Gramophone Dreams #52: Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition & Focal Clear Mg headphones

Naim Audio
One summer afternoon in Brooklyn, after a sweaty too-long day doing construction, I stumbled upon a hi-fi shop I'd never noticed before. I thought, hmmm, I bet they have air conditioning.

Inside, the air was only marginally cooler, but before I could leave, an excessively happy salesman introduced himself. After a bit of low-level chit-chat, he asked me if I was into British audio. I told him I "Never heard of it."

After flashing a condescending smile, he directed me to a stark, nearly empty demonstration room (that I hoped had working AC) and showed me an unusual-looking stereo that consisted of a Linn Sondek LP12 turntable (on a funny metal wall shelf), an unusually proportioned "chrome bumper" Naim NAIT integrated amplifier, and these 12"-tall Linn Audio Kan bookshelf speakers sitting on 24" steel stands situated tight against the wall. The only other object in this airless, windowless, beige-painted room was one stingy, uncomfortable chair. I remember thinking geez, what have I got myself into?

With a serious look, the salesman asked me what kind of music I liked, and I said reggae, blues, punk. He responded by playing UB40's cover of "Red Red Wine" from their album Labour of Love, a disc I played often at home.

At the time, my home system consisted of a Kenwood KD-500 direct-drive turntable, with an SME 3009 arm and a Shure V15 III cartridge, feeding some Hafler-kit amplification driving my DIY approximation of Jon Dahlquist's DQ-10 loudspeakers using woofers salvaged from my Large Advents.

In that beige, airless room, through this now-classic Linn-Naim system, Labour of Love sounded simpler, punchier, and a bit harder than it did at my place. When one side of the album finished, the salesman pointed out how much I was rocking my body and nodding my head while it was playing. He explained how this system specialized in "toe-tapping musical qualities that even non-audiophiles could appreciate." He went on to explain the whole Linn-Naim keeping-the-beat PRaT thing (footnote 1).

This was the first time I ever heard anyone talk like that about hi-fi gear. What about distortion and frequency response? Those were terms I was accustomed to hearing.

When I asked why the speakers were so small, he said "Speakers are the least important part of a hi-fi." When I asked "What component is more important than speakers?" he said, "The turntable dominates how we experience recordings." When I asked how many watts the amp was, he became totally dismissive, declaring knowingly, "Watts are irrelevant!" When I pressed him on the how-many-watts question, he mumbled, "Naim doesn't publish that number." Of course I didn't believe him.

When I asked about harmonic distortion, he nearly shouted: "That's irrelevant, too!" When I asked if I could hear some other speakers, he began sounding like one of those fanatical street-corner preachers, so I headed for the door.

As I made my way out, the salesman flashed his confident "you'll be back" smile and handed me a free copy of Hi-Fi News & Record Review (with an article about the NAIT integrated) and a stapled-together magazine called The Flat Response that explained the Linn-Naim "flat-earth" viewpoint at some length.

That first encounter with Brit-fi and a Naim Audio product rattled my brain. The engineering viewpoints of Naim's founder, the late Julian Vereker (1945–2000), as expressed by that salesman, challenged everything I thought I knew about the reproduction of audio recordings in the home. And guess what:

Within weeks, I found myself believing that salesman's crazy talk. Those flat-earth fanatics, though, seemed annoyingly blinkered, so I drank the Kool-Aid, but I didn't join the cult.

That was almost 40 years ago. The Naim worldview continued to evolve after Julian Vereker died. Today, some flat-earth clingers think Naim has become less serious—more of a luxury lifestyle brand. This is a viewpoint I do not share.

I've been watching Naim from the sidelines as it has evolved, steadily and purposefully, while staying true to its music-first, toe-tapping roots. After years of wondering if I'd like Naim gear in my own system, I decided to review Naim's Uniti Atom HE streamer/DAC/preamp/headphone amp. I had a feeling it might charm me, and now seemed like the perfect time to engage with another of England's most esteemed brands.

The Uniti Atom HE
The Uniti Atom HE is the new "Headphone Edition" of Naim's already-popular Uniti Atom streaming DAC integrated amplifier, which powers loudspeakers with 40Wpc into 8 ohms. The HE, which powers only headphones, is the same price ($3290) as the other Atom.

