Linn Unidisk SSC

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Linn Unidisk SSC
  • Expert Rating

    4.00 / 5

Pros

  • Well designed and attractive, high quality playback in wide range of formats

Cons

  • Expensive, no DVI or HDMI jacks for digital video

Bottom Line

If you are looking for unmatched audio and video playback, and can afford the asking price, this is a no-brainer.

Would you buy this?

We live in confusing times and few understand this better than the modern audiophile. Wander into your local specialist hi-fi emporium and you'll be dwarfed by enormous plasma screens, surrounded (quite literally) by boom 'n' tizz home theatre systems, and swamped by a plethora of boxes promising to deliver instant audio visual gratification.

Is that a furrow I see on your brow?

Wait! I haven't even mentioned Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD-A (DVD-Audio), the hi-res audio formats that beckon tantalisingly on the horizon. And what about hard disk audio servers, multi-room distribution, televisions that talk to your microwave...

Are you breaking out in a cold sweat yet?

If you're anything like me, there's a part of you that pines for the good old days, when all you had to worry about was buying a CD player, amp and two speakers, and connecting the whole lot together was child's play. Nowadays the manual often weighs as much as the component itself, while a PhD in User Interface is required just to get a product operational.

Simplicity, it seems, has been cast aside in the headlong rush to a supposed digital utopia. Is it any wonder that many audiophiles are retreating turtle-like into their shells, bunkering down with traditional hair shirt stereo rigs and "old fashioned" technologies like vinyl and valves?

The products of Scottish audiophile doyen Linn are found in many such systems of course, none more so than the Sondek LP12, the most famous audiophile turntable of all time. Yet for all its old-school reputation, Linn has been at the forefront of the digital revolution, embracing home theatre, multichannel and multi-room with a vengeance.

Of course, as a premium brand, Linn products rarely come cheap. But the Unidisk SC seems almost indecently reasonable, given that this stylish but unassuming silver box includes a universal disc player, a surround sound processor, and a full-function pre-amp. With such a comprehensive specification, the Unidisk SC has the potential to form the centrepiece of a truly minimalist high-end AV system--just add a power amp and speakers and you're in business. The great news is that despite its ambitious integration of form and function, the Unidisk SC is a stunning performer, delivering the AV goods in every department.

So what makes the Unidisk SC so good? At least part of the credit must go to Linn's proprietary "Silver Disk Engine" (SDE) technology, first developed for the much more expensive Linn Unidisk 1.1 (which is roughly twice the price). A joint development with Sony and ESS, the SDE is different from the majority of multiformat decoder/processor boards found in competing universal players in that it offers dedicated processing for SACD, DVD-Audio, CD and DVD-Video. But don't all universal players do this? Nope. It's a dirty little secret that the vast majority of today's universal players convert the DSD digital datastream of SACD to PCM before the signal is converted to an analog waveform. While this doesn't necessarily preclude SACD from sounding better than conventional CD (or DVD-A for that matter), every audiophile worth their salt knows that unnecessary signal conversion is to be avoided like the plague (it's worth noting that dedicated audio-only SACD players such as those from Sony and Marantz do not undergo this DSD to PCM conversion process).

Finished in a handsome matte silver, the Unidisk's front panel is a model of restrained elegance, with a large, easy-to-read display sitting below the centrally mounted disc drawer. As befits a product designed to seamlessly integrate into multichannel and multiroom systems, the Unidisk SC includes a host of connection options on its busy rear panel. There is a pair of IR (infrared) flasher connectors to allow control via the handset of auxiliary devices, RS232 ports for operating the unit via a PC or touch-screen device and connectivity options galore for hooking the Unidisk to a Linn Knekt multi-room system. DVI and HDMI digital video jacks are the single omission of note.

Running through the set up routines for video and multichannel audio was simplicity itself, the only operational quibble being an issue endemic to the DVD-Audio format. To access the various menus of a DVD-Audio disc you'll need to connect the Unidisk to a display--a pain in the proverbial if you're planning on using the Unidisk for audio only duties (and believe me, the Linn's performance is good enough that you should seriously consider it when contemplating the purchase of a source component and pre-amp on a $10K budget).

