Naim Uniti Atom review: The evolution of high-end hi-fi

New House

Naim Uniti Atom review: The evolution of high-end hi-fi

For many of us, the term ‘hi-fi’ conjures up images of black plates of vinyl and towers of CDs; a time when needles unearthed music from carved valleys of vinyl plastic and lasers scanned pits and lands on a silver disc. In 2018, however, music is no longer a physical entity for many of us; it's 0s and 1s streamed on demand from servers thousands of miles away.

Hi-fi manufacturers have had to adapt to this new digital world, and Naim, one of the UK’s legendary hi-fi marques, has embraced it with both arms with its Uniti Atom.

Naim Uniti Atom: What you need to know

Naim describes its Uniti series as “All-in-One Players” and the Atom is the smallest of the bunch. Despite its shoebox-sized chassis, it includes a 40W amplifier, DAC, wired and wireless streaming facilities and multi-room capabilities (if you shell out for the other compatible products in Naim’s range).

If you’re feeling especially pedantic you could argue it’s not quite the complete all-in-one system. You’ll still need to add your own pair of passive hi-fi speakers to complete the system and, naturally, you’ll also need speaker cables to connect it all up.

The Atom will play and stream music via Ethernet, USB, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, whether that be via streaming services such as Spotify or Tidal, your smartphone, a USB thumb drive, or uPnP servers on your home network. Built-in Chromecast capabilities let you stream hi-def audio (up to 24-bit 96kHz) from a range of apps or you can go old-school and pipe audio through the single analogue stereo input or any of the three digital inputs on the rear. You can also stream your favourite internet radio stations, just for good measure.

Not flexible enough for you? Fine. You can opt to add an ARC-enabled HDMI port for an extra £150 so you can make the Atom a part of your home AV setup, or shell out another £1,899 for Naim's CD-ripping hard disk music server, the Uniti Core.

Naim Uniti Atom: Price and competition

The all-in-one music streamer is steadily becoming a must-have for any self-respecting high-end hi-fi brand. Which you choose very much comes down to which features you need – are you looking for one with a built-in phono stage, for instance – and size, not to mention power if you're planning on driving a demanding pair of speakers.

It's largely the more exotic manufacturers who have got on board with the idea. Leema’s Pulse IV takes the format and adds a quality phono stage so you can directly connect a record player for £2,295.

As with most high-end hi-fi, though, the sky really is the limit. Up your budget, and you’ll be able to choose between a range of exotic machinery. Moon’s Neo Ace will set you back a cool £2,800, while Linn's entry level Klimax nudges up to £2,900 and doesn't even include an integrated amplifier. Take your pick of Linn’s matching powered speakers and it's frighteningly easy to make a £10k+ shaped dent in your credit card balance.

Not what you're looking for? Then click here to check out our guide to the Best AV receivers instead

Naim Uniti Atom: Features and design

Naim has freed itself from the design conventions of classic hi-fi separates. The Uniti Atom refuses to fit neatly on a standard-sized hi-fi rack. It’s far narrower than most hi-fi components and its squared-off footprint and brutalist design feels like it was designed to take centre stage.

Turn the Uniti Atom on and adjustable LED lighting downlights the Naim logo on the left-hand corner, while a huge illuminated volume knob on top begs you to reach out and crank it up as you walk past. Dial it upwards and LED segments light up around its circumference to indicate the current volume level.

There’s something wonderfully purposeful about the thick metal heat sinks that run along the Atom’s flanks and there’s a bright, colourful 5in display on the front fascia alongside a handful of backlit buttons. The front-facing USB port lets you play music files directly from connected thumb drives, phones and hard disks, while the 3.5mm headphone output makes the Atom a handy companion for late night listening sessions.

That display isn’t a touchscreen but it looks great nonetheless. Walk up to the Atom and, thanks to an embedded proximity sensor, it fires automatically into life. Sit back on the sofa, and it displays the album cover of the music currently playing but approach the Atom or wave a hand past the fascia and it’ll quickly show you all the relevant details for the currently playing track, such as artist, time remaining and where it’s being streamed from. For those of us with massive sprawling playlists and a poor memory, this is no bad thing.

At the Atom’s rear, all the basics are present and correct. You’ll find three digital inputs (two optical, one coaxial), gigabit Ethernet, USB, an analogue stereo input and a preamp output for hooking up a power amp.

The only potential annoyance is that the speaker outputs only accept 4mm banana plugs. Moreover, a warning notice on the rear suggests that you must only use the plugs supplied by Naim in the box. And as these require you to physically solder the bare speaker cable to them, you may need to enlist the help of a professional. I ignored those instructions and just used a pair of QED Signature Revolution cables I had close to hand. So far, nothing has caught fire.

Naim Uniti Atom: Remote control and wireless streaming

The supplied remote makes light work of navigating the Uniti Atom’s menus. Its design mimics the Atom itself. It’s finished in gloss and matte black and it works well. Picking it up brings the backlit buttons to life and, since it relies on wireless rather than infrared communication, you don’t need to worry about keeping the Atom in view.

