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Linn Majik DS-I Integrated Amplifier and Digital Stream Player Review

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Linn Majik DS-I Integrated Amplifier and music streamerLinn is a very well-known high-end audio company, but this is my first experience with any Linn product, so I started by doing some research about Linn. My first venture into its website was a bit like learning a new language. Linn loves to give its products creative names: Lingo, Radical, Akurate, Majik, etc., so I first had to sort them out. For purposes of this review, which is for a product that integrates power, preamplification, DACs and digital streaming, the top level products have the “Klimax” designation, the next level down has the “Akurate” designation, and the third level has the “Majik” designation. This three-tier system applies to the Linn DS (Digital Stream) players, which also have a fourth level of product (the “Sneaky”). Preamps and amps also use the Klimax/Akurate /Majik tiers. Linn’s integrated amp is in the Majik tier.

Lest you think that the “Majik” tier represents “midfi” and not “hifi”, based upon my experience with the Majik DS-I, let me assure you: Linn’s “Majik” level of products is definitely not “midfi”.

The Majik DS-I

So what do you get when you combine the Linn Majik-I integrated amplifier with the Linn Majik DS digital stream player? Why, the Majik DS-I, of course! So we have 100 watts per channel of 2-channel power, 5 analog inputs, including a quality moving-magnet phono stage, 6 digital inputs, DACs operating up to a 24/192 sample rate, upsampling, and the ability to play FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, AAC and MP3 audio formats. Whew! I’m exhausted from just listing the basic things it can do…

You can configure each of the five line-level analog inputs to a specific source by naming the input appropriately and adjusting the relative volume level to suit differing output levels. The six digital inputs consist of 3 coaxial SPDIF inputs and 3 Toslink inputs. There are also 2 digital outputs (one coax SPDIF and one Toslink) for recording. The Majik DS-I also sports a front-panel-mounted 3.5mm input jack which allows you to listen to your MP3 player through the Majik DS-I. Finally, the Majik DS-I can accept modules that make active operation possible with Linn’s own loudspeakers.

The DS-I’s amplification is based on Linn’s “Chakra” technology. In an email, Linn offers the following explanation of the technology:

“The CHAKRA topology we devised uses an array of large bi-polar transistors as ‘boosters’ around a single monolithic. This approach in itself is not a new idea, but Linn’s execution of the monolithic to bi-polar transition is truly unique, and a patent application for the design has been submitted. When output current is less than a few amps, all of the power output comes from the monolithic, maximising the speed and linear properties of this design. At higher output currents the bi-polars provide the majority of the output current, leaving the monolithic to operate well within its capability and so able to correct any error instantaneously.

Even under extreme overload conditions, like short circuit, the monolithic never delivers more than a fraction of its safe output, while separate circuitry protects the bi-polars. So with current output virtually unlimited, CHAKRA offers robust and powerful low-frequency response down to near DC. This is essential for the type of servo-controlled bass systems used throughout Linn’s highest performance loudspeaker systems and benefits will extend across all future iterations and applications of the CHAKRA topology. The new topology is also very compact, actually reducing the circuit area and signal path length compared to our previous best paralleled topology and it is also
highly efficient, running cooler than any previous Linn amplifier design.”

An oversimplification of the technology by me that, per Linn, is not exactly wrong, is offered in the following: a single chip-amp is used in combination with transistors that operate to boost power. At low volumes, the chip-amp provides all of the amplification. The transistors kick in as the volume level rises.

Looking at the DACs and related electronics, Linn indicates that it uses its own proprietary technology for clocking. It claims that its precision audio clock ensures complete timing accuracy that eliminates the need for any timing corrections. Linn also uses its own upsampling engine, which was important to me because I’ve generally found that I prefer upsampled digital music.

I operated the Linn Majik DS-I in three separate setups. In one of these I tested the DS-I primarily as an integrated amp, without using its Digital Streaming features and only giving its DACs a cursory evaluation. In the second I focused on the DS-I’s DACs, comparing them directly to two excellent high-end standalone DACs. In the third setup I focused on the DS-I’s Digital Streaming capabilities and its user interface.

Linn DS-I as an Integrated Amp

I first tested the Linn DS-I by substituting it for a Denon AVR 1705 receiver in one of my secondary systems. In this system, the sources were a DSS receiver and a modded Pioneer Elite DV-37 DVD player, and the speakers were a pair of inexpensive Polk T90e’s. I let it play for 72 straight hours before doing any listening, switching the sources between both digital and analog inputs. The DS-I easily bested the Denon as an amp/pre. The 100 wpc Chakra power supply, though rated at 20 amps less than the rating of the Denon, had more punch, more finesse, and was much cleaner in its presentation. The DS-I’s DACs were also vastly superior to the DACs of the Denon, the DSS and the DV-37.

You may very well ask why I would compare an integrated amp made by Linn, a very high-end audio manufacturer, with any receiver. Wouldn’t I expect it to be clearly superior? Sadly, that is not always the case. I have encountered some integrated amps whose sound is only marginally better than that of good receivers (Denon makes some pretty good receivers), and I personally see little reason to buy an integrated when you have a good receiver, unless the integrated’s performance is materially better than that of the receiver. In the case of the Linn DS-I, not only do you get a good integrated amp, but the DS-I’s excellent DACs up the performance improvements further by allowing you to route the digital outputs of average and even good CD players and get significantly improved performance. Furthermore, the availability of three coaxial SPDIF digital inputs lets you use the coax outputs of more than just one digital source. Many devices with digital inputs only have one coaxial SPDIF input, with the rest being the generally poorer toslink optical connections. I have often found it frustrating to have to choose which digital device to plug into a DAC’s lone coaxial input. No such problem with the Linn DS-I. All of my devices were able to use their superior coaxial SPDIF outputs to connect to the DS-I.

I’m not very familiar with too many integrated amps, so I’m not in a position to directly compare the DS-I as an integrated amp to other integrateds. However, I can definitely say that the sound was quite good on a purely subjective basis, with good liveliness, detail and punch. It is also a very clean presentation, with quiet backgrounds that allow subtle spatial cues to emerge.

OK, this is a good start, but what about a more stringent evaluation of the DS-I ‘s DACs?

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