The most distinctive aspect of this attractively proportioned (9.6" × 3.74" × 10.4") 15.4lb mini-monolith is how it occupies the space where it sits, how dramatically it reflects my listening room light, and how beautifully and intelligently it lights itself up. Looking at the Uniti Atom obliquely from above, the top, side, and front faces show dramatically different forms and textures: the top's deep-brushed aluminum panel features Naim's exquisitely backlit fun-to-spin 5" volume dial. The Atom HE's sides are rutted with tight rows of ¼"-wide, ½"-deep aluminum heatsink fins, suggesting an amplifier capable of more power than the Headphone Edition's rated 1.5W into 16 ohms. The 5/8"-thick polished-glass front panel showcases a full-color, high-resolution 5" LCD display that, to my delight, displays the album art for every musical selection.

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Stacked unobtrusively on the front panel's left side (above the backlit logo) are a Headphone/Preamp selector switch, a 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced headphone connection, a ¼" headphone jack, and a USB (Type A) input.

On the right side of the front panel is a stacked row of white-lit buttons that "back up" the functions of Naim's iOS or Android app: one button for Power On, another for Play/Pause, selecting Inputs, and accessing preselected Favorites. The buttons on Naim's highly polished black remote are backlit. Coolest of all, relative volume levels are indicated by a circle of thin lit dashes surrounding the touchpad. Very elegant.

On the Atom's back is a second balanced (4-pin XLR) headphone output, followed by a balanced three-pin XLR preamp output, a ground switch, an unbalanced (RCA) preamp output, and a single line-level (RCA) analog input. Stationed above all this are an Ethernet connector and a USB connector. To its right are three S/PDIF inputs: two TosLink (up to 24/96) and one coaxial (up to 24/192, and DoP at 64Fs). The Atom is, as they say, Roon Ready. Chromecast is built in, as is AirPlay 2. Naim's extensive iRadio and podcasts are there, too, waiting to distract users from their regular music streaming services.

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Speaking of those: The Naim app supports Apple Music (via AirPlay 2, footnote 3), Qobuz, Spotify Connect, and Tidal. The Atom's Bluetooth employs the aptX HD codec. Users with music libraries on a PC can use the Atom's UPnP "server" function.

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This is all fine and streaming dandy, but the main reasons I'm reviewing this product are to audition the Uniti Atom HE's headphone amplifier which, according to Naim Technical Director Steve Sells, is derived from the loudspeaker Atom's power amplifier (without the final power stage), and the Atom DAC, which features a Burr-Brown PCM1791A converter chip.

Setup: The Uniti Atom HE took only minutes to install. To my grinning delight, Naim's Quick Start Guide folds and unfolds like a road map (remember those?) and reads like a recipe for chocolate milk. I simply set the Uniti on my desk, attached an Ethernet cable and a power cable, downloaded the Naim app from the Apple App Store, installed the latest firmware, and, after a few seconds of pairing the remote to the Atom's operating system, I was playing tunes from my Tidal and Qobuz playlists.

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As I played the first track, I decided to increase the volume but couldn't decide how: Should I use the slider on the Naim app, the buttons on the Naim remote, or the UFO disc on the Atom's top plate? I smirked and thought, so this is the future of digital? Naim's app was a no-glitch, full-service absolute pleasure to use. I especially enjoyed exploring Naim's superextensive internet radio.

The Atom's DAC: With the Atom HE used as a DAC-preamp, sending music to the First Watt F8, which in turn powered a pair of Falcon Acoustics Gold Badge LS3/5a's, the Atom reproduced the body and reverberant character of a piano as graphically and completely as my Rogue RP-7 preamp sourced by the dCS Bartók DAC. That, folks, is saying a lot. Playing Reflections Pt. 2/Debussy: Canope (24/96 FLAC Deutsche Grammophon/Qobuz), the Atom's DAC and line stage seemed forceful and clean-glass transparent, but it put a faint, aurora-like glow around the soundfield of Vikingur Ólafsson's piano. It wasn't much, but this subtle, almost-tubelike infusion of burnished vibrancy elevated this V recording into a memorable experience of piano sound.

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I played scores of albums through Naim's DAC, and they all sounded solid, satisfyingly full, and flat-out beautiful. The Atom made music seem prettier and bouncier than it does through my reference dCS Bartók and brighter and more spirited than it does with the whole-truth-and-nothing-but HoloAudio May DAC. Grainless in the extreme, the Atom DAC spoke with radiant, captivating vigor.


Footnote 1: Most of our readers will know what this means, but for those who are new to hi-fi, PRaT stands for pace, rhythm, and timing, a Naim specialty.—Jim Austin

Footnote 2: Focal Naim Americas, 313 Rue Marion Repentigny, QC J5Z 4W8 Canada Tel: (USA): (800) 663-9352 (Canada): (866) 271-5689 Web: focalnaimamerica.com

Footnote 3: This means that for the moment, the Atom cannot take advantage of some of the new Apple Music features, neither high-rez audio nor Dolby Atmos. I asked for clarification on the Uniti Atom's Apple Music support and received a detailed response from Steve Harris, Naim's technical director for software. The gist: The limitations are on Apple's side, and Naim stands ready to adopt any improvements that Apple makes possible.—Jim Austin

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
tonykaz's picture

"reference dcs Bartok" ?

