Gramophone Dreams #52: Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition & Focal Clear Mg headphones Page 2

The Atom's line stage: In order to get a feel for the driving power of the Uniti Atom's line stage, I connected my Dr. Feickert Analogue Blackbird turntable, equipped with a 10.5" Schick arm and a Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum moving coil cartridge, which sent its current to my EMIA 1:10 step-up transformer driving the tubed Tavish Design Adagio phono stage. My goal: to see how the Naim preamp section compared to my reference Rogue Audio RP-7 line-level amplifier, which, at $4995, costs 50% more than the $3290 Uniti Atom HE. I spent days using this Blackbird-Atom combo to explore every music genre, simply because it was a pleasure to do. Chamber music and avant-garde jazz came through with intoxicating brandy-in-a-snifter richness. Classical orchestras appeared in nicely focused, well-sorted layers. Punk swaggered and spit like it ought to.

Impressively vivid, the Uniti Atom's line stage had excellent drive and a penchant for invisibility.


The Atom's headphone amp: The second pillar of Naim Audio's parent company—the VerVent Group—is French manufacturer Focal, a company with a long history of making some of the world's finest loudspeakers and headphones. Together, Naim and Focal share a decades-long narrative of making products that treat build quality, product style, and quality of sound equally in an intelligent, no-detail-overlooked manner.

Naim's Uniti Atom HE and Focal's Stellia headphones ($2990) are promoted as a couple on Focal's website, so, to see what they were bragging about, I started my Uniti Atom headphone auditions with the Stellia closed-backs.

With the Atom HE powering the easy-to-drive, low-impedance (35 ohms), high-sensitivity (106dB/mW) Stellia, the sound was squeaky-clean, bass-taut, and superdynamic lively. No question, the Atom-Stellia's sound was impressive, but I wasn't sure if its overt cleanliness would match long-term with my audio-on-acid proclivities.

That uncertainty passed quickly, because the Atom-Stellia combo did not prevent me from getting gone and trancing out to my favorite Guinean djembe drummer Mamady Keïta and his hypnotic, majestically inventive 1989 album, Wassolon (24/96 FLAC, Fonti Musicali/Qobuz). The Stellia-Atom combo was not too pure nor too sanitary for me to feel the tribal earth while following the dynamic near-drum/far-drum call and response of Wassolon's "Kuku" track. But it was sharp-focused and transparent enough to elucidate the intricate sounds of birds and other creatures "singing" in the rich darkness at the beginning of Wassolon's first track, "Kassa." It was gut-level real enough to remind me, track after track, that recorded music is the main tool I use to fathom human nature.


Atom + Susvara: The success of Naim's Uniti Atom HE driving Focal's supersensitive, low-impedance Stellia was a foregone conclusion. I wanted to know if the Atom's 1.5W headphone amp could produce enough current (got 250mA?) and voltage gain (got 20dB?) to power the 60 ohm, 83dB/mW, HiFiMan Susvara. That is a more difficult question.

On Wassolon's "Kuku" track, you can hear Master of Masters Mamady Keãta on a djembe drum sitting close to the microphone and second djembe Master Sewa Kan playing on a smaller drum farther away. Both drums are explicitly rendered and dynamic in the extreme. Keãta's drum makes powerful transients.

If an amplifier clips or compresses, it's easy to spot. The Uniti Atom didn't just drive the Susvara without noticeable clipping; it out-resolved the headphone amp in the Mytek Manhattan II.

I continued my Atom-Susvara testing with a denser, more complex, more difficult-to-sort track called "Outlaws," from Bill Frisell (with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones) (16/44.1 FLAC, ECM/ Qobuz). On this composition, the HE appeared to clip subtly in a low, dull, blurry way. What I heard sounded like a fog of IM distortion.


When I switched to the much less expensive, much easier to drive (106dB/mW) Focal Clear Mg headphones, this intense, complex music opened up and spread out, becoming clearer and brighter. The IM gunk was gone.

Atom + ZMF Vérité: The 300 ohm, 99dB/mW, $2499.99 ZMF Vérité are the most subtly refined, overtly natural, highest-resolving closed-backs I've used. But their 300 ohm impedance makes them a little voltage hungry (got 7V?), and some amps can't deliver. Powered by ZMF's own Justin Weber–designed Pendant tube amplifier, the Vérité's angled, beryllium-sputtered, polyethylene-naphthalate drivers did speed, intoxicating microdynamics, and rabid three-dimensionality as well as any headphone at any price. Powered by Naim Audio's Uniti Atom HE, ZMF's Vérité sounded nano-detailed, micro'n'macro dynamic, and emotionally engaging—but not as rich of tone or three-dimensional as with the ZMF Pendant amplifier.


Atom + Abyss: No headphone shows me more of what's on a recording than the JPS Labs' Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC planar-magnetic open-backs, and the Phi TC's renowned resolving powers provide a unique tool for examining amp behavior. Their 47 ohm impedance and 88dB/mW sensitivity gave me an opportunity to see if the Atom HE's amplifier can breeze through Bill Frisell's "Outlaws" with a headphone only 5dB less challenging than the Susvara.

