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Focal Aria 906 Review

Focal Aria 906 Review
Earlier this year, our blog covered the Bristol based Sound & Vision Hi Fi show, providing a critical overview of the event's peaks and troughs in our typical objective fashion (whilst throwing in a few petulant rants for a bit of added spice). Back then I outlined the diminutive Focal Aria 905s as one of the clear standouts of the entire show - few speakers being demonstrated that weekend managed to sound so natural and involving while costing so little. I sung their praises to anybody who would listen (and to many who would not) and, as time passed, my enthusiasm for the tiny bookshelf speakers began to wane as they became nothing more than a pleasant memory.
Six months went by until one day the guys at Nintronics casually mentioned that they had the Aria 900 range in stock. Never one to pass up an opportunity, I pounced on the chance to review as many of Focal's fine offerings as possible - and the rest, as they say, is history.
If you've perused the other reviews on our blog, you will have learned that our speakers of choice are the frankly astounding KEF LS50s. Why is that relevant in a Focal Aria 906 review ? Well, mostly because both pairs of speakers retail for a similar price at RRP and are natural competitors when it comes to someone choosing a pair of capable bookshelf speakers but wanting to keep their expenditure within reasonable limits. So, without further ado, let's take some time to explore what the Aria 906s bring to the table (or indeed the bookshelf).
**Some background**
The first thing you need to know about the Aria 906s is that they are the next model up from my Bristol show favourites - the Aria 905s. They cost a little more than that sterling little pair and come with a tweaked spec sheet that *should* ensure that they sound even better. 
Speaker manufacturers don't always experiment with new materials for their drivers, although every company tends to have their own proprietary designs and technologies that they harness to try and win over a market that is very well catered for. For the new Aria 900 range Focal have turned to flax as their new material of choice. As they state in their glossy marketing collateral "an ideal cone should be light, for rapid acceleration, stiff so as not to distort the sound, particularly in the bass, and finally, damped - that is to say neutral - so as not to add sound colouration from its component materials.". 
Established materials that bring about the kind of performance that Focal is aiming for, such as Focal's own 'W' sandwich cone, are hand built and their manufacturing costs put them outside of the "affordable" bracket. To get around this reality of capitalism Focal have experimented with new materials and have settled on flax fibre as their solution. Grown in the singularly unique climactic conditions of Flanders, Picardy and Normandy it has the mechanical qualities that match what Focal are seeking to achieve. Of course the proof for any such marketing claims is always in the pudding and using the most exotic materials won't matter if you don't deliver sound-wise.
When you first unbox the Aria 906s you immediately spot the flax speaker cones - they have a mottled beige quality to them and are as original as B&W's yellow kevlar. The enclosures themselves are pleasantly upmarket and have polished, reflective wood finish, except for the back panels where they have been treated with a leather effect. The overall feel is altogether impressive and it shows that Focal have thought hard about the aesthetics of their product as well as the sound characteristics. You also get some speaker grilles and some bass port plugs - all very standard when it comes to bookshelf speakers.
With the Aria 906s hooked up to a Rega Brio-R via QED XT40s all being pushed by a Denon DM37 connected via Epiphany Acoustics Atratus interconnects we set to tasking the speakers with something to do to see how they would cope with some of the more leftfield genres out there. Diana Krall, Norah Jones and Coldplay will probably sound fine as they're not exactly challenging to render. Mathcore, ambient doom and various mutant strands of dubstep are another story though. 
From the get-go the Aria 906s retain the natural sounding signature of their smaller, cheaper 905 cousins. What these speakers seem to absolutely excel at is replicating the timbres of instruments, particularly strings, as well their clear imaging of instrument separation and rendering of voices. The B&W 685 S2s are speakers that have a similar 3D timbre quality, but where the S2s only slightly hint at how an instrument might sound live the Aria 906s render all of it in high definition and manage to do so in a gentle and enjoyable manner.
The 906s also exhibit considerable bass quality, but sadly not extension. Pushing them with Kode 9's "Kingstown" doesn't quite result in the sort of subsonic rumble that the very best speakers out there are capable of. Instrument separation is uncanny - these units gently spread apart the layers of recordings to show their constituent parts. When listening to Soundgarden's "Superunknown" at volume hitherto undiscovered guitar licks and bass flourishes were suddenly rendered distinctly - quite a few hi-fi reviews tend to fall back on this old descriptive chestnut, and probably devalue it in the process somewhat, but I can say with confidence that I've heard very few speakers where the separation is so palpably clear and spacious, particularly when using such budget sources and amplification.
And yet, because of that lack of bass extension, they simply do not sound sufficiently full to give energetic music the impact intended as can be heard on Lamb's "God Bless". Give that they are bookshelf speakers this is not surprising and many other lauded bookshelf models don't handle bass reproduction as well as a good set of floorstanding speakers might. Shining examples of speaker design like the KEF LS50s have them bested on bass extension if not other parts of the frequency spectrum. A crossover with a good quality sub (or even a pair!) would certainly fill out the sound.
The 906s may not be proper studio monitors but they definitely do provide insight into any well recorded track. Their detailed mid-range and gentle high frequencies contribute to the clarity that one hears when auditioning all the while managing to do so in a non-fatiguing way - a difficult act to pull off given the propensity of some manufacturers to tune their speakers' tweeters to strident levels. 
In fact, during testing I never once thought to myself that the 906s are in any way harsh or unpleasant - they are supremely skilled in their politeness. I can see them being a big hit with any genre that doesn't require a lot of bass to shine - jazz, blues, acoustic, vocal performances, classical (with the aforementioned bass limitations) - all of these would suit the Aria 906s just fine and bring their owners a lot of enjoyment. They also look rather handsome when placed on some dedicated speaker stands. No they're not quite Sonus Fabers in terms of fit and finish, but they're far better than the rather plain finishes you see on the slightly cheaper B&W 685 S2s. For the money they're a very good proposition, particularly if you spot them on offer. So long as you are aware of their strengths and limitations they prove to be a solid contender for the sub £1K bookshelf speaker spot.