You possess an Abyss 1266 and the dcs Bartok ? Phew!! that is the biggest ( most important ) set of References in all of High End, I think. Isn't it?

Well, if this naim comes close in an overall sense I'll bow to it.

It might be too adictive.

I think that you just paid naim the highest compliment I've ever heard anyone contribute. Looks like naim being part of a French Group has been more useful than being part of that Scottish Outfit. Good for them.

Tony in Venice Florida

ps. I'll try to find one of these cute little devices, thanks

GDubAZ's picture

I seriously considered the Abyss', but just couldn't get past the awkwardness of the design.

So I ended up with the Focal Arche DAC/Preamp/Headphone Amp which has recently been discontinued (I think to be replaced by this NAIM unit).

I went with both a pair of Focal Stellias and ZMF Verite C (are you getting the picture that I'm kind of an audio nutcase, who also lives with a spouse who is NOT, so I need to keep it quiet?). So other than the Abyss' and a few other cans like the Utopias, I think my rig is right up there.

I can summarize it very succinctly: pure audio bliss (cue the eye-rolling). But I'm not exaggerating in the least. I'm no stranger to decent audio equipment (my listening room speakers are KEF LS50 M's, I've previously owned Focal Elegia headphones, Schiit DAC and amps, Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt DAC/Amp, etc). But the experience with these components is a whole 'nother level that I had never experienced before.

I've been listening to them regularly for months and I STILL am bowled over every single time.

tonykaz's picture

Phew, you certainly have migrated to the upper echelons of Greatness.

I think the lower performing Sennheisers are outstanding compared to any Loudspeaker system I've been around.

Now-a-days, I'm aspiring to own the lesser Abyss Diana headphones. The ultra TopEnd gear is too dopamine addictive for me. Back in my Koetsu days I couldn't stop playing records but still had to get some sleep to function properly without looking hung-over from lack of rest. phew. great sounding music is addictive.

Thanks for writing

Tony in Venice Florida

GDubAZ's picture

"Dopamine Addicted" - exactly! It's hard to describe unless you've had a chance to experience it.

I have also been a big Sennheiser fan and owner myself for a long time. In fact, to help subsidize my purchase of these components, I sold my pair of Drop version HD6XX's (I got a real kick out of the buyer's message back to me how much he loved them).

I guess that's what I'm trying to describe. As really good as the Sennheiser's were, I wasn't prepared for what a step up the Elegia's turned out to be. But the Stellia's and ZMF's went far beyond even that.

ejlif's picture

is that it digitizes the analog inputs. This seems to not be well known but it is true that if you plug your phono stage into the atom you are hearing it via the AD conversion, not a true analog path. I have the atom and nova and have not plugged any analog into them yet but I'd almost rather not know that this is happening seems to defeat the of purpose of analog. I noticed an analog hardcore talking about her setup and it was a really nice setup running into the atom and I said did you know you are listening to digital actually and she did not even know it, tried to disagree and then further research revealed yes analog inputs are digitized from analog into digital then converted again to analog for the final output.

Jack L's picture

Hi

Uh huh, that will put an analogue guy like me OFF even I were to spend 3,300 bucks to get it.

No wonder the Atom tagged for a couple thousand bucks less than the Rogue.

Listening is believing

Jack L

kshekar's picture

Not to be too pedantic, but wouldn't "Listening is believing" warrant at least... listening... to the sound of vinyl through the AD, and then deciding if it was worth getting put off? Being turned off pre-emptively seems to be the opposite of that dictum.

Jack L's picture

Hi

So you having launched such a "pedantic" statement on me means you've already compared 100% vinyl analogue vs vinyl AD, correct ?

When I said I am "an analogue guy", I mean I've already compared the abovestated format & I've found pure vinyl analogue is far better than vinyl AD in terms of spatial OPENness & liveliness, etc.

FYI, from my 1,000+ LP collection (95%++ classical music), I got over 30 digitally mastered LPs which cannot touch all other analogue mastered LPs in term of again, musicality, OPENness & liveliness.

That said, I do listen/watch to CD/DVD & streaming mainly classical programmes, processed by my 24bit/192KHz DAC feeding direct to my phono-preamp, simply to update myself the latest classical music world.

Yes, streaming LIVE music concerts, though not happened so often, is a really good treat - being digitally 'immaculate'. But still not close enough to live music like pure analogue medium does.

