Unison Research CDPrimo CD Player Review 
Home Theater Audio Sources CD Players
Written by Andre Marc   
Monday, 05 March 2012

Unison Research is a family owned high end audio company based in Treviso, Italy. They have been making tubed, solid state, and hybrid components since 1987.  There are a number of unique things about Unison Research, one of them being that all their products are still made in their factory in Italy. You can bet that is one factory tour this reviewer would jump at the chance for!  Also unique is the fact is that they are the sister company to Opera, who make wonderful loudspeakers.

I have read about Unison Research for years now, and when I was assembling my first real “reference” system”, which I was determined to make tube based, a friend mentioned Unison Research should be on my short list. Unfortunately, at that time there was no local dealer. Fast forward to CES 2012 when I entered the Colleen Cardas Imports room.  Based in Austin, TX, they are the importer of both Unison Research and Opera products. I was so impressed with the sound of the room that I listed it as one of the best of show, and was determined to get some Unison products to review, and hopefully, down the road, some Opera speakers.

Marc Phillips, of CCI, was extremely accommodating, and agreed to send me the Unico PrimoCD player. Marc is very knowledgeable, and one of the nicest guys you will meet in the business. He clearly has a passion for high end audio.  The Unico line, by the way, focuses on hybrid (tube and solid state) designs. The main Unison Research line consists of tubed components and turntables.

The subject at hand is the entry level CD player in the Unico line, called the CDPrimo.  The CDPrimo is priced at $2295.  It is a 24 bit, 96 Khz upsampling player that is out fitted with a Teac transport, Wolfson DAC chips, a Burr Brown sample rate converter, and a gain stage that is designed around a single 12AU7/ECC82 double triode tube operating in pure class A. To make it even more interesting there is a USB digital input, as well as a coaxial SPDIF digital output. According to Unison Research, “the USB digital input is designed to be connected with any streaming device such as PC or laptop and accepts isochronous audio data. An auto recognizing IC performs a pure conversion of data to standard S/ PDIF format feeding the DAC circuit.”  By the way, the Unico CDE, the flagship player in the Unico line, comes with a host of additional features, like balanced outputs, multiple digital inputs, and upscale parts, and more.

The CDPrimo out of the box is visually stunning. My review sample came with a silver faceplate. The front panel buttons are laid out artistically, and there is a large square shaped LED display. As a nice finishing touch, attached is a beautiful wood logo. The Unico line is also available in black as well and, from what I have seen, is equally as stunning.  The remote control is a thing to behold, with a sculpted wood shape and aluminum front panel filled with buttons that can control a host of Unison components.  Leave it to the Italians, even the remote is stylish! The build quality is superb, and beyond what I expect at this price point. By the way, the CDPrimo is made in Italy, in case you were wondering. No outsourced Asian, or Third World, manufacturing here.

Set Up & Listening:

CDPrimo Screen

I set up the CDPrimo with Symposium Rollerblocks, a DH Labs Encore AC cable, and Kimber KCTG interconnects.  The first thing you see when powering on the player is a “Valve Warm Up” thirty second countdown. When I first hit the eject button I was very impressed with the smoothness of the tray.  That is actually pretty important to me, as I have encountered some rather rickety trays on players in this price point and even well above. The CDPrimo’s loading tray was as smooth as butter.  I also was very appreciative of the large front panel display, which allowed me to see the track numbers and times from a good eight feet away.

After getting a handle on the CDPrimo’s sonic attributes, a few operative words come to mind. I felt the CDPrimo was bold, vivid, full-bodied, and exciting. This was the farthest thing from a dull component. That is NOT to say it was bright, edgy, or thin sounding. That would be the furthest thing from the truth. It was one of the most tonally beautiful and voluptuous players I have come across. 




Along with all of this, the CDPrimo was so tonally natural sounding, I found myself gravitating towards singer songwriters, jazz, world, and vocal music.  I had never heard Cat Stevens sounding so stunning as when I spun various tracks from his Gold collection, all mastered from the original tapes by Ted Jensen. On tracks like “Lady D’Arbanville”, “Sad Lisa”, and “Morning Has Broken”, Stevens' famous voice sounded amazingly present and his acoustic guitar was all wood and steel.

On Bettye Lavette’s masterful Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, the crack band and stellar material chosen for the project were infused with an energy that mirrored their commitment to the material.  Lavette’s unique take on classic tracks by the Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin, the Animals, Pink Floyd, The Who, The Beatles, and more, is a thing to behold.  Her rendition of Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy” usually sends shivers down my spine, but the effect was enhanced by the CDPrimo, as her voice floated with precise, holographic imaging between the speakers.

