The Unison Research Unico DM amplifier (image courtesy of Unison Research)
"There is no end. There is no beginning. There is only the infinite passion of life."
- Federico Fellini
You've got to hand it to the Italians: the paintings, the operas, the suits, the fast cars, the food, the wine. Theirs is a cultural aesthetic that combines pride, skill, and passion of life to create objects that inspire awe and stir the soul.
Building audiophile gear hews spiritually to the Italian aesthetic, whether or not an actual Italian is on the building team. But what if there was an Italian on the building team—would the Italian aesthetic accrue accordingly? And what if instead of there being just one Italian on the building team, the whole team—from designer to assembler—was made up of Italians, working at a manufacturing plant in Italy, where Italian-made parts were used to build that audiophile gear?
And most importantly: What would an audiophile product conceived in such Italian-aesthetic-rich breeding grounds sound like?
One answer is the Unison Research Unico DM (latest itineration) amplifier, a 160/Wpc, dual mono, Dynamic Class A (an atypical Class A/B design in which the MOSFET output never completely shuts off), tube-transistor hybrid that sells for $5800, not a ridiculous sum in the wacky world of high performance audio—provided, of course, the amplifier delivers high performance audio.
But first, the mug shot: In black, the Unico DM is understatedly handsome, with a brushed-aluminium façade that reminded me of a miniature medieval castle wall, complete with two centrally-appended torchlights that were not really torchlights but run-of-the-mill balanced-/standby-mode LEDs. Game-of-Thronesy, right?
Not on the inside! Removing the amplifier's top plate revealed an urban landscape of mostly unmarked, brightly-colored parts—green, blue, yellow, red—strung together with thick candyfloss wiring. Forget GoT, this was Italian Candyland—Terra di dolciumi—perhaps the cleanest, sunniest, most civilized place on Earth. And who else to guard the gates of Candyland against solid-state imperiousness than two lit-up sentinels: a pair of 12AU7 input tubes.
So how did "Game of Thrones-Candyland" sound?
My quest for answers began with the track "Daydreaming" from Radiohead's latest release A Moon Shaped Pool (2 LPs, XL Recordings, XLLP790). This song is propelled by a hypnotic, 3-note piano motif that lays down the foundation for repeated incursions of cascading chime bells, buzzing violins, and Thom Yorke's plaintive drawl eking out of the woodwork.
The Unico threw a spacious, wall-sized soundfield buoyantly flowing with musical lines that were easy to spot, study, and follow to their logical conclusions. When the piano motif's tempo sped up, and violins and chimes turned frantic, their characteristic sounds didn't turn to mush but remained intact as unique and complementary parts of the musical whole.
In the track "Journey into Satchidananda", from Alice Coltrane's album of the same name, a less sophisticated amplifier will blend tambourine and harp tones into a white-noise slop; the Unico gave each instrument space to breathe. It pumped oxygen into the recording studio. Then it pumped patchouli incense. Pharoah Sanders' spiritual forays on soprano saxophone sounded like genuine cries to God in search of spiritual enlightenment. The band and I clicked and the studio became a spirit tent in the steaming Thar Desert.
I was then whisked to 1973 Cologne, Germany—Willkommen, Robert!—to hear a first pressing of Can's ambient-krautrock meisterstück Future Days (LP, United Artists Records UAS 29505).
Willst du (do you want) a '67 VW Beetle ride across fluid lands streamed with color and fibrous texture? Check. Willst du sinuous, robust lows whose feet are too nimble to be soiled in mud? How about sweet highs that disappear into the clouds? Check and check again.
Willst du dead neutral? Not with tubes in the signal path, or with the Unico's inveterate punchiness keeping things moving.
Nevertheless, the Unico's slight audio-band warmth was of the life-giving variety, one that threw a breeze across the landscape. In that breeze notes breezed. Objects were dusted off, their surroundings carved out. The result was a uniform, well-organized musical environment in which instruments and vocals stood on an even keel, as if they'd been recorded together playing in a shared space.
Unsurprisingly, the Unico oozed detail—the natural, organic, revealing kind one is always happy to encounter.
Like in the song "Future Days", in the midst of which I was happy to encounter that not only was I able to "see" which bongo drum—the macho or the hembra—was being struck, but where so based on the subtle resonant cues emitted by the drum shell. Similarly, I could "see" Alice Coltrane’s fingers slide across and press down on the organ keys in her interpretation of "A Love Supreme" from the Jazz Sampler Red Hot on Impulse! (CD, Impulse! CGRD 151). Such details offer artistic insight into the creative process—into that historical moment when the music was being recorded, just before it became timeless.
Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 with pianist Philippe Entremont (LP, Olympic Records 8135) is a mono recording I own but had never gotten into—that is, not until the Unico led me by my shirt lapels and shoved my head inside the concert hall. Then I got it: The music was beautiful. It soared. It twirled. It teased. It sauntered across the Viennese garden grounds then darted off at the sound of thunder. And while all this was happening, it dawned on me that mono is a much purer form of musical delivery than stereo—a process that splits the music in two then reassembles it. In other words, only a mono signal can reproduce a perfectly coherent soundfield.
