Linn Unidisk 1.1 Universal Disc Player 
Home Theater Audio Sources DVD-Audio/SACD Players
Written by Tim Hart   
Saturday, 01 October 2005

The world of ultra-high-end audio has had to adjust their business model quite a bit over the last decade. With technology developing in new and exciting ways, equipment manufacturers clamored to produce real-world digital products that would support the new emerging software formats when, historically, high-end audio was an industry based around excellence more in analog (preamps, amps, speakers, turntables) products. While most of the high-end equipment manufacturers steered clear of machines that supported future and uncertain formats, Linn Products, a company known for taking bold and adventurous steps in the name of uncompromised sound, took new audio formats for music and movies as a challenge. Not surprising, considering that Linn produced and sold, very successfully I might add, one of the world’s best and most expensive dedicated CD player at $20,000.

Linn’s solution to the ever-growing need for a universal high-end player, which can unite all aspects of optical disc playback, is the Unidisk 1.1 universal player, priced at $10,995.

At the heart of the Unidisk 1.1 is the Silverdisk Engine, the digital brains of the Unidisk product line, which gives the player universal disc recognition. This includes CD, CD-R, CD-RW, Video CD, SVCD, DVD-Video and DVD-Audio, DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, DVD+RW, SACD, DTS CDs, and even copy-protected MP3, MPEG2 and JPEG discs. The Linn Silverdisk Engine turns off the circuitry not required for that particular format, maintaining a clean signal path for each decoding scheme, all in the digital domain. The analog section shares no common component of the digital side, keeping both signal paths unadulterated. This is where most universal players get into trouble. CD performance on these units tends to be the last in the food chain in my experience.

The Unidisk 1.1 does not have bass management or a proprietary digital link to connect to the intended Linn Kisto System Controller. Linn obviously chose to stay in the analog realm, where they excel. In many ways, I have to agree with the decision. There is also the fact that the Unidisk 1.1 was designed as an interlocking pair and it probably didn’t make engineering sense to have bass management on both products. I will get into greater specifics of that topic in my upcoming review of the Linn Kisto.

The 10-and-three-quarter-pound Unidisk 1.1 is a similar size to other components in the Linn line. At three-and-one-eighth inches in height, 15 inches in width, and 14-and-a-half inches deep, this sleek package fits easily into any rack. Close inspection reveals an elegant-looking, beautifully finished chassis that comes in black or, like the review sample, in silver. The uncluttered front panel is dominated by a large rectangular blue display that automatically dims when the lights are lowered, a very cool feature. The display is bracketed by three buttons in a triangular array on the left and right side of the display. The buttons on the left are for tray open and close, skip forward and reverse. The buttons to the right are for play, fast forward and reverse. Above the display is the thin disk tray that operates with silent jewel precision. The fit and finish is superb and the unit is solid-feeling and sturdy on its feet.

The back panel has an array of audio and video connection options, as well as the power switch, which I never turned off except to get into the set-up options. Along with a SCART video connector, there are both interlaced and progressive component video outputs, as well as RGBHV for older video displays, such as my Sony CRT projector.

I offer a heads-up here, as these connections are BNC, not RCA. This required that I use a BNC to RCA adapter for the component connection to my Anthem AVM30. I would prefer to use the correct video cable, but time dictated otherwise.

The remaining connections are the requisite DVI/HDCP video connector, two sets of S-Video and composite connections, two RCA remote connections for communication between other Linn components, bi-directional RS232 ports, a Toslink and S/PDIF connection that are assignable and defeatable, a stereo pair of balanced and unbalanced connections, and RCA multi-channel line outputs for SACD, DVD-Audio and video.

The OSD for the Unidisk 1.1 is very straightforward and easy to navigate. What might be unclear are the settings necessary in order for the Unidisk 1.1 to provide the correct signal to the rest of your gear. The Unidisk 1.1 is extremely flexible. The general set-up will let you set the OSD language, the aspect ratio you want, the output signal in either interlace, progressive or HDCP, and even what type of connection to use for and interlaced signal, either RGB or YPrPb. The audio set-up determines the parameters for the S/PDIF output, channel set-up in either two-channel or 5.1, and even a setting called Midnight Movie to reduce the gain for those times when you might disturb the rest of the house with explosions and such. Progressive scan set-up will let you set the color resolution, and if you have a plasma or LCD display, dither is utilized to adjust light and color. If all of this seems a bit confusing, don’t worry. The dealer will do the set-up for you as part of joining the Linn club.

Music and Movies
Linn’s audio heritage has been to create an emotional musical experience. This has driven the design of some incredible hardware. The Sondek CD12 was arguably the best CD playback machine ever produced. A burning question is how well the Unidisk 1.1 can handle CD reproduction.

