Interview with Naim Audio’s Dan Poulton, at the Australian Hi-Fi & AV Show in Melbourne, October 2016

S+I: So Dan, you’re doing talks on futurism here at the Show and what's happening in the changing world of hi-fi. So what are the trends at the Show and in general that you've been talking about?

Dan Poulton: Well I think that there's really two strands, if you like, that you see quite a lot of. Obviously there's streaming music — becoming bigger and bigger and bigger, more and more people now rely on Spotify or Tidal or Deezer or whoever it is for their music collection. But there's also, at a smaller scale I suppose, a return in the audiophile community to some physical media, ripping CDs, and vinyl sales obviously, that's on the increase as well. So I see those two strands as really working along together.

I think of myself personally — I use streaming services every day as my discovery tool, if you like, but at the same time when I find something I really like, I’ll get it on CD or vinyl. So for me those two strands I don't think are mutually exclusive at all. The way people use music — there will certainly be some who just do one or just do the other. But I think actually a lot of people are using both ways — one is a fabulous way to discover music, and the other one is maybe when you have a quiet evening and sit down by yourself with a glass of wine and really indulge yourself in one of your favourites.
S+I: Is ownership dead for music, do you think? We don't buy it and keep it any more, it's just there to consume and go?

Dan Poulton: Certainly if you look, and in particularly the way people consume video as well, the act of ownership is certainly further away for a lot of people, particularly for the real young generation. They haven't really grown up in a world where you have physical media or even you know even downloads. I think the download music thing, the iTunes model if you like, that was a lot more temporary than people expected. A lot of people I think thought we would go from CD and vinyl over to this iTunes thing, and then downloads would be the way that everyone would listen for the next 15, 20, 25 years. In the end that's not proven to be the case — streaming has absolutely usurped iTunes by a long way. And although there's a bit of a business model that still needs to be worked out in terms of making sure artists get their fair dues from those kind of streaming services, I think that seems to be the case.

At the same time, as I say, there are definitely those who love to own something. So you see that with the resurgence of vinyl, and actually in the UK and the US as well, CD sales were marginally up last year versus the previous year. Downloads is the one area which is really falling away. So I think it’s a bit of a personal thing, isn't it. Some people do like to have the ownership, a bit of physical something or other. But as I say the segment for me that is the least booming or exciting at the moment is probably downloads.

Uniti AtomS+I: So the new Naim stuff, to talk a little about that, what's changed between the old Uniti range and the New Uniti range? [Details of the range can be seen here]

Dan Poulton: It's really a completely new ground-up design. So for the last two and a half, three years our engineering team have been working on a brand new streaming module that's around eight times more powerful than the previous module we had. The current Uniti range, or the just-outgoing I suppose I should call it now, is a very nice product and did something I think in terms of all-in-one units which was quite a way ahead of what a lot of other people were doing, you know, marrying that quality with the convenience. But if you look at the way the design is, there's a streaming module element, there's the CD player and an amplifier in there in classic Uniti products. The CD part effectively plugs directly into the amplifier, so the streaming thing was almost a little separate input. With the new one that's much more integrated, so every input now goes through the streaming module and through the DSP.

One of the big advantages of that is it means everything is now multiroomable. So if you've got one in your living room with a turntable plugged in, and then a Mu-so in your bedroom, you can play the turntable in the living room and have that then beamed up to the Mu-so in your bedroom as well.

S+I: And what happens at the end of 20 minutes?

Dan Poulton: Well, that — the only thing we haven't invented yet is the thing that goes downstairs and turns the record over for you, you're absolutely right. But it is, as I say, a totally new streaming module in there, the ripper and server is a very different design as well. So the outgoing Uniti Serve was really a sort of Windows XP based system, and as a result we were quite tied in to the whims of Microsoft if you like. With the new ripper and server the Core, that's a full Linux-based system, it uses a Cortex A9 processor which is in all the latest Samsung Galaxy phones — not the bit that catches on fire it's worth pointing out. And again with the whole range there are some big cosmetic differences in the playback devices, so we now have the full colour screens, you'll see some of the trickle-down and up from various products in the range, so the now fairly iconic Naim volume knob on top, the nice aluminium chassis which really has come down from things like the CD 555, which in Australian dollars is a forty thousand dollar CD player. So there's bits of the Naim DNA in there but a nice step forward, I think, both in terms of their design and the functionality in there.

