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Atomic power

UK-based Naim Audio has been famous for its amplification since its first products back in the early 1970s. Three decades later Naim was also quick to recognise the future of file-based and streaming music, and most recently it has enjoyed great success with its Mu-so and Mu-so Qb wireless speakers, acclaimed for both their sound and their styling. Meanwhile that early strength in amplification has been maintained and extended by the extraordinary $325,000 Statement amplifier.

Now comes the New Uniti range, which in one way is an update of the company’s previous all-in-one system solutions. But in another way, the new series brings together everything Naim has ever learned — the wireless, multiroom and control elements of the Mu-sos, with the solid hi-fi amplification developed over decades, and even trickle-down tech from the developmental fillip of investment in the Statement.

Mind you, it took Naim a while to get them finished… there was nearly a year’s delay as the latest technology was licensed for use and finalised for operation. First out was the Core, a CD ripper and music server that can act as the repository of music for a whole home, able to deliver 12 independent multiroom high-res streams if so requested. Then came this unit, the first and smallest of the all-in-one solutions — the Uniti Atom.

The Atom is essentially what we’ve recently come to call a smart amplifier. It offers 40W of Class-AB power to your speakers, along with a combination of physical inputs and built-in streaming options. Its focus is more digital than analogue, with just a single stereo analogue input on RCA sockets, but then two optical and one coaxial digital inputs, and two USB slots to which USB storage can be attached for playback.

So far, so conventional — but there is the option of having an HDMI socket (our sample didn’t) to plug into an ARC-equipped TV HDMI input to play TV sound as well. Otherwise an optical connection would be your next best option for plugging in TV audio.

But physical inputs aside, it is the streaming that makes the Atom and its Uniti brethren so innovative and accessible. During the Atom’s visit it may have be physically located in one room, but it seemed omnipresent. Wherever we accessed music — on the music room computer, on our Chromebook, the iPhone, a tablet — there was the Naim Atom as a playback device waving at us as if saying ‘Play to me! Play to me!’ Apple users can stream to it with AirPlay, Android users with Chromecast, Windows users with UPnP. With Spotify Connect it pops up in Spotify ready to take over your stream.

The Bluetooth implementation includes not only the higher quality aptX codec but the newer aptX HD, which can stream only mildly lossy 24-bit files.

Or you can use the new revised Naim app (see below), which provides input selection and control along with easy access to Tidal, internet radio, and for streaming from music collections that have been shared via your home network.

All these digital sources are processed by a 40-bit SHARC processor before the digital-to-analogue conversion by Burr-Brown DACs and final Class-AB amplification.

So it’s quite the offering for such a compact unit on paper — and what a stunning piece of work it is in the flesh. It positively reeks of high build quality, and on top is Naim’s established contender for world’s best knob (below), hot from its star turn on the Mu-so range, with its illuminated segments and delightful tactility grafted onto the top. Down the sides of the brushed black aluminium casing are finned aluminium heatsinks (inspired by the Statement flagship amplification system, says Naim).

And on the front is a full-colour five-inch LCD display. This is used with great subtlety, kept largely monochrome when you’re selecting inputs and settings, nice and clear from a distance, but bursting into colour when showing album artwork from streaming music, or station idents from internet radio. It has a proximity sensor which wakes the display as you approach, though to be honest we didn’t go over there much, given the ease of both the Atom’s app control and the high-quality physical remote, which also bursts into backlighting mode at the slightest of movement (tap the table with your foot, on it comes). This remote uses Zigbee (two-way) RF to talk with the Atom, so no need to point it, or indeed even for line of sight.

Installation was almost as simple as a conventional amplifier — plug in your sources and give it Ethernet networking if you can, set up the Wi-Fi if you can’t.

One point to note for some may be the speaker terminals, which are banana-only holes, rather than binding posts, so don’t be hoping to use bare wire or spades. “Bare wires can be ugly,” said N.A Distributors when we asked about this, “and the possibility of wires shorting together is real. Spades always present the opportunity of a lose connection. Not good at a high current join.” Also a note next to these sockets says ‘Warning: Do not replace supplied loudspeaker plugs with individual 4mm plugs’. We plugged in our usual banana-terminated cables but we did query this also, N.A Distributors noting that “Naim recommends its own speaker cable because of the correct inductance/capacitance per metre. It is designed for the amps and as such works harmoniously with them. And is factored into the actual output stage design.”

