Strange that Linn products – the company so anti-digital, it used to have people remove digital watches when auditioning its equipment – has ended up at the forefront of the next gen audiophile movement. Or perhaps it’s not so strange; Linn’s position has long been one that considered CD something of a ‘fad’, and the move from disc-based to streaming-based digital audio is a reflection of that.
The Majik DS-I is key to that digital future. It essentially combines two of Linn’s entry-point products – the Majik DS digital streamer/renderer and the Majik I integrated amp – in one.
In simple terms, the Majik DS-I is a 2x90W (into four ohms) integrated amplifier – with all the usual trimmings such as analogue and digital inputs and outputs, multi-room zoning, a headphone socket and even a MM phono board. Linn loves naming things, so the monolithic amplifier ‘boosted’ by bipolar transistors circuit becomes the Chakra amp and the switching power supply is Brilliant. The renderer part is an custom made upsampling DAC working to 24-bit, 192kHz precision. It’s an elegant and discrete devices in the listening room, the perfect antithesis to a wall of boxes.
Streaming audio is a networked digital audio solution, as opposed to the more straightforward computer-to-DAC option commonly put about. At its most basic, a streaming solution demands an UPnP (Universal Plug ‘n’ Play) Network Attached Storage device (to hold all your recordings), the renderer and ideally a control device (a laptop, computer, PDA or smartphone) all working off a network. This means more futzing around with network cables and typing static IP addresses into routers than simply plugging a USB cable between a computer and your audio system, but it does make for a very robust system. It also means a lot of equipment in your system can be made to disappear to another room, or even a store cupboard.
A number of audio companies – from Squeezeboxes to music servers – are going down the networked route because of this robustness (the packetized data of networked audio also effectively side-steps the whole audio jitter problem). To its great credit, Linn’s Linndocs website does list a thoroughly tested step-by-step methodology to create a dedicated music subnetwork that runs alongside your regular home computer or computer network. It’s a belt-and-braces approach that can end up with a user having a lot of network products in their system – and the recommended use of homeplugs sending network data packets along the home power lines will send shivers down the cables of those seeking the purest possible AC – but it works. The list of NAS boxes recommended by Linn is short and specialised, but this is down to the use of Twonky as server thinning out the pack.
Linn has gone ‘open source’ with its DS line. This means although it has its own set of Kinsky programs to control, you are not forced to use these programs and – if you are an able enough programmer – you could customise or improve Linn’s own program suite. Or write your own. You could even use Linn’s KinskyDesktop as your music control point for a different computer audio solution, although I suspect that’s not going to be a popular choice, because – although improved over early iterations – it’s still something of a weak link, next to J River or MediaMonkey.
Linn’s going ‘open’ also means it isn’t locked into a proprietary backwater. It uses standard Ethernet, line-level analogue or coaxial/optical digital audio connections, and runs on UPnP and Linn recommends ripping to FLAC (free lossless audio coder). The only real limit is the problem of DRM-tagged recordings, but this is not a problem unique to Linn. Digital Rights Managed tracks are ‘difficult’ (a polite version of ‘impossible’) to use in a client-server distributed system, because they are effectively ‘locked’ to a single device.
The DS option is principally – but not exclusively – PC based. The DS system will recognise Apple Lossless files and much of the architecture will run alongside and under Mac systems (using the Safari browser and the Bonjour ‘handshaking’ program), but configuration and updates still require a PC running Linn’s Konfig (there is a Mac version, but it’s buggy).
In short, there’s not much that the Linn DS system can’t do with software of hardware, thanks to a kanny bunch of Linnthusiasts, while will come up with a workaround at an alarming pace. However, working in the way Linn intended works best for the purposes of a review of the Majik DS-I. I used it with a RipNas acting as both CD ripper and network storage, with both products – and a D-Link DWL-3200AP wireless access point - connected to a Netgear FS108 ethernet switch, which was itself hooked to a Netgear RP614 router. This acted as a complete subnetwork that then latched on to my internet router, leaving my existing wired-and-wi-fi home computer network both unaffected by and unable to access the music server. The RipNas rips CDs using dbpoweramp, a very able and fully automated program that allows Accurate Rip checking of each CD stored on the system. The Majik DS-I could control what music was played from its front panel, but the scrolling display would make working through a large music collection difficult in the extreme. Controlling the server through either a PC laptop (running KinskyDesktop) or my iPhone (through the PlugPlayer app) was the better way of navigating things.