The other key thing, really, and one we've been playing around with at this Show — everything will talk in all directions. So I could, for example, have the Uniti Star, which is the model with the amplifier and the CD ripper on there, I could put a USB stick in the back of the Atom, the smaller model, and have that in another room. I can rip directly from that Star to the USB stick in the back of the Atom, the smaller model, so I can go to anything in the whole house, plug a USB in, and that's instantly available to all of the other systems in there as well. So it's a big step forwards.

S+I: So Naim's always had a thing for upgradability and an upgrade path in its hi-fi. That presumably doesn't apply so much to the new Unitis because they're sort of individual units.

Dan Poulton: I would say less so than some of the traditional hi fi that we have, but at the same time you saw the option to add power amps onto any of them, they've all got pre outputs on there so if you want a little bit more guts, as it were, on the system you've got that as an option. We'll be releasing as well brand new power leads, called the PowerLine Lite which is really aimed, I guess, at the Uniti market which again just squeezes a little bit more performance out of there. So we do appreciate that there's less upgradeable product maybe than with the traditional stuff.

One thing I think, personally, is that a lot of traditional hi-fi upgrades I think of as a vertical thing, so if you have your hi-fi in the living room, if you want a bit more you add some boxes on. I think what a lot of people now actually do is upgrade in a more of a horizontal sense. So if you want a bit more, your next hi-fi upgrade is actually to spread that out into extra rooms in the house. And I think Uniti allows that type of upgrade maybe more so than the traditional kind-of vertical stacking upgrade.
S+I: And are we seeing people that are actually doing that? There are so many ‘multiroom’ systems around but I'm not quite sure how many people really do end up using them between different rooms or just individually as point-to-point within the individual room, do you know?

Dan Poulton: You know, it depends. When we survey our customers, the multiroom thing with Naim is something we've only really had for around about a year now. It wasn't available at launch with Mu-so, that's something we added in. But I think it's a story that is getting out there more and more. There are obviously one or two very iconic brands in terms of multiroom, and as more and more people are aware of that, we actually think it's a great thing. We don't mind other people talking about those couple of fairly well-known brands in terms of the multiroom thing because we think that just actually encourages the conversation as a whole about multiroom music. And then what we want to do is add that bit of extra quality, for when the customer says 'I want to do that, but where can I go next?'. And you know the New Uniti as well has a really big range of ways you can get music through it, as well as doing things like Spotify and Tidal which we've always had. You've also now got things like Google Cast for audio on there. So whatever streaming service you've got, really, wherever your music is stored, it's all available to push through that. And I think that as more people realise that the phone is not the be-all and end-all of flexibility in terms of music consumption, that's definitely alloyed into the New Uniti range.

S+I: Are there more plans for Mu-so, now we've hd the big Mu-so and the half-size Mu-so...
Dan Poulton: Yeah, nothing imminent, but definitely it's been a hugely successful product for us, Mu-so, and the thing we really like about it when we survey our customers around the world, around 85 percent of music owners, that's the first piece of Naim they buy. And a really critical thing for Naim compared with so many other brands is that in this sort of ‘ladder of hi-fi’, if you like, we have some rungs at relatively sensible prices, that still give you some of that real Naim quality. So Mu-so is extremely important for us not just because it's a great and fabulous-selling product but it is for a lot of people the real first taste. So there will be more or updated models in the Mu-so range but most likely not for around a year yet. I think that the thing with Mu-so, even though it's been around a couple of years now, there's not really anything on the market that's come along and blown it away, by any means. It's still considered, for that type of price and size, really still the reference point in terms of an all-in-one music player.