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Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition: Review

Can the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition rewrite the rules when it comes to desktop headphone systems?

Naim Uniti Atom HE with Remote Control

Back in 2021, EIC Ian White was invited by Focal and Naim to visit the Focal Powered By Naim Houston location for an early look at what has become a global roll-out of a different kind of consumer A/V retail experience. Based on the steady stream of new locations in Asia, Europe, and N. America — it would appear that the strategy is working. The retail locations offer the opportunity to experience Focal and Naim equipment in a multitude of settings that are designed to simulate your home, backyard, dedicated home theater room, and even your desktop.

Focal powered by Naim Headphone Station
Focal Powered By Naim Houston, Headphone Listening Bar

The last part caught our attention because whilst Focal has offered a wide range of category leading headphones for many years, there really wasn’t a focus on the electronics required to drive them. The success of the Naim Uniti Atom Network Amplifier changed all of that and gave Naim’s engineers the opportunity to offer something rather versatile for consumers; the first dedicated audiophile network streamer/headphone amplifier designed to drive the best headphones on the market.

To make the package even more compelling, the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition is Roon-Ready, compatible with almost every music streaming platform available, and a network player/preamplifier as well.

The class A headphone amplifier isn’t some stock module jammed inside the chassis but a dedicated one that is meant to play with almost everything — including Focal’s flagship Utopia 2022 that we just reviewed.

The myriad of digital and analog inputs turns the Naim Uniti Atom HE into the hub of your home entertainment system — especially if you have moved to active loudspeakers like the Acoustic Energy AE1 or Dynaudio Focus 50.

The only thing missing is an internal phono preamp and we do wish that Naim would make some space for one going forward; those who want to listen to their record collection will need to add a separate phono preamplifier and we have some really good options to consider here.

Naim Uniti Atom HE Front

Technology

Naim has sold thousands of the Uniti Atom network players and the award-wining product has benefited from some very smart industrial design decisions; the svelte Uniti Atom HE takes up very little space (10″W x 4″H x 10″D, 16 pounds) on your desktop or media unit or bookshelf.

The large illuminated volume dial set into the top panel is high-end audio eye candy and it is very hard to not focus on it as a design element.

Naim’s engineers have kept the front panel focused on album art via the impressive touch screen and a multitude of headphone connections; the panel includes the headphone amplifier engagement switch, 4.4mm Pentaconn and 6.35mm headphone jacks, and a single USB Type-A port.

The other side features the power button, play/pause, input select, and favorites buttons.

One aspect of the volume dial that might be a problem for some users is that it might be obscured if the Uniti Atom HE is placed inside a rack or cabinet; the supplied Naim remote control and app offer access to every feature and your music collection which made using the unit very easy.

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The sides of the unit feature very effective heatsinks that do an excellent job of keeping the unit cool during operation.

Naim Uniti Atom HE Back

The rear panel is a very busy place; a C13 fused power input and XLR headphone output occupy the left side, whilst the remaining inputs and outputs are split into two rows. Naim was clearly thinking long-term with the Uniti Atom HE by including an Ethernet port, USB Type-A input, covered service port, three digital inputs (1 x Coaxial, 2 x Toslink Optical), one pair of balanced XLR pre-outs, ground switch, one pair of single-ended pre-outs, and a single set of analog RCA inputs.

If all of those connectivity options sound like a bridge too far, Naim has done a remarkable job of keeping everything very neat and tidy and we had no issues whatsoever during our testing.

Naim has also put some thought into both the layout and usability of the supplied remote control; too many manufacturers throw in a cheap plastic unit that feels like an after-thought. The polymer build feels sturdy and the buttons are well labelled to simplify usage; we were able to access and use every single feature in no more than 3 or 4 clicks. Top marks for the design and responsiveness as well.

During our aforementioned trip to Houston, Team Naim made a point of emphasizing how much R&D was done by its dedicated team of software engineers on the control app that works with both iOS and Android devices.

The price tag of the Uniti Atom HE demands a world class experience and it’s something that consumers think is a given with products at this level of performance and cost.

Sadly, that is not the case.

Having spent the better part of the past 5 years trying almost every control app available in the streaming and personal audio categories, it’s frustrating how few brands really go the extra mile. Naim have done their homework and continue to strengthen an already excellent app.

Connectivity and Usage

The Uniti Atom HE is about flexibility and connectivity options; aside from all of the physical connections that we detailed above, the unit supports a wide range of protocols including Apple AirPlay 2, Wi-FI, AAC, aptX, aptX HD, and SBC.

Using the Ethernet port provides the most stable connection but the wireless and Bluetooth performance are excellent.

The Uniti Atom HE utilizes a Burr-Brown DAC that supports up to 24-bit/ 384kHz PCM, DSD64 and DSD128 and offers file support for AAC, MP3, FLAC, ALAC, WMA, OGG, and AIFF.

Streaming support includes Spotify Connect, TIDAL, Qobuz, Chromecast, Internet Radio, and the streamer is Roon-Ready. As of December 2022, the Uniti Atom HE does not support MQA.  

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The system utilizes a 40-bit floating point SHARC DSP that cleans up the digital signal and removes jitter before feeding the signal to the Burr-Brown DAC. It is noteworthy that the internal filters on the DAC chip are disengaged and those functions are handled by the DSP to minimize phase-shift.

Naim Uniti Atom HE Rear Left Closeup

My only complaint about the selection of inputs/outputs is that the XLR headphone output is on the rear panel which is not ideal. Having to reach behind the unit might be slightly problematic if you decide to place it inside a cabinet.

