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Linnenberg Elektronik Vicace 2 and Unisono

07-26-2016 | By Wojciech Pacuła | Issue 87

Linnenberg Elektronik offers thousands of products and most of them come from the Far East. China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan quickly conquered a market segment that seemed to be reserved for DIY products. DACs designed to work with computers as sources and matching headphone amplifiers seemed at first out of place on audio market. Why? Because they were cheap and no big brand imagined that they could prepare a decent product in a competitive price.

Today most audio manufacturers offer such products, from Sony to Denon, from Furutech (sold under ADL brand) to OPPO. Later also audiophile companies decided to make use of this trend, and some of them were founded as a response to markets demand with Schiit Audio, or  Linnenberg Elektronik being nice examples. And the latter were not particularly interested in selling their products at lowest possible price level. Or maybe they did want to offer reasonable priced products but to achieve that they tried to miniaturize their products instead of using cheep elements inside. They can't really lower the price using so called 'effect of a scale', as they don't sell quantities big enough, so they use smart saving such as clever enclosure designs and such. Inside though, one finds an advanced electronic circuits and high quality components.

Linnenberg Vicace 2 and Unisono

VIVACE 2 | UNISONO

Linnenberg Elektronik was founded in 1994 and led by an engineer, Ivo Linnenberg. It is a representative of above mentioned generation of firms. Back in a day focused on classic components, such as amplifiers and CD Players, today it offers only D/A Converter Vivace 2, headphone amplifier Maestro and two power supplies—smaller called Legato and bigger one, Unisono. Both DAC and headphone amp require external power supplies.

Vivace 2 is a very modern device—not just a DAC but also a preamplifier. It features four digital inputs, with USB being the prime one. This one accept PCM signal up to 384kHz and DSD512 (Quad DSD). The others accept PCM up to 24/192. DAC features also volume control and it delivers a high output signal—up to 8 V for  XLR and up to 4 V for RCA.

It is powered with Legato or Unisono; for this test we received the latter. It feature an enclosure of the same dimensions as Vivace 2 and it connects to DAC with a multi-strand umbilical. All devices look solid, nice and are user-friendly. Volume level might be controlled using an Apple remote; it is not delivered with DAC—one has to buy it oneself, it costs around 30 EUR.

Linnenberg Vicace 2 and Unisono

A few simple words…

Ivo Linnenberg

Owner, designer

WOJCIECH PACUŁA: How does your DAC differ from other ones?

IVO LINNENBERG: I think there are many differences to competitive products. First, we employ only the highest quality parts, usually certified for medical and demanding industrial applications. The ubiquitous voltage regulators for instance: ours (sourced from leading manufacturer Linear Technology) cost around 4 - 6 Euros compared to 30 cents parts usually employed. All resistors are 0,1% and 1% Beyschlag metal film, capacitors are sourced from WIMA to name but a few. The circuit design itself benefits from more than 20 years experience in digital audio. Every section of the DAC (power supply, USB transceiver, S/PDIF receiver, DAC stage, clocks, volume control, etc.) is designed with meticulous care. Take for instance the USB input. We use the same Amanero software, as many others (Gryphon, Yulong, Clones Audio, …) do, but we make our own hardware. This gives us the possibility to make it real special in employing a double slave structure. Take for instance the volume control. Nearly all of the competitors use the on chip volume control of the ES9018S DAC chip. We use a combination of analog attenuators for coarse control and the digital volume control for fine adjustment. The digital attenuation never joins in for more than 6dB. Such a low attenuation shows completely no losses—in real world, not just mathematical.

What was your goal when designing  Vivace 2?

Tell you the truth? It was always my intention to build something that suited my own requirements and needs. I can't stand having mediocre gear in my living room. Nevertheless, it is a commercial product. As such, my goal was to offer a prospective customer a product with an superior quality for a reasonable price. I always try to fit in as much technology as it is financially feasible. Sometimes I leave the region of ample margins. As I am not financially driven, I am free to do so. I am happy when a customer is happy – not when my bank account looks nice.

How does Unisono improve Vivace 2's performance?

Generally, the UNISONO improves bass performance and image stability. Nonetheless, the difference between the standard LEGATO and UNISONO is relatively small as long as your mains is stable and clean. The integrated mains filter in the UNISONO compensates for almost everything.

Tell me a few words about you and your company.

It is the old story of a young boy building his own equipment due to the fact that there is little money but high quality demands. In my case, besides amplifier and speaker it was FM Stereo Tuner that filled my leisure time. Why FM Tuner? Because sound was not bad at all (compressing was unknown) and buying the latest records was out of reach these days. We are talking about 1980 or something. After finishing university studies in electrical engineering, I founded my first company in 1994. Besides jobs for the mechanical engineering industry, I always offered audio gear. That's what I do until today; and I am still having fun with it.

