Uniti Atom HE - Stereophile Review. The view from across the Pond

A great review - well written, and very positive - of the Uniti Atom HE in the latest issue of Stereophile.

The review is written by Herb Reichert - who I don’t really know.

I’ll not overly impinge on copyright by pasting any of the specific review - but it’s well worth reading, and a digital subscription is peanuts - but the introduction really resonated with me, as I think it will for many of us.

A bit of a long read, but worth it……

“One summer afternoon in Brooklyn, after a sweaty too-long day doing construction, I stumbled upon a hi-fi shop I’d never noticed before. I thought, hmmm, I bet they have air conditioning.

Inside, the air was only marginally cooler, but before I could leave, an excessively happy salesman introduced himself. After a bit of low-level chit-chat, he asked me if I was into British audio. I told him I “Never heard of it.”

After flashing a condescending smile, he directed me to a stark, nearly empty demonstration room (that I hoped had working AC) and showed me an unusual-looking stereo that consisted of a Linn Sondek LP12 turntable (on a funny metal wall shelf), an unusually proportioned “chrome bumper” Naim NAIT integrated amplifier, and these 12"-tall Linn Audio Kan bookshelf speakers sitting on 24" steel stands situated tight against the wall. The only other object in this airless, windowless, beige-painted room was one stingy, uncomfortable chair. I remember thinking geez, what have I got myself into?

With a serious look, the salesman asked me what kind of music I liked, and I said reggae, blues, punk. He responded by playing UB40’s cover of “Red Red Wine” from their album Labour of Love, a disc I played often at home.

At the time, my home system consisted of a Kenwood KD-500 direct-drive turntable, with an SME 3009 arm and a Shure V15 III cartridge, feeding some Hafler-kit amplification driving my DIY approximation of Jon Dahlquist’s DQ-10 loudspeakers using woofers salvaged from my Large Advents.

In that beige, airless room, through this now-classic Linn-Naim system, Labour of Lovesounded simpler, punchier, and a bit harder than it did at my place. When one side of the album finished, the salesman pointed out how much I was rocking my body and nodding my head while it was playing. He explained how this system specialized in “toe-tapping musical qualities that even non-audiophiles could appreciate.” He went on to explain the whole Linn-Naim keeping-the-beat PRaT thing.1

This was the first time I ever heard anyone talk like that about hi-fi gear. What about distortion and frequency response? Those were terms I was accustomed to hearing.

When I asked why the speakers were so small, he said “Speakers are the least important part of a hi-fi.” When I asked “What component is more important than speakers?” he said, “The turntable dominates how we experience recordings.” When I asked how many watts the amp was, he became totally dismissive, declaring knowingly, “Watts are irrelevant!” When I pressed him on the how-many-watts question, he mumbled, “Naim doesn’t publish that number.” Of course I didn’t believe him.

When I asked about harmonic distortion, he nearly shouted: “That’s irrelevant, too!” When I asked if I could hear some other speakers, he began sounding like one of those fanatical street-corner preachers, so I headed for the door.

As I made my way out, the salesman flashed his confident “you’ll be back” smile and handed me a free copy of Hi-Fi News & Record Review(with an article about the NAIT integrated) and a stapled-together magazine called The Flat Response that explained the Linn-Naim “flat-earth” viewpoint at some length.2

That first encounter with Brit-fi and a Naim Audio product rattled my brain. The engineering viewpoints of Naim’s founder, the late Julian Vereker (1945–2000), as expressed by that salesman, challenged everything I thought I knew about the reproduction of audio recordings in the home. And guess what:

Within weeks, I found myself believing that salesman’s crazy talk. Those flat-earth fanatics, though, seemed annoyingly blinkered, so I drank the Kool-Aid, but I didn’t join the cult.

That was almost 40 years ago. The Naim worldview continued to evolve after Julian Vereker died. Today, some flat-earth clingers think Naim has become less serious—more of a luxury lifestyle brand. This is a viewpoint I do not share.

I’ve been watching Naim from the sidelines as it has evolved, steadily and purposefully, while staying true to its music-first, toe-tapping roots. After years of wondering if I’d like Naim gear in my own system, I decided to review Naim’s Uniti Atom HE streamer/DAC/preamp/headphone amp. I had a feeling it might charm me, and now seemed like the perfect time to engage with another of England’s most esteemed brands”

Great stuff!

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Priceless!

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Herb Reichert is, in my opinion, the rock star of Stereophile writers, and his Atom HE review is well worth reading. Although he is a headphone aficionado, most of the review focusses on the streamer/preamp functions, rather than the headphone amp, for reasons he articulates.

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I agree on Herb Reichert.

That story about visiting a Linn-Naim dealer almost exactly matches mine here in Stockholm in the early 80’s except they were talking tune-dem instead of PRaT and they had two chairs in the listening room. They began by learning me how to setup my existing system (modified Ikea Lack etc.) before buying new amps.

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About the DAC and Line Stage he makes the following comment: “Fortunately, and a little surprisingly, both performed at a level of resolution and insight that would not be out of place in a mastering studio. I could live happily with both forever”.

Now I am even more excited and I hope my Atom HE will arrive by the end of this month as indicated by my dealer. :musical_note:

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Wow! I think I’ll hold off on any upgrades until more info about this little beast is known.

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Guys, it’s the same DAC as in the regular Atom, it probably sounds fine but superlatives like the ones used by Reichert are a bit excessive perhaps?

