Linn Unidisk SC universal disc player
For three weeks I kept an enormous Sony television set in my listening room. I got it there by dragging it across the hardwood floor of my living room on a small scrap of carpeting, then I more or less levered the Sony onto a short metal table centered between my Quad ESL-989 loudspeakers.
I feel a little guilty about it now, but only in the sense that Patty Hearst probably feels guilty about robbing that bank. For one thing, I had an excuse: Linn Products had sent me a sample of their new digital disc player, the Unidisk SC, and in order to run its setup routine, I needed a video display of some sort in my system.
But that wasn't the only reason: The Unidisk SC isn't just a CD player, isn't just an SACD player, and isn't just a DVD-Audio player. It's an every-damn-kind-of-disc player, including regular DVDs—as in movies. For 12 weeks I listened to various digital music formats through the Unidisk SC, but for three of those weeks I also watched movies on it, sometimes with my wife and daughter, and once even with my mother, who was here for a visit. And, yes, I'm smiling as I write this.
A new category?
I hate it as much as you do when reviews sound like advertising copy, but today I don't have much of a choice: The Linn Unidisk SC really does define a new category of consumer electronics. It's a universal disc player that's apparently capable of decoding and playing back virtually any 5" consumer media. But it's also a full-function, five-channel preamplifier, not to mention a modestly comprehensive digital processor, capable of decoding Dolby Pro Logic and DTS surround-sound software, among other things. That's why it has that SC suffix—for system controller.
While it doesn't have the machined-alloy enclosure of Linn's top-end electronics, the Unidisk SC is styled and built in a way that brings those models to mind. The shallow recess of its display gives the faceplate a nicely sculpted look, and front-panel controls are kept to a minimum. All the casework is coated with a lacquer-like finish, which adds to the appearance of having been milled from solid.
Only when viewed from the rear does the Unidisk SC look similar to other audio and video components. There you'll find phono jacks for taking five channels of line-level audio to the power amp(s) of your choice, as well as a subwoofer output and two pairs of auxiliary stereo inputs—useful for a tuner or even an outboard phono preamplifier. Separate banks of phono jacks serve as inputs and outputs for composite and component video signals, while S-video connectors are provided for VCRs and monitors that require them. TosLink connectors and S/PDIF phono jacks are provided for digital ins and outs, RS-232 sockets are there for computer enthusiasts, and a separate bank of jacks is added for connections to a Linn Knekt multiroom system.
Then there's the pair of jacks I was most interested in—the ones labeled TV Out, which actually carry the fixed line-level stereo signal, so stodgy old two-channel enthusiasts such as I can use the Unidisk SC as a standalone source in a stereo music system.
Inside, the Unidisk SC looks a shade more mainstream than Linn's other, more expensive digital products—although it shares Linn's proprietary Silver Disk Engine with the two remaining "convergence" products in Linn's Unidisk lineup, the Unidisk 1.1 ($10,995) and 2.1 ($7495). The Silver Disk Engine, which is the thing that makes a Unidisk a Unidisk, is a module comprising a circuit board, a disc-loader mechanism, and a whole lot of original Linn software. It assesses the initial feed from each disc the user loads, quickly determines what kind of media it is, addresses the appropriate software and chipset, and disables whatever portions of the transport and DAC are not required to play back that particular format.
The Unidisk SC's transport—which, unlike those in the Unidisk 1.1 and 2.1, is bought-in rather than manufactured in Scotland—uses two lasers in a single optical assembly: infrared for SACD/CD, and shorter-wavelength visible red for all the DVD formats. Off to the right, a variation of Linn's tried and true Brilliant switch-mode power supply lives behind a well-finished sheet-metal shield; elsewhere, four separate circuit boards sport a mix of surface-mount and traditional technologies. The only other remarkable detail is the inclusion of a temperature-controlled cooling fan in front of the power supply—which is actually for the Silver Disk Engine board, since that is what has the highest "power density" inside the Unidisk SC.
As I hinted earlier, I mostly used the Unidisk SC as a fixed-output source component to drive the line inputs of my Fi preamp. But I also spent some time using it in source-plus-preamp mode to directly drive my EAR 890 power amp and, for a while, a Linn Klimax Twin amp. (In those instances, the Unidisk's front-left and front-right preamp-out jacks drove the stereo amplifiers; when I ran the Linn's setup routine on its first day here, I turned off the center-channel, surround-sound, and subwoofer options.) The Unidisk SC's preamplifier functions—Volume, Balance, and Mute—were all intuitively easy to work in that mode using the remote handset. The only things missing that one might wish for were buttons for mono operation and for reversing the channels and the absolute polarity.
Which brings to mind another aspect of the Unidisk's multichannel capabilities: When playing any of the current breed of hybrid SACDs, I was able to manually select the layer of my choice—Stereo CD, Stereo SACD, or Multichannel SACD—simply by using the audio button on the remote. Unless and until it's powered down completely, the Unidisk defaults to whatever layer was selected for the last hybrid disc played.