Return of the Mu-so

Redesigned with new drivers and new abilities, does the second gen of Naim’s Mu-so wireless multiroom speaker maintain the magic?

Naim Audio isn’t as odd as it once was; its jokey arrogance has largely subsided, and it answers, to at least some extent, to its holding company masters across the Channel, VerVent Audio Group, also owners of Focal.

But this hasn’t stopped it delivering both high-level product like the Statement (see page 36) or projects which combine the skills of the two VerVent companies, as does this Mu-so wireless speaker, which benefits from an injection of Focal’s design flair and driver nous. The first Mu-so somehow maintained Naim’s emphasis on audio excellence while shifting into this potentially populace-pleasing product area; reviewers loved it (it won a Sound+Image award), and it proved highly successful with consumers. A smaller near-cubic Mu-so ‘Qb’ also followed.

And now, five years on from the original Mu-so, comes the Mu-so Generation 2. So what’s changed, what’s the same?

Equipment
To recap, the Mu-so is a wireless speaker, with many ways to serve your preferred music to it. Naim’s own app enables UPnP network streaming via Wi-Fi or Ethernet, also Apple’s AirPlay 2, Google’s Chromecast, Bluetooth: all these are included, along with access to all the main music services, including Spotify, Tidal and internet radio. Roon users will find it Roon-ready (three ways, in fact). It has decoding onboard to play high-res audio files up to 24-bit/384kHz and DSD128.

You can plug in additional sources as well — there is one minijack analogue input, one optical input and, new to the 2nd Generation, an HDMI socket which can receive sound from your TV via the Audio Return Channel if plugged into an ARC-equipped HDMI input of your TV. That gives the new Mu-so the potential to be used as a soundbar (though some previously used the optical input for this purpose anyway). It’s too large to sit in front of most TVs, of course, but position it under a wall-mounted TV and you can have a very cool-looking music and TV sound system.

At first glance there’s not too much aesthetically revised between the original and the new. The aluminium casing has a refresh in burnished grey; the standard grille with its weird bulge remains black, but there are new replacement grille colour options of olive green, peacock blue, and a ‘terracotta’ kind of copper-orange (see below).

There is a small size change externally — the length has been increased by 8mm. But the new cabinet is better braced, for improved rigidity, while the rear heatsink fins have been reduced in size. This has reduced the weight by nearly 2kg and has also somehow allowed Naim to add a claimed 13% in useful additional internal volume.

Inside, Naim claims that no fewer than 95% of the internal components are either entirely new for this launch or had already changed in production-run alterations since the original first-gen Mu-so. These include a much faster processor in charge of the signal processing, up 14-fold from a single-core 150 million instructions per second (MIPS) to a multi-core 2000 MIPS. One function of this processing is a new software control of driver movement which is introduced only when the Mu-so is pumping hard towards its end stops; the new algorithm should limit distortion occurring at such extremes. The drivers themselves are also new, Naim working with its sister company Focal on the replacements; the specs sheets are a bit vague, but removing the grille reveals a stereo system with three drivers for each channel: a 20mm dome tweeter, a 50mm midrange, and a racetrack-shaped 14 × 7cm woofer. The midrange drivers are at the outsides, the woofers central, all firing directly forwards.

Naim’s app has evolved in the years since the original Mu-so launch, and is certainly the best way to browse your music collections and those available online, but you also get a small physical remote control, which looks nice though it feels surprisingly cheap, and surely needs better priority given to its volume buttons. Plus of course there’s that giant knob on top, which Naim has also updated, now with 15 touch sensitive buttons, a proximity sensor that wakes the display as you approach, and lots of Naim’s traditionally arcane symbols for you to puzzle over.

Performance
It is quite the hefty object when you lift the Mu-so from its carton, and we thought for a moment Naim had replaced its glorious knob with a tacky plastic one, till we remembered they ship with an ‘mu-so’-embossed cap over the top. Our review unit was so fresh off the boat that it had no Australian power lead provided, and knowing that Naim has a certain level of mythology around mains cables, we did not substitute one of our own, but rather used the UK-terminated Naim lead and plugged it into the wall using a sturdy adaptor. At the Mu-so end the connections tuck into quite a tight bay (especially for HDMI) under the right side.

We started with just that one mains plug connected, yet what a wealth of music the Gen 2 could provide, once we had followed the Naim app’s instructions to get it on the network. At one early point in this procedure, the app asked us to identify the colour of the Mu-so’s indicator light. This is on the right side, next to the USB port, though we only knew this through experience, remembering that when reviewing the original Mu-so we had assumed they meant the illuminated logo down in the acrylic base — it is, after all, the most obvious light on the Mu-so. So we’d kept informing the app the light was white (which it was and always would be, unless turned off under the ‘Lighting’ settings of the app). Now knowing better, we were pleased to tell the app that the correct light was solid purple. But sadly this meant we were instructed to poke a pin into a hole next to the light, which seems a frighteningly mechanical way to get such high technology online. Besides, we didn’t have a pin, since the home’s sewing collection had been relocated who-knows-where in a recent home storage redesign in which we were not, to be honest, fully consulted or invested. Our toolkit yielded a spiral threaded gimlet, but this proved too large (see images). A teeny-tiny watchmaker’s screwdriver? Yes, in it popped, rather too far first time, but second time setting the purple light a-flashing. And in not too many of these flashes, the app had used AirPlay set-up (we were on an iPhone) to get us connected to our preferred Wi-Fi. After restarting the app and logging on to Tidal we were soon happily streaming.