If you’re sitting close enough to see the Atom’s display – which is probably about six feet tops – you can use the remote to select and play music on locally attached storage, or flick through the array of internet radio stations but you can’t use it to play music directly from Spotify or Tidal. To do that, you’ll need a smartphone, tablet, PC or Mac.

The Unity supports all the major casting standards – Chromecast, Spotify Connect and AirPlay 2 support – so you’ll be able to play direct to it from pretty much any app or device you can think of.

Fire up Tidal or Spotify on your phone and you’ll be able to select the Uniti Atom from the list directly within the app. Even if the app you use isn’t supported through these streaming standards, you can stream anything you like via Bluetooth, within which both regular SBC and AptX are supported. I tried streaming the audio from videos and games on my Mac, and there was precious little lag so it doesn’t matter whether you’re streaming music, movies or game audio to the Atom.

Naim Uniti Atom review: Naim app

If you want to take advantage of all the Atom’s features, however, you’ll want to download the Naim app, which is available for Android and iOS devices and works with other streaming products in the Naim Uniti, Mu-So or NDX ranges.

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Fire up the app, and Atom will appear on the home page, along with any other Naim devices you might own. Select it and the main menu provides icons that let you quickly jump to Spotify, Tidal and scan through local files, while tabs at the bottom of the screen provide quick access to your playlists.

It’s a shame that you have to leave the Naim app to access Spotify – the icon simply launches the regular app – but the Tidal is fully integrated and it works brilliantly. In fact, Naim’s integration of the Tidal music library is better than the Tidal app’s own efforts. Search for the music you want and, where Tidal hides the album info and reviews in a context menu, Naim puts that information front and centre at the top of the page. When you’re hunting for new music, and related artists, this is indispensable. You can quickly discover where an album sits in an artist’s discography, the musicians playing on the recording and tap links in the text to view music from other related artists.

It’s also possible to change the behaviour of the app so instead of playing a track when you tap it, it instead brings up a context menu. This not only prevents you accidentally playing tracks when browsing, which happens all the time with the Spotify app, but also makes it possible to access a range of actions, such as queuing up tracks and adding them to your favourites list or existing playlists. I found it incredibly helpful.

One thing that isn't always quite so helpful is the app's ever-present volume control. This manifests itself as a slider along the bottom of the screen, and mistaking it for a playback slider – like that used in so many other music streaming apps – is a very quick way to accidentally crank the Atom up to ear splitting levels. Thankfully, you can at least limit the maximum volume in the Atom's settings menu, but I'd personally hope to see this redesigned in future app updates.

Naim Uniti Atom: Sound quality

For testing, I hooked up the Uniti Atom to a range of speakers, but spend most of my time listening through PMC’s pint-sized monitors, the DB1+. I also compared it to the same speakers powered by a classic old Sony TA-FB940R QS amp fed by the Uniti Atom’s preamp output, and with the Sony connected to my TC Electronics BMC-2 and Chord Mojo DACs.

The Uniti Atom made quite the first impression. I fired up the Naim app, tapped in my Tidal login details, and cued up my playlist of test tracks. After pressing play, the first time I moved from my chair was to reach for the Naim remote and skip one of the less listenable test tracks on the playlist. Despite its obvious talents, even the Uniti Atom would struggle to make 20 minutes of pink noise an engaging listen.

I steadily came to realise one thing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re listening to an MP3 or a internet radio stream, a pristine DSD 128 file or a YouTube video streamed over Bluetooth, the Atom takes it all in its stride. Techno, jazz, classical, spoken word, speed metal – it doesn’t matter what it is – the Atom just cuts to the heart of the music. There’s detail, drive, rhythm – all in the right amounts

And, bear in mind, it’ll do the same for analogue sources, too. I hooked up my Technics SL-1210 Mk2 record player equipped with Audio Technica’s AT440MLb cartridge and a tiny Monacor phono stage, and the Uniti Atom just kept on doing its thing.

Push the volume control to violently anti-social levels and things start to sound harsh and congested as the 40W amplifier runs out of steam but, as long as you aren’t tempted to partner the Atom with insensitive, hard-to-drive speakers, or power a rave in your local village hall, there’ll be volume enough to fill most rooms with a wall of larger than life sound.

Naim Uniti Atom: Verdict

The Atom is expensive. For this kind of money, you could put together any number of hi-fi setups, speakers included, that would deliver very respectable sound quality. However, few of them would be as stylish, multi-talented and compact as the Uniti Atom. If you’re looking to dip a toe into the realms of high-end hi-fi, and aren’t keen on the idea of amassing multiple boxes to do one job, the Atom will be a hugely appealing option.

You can’t fault the quality of the sound, nor the execution. Naim has worked to prove it could find a meeting point between classic hi-fi engineering and the future of music streaming; that it could provide unabashedly high-end sound in a stylish, compact package. The Uniti Atom is proof that it has succeeded on all fronts.