Unison Research Unico CDE CD Player Review 
Home Theater Audio Sources CD Players
Written by Andre Marc   
Friday, 13 July 2012

I reviewed the Unison Research CDPrimo tubed CD player a while back, and found it to be a great sounding, fairly priced source component. I thought it only fitting to review the Italian company’s flagship player, the Unico CDE. They share some of the same design characteristics, but are very different animals, as reflected in their price points and performance.

The $2295 Primo sounded terrific, with an output stage built around a 12AU7/ECC82 tube, a USB digital input, and a 96/24 upsampling DAC chip. The Unico CDE, also a 24/96 upsampling CD Player, has four twin triode tubes in the analog output stage. The build quality is extraordinary, taking things to a whole new level. There is a digital input via coaxial RCA, and both single-ended and balanced outputs. The CDE, like the rest of the Unico line, is available in silver and black. The CDE sells for $3895 retail in silver.

As with all Unison Research products, the CDE is made in Italy at their company’s factory in Treviso. As noted, there are four 12AX7 type tubes in the output stage as opposed to the single tube found in the CDPrimo. A rugged TEAC transport is used and proved to be a smooth operator. The unit ships stock with a Crystal module as the standard converter, but there is an optional DAC board whose main active component is the top-shelf Wolfson Micro WM8740, used here as a dual- mono, dual-differential design. The upgrade is $225, and my review sample arrived this way.  According to the manual, you can even switch between the stock DAC board and the upgraded module via an on screen menu. As with the Primo, and with either DAC board, the signals are upsampled to from standard Redbook CD to 96 Khz, 24 bits.

In a twist that can be said to be a bit of Italian uniqueness, the digital input accepts up to 44.1 Khz, but the player sends 96 Khz through its own digital output.  A bit odd, as all the upsampling CD players I know output digital prior to any processing. But, as you will, see this may be moot, as using an external DAC with the CDE is, based on what my ears told me, a silly move.

Set Up & Listening:


Unpacking this hefty player made apparent just how nicely built and finished this component is. The thick silver faceplate, with the familiar wooden Unico logo, was a sight for sore eyes. There are the usual controls on the front, and a nice sized display.  I used an Element Cable Red Storm AC cable, which I use on all my digital source components, and Stager Silver Solid RCA interconnects. The CDE has XLR outputs as well, but my system runs single ended.  For the hell of it, I used my Shakti Innovations Shakti Stone on top as well.


One interesting deviation from the norm, on the CDE, is a switch on the back that essentially toggles between high (Hi) and low (Lo) gain. The Hi gain mode boosts the signal by 9 dB. This allows for flexibility depending on how sensitive your amplifier and speakers are. I initially used the Lo gain setting, but ultimately settled on the Hi gain option as I felt I was not getting the enough output on the Lo setting. This is a very cool option to have, in my opinion. Unico supplies the same gorgeous wood and aluminum system remote that comes with the CDPrimo.

As with the CDPrimo, there is a soft start which allows the player to fire up the tubes gently. Less than thirty seconds later, you are ready to play music. And play music I did. My first impressions ultimately changed very little and, as the review period came to end, I was even more convinced about what I heard initially. This was the most beautiful sounding source component I have ever had in my system. It was simply stunning in the way it offered up lifelike 3D images, astonishing weight and body to instruments and voices, and a natural ambiance to recordings I had only previously heard on my Revox A77 reel to reel.

In some ways, this might be the trickiest review I have had to write. Simply because I was not 100% convinced the CDE was producing the most dead center neutral sound like some other players I have heard, but I simply did not care, since it was so delightfully ravishing in its realism. This deviation from neutrality, if indeed there was any, erred on the musical, voluptuous, and velvety side of things in the best possible way.

I will concede that in the context of an all-tube system (tube preamp and power amp), the CDE may have been too much of a good thing. When I subbed the superb solid state Danish-made Densen B310 power amp for the Audio Research VS55, an utterly perfect balance of warmth, detail, and musicality snapped into place. It was a knockout combination that really revealed the true nature of many familiar recordings.

A new CD I acquired, Cruel Sister, by Rachel Unthank (who also records with her sister as the Unthanks) & Winterset, is very well recorded, and the material reminds one of classic Pentangle and early Fairport Convention. The album mines the classic British folk rock sound. But the center piece is the gorgeous vocals. I had never in my experience heard such a beautiful reproduction of voices. They hung in space, and were so realistic that it was spooky. A true hair-raising experience. A special shout out to Robert Baird, of Stereophile, for writing about the Unthanks, and allowing me to discover them.

