Review: Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition – All-in-Wonder

The Uniti Atom Headphone Edition makes a perfect side table listening station.
The Uniti Atom Headphone Edition makes a perfect side table listening station.
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Here ends the quest for the best source for headphone listening.

Thank you to Wendy at Focal Canada for providing the Uniti Atom Headphone Edition for review purposes.

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.

The Uniti Atom Headphone Edition makes a perfect side table listening station.
Bottom Line

All the important stuff shines through without the Atom HE getting in the way. 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 the music properly.

What We Like
  • Excellent sonics
  • Impeccable and impressive build and design
  • Also makes a great stereo preamp
  • Truly an all-in-one device – just add headphones
What We Don't Like
  • Cost
  • No MQA support
  • The display is not a touchscreen
No separate computer, DAC, or amplifier required.
No separate computer, DAC, or amplifier required.

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.

Of course, this all comes at quite a cost. But money is no object, remember?

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.

That screen is big, bright, and beautiful.
That screen is big, bright, and beautiful.

Company Overview

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.

“Naim Audio founder Julian Vereker MBE (1945-2000) was a racing car driver, entrepreneur and self-taught engineer with a deep passion for music… Not content with second best he decided to design his own amplifiers and loudspeakers, ignoring accepted wisdom and focusing on aspects of performance that made music burst to life. These first designs laid the foundations for a range of iconic and award-winning hi-fi products that would reach well into the next century.” – Naim

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.

The front logo illuminates when powered on.
The front logo illuminates when powered on.

Technical Specifications

  • 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 box is a no-nonsense affair.
The box is a no-nonsense affair.

Packaging

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!

Get ready to tear open that wrap to reveal the magic.
Get ready to tear open that wrap to reveal the magic.

In the box

  • Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition
  • Power cord
  • Remote control
  • 4x AA batteries
  • Documentation folder
That's a giant light up volume knob right on the top.
That’s a giant light up volume knob right on the top.

Design

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).

LEDs on the remote? Cool!
LEDs on the remote? Cool!
This white LED ring is mirrored on the remote control. Impressive design to say the least.

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.

All that aluminum makes for a hefty component.
All that aluminum makes for a hefty component.

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.

All that gloss is unsurprisingly a fingerprint and dust magnet. Call the maid!
If it isn't included on the back panel, you likely don't need it.
If it isn’t included on the back panel, you likely don’t need it.

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.

While I usually question headphone outputs on the back panel, the inclusion of the 4.4mm pentaconn connector on the front makes me view the 4-pin XLR socket on the back as an unexpected bonus. Note that the XLR output requires the user to press the headphone button on the front panel to activate it.

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.

Download the Naim app for iOS or Chrome and use it to access Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz, internet radio, or local network servers. For Roon playback, you can use the Roon app to direct audio to the Atom HE.
Download the Naim app for iOS or Chrome and use it to access Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz, internet radio, or local network servers. For Roon playback, you can use the Roon app to direct audio to the Atom HE.

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.

While it technically fits into my stack of components, it's a shame to hide that awesome knob!
While it technically fits into my stack of components, it’s a shame to hide that awesome knob!

Internals

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 three headphone outputs are simultaneously powered, but switching to preamp mode disconnects the headphone outputs.

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.

Naim has a patented design on the aptX HD Bluetooth antenna that’s built into the volume knob.
The best headphones deserve the best source.
The best headphones deserve the best source.

Uniti Atom Headphone Edition Sound

I happily tested the Atom HE with a wide variety of headphones that I happen to have on hand right now including the Focal Celeste, Audeze LCD-2 and LCD-5, Sennheiser HD650, Sendy Audio Apollo, and HiFiMan Ananda.

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.

Here’s where I point out the sonic shortcomings, the little things that could be improved upon, the proverbial flies in the ointment. And here’s where I’m left wanting for things to say.

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.

I’m awarding the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition a very rare 5/5. To be honest, I struggled a bit with this rating. It’s got no MQA support, but is that really enough to lower the score?

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.’

A table beside a comfy listening chair is the perfect spot to display the Atom HE.
A table beside a comfy listening chair is the perfect spot to display the Atom HE.

Where to Buy

Conclusion

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.

3 comments

  1. Thanks for the review! The HE is on my short list, wondered if you evaluated using the USB in for a USB drive as a source?

  2. Thanks for replying Trav! My plan is to audition the Naim Atom HE and the ifi iDSD Pro Signature at the same time. This is for headphone listening and near field Genelec setup with TV (8030C with 7050C)

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