Not that stereo can't sound amazing, or coherent. Proof that it can: the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra's recording of Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1, a.k.a. the Triangle Concerto for its scandalous use (at the time) of a triangle in its Scherzo (CD, Naxos 8.553494). Here, the orchestra sounds sea creature-like: fluid, multitentacled, lithe, coordinated, while Albanian violinist Tedi Papavrami makes a strong case that, in the right hands, the violin is king of the instrument hill in its capacity to evoke emotional nuance, and the speed at which it can do so. The Unico let through a panoply of emotions with delicious expressiveness.
The Unico also did well by voices. Backup singers on Frank Zappa's Apostrophe (') album (LP, Zappa Records ZR 3851), sounded like a tight-knit group of real-life, soul-breathing individuals. On Southside Blues Jam (LP, Delmark DS 628-A), Junior Wells and bosom buddies Buddy Guy and Otis Mann bring to the studio some of the magic of their Monday night gigs at Theresa's blues bar on Chicago's South Side. The Unico reproduced Wells's voice with palpable presence and solidity, even as his head bobbed and weaved with the beat.
Could the Unico go loud and boogie? Played back at discotheque volume in my smallish man cave—my man cove?—Deodato's bombastically kitschy take on "Also Sprach Zarathustra" from his 1972 album Prelude (CD, CTI 5060282) sounded more jazzily funky and brass-blowingly exhilarating than I'd remembered it. Damn! It was almost enough to make me regret throwing away my 45" vinyl of Meco's space-disco Star Wars theme. (Laser-gun bursts shooting out from all angles in hi-def. Sweet.)
During my time with the Unico, I occasionally wished it could forsake some of its polish and civility for a persona with more Viking balls, big-bottomed heft, and Dirk Diggler nearfield explicitness.
Rear view of the Unison Research Unico DM amplifier (image courtesy of Unison Research)
But the more I listened to the Unico, the more I came away thinking that the traits I wished for more of were, for the most part, artifacts that come from increased harmonic distortion. ("Another spoon of sugar in your music, sir?") My regular amplifiers, a pair of modified Antique Sound Labs AQ-1009DT monoblocks, deliver a richer, bolder presentation, but they also sound more distorted, mechanical and overall less easy on the ears than does the Unico. Not only that, but whenever I hankered for a little more of this or a little less of that in the Unico's sound, I couldn't shake the feeling that if I'd gotten my way I'd be giving up something interesting in return.
The Unico made me realize how much I like a balanced sound, by conveying the impression that it was serving the whole sonic sushi over a few sumptuous nuggets that take up so much room they overwhelm the other flavors. And the Unico did this with all types of music. Even the heavy stuff.
Like Tool's "Aenima", another track I played back at high volume that so thrilled me with its energy, clarity, low-end grip, and gushes of sonic fury flanking me at warp speed, that as soon as it was over, I invited my 16-year-old son to hear the same. What ensued turned out to be one of the funnest father-son musical bonding moments I’ve had with him.
At one point I even poked awake my son's inner audiophile: I played back "Aenima" through my amplifiers, then asked my son to compare their performance with that of the Unico's on a 0-to-10 kick-ass meter. His score: my amplifiers: 7.5, the Unico, 9.
He heard right. Although my mono amplifiers may generally be more visceral beasts, the Unico outclassed them in almost every other performance parameter: imaging, frequency extension, clarity, momentum, detail, cohesion, blah blah blah. The Unico simply bettered my amplifiers at reproducing the "whole" recording, and of consistently doing so with engaging musicality.
Might my son have awarded the Unico a 9.5 out of 10, or even a 10 out of 10, had it been running in balanced mode (my preamplifier supports only single-ended), or using another brand of 12AU7s, or being fed by a different preamplifier, or powering more efficient speakers?
All I can say for sure is that during my time with the Unico, a favorite audiophile thought often crossed my mind: "It can’t get much better than this." Such rapturous moments are powerful reminders of why I still hang around the wacky world of high performance audio.
Here's my sincere suggestion, as unoriginal as it may be: If it's at all physically possible for you to do so, don't splurge on another amplifier or a pair of them until you've heard the $5800 Unico DM cantare in your own system. This modern testament to what happens when genuine Italian aesthetic meets the audiophile arts may convince you it's the best choice for your next upgrade.
Unico DM amplifier
Retail: USD $5800
- Power output: 160W RMS continuous on 8ohm (stereo)
- 650W RMS continuous on 8ohm (mono)
- Frequency response: flat @ 10Hz ñ -0.1dB @ 100kHz
- Input stage: Pure class A Double tube stage (ECC82/12AU7)
- Output stage: Dynamic class A, Triple POWER MOSFET complementary pair
- Input connectors: 1 unbalanced, 1 balanced
- Output connectors: 4 + 4 per bi-wiring
- Power consumption: 900W max
- Dimensions: 17in x 7in x 17.3in
- Net weight: 55lbs
Unison Research, A.R.I.A. Advanced research In Audio
Via barone, 4
31030 Dosson di Casier Italy
Colleen Cardas Imports
P.O. Box 912
Brewerton, NY 13029
Photographs by Robert Schryer, unless otherwise indicated; cover art courtesy of the labels involved.