Unison has a comprehensive Unico line of solid state amplifiers and loudspeakers, but is perhaps best known for its single-ended valve amps. These differ from the herd, not only in their fine sound quality, but also in the unusual application of shaped hardwood pieces to add a uniquely distinctive and attractive style. And incorporating similar motifs within an already very classy looking turntable means the Giro is an exceptionally pretty vinyl spinner.

Maintaining this hardwood styling device was considered essential, because many customers like the separate components of their hi-fi systems to look well coordinated. That also helped determine that the Giro would be a complete record player (ie including tonearm and cartridge), selling for around the £3,000 that customers typically spend on their valve amps.

Cost of the credit crunch

In fact, late in the day (possibly responding to rapid shifts in exchange rates), it was decided to make the Unison UR1 moving magnet cartridge an optional £375 extra, on top of a turntable/arm price of £2,750. (A high output moving magnet cartridge tends to be an easier match to valve phono stages.) However, for the duration of the review programme the UR1 had been deemed an integral part of the package, so most of the review work was carried out using this cartridge.

Appropriate matching might have been a problem, since this reviewer has long favoured low output moving-coil cartridges and is not normally geared up to handle the higher output types. Happily, Unison brought along a couple of prototype MM phono stages which allowed the use of regular pre and power amplification.

One of these, powered by an output supply, is the latest version of the valve-based Simply Phono, incorporating an extra input triode to improve the noise performance. The other unit was solid state – an early prototype of the Unicophono, and powered by rechargeable batteries. Both proved very interesting and effective in practice, but most of the work was done with the valve unit since the solid state unit arrived fully charged, but without any means of recharging.

Familiar feel

It was pretty obvious from the ingredients that the Giro had been sourced from leading German manufacturer ClearAudio. Although Unison has had its own input on both the engineering and the styling of the Giro, checking the ClearAudio catalogue suggests it's related to the latter's Performance model.

It certainly shares the Performance's Satisfy carbon fibre shaft tonearm and the UR1 is a wooden-bodied moving magnet cartridge from the ClearAudio range, though the turntable proper is rather harder to pin down. A glance through ClearAudio's very extensive range shows how many subtle variations on several basic themes are available by using a generous parts bin.

The Giro has an outboard motor drive like a Performance and a similarly thick acrylic platter, but the platter main bearing here replaces the anti-magnetic approach with a tight-fitting inverted steel shaft and ceramic sphere. The main structure is thick acrylic bonded to Unison's trademark shaped and polished hardwood sections, the latter deliberately made from three layers laminated with different grain directions.

Unison has also had significant engineering input on the design of the feet. Regrettably, no dust cover is supplied, though we daresay it will be possible to find something suitable.

Outboard motor

The outboard motor is a pretty hefty affair, and showed no obvious evidence of vibration while it was running. It's a synchronous type with electronically synthesised drive (to effect 33/45 rpm speed change), and it's certainly significantly larger than those usually used, though that may just be down to substantial casing, or indeed the speed control electronics that are presumably housed inside. It takes its power via a very modest plug-top transformer, and a grooved pulley drives the platter's outside edge using a clear polymer elastic belt.

This separately sited motor is spaced by about 10mm from a scallop-shaped cutout in the main structure. This approach should reduce motor vibration reaching the turntable chassis, especially when both motor and turntable are mounted on something as solid as the Vertex AQ Kinabalu granite platform used for this review.

The down side, of course, is that it's impossible to control belt tension precisely. The Satisfy tonearm seems to have good quality bearings and plenty of opportunity for adjusting alignment in various planes, albeit at some expense in mechanical integrity. The Unison-badged cartridge could be any one of a several similar satin-wood-bodied, aluminium cantilever models in ClearAudio's Aurum range; no specific information was provided.

The build

Set up is relatively simple, though a little more information – for example a recommended bias compensation setting for the supplied cartridge – would have been welcome.

Start-up is initially a bit of a surprise. Switch the front-left lever from 'off' to '33' and, for a while, nothing much happens. You wonder: does it need a little push to get it going? No: just a little patience. After a second or five (it varies), it swings into action and gets up to speed quite quickly. Although there's plenty of inertia to keep it turning without drive, the motor acts as a brake, so it also stops quickly. This is handy, since there's no separate platter mat, the record resting directly on the relatively hard acrylic, so it's best to turn it off when changing or turning over discs.

Because the (fixed) cartridge cantilever protrudes from the front of the cartridge, cueing (and, for that matter, initial alignment) was greatly facilitated, though this does make it vulnerable to accidental damage.

Sound matters

Most listening was done with the complete Giro package, plus supplied phono stages. From the phono stage's line outputs, signals were fed to Naim NAC552/NAP500 amplification and thence to PMC iB2i loudspeakers. Brief checks were also carried out by substituting a Rega Apheta low output moving-coil cartridge via a Naim Superline phono stage.

The sound quality is rather good, with fine timing, wide dynamic range and a notably lively and dynamic midband. This vinyl spinner is an immediate reminder of the reasons why this ancient format has stubbornly refused to die and is currently making a comeback.

While the broad midband is handled with enthusiasm and gusto and the music as a whole drives along with good pace and momentum, definition and detail does start to ebb away as one moves towards both frequency extremes.

Lead instruments and voices are confidently projected – perhaps a little too confidently – as these main components of the mix could become a little too strong. Here, the presence zone verging on the aggressive as it becomes more complex when extra instrumental layers are progressively added. On the late Lowell George's splendid solo album Thanks I'll Eat it Here, several tracks start very simply and gradually build up, steadily adding layers of backing female vocals and brass sections as the track evolves.

The Giro player seemed happier when the track was relatively simple and the brass, in particular, began to sound a little uncomfortable and congested as complexity increased. A similar effect was also found on the Maazel/VPo Sibelius fifth Symphony, where again stereo depth perspectives seemed somewhat constrained and both the brass and violin desks seemed to become a little edgy and uncomfortable when approaching the loudest passages.

Once again the midband and presence seemed to take precedence over the low bass and upper treble. This overall character seems reasonably consistent, although there is also a clear difference between the sonic character of the two supplied phono stages.

Cartridge issues

On balance, the battery-powered Unicophono stage was marginally preferred. it doesn't quite have the midrange sweetness or the warmth of the new Simply Phono design, but it does seem rather more neutral overall, cleaner in the bass region and with less forwardness in the stereo image. Had we been using a valve amp, the preference might well have reversed.

Substituting the Apheta/Superline cartridge/phono stage allayed much of the criticism, confirmed the slightly bandwidth limited, but wide dynamic range of the turntable/arm combo, but also strongly suggested that the moving magnet cartridge may well be the limiting factor in the overall sound quality.

This thoroughly entertaining turntable is blessed with gorgeous styling and although it's primarily intended to match Unison's valve amplifiers, it will look amazing in any hi-fi system. Greater sonic performance may well be available by using a higher quality cartridge, and some less costly turntables could also match its performance, but we'll bet no alternative package will look as good.