Things weren’t promising the first time I heard the new Naim Mu-so Qb in action: after being introduced to the technology, the initial taste of what it could do, in an unfamiliar listening room, playing far too loud for the space, put me in mind of the window-rattling bass boom I’d heard from a pimped-up Saxo behind me in the Euston Road traffic not half an hour earlier.
Notes and rhythms became a blur of brain-fuddling proportions, and everything else was probably in there somewhere – well, maybe.
Surely this wasn’t what Naim Technical Director Roy George has spoken about going through thousands of versions of digital signal processing to achieve?
Now, after a few days’ use in a more typical environment – ie at home, both in the living room and the kitchen – it’s clear that ‘first blast’ was maybe a bit over-enthusiastic on the part of the demonstrator, and hardly indicative of what the latest member of the Mu-so family can do.
In fact, I’m sitting here right now using the Naim app to switch the same music between the Qb and my main system, using Naim’s NDS, 555PS, Supernait 2 and NAP250 DR, and you know what?
You guessed it: it’s a doddle tell the difference between them – but then what did you expect, comparing a £595 all-in-one system with a set-up in which the interconnect between the network player and the amplifier costs about the same? And yes, the ‘big system’ does – from a great height.
What’s much more to the point is that, when the Mu-so Qb is parked on the worktop in the kitchen, and suitably dialed in for its location – loudness off, wall proximity setting at ‘less than 25cm’ – , walking through from the listening room to give something a stir or check on the oven now finds music just as enjoyable being played, not to mention allowing seamless listening to speech radio thanks to the perfect synchronisation between the NDS and the Qb.
Even more germane is that, on the occasions when I’ve picked up the iPad to discover the Qb still selected, I’ve found it perfectly suitable for listening to everything from my local BBC station, whose mid-morning programme has a near-perfect mix of playlist-free music and intriguing conversation – today, the roots of London’s Chinatown and the long-gone electronics shops of Wardour Street – to the music stored on my NAS drive.
And it’ll do so all the way up to 192kHz/24bit files, provided you have it connected using a wired Ethernet hook-up: as with all of Naim’s streaming products, trying to get anything much beyond 48kHz/24bit over Wi-Fi is pushing your luck, and that’s all Naim says the unit will do via a wireless connection.
That’s not exactly a great hardship, however: after all, anyone playing via Bluetooth or AirPlay is going to be limited to CD quality anyway, and when using the Qb as a wireless multiroom extension to an existing Naim network set-up the file transfer is downsampled to 320kbps, whatever PCM-based resolution you happen to be playing.
Kick back and enjoy
Yes, a big Naim system blows it out of the water on detail, ambience and all that hi-fi stuff, but when it comes to simply kicking back and enjoying the music or whatever, the Qb gives a very impressive account of itself.
So that’s what Roy George spent all that time tuning!
In fact, what’s he’s achieved is a very Naim sound from this little 21cm cube, floating on its clear acrylic base and with its Statement-style multifunction controller on the top (both features carried over from the original Mu-so): the more you listen to the Qb, the more you forget you’re listening to a system so small, such is the lucidity and involvement it delivers from a wide range of music.
Playing the 192kHz/24bit version of Antonio Forcione and Sabina Sciubba’s Meet Me In London set – it’s almost the law when reviewing Naim equipment, but is no hardship given how wonderful it sounds – finds the Qb not just filling the room with sound but also focusing the two performers extremely well, and bringing out no only the nuances of the sound, but also the gains in presence when switching from the CD-quality version to the hi-res.
In fact, I’ve just realised I’ve listened to the whole album via the Qb and enjoyed it immensely, and am now playing some late Miles Davis – Tutu, since you ask – and loving the warm, rich way the Naim is powering out the bass, drums and especially the trumpet. And however I hard I push the level, I can’t provoke it into Citroën Saxo bass; in fact, the louder it goes, the more it seems to open up, and the better it sounds. Lovely – that’s 300W of amplification and those custom-designed drivers in action!
OK, so the Qb isn’t really stereo: although it has separate treble and midrange drive units for each channel, Naim prefers to say they’re ‘offset and angled perfectly to create a left-right dispersion asymmetry’.
And yes, it’s possible to make it sound a bit leaden if you don’t take the trouble to dig just below the surface of its menus and set it up right: run it in too small a space with loudness on, hard against a wall or on a nice sounding-board table-top with the ‘free space’ setting chosen, and the low end thickens up.
However, get it right, crank up the level and you’ll be amazed at what this thing can do: the louder you play it the cleaner the sound seems to get, and it stays crisp, focused and undistorted right up to the upper reaches of its volume control, grumbling and thumping out bass-lines, letting voices and instruments soar and pattering cymbals just as it should.
Best of all, go for it at party levels and it stays just as tight – and that’s going to come as a real eye-opener for owners of cheapo Bluetooth speakers, not to mention a nasty shock for their neighbours.
Naim says that the original Mu-so has done a fine job of introducing new buyers to the brand, and it’s beginning to see buyers of its mainstream systems and components citing a good experience of the system as their reason for starting system-building. Can’t see the Mu-so Qb doing anything but accelerate that trend, not to mention attracting a lot of ND- and Uniti owners into multiroom audio, with one or more of these units dotted around the house. And that could well make it an even more significant product for Naim’s future.
But then that’s as it should be: impressive as the original Mu-so was – and that’s mightily so – I can’t help but feel that what many expected would be a ‘Mu-so Lite’ is even more of an achievement.
I’ve been reading some chatter of late about ‘premium priced’ and ‘if you can afford it’, but frankly that’s missing the point. At £595 this is no less than a steal: as befits more than 40 years of Naim tradition, the Mu-so Qb is quite simply the little box that rocks.
Written by Andrew Everard