Naim UnitiLite Review

Naim UnitiLite Review

Naim has always been a bit special in British Hi-Fi circles. Their frankly legendary amplifiers and the superlative sense of PRaT (pace, rhythm and timing) they convey have served as a calling card for Naim for decades and it is the first thing one thinks of when asked to describe the brand.

The UnitiLite, Naim’s latest attempt at producing a high quality, all-in-one system for discerning music fans has an unusual problem – it has the potential to be excellent. If it manages to pull that off the more expensive models in the range could see their sales lightly cannibalised by a precocious performer. Brands frequently introduce somewhat artificial handicaps into their product lines so as to keep budget, mid-range and “pro” models nicely segmented, but occasionally we see products that are so good that they transcend marketing boundaries and become firm favourites with customers and reviewers alike.

From the get-go the UnitiLite seeks to be not just a jack of all trades, but a master of them as well, be that CD playback, internet radio, high definition streaming for services like Tidal and Spotify, DAC, optional FM/DAB tuner, iPod dock and an integrated amp providing 50W per channel of pedigree amplification. A variety of high bitrate formats are supported from FLAC to ALAC, which is handy if you’re planning to migrate your iTunes digital library to a NAS and don’t want the rigmarole of converting between lossless formats.

The only thing it doesn’t do is come with speakers or integrate with your kitchen sink, but at £1995 for all of the above, it would be churlish to complain. The last time I encountered such a cornucopia of functionality in a single unit was Oppo’s giant slaying BDP-105, and whilst the two units do not overlap sufficiently to be competitors, it is quite likely that the UnitiLite’s Swiss army knife qualities will ensure its appeals to consumers for years to come.


Unbox the UnitiLite and you’ll notice a few things right off the bat – the enclosure comes in Naim’s traditional powder coated black but the traditional “swing out” CD loading mechanism is gone. The unit is also quite heavy and that certainly bodes well for both the build quality and the toroidal transformer embedded within. The overall finish is extremely solid, the 9 control buttons are firm but comfortable to press and the screen is small but functional. Naim has also fitted a USB input, a line-in input and a 3.5mm headphone jack just beneath the disc drawer mechanism. There’s no eject button for the aforementioned disc tray and that can prove confusing when you’re keen on loading a disc the first time you try to use the unit. After consulting the arcane runes of occult knowledge (that is to say – the manual) I was able to find out that holding down “Stop” in CD mode ejects the current disc.

The back of the unit is strictly utilitarian and yet very organised, with speaker outputs, an aerial connector and a plethora of analogue, digital and network inputs. You can of course connect the unit either via wired Ethernet cable or via Wi-Fi – both methods are reassuringly simple to set up. For a multi-functional unit such as this one would expect no less.

Although Naim have clearly provided amply for any devices you would want to connect to the UnitiLite it seems that they’ve skimped somewhat on the speaker connections. It’s not that they don’t work – they do – it’s that they seem to be the cheapest, simplest banana plug clamps possible – on a pricy unit like this their design seems to be almost an afterthought. And, as we’re on the subject it seems that the left and right sides have been reversed – quite exactly why this is the case I cannot fathom. Well actually I can – it makes perfect sense if you connect the UnitiLite to your speakers with the back panel facing FORWARDS but for those of us who like to see the front panel during operation the positioning is odd to put it mildly. With the connectors as they are you will end up crossing speaker wires as you try and match up Naim’s markings to your idea of right and left. 

With the questionable “ambidextrousness” of the unit addressed, I set to testing and hooked the UnitiLite up to my dependable KEF LS50s, balanced on Atabite-filled Atacama Moseco 6 stands and wired up with QED XT40 speaker cable.

