Before we dig too deeply into the Uniti Atom's musical performance, I'm going to let you in on a dirty little secret about hardware reviews. The neat and tidy little list of songs that we discuss in the course of our evaluations? They don't really tell the whole story. The reality is that we usually spend weeks listening to a piece of gear; and, once we're pretty satisfied with our assessment of a product, we dig back through pages of notes, find the handful of songs that best reveal an amp or receiver or player's strengths and weaknesses, and listen to those tracks straight through again to weave a narrative.
Before we get to such a carefully crafted playlist, though, I'd like to tell you something about my genuine first experience with the Uniti Atom. I had literally just finished the network setup, and it was getting pretty close to the end of my workday. So, instead of throwing any sort of critical listening material at the player, I cued up Tool's Ænima (Zoo Entertainment)--one of my top five favorite albums of all time, but one I rarely use in the course of hardware reviews. And when I do, you can rest assured it's via the CD.
In this case, I was using AirPlay to stream a 256-vbr MP3, encoded with LAME five or six years ago ... and I was sort of only half paying attention. But something really struck me a few seconds into track 14, "(-) Ions." This isn't a song, per se, but rather one of Tool's famous ambient noise tracks. Its most prominent rhythmic element is one of those old high-voltage climbing arcs you typically see in the laboratories of mad scientists in old horror movies, which starts below the noise floor of the mix and slowly rises in volume. But here's the thing: the first arc I heard came a little earlier than expected. (Yes, I so obsess over this album that a single, barely audible sound effect heard sooner than expected is enough to grab my attention.)
I grabbed a pair of open-back Sennheiser headphones sitting nearby and plugged them into my desktop DAC/amp, played the track at reasonable listening levels, and pegged the first audible occurrence of this "Jacob's Ladder" sound effect to right at the 10-second mark. Playing it again through the Uniti Atom in the open air, I could unmistakably identify an earlier, quieter occurrence of the effect right at the eight-second mark. And this was true pretty much no matter how I adjusted the volume of both devices.
I hear your objections already: "It's not even really music! Who cares?" A valid point. I merely bring it up because it illustrates one aspect of the Uniti Atom's performance in a way that denser and more musical mixes didn't--at least not so blatantly. One track that came pretty close, though, is "Bag of Hammers" from the album We Brave Bee Stings and All (Kill Rock Stars) by Thao & the Get Down Stay Down. There's an interesting percussive element that permeates the first verse of the song--a series of tongue clops and mouth noises that can only be described as beat-boxing by way of the African Khoisan click-consonant languages. This element is just high enough in the mix to add texture to the track. Honestly, once the singing kicks in, it's pretty easy to lose track of it unless you're specifically listening for it. Not so via the Uniti Atom, which rendered those clicks and clops so precisely and so vividly that they remained distinct and discernible until the drums kicked in full-force in the chorus. And so it went with the rest of the track ... and everything else I played via the Atom, for that matter. No minor detail was buried or obscured.
Of course, that also means that imperfections reveal themselves, too. I'm thinking specifically of the analog hiss, stray cymbal hit, and breath noises at the beginning of "Uncle John's Band" from the Grateful Dead's Workingman's Dead (Warner Bros.), but my goodness what a small price to pay for such clarity, transparency, and detail. Workingman's Dead happens to be one of the very few albums that I own in both 44.1/16 and 96/24, with both versions sourced from the exact same master. I played both through the Atom (via UPnP) and struggled to hear any meaningful difference between them, which is the mark of excellent DAC implementation in my experience. Both sounded equally warm, equally nuanced, and equally detailed, with equal depth to the soundstage and equal stereo separation at pretty much any listening level. Both tracks also revealed the player/amp/streamer to be stunningly revealing without being analytical.