Once I played the first CD through the 1.1, the CD world as I knew it would never be the same. I found myself filing through my collection, curious to see how the Unidisk 1.1 would perform on some well-known favorites. INXS’ Shabooh Shoobah (Atlantic Records) captured my attention with the use of driving synthesizer, guitar and catchy lyrics with a lot of energy. The musicians could actually perform without the use of computers, and did so quite well. Michael Hutchence’s vocal textures rise to the top of the mix on “Spy of Love,” defining the midrange textures of his voice with oodles of information. The pinpoint location of his voice between the speakers had tons of air around the image of the vocals and laid back nicely in the soundstage. The body of the synthesizer benefited greatly from the improved resolution, revealing more detail and texture within each note, fleshing out even the subtle nuances that I had no idea even existed in the recording. Dynamics at first seemed a bit polite, but the more I listened, the more I realized that what I had heard prior to having the Unidisk 1.1 in my system was in fact some of the brittleness and harsh, edgy digital sound that other players had me accustomed to hearing. The Unidisk 1.1 also had a pronounced affect on the pitch accuracy of the recording. The music opened up and was free of any noticeable compression. Guitar strings sounded more natural, cymbals decayed more realistically and bass notes exhibited more character than I have heard from any other player.

The driving bass line in “Soul Mistake” was a case in point. Deep, taut and well-extended, the Unidisk 1.1 just kept getting better the louder I played it.

My favorite CD reference found its way into rotation next. Alice In Chains’ Unplugged (Sony Music Entertainment) captured one of the premiere Seattle grunge rock acts just before the group came apart at the seams. Layne Staley managed to hold it together long enough to make this recording that set the bar for this type of project. Performing acoustic sets of their mostly electric repertoire thrilled fans with how well the songs transitioned over to that style. “Sludge Factory” is a heavy, dark tune that loses nothing when played acoustically. The action of the guitars is set so close that the strings rattle on adjacent frets. This came across extremely well with the Unidisk. I could actually hear the strings not only hitting the frets but also resonating in the body of the guitar. Midrange clarity and transparency were simply stunning. Pace and rhythm were maintained with authority and control. Staley’s vocals were highlighted by the intricately detailed timbre of his unique sound, capturing the low-throated growl with a newfound sense of presence. The opening bass line on “Would” detailed the vibrating strings in space with an almost unreal palpability. The transient slap of each note remained fully intact at extremely high volumes.

“We Can Talk” on The Band’s Music From Big Pink (Capitol Records) found its way to the top of the stack. This outing by The Band is a radically different direction than any of their previous work, pioneering a new and interesting genre of rock with country elements and roots style in a not quite jam type of approach. The 5.1 mix of this effort captures the earthy, soulful feel to the arrangements, better defining the artistic craft underlying the structure of the songs. The Unidisk 1.1 helped me understand the truth of the music on “We Can Talk,” which portrays The Band’s developing prowess as it might sound on the original analog tapes. Open, airy and transparent, this tune had clarity and soul that were mesmerizing.

The organ on “Chest Fever” sports a very articulate groove with Robertson’s guitar playing along the same line. The vocals work to bring you within the song weaving in and out of the groove with so much body and detail that it’s hard to believe how natural this sounds.

I love atmospheric music that can float you along and paint an aural soundscape within your mind. “Thousand Years” on Sting’s Brand New Day (DTS Entertainment) seemed like a good test for the Unidisk 1.1. Sting’s vocals were extremely focused. Sibilance was outstanding with a slight yet natural-sounding shimmer to the ends of the words I had not heard before. The bass was well extended and deep without any boominess or congestion at high volumes. All the 5.1 information remained intact. Leading edge transients were faithfully blended while traveling from one channel to the next in the most seamless presentation I have ever heard on the surround format. The Unidisk threw a much larger soundstage than I’m used to hearing on this or any of the previously mention 5.1 surround tracks. The Unidisk 1.1 was liquidly smooth, never seeming to bat a digital eyebrow, regardless of the nature of the assault.

To get a feel for female vocals, I enlisted the help of Sheryl Crow. The Globe Sessions (DTS Entertainment) is, in my opinion, one of Crow’s best projects to date. “The Difficult Kind” displays how beautiful her voice can be. The slightly raspy quality and throaty croon of her voice is warm with a wonderful midrange bloom as she carries the note through completion. Dynamics, micro detail and transparency were all presented with alacrity by the Unidisk 1.1. The spaciousness of the soundstage once again made the tune much more engrossing.

