Linn Majik DS-I D/A integrated amplifier Page 3

Some examples: One of my first comparisons was between the recent 24-bit reissue of the Beatles' Let It Be (CD, Apple), ripped as a FLAC file from the CD to the Linn system's QNAP NAS, and the same recording ripped as an AIFF to my iMac. The latter seemed faultless in and of itself, yet the FLAC through the DS offered appreciably better sound and music: greater openness, detail, and texture on the one hand (though in the latter regard it was still short of the best vinyl playback), and more momentum and flow on the other. It was, in fact—and with apologies in advance for the hated cliché—like hearing this much-maligned album again for the first time, delivered with sonic and musical strengths that compelled me to listen straight through from the first note to the last.

Of course, the Majik DS-I couldn't render every rip perfectly. Jeff Buckley's Grace (CD, Columbia CK 57528), an enduring favorite, sounded just about as edgy when played from the Linn as when streamed to anything else, yet that album benefited from the Linn in other ways: The bass drum and electric bass guitar in "Lilac Wine," though no less subtle, sounded monstrously deep through the Linn source, adding to the music's presence and effectiveness. And from the Linn DS, a simple 44.1kHz, 16-bit FLAC file of Nick Drake's beautiful "Way to Blue," from Five Leaves Left, was so rich, present, and unscreechy that it spoiled me forever: I doubt I'll be able to listen again to the AIFF I ripped to my iMac from the original CD. Thankfully, I have the even better vinyl.

With larger files of higher resolution, the distance between the Linn and other digital sources was greater still. The 24-bit/96kHz version of Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over," from Crowded House), was revelatory: deeply textured in the best, most natural way, with deep, liquid electric bass and real spatial depth. Stravinsky's Apollon musagäte, performed by Alexander Janiczek and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Linn Studio Master 24/192 download, also available on SACD/CD as Linn 330), was perhaps the richest, most believably tactile digital playback I've heard: It showed off the Linn system's fine sense of scale, and underscored its superb and, I dare say, analog-like sense of texture.

Moving on to the Majik DS-I's full role—as digital-renderer-plus-integrated-amplifier, phono stage included—my enthusiasm slipped back a notch. The Majik DS-I may offer world-class digital sound, but its integrated amp and phono section sounded just average through my speakers. Using my Sony SACD/CD player to drive the Linn's analog inputs, I heard pleasantly wide-range sound—in terms of frequency and, to a lesser extent, dynamics—and, in the manner of so many Linn products, musical pacing and momentum were satisfyingly clear and undistorted. But the sound was more opaque than it should have been: It lacked openness and, especially, the ability to communicate even the DS source's own very good midrange textures.

And while I was happy to see Linn include a phono preamp in the Majik DS-I, I was even more disappointed by the review sample's LP playback. The same lack of texture that characterized the Majik's integrated amp performance with line-level inputs seemed all the more glaring with LPs—they sounded timbrally darker through the mids than they should have, with a corresponding apparent dip in the lower trebles (although, above that, there was no grievous lack of air or sparkle). David Oistrakh's violin in his recording, with Jascha Horenstein and the London Symphony Orchestra, of Bruch's Scottish Fantasia (LP, Decca SXL 6035), sounded dark, shut-in, and flat. Likewise "Wizard of the Worldly Game," from Fairport Convention's Angel Delight (LP, Island ILPS 9162); Dave Swarbrick's voice was so lacking in nuance that the extra push in his voice on the out-of-range notes in the chorus—so obvious with the very best phono gear, including Linn's wonderful Linto phono preamp—was obscured.

All was well again when I moved from the Linn's analog inputs to explore its non-networked digital inputs. Using an optical minijack/TosLink adapter from Black Box Devices (other brands are available, as are hardwired optical cables that accomplish the same thing), I used the S/PDIF optical stream present on the Apple iMac's headphone output to drive the D/A converter of the Majik DS-I. The results were enjoyable, if slightly less than conclusive. Listening to good acoustic music in particular, such as Nickel Creek's "Cuckoo's Nest," from their eponymous album (CD, Sugar Hill 3909), I was rewarded with a distinctly open, clear, and very involving sound—the only drawback being a slight lack of bottom-end extension.

Bypassing my Sony SACD/CD player's integral DAC in favor of the Linn's offered various benefits, depending on the input chosen. Driven through one of its TosLink inputs, the Linn DAC offered a substantially smoother, less trebly sound than that of the standalone Sony—perhaps a bit too smooth. For whatever reason, taking the bitstream from the Sony's coaxial digital output to one of the Linn's coax inputs restored the missing sparkle and texture, and remained my preferred way of listening to CDs in real time during the Majik's stay in my home.

Conclusions
With a portion of my CD collection now ripped to disk, and with a steady stream of new USB D/A converters coming through the door, I've been content these past few years: All I seemed to need were my relatively inexpensive Apple iMac and my free copy of Apple iTunes. But, as so often happens in perfectionist audio, it turns out I was less happy than I thought!

Then again, digital music doesn't play quite the same role in my life as analog. My LP collection remains the source to which I turn for most serious listening, a fact reflected by my (very public) approach to playback gear, in which tonearm mounts are plotted to a fraction of a millimeter, rare turntables are sought and restored, and even the glue within a wooden plinth becomes fair game for scrutiny. Thus the question is no longer ironic: How difficult do you want this to be?

It occurs to me that the challenge posed by Linn's Majik DS-I is not unlike that which attended their LP12 turntable in its day. Back then, people who thought they knew what turntables were all about—plug'n'play things with arms and cartridges and platters that spun records at three different speeds, right?—were surprised to find that Linn had some very different ideas. The LP12 asked consumers and dealers alike to jump through some very different hoops in order to get good sound—and yet it survived to become the longest-lived perfectionist turntable in history, delivering the groceries to this very day and almost always getting the address right.

The Majik DS-I, like all of Linn's current DS source components, confounds those who want a drop-in alternative to their existing computer-music sources, and is thus wildly unsuited to those who would flit from seller to seller in search of deals rather than trust a single good dealer. As Robert Frost said, it asks of us a certain height.

There's no question in my mind: Notwithstanding an amplifier section that's good but not great, and a user interface that is, to be kind, unsettled, a Linn Majik DS-I and a pair of decent, affordable speakers would improve the musical life of virtually any iPod user. Considered as only a digital source, I dare say the Majik DS-I could have the same effect on any seasoned hobbyist.

I'm satisfied with my Apple iMac and iTunes—for now. Were I to upgrade my digital source in the near future, however, a Linn DS server would be at the top of my list.

COMPANY INFO
Linn Products Limited
US distributor: TC Group Americas
335 gage Avenue #1
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada N2M 5E1
(519) 745-1158
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COMMENTS
deckeda's picture

1) Linn says Ethernet sounds better but doesn't explain why.
2) AD concurs.
3) JA apparently theorizes about jitter and goes looking but doesn't find meaningful differences.
4) Linn says yes, it's lower jitter that makes RJ-45 et al better but JA's test equipment can't reveal it.
5) JA says actually, yes it can.

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I didn't get a sense at all that the "stupidness" software issue has been overcome. And Linn---"open" software more often than not means everyone is free to design by committee, with predicable results. Don't tout that too strongly.

There are other facets not covered here, like why iTunes isn't a great ripper (it has a selectable error correction, giving the software more time for example) or why something that incorporates CD Paranoia while ripping wouldn't suffice.

This review is a good example of the perils of subjecting single components to scrutiny that demands investigation beyond the norm---so much more interaction occurs with computer-based music replay.

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