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Unidisk 2.1 universal disc player
as reviewed by Robert H. Levi and Jeff Parks
The Linn Unidisk 2.1 universal disc player costs less than Linn's reference Unidisk 1.1 player, and, according to Linn, does not sound as good, but is it worth $7000? The answer is yes. A compromise it's not—it demonstrated qualities I found jawdropping. There's a right way and a wrong way to set up the 2.1, and if you do it right, your ears will thank you. Read on for the recipe for maximizing the 2.1's performance.
The 2.1 features Linn's Silver Disk Engine technology, and is capable of playing all current disc formats. It is a smaller version of the 1.1, but with all of the more expensive machine's features. It has lots of flexibility, including every kind of audio and video hookup you might want. Its remote is slick, elegant, and very intuitive. Its drawer is fast and silent, with short search times. Its fit and finish is gorgeous. I played each format until all vestiges of dryness had vanished, about 50 to 75 hours per format. I hooked it up with both Kimber balanced silver and copper interconnects and used the Tara RSC Air AC cord at all times. This is the same power cord I use on my reference player. I put soft shoes under the unit, but noticed no effect. Its own feet appear pretty insignificant, but who knows?
I was a bit disappointed with its sonics in balanced operation. The sound was very musical, but not exceptionally detailed. It also had limited depth perspective and was a tad polite. I ranked it at about 80% as good as my reference. It was certainly very good, but shy of what it should do for the price. Its focus was somewhat fuzzy and its imaging soft. It had plenty of output, up to four volts, but it just did not sound dynamic. Then I tried hooking it up single-ended, using Kimber Select copper interconnects. I have never—and I mean never—heard a piece of audio gear sound better single-ended than balanced, but the Linn 2.1 does. In single-ended operation, it nudges the state of the art, and sounds at least 90 percent as good as my reference Modwright Sony 999ES. The performance was ultra musical, with excellent imaging and depth. It sounded like an LP 12, with the exceptional analog nuances you'd expect from Linn. It's a sound you'll love to listen to hour after hour.
I really liked its SACD performance. The Linn is on the warm and rich side of neutral, but on what planet is that a problem? It sounds real, with winning textures, layering, and definition. It's a bit less defined than the best, and a tad too rich, but oh so intimate. I was startled and amazed, though perhaps I shouldn't have been, as the Linn house sound has always been music at its most realistic. The sense of space and air is gorgeous, with firm and sure imaging. The 2.1 is still a bit shy on slam and snap, but just a bit. I really enjoyed SACD, perhaps more than ever before. I found myself just listening to music and not picking apart the sound. The Linn never ever becomes irritating. This is amazing, I think, for a solid state player, maybe any player.
The Linn has excellent CD performance. It is somewhat forgiving of digititis and does so by smoothing to some degree that CD sound. You lose a smidgeon of detail, but gain oh so much in musicality. I noticed a bit less hiss on older analog transfers, and perhaps less crispness. I did not miss either. I tried so many CDs that I lost count, and enjoyed every single one. If you want a music-making machine, the Linn 2.1 is for you. It will make your CD collection serviceable for years to come—no small feat.
Its performance with DVD-A was the best yet. I own 16 DVD-As, including two 24/192 HDADs from Classic Records. Interestingly, the 2.1 sounded more neutral and detailed with DVD-A than it did with either of the other formats. The warmth was reduced, and the sense of clarity was superb. I'd buy more DVD-As if I owned this player. It was much better sounding than the Marantz DV 8400 or the Denon DVD 2200 in this format.
The 2.1's treble performance is smooth and luxurious. It is never ruffled by horns or shrill instruments. The snap and impact of the initial wave is a bit smoothed out, but the inner definition and color is first rate. Decay is very realistic. The Linn does not do glare, and this is quite a delight. When crisp is called for, it is there, but is less in-your-face and slightly beautified. Mids are lush, rich, detailed, and slightly sweet. The enjoyment factor is off the chart. I'd swear it had a couple of 12AX7 tubes under its bonnet. Backgrounds are not as black as with the best units, but it's very close. The height and width of big orchestral and jazz music is terrific. I was sitting a few rows further back from the performance than with my reference, but increasing the gain put me where I wanted to be. The bass is big and powerful enough to be very satisfying. I'd like a bit more grunt and slam, but that's just me. My preamp is set on only 4dB of gain, and my Eidolon speakers are lean. It might be just right in your system. The bass is very detailed, though a bit more crispness would be great on bass fiddles and the like. I found organ music very winning. The bass is just as attractive and musical as the mids, and seems to be cut from the same cloth.
