Here ends the quest for the best source for headphone listening.
Let’s imagine something together.
You are a very successful person. You want – no, you deserve – the finest things life has to offer. The sunniest days, the best experiences, the most elegant solutions. Money is no object, of course. You value the simplest and most beautiful path to nirvana.
You also happen to love music. Listening to music on headphones, to be precise. So, you are going to need a digital audio source, a DAC, an amplifier, and headphones. Most mere mortals piece together a messy chain consisting of a computer connected via a USB cable to a DAC, which is connected in turn by analog cables (either RCA or XLR) to an amplifier.
But not you. Oh no. That’s not an elegant enough solution for you.
Enter the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition. A beautifully simple and refined all-in-one source device combining all those separate components into a black-boxed, British-born, behemoth. The Atom HE combines a fully-featured streamer, screen, preamplifier, and Class A headphone amplifier. Insert your headphones of choice and you are on your way to sonic perfection.
The Headphone Edition is a revised version of Naim’s Uniti Atom, which is part of the award-winning Uniti range of music-streaming players. There are few, if any, real competitors for this top-tier combo uber device. Not only does it remove the clutter and mess of connected separate components, but it also eliminates any sort of concern regarding device synergy.
Lose any worries you may have regarding selecting the best DAC to match a particular amp, that’s all been handled for you within the Atom HE.
However, compromise is often a real thing with combination devices. Sound quality, build quality, features? Spoiler alert, the Atom HE does sacrifice affordability to deliver on all the other elements. The question becomes ‘is the compromise worth it?’ Is the Atom HE the ultimate single device to take care of all your listening needs?
Ease into your Eames listening chair, chill the champagne, and press play.
Founded in 1972, the British audio company Naim is part of the VerVent Audio Group, a French company that also owns the Focal brand. Known not just for technically advanced components, Naim prides itself in creating great-sounding products that immerse the listener and convey all the emotion that the artist intended.
The original NaimUniti, a combination CD player and integrated amplifier was launched in 2009 and set the path culminating in the Uniti Atom Headphone Edition.
- Form: Desktop streamer, DAC, amp
- Audio Outputs: 2x Balanced XLR preamp output, 2x RCA preamp output
- Headphone Outputs: 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced, 4 pin XLR balanced, 6.35mm SE
- Power Output: 1.5W RMS @ 16ohms, suitable for headphones >= 16ohms
- Audio Inputs: Digital: 2x Optical S/PDIF up to 96kHz, Coaxial RCA (up to 24bit/192kHz, DoP 64Fs), Analog: 1 x Stereo RCA pair
- USB: 2x USB 2.0 (Type A), 32-bit / 384 kHz
- Network: Ethernet (10/100Mbps), WiFi (802.11 b/g/n/ac with internal antenna)
- Streaming Support: Apple AirPlay 2, Chromecast Built-in, UPnPTM, Spotify Connect, TIDAL, Qobuz, Roon Ready, Internet Radio, Bluetooth
- Bluetooth Codecs: AAC, SBC, aptX HD
- Dimensions: 9.5 cm x 24.5 cm x 26.5 cm (H x W x D)
- Weight: 7 kg
- Color: Black
The near 16 lb Atom HE comes in a very sturdy white cardboard box. Pop the lid and you’ll be greeted by the documentation, remote control, and batteries nestled in black foam. Lift the top pieces out, and the big black box is revealed.
It’s all clean, organized, and convenient. So far, so good!
In the box
- Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition
- Power cord
- Remote control
- 4x AA batteries
- Documentation folder
The Atom HE is the single largest and most impressive piece of headphone equipment I’ve ever run into. It manages to make my Burson Audio Conductor 3 Reference seem far humbler than it really is.
For part of my usage, I fit it (barely) into my headphone gear shelving stack, but that’s not how the Atom HE should be used. This unit is designed (and frankly deserves to be) displayed beside your listening chair in a place of honor. Perched atop a marble tabletop beside a comfy couch was a far more fitting locale.
Besides the superlative build quality and sublime looks, the most distinctive design element of the Atom HE is the HUGE volume knob centered on the top of the device. The outer ring rotates while LEDs located around the knob’s perimeter light up to show the current volume level.
These LEDs dim after a few seconds of no use and light up automatically when your hand nears the front panel (you don’t need to touch the Atom HE to activate the LEDs).
The heavy aluminum case is clearly intended to function as a giant heat sink, with fins running the length of both sides. I never found the Atom HE to feel much warmer than room temperature even after long listening sessions and pushing 3 headphones at once.
The glossy front surface is defined by a large high-resolution, full-color display in the center. Somewhat unintuitively these days, the display is just that, and not a touch screen interface. On the left are (from top to bottom) the headphone/preamp on/off button, 6.35mm and 4.4mm balanced headphone outputs, and USB-A 2.0 input. The right side has (from top to bottom) the power, play/pause, input, and radio favorite buttons.
