Linn products always seem expensive for what you get. There are various reasons for this, including the fact that they use switched-mode power supplies that make its products relatively light, and that Linn builds them from the ground up in Scotland. But, a hidden significant factor is the scale of research and development that goes on in Linn’s Waterfoot facility; few audio companies employ an R&D team on Linn’s scale. It’s maybe why even in 2015, Linn still commands poweful loyalty from its fan base. Linn products tend not to look bling in a very bling world: a lot of Linn’s line-up reflects the dour Presbyterian aesthetic of their Glasgow surroundings. This is not the case with the range topping Klimax components, but even though they are made in Glasgow, they use Californian aluminium, and it seems that geography makes itself felt even when the designer is looking at the rain!
What goes on inside is another story, one that is beautiful in its logic and elegance, and helps explain those price tags. Linn is one of the few companies in the network streaming game that makes decent software: control apps that do what you want, when you want, even if you are new to them. Setting up the Majik DSM was merely a matter of connecting it to the mains and the network. The hardest bit was finding the power switch: it turned out to be underneath the front panel, because apparently rear panel power switches are now banned, thanks to our friends in Brussels.
Control software is a big problem with many network streaming systems. In some cases, the hardware company doesn’t even write an app, so a third party one has to be used. This often causes problems with interfacing, and even with those that do make their own apps the nature of the media server on the NAS drive can get in the way of a seamless experience. These issues are rarely insurmountable, but to have a system that works well and can be easily set up out of the box is a pleasant surprise, and arguably one worth paying for.
The Majik DSM is the least expensive ‘serious’ model in Linn’s latest range of electronics, a range that eschews the preamplifier in its traditional sense. Linn no longer makes an analogue preamp, but rather includes analogue and digital inputs in its DS and DSM network streamers. The Majik DSM is ‘serious’ because it incorporates connections for Exakt Link, Linn’s most extreme variant on active operation yet, whereby the signal remains digital right up to the speaker. The theory is that analogue signals are easily degraded and the longer you can keep a signal digital the more of it will get through to the final output. You can also manipulate digital signals in a lossless fashion, which is where Linn’s Space Optimisation software comes in.
Space Optimisation is Linn’s solution to the unpredictable nature of room acoustics. You only have to put a transistor radio in a bathroom to realise that room acoustics play a major part in the final sound that we hear. However, despite many, many attempts to counteract them with room treatments and equalisation systems, there have been few successes. The majority of DSP solutions (which would appear to be the way forward) seem to screw up the overall sound so much that the disadvantages outweigh the benefits. Most use a microphone to measure the linearity of speakers within the room, but Linn’s Space Optimisation uses the shape and size of the room as defined by tape measure. It relies on the installer measuring the room, noting the features such as doors and windows within that room, and entering those parameters into Linn’s Konfig software. This takes into account the nature of the wall construction and the amount of glazing and door area to come up with the likely room modes, the frequencies that will be amplified or possibly attenuated by the physical nature of the space.
The room optimisation aspects of Space Optimisation do not boost any frequencies. A pressure null at a given frequency at the listening position won’t be fixed by increasing the output from the speakers at that frequency. The null is an artifact of the acoustics of the room and stays so irrespective of the speaker pressure response at that frequency. Providing boost would only risk damage to the loudspeaker. Room optimisation operates up to the lowest frequencies of a typical male voice, or 80Hz. In psychoacoustics (human perception of sound), the precedence effect dictates that above this frequency the human brain and ear are well evolved to discriminate the direct sound from the loudspeakers from the reverberant behaviour in the room. Effectively we are able to ignore the room and instead listen to the loudspeaker only. Applying aggressive processing above this frequency would be clearly audible. Below 80Hz, the brain and ear cannot discriminate the direct sound from room behavior, so pre-optimising the signal is beneficial. Loudspeaker placement optimisation, which applies more gentle filtering, will often operate at higher frequencies, typically between 100-150Hz.