Reichert is known for using these highly superlative descriptions of gear that cannot be objectively substantiated, i think it’s a bit of a problem when reviewers do that. Below is a snippet from a video about a power conditioner that Reichert in a review described as:

Herb Reichert in Stereophile:

“It might be the single most important, most high value component i’ve auditioned for Stereophile”

John Darko, another reviewer who often uses superlative language, described the same device as follows:

John Darko in Digital Audio Review:

“I know not of any other upgrade at any price that gives (relatively) so much for (relatively) so little”

After carefully measuring this device and concluding that it does absolutely nothing to the audio signal, Amir from AudioScienceReview remarks:

“Please don’t listen, read and pay attention to what these subjective reviewers say. They’re good people, friendly people, but really they don’t understand how you test audio equipment and they just mislead with these statements.”

I think that’s good advice. Subjective reviews can be helpful to a degree if they don’t make any claims that are objectively problematic, but not many reviewers are able to walk that line. Many are so eager to tell a compelling story that they lose sight of what is really in front of them.

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It may use the same DAC but the pre amplification is very different and this is where the gains are.

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I think you could be describing 2020 here though. Somewhere between science and opinion lies the truth. Whatever particular definition of that we may be using - because, what is truth anyway?

I do find reviews useful - but like any form of journalism, they are at their best when used as a guide to help for a wider personal opinion.

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And this is why I’ll wait for the reviews from fellow forumites… if that’s a word. So I can read judgment from those who know Naim products and hierarchy.

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I do like a bit of objective truth, especially when people in positions of relative authority make bold claims…

That’s not what Reichert claims, he says that both the DAC and the line-out perform at a resolution and insight of ‘mastering studio’ level.

What does that even mean? It’s a completely opaque statement. Resolution? Insight?

Does it mean he thinks they sound completely neutral, flat and analytical? Because that is what studios look for in equipment after all?

And is there any level above ‘mastering studio quality’? If so, what? And how is that determined? Also subjectively?

My two cents worth on this. Which I suppose could be dubious as I have not demoed nor owned anything higher in Naim’s catalogue than a Uniti product.

But, with that in mind, what I find interesting is that most of the questions and discussions around the Atom HE on thie forum centers around its use as a pre-amp for other amplification. I see little discussion around the headphone part of this headphone edition.

Whereas the above comments from reviewers are very overly droolsome for sure I can only say in comparison with my Star, with the same headphones, the Atom HE is leagues ahead.

So I cannot imagine that making use of the pre-amp would give a different result.

Before I demoed it I was worried about the DAC as well. Would the difference be that vast? And it just is.

So this rings totally true for me. Considering the price and what I hear compare to my Star:

I also think that reviews should be interpreted taking into account what is being reveiwed. Anyone expecting being able to outperform a Statement with an Atom HE mullet is barking up the wrong tree. And while this is exaggerated I think people are trying to see if the Atom HE + something else can replace a system that is more or much more expensive.

But if the reviews are interpreted within a certain bracket of cost vs performance then they seem to be pretty spot on with my experience of the unit.

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These reviews by Amir are very ‘objective’ in a sense that he measures devices only and doesn’t listen to them before giving his judgement! Don’t be fooled by these measurements. Your ears, that is what counts. The device his comment was about, is part of my setup and I did notice a large improvement in sound quality.

I have been very very happy with my Atom. With the DAC, with the streamer, with the amplification. I have been using it since 2019 as streamer, DAC and preamp and it is one (if not the) best sounding device I have ever had at home. And that includes esoteric (pun intended) equipment of several high-end brands. With some careful matching the Atom is an excellent and very capable device. I expect the same (and more) from the Headphone Edition.

Or maybe my ears are getting bad. So my experiences are subjective as well. :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:

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My only problem is the use of such superlative terms.

If the DAC in the Atom is of ‘mastering studio level resolution and insight’, then what is the DAC in the Nova, or the NDX2 or the ND555? All of which should be of higher quality than the one in the Atom.

Does anything really matter anymore or is the only measure of quality how eloquently a reviewer is able to describe something?

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Actually in this case he does provide a subjective listening test, which he describes from around 12:39, it’s quite interesting. Rough transcription:

"I started with the Audioquest Niagara 1200 as a starting baseline, and then i switched to the generic cheap $2 AC cord. And as soon as i switched cables to the generic one, the generic one sounded better.

[…] It really wasn’t any better. But the way your brain works is that you know, when you first listen to something as your baseline you’re like “i know what that sounds like”. Then you plug in the second one and your start focusing and paying attention, and all of a sudden you hear more detail.

[…] Despite all the knowledge i had by the way, i just had done all the measurements, the brain still plays that trick on you. What’s even more impressive is that when i hooked it back up to the Niagara, that didn’t sound as good"

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In the video he makes use of a machine that can simulate messy mains by introducing noise/junk into the AC signal. He fills up the AC with a lot of noise and then tests directly into a DAC (Topping D90) and through the Audioquest, there is no measurable difference in output signal between the two.

He explains in the video why these devices don’t work, and why they can’t work in principle, if you’re interested.

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Sounds good though :blush:.

Good review on on the HE though , what a great product it seems .

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@litemotiv Please don’t post links to Audiosciencereview forum videos. Please note forum rules with regard to importing discussion or argument from other forums. Thanks.

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Hi Richard,

The video didn’t originate from the AudioScienceReview forums, i found it on Youtube. I can understand this is somewhat of a grey area in this respect, thanks for removing.

Here I would consider their forum and video content as one and the same thing. Thanks.

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