Linn Unidisk SC universal disc player Page 2

Tackling the "simplest" format first, the Linn Unidisk SC did a brilliant job with most of the old-fashioned music CDs I tried. Celibidache's live recording of Bruckner's Symphony 9, from 1995 (EMI 5 56699 2), was nothing short of mesmerizing through the Linn. The phrasing of every line was infused with feeling—appropriately—and the Unidisk had a natural, organic sense of flow: In that respect alone, the Unidisk SC actually made PCM digital sound more like DSD. It allowed Celibidache's occasionally broad tempos to work with the flow of each line, rather than seeming to fight it. The Linn even bested the very fine Naim CD5x (reviewed in the November 2004 Stereophile), which sounds substantial, colorful, and dramatic, with all the typical Naim rhythmic momentum—but compared to the Linn, the Naim sounded too solid and inflexible. By contrast, through the Unidisk, each line didn't just hang in the air, attractive and static—it moved. Phrased another way: As good as the Naim is, this bog-standard "Red Book" disc was noticeably more involving on the Linn Unidisk.

I made the same comparison with a favorite pop disc, XTC's Apple Venus (1999, TVT 3250-2). I again preferred the Linn Unidisk, which sounded drier and less spacious than the Naim, but also clearer, more direct, more emotive—and, surprisingly, rhythmically more insistent, as revealed by the pulsing woodwinds and strings in "Easter Theatre." The Unidisk's only failing in the "Red Book" arena was small but worth noting: The Linn isn't equipped to handle the HDCD resolution-enhancement scheme, and on discs so encoded you can hear that something's missing. On the premiere recording of John Tavener's Icon of Eros (CD, Reference RR-102CD), a stunning release in every way, the Unidisk lacked the spaciousness and realistic sonic decays that I heard on HDCD-enabled players such as the Naim CD5x: The Linn sounded smaller yet at the same time a bit sloppier—where, by contrast, the Naim gave a very realistic idea of how the deliberately distant choral voices slapped off of the walls of the cathedral where it was recorded, an effect that appears critical to the effectiveness of the piece.

With respect to hi-rez material, the Unidisk SC was stunningly effective. I can't claim a large collection of DVD-Audio discs, although the few that I tried—including the DTS surround-sound mix of Graham Nash's Songs for Survivors (DTS 69286-01092-9-2)—were notably clear, uncolored, dynamically nuanced, and well-extended in the directions of both frequency extremes. But playing SACDs in direct comparisons with my Sony SCD-777ES, the Linn sounded more organic and less mechanical, with a noticeably sweeter and more natural-sounding top end. That last quality may also have been responsible for the Unidisk's more believable spatial perspectives: presence without unrealistically exaggerated precision.

The Linn was rhythmically faultless. None of the tracks on the great-sounding SACD reissue of Roxy Music's Avalon (Virgin 5 83871 2), from the straightforward ("Take a Chance with Me") to the complex ("India"), showed any sign of slowing or timing distortions of any sort. Stereo imaging on that disc was also impressive, as was the general sense of presence and scale.

During the weeks when I bypassed my preamp, I discovered that the combination of Linn Unidisk SC front end, Linn Klimax Twin amplifier, and Quad ESL-989 speakers—and nothing else—was especially impressive on large-scale classical music. I have John Marks to thank for turning me on to Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna, a recent oratorio that evokes Randall Thompson and Herbert Howells in equal measure, and which manages to be instantly accessible while revealing greater depths with each new hearing. Through the Linn, the fine-sounding DSD recording (Hyperion SACDA67449) provided a believable sense of the sound of 30-odd voices starting and stopping naturally in a large recording venue—and of their scale, and that of the orchestra accompanying them. In the shadowy second movement, the modern-sounding harmonies between the vocal lines and those carried in the brass and lower strings were as clear and unambiguous as the sounds of those instruments were richly colorful and believable. And the singers' diction in the brief and unashamedly straightforward fourth movement was helped along by the Linn's great clarity and transparency. Most important, the Linn simply allowed the piece to be colorful, dramatic, very moving—and never boring.

If you're looking for a good contemporary recording of Brahms's Symphony 1, a new SACD/CD by Marin Alsop and the London Philharmonic (Naxos 6.110077) combines a smartly structured, and occasionally pleasantly elastic, interpretation with really good sound. The Linn played it magnificently well, managing to sound larger, more colorful, and more texturally rich than my old Sony. The Unidisk pulled a lot of luscious string tone out of the fourth movement's famous allegro theme, and did a good job of showing how Alsop, also unashamedly, plays it straight ahead and milks it for every drop of nobility. Nice to hear a new disc and new player get along so well.

Most important, with every SACD in my collection, the Linn Unidisk SC was involving. Another impressive DSD remastering and multichannel remix, of David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (SACD, EMI 521900 2), was every bit as emotionally effective as the vinyl. Ditto the SACD of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (Columbia/Legacy CS 65955), a 37-year-old "field recording" that doesn't have a lot going for it in the audiophile sense, but that packs a real emotional wallop when heard at its best. The Linn Unidisk gave it that chance.

So much for the listening—how about the viewing?

I won't dwell on it, because video reviews are too far afield for me and for Stereophile—which, as we all know, is best left to home audio, fishing, and liberal politics. But I want to stress how much fun I had during those weeks when the Linn Unidisk SC was at the center of Artie's Home Theater, organic popcorn only, pay according to your ability, ticket line forms on the left. My regular DVD player, a perfectly nice Marantz DVD930, had less clarity and resolution than the Linn, which also seemed capable of endowing objects at the front of any viewing field—people in particular, I mean—with greater visual presence and physicality. (Is this how they talk about it in video magazines? Never having read one, I suppose I'm a bit underequipped in terms of vocabulary.) No sense beating the drum in comparing a new $5000 machine with a four-year-old player that retailed for something like $800 at the time, but that's how it shook out.

One DVD experience that deserves special mention is a recent music film, Bluegrass Journey (Blue Stores Films BSF001), which my family and I came to enjoy so much that we watched it four or five times while our little two-channel home theater was up and running. Bluegrass Journey is a skillfully edited documentary that gives a real taste of what a modern bluegrass festival is all about, and it captures some of the finest performers in the field—including the Del McCoury Band, Tim O'Brien, Nickel Creek, Peter Rowan, and Tony Rice—with remarkably good camerawork and sound.

Given enough music films of that quality—I'm sorry to say that our dramatic film viewing remains limited to such fare as Shrek 2, Barbie of Swan Lake, and Piglet's Big Movie—a product like the Unidisk SC would border on being indispensable, and I would leave that TV set between my Quads. Seriously.

But its video performance is part of the value equation for such a product, I suppose: What does it do and How well does it do it on the one hand, and How much do I need to have that done and How much is it worth to me on the other. In the broadest sense, the Linn Unidisk SC is 1) a preamplifier, 2) a surround-sound processor-controller, 3) a CD player, 4) an SACD player, and 5) a DVD player. I don't need No.1 and I'm indifferent to No.2, but I really do need Nos.3 and 4—and No.5 is starting to interest me.

The Linn does the things that I need done brilliantly well, and in ways that mean the most to me: Its regular CD performance places it among the best I've ever heard, and its SACD performance is the best I've had in my home, bar none. It does all that and plays movies with an apparently high degree of success, all for the price of Sony's first SACD-only player.

The Unidisk SC is a fun product, a good product, and a product some people can afford without robbing a bank. I'm impressed, and tempted as hell.

US distributor: Linn Inc.
8787 Perimeter Park Boulevard
Jacksonville, FL 32216
(904) 645-5242