The Linn 2.1 is like a Rolex. It has the prestigious brand image, great build quality, and superb sound, and it will perform exceptionally through many years of use. It is not state of the art, but it is a fantastic and desirable piece. It is an excellent performer with SACD and CD, and is truly superb on DVD-A. Its musicality is as fantastic as its build quality. It is richer and more lush than neutral, but it is oh-so-listenable and entertaining. You'll save a lot buying the 2.1 instead of the 1.1, and it may be all you ever need. If you want to own a Linn, with its time-honored reputation and highly musical performance, consider the Unidisk 2.1. It consistently honors the music. Robert H. Levi
Linn has made many outstanding products during the last three-plus decades. The LP-12 turntable, in its thirty-third year of production, is still considered by many to be the turntable against which others must be gauged. Or how about the Sondek CD-12, another fine example of Linn innovation, with its chassis machined out from a single piece of aluminum? Like many audiophiles, I have owned my share of Linn products, including a Mimik and my very own LP-12 with Valhalla power supply and Ittok IV arm. Despite the fact that my present turntable is more accurate, I still long for the romantic sound of the LP-12.
Several months ago, PFO Editor Dave Clark gave me the opportunity to listen to Linn's new universal digital player, the Unidisk 2.1. Knowing that my wife and I might be moving into a smaller home in which I would have to combine my two-channel audio system and my home theater system, I thought it would be a good idea to start looking at universal players. I suspected that such players would be jacks of all trades but masters of none, but I was interested in the Linn 2.1 after reading the stellar reviews of the 1.1. The 2.1 is a scaled-down version of the $12,000 1.1, at a more affordable $7495. This is not inexpensive, even by high-end audio standards, but it will be within reach for many more audiophiles than the 1.1. I believe that many will consider the 2.1 as a replacement for separate SACD, CD, and DVD players.
The 2.1, while stylish, does not draw attention to itself. I liked its simple yet functional styling, which went well with my Audio Research LS-25MKII and PH-5. Many digital front ends have more controls, lights, and buttons than the interior of a Cessna 210. I like my airplanes complex, but my electronic gear simple. The 2.1's front panel controls, though minimal, are all you really need. They include Open/Close, Play, Skip/Search, Pause, and Stop. The remote has enough buttons to satisfy the most demanding audio/videophile. If anything, I felt that it had too many buttons—some of which, including a power on and power off button, were not even functional. Although the remote had a "just right" feeling in my hand, I wished the buttons were illuminated so I could use it while watching movies.
I tried to quiz Linn's International Public Relations, Brian Morris, for more technical information on the 2.1, but while he was very cordial, he would only speak about the technology in general terms. I usually can't get manufacturers to slow down when they're talking about their products, but getting Brian to discuss what's under the hood of the 2.1 was difficult. Either it was British decorum or he was keeping corporate secrets. Wanting more information, I did an internet search, and found an Australian website (Michael D's Region 4 DVD Info Page) that reviews DVDs and home theater gear and publishes technical papers on audio and home theater topics. A review by Christina Tham gave me the information I was looking for, and I asked Christina if I could provide some of the data she had gathered for her article. Being the gracious person that she is (and a fan of PFO), she granted my request.
As you'd expect from a universal player, the Linn 2.1 can play just about every digital format, including Redbook CD, DVD, DVD-A, SACD, CD-R, CD-RW, and CD-R/RW (containing CD Audio, MPG, or JPEG files). How can a player decode all of these formats without compromise? It uses different digital chips for each form of digital decoding, including an ESS Vibratto Videodrive ES60338F universal DVD decoding chip and Sony transport chips like the CXD 3068 and BA5981FP. In addition, there are 4392KEP D/A converters, differential line receivers from Burr Brown INA2134UA BBOPA204AU, and BBOPA2604 op amps, also from Burr Brown. Although these are pretty good parts, they are not state of the art. Perhaps this is where some of the compromises were made.