Set-up may require a pin, but not a gimlet.

And the Mu-so’s relaxed confidence was obvious from the first tunes. These files were arriving at 16-bit/44.1kHz FLACs from Tidal. How realistic the glass smash in the intro of Blur’s Parklife; how punchy its bass. How smooth Coltrane’s My Favourite Things drifting by on a sunny afternoon. A slight edge and a thinness to Stevie Nicks on Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain had us checking the audio settings, and we removed the default Loudness setting. This smoothed and filled the edginess without much loss of depth, indeed the opening kick drums were now better shaped, so that you could hear the slack in the skin as well as the thump. There was still a massive rolling bass available to pump the room with energy on, for example, Beyonce’s Daddy Lessons, yea, even unto its bottom F.

Additional settings offer adjustments for positioning near walls or in a corner, but weren’t required for our listening position in a medium-to-large room where we had it mounted dead centre below our television, because we also wished to try it as a soundbar, playing via ARC into its HDMI input. The ARC didn’t play ball with our TV, so we played from TV via the optical input instead, and this aside, it was a great success. Accurate musical sound translates well to delivering movies and TV (often the reverse is not true: soundbars built for movies can be dreadful at music), and the Naim delivers brilliant speech, full-bodied and natural; we missed not a nuance of the talk-fest start to GoT S08E05, yet when the dragons flew and the city fell, the action was supported by high-quality effects and of course surging music, the Naim’s forte. This was all in simple stereo — no pseudo-surround, no Atmos — but we’d far sooner have high quality stereo than pseudo-surround! It passes the soundbar test with flying colours, a big-hearted performance.

Then back to music. With the choice of app for browsing and the small physical remote for traditional volume control, we barely touched the magnificent top knob, except a couple of times to select input and to adjust volume in passing.

And so many ways to play. From Mac, and from Roon, also via AirPlay 2, casting from apps and from Chrome browser windows to its Chromecast. The Naim made Spotify Connect sound impressively hi-fi, but better still our Tidal HIFI subscription. Streaming from a NAS drive via DLNA the Mu-so could play files up to 24-bit/384kHz and DSD to DSD128 (although for those an Ethernet connection would be recommended).

With so many options we clean forgot to try Bluetooth, for which Apple devices owners are better served than Android (there’s AAC available but no aptX), but we did use the Google Home app to bring its Chromecast under voice control. We renamed it ‘Muso’, and this turned out to be an easy word for Google to recognise even without making it the default speaker — ‘Hey Google, shuffle Philip Glass on the Mu-so’, and out it came. The Chromecast functionality will support either Spotify or Google play streaming in this way. The Philip Glass selection presaged what proved to be exceptionally enjoyable delivery of classical music from what is, after all, a single-point wireless speaker. Its delivery of stereo width is limited to fairly close quarters; across a room the soundstage is inevitably reduced (as for any single-box speaker), yet it is nevertheless a spacious sound, and a further merit with classical music was its ability to sound good at low volumes or high, with proper differentiation between the two; this is not a speaker which plays well only at higher levels. While this trait assists all manner of material, and makes quieter listening a pleasure, it’s a gift to the dynamics of classical music, where a piece like Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no 5 (Wiener Phil, DG, 1982) was given full head to deliver its bursts of energy.

And finally you have three different ways to use it in a multiroom context — AirPlay 2, Chromecast, or Naim’s own app with other networked Naim gear.

Conclusion
One other thing that’s changed is the price — the original Mu-so arrived in 2015 at $1500, it is currently $1899; the new one is $2499, a big jump. But then it does provide a complete and versatile listening system, being perhaps the world’s best and most desirable wireless speaker.

Naim Audio Mu-so Gen 2
Price: $2499
+ Brilliant performance from a single box
+ Wildly versatile for streaming
+ Great looks

– Priced accordingly
– Large footprint

Drivers: 2 x 20mm tweeters, 2 x 50mm midrange, 2 x 14x7cm woofers
Quoted power:: 6 x 75W (no parameters)
Inputs: HDMI+ARC, minijack analogue, USB, optical digital, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Chromecast, Bluetooth (SBC, AAC), AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Tidal, internet radio, Roon ready
Dimensions (whd): 628 x 122 x 264mm
Weight: 11.2kg