Sending from iPad to Naim via AirPlay

There are so very many ways to play to the Atom, and one of the first we tried was to use voice control to address the Uniti Atom, thanks to its built-in Chromecast. We renamed the Atom as simply “the Hi-Fi”, and then could say to our Google Home, ‘Hey Google, shuffle Crowded House on the hi-fi’, and Spotify’s results would flow from the Naim. (Eventually. The processing time to action such Google Home/Spotify/Atom commands was around 35 seconds from command to music; quite the pause compared with nine seconds to play music on the Google Home device itself.)

For playback from our main iTunes Library, we used the Remote app on an iPad and selected the Naim from the AirPlay menu. Our high-res files were sent no problem, with artwork on the Atom’s display (or if none, a massive AirPlay symbol). But we had some of the same files attached to the Naim directly via a USB drive, and switching from one to the other, the direct file replay was cleaner and more detailed than the AirPlay stream — which could be because AirPlay down-reses everything to CD quality, or simply because in the end, a wired connection does deliver benefits by removing all the vagaries of wireless streaming.

Indeed we had both the USB drive of high-res files in the rear, and a USB stick of test files at the front; both soon appeared on the Naim app ready for selection. The test files sailed through, everything from WMA, MP3, AAC and OGG up to Apple Lossless, FLAC and AIFF (these three to a remarkable 24-bit/384kHz), WAVs to 32-bit/384kHz, plus DSD64 and DSD128 via PCM-encapsulated DoP.

More to the point the Atom breezily played through our high-res albums, its front panel showing track information for the WAVs and adding artwork for the FLACs. And how good did it sound! The fairly humble power rating delivered full control of our main reference speakers, while the file conversion was wonderful. To hear an old classic like The Eagles’ New Kid in Town (24/96) spun into a studio-crisp soundfield, every tight hi-hat tap, every layered harmony revealed, it was like hearing the album for the first time.

Playing DSD Yes from NAS drive using the Naim app

Complexity didn’t confuse it, nor dynamics defeat it; we had a blast playing the DSD files of the ‘High Vibration’ bonus SACD of Yes, revelling in Bruford’s percussion and Kaye’s organ work on Something’s Coming, and later Trevor Horn’s production on Leave It slamming out from the
a capella section into a chunky but hard-edged Alan White beat.

This combination of separation, detail and more than adequate power plays well to acoustic recordings. The Naim delivered an impeccably tight but full rendition of Acoustic Alchemy’s highly detailed Marrakesh, and of course we were obliged to play Naim’s own release of Antonio Forcione & Sabina Sciubba’s ‘Meet Me In London’ (24/192 remaster), from which we greatly enjoyed every finger slide and gentle vocal nuance of Night Train.

We also had our TV plugged into one of the optical inputs of the Uniti Atom, and enjoyed soundtracks delivered through our standmount speakers with power and clarity beyond any soundbar (and without the profusion of soundbar EQ modes to get in the way); the Atom’s preouts double as a subwoofer preout should you wish to augment things or enjoy a movie-level low-end.

Naim makes it easy to return to a preferred physical input after a Chromecast or AirPlay session because selecting the ‘Input’ key on the remote or unit itself takes you to the last used physical input, rather than defaulting to the top of the list and having to step down. This pleased the missus since she could reselect TV with one button and no need to peer over at the display.

Tidal and Spotify are both accessible from the app, and internet radio too. Favourites can be saved from anywhere and subsequently accessed from a Favourites menu or using the dedicated button on the remote or the unit itself.

The app also offers ‘Servers’, which seemed to index a whole bunch of content from presumably our UPnP shares, though since we could find no way to browse by folder, and it doesn’t reveal its sources, we’re not sure. It was also a bit random in indexing assorted ProTools source files and other stray bits of audio on hard drives. Indeed we thought the lack of information via the app as
a little surprising, given that Naim’s previous app was positively information-crazy, adding sleeve notes and band images drawn from the web — all that seems to have gone now in the service of simplicity, which seems a shame. Also odd is the app’s home display of the Atom’s inputs, spread across two screens requiring a swipe between them, when there’s more than enough room (even at iPhone size) to fit everything on one screen. These software things, of course, can be fixed, just as things can be added; with such processing prowess onboard, this is one of those products we might expect to gain abilities over time.

So where is the legendary Naim quirkiness here then? Has it all been weeded out in support of effective ease of use? Pretty much yes, it seems, though the iconography for the remote and main buttons required a little interpretation at first sight, and we note that Naim’s famous retention of five-pin DIN sockets make an appearance on the higher levels of New Uniti. The digital output on the Core is a BNC socket rather than an RCA phono… but that hardly counts as quirky, especially when there’s an adaptor supplied in the box.

