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Review: Focal Kanta No. 1 & Naim Uniti Star

Review: Focal Kanta No. 1 & Naim Uniti Star

Focal Kanta 1 Review, Naim Uniti Star Review

In my never-ending quest to unearth the best performing pair of bookshelf speakers, it is slowly coming to my attention that the compact nature of a simple front end goes hand-in-hand with the real-estate-conscious category. So naturally when Focal released these five bundles with Naim for the holiday, we jumped at the opportunity to review the “Sophisticated CD & Music Streaming” system consisting of a pair of Focal Kanta No. 1 standmount speakers and the Naim Uniti Star CD/Streamer/Amp. The discounted pairing also includes a pair 4m NAC A5 speaker cables, which we found out later is quite helpful when completing the system.

For the uninitiated, the Focal Kanta 1 is the two-way bookshelf-style speaker that rounds out the mid-tier Katana line for the France-based company. The color swatch of available cabinet colors is quite robust, and the two drivers make music using a combination of Flax and Beryllium. The flax sandwich cone controlling the mids and low end is 6.5” in size and sits in a moulded multi-ply cabinet. To control the highs, a next generation IAL3 Beryllium tweeter which boasts IAL (Infinite Acoustic Loading) and IHL (Infinite Horn Loading) within its feature set. From an external perspective, I’ve always found the Kanta line quite fetching. One can order the pair in many fancy car colors, or some more understated shades of grey if that mood strikes you more. I now find myself drawn to the “outlandish” light blue color I’ve seen in many audio show demonstrations for the Kanta No. 2 floorstander, but for the sake of this review we received a more “limited release” in matte black. 

The top of the cabinet is actually covered in glass with a small Focal logo placed underneath, just adjacent to the front baffle. In lieu of a full front faceplate grill, the tweeter is permanently covered in a metal cross hatch pattern leaving the woofer with a fully removable round grill for just itself. I much prefer this method of driver conservation than the typical home-theater black fabric found on most loudspeakers of this size. As with the floorstanders, the aesthetic design appears as equal parts fun, functional and high end. Which is important, as many reviews for speakers on the higher end of the cost spectrum tend to focus on one or two of these pivot points, but rarely all three. The “F” sandwich flax cone has a woodsy pulp look to it, and is slightly translucent upon further inspection. You can actually see light coming through the driver material if you peer through the large rear-facing port when the speaker is backlit (or front-lit depending on your perspective here). Overall the size is quite manageable, as is the 28 lb weight (with the front grill on). Could the Kanta No. 1 make due on an actual bookshelf? Maybe. On a large desk? Moreso. A foam plug accompanies the rest of the speaker packaging and makes a solid complement to any close snuggles with a rear wall. Bass output with the plug is of course more limited, but still retains good presence and some punch in the process. 

The Naim Uniti Star is a do-it-all piece of hifi that really covers everything one could want in a digital playback system. While the Nova ($7,500) holds the title of flagship for the Uniti line, the Star does offer an on-board CD player as part of the package. Sure, all-in-one will never offer the heavy lifting of massive power amplifiers, but the 70 watts into 8 ohms of the Star were perhaps some of the most impressive I’ve heard, especially in this power range. Hopefully the days of wonky UI for mobile apps is long gone (not likely), but the interface for Naim’s control app was both helpful and “Just Worked”. “Just Working” is a major step from much of the custom code found in playback phone apps I have had to sift through in the past 7 years reviewing digital gear. The Naim app quickly and religiously found the Star player on the network and didn’t crash once on me for the entire review period. 

It might be slightly counter intuitive, but the long bar found next to the song playing indicator at the bottom of the screen is not intended for track progress or a scan/FF slider, but rather volume control – which I’m completely comfortable with. The only nitpick I probably have is that control is a little delayed at times when transmitting across the network from app to the Uniti device. Upon first use, this caused me to inadvertently push the volume up to concert levels, much to the chagrin of my pet and fellow housemates. But armed with this slight word of warning, anyone using the app should be able to control the interface smoothly and without incident. The 5” LCD screen was a nice add for looking at artwork from a small distance. Even though it is a slight redundancy to the app, I still like to look up from my nightcaps to check in with the artist’s visuals to see the edge-to-edge screen staring back at me, you can call me old fashioned if you like.

In terms of playback, the system handles all the usual audiophile requirements, DSD (up to 128) FLAC, ALAC and gapless playback. The bonuses to the fringes are really the hardware codex, AptX HD, zigbee, Airplay, Cromecast and even an HDMI input. One box to rule them all under the TV you could argue. USB connectivity allows for both front and rear Type A socket, located right next to a 3.5mm headphone jack (on the front panel). There are multitudes of optical & coaxial digital inputs plus a pair of SE analog for in and out – but no balanced XLR for either direction. All that is great, but more and more the real beauty of the situation we find ourselves in is simply sitting back and streaming some easy-to-access music. My usual go-to is Qobuz these days, and playback through Naim’s app was one of the best performers from a hardware company that I’ve seen to date. Not as visually stunning as the Qobuz app itself, but very straightforward and reliable. 

What I found of particular interest was the readily available internet radio options, especially Naim’s own stations. The company recently updated their curative prowess into a high resolution stream (up from 320k bit) and added two additional stations, classical and jazz. I spent a lot of time listening to all three of the selections and was very pleased with the overall playback and track selection. 