Linn also provided a pair of Majik 109 standmount speakers, stands and a short set of Linn K20 speaker cable to show what an all-Majik system might sound like. I also used the system with a range of loudspeakers, and the Spendor S9 floorstanders and the Majik DS-I in particular lived together in a very happy place.
Here’s the thing. If the world of NAS boxes and Ethernet Switches leaves you confused and in a cold sweat, read the Linndocs site. If it still leaves you panicked, call for help. The wrong thing to do would be to dismiss this out of hand, because the end result is an extremely capable music replay system. Moreover, once all the network boxes are hidden away in a cupboard, the end result is paradoxically less boxes in the living room.
There are two main ways of accessing music through the DS system; music stored on your NAS box (whether that’s from existing ripped CDs or downloaded tracks from internet music sites) or streamed content direct from the internet, such as digital radio stations. Linn does both well, and they all show up exactly what the Linn system is capable of. Linn’s internet radio stations are essentially there to show off Linn Records catalog and do the job well.
The internet radio player is extremely competent, although I was suffering an exceptionally fragile broadband connection for some of the listening period (thanks, BT) and this ended in periodic drop-outs, especially at peak net-surfing time on the same contended broadband line. While horribly frustrating, it demonstrated that the quality of the signal didn’t degrade, it was just like someone playing with the pause button. This is actually a good thing; the fade in and fade out is a lot less aggressive than sudden moments of punctuation potentially damaging drive units. The Linn Majik DS-I was about as good with internet radio as I’ve heard to date; virtually CD quality with the best channels, increasingly degraded as you get into the cheap seats. There are some remarkable gems out there though; Linn’s own high-quality stations among them.
Then there’s the quality of the sound from the NAS. I am not a major supporter of the ‘CDs sound better when ripped and stored’ school of thought, but the Linn Majik DS-I does make a strong argument for that. Certainly as a two-and-a-half grand package, I’d struggle to find a CD and amp that significantly better the overall performance. It’s a ‘dry’ sound, with neither the lush mids of valve amps or the forward mids and tops of solid state to get in the way of the performance. All of which is a polite way of saying “sayonara Squeezebox”. And I suspect that for a significant number of newcomers to our little audiophile clique, this and a pair of Majik 109 speakers will be all they need to discover the joys of music in the home.
It’s hard not to sound a bit nerdy when discussing the whole DS concept. And, in all fairness, that nerdy part could read ‘unstintingly daunting’ to someone used to a more 20th Century interpretation of technology. This can sometimes mask the benefits of a DS system – name a conventional hi-fi system that can let you access every piece of music you own in a second, has potential access to the whole musical canon from online sources and even wake you up in the morning without a fuss? Ultimately, UPnP streaming is likely to be the way you will be playing your music tomorrow. Linn just lets you get with the programme today.
SPECS & PRICING
Linn Majik DS-I Integrated amp/digital streamer
Supported file types: FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, AAC, MP3
Audio sample rates: 7.35-192kHz
Word depths: 16-24 bits
Control protocol Compatible with UPnP™ media servers,
UPnP™ AV 1.0 control points
Back Panel Connectors:
Line inputs (1 to 4) RCA phono (Input 4 MM/Line)
Aux input (front) 3.5 mm stereo jack
Tape/Zone output RCA phono (pre-volume control)
Line out (L+R) RCA phono (post-volume control)
Headphone (front) 3.5 mm stereo jack (post-volume control)
SPDIF In RCA phono
Optical In TOSLINK
SPDIF Out RCA phono
Optical Out TOSLINK
Ethernet 100Base-T RJ45
RS232 (1 & 3) RJ11
IR Flasher 3.5 mm jack (x2)
Speaker outputs: 4 mm banana/binding post/spade
Power output: 90 W RMS per channel into 4 Ω
THD+N: < 0.015% (1 kHz, 1 W RMS into 4 Ω)
Dynamic range: > 120 dB
Signal to noise ratio: > 115 dB
Dimensions (HxWxD): 8x38.1x35.5cm (without feet)
Weight: 4.9 kg
Manufactured by Linn Products
+44 (0) 141 307 7777