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    What’s in a Naim? A Uniti Atom Review

    When Chris released his video review of the Naim Uniti Atom, I was impressed by his feelings about the product.  I did enjoy the video review style vs. a written report.  So not long after Chris released the review (link) I decided that the Atom might fit into my musical life rather nicely.  Now after a month with the Naim Uniti Atom, I would like to share my thoughts, observations, and feelings.

     

    Since I am new here,  a little history is in order.   During the past year or  I have actively improved my system, honed my listening skills and questioned everything I have been doing!  Thanks to everyone who contributes to the community.

     

    My audio journey started in the 1960s, and about 30 years ago I was able to set up my first "real" system!  I had a system in college, but the folks at Audio Consultants were able to help me get an excellent system for circa 1985!

     

    Over the years I drifted away from sitting down and listening to music.  Which in hindsight was a mistake for me?   I decided that I did not need a sit-down system, so I sold my old system and installed Sonos speakers around the house.  While we had music, something was missing.  So I started back with a simple system again, and over the last three years, a LOT has changed.  We still have some Sonos along with Amazon Echo, and Apple HomePod.  There is now a sit-down listening system in the Living Room and a test system in my basement office.  Music everywhere and three places to sit down and concentrate on the music.

     

    In January of 2017, I was hired in Sales and Systems Design at Audio Consultants in Hinsdale, Il where I worked full-time until the unfortunate closing of the store in September of that year.  I learned a lot, listened a lot, helped some folks get some nice gear installed in their homes and made some new friends!  Best of all I helped others to have more music in their lives!

     

    I am back to running my own company helping others with computers and doing technology systems designs; including audio systems!  I teach at a local Apple User Group, and now I also write for CA!
       

    _________

     

    What’s in a Naim?

     

     

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    I posted a question on my CA status page.  What do Victrola and Naim have in common and what separates them?  Here are the answers to those questions.

     

    Many years ago RCA and others developed the all in one console system like the one I have from my father's parents.  It did everything: the automatic playback of 10 and 12in 78RPM records, AM, FM and Short Wave radio reception. It even has a section of the cabinet dedicated to storing records!

     

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    The Naim Uniti Atom and its bigger siblings are the modern equivalents of the RCA console.  

     

    The computer core of the Atom can play music from virtually any current source available.  It can stream FM radio from the internet, and with an external Turntable even play records! The Atom has a well thought out two-way Zigbee remote control and smartphone apps to do even more. It is as luxurious as it is easy to use computing system to play music at some of the highest quality levels we can do today.

     

    The Atom does not come in a beautiful wood console, it does not include speakers, and there is no place inside to store your "records"!  Still, it is the 21st-century incarnation of the RCA Victrola.  The Atom sits elegantly on a table as the centerpiece of today's audio system. 

     

     

     

    How does the Atom work/sound/feel?

     

    I have observed that a new system that turns bits to sound waves takes time to find the sweet spot in performance. To best do that and understand how the Atom works as a primary listening device I shut down my Roon Server, and I pulled my Living Room system out of the cabinet and replaced it with the Atom for three weeks.  The family and I have listened to several hundred hours of music of all types on the system.  We play music with it while eating dinner.  The Living Room is my place for listening and relaxing. Using my iPhone to setup and control the Atom is an excellent experience.  Having full wireless remote control of the Atom is almost as good as asking Siri or Alexa to play music for you; almost,...

     

    IMG_0127.jpgAs you know the Atom does not have any speakers, so I have used my B&W 804N speakers with Transparent Cable Gen 5 Super speaker cables.  I like to use the euro-banana plugs, so the Atom fits right into my crazy cable life.  


     I have also been using the Atom to drive my IOTA ALPHA speakers.  More on the listening part of this later.


    The mechanical experience of the Atom is just perfect.  

     

    The rear of the Atom has a nice simple layout, and the banana jacks do not take as much space as binding posts do.  They are a bit close together and the warning label by the outputs there may be an indicator of the issues of EU A/C power plugs using a similar pin size and spacing.  The Atom comes standard with four inputs:  three digital and one analog.  I do not have the optional HDMI input card.

     

    As Chris mentioned in his video the volume control on top of the Atom is just “WOW”!  The fact that is digital control of an analog volume system is even more amazing.  My Ayr AX-5 Twenty does the same thing,  but it makes noise and feels clunky compared to this.  

     

    The Naim App and the Naim remote are again very well thought out.  The iconography is consistent and accessible in the sense that it connects with me visually.  