What are plans for future?

Continue the work. At the moment I am working on a pair of mono amps because so many of our old customers asked for something new.

Linnenberg Vicace 2 and Unisono

SOUND

Recordings used for the test (a selection)

Compact Disc

  • America, Hearts, Warner Bros. Records/Audio Fidelity AFZ5 231, SACD/CD (1975/2016)
  • Billie Holiday, Body and Soul, PolyGram/Mobile Fidelity UDCD 658, gold-CD (1957/1996)
  • Ella Fitzgerald, Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie!, Verve/Victor Entertainment VICJ-011-4052, XRCD24 (1961/2008)
  • John Coltrane, Coltrane's Sound, Atlantic/Rhino R2 75588, CD (1964/1999)
  • Sonny Clark, Cool Struttin', Blue Note/Esoteric ESSB-90124, SACD/CD (1957/2015) w: 6 Great Jazz, "MasterSound Works", Blue Note/Esoteric ESSB-90122/7, 6 x SACD/CD
  • Tame Impala, Currents, Universal Music Australia/Hostess 4730676J, CD (2015)
  • The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main St., Atlantic/Universal Music Company (Japan) UICY-40001, Platinum SHM-CD (1972/2013)
  • Wolfgang Dauner Quintet, The Oimels, MPS/Long Hair LHC59, CD (1969/2008)

Music files

  • Opus3 DSD Showcase no1 (2xDSD), Opus3, DSD128
  • Billie Holiday, Body and Soul, Verve, DSD
  • Bauckholt, Ich muß mit Dir reden, 2L, 24/352,8 WAV
  • Dead Can Dance, Into The Labyrinth, 4AD/Mobile Fidelity, DSD
  • Dire Straits, Brothers In Arms, Vertigo Records, DSD
  • Fleetwood Mac, Tango In The Night, Warner Bros., 24/192 FLAC
  • John Coltrane, Blue Train, Blue Note/Analogue Productions, 24/192 WAV
  • Lars Danielsson & Leszek Możdżer, Pasodoble, ACT Music + Vicion, 24/88,2 WAV
  • Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin, Atlantic Records, 24/96 FLAC

While reading reviews of many different D/A Converters and music servers (mostly those in English) I often stumble across tests conducted with, in my opinion, strange assumption in mind. Namely people behind these test assume that 16/44 files (so red book CD standard) are somehow inferior to hi-res ones and only the latter allow the device under review to spread its wings.

I hope that everyone who thinks alike will forgive me, but I'd like to point out how absurd such thinking is! If particular device can't perform well with CD quality files, or it delivers a different (inferior) performance compared to that with hi-res it means that there is something wrong with it. If it starts to deliver decent performance only when playing hi-res files, forget about it. Because what does it mean that “plays" only with 24/96 files? Only that it needs much more (bits of) information to deliver decent performance. In my opinion a high quality device must deliver good performance also with a 16/44 signal. Just as Vivace 2 powered with  Maestro, does.

Linnenberg Vicace 2 and Unisono

I begin each of my DAC reviews with connecting a digital output of my Ancient Audio Lektor AIR V-edition CD Player featuring Philips CD Pro2LF transport mechanism, to this DAC's input. In this particular case I also used Vitus Audio SCD-025's digital output as a source (it features the same CD transport but modified and applied in a different way).

Compact Disc

Mr Linnenberg's DAC receiving such signal offers a sensual, 'delicate' sound. Such a sound character is quite rare among DACs meant to work with computer as a source. Usually it tends to be very selective, with high dynamics and very rich, 'heavy'. In this way even small, active speakers fed with such signal might sound like a larger, floorstanding ones.

Vivace 2 was designed, I mean I think it was, to be a part of a classic stereo setup for a real music lover or an audiophile, although rather for the former than latter (I will elaborate on that in a moment).

Namely there is nothing 'catchy' about this sound, nothing falsely impressive. This performance seems rather soft, natural, one might even say - organic. There is not too much energy in the upper treble and lower bass areas. I might risk saying that the key element of this presentation is midrange, but it's not entirely true as it's not about as 'midrange focused' sound as the one of Vitus Audio, or Chartwell LS3/5 loudspeakers (you can find this review in the same High Fidelity issue).

What makes listener focus on midrange is that instruments and vocals that are 'based' in this part of the range are delivered in a very clean, soft way. This 'clarity' is surely not 'clinical', nor 'cold', but it brings a cozy, fresh smelling home to mind. I hope you know what I mean—the former connotation makes most of us want to run away and the latter triggers an opposite reaction.