Exterior looks fit both the digital prowess of the innards and the demands of the premium pricepoint of the device. The relative size is just slightly taller than your average DVD player.  In the case of the Star, a custom toroidal transformer takes up most of the right side and a surprising 28.6 lbs of weight makes it quite a bit more hefty in the hand than you might expect, certainly more than any run-of-the-mill DVD player. Through subtle design queues, both sides of the Star’s chassis are lined with heatsinks, but are hardly noticeable to the untrained eye. There is an oversized volume knob that decorates the top of the case with a spin that is weighted and highlighted by hidden LEDs showing the current playback level. This aesthetic is mirrored on the equally impressive zigbee RF4CE remote. There is no delay to the remote’s response and you can actually navigate to a fair amount of content via the remote, without having to resort to the full interface available on the app. 

When it comes to power, the class A/B output was a steady match for the Focal Kanta 1 pair we received as part of the “Sophisticated” package and offered plenty of control and finesse for even our reference QLN Signature 3 bookshelves. It’s enough for most audiophile situations and plenty of bass control and dynamics at these efficiency levels. 

It is an old reviewer trope to say that they discovered something new in a song thanks to the refinements of a system – however – while listening to the audiophile staple Don’t Know Why by Norah Jones through Qobuz I did come across some interesting takeaways. This track is one that almost always sees its way into my review process, as after 7 years of observation, I could pick out the reference tonality and detail levels in my sleep. What I didn’t expect from the Naim + Focal combo was start-and-stop dynamics to pop so vibrantly from the canvas. Low noise and a powerful leading edge to this somewhat sleepy tune were a delight to behold. This of course, being the special “surprise find” which runs eternally parallel with a rigorous dose of fidelity and foot-tapping expressiveness.

Together, the pair make for tight treble, powerful bass and a lovely midband. The air up there (in the treble) is fresh and freeing for musical presentation. Nothing is really stifled across the frequency range and everything offers up plenty of whatever the song is bringing. It is HiFi in all forms of thought, but in a significantly compact package. If you find yourself in the market for a second system in this price range for an office or study, you might find the Focal Kanta 1 + Star to be just the huckleberry you are looking for. In another unexpected twist, I found the low level playback to be some of the best I’ve ever heard from any system I’ve had in for review. With big watts and big speakers, oftentimes one might find that the real audio magic takes just a while to warm up with the rig. Moving up the volume finds uncovered treasures lurking just underneath the low levels of applied force. Not so with the Focal Kanta No. 1 or the Naim Uniti Star. The silky detail and luster are just as potent as 10 and 20 as they are at 70 on the digital readout. While some may feel the all-in-oneness of the system could be limiting by some terms, I would argue the Kanta’s in the equation here provide more solutions than you might expect. If space is an issue, the contributions here are unquestionable. However, if big room bang are on the menu, the system is also capable, this includes a substantial performance for the Uniti Star under elevated scrutiny in the equation. It is worth noting again that the Focal Kanta 1 can be plugged and slung up against a wall in a pinch. Not my recommended positioning mind you, but a feasible one for great sound nestled in a corner or heaven forbid, an actual bookshelf. In reality, the combo is “sophisticated”. Noone visiting your parlor or den would ever question that claim. The Naim is slick, the Focals look the part and the system sound is complex, mature and eloquently rich. 

A closer look at the back panel of the Naim Uniti Star reveals only smaller, banana-style speaker connections in lieu of more traditional options. The unit does however ship with two adapters for traditional wire, should the need arise. In the case of the Sophisticated CD & Music Streaming package, the included pair of 4m NAC A5 speaker cables connects easily on both ends to any friendly speaker taps.

For comparisons, I fired up the QLN Signature 3 two-ways on similar stands and found that the best way to describe the overall difference between the two is the QLNs are a bit more laid back (by comparison) while the Focals are more intimate. Both speakers offer top-notch balance to the frequency range, with only slight differences in even the bass section. The control there is equally matched as well, with reach and emphasis percolating through my medium sized room with pleasing effect. Of course, those who desire even more thundurus cinema demands could add a sub, the Star does offer a pair of preamp outputs on the back panel. Comparisons for the Naim revealed a texture that is true to solid-state reproduction. Tube driven preamps felt more colored, with the Star besting many options in terms of control and firmness in lower frequencies. That may seem like a simple extension of the topology, but over the years I’ve found that quite a few amplifier makers attempt to drift into more tube aspirations, at every pricepoint – and perhaps even more so at the higher ranges. The Naim Star does its thing with fantastic detail, attention to control and a more refined translation of musical energy. If this is beginning to sound like a love letter to Naim, it very may well be in the end. The Uniti Star is one of my first interactions with the company’s flavor outside audio shows, and I have to say the brand has impressed me greatly and more than I truly expected. The best one-box solution I’ve heard to date. 

The “Sophisticated CD & Music Streaming” system consisting of the Focal Kanta 1 standmount speakers and the Naim Uniti Star CD/Streamer/Amp is a beauty. Both sonically and aesthetically the system does in fact offer a well-earned sophistication trophy for its efforts. Based on size, the No.1 + Star combo is an absolute home run for an office or small room but given the capabilities of the Naim, far more than that is possible with the versatility of the overall package – let’s not forget there is even a CD player involved. The total sum equals and intimate look into your music, one delivered with near-breathable treble air, high energy and complex textures. It is HiFi from end-to-end, and don’t let your “separates” friends tell you otherwise. 

The Focal Kanta 1 retails for $6,590 a pair and the Naim Uniti Star retails for $4,990. The combined Sophisticated CD & Music Streaming System package is $8,990.

More info: Focal | Naim | Holiday Package

On Amazon: Naim Uniti Star

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