Linn Unidisk 1.1 universal disc player

The manufacture and marketing of so-called "universal" digital disc players should have been a no-brainer right from the start. I recall the first demo of SACD I attended, when both SACD and DVD-Audio were little more than promises and contentions. That prototype Philips player consisted of several cubic feet of hardware controlled by a computer, even though mockups of more marketable SACD players were arrayed around the room. After the demo, I asked one of the Philips engineers if it were possible to make a player that could handle CD, SACD, and DVD-A. His reply: "Sure, if they let me do it."

Now, while the partisans of SACD and of DVD-Audio continue to rail about which is superior and which will triumph, most of us have not yet picked a side—if the musical contents appeal, we just want to play any available disc, regardless of format. It's today's version of the old issue of "Will it play in my VHS?" It's a question none of us should have to ask.

Fortunately, more and more universal players are appearing on the market and in the review pages of Stereophile, but one must always ask just how "universal" these actually are. To be truly universal, such a device must play not only all the obvious high-end formats—CD, SACD, DVD-Audio—but also DVD-Video (comes along with DVD-A) with Dolby Digital and DTS, VCD, SVCD, MP3, MPEG, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-R, DVD-RW, and DVD+RW. And while we're at it, HDCD might be nice. As of September 2003, I have yet to see a player that does all of this, but things are moving fast. But even more important than comprehensive compatibility will be any truly universal player's ability to optimally play back all of these formats without robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The Linn Unidisk 1.1 ($10,995) comes tantalizingly close to being able to play every type of 5" silver disc—and, if Linn's contention that its Silverdisk Engine favors no format at the expense of another, of providing what they call "a level playing field."

The Silverdisk processor is not a chip but a board full of devices that recognizes the format of the digital signals on the inserted disc and: 1) activates the hardware appropriate for decoding that particular format; 2) deactivates all unnecessary modules, including their clocks and oscillators; 3) routes the signals through the active modules; and 4) formats the output into digital datastreams suitable for digital/analog conversion. The Silverdisk Engine is entirely digital, leaving the analog stages to devices on another board, isolated from the digital business end.

Linn sees the Silverdisk as a basic platform that can be adapted to various players by combinations of board reprogramming, device repopulation, disc transports, and/or analog boards. In the case of the Unidisk 1.1, the Silverdisk Engine and other boards are populated by the highest levels of component quality and isolation of components and functions. Linn has already designed a Unidisk 2.1, which offers a slightly less exalted level of performance but with an extended audio feature set.

After spending a morning with a Linn engineer, who gave me a guided tour of an eviscerated Unidisk, I was glad to get my hands on what looked to me to be the sleekest, most elegant player I was ever to have handled. We've already seen Linn's transmutation of high-wattage power amps, the Klimax 500 Solo (reviewed in the October 1999 Stereophile, Vol.22 No.10). The Unidisk 1.1 is no less a revelation at 10.8 lbs and less than 0.4 of a cubic foot. Turning it about in my hands created no impression of gravitas, but in operation it never buzzed or vibrated, and sat quite solidly on every surface.

The front-panel controls are few and intuitive. To the left of the central disc drawer and display are a large Open/Close button and two smaller ones, for Skip/Search forward and back. To the drawer's right are the large Play and the smaller Pause and Stop buttons. Most of these do double duty in menu navigation, but for that, the remote control is more convenient.

The rear panel is busier, providing the myriad audio and video connections. Most notable for audiophiles is the presence of both balanced and unbalanced L/R (stereo) outputs, in addition to unbalanced RCA jacks for multichannel line outputs. Digital audio outputs, both TosLink and coax (BNC, not RCA), are S/PDIF but are programmable for use in multichannel environments; they are also defeatable. Digital output is not provided for SACD, but can be up to 96kHz for DVD, or downsampled to 48kHz or 44.1kHz, depending on the disc type.

Setup via the Unidisk's onscreen display (OSD) system was simple and straightforward, and get this: The Linn Unidisk does not require a video monitor for setup or, for the most part, for use in a strictly audio system (but see below). The default settings are S/PDIF = Raw (all formats output), LPCM = 96kHz, and Channel Setup = 5.1-channel. Moreover, the last can be changed on the fly from the remote's Audio Adj button. Add to this a very readable and adjustable front-panel display, and one comes as close to obviating the need for a monitor as the DVD-Audio format permits. That said, the Unidisk's OSD is no slouch for setup or program display.

Has Linn slipped up anywhere in the ergonomics department? Well, my aging eyes would have appreciated bigger labels and a backlit remote. Nobody's perfect.

Two channels in the big city system
With one hand, I slipped the Unidisk into the equipment rack, plugged in a pair of AudioQuest balanced cables, an i2Digital X-60 BNC digital cable, and an IEC power cable, and the Linn and I were off.

The learning curve was an absolute zero. Every audio disc I tried played correctly—even the very first MP3 CD-R I'd ever made. Using the Audio Adj button, I could select an audio format on multiformat and hybrid discs, such as some SACDs, and the Unidisk remembered my choice when I later played discs of the same format. And the simultaneous S/PDIF output permits A/B comparisons with external DACs and processors, if that's your bent.

Easy and unchallenging ergonomically, the Unidisk was a sonic over-achiever. I don't know if my review sample had been burned in at the factory, but it impressed me with its clarity and dynamics right from the beginning, and those characteristics abided.

The first discs I played were of the live performance led by Péter Eötvös of Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle (CD, Hänssler 93.070), and the sampler CD from Manger Products. Between them, I heard everything from orchestra with voice—both in full cry and taking breaths—to solo piano, to reggae. Over the Unidisk, and in general comparison to other players, the sound was strikingly clear and dynamic. Bass had enough extension and energy to be felt as well as heard, but was notably detailed and unmuddied by resonance. The highs were not so much softened as unassertive; this, coupled with a wide, deep soundstage, encouraged me to listen louder and louder—and it just got better. At low levels, little was lost except for the dynamic range, now limited by the ambient noise levels in my city apartment.

Over the following weeks I listened to many, many discs—with this player, I didn't have to pay attention to format! One of my favorite stereo DVD-As from Hi-Res Music, Wayne Horvitz's Forever (Hi-Res HRM 2001), had more detail and presence than ever. Yet the Unidisk never seemed harsh, edgy, or too close for comfort, even when playing more aggressive mixes.

8787 Perimeter Park Boulevar
Jacksonville, FL 32216
(904) 645-5242