Linn Unidisk 1.1 universal disc player Page 2

But only when I began to compare the stereo performance of the Unidisk with other components was I able to define the Linn's sound. On two-channel CDs and the stereo tracks of SACDs, it was as transparent as the Sony SCD-XA777ES SACD player, but soundly trumped it in high-frequency smoothness. The Sony can be slightly edgy at times; playing the same discs, the Linn never was.

A more stringent trial consisted of pitting the Unidisk on its own against the Unidisk as a transport feeding an external D/A converter. Against the Mark Levinson No.360S DAC, the Linn's sound was lighter in weight—although deep bass was not lacking—and the No.360S was more firm and rich. At high levels, the No.360S could seem terrifyingly powerful, while the Linn, which retained its clarity, merely got louder. Thus, with really big classical stuff (Mahler, Wagner, etc.), I preferred the Levinson; but with equally massive nonclassical music, such as reggae and rock, the Linn was a bit better at conveying the inner details, even when played at very unneighborly levels.

I had three more pricey, fancy DACs in house, from Nagra, Orpheus, and Theta, but although the standalone Linn was competitive, I preferred it as a transport driving one or another of these DACs, depending on the recording. That said, I could hardly justify the expense of any of these DACs as an add-on for a Unidisk 1.1. I'd sooner invest in multichannel partners for the Linn, or an alternative transport for the DAC. Still, the Linn's excellent "Red Book" CD performance, coupled with its two-channel performance with all other formats, should make this issue irrelevant.

More channels in the country
The Linn Unidisk 1.1 could almost be called "portable." I put it in a canvas bag and carried it, along with its remote control and manual, as easily as a laptop computer. In use, the manual seemed bulkier and clumsier than the player, but only because the Unidisk was such a snap to set up and use, even in my multichannel system. Sure, I could (and eventually did) go to the OSD to change some defaults in the setups, but there really was no need.

The Unidisk has no bass-management facilities—that's left to a preamplifier-processor or the 1.1's intended mate, Linn's Kisto System Controller. So I just plugged the six channels of analog output into my Bel Canto Pre6 and put in an SACD. When the front-panel display told me that the Linn was playing the two-channel stereo track, I pressed Audio Adj on the remote and the Unidisk switched to the multichannel track. As noted above, I never had to do that again—until told otherwise, the Unidisk assumed that that option was my preference for hybrid SACDs. With DVD-As, the OSD was often required for efficient use of menus and routing, despite the DVD-A group's contention that "Tray or Play" lets one avoid having to use a TV or monitor. For SACD, the OSD was not necessary but still useful: titles, tracks, and timings could be made available on my relatively big screen, in addition to the Unidisk's own very legible display.

In multichannel, the Linn Unidisk 1.1 sounded much as it had in stereo. Big surprise. It retained its spacious sound, which was advantageous for multichannel programs. Imaging seemed slightly wider with the Linn than with other multichannel players I've used, but I wasn't always sure that that's what I wanted. It was hard to be certain whether the Linn was revealing that these recordings had a bit too much bleed from the front channels around to the rear, or if it was somehow aiding and abetting that mastering habit. I'd set my channel balances with the Bel Canto Pre6, so all sources were subjected to the same amplification. Nonetheless, even the Bucky Pizzarelli discs on Chesky, both SACD and DVD-Audio versions, which I know so well, had more action and energy in the sides and rear than before.

Still, the liquidity of the Linn's mid- and high frequencies, coupled with its spatial generosity, made the most of really well-balanced recordings such as the Pizzarelli discs, Andrew Manze's Mozart disc, Night Music (SACD, Harmonia Mundi HMU 807280), and Brahms' String Sextet No.1 in B-flat, Op.18 (DVD-A, MDG 907 0969-5). Each benefited from the Linn's transparency, creating a wide, deep, convincing soundstage. In particular, the layering of the individual instruments of the AAM in Mozart's Serenata Notturna and A Musical Joke, was nearly graphic! The six Brahms performers—a supplemented Leipzig String Quartet—were almost within reach. Bass and overall orchestral weight were ample as well with bigger stuff, such as Holst's The Planets with the SNO on DVD-A (Naxos 5.110004).

In sum, the Unidisk 1.1's multichannel performance was excellent with music discs of every discrete format. I make that qualification because I found, to my surprise, that the 1.1 lacks multichannel decoders for Dolby Digital and DTS, and Linn's PR documents, website—even the 1.1's owner's manual—are less than explicit about this. While the Unidisk will provide a stereo mixdown from these data formats, I had to feed its digital output to the Meridian Reference 861 surround controller for movies, the few dozen DTS music CDs I own, and the video sides of AIX Records' DVD-Audio releases.

By now it should come as no surprise that the Linn was notably more spacious and open than the other players on hand. The Sony SCD-XA777ES seemed just a bit more constrained in soundstage dimensions and a little harder in the highs. The Marantz 8400, which I'll report on in a forthcoming installment of my quarterly "Music in the Round" column, came closer in smoothness and in its grain-free upper end, but produced a smaller soundstage than the Linn's.

A fairer face-off was against the big, black Meridian boxes. That contrast could be symbolized by their physical differences, but was nowhere near as extreme. The Meridian 800/861 is big, solid, and well-balanced. While the slim and silver Linn's low end was tight and full, the Meridian trumped it in the integration and power of its mid- to low bass. On the other hand, the Meridians' treble was clean and clear, if nowhere near as diaphanous as the Linn's. The Linn impressed me with what it did, presenting a convincing sound panorama. The Meridian impressed by being elusively unimpressive.

Choice? No way. The distinctions were so small in magnitude that I can still say that both are superb and capable of providing stupendous performance. Besides, the Meridian, in its current configuration, won't play SACDs, and requires a bigger, sturdier equipment rack and a bigger, sturdier budget.

Easy. The Linn Unidisk 1.1 does everything that a player can be asked to do, and does it all superbly. It's nearly as good a CD player as exists on this planet (Linn, maker of the CD12, would probably concur in my hedging), it's the smoothest-sounding SACD player I've yet used, and its DVD-Audio performance is as good as (if different from) the Meridian 800/861's. And don't forget—it plays almost everything else that comes on a 5" silver disc. And even though it's not quite as portable as an Apple iPod, I wouldn't be surprised if it was also the best MP3 player on Earth.

Is the Unidisk 1.1 the answer to everyone's dreams? Well, if you don't need Dolby Digital and DTS (or you have an external decoder), and if another of your components provides multichannel and/or bass management, it might be. But if you just want a player that will play all stereo programs, regardless of format, with great sound, this is it.

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