Brian Morris told me that the differences between the 1.1 and the 2.1 were that the 2.1 used stepped-down technology in the digital master clock, the audio DACs, and various capacitors. On the other hand, the 2.1 and 1.1 use the same switching power supply, the same cool all-metal drawer (which is a part of the Linn-designed Silver Disk Engine™ transport mechanism), and the same video technology. Speaking of the transport mechanism, why did Linn go to the trouble and expense of creating their own when there are transports available from Sony/Philips, Pioneer, and Matsushita? The reason is that Linn is fanatical about correct pitch, lack of jitter, and freedom from internal and external vibration. Another key feature of the design is that once a disc has been read, the circuitry shuts down all areas of the DAC not related to the format in use, thereby eliminating digital noise. I am certain this has a lot to do with the 2.1's clarity, pace, and nearly non-existent noise floor. The build quality of the 2.1 is excellent. The glass circuit boards are uncluttered, with no hand soldering. Each of the three boards is connected to the others by high-quality ribbon cables. In addition, according to Chris Tham, "because of Linn's use of a switching power supply, voltage regulators are used extensively in the design…."
The back of the2.1 offers all of the input/output functions one could possibly want: (1) IEC input, (2) power switch, (3) SCART video out, (4) interlaced YPrb video out, (5) two composite video, (6) two S-Video, (7) progressive YPrPbHV video out, (8) DVI/HDCP video out, (9) eight line outputs, (10) balanced outputs L/R—2-channel only, (11) S/PDIF output, (12) TOSLINK digital out, (13) RS232 out/In—for remote use via a PC or touchscreen device, and (14) remote in/out for hooking up to a KNEKT system. I applaud Linn for providing low-level connections in BNC instead of RCA, as BNC offers a much tighter and more secure grip than most RCAs. On the other hand, Linn could have spent a little more money on the RCA jacks used for the line inputs. I would expect these connectors from a sub-$1000 unit, not one that sells for $7500. They sound very good, so this is probably a moot point. The 2.1's sturdy chassis seems to be free of any resonance. All in all, the Linn 2.1 is a serious, well built digital player.
After listening to the Linn 2.1 and comparing it to my analog front end (VPI Aries turntable with VPI SDS power supply, VPI JMW 10.5 tonearm, Benz Micro Ruby 2H cartridge, Audio Research PH-5 phono stage, Cardas Golden Reference cables) and my digital front end (Richard Kern-modified PS Audio Lambda II Special transport, Dodson 218 DAC, Audio Magic Clairvoyant SE S/PDIF cable), I was impressed by the Linn's ability to hold its own. From a strictly financial perspective, the 2.1's $7495 price tag doesn't look so bad compared to $20,000 for my electronics and cables. And I could play DVD-As, DVD-Vs, and SACDs, none of which could I play before.
One thing that stood out about the Linn 2.1 was its tendency to favor musicality over detail and precision, a characteristic I prefer. When I listen to players that favor detail and accuracy, I am impressed at first, but tend to return for long-term listening to sources that have a natural sense of ease. The Linn 2.1 is one such animal. "Don't Let No One Get You Down," from War's classic Why Can't We Be Friends? (Avenue Records ASR 10602-2) starts out center stage, just behind the speaker plane, with a gently fingered electric guitar followed by a multi-layered percussion section that picks up the pace of the tune and introduces War's layered vocals and exceptional brass section. The 2.1's natural warmth and musicality drew me into the performance. Though I have heard superior resolution from other digital sources, notes hung on longer, as they do when listening to vinyl.
A lot of musical sounding gear rolls off the high end. Though I do not have access to measuring tools, I assume that this is true about the 2.1 to some extent, but I never felt that it lacked detail. Rather, it had an airy, light, open treble. Never did the 2.1 sound etched or brittle, except on one occasion, when I listened to it with cables that were a bit on the bright side. Returning to my reference cables, the Cardas Golden Reference, CDs that had sounded brittle regained their natural warmth. So, like any piece of audio gear, the 2.1 can be affected by other items in the audio chain.
