As for sound, it’s the most powerful and quietest air purifier I’ve tested. The maximum setting has a published ultrafine particle removal rate of 650 cubic meters per hour. (This is the measure of how fast and effectively an air purifier removes dust.)

According to my certificate of testing, at its highest setting the Atem X maxes out at 63 decibels, which is slightly higher than conversational speech in a restaurant, or from an air conditioner. At half that fan speed, the Atem X effectively cleans at a rate of 326 m3/h, well above its published rate of 250. It’s also one decibel above a bird call at 45 dB. It’s barely noticeable. Several times I put my hand over the grille to feel for airflow. I wasn’t sure whether it was on.

An HVAC Replacement

While it’s true that my 135-year-old Brooklyn apartment is not the Berkeley Laboratory, it is the perfect location to test a consumer air cleaner. Aside from my two cats and a dog, there’s my close proximity to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, a constant source of gasoline fumes that produce the cancer-causing volatile organic compound benzene as well as particulate matter.

My apartment also has vintage steam radiators. That viral tweet, “The hottest summer I ever spent was a winter in a New York City apartment,” is true. That’s by design. The steam radiator system was intended to keep the apartment warm when you open the windows for airflow. Fresh air is healthy … on good air days, at least.

Like many of my neighbors apartments, mine won’t be retrofitted with an HVAC system complete with MERV filters to clean my air anytime soon. What happens when the air outside is toxic? I rely on portable air cleaners, especially at times like last spring, when New York City turned orange with heavy PM 2.5 from wildfires in Canada. At one point that day, New York had the worst air quality on Earth, with an index of 218. For context, Mumbai has the worst air as I’m writing this at 182. New York mayor Eric Adams said out loud what we were all thinking that day: “I went outdoors and basically said, you know, What the hell is this?”

The fact that it’s quiet—rustling-leaves quiet—on its lower settings makes the Atem X an ideal investment for those without a central HVAC system with MERV filters, which are those pleated 1-inch-thick square filters that fit into a furnace or central air system. (MERV filters can also cover a box fan to make an inexpensive DIY air purifier.)

What doesn’t the Atem X do? Unlike IQAir’s GS Series or the Dyson Pure Hot+Cool, the Atem X doesn’t have a carbon filter and cannot clear the air of odor, gases, or volatile organic compounds, like benzene. The Atem X uses a hyperHEPA filter, which captures all the tiny but potentially deadly stuff, like viruses such as Covid-19, bacteria, and PM 2.5. That designer cleaning has a cost: A replacement filter four-pack costs $199.

It’s been over four years since the world went into lockdown and indoor air quality became a main character. In a few short decades, we went from a society that smoked on airplanes to wearing KN95 masks in business class and coach. The minimalist white disc that IQAir says is “made in Germany with love” might signal a new way to think about air filters, a statement piece that brings the room together in a burning world. Even with the Atem X’s price tag, I would buy one. It’s playing the long game, a well-made handsome air filter made to go the distance.


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