Yes, digital music is "transparent", clean & fast but it just missing something that 100% analogue media can offer: the fulfilment of attending live concerts.

Wait until you spend enough time like yours truly, listening pure vinyl music vs live music, to appreciate what I've just here.

Listening is believing

Jack L

kshekar's picture

My friend, I have zero reason to doubt your lived experiences, and I don't even need to hear about your impressive CV of vinyl experiences and record count for that. And for the record (apologies for pun), I also listen to my vinyl straight from cart -> phono -> pre, w/o any AD layer.

The point I was attempting to make was that neither you nor I have heard the Naim Uniti Atom implementation, and Mr. Reichert (a) did not call out being bothered by the AD, even with a relatively high end cart/table/phono setup paired to a $3,300 pre and (2) his comment on the Naim DAC as compared to the dCS Bartok (!!) were very complimentary - again quite noteworthy relative to the cost differential.

Given all that, my interpretation of the phrase "Listening is believing" would lead me down a different path, and the very least hear for myself what the AD conversion would do for a product in this (by hifi standards) relatively value category.

FWIW, I was also thinking about a comment that I read from either JA or MF where they had converted vinyl to 192/24, and that they felt the conversion did not impact them being able to feel like they were listening to 'analog.' MF's AD recordings of various phono stages which he then makes us listen to blindly certainly also support that a vinyl setups nuances can be captured well via AD. I can't say that I've experimented much with this myself, but I found that quite interesting.

volvic's picture

Linn Urika II Exakt phono stage digitizes the analog signal like the Uniti products, and I've heard it and it sounds fantastic. Also, my Sugarcube SC-2 does the same and to my 56-year-old ears no discernible difference between bypass and engaged.

Jack L's picture

HI

Sorry, I just can't agree.

Digitizing analogue signals is technically redundant & sonically impairing the original music quality, IMO.

May I suggest you to read more about digital science & spend more time to listen to pure analogue music vs digital music.

My experience.

Jack L

volvic's picture

But you haven’t. I will assume you have not heard the Urika II which is a very impressive piece of kit, this from a company that has been a supporter and defender of analog since 1973. Nor have you heard the Sugarcube, which for me with a huge classical collection was a revelation and completely blew away any worries or prejudices I may have had over a perceived sonic hit when in noise reduction mode.

From this, your disagreement doesn’t adhere to your mantra “hearing is believing” but rather “hearing only what I want to hear”.

In the end this is your issue to deal with, I frankly don’t care, you can enjoy your analog inputs and shun any that do a conversion. But, you shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss other people’s opinions or manufacturers who are pushing the analog and vinyl envelope for those of us with huge record collections. It is a great time to be into vinyl and analog, the advent of the CD and digital technology helped push turntable and cartridge manufacturers immensely these last 20-30 years, and we are all reaping tremendous benefits today.

-Say aren’t you the guy who plays his records wet?

MatthewT's picture

For that. I think Jack and Tony are the same person. Two polar opposites that never interact.

Jack L's picture

Hi

YES !

Mositure kills vinyl static noise 100% using certain brand of ionized distilled water (measured 0 p.p.m. with my digital water purity tester as not ALL distilled water are made equal). It comes in 4 -litre plastic bottle which cost me peanut.

The hugh sonic bonus of such wet playing is: the music sounds more FLUID & darker in the background vs dry play. I compared thoroughtly before settled down with wet play for goooooood !

I heard enough horse stories about wet playing damaging the cartridge/stylus, blah, blah ... BULLshit ! My MM & MC catridges (both Japanese orgin) sound so consistenty fine since day one many years back when I first started playing vinyl.

Be a smart consumer - with gut !

Lsitening is believing

Jack L

Jack L's picture

Hi

No, I've not heard any phono AD conversion amps. I don't need to.

But I wish you know how AD works: in simple language: musical SINEwave sliced down into tiny strips, 'digitized' = converted to 101010 SQUARE pulse strips, magnified & then assembled them back to its original sinewave form., resulting deformed so called sinewave with edgy cuts all along the sinewave envelope. So using filters attempting to smooth out the edgy cuts.

So musical sinewaves converted to square waves & then assembled back to deformed sinewaves. Even it were a 100% perfect AD conversion, it is technically REDUNCTANT ! The problem is: the AD conversion as of todate digital technology, is no yet perfect.

My critical ears do do hear the difference vs pure analogue: too clinical to say the best. You should be glad that your ears can't hear it.

This is physics. Once you know enough how AD works, you should be as skeptical like me on AD conversion.

The 30+ digitally mastered LPs I own still can't touch all other analogue mastered LPs sonically, please don't tell me all those musical production companies don't know how to perfect their AD conversion for their record proudction.