Comparing SACDs to Redbook CDs, I was not impressed with my SACDs, with a few exceptions. When I compared the SACDs of Diana Krall's The Look of Love (Verve 589 507-2) and Sonny Rollins' Way Out West (Fantasy CCD-7530SACD) to their Redbook counterparts, the CDs sounded great and the SACDs were only marginally better. One of the exceptions was Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (Capitol CDP 7743 S 82136 2). I compared the track "Speak to Me" on the SACD to the same track on my coveted MoFi CD, on my MoFi LP, and on domestic vinyl. The track starts with some Brit saying, "I've been mad for fucking years… absolute years." On every other copy of Dark Side, that statement was barely audible, but on the SACD, it was clear as a bell. It added a creepy ambience to the song, setting a tone of clear madness.
Another case in which the SACD beat the CD was Nickel Creek's This Side (Sugarhill SUG-SACD-3969). The first track, "Smoothie Song," is an acoustic jam led by Chris Thile on mandolin, accompanied by Sean Watkins on guitar and Sara Watkins playing the fiddle. On both the CD and the SACD, all of the instruments were precisely placed within the soundstage, with the mandolin stage left just behind and above my left speaker, the fiddle center stage but a bit behind the mandolin, and the guitar just behind and to the left of my right speaker. The imaging, focus, and soundstage were the same on both discs, but the SACD had the edge in inner detail, harmonics, and microdynamics. The SACD sounded more lively without sounding aggressive, which the CD occasionally does.
On the 2.1, DVD-As were consistently unbelievable. Never have I heard a digital source sound so much like analog. When listening to the DVD-A of Diana Krall'sThe Look of Love, the instruments sounded so realistic it was spooky. Even my wife noticed, and she rarely gets excited about audio. This time, she sat back and truly listened to the performance, and listened to the entire disc without reading a book or fidgeting. It's too bad that there are even fewer DVD-A titles than there are SACDs!
I'm told that the video quality of the 2.1 is among the best in the industry, but I was unable to confirm this, as my home theater system is more mid-fi than high-end. I am using a 42-inch Sony projection screen TV, which has a great picture for an older analog set, but is not progressive scan or HDTV capable. The rest of the system consists of Sony electronics and a set of Tannoy Mercury speakers, topped off with a pair of Hsu subwoofers. It's a fine system, but definitely not state-of-the-art. I played Star Wars: The Attack of the Clones (20th Century Fox 24543 05539 6) to see if there was any difference in sound or video quality. I used an interlaced connection via Audience Au24 video cables, with the digital information routed via an Audience Au24 S/PDIF cable to my Sony STR-V555ES surround receiver. The sound quality was about the same, leading me to think that the adage "Your system is only as good as its weakest link" was in operation. I did notice that the colors were more vivid and had deeper tonal qualities, giving me one of the best analog projection pictures I have seen.
Watching DVDs with the Linn was a gas, as the improved picture made the movie experience more intense and involving. Mind you, the differences were not so astounding that I wanted to run off and replace my $1200 Sony DVD player with the Linn. The limitations of my video system would require additional expense—say, a plasma screen and upgraded amplification. Nevertheless, if I owned a state-of-the-art video system, the 2.1 would be at the top of my list. When I stop obsessing over the two-channel system that has been my first love for over thirty years, maybe I can start paying more attention to my home theater system.
I had only one concern with the performance of the Linn 2.1, but it is one that can be easily fixed. The Silver Disc Engine had a hard time reading some discs, resulting in digital shutter during play. In almost all cases, this was resolved by turning the player off for about fifteen seconds, then turning it back on. When I contacted Linn in Florida about this, they told me that there were two software upgrades, available through any Linn dealer, that correct the problem.
Throughout many months of use, the Linn Unidisk 2.1 brought me great joy and a newfound respect and affection for universal players. Never did I think that a $7500 universal player could be a contender as the main source in my audio system. In spite of the fact that my PS Audio/Dodson setup bettered the 2.1 in almost every comparison (the few exceptions being some SACDs and all of the DVD-A discs I played on the Linn), the PS Audio/Dodson combo does not play SACDs, DVD-As, or, most importantly, DVD-Vs. With so many of us having to combine our two-channel systems and our home theater systems due to space constraints, using the 2.1 as a main source would avoid serious compromise and achieve damn near state-of-the-art performance. The Linn 2.1 will make a fine addition to any two-channel and/or home theater system. Jeff Parks