Maximum Headroom

One of the most impressive aspects of the Naim Uniti Atom HE is its class A (and class A/B) headphone amplifier which remains in that mode with most headphones, but will switch over to class A/B when the impedance drops and the need for more power increases.

During our testing, the Uniti Atom HE remained in class A while listening to headphones that were 600 and 300 ohms. When we switched over to 32 ohm loads, the unit dipped into class A/B and the output increased to 3.2 watts of output power.

Very few headphones (32 ohms) need 3.2 watts of power, but it was interesting to see that occur.

We used low impedance, low sensitivity planar magnetic headphones like the HiFiMAN HE6 because they can draw 3.2 watts rather easily — yet we found the noise floor to be exceptionally quiet and the dynamics were very good even when we pushed the amplifier as hard as it could go.

Tip: Naim has advertised that all 3 headphone ports can be used simultaneously (which is true), but still recommends limiting listening to only a single output for maximum sound quality.

Focal Utopia 2022 Headphones atop Naim Uniti Atom HE Front
Focal Utopia 2022 Headphones atop Naim Uniti Atom HE

Setup & Comparison

Naim designed the Uniti Atom Headphone Edition to be used in a variety of different configurations and we felt that it was necessary to experiment with as many different headphones and setups as we could.

Most users are going to connect the Uniti Atom HE to their home Ethernet connection and use only one headphone for the bulk of their listening; Focal was very kind to supply the Utopia 2022 headphones as part of the package and it made sense to start there.

To complicate matters, we also ran a laptop for some of our listening tests and also attached one USB HDD to see how quickly the unit accessed our saved files.

We also ran Qobuz using the desktop application from the laptop.

There were no connectivity issues and the backgrounds were completely noise free. Listening to random orchestral selections demonstrated an impressive level of control and impact on the part of the Uniti Atom HE.

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We also conducted a side-by-side comparison (with the Focal Utopia 2022) using the Uniti Atom HE and my reference Pass Labs HPA-1 Headphone Amplifier and RME ADI-2 FS-B DAC system.

Much to my amazement, the Uniti Atom HE delivered a sound quality experience that was much closer to the combination than I expected when it came to detail retrieval, and dynamics. When you consider that the Pass Labs HPA-1 costs more than the Uniti Atom HE alone, the British streaming headphone unit looks like a serious bargain.

Throw in all of the features, streaming support, and very high quality streaming app — my reference rig starts to look and feel rather antiquated.

The tonal balance of the Uniti Atom HE is on the warmer side, which is somewhat typical of the Burr-Brown DACs, but it also doesn’t curtail the amount of detail that one can perceive and everything sounds very precise throughout the soundstage.

The RME ADI-2 comes across as being slightly cooler and more analytical, but still offers a similar level of detail. Transients are slightly sharper as well.

Naim Uniti Atom HE with Remote Control Top

Round Two

For my second test, I substituted the Uniti Atom HE for my BelCanto DAC and Bryston pre-amplifier; the swap meant having fewer analog inputs so I ran my existing phono preamp into the Uniti Atom HE’s single-ended input and fed the optical cable I usually run into the BelCanto, directly into the Uniti Atom HE.

Because the Naim and BelCanto use similar DAC chips, there was some similarity to the sound and I was rather hard pressed to pick one over the other; the BelCanto might offer a higher level of resolution but the overall sonic picture was enough to convince me that Naim have done a lot of work to make the Burr-Brown setup match DACs in the $2,000 range which is impressive considering how much else they had to configure inside the chassis.

The Bryston pre-amplifier offers a darker presentation but with an improved sense of clarity. The analog pre-amplifier also provides me with wider flexibility when it comes to adding 3 or more analog sources.

The more I used the Uniti Atom HE as a streamer/DAC/pre-amplifier — the more I wanted to connect it to my Adam Audio A7 Powered Monitors.

Not only did the Uniti Atom HE match perfectly with the A7s, but it made looking for music a nighty pleasure as I listened while working. The touchscreen gives you access to everything and I never found myself stumbling with the app to switch between platforms or features.

Turning the volume dial as I read my notes on the computer screen felt utterly natural and I can’t recall another product in recent years that felt so polished from a design or operational perspective.

Naim gear has always emphasized the flow and pace of music; it’s what makes even their least expensive integrated amplifiers and CD players unique. The Uniti Atom HE carries that over to headphones and loudspeakers which is certainly not the norm.

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Naim Uniti Atom HE Angle

Conclusion

More often than not, a manufacturer attempts to squeeze everything but the kitchen sink inside of a component in an attempt to convince consumers that their “box” is the only thing that they need — and fail miserably in the process.

There are always compromises when designing; and that applies to automobiles, smartphones, headphones, and high-end audio components. You might accomplish a few things really well, but the things that don’t work leave a dirty taste in the mouth.

People remember what you screw up — not what works.

The Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition proves that when you focus on the key thing that makes your product unique — and wrap already proven hardware and software around it — you’re probably going to create something of value.

Over the past few years, we have been fortunate to review some outstanding DAPs, headphones, and headphone amplifiers. The missing piece was a desktop streamer/DAC/Headphone Amplifier that could also drive a pair of powered or active loudspeakers when you’re done listening to your headphones.

The Naim/Focal package is $8,799 USD; a huge number that certainly limits how many people can afford such a superb combination.

But make no mistake — this is one piece of audio hardware that won’t be obsolete anytime soon and has this very experienced headphone reviewer completely smitten.

Where to buy: $3,799 at Amazon | Crutchfield

For more information: naimaudio.com

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