What I observed pleased me: The Atom HE's amplifier provided all the clean power the Abyss needed to peer down into the dust-n-specs region of the Outlaw's textures. There was no intermodulation distortion that I could hear, only flow and sparkle and open space. Driving the Abyss, the Atom exhibited no strain and plenty of gain.

My conclusion: The Atom HE plays best with headphones with a sensitivity of 88dB/mW or higher.

vs Manhattan II: Mytek HiFi's (recently discontinued) Manhattan II DAC/preamp/headphone amp was the only DAC/preamp/headphone amp I had in-house to compare the Uniti Atom HE to. When I reviewed the Manhattan II, it cost $5995 and was a top-shelf, Stereophile Class A+ example of this new type of all-in-one digital audio component.

When I switched to the Manhattan II after a couple of weeks of listening exclusively to the Uniti Atom HE, the first thing I noticed was how dark and thick it sounded. The birds and creatures in the background of "Kassa" were farther back in the soundspace, and muted. In contrast, the Uniti Atom played with a brighter, more pronounced, better-focused clarity that made "looking into" sonic spaces easier and more exciting.

After five weeks of auditions, I concluded that the Uniti Atom HE's best and most obvious trait was how gracefully and insightfully it danced through one musical genre after another. It was never not enticing. It was never not engaging. It never disappointed.

Everyone knows: I like headphone amplifiers to be power amplifiers—not feature-laden lifestyle products with a built-in DAC that might or might not be the kind of converter I'd choose for myself.

That is why I didn't even try the headphone amp in Naim's Uniti Atom HE until I had separately assessed its DAC and line stage. Fortunately, and a little surprisingly, both performed at a level of resolution and insight that would not be out of place in a mastering studio. I could live happily with both forever.

Once satisfied with the DAC and preamp, I settled in and studied the headphone amp, which is the Uniti Atom HE's main reason for being. It was here that things became more difficult to assess.

Assessment was difficult because I think headphones and headphone amplifiers should be chosen together, and in this case, I wondered exactly what sort of headphones the Atom's amp designer had in mind. As I tried my usual group of headphones, representing a wide range of sensitivities and impedances, the best I could tell was: The Atom HE could drive any reasonably drivable headphone, but it was most comfortable and sounded its relaxed and vivid best with easy-to-power headphones from their VerVent Group stablemate Focal.

Naim Audio's Uniti Atom HE was that rare audio product that charmed and impressed me completely. It seemed to excel at everything. It was always a joy to use, and I felt sad as I carted it to FedEx.

Focal's New Clear Mg
Before Focal's closed-back Stellia arrived, I was addicted to the proletarian comfort and straightforward musicality of Focal's dynamic, open-backed Clear headphones ($1495). I've used and enjoyed the aluminum-magnesium alloy–domed Clear almost every day since I reviewed them way back in GD22.


Now, Focal has introduced a stylish new Clear named the Clear Mg, which costs $1500.

The Clear Mg's pure-magnesium domes are ensconced in a posh, chestnut-colored, honeycomb-grilled headset finished in leather, microfiber, and "mixed metals." It looks almost as luxurious as Focal's $2999.99 Stellia. The old, plain-gray Clear and the new, chestnut-colored Clear Mg look, feel, and sound substantially different, but price and specification-wise they are identical: 55 ohm impedance, 104dB/mW sensitivity. Both use 40mm M-profile dynamic drivers. Both headsets weigh 0.99lb (450gm).

The old Clears are naturally detailed—not overly sharp or hi-fi sounding—dynamic, and extremely easy-flowing. My only criticism of Focal's gray-colored Clear is that they are (don't laugh) a bit gray-sounding and low-contrast. The edges of sounds are slightly softened. Instrumental tones are slightly grayed. Images of performers are more shadowed than they are with Focal's new, brighter, sharper-sounding Clear Mg.

The new Clear is more clear than the old clear: instead of soft or gray, the Mg produces a fresh, bell-like clarity that puts my mind closer to and further inside every recording. Reverb has more presence with the Clear Mg. Piano notes have better-articulated attack and decay. Guitar strings are tauter and more vividly described.


Let's take a minute and forget all that audiophile sound stuff and instead listen to a dead man's voice speaking to us from beyond the grave.

With the original Clear, I listened to Lefty Frizzell singing one of the most moving, tear-extracting songs ever recorded: his haunting cover of the Danny Dill/Marijohn Wilkin masterpiece "Long Black Veil" off of Lefty's greatest hits album, Look What Thoughts Will Do (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia Legacy/Qobuz). I started sobbing. The pedal-steel cried with me, and the spring-reverb sounded just as I remember it from the original LP. The Clear let all of Lefty's dark poetry connect with my DNA.


When I listened again with the Clear Mg, the effect was more hi-fi, more emotionally distant. The doom and remorse in Lefty's voice were less accessible.

On every recording I tried, the new Clear Mg sounded more transparent, more sharply focused, more punchy, and more left-brain precise than the original Clear. But on every male and female vocal, the old Clear put me closer in touch with the singer's personality.


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


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


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


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



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


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


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


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.

hemingway's picture

It would be great to see measurements of the DAC and line level outputs for this unit. Curious, does it roll off the top end like other NAIM products measured here (e.g. Nova integrated), and how does it handle 192/24 files etc.