CDPrimo

On a brilliant new album produced by Bob Belden, Miles Espanol: New Sketches of Spain, a host of Miles Davis alumni and master musicians band together to pay tribute to the classic Davis Sketches of Spain album. Belden produced a similar album a few years ago called Miles From India, which featured Davis alumni teaming up with musicians from India.  Miles Espanol is beautifully arranged, performed, and recorded. The mix of Western and exotic instrumentation coupled with amazing improvisations makes this an entrancing listen. The CDPrimo created a huge soundstage, as wide as I had heard from any source component. Chick Corea’s sublime piano solo on “Trampolin” perfectly illustrates the CDPrimo strengths. The piano sounded percussive and alternatively mellow, as Corea varied his attack, and it was easy to follow Corea’s hands as he travelled the length of the keyboard.  What makes this even more remarkable is that while all of that is going on, there are percussion parts and other instruments floating in and out. The CDPrimo was able to make perfect sense of all the complexity.

I should also mention that the bass performance of the CDPrimo was second to none, in my experience with CD players. There was an authoritative weight and natural warmth that created a solid foundation for the rest of the frequency spectrum. Electric and acoustic bass instruments had real impact and articulation.

A final note concerning the USB input. I must admit I simply found no use for it. My computer is not in close range to my main reference system, and I do not have a spare laptop to dedicate for music playback.  I prefer Ethernet streaming for my music server set up, so apologies for not being equipped to render an opinion. But those with MacBooks, and the like, integrated into their systems would not have to purchase any additional hardware to mine their digital files with the CDPrimo.

Conclusion:

The Unison Research Unico CDPrimo is the least mechanical sounding CD player I have had in my home system to date. There are a number of very good players at the $2500 price point. While I have not heard all of them -- nobody has -- I have heard quite a few. The CDPrimo would be my top choice if I was shopping for a CD player in this range, which in fact, is realistically what I am willing to spend today.

Some talk about the uncertain future of the CD, and CD players general. I say there is still, and will continue to be a market for great sounding, superbly engineered players. I myself will have a disc spinner in my system regardless of the doomsayers predict. Last year, 253 Million discs were sold, and there are billions of discs sitting in listeners collections worldwide.  I do, however, believe the future of CD players will depend on making them digital hubs of some sort, with digital inputs, as both Unico players have.  The Unison Research Unico CD Primo was a sheer pleasure to live with and I can’t recommend it highly enough to those in the market.  It is visually stylish, sonically beautiful, and an excellent value.



Interview with Marc Phillips of Colleen Cardas Imports:


Avrev: Can you tell us how you became the importer of Unison Research & Opera products? What did you think was special about the brands?

Colleen has had a long relationship with the Nasta family, who owns both Opera and Unison Research, over many years. Well, the two brands weren't getting proper distribution in the US over the last few years, and the Nasta family approached Colleen to help them. Since she was too busy being President of Cardas Audio, a position she held for 20 years, she reluctantly turned them down. Once she decided to leave Cardas, being the US distributor for Unison and Opera was the first thing she thought about doing. She's always loved their gear and thought they deserved a much bigger following in the US. After all, they have a huge following in the rest of the world.

She brought me in because she knew I wanted to get back into high-end audio. I'd left the scene for a couple of years to start a computer business in Texas. I even let all my audio magazine subscriptions lapse. After talking and talking, she convinced me to help her create Colleen Cardas Imports. But I didn't need to be sold on Unison at all. I would have purchased a Unico integrated amp 15 years ago if there had been a dealer in my area. I loved the Unicos and after I auditioned one I wanted one.

The funny thing is that we both grew up in Southern California, we both spent the last few years in the Pacific Northwest, but we never crossed paths. Now here we are, in the middle of Texas, representing two legendary Italian hi-fi brands. Amazing.


Avrev: It seems to me the products are designed from the perspective of the music lover, yet without compromising accuracy. Would you agree this often difficult to achieve?


We like to promote the fact that the Unison and Opera products are Italian, Italian, Italian. For the Italians, beauty is not optional. But since it comes so naturally to them, perhaps they can focus more on the technology. They certainly have some great minds over in Treviso.

