The mu-so is Naim’s first foray into the world beyond separates hi-fi. An all in one wireless sound system designed to sit on the sideboard of music lovers who want quality without clutter and the ability to play tunes straight from their mobile phones. It’s a brave move for a company that’s steeped in less is more, multiple black box, hair shirt audiophilia, but a necessary one for any brand hoping to grow in today’s market.
Mu-so in the flesh is surprisingly wide, it won’t fit on a standard hi-fi rack, and it’s surprisingly elegant. The transparent Perspex base looks far better in the domestic setting than it did on Naim’s show sets earlier in the year. It’s a little disappointing that the coloured grilles they used for those dems are now £70 optional extras with black being the standard colour. This is said to be because retailers would have to stock one of every colour if it were not so. We are suspicious that the real reason is that there has never been a Naim product that is not black before, so some vestige remains. Actually the controller/display is also black, a device which my 11 year old son described as “sick”, I take this to be a sign of approval and one step better than epic.
Set up is very straightforward if you have an iOS7 device around with an iPad being the obvious first choice, you’ll need to download the Naim app but from there on it’s plain sailing. It’s even plainer if you just want to play something via Bluetooth, just go through the usual pairing process and a light comes on above the logo when it’s hooked up. Much the same goes for Airplay although you have to pair this through the app, but we’re told that it does sound better than Bluetooth even in the higher quality aptX version that’s on offer here.
There are connections for Ethernet and Toslink digital in a slot underneath plus USB and analogue minijack on the side but this is first and foremost a Wi-Fi device. It’s only guaranteed to handle sample rates up to 48kHz but in it practice will stream up to 192kHz if the network is up to it. Which with an Apple Airport Express doing the broadcasting proved to be the case.
There are a couple of unusual set up options for the mu-so as a whole, you can alter bass output by choosing between placement options of greater or less than 25cm from the wall. The less than option reducing bass output because the wall will reinforce that part of the spectrum. Of course you can choose whichever you prefer regardless of position, if you want bombastic bass then the greater than 25cm option will probably suit. Likewise there is the very un-Naim like option of loudness control, a means of boosting bass and treble so that you get wider perceived bandwidth when playing quietly, or a ‘louder’ sound at normal levels. It’s hideous but not unpopular.
These options can only be accessed from the mu-so app (below) which is reasonably intuitive and looks good, particularly when searching for albums when artwork is shown (not so with artists). The volume slider is only accessible from the ‘now playing’ page even though you have to opt into that page from the track listing. There is a lightweight IR handset that offers basic controls for when the iPad/Phone has gone to sleep. The app looks great with its light font and spacious feel, black on white text isn’t to all tastes but it’s less glare to contend with when listening late at night.
Internet radio is provided by the vTuner service which is pretty comprehensive, the use of national flags for station search looks good and it’s not hard to find the ones you want. More relevant however is the ease with which you can preset stations and choose between the top five from the controller, remote or app.
I managed to find a rack that was wide enough for the mu-so’s feet and used it on a wireless network with music stored on a Naim Unitiserve server. After a few experiments it became clear that the reduced bass output of the ‘less than 25cm’ placement setting was preferable even though the wall was 29cm away. There was sometimes more than enough bass output with this setting but there will be situations where conditions and tastes make the opposite true. What struck me early on is how good mu-so is with voice, this intelligibility is obvious across different music types and the various means of sending signal to the player. You can understand lyrics that are often obscured on bigger systems, this partly because a box of this size is naturally limited in the bass but equally because of the way it has been voiced. There are many choices to be made in a design like this and I don’t doubt that midrange clarity, for this is what we are talking about, was something Naim was aiming for. It helps deliver the pace of the music, the interplay between musicians and the leading edges that tell you when things are happening. It’s the key to engaging music making.
A system that has spectacular imaging and ground shaking bass may be impressive but it doesn’t necessarily make you want to listen rather than watch, and that is what mu-so is all about. It’s competition for the TV. That’s tough opposition for sure but, unless you really can’t live without baking, it’s not insurmountable.