A dealer starts by establishing the ideal speaker position by ear, essentially finding the spot where the bass to mid/treble balance is optimal, and puts that speaker position into Konfig. The software has a simple diagram that shows the position of speakers and main seating position, if you have put in an incorrect measurement this graphic makes it pretty obvious. The software can only work with rectilinear rooms, so irregular shapes have to be averaged. In my knock-through living room/dining room space there is quite a large aperture for a glazed door which Linn’s Tony Franchi chose to ignore in the set up. Once all the information is in the system you press ‘optimise’ and it essentially reduces output at the identified room modes. In my case, there were only three, but some rooms have two or three times this amount. There is the option to change the amount of attenuation to each mode to accommodate factors that Konfig cannot, and it’s easy to save your settings so that different speaker positions can be compared.
The point of the exercise with speakers that can be placed optimally is to eliminate or minimise low frequency excess that masks detail at higher frequencies and makes the bass thick and poorly detailed. The fact that it takes into account the frequency response of specific loudspeaker models is another string to its bow: Linn has been measuring both its own and third party speakers, so that not only is the room’s character taken into account but so is the speaker’s. At present Linn has between 250 and 300 models in the software, with more being added on a regular basis. If yours is not on the list it’s worth petitioning to have it added, should this technology be of interest.
Space Optimisation has another equally useful function in that it makes it possible to place speakers where they would not normally work, essentially that is when they are too close to room boundaries. Thanks to the inability of interior designers to appreciate that great sound means loudspeakers in free space, many of us have to endure system set ups that are less than ideal. While owners of man-caves need not be troubled by this, many European listeners listen in a common living room. In the Konfig set up, this boundary setting is called the ‘practical’ position, and as you might surmise it compensates for the bass reinforcement that close to wall positioning induces. Once the speaker is where it has to be, you measure distances to walls (and floor if it’s the speaker is a standmount), drop these numbers into Konfig, press optimise, and the system will compensate to provide domestic bliss. A dropdown box reveals what factor is causing the increased output, the offending frequency, and how much attenuation is applied. This is also revealed in a graph for maximum tech-nerd effect.
I tried Space Optimisation out with Bowers & Wilkins CM10 S2 floorstanders that, thanks to a rear firing port and serious low end output, require a fair amount of free space to give an even response in my room. The ideal position according to Linn’s ‘tunedem’ set up was with the top front corner of the left-hand speaker, 98cm from the front wall (behind the speaker) and 69cm to the left wall. The right speaker had the same space behind it, and 73cm to its right. Applying optimisation to this position opens up the midrange and treble and tightens the bass, this makes bass lines considerably clearer and has the effect of improving timing overall. On Gregory Porter’s ‘Hey Laura’ [Liquid Spirit, Blue Note] for instance, the bass line stopped sounding thick and started to drive the rhythm more precisely. The piano, meanwhile, was pulled up in the mix. If you have a particularly bright and reflective room with perhaps a lot of glass in it, Konfig offers a treble ‘shelf’ that can be used to subtly reduce high frequency output, but that was not necessary here.
The next step was to put the CM10 S2 into a likely real world practical position. This left 18cm between the back of the speaker and the wall on both channels. Listening to Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’ [Dark Side of the Moon, EMI] after applying optimisation made a surprising difference to the realism of the cash till sound; suddenly they sounded like real trays full of coins rather than splashly metallic sounds. This was a convincing demonstration of the benefits to a part of the audio band that Space Optimisation doesn’t touch, but which clearly benefits from a removal of low end smearing. It’s often stated that the treble provides the leading edges that give bass more precision and impact but you don’t often hear the benefits that cleaner bass brings to the mids and highs. You can hear that the bass becomes a lot more controlled compared to its bloated nature at this near-the-wall position, but the clarity gained higher up the range is the real reward.
