The Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition, along with the Focal Celestee headphones, is an attempt to ask myself an important question for 2023: to headphone or not to headphone? There was a point last year where we considered dropping the Best Headphones section from Part-Time Audiophile‘s bi-annual Buyers Guide, especially since we passed two publication cycles without any significant changes.
In the PTA War Room we’ve had many discussions about this, which led to all sorts of existential questions. Do we still want to review head-fi when there are so many other publications that are far more committed to it? Is there anyone on the current staff who really wants to keep diving in? Finally, did most of us secretly buy a pair of Focals and proclaim that we are done? I bet if I did an informal survey with the staff here, more than half of us would be proud and happy owners of some pair of Focal headphones or another.
Words and Photos by Marc Phillips
I’ve spent most of my audiophile life listening to headphones, all the way back to that first pair of Sennheiser HD-414s I bought to plug into whatever ’70s receiver I had at the time. (Concept 5.5? Sansui 8080DB? Kenwood KR-9600?) Since then I’ve owned plenty of cans, mostly Sennheiser early on and eventually to Grados, AudioQuests, AKGs, Hifiman and a few more. Another reason for PTA to keep talking about headphones revolves around my 2021 review of the Ferrum Audio Oor and Hypsos, which were evaluated with a pair of headphones that might be my favorite of all time: the Focal Clear MGs. I was in Headphone Heaven during the review process, in case I didn’t make that clear when I wrote the Ferrum review.
Finally, I realize that I have a need for a permanent headphone-based system in my life. For example, I didn’t know I was going to spend the last couple of years renting an apartment outside of Portland–we didn’t know how long we were going to stay in the region. Over time, as a variety of neighbors came and went, I finally rolled snake eyes when someone finally called to complain about the noise. This happened while I was setting up the Audio Note UK system, placing the AN-J D Hemp speakers in their spot along the side walls, generously increasing the low-end output of the Js until one of my neighbors cried uncle. And I have a pair of GoldenEar subwoofers that still need to get their close-ups. Something has to give.
We’re moving out now, to a bigger house, but those last few weeks in PDX were saved by the presence of the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition ($3,799 USD) and the Focal Celestee ($999 USD) headphones, making for a superb and compact headphone system. These weeks before the move have flown by.
Inside the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition
First off, let me say that I dig the Naim Uniti line. I’ll remind you that I’m an old Naim guy, but I’ll also tell you about the period after Julian Vereker’s untimely death in 2000 where Naim seemed to fade into my audio past with alarming speed. I plunged into tubes, of course, and those two worlds of tubes and Naim seldom collide. But the first time I played with a Naim Uniti product, the original Naim Uniti Atom back in 2016, I was so impressed with its ability to teach me everything I needed to know about DACs, streaming, those pesky phone apps and more. After a few weeks with the Atom, I started playing with the original Naim MuSo QB and the next thing you know I had a Tidal membership. In other words, Naim has been my guide through most things digital.
When I first heard about the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition, I wondered why there was a need for such a product. Is it really that big of a deal to take an already fine product such as the Uniti Atom and remove the option to drive a pair of speakers? Would it represent that much of a savings or, and I suspect this is closer to the truth, would it create more space to include stunning new digital features in the same petite chassis?
The Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition, of course, is jam-packed with all kinds of goodies. First of all, connectivity options are supremely comprehensive, at least for right now: Chromecast, Airplay, Tidal, Spotify Connect, internet Radio, Qobuz, Tidal Connect and more. (You’ll get wireless updates when you’re plugged into UPnP network.) Bluetooth, yes. Digital inputs (S/PDIF), yes. Analog outputs, yes. Multiroom functions, of course! Storage? Yes! HDMI ARC? Yup. Roon ready? How could it not be? Built-in Chromecast? Check. That big round Naim touch/turn dial that acts as the user interface? Naim is putting that on everything, including the monstrous Statement amps I’ve seen at the last couple of hi-fi shows. Yes, yes, yes.
