Unison Research Unico CDE £2350
9th Dec 2008 | 09:30
This player combines classy looks and top performance
Even a cursory glance at the Unico CDE tells you it's a classy product. That nicely satin-finished front panel is thick, solid aluminium, for a start, and the wood-bodied remote is a very deluxe item indeed, only slightly let down by the unapologetic screwheads protruding from the top surface.
But as far as we are concerned, beauty must be more than skin deep if it's to appeal for longer than a few seconds and inside the neat and robust aluminium case there are some interesting features.
Most obvious among these are the four valves which sit on the audio board and buffer the audio signal to both the unbalanced and balanced output sockets.
Unison has a long track record of valve products and likes to drop the odd handful of them into even its solid-state based units and we've had plenty of pleasure in the past from various valve-assisted digital sources so we aren't about to complain.
There's another point of note on the other side of the chassis, where (in our review sample) a pair of Wolfson DAC chips and a sample-rate converter sit on a little sub-board above the main DAC.
This board is, in fact, an optional extra (£150), an upgrade DAC which sits directly above the onboard DAC and SRC: once it has been fitted, one can select between the two DACs via the remote control, an unusual and intriguing provision. Both DACs are also available to the outside world thanks to a single digital input at the rear, selected via a push-button next to it.
Build quality is excellent, with good-quality components throughout. The transport is a TEAC CD-ROM type, connected via its digital audio output, while the power supply is based around a generous toroidal transformer, situated behind the transport and covered by a steel shield.
Merely mentioning the word 'valves' can encourage all sorts of preconceptions in listeners, which is why we're so keen on our 'blind' listening tests – no one knows which of the players is valved. But those preconceptions have some grounding in reality, at least if this player's performance is any guide.
Of all the players in the group, this was the one that encouraged the most enthusiastic comments from our listening panel and it's certainly significant that many of these comments were about musical, rather than technical, areas of performance.
Yes, there was the odd comment about bass, treble and imaging, but far more about rhythm, dynamics and sheer involvement. Perhaps most telling was one short sentence: 'You get the complete performance!'. That, after all, is the aim, in a nutshell.
There was a lone comment about bass lacking some small degree of extension in the Shostakovich track, which certainly has more need of that than any of the others, but otherwise it's clear that bass is full and precise, with clearly defined tuning when required and plenty of impact on percussive sounds.
Bass timing is tight and there's a rich quality which extends into the midrange, aiding integration between frequency bands. Treble is clear and succeeds, not least by simply not drawing attention to itself, and by being well-integrated into the bigger picture. Midrange is neutral and has plenty of detail, which helps voices stand clear of the backing without unnatural emphasis. Stereo imaging is excellent in both width and depth.
Overall, though, those qualities are very definitely second to the superbly natural flow of the music heard through this player. The way all kinds of genres communicate effortlessly through it is a great tribute to its musical performance.