Review: Naim Uniti Atom vs Tube Separates/Chord Digital System


Some initial impressions with the Naim Uniti Atom in my main system and how it fares against a much more expensive tube separate system in my main room...

Existing system:

Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme Preamp

Luxman MQ-88uSE valve amp

Chord M Scaler

Chord Hugo TT2

Innuos Zen MK III

Volti Audio Rival speakers

Transparent power cables

Triode Wire Labs speaker cables

WireWorld interconnects


VS: 


Naim Uniti Atom


I am running the Atom with a Transparent Power Cable and using wifi to connect with Roon as a Roon Ready RAAT endpoint, hooked up to the Volti Rival speakers and no subwoofer. 


Right out of the gate, can I say what a sexy piece of gear this is. Pictures don't do it justice - it is a very tactile piece of equipment that begs to be touched. It's a great piece of hifi design from the proximity sensor on the volume knob/front panel to the slick Zigbee remote. This is not a piece of gear to hide in an equipment rack or on a shelf, it's VERY cool.

Next, the ease of setup and use of this all-in-one amp/streamer/DAC is dead simple. Especially in my case where it's basically just set up as a Roon endpoint. You just plug in speakers and power cable and connect it to your network. Done. There's no need for tweaks or further optimization. It just works. 


Now onto the sound... I am comparing this $3200 box to a $12K Chord digital front end and reasonably high end tube separates (Backert Labs and Luxman). A total of $23K worth of other gear that could/would effectively be displaced by the Atom. I mention this because VALUE is going to factor very highly in my impressions here.


How does the Atom measure up at 1/7th of the price? Very good in many respects, not quite there in others.

The Atom when used as an all-in-one makes excellent use of its 40wpc. It powers the 6 ohm 99db efficient Rivals without breaking a sweat. What I am hearing from the Atom is a very natural and rich sound with amazing detail and expansive soundstage both from beyond the speakers and deep behind the speakers as well. It is not projecting a holographic stage as a tube amp does, but compared to other solid state amps I've owned, it does a stellar job of precision placement within the soundstage of instruments and vocals etc.

Some remarkable things I have experienced:

The biggest thing to mention here is MUSICALITY. Now objectivists will get pissed off by that term but there's no better way to describe the way the Atom presents the recording. When listening to the Atom I found myself engaged in the overall "wholeness" of the recorded music. It does a wonderful job of presenting a song in a way that brings you into the music so you're not thinking about "sonics" but just able to enjoy the music.

I've spent a long time listening to many iterations of gear in my system and I always find myself listening for "things" in the music. I was surprised when I found myself simply listening to "music" for a change with the Atom... not getting bent out of shape or worked up about the particular timbre of an oboe or the tinkling of chimes and triangles, etc. I can't explain it better but the Atom just does a solid job of presenting the SONG in a way that erases any concerns about whatever else is happening deep in the mix. Is this what they talk about when people mention Naim's strength regarding "PRAT?" It's musical, however you want to call it. 

Second, there is an incredible amount of realism and detail. I have not heard any "artificial" or digital sounding elements to the sound at all. What I have heard - and I know it's a cliche - is things I have never heard before in the music.

Now I HAVE heard "things" in the music before, but on other systems, they may sound like atmospheric sounds or "impressions" of sounds in the mix. The difference with the Atom is that now those "sounds" actually can be identified as instruments, etc. It's weird.

Like the end of "Standing on the Corner of the Third World,"(Tears for Fears' Seeds of Love record) there is a massive swirl of atmosphere and sounds and synth and bass and percussion. For 30 years I've heard this as a "wall" of sound that builds in dynamics and intensity. With the Atom for the first time, I heard the placement of the synth pad in the mix, the deep doubled bass synth under Pino Palladino's fretless bass, the Fairlight swirls and samples.

The same kind of listening experience from "On the Run" on DSOTM - the Moog synths and swirls and loops and arpeggios seem to have a distinct sound in the mix that I haven't heard before. All in all very remarkable when compared even to the upsampled tracks I listen to in the Chord stack.

Third, there is a very smooth and even presentation to the sound that is remarkable. It isn't "flat" like a dry stereo image, but very rich and engaging while being cohesive across all range of frequencies.

As a streaming preamp into the Luxman MQ-88uSE

The Atom didn't hold up so well as a streaming preamp. There were aspects of the Atom's personality that came through in the MQ88 however it was clear that in order to get the best from either of the units, there is a synergy that should be considered. The MQ88 was not as holographic or exciting to listen to as when paired with the Chord and Backert Labs pre. The sound also had less weight and presence than when paired with the main system. There were strengths of the MQ88 that DID come through when paired with the Atom but overall it's just better to leave that paired with the other gear to have it sound its best. The Atom/MQ88 can best be described as a compromise between the 2 systems that doesn't allow either to perform at their best.