And herein lies the first problem. The UnitiLite delivers 50W per channel, which is nowhere near enough to get the best out of difficult to drive speakers. I suspect that the power rating on the integrated amp is what it is to gently nudge you into the Naim upgrade path, buying either an integrated Supernait 2 for a boost of 80w per channel or even to the eye-wateringly pricy NAP 500 to go beyond 100W into 8 ohms. But, then again, not all speakers are as demanding as mine and even with its current power rating the UnitiLite will be able to account for itself fairly well, if not quite being able to provide the grunt necessary to eke out the best possible performance from the LS50s.


With the unit hooked up, it was time to see where exactly the UnitiLite would fit into Naim’s illustrious pantheon. When you have a house sound that’s famed for pace, rhythm and timing the obvious thing to do is feed it music that reflects this.

Primus’s “Pork Soda” seemed like a prime candidate. With the disc underway, the first thing that strikes you is that what you are hearing is unmistakably the Naim house sound. Presentation is tight, accurate and energetic. Instruments are clearly separated and textures are precisely rendered. Bass lines are palpably physical whilst trebles are a pleasing balance of sweet and aggressive. This really is a masterclass of agility and tempo and the disparate parts of a recording convincingly combine into a (mostly) cohesive whole. Overall you could probably call the sound signature slightly dark when compared to the likes of Audiolab, but in this context the “darkness” does not necessarily mean lack of sparkle or detail.

If I was a betting man I would bet that Naim tweak the output through some sort of DSP which helps to separate the disparate strands and give the sound a moderate soundstage in terms of width and depth. In fact this may not even be the result of proprietary DSP at all, but rather Naim’s circuit engineering. It doesn’t quite have the airiness of a full Naim “stack” but there’s enough microdetail in there to pick out all the disparate parts of a recording and to present them convincingly. The Uniti2 may well deliver more scale, dynamics and a fuller sound, but is also costs considerably more so the decision to upgrade is always down to the listener and the perceived value of the upgrade.

I have read that Naim use Burr Brown DAC chips in their Uniti range and whilst I am an unabashed fan of the ESS Sabre chips and their house sound I am really rather impressed with the way the UnitiLite handles all types of music. Primus may be downtuned and rhythmic, but feed the Naim unit Yann Tiersen’s “Comptine D’Un Autre Ete – L’Apres-Midi” and it renders the gentle piano notes with the delicate nature of an angel – each note has a pleasing amount of decay and the timbre is highly accurate. The only area where I’ve found the UnitiLite to fall short is with music that features lots of heft and distortion – the Naim unit’s DSP seems to try and tame it which ends up sounding uncharacteristically smooth and lacking bite. Nadja’s maximalist and enveloping “Flowers of Flesh” gets some of its requisite grittiness reined in, which in turn slightly robs of it of its sense of scale and polishes off some of its inherent texture.

Naim’s n-stream app is suitably solid and quite straightforward when it comes to controlling the unit remotely. If you have a mobile device, using Naim’s app is highly recommended and will take some of the guesswork out of the 9 panel grid on the front panel. Failing that you can always fall back to the fully featured remote control. Similarly, Internet radio setup is best achieved through the Naim vTuner site – it is worth exploring the wide range of possible options here and saving them as favourites.

Listening to Spotify via DLNA was a breeze, and although not quite up to the fidelity of CDs and high definition downloads, each of which the UnitiLite handles with aplomb, the unit’s sound was rhythmic, enjoyable and just the right shade of involving.

You can even hook up an iPod (blast from the past! All the cool kids are streaming wireless Spotify nowadays don’t you know…) by connecting it via USB, selecting the iPod menu and navigating through the device’s folder structure. Simples!

So would I buy one ?

Do you know something, I probably would! BUT - I would likely hook it up to a more powerful amp regardless. I was genuinely transfixed by the rhythmic ability of the UnitiLite and the sheer ease of use across different media types. If it played nicely with each and every artist and recording I tend to listen to on repeat I would probably never need another system for daily use. And if the RRP was closer to a grand than to two the purchase would be an absolute no brainer.

I am of course being churlish here – the sheer amount of functionality that Naim offer in this rather talented box is excellent, and if I had to approximate a similar amount of functionality for the money I’d probably find it quite challenging to do so – the only reasonable (and widely available) equivalent would likely be the aforementioned Oppo BDP-105 coupled with a more powerful but affordable integrated amp – probably the Roksan Kandy K2 or an Odyssey Khartago. This combination would probably approximate much of the UnitiLite and even fix a few of its minor flaws.

For my (highly individual) music tastes though the UnitiLite doesn’t quite tick every possible box, most notably when it comes to rendering music that’s big on grit and distortion. I’m not sure about the approach Naim have taken with regards to instrument separation and soundstage – the UnitiLite’s sound reminds me most the Musical Fidelity 3 and 6 series amps and CD transports – except that the UnitiLite handles complex musical passages better than the Musical Fidelity units I have heard so far. For anyone who doesn’t mind these qualities nor listens to quite so many noisy, “heavy” artists I would bet that the UnitiLite would deliver the musical goods every single time – as minimal, one box solutions go this one is an absolute, unreserved winner.

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Tel: 01707 320788 Email:

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