Unison Research Unico Primo integrated amplifier Page 2

Around back are the Primo's power receptacle, four pairs of Taiwanese-made speaker binding posts, a hefty ground screw, and seven pairs of gold-plated RCA jacks: Sub Out, Tape Out, Tape, Tuner, CD, Aux, and Phono. The Primo measures 17" wide by 3.7" high by 16.8" deep and weighs 30.8 lbs.

All sorted at last, I began listening to the Primo in my funhouse rig: Kuzma Stabi turntable with Kuzma Stogi tonearm, and DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93 speakers. The Primo's phono board is set at the factory to moving-magnet mode. (To switch it to moving-coil, you shift two jumpers.) I plugged the interconnects from the A23 step-up transformer into the Primo. Sweet music emerged.

As most vinyl fanatics know, half the fun of collecting LPs is replacing with beautiful 12" black plastic discs what you previously owned only on shiny 5" silver donuts. Such was my joy when I found a mint copy of Robbie Robertson's eponymous 1987 solo album, sumptuously produced by Daniel Lanois (LP, Geffen GHS 24160). Robertson is considered the bad guy in the epic history of rustic rock'n'roll messengers the Band, but that doesn't detract from the magic of his first solo outing. Between righteous rockers and atmospheric rollers lies one of my favorite compositions by Robertson (and Martin Page), "Somewhere Down the Crazy River."

Feverish and trance-inducing, "Somewhere Down the Crazy River" pulsates like blood pooling in your brain, the locomotion provided by the great jazz drummer Manu Katché. His drums dominate the mix, a 16th-note hi-hat pattern spinning off reggae-like tom drops. Thanks to the Unico Primo, the drums boomed beautifully, with long decay trails. The UR presented Robertson's tale of Delta voodoo and debauchery with first-row presence and palpability, leaving nothing to the imagination. The sound was vivid, quick, and punchy. Off the mark, the Primo seemed to cast a bigger soundstage than my Shindo separates. But while the Primo's deep bottom end was big, perfectly wet, it was neither well defined nor textured. The low notes of the toms and bass drums resounded like a hurricane, but the electric bass was undeniably soft. Still, "Somewhere Down the Crazy River" is really about atmosphere, and that the Primo nailed—and good.

The Brooklyn Blowhards recently released a self-titled album (LP, Little (i) music) that matches the exhilarating free jazz of Albert Ayler with the woeful yet playful melodies of 19th-century sea chanteys. The combination works better than you might expect—Blowhards Jeff Lederer (saxophone), Kirk Knuffke (cornet), and Matt Wilson (drums) turn it all into a seriously grooving Brooklyn brew with a New Orleans chaser. The LP is lo-fi, no question, but the thunder generated by a trap-set drummer and a percussionist (Alison Miller) manhandling a concert bass drum with a mallet is positively stomach-cleansing. As the band lets fly in "Santy Anno," the Primo delivered their music with great speed, vivid colors, and spirited interplay.

The Primo charged hard 24/7, with enough dynamic gusto to compel music mightily, from orchestral crescendos to free-jazz ballyhoo. The DeVore O/93s took a serious liking to the Primo, the trio creating low-end gravitas that seemed to come up from the floor, not down from the speakers. And when Blowhards Wilson and Miller played unison bass-drum assaults, the Primo directed the subsonic commotion with ample force and weight, if not equal resolution. While the Primo resolved upper frequencies with commendable clarity, it could also make saxophone squeals and cornet splats sound dry, if not exactly hard. In fact, this touch of dryness when delivering spicy transients was a consistent trait. Cymbals, upper-register piano notes, brass bells—all shared through the Primo a similar dryness of texture that also aided the leading-edge definition of aural images.

When I played pianist Tete Montoliu's excellent Tête à Tete (LP, Steeplechase SCS-1054), his notes sounded truncated via the Primo, as did Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen's double bass. But the notes flew with such liveliness and exuberance that it was easier to dig the sounds than to frown at such minor offenses.

A Big Bang Theory
I like to play my music loud. I've gone through several changes of heart about this through the years, but, all else being equal, and especially if my system is warmed up and simpatico, there's a certain sweet spot in the volume range where everything comes alive, and I can feel the music as I believe the artist intended. My loudness fetish works particularly well with my Shindo Laboratory separates, which give more goodness, the more juice I feed them. The music becomes more colorful, more revealing, more sweet of note and expanded in demeanor.