But clarity and purity of tone aren't the only selling points. This little thing swings, too! And rocks, for that matter. Its dynamic punch and exceptional transient response combine to create a system that's just flat-out fun to listen to. Hell, even the Naim Records Internet radio station sounded spectacular through the Uniti Atom. The 320-kbps feed offers up a pretty diverse selection of tunes, from classical to jazz to pop. During the hours I spent listening to the station, only once did any element of it sound less than pristine. That moment came during a sax solo in the middle of Bonnie Koloc's "Ballad for a Quiet Man" (and no, I never would have known the track if not for the Shazam app on my phone). For just a couple of notes, the sax sounded a little edgy. A little digital. A little compressed. That's, like, two notes out of hours of listening. Otherwise, even with such a low-quality source, the Atom delivered rich, dynamic, spacious, and perfectly textured tunes with flawless transients and utter clarity for hours on end--all without getting toasty to the touch, which is pretty phenomenal when you consider its Class AB topology.
Aside from the funky speaker connections, which I detailed above in the Hookup section, I only have one other itsy-bitsy--and completely subjective--complaint. The Uniti Atom boasts a truly spectacular headphone amplifier--like, good enough that it would receive five stars if the headphone jack were its only output (I've only heard one dedicated headphone amp in recent years that could claim to best it). However, its headphone jack is of the mini 3.5mm variety, which means that with my good headphones--from Audeze, HiFiMan, and Sennheiser--I had to use a quarter-inch-to-3.5mm adapter. First-world problems, right? Still, for a product this gorgeous with this level of performance, the need to use an adapter with my high-end cans seems a little wrong.
Comparison and Competition
Simaudio's $3,500 Moon Neo ACE all-in-one music player comes to mind as one of the most likely competitors to Naim's Uniti Atom. The Moon unit (heh!) features rather similar specs and file support, and it comes complete with aptX Bluetooth connectivity. It adds an asynchronous USB input, but it lacks the Uniti Atom's Chromecast and AirPlay functionality, as well as Spotify Connect support.
The Hegel Röst, meanwhile, matches the Uniti Atom in price, and it features a bit more in the way of amplification (75 wpc). It does support AirPlay, but it lacks the Atom's support for DSD and higher-sample-rate PCM (192/24 is the limit over the network), and of course its stark white-on-black display is no match for the full-color artwork and imagery provided by the Atom.
Of course, if you're looking to save a wad of dough and the Nth degree of musical fidelity isn't your primary concern, you could also go with something like Yamaha's $650 R-N602 network hi-fi receiver, which boasts 80 watts per channel of output and works with the company's MusicCast ecosystem. File format support isn't quite as advanced as Naim's, the chassis isn't nearly as lovely or well-constructed, and the app itself is nowhere near as elegant, but it is one of the few streaming apps I've used that's just as reliable and easy to navigate, and network setup is exactly as hassle-free.
This being my first experience with Naim's Uniti line, I honestly didn't know quite what to expect from the Atom. As I hinted at in the intro, though, I certainly didn't expect to experience such an effortless setup, nor such a reliable streaming audio experience. There's really no better way to put it than this: in terms of network connectivity and streaming, the Uniti Atom just works. Flawlessly. Dependably. Without exception.
As an audio junky, it pains me to admit this, but the unimpeachable performance of the system is almost just icing on the cake. What delicious icing it is, though! Music delivered by this little overachiever is crystal clear, ridiculously detailed, punchy when it needs to be, laid back when that's what's required. It's dynamic and an absolutely hoot to listen to, and best of all it manages to be both revealing with high-quality sources and forgiving with low-bitrate streams.
The chassis itself is just a sight to behold. Little touches--like the recessed lighting that illuminates the Naim nameplate, the simple but full-featured ZigBee remote, the top-mounted volume control, and the motion-sensing functionality--all of it combines to create a user experience that screams luxury. And the big, gorgeous, internally lit, motion-sensing volume control atop the chassis? Truly, for folks like me who harbor a volume knob fetish, this thing very nearly counts as pornographic. Yes, its upward-facing design does make it a little susceptible to debris, so you might want to keep a can of compressed air handy. But that's a minor price to pay for such a stunning design.
It's a bit of a unicorn, this little Uniti Atom all-in-one wireless music player--a truly audiophile-caliber music system that outdoes the big brand solutions not only in terms of musical performance and ergonomics but also in its UI and overall streaming audio experience.
• Visit the Naim Audio website for more product information.
• Check out our Audio Players category page to read similar reviews.
• Find a local Naim dealer through the company's U.S. distributor, Audio Plus Services.