Peter Gabriel’s remastered to SACD of So (Geffen Records) has a stunning presentation of “Mercy Street,” which the Unidisk 1.1 took to the next level. The bass and the synthesizer both exhibited a level of low-frequency control, grabbing the lowest octaves of the notes and eking out every ounce of extension and resonance. The intricate interplay of Gabriel’s voice and the backing vocals are stunningly delineated, as is the non-linear bass playing of Tony Levin. Additionally, the Unidisk 1.1 will scroll the name of the tune of any SACD as the track starts playing, which is a very cool feature.

Next I switched gears to test the Unidisk’s video prowess. My previous reference, the Toshiba SD9200, paled miserably in comparison to the video side of the Unidisk 1.1. The Unidisk 1.1 image was substantially improved in sharpness and clarity. Edge definition improved dramatically without any noticeable stair-stepping or blurriness. Contrast, color saturation and black level detail were top-notch, the best I’ve seen in my system.

“Appleseed” (Geneon) is a modern CG anime film with a vintage anime look. Colors are not blended for shadows but are composites of different colors to give the computer-generated characters the look of hand-drawn cells. This type of image gives video play quite a handful to deal with. The Unidisk 1.1 kept this sorted out in the opening melee where the main character, Deunan Knute, is waiting to ambush several mobile gun platforms amidst the burned-out ruins of a city. Shadows, bright flashes of gunfire and fast action remain coherent throughout this onslaught as the battle works through its paces. Color definition is further highlighted by the transitions from shadow to light as Deunan dodges between buildings in a twilight setting. There was no indication of chroma-bugs or digital artifacts in any of the scenes, and image depth was further enhanced, breathing new life into movie-watching. The rousing soundtrack by the Boom Boom Satellites keeps pace with the action, exemplifying the sonic dexterity that was displayed in the other listening tests.

The Downside
The remote is slim and sexy on first impression, but falls flat when you start using it. The text of the buttons is too small for my poor eyesight and the buttons are not backlit, a serious shortcoming for a product designed to operate in dark rooms. The buttons do glow but fade quickly. The buttons are all the same shape, with the only notable size difference in the disc control and navigation buttons. All of the functions that control the Unidisk 1.1 are there and once you have the unit set-up, the only buttons you are likely to use beyond disc control and navigation would be the surround and audio adjust buttons, so arguably you only have to familiarize yourself with the basics.

The Unidisk 1.1 has no bass management for DVD-Audio, SACD, and DTS encoded high-resolutions formats. Linn is leaving that detail with the intended mate, the Kisto System Controller, which I will explore in my upcoming review of this component. If your preamp/processor does not have its own bass management and you want to have the ability to adjust your low frequencies with these formats, you will be frustrated.

In comparison to other, more recently designed high-end DVD players from companies like Classe and Meridian, the omission of 1080p video scaling is certainly a downside for the videophile. While you can use external boxes from companies like DVDo, many of today’s top DVD players come with powerful video scalers that do 1080p for half or less money than the Linn Unidisk. Being first to market, it’s understandable that this unit does not have an HDMI output but it does have a DVI connection that can take an HDMI adapter. Make no mistake, the picture that can be made by the Unidisk for traditional DVDs is very special and very satisfying

I am totally smitten with the Unidisk 1.1. This universal player is a great argument for those in the high-end circles who love their single-box solutions but long for simplicity and ease of use. For SACD, DVD-Audio and DTS-encoded music, the Unidisk 1.1 sounded lush and inviting. Never edgy or analytical, the Unidisk 1.1 had a way with some aggressive material that made it more listenable but not at the expense of the higher frequencies’ resolution or detail. Imaging was pinpoint accurate and there was a newfound presence to familiar discs that was captivating. The soundstage was wide and deep with two-channel material, while 5.1 music took on new character, capturing more of the inner detail of the recording. CD playback was simply superb. I found myself rejuvenated by the format. Pitch accuracy, transparency, macro and micro dynamics, spaciousness and three-dimensionality are the best I’ve heard in my system.

But you can’t forget all of the Unidisk’s other abilities. DVD-Video playback was also spectacular. Colors, black levels and resolution were stunning on my projector. Movies had a smooth filmlike look to them, without losing any detail. I found no stair-stepping effects, artifacts or any chroma anomalies that detracted from the image. Dark scenes benefited from the Unidisk 1.1 with sharper detail. The unit ran nearly flawlessly, with only one hiccup on a DVD-RW of a home movie that made the image hesitate. DVD-Audio, SACD, and DTS discs played faithfully and sounded the best I’ve heard in my rig. When all was said and done, the performance of the Unidisk 1.1 was unmatched and had me smiling from ear to ear. I recommend this player to anyone who wants uncompromised performance and the flexibility of a single box that plays everything.
Manufacturer Linn
Model Unidisk 1.1 Universal Disc Player
Reviewer Tim Hart

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