Unison Research Unico Primo integrated amplifier

In 1999, I visited a friend, professor of Italian history Bill Adams, at his castle lair in the mountain village of Panzano, in Chianti, Italy. The 10th-century Castello di Panzano towers over the lush Tuscan hills, offering stupendous views. Each morning we'd walk down the mountain to the town below, where squat old men drank espresso and watched soccer at the all-in-one café/general store/post office. We toured the Roman ruins at Volterra and San Gimignano, gorged ourselves on pasta, and admired the fashionable young women.

In Italy, my pulse seemed to slow. I fell into the rhythm of Panzano. I drank too much and too often of the arid red wine, devoured the crusty bread, enjoyed the stout richness of the pici all'aglione. While everything moved more slowly, I also felt somehow more alive.

Do all things Italian offer a similar sensual feast? I've certainly loved the surreal films of Federico Fellini and the bittersweet scores of Nino Rota, and the work of those other Italian legends of film and music, Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone. As a first-generation Maltese-American, I feel a kinship with the emotional Italians, who, as my father and his two brothers did, wring every last bit of blood from the art of living. Am I silly to think that an Italian-built, 80Wpc, hybrid tube/solid-state integrated amplifier running in what its manufacturer calls "Dynamic class-A" should deliver equally emotional dynamics, deep instrumental tones, and sensual aural textures?

Since 1987, Unison Research's phono stages, pre- and power amplifiers, integrated amplifiers, and loudspeakers have been designed by the company's founder, Giovanni Maria Sacchetti. UR's early, tubed products bore such cute names as Glowy, Ruler, and Nimbly, and led to its first major success, the Simply Two: a 12Wpc, single-ended triode (SET) amplifier that in its first four years of production sold 10,000 units, primarily to Japan and other Far Eastern markets. UR then created dozens of amplifier models based on the KT88, EL34, and 845 tubes (the last of which they take credit for popularizing).

Some contemporary UR amps, with their gleaming copper finishes and dramatic sloping surfaces, look as if they've been launched from the Starship Enterprise. UR believes in "distinctive styling," states its website, "characterized by the use of fine materials such as hand-crafted wood for the trim pieces, stainless steel and turned aluminum for the control knobs." The Unico Primo's low-rider profile is offset by its hefty aluminum front plate, which displays two oversize knobs that are silken to the touch. More recently, UR's focus has been squarely on hybrid integrated amplifiers with tube input stages and solid-state output stages, such as the best-selling, entry-level Unico Primo. This slim, sleek performer could be called the NAD 3020 of Italy, so popular has it become.

Unison Research currently makes a total of 14 (!) models of integrated amplifier, from the Unico Primo ($2400, or $2550 with phono board) and the Unico 150 ($6500) to the S9 ($11,000), the Performance Anniversary ($15,500), and the Absolute 845 ($50,000). That's a lot of tubes, a lot of Italian goodness, and a wide range of prices from which to choose.

Delivery and Setup, and . . . Delivery and Setup
The Unico Primo arrived at my Greenwich Village crib in a reasonably sized box. As I hoisted it to my shoulder to begin the seven-flight climb to my pad in the sky, I could hear and feel the amplifier jostling around in its box. Uh-oh.

Once inside my apartment, I unboxed the Primo and removed it from its snug, drawstring cotton condom, along with its power cord and instruction manual. After attaching the ground wire and AC cord, and the interconnect to my Auditorium A23 step-up transformer, I inserted the speaker cables' banana plugs into the Primo's binding posts and flipped the switch.

On firing up the Primo, you should see two green, quickly blinking LEDs; after 30 seconds, these LEDs should glow steady green, indicating that the 12AX7/ECC83 tube is ready to boogie. The latter didn't happen: the LEDs blinked and blinked and blinked. I lowered the tonearm to the first LP I could find, Woody Herman's fantastic Giant Steps (LP, Fantasy OJC-344). I put my ear to the left speaker and heard . . . nothing. The right channel emitted a teeny-tiny signal, as if the Primo were playing a joke on me. But this was no joke: The Primo was finito, and the accompanying remote control was also DOA.

Marc Phillips, of Unison's US distributor, Colleen Cardas Imports, sent another Primo, pronto. On its arrival, the replacement, too, bobbed like a pogo stick inside its box. When I unpacked it, I saw, through the Primo's ventilation grille, a palm-sized circuit board squashed between two blood-red capacitors. It looked like a small man, who, having fallen off a mountaintop, was now helplessly trapped between two peaks. I removed the top plate, fished out the board, saw that it was the phono board, and gently slid it into the logical receptacle. A couple of wires, too, had been displaced; I cautiously joined mama to papa and prayed that all was well. It worked.

