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


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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From living room to bedroom but how much care did you take with positioning the Harbeths? Was it a case of “the speakers have to go here” or did you perform the full Masterset? (Do a search for the latter if you’ve never heard of it, there was a long thread on Audiogon some years ago.)
I did it.  Got a Nova. Selling off the five boxes it replaces, at many, many times its cost.  Does it sound as good on an absolute level? No.  Does is sound great? Yes. Feels like freedom.  There is beauty in simplicity and the (near) perfect marriage of form and function.
I have moth-balled my vinyl for now, so it does everything i need. So, one box, two speakers. Done. Happy.

@joc3021 Congrats on the Nova. I am as happy as I've ever been with any system I've owned. IMO the Nova sounds better than all the gear listed in my OP that it replaced... But I think that's a combination of personal preference, and the great synergy between the Nova and my current speakers. 

One thing is for sure, I no longer sit around every night listening to my system and wondering what the weakest link in the system is that I need to upgrade next. I figure it would be at least $30K minimum to match where I'm at with the simple Nova all-in-one. It's the most impactful audio purchase I've made for sure.
I did this as well - replaced about $40k of tube separates (VAC pre and power, Totaldac d1tube) with the uniti nova. The nova to my ears has an sq that is completely on par with that system. Different certainly, but just as enjoyable, utterly compelling, absorbing, and just... exciting. I am amazed by it. Powers my Verity Parisfal Encores effortlessly too and they are not the easiest load. I was sick of the tube heat and the many many boxes and turning everything on and off and worrying about it leaving it on - my lifestyle is such that I often have little 20 minute pockets of time to listen and the nova is much more suited to that duty. I just wanted to add my voice to those who have left behind big dollar tube separate rigs for the Naim uniti universe. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone hearing the Nova as a big step down sonically from anything and the convenience and functionality make it a joy to use (internet radio too!).
First OP - great review - well thought out and composed! I have been living with Atom in a variety of systems for about three years now and agree with much of what you found. You can see photos of gear I have paired it with on my virtual systems pages for Vintage System and Casa Pacifica.

i call it the Mulekicker - 40 wpc but stout. Certainly pay attention to load and volume. Most of my listening has been done with Vandersteen Treo CT which are 86 db, 6 ohm engineered to be an easy load. I don’t listen that loud - 90 db peaks. As OP states it presents a musical cohesive whole. I do use it with a NAS with bit perfect rips off a NAIM Unitiserve, as well
as usb sticks, streaming services including 24x192 files off Qobuzz ( atom now supports that since you wrote review )
importantly, the analog input is very clean. I use a bardo/Triplaner/Delos into a Herron tube phono stage - lush, massive and deep soundstage. I have also used it as a streaming / preamp into z a variety of amplifier including a MC240 and a Music Reference RM-9. The RM-9 is a world class amplifier and pairs well with the Atom.
great sound, ease of use, high reliability, worldwide dealer network, regular software updates, $3.2 k is a deal.
have fun, enjoy the music !!!