Speaker outputs? Don’t be greedy. That’s where the reg’lar Naim Uniti Atom comes in. The HE has simply been further refined to optimize the sound of headphones. If all these features are confusing, just think of the Atom HE as a headphone amplifier with a built-in DAC and a streamer. If you haven’t noticed, this type of component is everywhere. Chances are you’ll be looking for one soon. I think I might be as well, at least after my experience with this rig.
Inside the Focal Celestee Headphones
According to Focal Naim, the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition sounds particularly wonderful with the Focal line of headphones. That shouldn’t be a surprising thing to say about these stablemates, but yes, there is a synergy. In fact, many of the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition reviews I’ve seen were conducted with Focal headphones–in some cases my beloved Focal Clear MGs. For this review, however, I went with the Focal Celestees. The practical reason for the Celestees is, well, we’ve already reviewed most of the current Focal headphone line-up. Second, its $999 MSRP is more in line with what I’d pay for a superb set of headphones. I’m not ready for the Focal Utopias, at least not yet.
The Focal Celestee headphones are different than most of the Focals I’ve heard, primarily because they are a closed-back, over-the-ears design. If I had to choose, I’d probably go with an open-back headphone design for my headphone rig simply because I’m doing my listening at home, where it’s nice and quiet. On airplanes, I tend to use my Cardas earbuds which tuck into my shirt pocket when I have to get up from my seat. Besides, the Celestees are drop-dead gorgeous with their navy blue leather cups and the copper accents. I’d imagine they’d get banged up in no time considering how much traveling I do.
Another difference is the use of a 1 ⅝” (40mm) aluminium/magnesium ‘M’-shaped dome full-range speaker driver, as opposed to the magnesium drivers on the Focal Clears. It’s a “re-tuned” version of the driver found in the now discontinued Focal Elegia headphones, with some added acoustic treatments inside the earcups. Impedance is on the low side–35 ohms–so that the Focal Celestees are optimized for portable devices.
I’ve set up a specific headphone area in my listening room, adjacent to the dark green loveseat covered with teddy bear cloth and very close to the wireless router. I do have a small table for the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition, but it’s not quite as massive and stable as my Fern & Roby equipment rack. Luckily I’ve been testing out the latest generation of constrained layer damping products from Les Davis Audio. I placed a quartet of Entropic Isolators under the Naim. The Entropic Isolators are the thick, layered and slightly soft type of isolation devices, but they work incredibly well–especially with CD players, transports and DACs.
I also used the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition to evaluate the Ansuz PowerSwitch D2 ethernet switch ($6,600) and the Ansuz Digitalz C2 ethernet cables ($9,900). As I mentioned in the Ansuz review, this combination lowered the noise floor considerably, enough to make me re-evaluate my first impressions with the Focal Celestees. (I found them less airy and detailed than the Clear MGs at first, but closer to the tonality of the Clear MGs with $16,000 worth of assistance.)
The only real issue I have was minor–this was a little oasis I had created for myself and the space is perfect for reading and enjoying the breeze coming from the balcony and the only thing I would change is opt for a longer headphone cable. The stock cord reached, but just barely and I was in constant danger of doing something sudden and costly.
Here’s the good news: the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition was incredibly easy to initialize. I plugged in the ethernet cable, downloaded the Naim app, clicked on the Qobuz button and boom! My home page appeared, and the music picked up where I left off the last time I streamed.
I spent way too many of my teen years blasting rock and roll on a pair of Sennheiser HD-414s, even though I was as cautious about hearing loss even back then. But that’s the type of listening session I most associate with headphone listening over the course of my life–headbanging without the buzz-killing eviction notice. While I don’t listen to the same stuff I did in the late ’70s, I still enjoy curling up with some hard-driving rock that no one else can hear.
I know what you’re thinking–Tool. Nope. Tool is meant for wide open spaces. Rocking with headphones seems to draw me toward the later solo works of Sir Thurston Moore, albums such as Rock and Roll Consciousness and By the Fire. We’re talking eight to ten minute jams, marked by precision and math, the kind that hypnotize as they evolve. We’re talking headphone music.