Like coffee which is brewed with BURNT coffee beans which tastes bitter that I dislike. So I go for organic tea which gets no bitter taste like coffee.

The situation is nearly everybody on this planet drinks coffee ignoring the bitterness of burnt coffee beans. Why? Because everybody else is drinking it !!!!!

So it is a pretty close analogy: digital & coffee ???

So apparently you ears can't hear the pure digital vs AD difference, it is your blessing ! Keep it up.

Jack L

Lazer's picture

Right!

hemingway's picture

Kshekar I tend to agree there. I can see why someone who is into pure analog being put off by this. But then that might suggest the listener is attached to dogma (analog>digital) when in fact the A/D converter is transparent and does not alter the sound. I would bet the latter...

tonykaz's picture

Is there anyone out there reviewing with higher credibility than our Mr.HR ? I think not ( of course Mr.JA is also up there )

No offence to Mr.JackL ( who has earned admirations ) but Vinyl is rapidly becoming a Collector Hobby with a Cult following of True Believers willing to out-of-hand dismiss the greatness coming to us from these New Design Engineers while justifying the purchase of multiple sealed copies of the latest re-issue Collector Series of Artists like Jimmy Hendricks.

Folks using the Abyss 1266 to evaluate Audio Gear have the laboratory tools to carefully evaluate. Mr.HR and the Audiophiliac are Now the top of the Reviewing Mountain: the 1266 is the most insight revealing Transducer system ever devised .

The Bruno Putzy designer guy ( and a great many others ) are continuing to raise the music reproduction Bar!

Tony in Venice Florida

Ortofan's picture

... the planar-magnetic headphone world, or might it instead be the Dan Clark Audio Stealth?

tonykaz's picture

I own the Sennheiser products.

I did once sell Stax Headphone gear.

I'm given to understand the newest 1266 TC and the most recent DAC configurations are the pinnacle of sound reproduction.

I do not have a useful opinion of the latest Dan Clark products. I think he builds outstanding.

Mr.Currowong has a group of Headphones that he thinks are the Leading group.

I'm suggesting that Mr.HR possesses the best tools to evaluate gear & has a unique ability to put his findings into understandable phrases. I think that he is more reputable than ANY reviewer I've read over these last 5 Decades. He doesn't seem owned by any company or philosophy. Mr.Steve G is in the same elevated Class of Reviewing Greats ! These two will end up on Audio's Mt.Rushmore ( along with Mr.JA )

Tony in Venice Florida

ps. I've preferred dynamic drivers since 1985ish but will probably up-grade to Diana which are ( a wife friendly ) musical lust.

Jack L's picture

Hi

J. Gordon Holt was the only commercial products reviewer I know up todate being truly honest & responsible to his readers by giving straight-to-the-point least-biased reports.

I wish he is still around.

Jack L

tonykaz's picture

I didn't read Holt much, until recently, plenty of folks agree with you on most things including Mr.Holt.

Though-out my lengthy history, audio gear was not Outstanding with only a small few exceptions that I discovered: Magnapans , Electrocompaniet, Koetsu, small ProAc loudspeakers, MIT 750 music hose speaker interface cabling, Schiit Asgard 2 & Sennheiser HD580/600/650 series and a few others like Audible Illusion PreAmp with beautiful tubes. There were other outstandings but I never owned many of them.
Today: outstanding gear abounds in the under $1,000 to $15,000 price ranges.

I read Mr.Holt's reports of gear I owned and seem to disagree with his assessments but my customers would typically have differing results from gear purchased from me than what it sounded like in my Sound auditioning room.

I was always confused by his "we". Who was the we he wrote about ? Mr.Holt never revealed his panel of listeners so I kinda scrutinized his reports and disagreed based on my personal experiences. ( we didn't have the ability to converse with Holt, did we ?) Much later I realised that Mr.Holt's "we" was the "Royal we" that sailors use to describe themselves and the Ship they sail on.

It would be an interesting Read to have Mr.Holt reporting on the next RMAF Show and it would be fascinating to meet him. He was/is pretty close to my vintage.

Tony in Venice Florida

zimmer74's picture

and find it to be excellent. As for the analogue input, it sounds very good indeed when hooked up to my quite decent TT rig. There are many kinds of digital artifacts: CD, ethernet, and so on all have special issues, it's not simply digital bad, analogue good. As a long-time Naim user, I can say with confidence that their more expensive gear such as the Naim ND555 streamer/DAC is considerably better, as it should be for the price. No experience with the Bartok, but perhaps Herb got a bit carried away with his enthusiasm.

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