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Wheel love with the Naim Uniti Atom

  • Naim review cliche #1: to headline the article with the pun-heavy “What’s in a Naim?”. It’s as tired as David Byrne features topped with “Still Making Sense”; a well-worn wink at the ex-Talking Head frontman’s most well-known eighties release (Stop Making Sense).

    I’m as guilty as the next guy, headlining my coverage of the Naim Uniti Atom and Nova’s 2016 US debut with – you guessed it – “What’s in a Naim?”. Never again (is what I swore the time before).

    Naim review cliche #2: reference PRaT – pace, rhythm and timing. A four-letter acronym that speaks thrice of a single audible quality often ascribed to the Salisbury manufacturer’s amplifiers and, oddly, almost no-one else’s — as if Naim’s engineering department uniquely imbue their amplifiers with a sense of rhythmic pre-cognition. (Side thought: how do we even measure for that?)

    Sometimes this PRaT-fall is driven home by Naim review cliche #3: talk of a foot-tapping listening experience; as if the reviewer’s mood or a more lively music choice played no part.

    I’ve spent the last two months with Naim’s Uniti Atom (€2399 / £1999) – their latest shoe-box super-integrated amplifier. I can’t speak to the Uniti Atom’s pre-cognitive sense of PRaT but I can tell you that I fell foul of cliche #3: zoning out to music whilst handling emails or checking smartphone socials only to catch my own foot tapping out a song’s cadence. It happened more than once. The first few times I dismissed my foot’s twitchiness as a function of mood. After that, I began to question my own cynicism.

    Beyond doubt: that the Uniti Atom sounds like no other integrated amplifier I’ve heard since the rise of the super-integrated; where any combination of DAC, streamer, MM/MC phono stage and headphone output arrives in a single box to which we just add loudspeakers (and headphones).

    For this Naim, that features all but a phono stage, I alternated between a pair of KEF LS50 and a pair of Eclipse TD510Z MK2, hooked up via AudioQuest Rocket 88 speaker cable. I verified my findings with a pair of AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon headphones.

    I can enthuse about a piece of gear but only an attempt at describing its sound keeps a review from ringing hollow. For that, we look to comparisons.

    Whilst the Vinnie Rossi LIO (U$5375+) and Hegel H190 (€3600), super-integrateds both, seem to prioritise musical refinement, sophistication and tonal richness, the little Naim nudges our descriptive language closer to sashay, swagger and swing. It has its eyes on a different prize: bass is tighter in Naim hands than the LIO’s. That allows DJ mixes like Special Request’s Fabriclive 91 to take its many twists and turns – from jungle to acid – at an illusory greater speed.

    And yet with, say, Wata Igarashi’s Resident Advisor mix, a heightened sense of techno bounce stems not only from the 4-4 bass thump but somewhere in the upper midrange where subtler percussive elements make themselves (better) known.

    For those who know their electronic music, the Naim’s personality is more Chemical Brothers than Sasha.

    If the Uniti Atom were Doctor Who, it’d be David Tennant to the Hegel/Rossi’s Patrick Troughton/Tom Baker; slightly less sophisticated with the Queen’s English but more directly communicative. Suited but not fully booted, the Naim prefers Chuck Taylors to dress shoes.

    It’s as if Naim freed the Uniti Atom’s presentation from the usual audiophile airs and graces, from private school education and deportment to give it a weekend in Berghain followed by a few days at the test match. Cricket fans can be every bit as thuggish as those who prefer football. And a little bit of thuggishness is more useful than sophistication when driving Special Request’s London pirate radio station-inspired bass music home. Ditto the aggressive post-punk of Future of The Left or the American bar-room boorishness cut by The Hold Steady.

    Sitting down at the coffee shop, the little Naim’s musical delivery is a double shot espresso to the Peachtree nova300’s long black (US$2499) – which trades streamer for an MM phono stage – or the AURALiC Polaris’ ristretto (US$2999) – which offers streamer AND MM phono stage.

    Partnered with the KEF LS50, the Naim can’t quite match the AURALiC on freshwater transparency or the Peachtree on macro-dynamic bombast but it one-inch punches micro-dynamics better than both. I’d also peg the Naim as the most midrange transparent of the three. On image specificity: AURALiC first, Naim second, Peachtree third.

    Now we’re into hair-splitting territory. From FSOL’s My Kingdom Re-Imagined, the Naim comes up a little short on its rivals’ soundstage width to hit us right between the eyes (and loudspeakers) with greater excitement and maybe (just maybe) better instrument separation. Less seduction, greater focus. A lapel-grabbing experience is what we want from the 90s best album – The Auteurs’ Steve Albini-produced After Murder Park – and a lapel-grabbing experience is what we get.

