When Naim announced the new Uniti models last year little did we know just how different they would be to the range that was replaced. Gone is the brushed aluminium facia and black paint finish and with it the straightforward rectangular box construction. Now we have a shiny and slick bit of casework design that will have flat earthers spinning along with their LP12s. There were hints that things would change when the Mu-so came along but they were mass market products, that sort of thing could never effect the classic lines of serious Naim hardware. It seems we were wrong, and Naim has taken the bull by the wireless antennae and delivered a range with 21st century features and styling.
The Uniti Atom is the smallest of the new Uniti range, in effect it replaces the UnitiQute 2 but at a higher price point with more power and a lot more features. It is a network streamer, DAC, internet radio and integrated amplifier in one compact box with the large volume knob from Mu-so on the top. Features include Airplay, Tidal, Bluetooth aptX and optional HDMI, more radical is the inclusion of Chromecast built-in which seems to be the next big must have feature, even in serious gear. While Uniti devices were originally conceived to stream music stored on a NAS drive this one can also manage up to 20,000 tracks on a connected USB drive, which is a cheaper approach to storage and makes it possible to run a streaming system without any Ethernet cables given that it can connect wirelessly to a network.
The benefit of Chromecast is that it allows hi-res (up to 24/96) streaming from a smartphone or tablet with a wider range of sources than any audio manufacturer can hope to incorporate into its hardware. Thus BBC iPlayer Radio, free Spotify (as opposed to Spotify Connect incorporated on the Atom) Qobuz, Soundcloud, Deezer and many more music services can be accessed. I managed to get it working with Qobuz but was less successful with iPlayer where it proved difficult to get a connection, this may be related to my vintage (6 year old) iPad however. Casting from an Android smartphone phone proved quick and easy, it also sounded remarkably tolerable.
It’s worth mentioning the Naim control App as well, this looks much like it has since the introduction of Mu-so but is one of the best in the business for ease of use and reliability. There are quite a few brands with control Apps on the market today but few are as solid and clear as Naim’s. If you have a Tidal account (there’s a free 90 day trial with every Uniti product) it integrates really well, showing alternative titles for a given artist alongside the one you have chosen from your library. You can also change names for inputs and stored music, the default for the latter is ‘servers’ which is better than UPnP of yore, but I changed mine to ‘music library’, you could equally well call it ‘Frank’ or just about anything else that fits the space.
The sharp graphics of the Atom’s display inspire you to reach out and use it like a touch screen but in practice it’s only the buttons on the right hand side that do anything. It’s much easier to navigate with the Naim App or the supplied remote, which is equally shiny. The handset lights up when moved and has a volume level indicator to match that around the big knob on the Atom, so there must be a degree of interaction between the two. It looks as if volume could be changed iPod style but in fact there are plus and minus on the bottom that achieve this effect.
The display on the Atom shows artwork when an album/track is playing and reverts to a numerical indicator if you adjust volume, an elegant san serif font makes easy reading. Inputs for external sources are available as a list using the handset or individually on the App, all but one are for digital sources in optical and coaxial varieties, the latter being good for DSD if you have a source that can output that via coax, I’ve not seen one. There are front and rear USB A sockets for external drives and iPods but no USB B. Outputs consist of 4mm sockets for speaker cables and RCAs that act as a preamp out or subwoofer connection. Finally there is a minijack headphone output on the front panel.
The casework is compact and attractively finished with anodised heatsinks down each flank contrasting with the shiny front panel and large volume know on top. Power output is 40 Watts per channel, which is low by most standards, but quality is more important than quantity as any tube amp enthusiast will tell you. When you consider that Naim’s classic NAP 250 DR power amplifier delivers 80 Watts for its three and a half grand price, the Atom doesn’t seem so lightweight. That said I would recommend partnering this Uniti with a speaker that is reasonably sensitive, say 90dB plus, and doesn’t go down too low in the bass where more grip is required to maintain control. I used it with PMC fact.8 floorstanders that are far too expensive but usefully revealing and it could have done with a little more power. Really what you want is a speaker that equals the looks and style of the Uniti and is about the same price or less, something like a Rega RX3 or Neat Iota Alpha.