The Majik DSM as an amplifier is a pretty remarkable beast when the Space Optimisation is used, it’s no slouch without it however, providing an always tuneful and engaging sound. The Linn is maybe not quite as thrilling as something of a similar price and functionality from Naim, but probably more even-handed. I didn’t have its most obvious competitior, a NaimUniti 2, to hand but would not imagine that the differences are small: if you like one the other will be unlikely to appeal.
The Majik DSM is very even toned and well timed. It’s not the last word in transparency and is tonally a little grey, but not so much as to intrude: in fact, it’s a lot of fun. I installed my regular PMC fact.8 speakers in what I have found to be the ideal position on Townshend Isolation Bars, then did the Space Optimisation set up. Playing Nils Frahm’s electronic ‘Our Own Roof’ [Music For The Motion Picture Victoria, Erased Tapes, via Tidal] revealed the calming effect of the optimisation. The bass is heavy on this track and it doesn’t take much to push it into sounding uncomfortable, but this was something that Linn’s software cleans up to deliver a much more open, detailed, and enjoyable sound. The sticks on the rim and guitar opening of ZZ Top’s ‘La Grange’ [Tres Hombres, Warner Bros] sounds a little pared down but were also attractively spacious, with good edge definition that doesn’t glare. It doesn’t deliver the full dynamics of the piece in the way that some amps can, but there’s a lot to hear and enjoy. Imaging is strong especially in terms of height and width; depth is good, but not up with the very best in class.
It’s important to bear in mind how much the Majik DSM does. It is pretty much all you need apart from loudspeakers and a network. It has digital and analogue inputs including MM phono (MC optional), HDMIs for your viewing pleasure, and a pretty capable amplifier. That it manages to cram so much into a compact case that is very professionally built and finished is remarkable. Add to that the residual value of Linn products and the fact that the company’s support is second to very few in terms of updates, and you can see why this looks like an attractive proposition for anyone that’s interested in ‘sorted’ audio entertainment. It seems unlikely that a Majik DSM could end up controlling a multi-amped Exakt system, but it’s nice that the option exists.
Space Optimisation is very impressive. It’s easily the least intrusive room correction system I have encountered, and it clearly benefits the music and your enjoyment thereof. I was very pleasantly surprised at what it did for James Blake’s voice on the heart-rending ‘Retrograde’ [Overgrown, Polydor], essentially separating it out from the electronica beneath and making it shine. I hate to admit it, but it does make it easier to follow the beat and get your foot tapping in true Linn style as well, and this purely because the room’s unwanted effects on the low-end have been significantly curtailed. The fact that this can be done with a wide range of loudspeakers is a real boon that increases the value of the Majik DSM to a significant degree. So, while the asking price might look high, this is one book that amounts to a lot more than its cover might suggest.
Type: integrated streaming amplifier
Analogue inputs: One MM phono/line input (via RCA jacks), three single‑ended line-level inputs, one single ended line‑level input (via 3.5mm front panel jack)
Digital in/outputs: Six S/PDIF (three coaxial, three optical), two outputs (one coaxial, one optical)
HDMI in/ouputs: Four inputs, one output
Analogue outputs: One pre-power loop, one line out (via RCA jacks)
Suppported formats: FLAC, WAV, Apple Lossless (ALAC), MP3, WMA (except lossless), AIFF, AAC, OGG with up to 24-bit 192 kHz native sample rate
Features: Access to Tidal music service, Space Optimisation room correction, Exakt ready with two Exakt Link connections
Streaming: Compatible with UPnP™ media servers and UPnP™ AV 1.0 control points
User Interface: remote control, Kinsky (iOS, Android) & Kazoo (iOS, Windows, OSX) Apps
Supported sample rates: Coaxial and optical S/PDIF: up to 24-bit–192kHz
Input impedance: not specified
Output impedance (preamp): Not specified
Headphone Loads: Not specified
Power Output: 90Wpc
Bandwidth: Not specified
Distortion: Not specified
Signal to Noise Ratio: Not specified
Dimensions (H×W×D): 75 × 380 × 352mm
Manufactured by: Linn Products
Tel: +44 141 307 7777