than inside your speaker cabinets.
I going to wrap up with one more song, one of my own, 9Tomorrows, “Walk Through the Door” (featuring Beres Hammond)-
Both the Naim Uniti Star and the Focal Chora 806 speakers have proven to be clean as a vacuum in space, resilient as Ganymede, responsive as a 911S, and as wide as the Pacific, but are they flat? For me reference = flat with love. Something can be flat and sound incredibly harsh, or something can be flat and sound like butter on a warm roll. There are so many acoustic and psychoacoustic elements that go into that equation I simply call it love. My spectrum analyzer can tell me something is flat, and this system is, including when I A/B with different speakers for the Uniti and different amps for the Chora’s. But the easiest way for me to tell if something is genuinely flat with love is to get personal. I know how my tracks are supposed to sound, I know what my Genelecs in my control room on my amps do. On this system, the guitar still grabs, the horns still soar, the piano still cuts, the drums still punch, the vocals still speak. Even Beres Hammond’s vocal, which has a godly amount of natural harmonics and coloration (yes, if you don’t know him, check him out!) came out as if he were singing inside my head. Intimate. This is flat with love. This is reference.
Naim and Focal didn’t just marry superior amps with superior speakers. This is a lifestyle play, a technology decision, and the Uniti line was likely at the core of it. In front of me are the love children of two diverse brands willing to share their proprietary secrets for the greater good of audio technology not just for next year but for decades to come. This is about promising authentic hi-fi audio in the context of IoT. It’s about offering generations of wi-fi listeners hi-fi sound within their context in their space. The Naim Uniti Star is the ideal bridge between wi-fi and hi-fi. The Focal Chora 806 is a compact bookshelf speaker that can light up your home with BIG and BEAUTIFUL hi-fi sound. Naim and Focal have unified reference level sound with lifestyle. As a musician and engineer who dreams of a larger audience hearing my songs the way I hear them in the studio. That’s everything to me.
*BTW- my “Kaya” CD/coaster- ripped in under 5 minutes and not a single digital glitch.