There has been a shift in the tectonic plates that underpin Naim’s Salisbury HQ, this was caused by the Statement amplifier a few years back and its ripples are affecting everything new that comes out of the factory. In the Uniti Atom it can be heard as a cleaner, brighter and fresher sound than that encountered with the previous generation. Thankfully however they haven’t lost their ability to boogie, this fundamental Naim quality has survived the tonal makeover which means that music is as engaging and entertaining as ever. Even with an MP3 of Queens of the Stone Age’s recent release Villains it delivers intense, neck bending beats. Put a lossless version of the same album on and you hear a lot more of what’s going on, including the high levels of compression employed in such productions. A less compromised release, Alfa Mist’s laid back jazz keyboard classic Antiphon, sounds as open as one might hope with good image depth and lovely timing. This revealed that the Atom is a cleaner streamer/amp than the Qute was, without losing the key quality of musical communication.
I tried it with a separate power amp, the rather fine ATC P2, which worked very nicely, the extra power and refinement revealing no obvious shortcomings in the streaming engine or preamp sections of the Atom. It’s not as finessed as a pricier DAC and preamp but you wouldn’t expect that, what’s important is that there is more to be had from this unit should you feel inclined to upgrade in future. I really enjoyed the generous, warm and detailed result that using a separate power amp delivered. But the direct connection was just as much fun thanks to good speed and decent power, the highs are not quite sweet enough for the rather revealing Fact.8 but it makes up for this with righteous energy when a piece of music like the Henry Threadgill Sextet’s ‘Bermuda Blues’ is streaming (You Know the Number, Novus).
Using a rather nice turntable and phono stage (STST Motus with Transfiguration Proteus moving coil and Tom Evans Groove+ SRX phono stage) as an analogue source the Atom revealed just how sophisticated and finely detailed it can be. It’s a pretty decent integrated amplifier in its own right, whether it could compete with a dedicated amplifier like the Nait 5si is hard to guess but the 60 Watts and absence of onboard streamer and converter would probably give it the edge. But if you want an integrated amplifier there is plenty of choice, complete streamer/DAC/amps are not so common and good ones tend to be pricey.
Thinking that maybe speaker cable could have a bearing I hooked up the Atom with Naim’s NAC A5, this livened things up and brought a bit more of the pace, rhythm and timing that the brand is renowned for at the expense of less refinement in the higher frequencies and a shortfall in stereo image depth. On balance I preferred my regular Townshend Isolda speaker cable, but that is both fully run-in (NAC A5 needs a good few hundred hours to calm down) and more expensive. I also tried some Kimber 8TC which worked very nicely as well but I doubt a Naim dealer would recommend it.
The Uniti Atom proved sensitive to network set up as streamers often do, moving from a conventional connection through a broadband switch (with linear power supply) to a direct connection to the Melco N1A server provided a clear-cut upgrade. The sound opened up and became sweeter to a dramatic degree, making me wonder if the server to switch cable is seriously compromised (it doesn’t seem to be). Mop Mop’s ‘Alfa’ combines a gong like instrument called a hang with water being musically dripped, via the Atom it sounded crystal clear, the water being particularly convincing and real. More demanding material like ‘Crying’ by James Blood Ulmer (Live at the Bayerischer Hof, In+Out Records) does, however, reveal the power limitations, this track has a fabulous kick drum sound that you need both power and a big bass driver to do justice to.
Whereas the UnitiQute was perfect for a bedroom or study the Atom makes Naim’s entry level streamer/amp capable of filling a living room. It’s extra power and far broader feature set mean that the Uniti Atom is as much as many music fans need. If you have a thirst for higher volumes then one of the bigger Unitis would be a better bet, the 70 Watt Star being the next step up at £3,299. It ain’t as cute (qute!) as an Atom however, this is a beautifully executed (even the packaging is top notch) and musically thrilling piece of kit in remarkably compact form. It deserves to be very popular indeed.