    The Uniti Atom is more different than similar to the Hegel, the Vinnie Rossi, the AURALiC and the Peachtree: it doesn’t so much invite us to admire its sound quality from the polite comfort of our listening chair but shoves our head into the music trough. And with vigour. In my 6m x 5m room, nudging the volume control beyond 50% proved far too loud with the KEF and the less efficient Eclipse.

    And yet the Uniti Atom’s fearless and energetic personality is only half of its appeal. Its digital connectivity is as broad as I’ve seen in any super-integrated with a singular omission that ultimately makes perfect sense.

    Like the Mu-so, we get TOSLINK, aptX Bluetooth and Naim’s iOS/Android smartphone app that executes (other) input selection and Naim playback zone synchronisation as well as playback control on UPnP streaming (from USB socket or LAN), Tidal streaming and vTuner-powered Internet radio.

    Turn to the Uniti Atom’s back panel and we note the optional £100 HDMI input (hello Gen 4 Apple TV) and a coaxial S/PDIF digital input (hello CD player) but the curious absence of USB. Don’t freak out. You won’t need it — the Uniti Atom’s internal streaming board is overloaded with possibilities: on top of Tidal and UPnP, we get Roon Ready, Spotify Connect, Apple AirPlay and Google Chromecast (hello Soundcloud).

    All incoming signals flow through a 40-bit floating point SHARC DSP that removes jitter before passing the ones and zeroes downstream to an integer oversampling filter after which a Burr-Brown DAC chip (whose internal filter remains dis-engaged) does the conversion with an analogue filter reportedly implemented to work harmoniously with the pre-DAC digital filter in minimising phase shift. The top-mounted volume control wheel sends digital markers to attenuate the now analogue signal (in the analogue domain) before feeding the result onto a “Classic Naim” 40wpc Class A/B amplifier.

    The Uniti Atom also pulls the digital markers from Chromecast and Spotify streams to ensure it is the only volume control in play even when the smartphone rocker does the attenuating. A very nice touch.

    Signals entering the Naim amp via its RCA analogue input are instantly digitised. The benefit being the Naim app’s Party Mode (untested by yours truly) that allows any incoming analogue signal, like a turntable, to be streamed to another Naim streamer (or Mu-so) on the network.

    Demonstrating a clear understanding of how people actually use audio hardware, Naim has coded the Uniti Atom’s software layer to be as unobtrusive as possible.

    Pushing play on Roon, Spotify Connect or Google Chromecast sees the Uniti Atom pull itself out of standby and into the music…it takes a few seconds. The software will also auto-switch between inputs. Catching an old LCD Soundsystem song on BBC Radio 6 made me want to hear Sound of Silver in full. Pulling up the album in Tidal and pressing play saw the Naim amp auto-switch from Radio to Tidal streaming. All streaming inputs play this way to make them instantly interchangeable.

    According to Naim, this isn’t only done for user convenience but to maximise sound quality. As one streaming input is kicked into life, all others are shut down to minimise the negative influence (on sound quality) of electrical noise radiation.

    Similarly, plug a pair of headphones into the 3.5mm socket on the front panel and the loudspeaker amplifier section is put to sleep to leave only the dedicated headphone amp stage in play. Korma fans take note: the rich, sometimes thick-sauced AudioQuest closed-backs really benefit from the Naim’s spicy beef.

    We should also give mention to the numerous ingredients contributing to the Uniti Atom’s design elegance: a 5” LCD screen displays full cover art but also hides a proximity sensor. Get close to the glass-walled front panel and the cover art shrinks in size to make way for artist, album and song info; the 802.11b/g/n/ac-capable Wifi antennae are built into its heatsink cheeks; like the Mu-so, the Bluetooth antenna sits inside the upward facing volume wheel; the volume control’s LED illumination synchronises with the unit’s backlit RF remote – well above average at this price point and only bettered by the silver volume knob remote that ships with Devialet’s Expert series of amplifiers.

    Those who appreciate a satisfying a knob turn will find the Uniti Atom’s wheel a delight. As per my own experience with the Mu-so, the large rotary pulls me from my seat despite the remote and smartphone app being closer to hand. It’s simply more fun to wind the wheel than click (psuedo-)buttons.

    Naim seems to understand that pumping the volume is a sign that we want more. With the Uniti Atom’s wheel, the British manufacturer maximises the pleasure derived from the most enjoyable – and most fleeting – of musical moments. Add that to an amplifier whose audible qualities better lend themselves to modern music than starchy audiophile recordings and top it off with every streaming input under the sun and the Uniti Atom hits the DAR-KO Award bullseye: Future-Fi for the Music-First Audiophile.

    Further information: Naim


    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John is the editor of Darko.Audio, from whose ad revenues he derives an income. He is an occasional contributor to 6moons but has previously written pieces for TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile. John used to live in Sydney. Now he lives in Berlin.

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