As I didn't have access to a multichannel speaker system during the review period, I was mainly interested in testing the Unidisk's mettle as a straight two-channel audio player. While that might seem perverse, I imagine a lot of people would share that interest. After all, here is a product that promises to deliver serious stereo sound in any format (CD, SACD, DVD-A), while offering the comfort of complete future proofing if and when you decide to head down the multichannel audio/video route.

So with my brief set, I slotted the Unidisk SC into several systems including various combinations of Viganoni & Viganoni Sachem monoblocks, a Linn AV 5125 multichannel power amp (used in stereo only), Totem Tabu and Image Revelation loudspeakers. Cabling included Kimber Silver Streak and Slinkylinks interconnects, while speaker cables were bi-wire sets of Nordost Red Dawn and Audioquest Granite.

Other than the Meridian 598, the Unidisk SC is the first DVD or universal disc player I've heard that can play CDs at close to reference standard. And the Meridian machine doesn't play SACDs, it can't act as a full-function surround sound processor and it doesn't include an integrated pre-amp, offering both source selection and volume control via remote control. The Unidisk SC does all these things and more.

However, regardless of whether you give a tinker's cuss about SACD and DVD-A, if you buy this player to spin your existing CD collection, you will not be disappointed. Connecting my regular CAL Delta/Alpha front end to the Unidisk's auxiliary RCA inputs allowed me to make a direct comparison between the straight CD performance of both players. Guess what? The Unidisk won--no mean feat, given that apart from the aforementioned Meridian, I've yet to hear a DVD or universal player that gets within spitting distance of the performance of my seven-year old CD playing front end.

Playing Jeff Buckley's 'Last Goodbye' on the Unidisk, it was easier to follow the passage of the string section as it weaved its way through the course of the song. This trait--the ability to follow individual threads within the music without losing sight of the whole--revealed itself time after time on a wide variety of music. Put that down to excellent transparency and tonal accuracy--the ability to distinguish between the often subtle differences between the tones of instruments playing at the same pitch.

Detail retrieval was superb and the treble pure and non-fatiguing, although with a hint of the "dryness" that is often cited as a Linn characteristic. The only caveat of note with CD playback concerned dynamic performance, which occasionally sounded a little sat upon, lacking that last degree of impact and "slam".

Moving on to the stereo SACD layer of Aimee Mann's Lost In Space (MoFi), the soundstage took on epic proportions. The treated guitars on 'Real Bad News' emerged from the left speaker and proceeded to move forward into the room and wrap themselves around my head in a neat little pseudo-surround sound trick that had me wondering whether someone had sneaked into my listening room and added extra rear channel speakers while I wasn't watching. Perhaps because of its native DSD decoding, the lift in sound quality between the CD and SACD layers of various hybrid discs was more pronounced than I've heard on other universal players. Whatever the reason, SACD playback was in another league to the already excellent CD playback. It was the same story with DVD-A, the 24-bit/48kHz program on REM's Automatic For The People scoring a clear points victory over the standard issue CD.

For DVD-Video playback, I connected the Linn to my Philips PW8807 32" widescreen television via an IXOS S-Video to SCART cable. I know what you're thinking--an S-Video connection to a smallish CRT TV is unlikely to be a typical real-world scenario for the Linn player. No arguments from me there. To be honest I wasn't expecting to see much (if any) improvement in picture quality over my $300 Sony DVD player, thinking that the limitations of S-Video and the television would act as something of a leveler. Wrong. The picture was vastly superior to the Sony player in every parameter imaginable. Blacks were blacker, shadow details more readily discernable, colours more lifelike, digital artefacts non-existent. I shudder to think how the Linn would perform if set free via its component video outputs into, say, the Marantz VP12S3.

Call me contrary, but given my leaning towards the "A" part of the "AV" equation, the fact that the Unidisk SC also offers superb DVD-Video playback and enough surround sound processing power to juice your local multiplex is just the icing on an already impressive cake. What this brilliant all-round performance means is that if movies matter as much to you as music--and you can afford the asking price--then the Unidisk SC is a no-brainer. Equally, if you've got the readies, and are looking to upgrade your existing source component for a future proofed, one-stop disc playing shop that also does away with the need for a separate pre-amp, then the Unidisk SC is a must-audition. A simpler life then? I reckon.

Struggling for Christmas presents this year? Check out our Christmas Gift Guide for some top tech suggestions and more.

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