Although Unison Research has obviously spent molti soldi on the Primo's design and cosmetics, safely packaging its products seems less of a concern. The foam-rubber dividers designed to hold the amp rigidly in place were as squishy as jellyfish, and of the wrong size. This left the amp free to bang around inside its box like a drunken sailor, from Italy to the US. The second remote control was also DOA, but at least it left a good-looking corpse. The first remote looked as if a shark had mistaken it for Charlie Tuna—nasty gouge marks mutilated both ends.

Based in Treviso, Unison Research uses Italian-made materials and designs its own transformers, each locally made and designated for a specific amplifier model. "There is no 'off the rack' transformer that they use," said Marc Phillips. "In some of the tube amplifiers, they actually make the output transformers slightly larger than required—this makes the pentode output valves behave like triodes, creating that unique sound." (footnote 1)

UR's principal technician, Alessio Fusaro, explains the Primo's "Dynamic class-A" circuit design: "In the circuit," Alessio said, "after the rotary switch input selector, the signal goes to an Alps potentiometer, to a polypropylene capacitor, and then to the ECC83 tube, which provides [active] preamplification and gain. There are no other capacitors in the signal path. The output-stage polarization is regulated by a microchip, which keeps both final MOSFETs always on (with a limited current). We call it 'dynamic class-A' because the MOSFET output is never switched off completely. Obviously, it is not a pure class-A, but it's not standard class-A/B [either]."

When I'd popped the top plate of my second sample of the Unico Primo to put things to rights, I'd seen a large toroidal transformer with accompanying heatsink. Next to this, a large circuit board held a single 12AX7/ECC83 tube and capacitors of various sizes and colors, including four large, red, Italian-made Itelcond aluminum caps and an array of smaller Nichicons. The Primo's internal wiring is copper, stranded or stranded-and-tinned.

On the Primo's ½"-thick brushed-aluminum faceplate are, at the left, a dome-like Selector knob and, next to it, a larger Volume knob that has, undoubtedly, the creamiest action I have ever laid fingers on. The dead remote was fine by me—turning the silken volume dial between my fingers was what I imagine driving a Lamborghini must feel like: buttah! To the right of this is a round, ¾" receiver window for the remote signal, followed by a 2" wood oval adorned with the Unison Research logo. The power switch is found on the right side panel. In all, the Primo's smooth casework and lovely knobs looked and felt mighty fine to this displaced Southern boy.

Footnote 1: A claim that raised my eyebrows. Sound? Maybe. Behave? Unlikely.—John Atkinson
Unison Research
US distributor: Colleen Cardas Imports
PO Box 912
Brewerton, NY 13029
(970) 275-9086

fetuso's picture

That was fun reading. Being a first generation Italian-American myself (Sicilian actually) I enjoy reading about Italian designed audio gear. Puzzling that they would take such little care in the packaging. I can't wait for your review of the Music Hall mmf7.3. It's on my upgrade list. I currently use a mmf2.2 that has served me well, especially considering it only cost $300 after the price dropped.

ken mac's picture

Thanks for your nice comments. The UR is a great sounding piece, even if the packaging is negligible.

klosterman's picture

Doesn't matter how nice the sound if it arrives broken.

audiodoctornj's picture

Dear Ken,

I read the review with gusto, you hit this review out of the park, except for a couple of caveats, one the fact that the way less expensive Primo has a bigger sound stage was a great point, and underlays how good the Primo is, and the fact that you were comparing a very affordable integrated to much more expensive Shindo gear, demonstrates how special this gear is, okay so you were having a little less extreme deep bass then you would like. I would say to that, it is still a relatively inexpensive amplifier, I wouldn't expect to be be better in all ways to much more expensive equipment.

We have found the Primo is very sensitive to good cables, especially power cords. We have gotten spectacular results with the Wire World cabling, and good component isolation, which helps bring out the deep bass as well as improving all aspects of the Primo's performance.

In our shop we have compared the Primo to almost all of the major competitors, and quite frankly the Primo smokes them all.

The Primo is a hybrid so you get the best of tubes with the best of solid state, the Primo offers a true glimpse into the magic of really expensive gear.

If you want to hear everything in an integrated amplifier, the more expensive Unico 50 which is now the Unico 90 model, gives you the warmth and huge sound stage of the Primo, with even better bass, and far greater resolution.

We used to sell a very expensive line of Japanese components and ones from Denmark, and when ever you compared the Unison product the customers almost invariably picked the Unison.

Under $10k you would be hard pressed to find a better integrated amplifier, which has this number of magical properties as the upper end Unico line from Unison, the stuff is absolutely killer, and Collen and Marc are the best importers with fantastic customer service.