The downsides

I wouldn't even call these "downsides" to the Atom sound, but they are definitely differences that can affect enjoyment depending on what you're in the mood to hear.

For example, with the main system, I am used to playing ANYTHING and having it sound good. It just simply does not matter what you put through that system, it comes out sounding like a million bucks. With the Atom, there were definitely recordings that sounded flat and unengaging. A surprising example is Lionel Ritchie's self-titled album. I love this record, but through the Atom it sounded very flat and thin. Not so with the Chord/valve combo. Those recordings were rare exceptions - BUT in nearly ever instance, there was a clear weakness when it came to things like body, resonance, and realism to individual instruments and voices. But that too depended on the content.

For example, drums. Drum solo in songs like Chick Corea Trio's "Fingerprints," (Trilogy) Diana Krall's "Devil May Care," (Live in Paris), Dominic Miller's "Ombu," (Absinthe), etc. These songs have massive drum solos (Ombu is almost totally a drum solo). In the Atom there just isn't as much rounded body and heft to the bottom end of the drums.

It has great attack and dynamics, but I found myself missing that presence in the lower mid-bass that comes from the inside of a well-mic'd floor tom, for example.

Voices are another area this comes up - depending on the voice. For example, Tom Petty has a thinner and reedy voice that always sounds natural and "in the room" when Rick Rubin produces him. The Atom did a GREAT job of translating this realism. Tom never sounded better. Because with the valve amps, there's always a bit of resonance in that vocal that shouldn't be there.

However, with rich, resonant male voices, the Atom has a drier presentation that lacks the depth and character of the other system. This can be distracting at times when a voice like Shawn Mullins or Johnny Cash seems a bit thinner than you are expecting to hear.

All in all I am very impressed with the Atom. It has me seriously considering what would happen if I sold off the Chord electronics and replaced them with the Uniti Nova (the top of the line in the Uniti series). At 80wpc and a massively upgraded everything (power supply, DACS, etc) is it possible the Nova could overcome the Atom's shortcomings and replace an entire cabinet of high end separates? 

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I can say I have not experienced any of the downsides you mention about the sound of the Atom through my Volti Rival speakers - they are 6 ohms and 99 dB sensitive but there is a lot more to matching amps and speakers than efficiency and watts.

It looks like the Harbeth P3ESR is quite a bit less efficient at 83.5 dB, so it could well be they are looking for more juice. Are you using a sub? I’m seeing that the P3ESR only reaches down to about 75Hz so I’m not sure if that’s contributing to the lack of mid-low detail.

The important thing is it’s not working out for you so YES there are things you can do and they will NOT require an integrated tube amp.

All you need is an actual amp - Naim was right that an integrated isn’t going to work with the Atom, for one reason because the variable pre-outs from the Atom would mean you’ll have 2 separate gain stages between the Atom preamp and the preamp section of the integrated.

I’m just not familiar enough with tube amps in that price range, and you’d need something with plenty of power. You may not want to rule out some good solid state options...

But to get back to the integrated part of it - all you need to do is run the pre outs from the Atom into any amp, and the Atom will operate as a preamp and streamer, so there’s no need for an integrated.

I mentioned in my OP that I did this exact thing with a Luxman tube amp, I just preferred the detail and engagement of the Naim, though both lacked enough power to really take control of my speakers.

I did recently add the Nova to my main system and moved the Atom and Luxman into my office system. The Nova at 80wpc is sounding amazing with the speakers! And the Atom sounds great with the Klipsch Heresy IIIs in my office.

Good luck getting everything sorted out!
So, you are using Atom as music source and preamp , connect to Luxman tube amp to drive the Klipsch Heresy IIIs ?

Naim told me that if we want to use the pre-amp line out of Atom, we will have to set the volume to 64. Is that true?
No, maxing out the volume on the Atom would only apply if you are feeding the Naim into an integrated amp, which is not what you should be doing.

Running the Atom as a preamp into a standalone amplifier is the way to go, then you are controlling the volume etc from the Atom. The Luxman tube amp I have is not integrated, it's a standalone tube amp. 
I want to voice of a tube amp. many people are suggesting to add a Naim NAP 200 power amplifier, i am still searching for a high power tube amplifier.

From your experience, which tube amp is high power enough to drive Harbeth with ease, within $1.5k-2k budget. 

How does the Luxman sound with Naim atom?
Wish I could be of more help but I really know nothing about your speakers. You really need feedback from Harbeth owners... I'd just do some web surfing and try to find some Harbeth forums or user groups and see what they recommend. Good luck!