More from the Core
Talking of the Core, we were supplied one of these with the Atom, but it had no hard drive installed and seemed somewhat superfluous given the Atom can itself both play from USB storage and NAS drives, and can even rip discs as well, if you plug in an external USB CD/DVD Drive. Early Naim marketing referred to these external rips as being the same “bit perfect copies” promised by the Core. But the Australian distributor’s Chris Murphy tells us that the Core’s rips will be “sonically better”, so clearly the Atom’s external rip can’t be entirely perfect after all. He recommends the Core for anyone with a large disc collection, given its superior rips, its organisational abilities and the ease of making back-ups. Fair enough. But the Core’s main advantage would certainly seem to be when it has its own drive installed, plus its ability to serve those multiple streams to Naim units around the home.

As is Naim’s custom, there are other upgrade paths available — the preamp outputs of the Uniti Atom will allow the future substitution of external power amplifiers, such as the compact NAP 100, leaving the Atom as a source. As noted the same preout sockets can be used for a subwoofer, if you feel the need to boost the bass content when using smaller attached speakers; this might be particularly effective when plugging in your TV and movie system.

You can also, should you wish, upgrade the power cable to one of Naim’s two-metre Power-Line “hi-fi mains cables” with their 4mm2 copper conductors and special resin plug cases with floating pins, promising superior electrical contact.

And as Naim’s Dan Poulton suggested to us recently, instead of ‘vertical’ upgrades where you add more stuff to your main system, the New Uniti range favours more in the way of ‘horizontal’ upgrades.
“So if you want a bit more, your next hi-fi upgrade is actually to spread that out into extra rooms in the house,” he told us. “I think Uniti allows that type of upgrade maybe more so than the traditional kind-of vertical stacking upgrade.” (You can read the interview with Dan at www.avhub.com.au/poulton.)

So in this way the Uniti Atom can serve up music to four network-connected players at full CD quality via UPnP (we should add the usual ‘network permitting’ caveat here), while Party Mode Streaming can sync up to six Uniti all-in-one players or other Naim streamers (such as the Mu-so range), with control of the lot via the Naim app. As we’ve seen elsewhere in this issue, the inclusion of Chromecast, of course, allows playback in cohoots with any other Chromecast-equipped gear via the Google Home app.

One footnote: we must add that only at collection were we informed that the Atom we had reviewed was pre-production. We normally only review full production units. Bear in mind a purchased Atom may differ in some small ways, for better or worse.

The rest of the new Uniti range is rolling out, with the Uniti Star now available, with a CD drive and 70W per channel amplification, and the Uniti Nova still to come, top of the line with 80W per channel.

But the little Atom has solid enough power for speakers of average sensitivity and above in not too extravagant living spaces. With its many ways to stream, it’s hard to think of anything else they could have squeezed in, other than a phono stage or additional traditional analogue inputs (which the higher models do include). The Atom achieves exactly what Naim has been promising — a thoroughly modern all-in-one high performance music hub, and a just-add-speakers player which is enormously attractive in both build and abilities. The Uniti Atom has been, we’re pleased to say, well worth waiting for.

Naim Uniti Atom
Price: $3795

+ Many ways to play
+ Choice of control methods
+ Chromecast, AirPlay and Bluetooth streaming
- Only one analogue input

Quoted power output: 2 x 40W (no parameters given)
Inputs: 1 x RCA analogue, 2 x optical (to 24bit/96kHz), 1 x coaxial digital (up to 24bit/
192kHz), 2 x USB-A slots, 1 x HDMI ARC (optional), Ethernet (10/100Mbps), Wi-Fi (2.4/5GHz), AirPlay, Chromecast built-in, Bluetooth (aptX, aptX HD)
Outputs: 1 x stereo preout, 1 x RCA sub/pre output, 1 x 3.5mm headphone jack, speakers out
Audio format support (USB and UPnP): WAV to 32-bit/384kHz, FLAC/AIFF/Apple Lossless to 24-bit/384kHz; MP3/AAC to 48kHz/320k; OGG, WMA, DSD64/128 as DoP (converted to PCM)
Dimensions (whd): 215 x 91 x 265mm
Weight: 7kg
Warranty: Two years
Naim Audio in Australia: http://naimaudio.com.au