     

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    Whats’ in a Naim App?


    Naim has developed a smartphone control application for the Uniti line.  This app does system setup, control, and operation.  Download the app before powering up the Atom, and you can fully set up the Atom using your iPhone.  With Tidal or Spotify installed you can select the music you want to play and push it over to the Atom.  The Uniti line also supports Airplay and Airplay 2 has been promised.  Chromecast allows for even more, eg. SoundCloud.  The Atom has Internet Radio catalog at your fingertips!  Of course, the app and the remote let you switch inputs. Finally, the App controls playback from UPnP / USB.  

     

    Note that the Naim Uniti system is a full multi-room playback system with other Unity devices and mu-so speakers.  

     

     

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    There are some warts on the beauty of the Uniti line.  

     

    Naim has hung their hats on UPnP as a method of getting networked music into their systems.  You can also attach a USB drive to the Atom and play from it, but there are some significant limitations in track count and database performance that restrict it as a viable method and it adds an ugly disk drive is hanging off of the device.  OK, the speaker cables and power cord are ugly too!

     

    I use Roon as my master control system for music systems, so I do not regularly use  UPnP.  In the spirit of going all in, I tried setting up several different servers on macOS, Windows, and my Synology NAS.  In my testing, the servers were somewhat cryptic in their setup, and the overall performance was less than stellar.    I made a phone call to NAIM Support in the U.K. and the hold time was rather long with repeating annoying voice prompts to call some other time.  I also submitted an email, and the response to the email: please call them!  After I was able to talk to a support person, the only suggestion was to reset the device, and router, and,...  Those suggestions did not ring true to me.  I gave up on UPnP.

     

     NOTE:  Later in my testing, I have reset the Atom and installed minim-server on my QNAP NAS, and some limited testing shows improved performance.  I also put some music on an SSD drive and attached that to the ATOM with slightly improved results.  I have had several recent crashes with the App on IOS 12 on an iPhone Xs MAX.  (I know: give-em time to update it)  

     

    The Atom is not my only device for playing music.  UPnP and direct USB do not work for me.  I do not have other Naim gear so am not using their multi-room features.

     

    So while the performance issues with UPnP are somewhat disconcerting the real killer is no search of local music.  I have access to about 125,000 tracks in my libraries and Roon appears to be about the only distributed client-server system that can manage this.  I do not consider this a failure on the part of Naim.  Remember that the Atom is like my Victrola; there was only about 18 inches of music storage there.   Ownership is passe’ moreover renting and paying for bandwidth is the norm.

     

    As others have reported there are a couple of killer features in the Uniti streamer.  Chromecast support is one of them, but maybe turn off Google analytics; you do not need to give them stuff!  I think it is terrific to get music from other sources like SoundCloud significantly expanding your horizons for music discovery.   The Bluetooth support is a fun extension to allow others to play their music while in your home.  The Atom is a Goldilocks device; the porridge is at the right temperature, and the bed is comfortable.

     

     


    Where do we go from here?

     

    Wait you say how did you treat the system around the Atom?  I mean really; a naked device just plugged into some random power outlet; how crass!  As I noted above, I used the same speakers and Transparent Super cables I have been using for a while.  I did move the Atom from its supplied power cable into my Transparent Cable HP power cords and P6 conditioner.  In basic A/B testing (blind thank you very much) the Transparent power cables tightened up the bottom end and tamped down the sibilance. Staging improved on tracks like "Into White" from Cat Stevens. 

     

    There is a funny thing about comparing audio reproduction equipment.  My audio memory is good, but I surprise myself on how easy it is to unlearn the nuance or behavior of another system.  I get comfortable listening to the music, just enjoying it.  

     

    I have learned a test methodology that helps.  Pick a clip 30 seconds to a minute.  Play that twice then make your change and play that same clip again.  It is amazing how that focuses your thoughts.  

     

    I have spent three weeks listening to the Atom as my primary system.  What do I do now?  This thing sounds great, and I mean great.  I am almost afraid to set up my old system. Does the Atom replace my Yggdrasil and AX-5 Twenty?   

     

    So my son and I sat down to listen to the Atom hooked up to my B&W 804s and analyze what we heard.  There are some tracks in my library that I use to test my ears and hearts reaction to the music. I have been through about six DAC's in the last two years to find something that makes all of this sound good to me.  Does the Atom hold up? Loreena McKennitt "Blacksmith" from Elemental.  Bob Dylan "The Man in the Long Black Coat" from Oh Mercy.  Also on several tracks by BT and all of his 2016 album “_”.    I Ching "Of the Marsh and the Moon," Pink Floyd "Meddle"     For example, the bells and the voice at the beginning of "Blacksmith" have an edge that is uncomfortable to my ears.  The almost surround sound presence of the I Ching album collapsed.  Dylan has too much gravel in his mouth.  Some of the Tracks on the new BT album are missing detail.