All my familiar reference material -- from Seal, Shelby Lynne, James Vincent McMorrow, Robert Plant, and others -- sounded as organic and engaging as I have heard them, with a velvety lifelike presentation that soon became the only way I wanted to hear these discs. “Anyone One Who Had A Heart”, the second track from Shelby Lynne’s Just A Little Lovin’, had gobs of ambience, and the vocal and piano introduction was as “in the room” as I have ever heard it, even on megabuck systems at audio shows.



Before you get the impression the CDE was best suited for acoustic music and voices only, let me tell you this player can rock. I pulled out the sublime Jimi Plays Berkeley CD, an album that documents Jimi Hendrix’s amazing second show from May, 1970 at the Berkeley Community Center. The show was mixed from the original multi-track analog tapes by Eddie Kramer, Hendrix’s original engineer and archivist.  

When I hit play, I experienced one of the most hair-raising listening sessions I can ever remember. When Hendrix steps to the mic and addresses the crowd, then plays the first few notes of “Pass It On”, I can honestly say for the first time that I had a glimpse of what a colossal sound he produced with drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Billy Cox on that stage. All of the energy and focus of this amazing performance came through shockingly. Believe me, this is no teetotaling CD player.

Digital input:

I used the coaxial digital input briefly with my Squeezebox Touch as the source.  I used a DHLabs D-75 coaxial cable. It performed beautifully as a DAC, with the same qualities described above. The only limitation is that the input can only handle up to 44.1 Khz standard CD resolution material, which at this price point raises a bit of an eyebrow. None the less, a very nicely engineered digital input.

Conclusion:

Italian company Unison Research has dazzled me in the past with their Unico line. I was highly impressed with the CDPrimo, as well as their Primo hybrid integrated amplifier. However, I was not prepared for the level of performance and musical purity the CDE brought to the table.

Ultimately, what separates special source components, amplifications, and speakers from the rest is their ability to allow you to experience a performance rather than just listening to a recording. The CDE was the most impressive CD player I have heard in this regard.  I would recommend the optional DAC board. It brings the price to $4120, not too much higher than the $3895 stock model, but according to Unison Research, a substantial upgrade. If shopping for a CD player in the $3500 to $4000 price range, I would say an audition of the Unison Research Unico CDE is mandatory.  If I was building my system from scratch, the CDE would be my disc player of choice.  



Specifications



Unison Research Unico CDE CD Player:
$3895  for silver.
$255 optional upgraded DAC board.
www.colleencardasimports.com
   
Technical characteristics
●    Transport: TEAC CD5010A
●    Digital interface: Crystal CS8420 – reduced clock jitter
●    - audio data correction
●    D/A Converter: Crystal CS4392, 24bit, 192kHz
●    Conversion: 24bit / 96kHz
●    Digital standard: AES3, IEC60958 (S/PDIF) e EIAJ CP-1201
●    Digital input (Ext): 44.1kHz
●    Digital output: 96kHz
●    Output stage: Dual triode cathode follower in Parallel
●    Valve complement: 4 x ECC83 (12AX7)
●    Line Outputs: 1 RCA, 1 XLR

Review System 1


CD Transport: Musical Fidelity M1 CDT
Server: Squeezebox Touch w/ CIA VDC-SB power supply
via Ethernet to MAC Mini w/ Western Digital & Seagate
external drives.
DAC: Bryston BDA-1
Headphone Amp: Pro-Ject Head Box II
Headphones: Grado SR60
Preamp: Audio Research SP16
Amplifier: Audio Research VS55, Densen B310
Speaker: Thiel CS2.4
Cables:  Stager Silver Solids, Kimber KCTG (IC), Transparent  MM2 Super (IC), Transparent Plus (Speaker) Acoustic Zen Tsunami II (AC),Transparent (AC).Shunyata Venom (AC) Element Cable Red Storm (Digital AC), DH Labs TosLink, DH Labs AES/EBU, Belkin Gold (USB) DH Labs (USB)
Accessories: Symposium Rollerblocks, Shakti Stone, Audience Adept Response aR6 power conditioner,Salamander rack

Review System 2


CD Player: Marantz 5003
Music Server: Squeezebox Touch via Ethernet to
MAC Mini w/ Western Digital & Seagate external drives.
DAC: Musical Fidelity V-DAC II
Integrated Amplifier: McIntosh  MA6600
Tape Deck: Revox A77
Speaker: Harbeth Compact 7ES3
Cables: Kimber Hero HB,  DH Labs White Lightning (IC),QED Genisis Silver Spiral (Speaker),PS Audio (AC), Pangea Audio (AC), DH Labs TosLink, Audioquest Forest USB, Wireworld Ultraviolet USB
Accessories:Cable Pro Noisetrapper, Sound Anchors Stands, Wiremold


 






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