Linnenberg Vicace 2 and Unisono

And that's how I would describe this sound. Many audiophiles won't like it, and by audiophiles I mean music fans that consider technical aspects of presentation to be more important than musical ones. They won't be satisfied because dynamics won't be that great, they won't find the level of precision and selectivity to their liking. Plus both range extremes just support the presentation and don't have a 'decisive voice' that could impose sonic character to the whole presentation.

Music files

Moving to listening to music files proved that a high quality CD Transport is irreplaceable. Although I use the  Jplay software player, installed and optimized by one of its creators, Marcin Ostapowicz, the German DAC was not able to offer a different impression than any other DAC I'd tested before in such setup: files carefully ripped from CD, played via  high quality USB cable, are always outperformed by the sound played directly from the CD. Why is it so? I don't know—that's how I hear that.

On the other hand this performance wasn't bad, wasn't bad at all. Vivace 2 delivered nice performance with large vocals in the middle, if they were recorded this way, and with lot of other things going on on both sides. Although DAC tends to present its own sonic character focusing listener's attention on what's in front of him, where most things happen on stage.

And only now it makes sense to say that hi-res files, in particular 192kHz, DXD and DSD ones, are interesting. These, in my opinion, still can achieve quite the same, high level, as provided by high quality CD Players, but in some aspects they are able to offer a lot! Sound becomes richer, instruments fuller, more three-dimensional, with a decay phase presented in a better way. Sound is more "present" more palpable even though front layer in not pushed forward towards the listener.

I don't have any files in DSD format higher than DSD128 and only few DXD ones. The latter are available from  2L label and also from my friend, Rene Lafflame, who runs 2 x HD. He offered me some high quality recordings with material coming from Naxos (and other labels). And these sound best. I started this text complaining about those who didn't appreciate 16/44 files and I'm ending it praising hi-res ones—what can I do? But I do mention hi-res files NOT to prove that only with them Vivace 2 delivers good performance and with others it doesn't. Simply it is a device transparent enough to present such differences clearly and allows user to appreciate a material of better quality. It does it better when playing loud rather than when playing quietly but it's not a huge difference. When it plays quietly in the background it's not so dynamic. Pump the volume up and everything will go back to normal.

Linnenberg Vicace 2 and Unisono

Summary

Vivace 2 is not just a DAC a a complete preamplifier too. All one has to do is to pair it with power amplifier, a music server with USB output or with a decent computer to play music files from, and it will be enough to constitute a decent, minimalist, involving stereo system. Don't expect friend to be particularly impressed if they visit you for a short time only, as it's that king of audio design that requires some time before it convinces listener of its true value.

Give it some time and attention, support it with good quality power cable, decent digital cables, place it on some nicely anti-vibration feet, and maybe use some RF filter such as, for example, Verictum X Block, and it will prove to you that it is worth your effort. Not because without all these elements this German system is unable to deliver a good performance but because it belongs to that sort of devices that induce trust and that are worth being treated well.

DESIGN

Both Linnenberg devices feature same size aluminum enclosures with flat front panels. Such a 'unification' allows 'cost optimization'—lowering production costs of enclosures for multiple devices (and, as you probably know, enclosure constitutes quit a large chunk of device's costs). These are solid, good looking devices even though they are not that different from thousands of products made in Far East. Maybe there is something to them that tells us that these are reliable products made by a reliable manufacturer. Both products are supported with rubber semi-spherical feet—something one finds in many products from this price range, but user should think about using some high quality anti-vibration feet. For this purpose I used Hickory wood cubes made by Acoustic Revive. To fix these cubes to the device and to the surface I placed it on I used Blu-tac.

UNISONO

The power supply features no manipulators, it's front panel is empty. Back panel sports just IEC socket, mechanical on/off switch, and there is a thin, flexible cable terminated with a solid, medical-grade, four-pin plug that goes to the DAC.

PS is based on mid-size toroidal transformer made by German company Block, that is bolted to the bottom of PS' enclosure. It has two secondary windings that seem to work in parallel. Below there are six smoothing capacitors, and Hexfet International Rectifier transistors. From them two separate power supply runs start. As the designer said, only a discrete circuit guaranties proper sound quality. Next to the power inlet there are two large  Epcos filters.

VIVACE 2

Enclosure is made of ready modules—they need to be cut to required length and then front and rear panel have to be bolted to it. These are small, though important elements for product's perception. Linnenberg's design seem simplistic, but due to the precision of its making it looks really good. The designer decided to use DSD logo, that looks really good, and I wish they used also another, good looking one—the DXD.