The back panel is fully adorned with a pair of optical digital inputs, coaxial digital input, USB-A 2.0 socket, RCA inputs, RCA and 3-pin XLR preamp outputs, 4-pin XLR balanced headphone output, ethernet port, and ground switch. Whew.
The Atom HE remembers individual volume settings for each headphone and preamp output. It’s the value-added touches like this that help elevate the Atom HE above lesser devices.
User interface and remote control
The remote control uses the ZigBee protocol for wireless communication and has all the additional functionality missing from the sparse front panel controls. Power, play/pause, forward/back, volume +/-, mute, input, up/down/left/right, select, home, light, and back are all physical buttons. The remote’s glossy black surface mirrors the Atom HE’s front panel design and is a perfect match both in quality and aesthetics.
Further functionality, including Chromecast, TIDAL, Qobuz, and local UPnP server access, is provided by using the Naim app available for iOS and Android. The app is stable and, for the most part, fairly straightforward to use. However, browsing music sources seems to be more intuitive using the native Spotify or TIDAL apps. For most of my listening, I used the Roon app to stream files from my local network to the Atom HE.
Although the exterior looks much the same, the original Uniti Atom received substantial internal changes to transform into the Headphone Edition. Gone is the speaker amplifier and outputs, and in their place is a new discrete transistor circuit and transformer design with a 1.5W @16Ohms Class A amplifier designed solely for headphones.
The amplifier functions almost solely in Class A mode with higher impedance headphones, but changes into Class AB sooner with lower impedance loads. The point at which it changes modes varies, with low impedance loads causing the amplifier to switch to AB at less output power. For most reasonable listening levels, the Atom HE will be using Class A regardless of the headphones used.
The internal DAC in the Atom HE uses the same Texas Instruments Burr-Brown chipset as the Uniti Atom to handle digital decoding and supports up to 24-bit/384kHz, DSD 128. It does not support MQA however. Bluetooth supports basic SBC and AAC codecs as well as aptX HD.
Uniti Atom Headphone Edition Sound
Cutting to the chase, the Atom HE sounds terrific.
I listened and I listened. And I enjoyed every moment of it. As noted, my Roon library is the primary source, and all the important stuff shines through without the Atom HE getting in the way. The headphones portray their inherent natures, and the music is delivered in all its glory. There’s plenty of power on hand to properly drive any of the headphones I connected to the Atom HE.
Part of the beauty of the listening experience is that nothing really jumps out at me. Things don’t sound too harsh or analytical, but neither does anything sound rounded off, subdued, or veiled. The Atom HE delivers everything clearly and with authority. It genuinely is a product that you can rest assured is presenting things properly, so you can forget about it and just concentrate on the music.
Beyond my solo testing, I packed up and carted the Atom HE to a fellow audiophile’s house and invited another good friend to have an impromptu listening session for a few hours. Since the Atom HE can drive 3 headphones at the same time, we simultaneously took turns with a variety of cans, and each of us had temporary control of the playlist.
The Atom HE is a marvel of transparency. As we switched genres and decades of music, the main takeaway is that music that isn’t mastered or recorded well is very apparent. Want something to gloss over the rough spots, or pump up the flat bits? Well, the Atom HE just doesn’t. For lack of a better descriptor, it’s the most neutral-sounding device I’ve encountered.
My two friends differ in their levels of music obsession and in headphone listening experience. But all of us were left with the same impression. If we could choose a single source device, the Atom HE is the one.
Rather than wax too poetic, it’s fair to say the Atom HE sounds like what I expect a top-tier product should. Natural, clear, and dynamic. It’s not how it plays the music, it is the music it plays.
In the end, it’s when I compare it to every other piece of audio gear I’ve ever used, that I am awestruck at how superior it really is. Neutral and transparent sound merged with unsurpassed build quality and design.
The Atom HE is my new benchmark, my new reference for ‘as good as it gets.’
Where to Buy
Full disclosure, I’m sold. I very much want to keep this loaner unit. I’ve made plans to grow a mustache, dye my hair, and move to a tropical island to avoid the necessity to return it. I’ll happily leave behind the unruly pile of separate components on my listening stand. The Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition has made me a believer in the existence of a supreme all-in-one device.
So, what is an average dude like me to do? A single purchase of multi-thousands of dollars is more than daunting, if not nearly impossible. But perhaps, if we consider the individual prices of the components it replaces in your current headphone audio chain, things may not seem quite so unreasonable. Especially if we compare things to higher-end separates, with which the Atom HE certainly competes.
Computer? $500-$1500. DAC? $250-$750. Amp? $750-$1500. Cables? $50-$250. Total: $1550-$4000? Now we’re in the ballpark.
For those of you sporting TOTL headphones from Focal, Audeze, Abyss, ZMF, or the like, and want the very best for a source, as well as an undeniable centerpiece built to impress, the Atom HE must be on your audition list. Especially if you value simplicity and elegance. Add your choice of comfy chair and side table, and you are complete.
Fine. I’ll shave, return my hair to its original color, and give back the Uniti Atom Headphone Edition. I just won’t be happy about it.