I was also tempted to play Fred Hersch and Esperanza Spalding‘s Live at the Village Vanguard since it represents the pinnacle of my time with the Aavik/Ansuz/Børresen system from Audio Group Denmark. This recording is rather basic, an iconic pianist with an exciting and uncompromising singer who seems just a bit more accomplished in everything when compared to most of her contemporaries, live in front of that also familiar small ice-clinking and fork-dropping audience at one of the most popular spaces in jazz history.
With the big system, it was about spaces and layers and energy getting thrown back and forth, but with the Naim Uniti and Focal Celestee I heard something that was more contained, perhaps easier to understand and digest all at once. But I was also reminded of Dave McNair’s recent admission that he’d rather listen to loudspeakers than headphones any ol’ day–and he’s a mastering engineer who wears cans at work all day. So the Hersch/Spalding collaboration wasn’t as shockingly real as it was with the Børresen Z1 Cryo speakers, but I could still deep into the physical spaces and determine what was coming from where in an album full of 3-D aural cues.
The newly remastered Low-Life from New Order, however, was brilliant on the Naim/Focal headphone rig. This is one of three alternative rock albums, along with REM’s Fables of the Reconstruction and The Smith’s The Queen Is Dead, that kept me good company and soothed my culture shock when I moved from LA to Virginia Beach in 1985. So I get a lot of feels when I listen. But the sound quality of this remaster is so much clearer than LP I’ve been listening to for the last 37+ years, and I could instantly hear all the improvements to the overall balance–the original suffered from too much ’80s gloss. The new Low-Life sounds natural enough to remind me why I love New Order–who knew there were so many layers of meaning to uncover with mere dance music?
Finally, it was through the Naim Uniti and Focal Celestee that I first fell in love with the new eponymous album from The Mars Volta, where the band switches from the progressive metal/noise/free jazz they’ve played for the last two decades into something with a central Caribbean beat (Puerto Rican, specifically) that makes you want to dance. It’s as if this always interesting band finally figured out its place in the universe, and it’s an exciting and dense mix that the Naim Focal system kept tight and focused and easy to dissect. I felt goosebumps around every corner.
Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition: Conclusions
I really enjoyed my time with the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition and the Focal Celestee headphones. The Naim is the kind of product where I can envision the role headphone listening will now have in my home, and why it is so much better than any time in the past. A lot of it has to do with getting on the network, curling up on the couch and doing everything from your phone. Headphone listening should be something you do in complete, utter comfort, am I right?
The Focal Celestee headphones offer a lot of bang for a grand, are exceptionally clear and quiet, and offer a huge amount of detail. Personally, I’d spend a few hundred more to get my Focal Clear MGs and that improved sense of warmth and space. (The Celestees are plenty warm, but on a more intimate scale.) The Clear MGs took my breath away the first time I heard them, but the Celestees didn’t have that same sense of surprise. They’re still quite good.
A lot of that, I suspect, has to do with the Focal Celestee’s closed-back design. I usually balk at closed backs, simply because I’ve done plenty of rapid-fire A/Bs between all sorts of headphones, and I came to a rather clear-cut decision in favor of big open spaces. That said, the level of detail with the Celestees was superb, and if you’re looking for closed-back cans at this price point, this is an excellent choice.
But this Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition? I dig it. I’ve been contemplating my preferences for home audio lately–do I want tons of features AND great sound, which is common these days, or do I go for a more purist approach, something built for sound, something like one of Justin Weber’s nifty tube headphone amps from Ampsandsound? The Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition reminded me that I can have it all, and still be happy with the sonic results.
Nice to see a recent glowing review of this unit. Still on my list for endgame system and now I am seeing them for used for $2500. Something of a bargain, as I would make use of the balanced pre outs into my Genelec Studio monitors and sub. By the way, unless there is an update that I am not aware of, there is no HDMI arc. I will try the Clear MG against the Meze109 pro. Cheers and thank you.