Front and rear panels

Front features several small LEDs in different colors, volume control knob and small toggle switches. LEDs inform user about device's status: blue indicates that Vivace 2 is on, and orange one and two green one indicate synchronization with input signal. Orange is on each time when one of inputs receives PCM signal (Pulse-Code Modulation, this sort of signal comes from CD and files of the same quality) and LPCM (Linear Pulse-Code Modulation, this sort of signal comes from DVD-A, Blu-ray and hi-res files). Green turns additionally on when  DXD - Digital eXtreme Definition—is received). It's also a PCM signal, created for DSD signal processing. It is a 24-bit and 352,8 kHz (8 x CD sampling frequency) signal. This LED is on only when such signal is received on input. When it's 384kHz green LED stays off.

Linnenberg Vicace 2 and Unisono

Volume control knob looks like it was taken straight from 1970ties, form Mark Levinson's preamplifiers or Sansui amps made back then. There are red LEDs around the knob that indicate volume level. Although there are not that many of them, much less than in older Cyrus Audio amplifiers for example, that were made before amplifiers were equipped with displays. Yet, there are enough of them to give you an idea about how far up the scale the knob is. Toggle switches are used to turn the device on, to select an input and to activate USB input; the latter overrides other selections.

Linnenberg Vicace 2 and Unisono

The rear panel accommodates lot of connectors. There are four digital inputs: 2 x S/PDIF (using RCA sockets, one AES/EBU (XLR) and one USB. All connectors are gold-plated and come from Neutrik.

Interior

There are three PCBs inside. Atmel and Xilinx chips work in USB input. They use a separate, precise oscillator and separate voltage regulators. Burr Brown DIX9211 receiver is employed for other digital inputs. There are two more oscillators, a separate one for 44,1 frequency and other one for 48 kHz. These are master clocks that synchronize all others.

D/A Converter circuit sits on a separate PCB. It is built around ESS Sabre ES9018S chip. The chip feature 8 channels that might be combined into stereo mode to lower distortion and quantum errors. It's a 32-bit chip and it features two digital filters allowing a designer using it for his device to choose between them.

Linnenberg Vicace 2 and Unisono

Linnenberg Vicace 2 and Unisono

Linnenberg Vicace 2 and Unisono

Linnenberg Vicace 2 and Unisono

All sections following the DAC one are based on integrated circuits: I/U conversion is performed by LT502, there are no visible markings of few other ones, and there is one marked as LT522 working in the output stage.  Circuits are made using SMD method, except for capacitors working in a filter—these are polypropylene Wima ones. A separate PCB holds outputs. It features high quality Analog Devices chips and more Wima capacitors.

Volume control is executed via a small rotary pot—but in fact that's just an encoder. Mr Linenberg developed his own solution combining analogue volume control with a digital one. Initial adjustment is performed by an attenuator based on resistors with only one resistor in signal path at each time. Between 'steps' a precise adjustment is performed by a digital circuit. Since these are 6dB steps loss in resolution is very low.

Near the front panel I spotted 6 filtering capacitors of the same kind as these working in power supply section. Looking at the design one has to conclude that high quality power supply was one of designer's priorities as each section is powered separately via regulators and filters.

Remote

The device uses a particularly sleek remote—a one that comes from Apple. It's a simple, though very good solution.

Specifications (according to the manufacturer)

  • Sampling frequency: USB: 16, 24, 32 bits; 44,1, 48, 88,2, 96, 176,4, 192, 352,8, 384 kHz/PCM | DSD64 (2,8224 MHz), DSD128 (5,6448 MHz)/DoP, DSD256 and DSD512/ASIO, S/PDIF + AES/EBU: 16, 24, 32 bits; 44,1, 48, 88,2, 96, 176,4, 192 kHz
  • Master clock jitter: 82 fs
  • Frequency response: DC – 24 kHz, +0,1 dB/-0,5dB, DC – 70 kHz, -3 dB/192 kHz
  • Distortion and noise: <0,0003% (10 Hz – 20 kHz/0 dB)
  • Dynamics range: 136dB
  • Crosstalk: 120 dB/20 kHz
  • Output level (RCA | XLR): 0- 4 V rms | 0-8 V rms
  • Output impedance (RCA | XLR): 100 Ω | 200 Ω
  • Power consumption: 8 W (max), < 0,5 W (turned off)
  • Dimensions: (H x W x D): 60 x 170 x 230 mm  

Digital-to-Analogue Converter/preamplifier

Linnenberg

VIVACE 2 | UNISONO

Price (when reviewed):

2690 EUR (incl. 19% VAT)

1090 EUR (incl. 19% VAT)

LINNENBERG ELEKTRONIK

Eintrachtstrasse 45

58239 Schwerte | Germany

www.linnenberg-audio.de

MADE IN GERMANY

Text: Wojciech Pacuła

Images: Wojciech Pacuła

Translation: Marek Dyba

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