The flip side of a revealing midband is that less sweet recordings can sound harder, this is not the most forgiving of systems if you are using Wi-Fi and sitting in the sweet spot, but that’s not what this device is really about. If you want a smoother sound you can sit off axis like most do, or take the audio enthusiast’s route and connect it up with Ethernet. Mu-so is just like any other piece of kit in this regard, you would not use a separates streamer via Wi-Fi if you wanted the best sound and the same applies here. It makes a pretty obvious difference as well, more subtlety, detail and lower noise combined with a cleaner midrange, all of which combines to make top musical entertainment. Mu-so has an unusual capacity for getting you to sing along, something that I, as the world’s worst singer, generally refrain from. But with a number of songs it couldn’t be held back. It doesn’t encourage less fashionable pursuits like air guitar, you need a bigger system to do that, but that’s probably not such a bad thing for a mainstream product.
I tried Airplay from the iPad Mini and found it surprisingly enjoyable, it’s not as revealing as Wi-Fi nor as easy to identify specific instruments with but very engaging if the material is good. That’s still a key factor, the better the source the better the result. Some tracks sound truly grunty and dynamic others a bit flat via Airplay, it reflects its hi-fi heritage in this regard, the old maxim garbage in garbage out still holds. On the practical side it switches between UPnP and Airplay sources automatically, ditto Bluetooth. I wasn’t able to muster a BT aptX source in the time available, which is a pity because the only time I did compare it against Airplay the Apple system came off worse. That could be down to receiver and phone differences of course.
If I have any criticism of mu-so it’s that you have to be streaming from a device or have the app open to use it, there is no screen on the unit itself. You can pick between sources and radio stations with remote or main controller, and it will play from UPnP at switch on if you press play/pause, albeit from the beginning of the album rather than from where you left off. So it’s not hard to get it going. I suspect the lack of onboard feedback will be more of an issue for existing Naim users than those the company hopes to woo with mu-so.
The question really is, is mu-so a proper Naim product. I’d argue that it is because it achieves the aim that all good audio kit should, it makes you want to listen to music, to really listen. You don’t get the dynamics, volume level and imaging of a separates system but you get better detail resolution, timing and power than the competition it’s up against. You also get a really well thought out and impressively finished piece of kit with the minimum of protruding wires from a company that has a superb track record for reliability, long term back-up and residual value. It’s not a well known name outside of the hi-fi world but I suspect that mu-so could change that very quickly. It’s good enough to make music more than a form of wallpaper for the many who take it for granted, it reaches out and makes a connection that more obvious sources of entertainment cannot. And yes, I would love one at home.
UPnP,TM AirPlay, Spotify and Internet Radio via wired Ethernet or Wi-Fi
Bluetooth (with aptX) USB/iOS (USB Type-A socket)
Digital: Optical S/PDIF (TosLink) up to 96kHz
Analogue: 3.5mm jack
WAV, FLAC and AIFF up to 24bit/192kHz
ALAC (Apple Lossless) up to 24bit/96kHz
MP3 up to 48kHz, 320kbit (16 bit)
AAC up to 48kHz, 320kbit (16bit)
OGG and WMA up to 48kHz (16bit)
Bluetooth SBC, AAC and aptX
WAV, FLAC and AIFF up to 24bit/192kHz
ALAC (Apple Lossless) up to 24bit/96kHz
Note: All formats to 48kHz maximum over wireless network.
Internet radio: vTuner premium 5
Connectivity: Ethernet (10/100Mbps) Wi-Fi (802.11b/g) Bluetooth RC5 remote-control
Speaker system: Dual three-way
User Control: remote handset, touch control rotary, iOS & Android app
Amplification: 450W, 6 x 75W into 6 Ohms
Dimensions: 122mm x 628mm x 256mm
Finish: Brushed aluminium casework, black anodised heatsink, black fabric grille.
Naim Audio Ltd
T +44 (0) 1722 426 600