While riding its volume sweet spot, the Unico Primo consistently portrayed music with vibrant, vigorous textures—its excellent resolution and weighty if soft bass reproduction struck a good overall balance. But when pushed, the Primo lost its cool and got nasty in the upper frequencies. This glare, or treble aggression, became obvious only when I pushed the amplifier past its comfort zone.

Tonally, the Unico Primo's sound was on the warmish side of neutral. It didn't present music in an overcolorful, oversaturated fashion, nor was it neutral in the fastidious, buttoned-down sense of that word. I've heard components that were decidedly neutral that made me cry out for some flesh and blood and bones and spit. The Primo struck an unusual balance between superior resolution in the treble to midrange and weighty low-end fundamentals that were less than accurate but were cozily soft and oversize, like my Maltese grandmother's big belly. The Primo's strongest traits were its charged dynamics and spirited demeanor. The Primo flowed, and its somewhat dry, occasionally even cool character helped create very specific images with graphic leading edges.

As I listened to Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours (LP, Capitol W-581), the Primo's definition of the leading edges of the Kid from Hoboken's voice was excellent, its chestiness, smoothness, and gracefulness tinted with a subtle aridity. Foggy lower notes were offset by a touch of upper-frequency burr. The result was a fully fleshed-out Frank that sent shivers.

Primo Meets Varèse
The more I listened to the Unico Primo, the more I came to enjoy its natural effervescence and feisty get-up-and-go. The Primo was a party animal, always ready to rock the house. Though I refused to indulge it with any Jimi, Janis, or Jaco, I did slide some Boulez its way, and it resolved every note of Boulez Conducts Varèse, performed by the New York Philharmonic (LP, Columbia Masterworks M34552). Wouldn't you know it? The album cover portrays hand-powered crash cymbals in the act of crashing together! That's what this LP delivered in spades via the Primo: big, bold dynamics that leapt from the speakers. The Primo took great joy in knocking me around my listening space, casting a large and explicitly populated soundstage.

I don't know if the Primo's 80Wpc was responsible for its large soundfield—even larger than that from my Shindo separates—but there it was, plain as the egg on my face. What the Primo failed to do was create the tonal splendor, the musical emotion and flesh-and-blood "viscosity" (to quote Herb Reichert), so ably delivered by my Shindo gear. The Primo was like an energetic teenager: a very talented teen with good instincts, but ultimately lacking the wisdom, insight, purity, musical color, and innate life experience with which the late Ken Shindo so brilliantly imbued every one of his amplifiers.

While we're talking purity and wisdom, I compliment Ethan Hawke for his portrayal of trumpeter Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue. Hawke captures Baker the complete man, not merely the junkie artist. But while the film focuses on Baker's youthful talent, Baker made some of his greatest records in his early 50s (he died at 58, in 1988). Someday My Prince Will Come (LP, Steeplechase SCS-1180), a 1979 album with guitarist Doug Rainey and bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (again!), is a beautiful collection of standards that feature Baker's warm, pure trumpet tone, giant sound, and lyrical elocution. The Primo played this mellow music with sweet, rhythmic attentiveness, capturing the flowing largesse, tonal depth, and execution of Baker on trumpet as well as I've ever heard it.

Music Hall and Elac
Mating the Primo with these sensibly priced separates provided a sound similar to that of my big rig, only in miniature. Those same Primo qualities—vigor, dynamics, resolution, jump!—were present with Music Hall's MMF-7.3 turntable ($1595, review in process) and Elac's B6 stand-mounted speakers ($279/pair). The Primo is, as the first-generation Italians who frequented the local VFW in Greenwich Village used to say, primo!

Like Ferrari, Leonardo da Vinci, and Monica Bellucci, Unison Research's 100Wpc Unico Primo integrated amplifier is an Italian over-achiever. It has the sheer speed of the superpowered automobile, the interpretive personality of the artist, and the sweet color and zesty personality of the model and actress. The Primo wowed me with its ability to ally impact with resolution, and visceral dynamics with graceful detail and musicality. That it failed to resolve the deepest low-end notes with equal gumption in no way detracted from its overall appeal. Rather, the Primo delighted with its cohesive strengths, and so achieved a kind of holistic presence.

At $2550 with MM/MC phono board, the Primo resides in a neighborhood similar to that of Bel Canto Design's C7R receiver (includes tuner, DAC, and headphone input; $2595), which used to be listed in Class A of Stereophile's "Recommended Components," and of Harman/Kardon's HK 990 integrated (includes DAC and headphone input; $2599), listed in Class B. What the Primo lacks in extras it makes up in spirit and passion. It's alive!

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.