     

     

     

    Sorry for the interrupt but it is interesting.

     

    Before I go any further, I want to talk about something that interests me about the Atom.  If power down the YGGY and the AX-5 for a couple of days the system does not "perform" until it is warm. I am not sure why but that is what I hear.  So I leave this stuff plugged in and on unless we have bad weather.  Also, the gear gets very warm, so there is a bunch of energy going into heat.  Now with the Atom, I left it plugged in, and it goes into standby in 20 minutes by default.  I do not note any difference in the sound from this standby state.  Also when the Atom is playing it manages its energy well.  There is no excess heat!  NICE Job Naim.

     

     

     


    I like the Atom. However, can it replace this?  


    I have put my primary system back in the cabinet and re-arranged things to be better physically for me.  I powered up the system and waited 24 hours before playing anything.  10 bars into the first track I knew that I was keeping the primary system as it was.  The YGGY/AYRE system has much better dynamics, deeper and broader staging, the bass is more controlled, and the whole system sounds better to all of us.  That little bit of sibilance is GONE! Cat Stevens is finally back on stage.  It is easy to forget how things sound.  

     

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    Fine Pairings


    IMG_0150.jpgJust like food and wine pairing speakers and electronics is a bit of art and science  I have been playing with an exciting speaker the Neat Acoustics IOTA ALPHA.  This small floor standing speaker typically placed about 50cm from the wall and slightly toed in.  These little guys image a lot like a Magnepan. They paint a picture of the sound out in front of you!  Let’s say they punch above their weight.  

     

    I have paired IOTA ALPHAs with the Naim Unity Atom using Transparent Cable "The Wave" speaker cables and HP power cord. These additions to the Atom / IOTA ALPHA system improves the staging, bass quality, and high-end glare rather nicely.  This design completes an excellent system!

     

     

    Naim Uniti Atom    $3500
    Neat IOTA ALPHA  $2000
    Transparent Audio “The Wave”     $220  ** May want to use “MusicWave” here **
    Transparent Audio HP Power     $250
    Transparent Audio Powerbank 2     $495. ** Make sure you have something. **

    ** I did not include local music storage or ROON.  There are too many variables.  For some Tidal / Spotify are all they need or want.

     

     

     

     

    The TLDR

     

     

    So a little wrap-up for those who skip to the end of the book.  I see why Chris added the Naim Uniti Atom to the C.A.S.H. list.  Naim got this one right.  This new class of "Victrola" is going to win a lot of audio dollars.  There is significant activity in the space from the Ayre, Bluesound, Naim, and more; the industry is taking a new twist in the modern day “Receiver.”

     

    There is a long-standing “audiophile truth” that you have to have separate components to sound great.  The Naim Uniti Atom is a real example refuting that  “truth”.  

     

    I would love to hear the Uniti Nova; to taste another vintage of their wine.

     

    “Thanks for Listening”


    Bob Fairbairn
    October 2018


     




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    Great review!  I especially appreciate the comparison to a full traditional setup such as your Yggy/Ayre--too many reviews of good all-in-one products fail to mention that there are some sonic compromises.  I will recommend Atom to a friend who is looking for something a bit easier than a full setup.  

     

    Also--thanks for the music recs--listening to Long Black Coat on my Naim Unit Core into Yggy/McIntosh now.  Sounds great!

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    Thanks, everyone for the kind words.  I enjoyed thinking about others while evaluating the Atom for myself and writing the article.  Writing the article made me explore a broader scope.

     

    Talking about the actual music I listen to has been a big problem for me.  What I select and what say was hard.  There is no way to a common understanding because there was no direct shared experience.  I feel that my words are not as descriptive as they could be.

     

    Putting my system back in place was the right thing to do both for me and for the article.   As another result, I am better setup now to merely hook the Atom or something else back up to the main speakers for testing and comparison.

     

    For the music listener, the Unity Atom is a dream.  Getting high-quality music reproduction out of such a physically simple system design is uncannily great. For the hobbyist or tweaker, the all-in-one system might not be the right choice, but it is not a mistake either!  Naim nailed this. 

     

    There are more products in this category, and I am extremely pleased to see them.  

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