But look at the wood pieces on any Unison product; they actually serve a purpose other than to look good. The wooden pieces dampen the vibrations of the chassis. On the Giro turntable, there are several wooden pieces on the acrylic plinth that are placed in a specific way so that the grain of the wood breaks up those resonances at certain frequencies. I don't know who else is doing that on such an elegant level.

It's not fair to say the Italians do it better than anyone else. I've fallen in love with hi-fi products from Japan, Great Britain and Austria, but for different reasons, reasons that are absolutely nationalistic. But Italians are such music lovers, and they have that tremendous history. It comes out in everything they make.


Avrev: Can you tell us about some of the newer Unison Research and Opera products?

It's a great time to be the US distributors for Unison Research and Opera Loudspeakers since they're introducing so many new products in 2011 and 2012. First came the Simply Italy integrated amplifier, a 12wpc single-ended parallel design that runs in Class A and retails for just $2450. It sounds a lot like its big brother, the amazing S6, for half the cost. The Unison factory is very busy making these great little amps right now, and we're trying to grab as many as we can get for the US market. They really sound special and of course they look beautiful!

Unison then introduced the Unico 50 integrated amplifier, which is a powerful hybrid amp that includes some design features that mark a new direction for the company such as power BJTs instead of power MOSFETs and a new style of dual mono chassis that's far more efficient when it comes to heat dissipation.

On the Opera side, the two Callas models stay the same, but the entire Classic line is being revamped from the top down. The $5495 Quinta and the $3995 Seconda made their debuts at CES, and they were big hits. They're both a lot of speaker for the money. They both have new cosmetics that are much more striking than their predecessors, such as a wraparound leather baffle that runs over the top and all the way down the backside, and the drivers and crossovers are also new. Later this year we'll see two more smaller models, the Grand Mezza and the Mezza, which will probably be priced in the $2000 to $3000 range. All of the Classic line will be offered in cherry, mahogany, black lacquer and an absolutely beautiful new white lacquer finish.

Last but not least, Unison will be more closely involved with computer-based audio over the coming months. They're almost finished with their music server, and they're going to introduce one or possible two DACs. With the Giro turntable/tonearm combo and UN1 cartridge, which we're importing into the US for the first time, it will be possible to have a complete 100% Unison/Opera system with all of the digital and analog sources you need.


Specifications



Unison Research Unico CDPrimo,
available from Colleen Cardas Imports  via their trusted Dealers

Specifications:

●    Transport: TEAC CD5010A
●    Digital interface: Wolfson Micro WM8804
●    Sample Rate Converter: Burr Brown SRC4192
●    Convertiter D/A: Wolfson Micro WM8524
●    Sampling: 24bit / 96kHz
●    Digital Standard: AES3, IEC60958 (S/PDIF) e EIAJ CP-1201
●    Digital input (Ext): Isochronous-Out 16bit / 32-48kHz (USB-B)
●    Digital output: 44.1kHz
●    Output stage: solid state, Class A
●    Outputs: 1 RCA
●    Gain: Triode Class-A
●    Valve: 1 x ECC82 (12AU7)
●    Power conumption: 100W max
●    Dimensions (la x lu x alt): 43.5 x 43 x 9.5 cm
●    Net weight: 10 kg


Review System 1


CD Transport: Musical Fidelity M1 CDT, Unison Research CD Primo
Server: Squeezebox Touch with CIA  VDC-SB power supply
DAC: Bryston BDA-1
Headphone Amp: Pro-Ject Head Box
Preamp: Audio Research SP16,
Amplifier: Audio Research VS55
Integrated Amplifier; McIntosh MA6600
Speaker: Thiel CS2.4
Cables:  Stager Silver Solids, DH Labs Revelation (IC), Kimber KCTG (IC), Transparent  MM2 Super (IC),  Transparent Plus (Speaker) Acoustic Zen Tsunami II (AC),Transparent (AC).Shunyata Venom (AC)
Accessories: Symposium Rollerblocks, Shakti Stone, Sound Anchors stands,  Audience Adept Response aR6 power conditioner, Cable Pro Noisetrapper, Salamander rack

Review System 2


CD Player: Marantz 5003
Music Server: Squeezebox Touch
DAC: Musical Fidelity V-DAC II, Rein Audio X-DAC
Preamplifer: Densen B-200
Amplifier: Revox A722
Tape Deck: Revox A77
Speaker: Harbeth Compact 7ES3, Transmission Audio M1
Cables: Kimber/QED/Transparant (IC),/PS Audio, Pangea Audio (AC), Kiimber(digital)






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