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Linn Majik DSM Network Music Player

Linn Majik DSM Network Music Player

On my office wall I have a pin that I acquired in the Linn room at the 1984 summer CES in Chicago that reads, “Where’s the Tune?” At the time, Linn was an analog champion, heroically fighting back against the CD onslaught with its iconic LP12 turntable. Fast-forward to 2016: Although the LP12 is still on Linn’s roster, the manufacturer has morphed from an all-analog advocate into a thoroughly modern hi-fi firm that has 50 employees in its R&D division and 25 engineers dedicated solely to software development.

One of Linn’s most flexible offerings is the Linn Majik DSM network music player. It combines the capabilities of the Majik DS network device with an integrated preamp and a power amplifier. The Majik DSM can be used as a one-piece standalone music center to pair with any speakers, or it can be combined with other Linn products to create different setups with increasing price and performance levels.

During the review period, I spent time using the Majik DSM as a source component as well as a standalone integrated amplifier connected to a pair of Linn Majik 140 loudspeakers, and finally, combined with the recently launched Majik Exaktbox-I. This new one-box upgrade takes the simple Majik-DSM-plus-Majik-140-speaker system to its highest performance using Linn’s Exakt technology. To call the Linn Majik DSM a “flexible” component would be an understatement on the same order as calling the Beatles just another rock band.

The Tech Tour
We’ll begin our tour with the Majik DSM component. It combines music streamer functions with a preamplifier and power amplifier—just add speakers and an Internet connection (or NAS) and you’re ready to rock ’n’ roll. Input options include four HDMI, three line-level analog, one dedicated moving-magnet phono, three coaxial SPDIF digital, three TosLink digital, and one Ethernet connection. Output options include an HDMI, TosLink digital, SPDIF digital, two analog, and a set of high-level speaker. The Majik DSM also has Linn Exakt Link connectors.

The Majik DSM’s front panel looks very much like that of the Linn DS streamer. Controls include a centrally located front panel display flanked on either side by three buttons. On the left side you’ll find the mute and volume up and volume down buttons, along with a 3.5mm stereo headphone output jack. On the right side there’s a sleep button, and forward and back source-select buttons, as well as a 3.5mm auxiliary analog input connection.

Unlike many manufacturers whose product pages include a virtual parts list of what’s inside the chassis, Linn emphasizes its engineering methodologies rather than individual parts. However, the company is very happy to talk in detail about its key technologies and have both videos and in-depth detail on Exakt and Space Optimization on its website. Given the length of this review, I’m going to truncate the technical section and suggest you check out Linn’s own extensive “Linn Docs” pages on the company’s own site for additional info arranged in Linn’s own unique way. This site is geared towards those who already own products. For a lighter touch and introduction, I recommend Linn’s main website.

The Majik 140 Loudspeaker is a ported, four-way, bass-reflex design with 16mm silk-dome tweeter, 30mm PU dome midrange, and 160mm doped-paper upper-bass and 160mm sandwich-cone lower-bass drivers. The Majik 140 uses something Linn calls its “2K driver array,” which houses the two high-frequency drive units in a separate cast-alloy chassis that sits in front of the speaker’s forward-firing port. The 140 can be single-wired up to quad-wired (or amplified). The review samples were finished in cherry and the overall build-quality was excellent.

The Majik Exaktbox-I is a one-box upgrade containing power amplifiers and the Exakt electronics, which turn the simple Majik System into an Exakt System. In a system using a Majik Exaktbox-I, the eight separate channels of 100-watt Chakra amplification are used to directly drive the individual drivers in a loudspeaker, and the original lossy analog crossover in the loudspeaker is bypassed, with the Exaktbox-I performing the crossover digitally.

By combining this lossless digital crossover with sophisticated modeling of the characteristics of every drive unit in the speaker, Exakt is able to eliminate both magnitude and phase distortion, which should vastly increase the chances of every note reaching your ears free from such sonic concerns.

Most current-production Linn loudspeakers can be connected to the Exaktbox-I, as can quite a few non-Linn speakers, including the B&W 802 Diamond (in either tri- or quad-amp configurations). Along with its eight channels of amplification via high-level, four-way binding posts, the Majik Exaktbox-I also has two Exakt Link connectors and eight RCA analog outputs. Once connected to the Linn Majik DSM via the Linn Exakt Link, the Majik Exaktbox-I becomes an extension of the DSM with all its control functions thereby integrated.

 

The Setup
I used the Linn Majik DSM in four different configurations. First I installed the Majik DSM as a source component, routing its analog line-level output into a Parasound P-7 preamplifier in my main system. After almost a month there, I moved the Majik DSM into my living room’s real-world system. I removed the Parasound P-7 and Perreaux E-110 power amplifier that had been in that installation and replaced them with the Majik DSM. The speakers in this system were AV123 X-Statics modified by Skiing Ninja, augmented by a Velodyne DD-10+ subwoofer. After several weeks, I replaced the X-Statics and subwoofer with Linn Majik 140 floorstanding loudspeakers. Finally, after another couple of weeks of listening, the Linn Majik Exaktbox-I was added to the system. Once the Majik Exaktbox-1 was installed, the system was completely re-set up using Majik DSM’s “Space Optimization+” system of built-in room optimisation features. I’ve never before reviewed one component in so many different iterations.

The installation process for the Majik Exaktbox-I is far from a simple DIY procedure; it’s involved enough to require a trained Linn specialist. Darrin Kavanagh, the Denver area Linn representative, configured my review system and set up the Space Optimization+. It was an all-afternoon operation. (If you want to see what is involved in the process Linn has the tutorial here.) Once it has been set up, the Linn system can be configured so that the end-user can readjust the settings to his or her own taste, if desired.

To add the Majik Exaktbox-I to the system, you connect the Majik DSM to the Exaktbox via Exakt Link using Cat-5 cable, and then configure the Majik 140 speakers so they can be used with the Exaktbox-I. This involves moving some internal jumpers in the Majik 140s so that each driver in the loudspeaker is directly connected to its own unique channel of amplification. This also requires additional speaker cables, which were supplied by Linn. At the end of the process, all the analog crossover circuitry used with the 140s’ drivers is bypassed so the Exaktbox can perform those functions in the digital domain.

After the Exaktbox-I was connected to the Majik 140 loudspeakers, Linn’s unique Space Optimization+ room-correction system was installed. The process involves setting up the Majik 140 speakers in the most sonically optimal position in your room (regardless of the practicality of the placement for everyday use), taking measurements, and then moving the speakers into the position where you want them to reside. Then the system response is re-measured, and after comparing the results, Linn’s built-in correction can do an “expert system” setup where it chooses the necessary frequency-response corrections. Alternatively, the installer can do a completely manual setup where he controls and adjusts each parameter based on the results from the two tests. The goal is to achieve the same level of harmonic purity and minimization of additive and subtractive room interactions in the final set-up position as you obtained in the optimal one.

Once more I must stress that Linn’s Majik Exaktbox-I is a complex piece of gear that has plenty of flexibility—enough to completely screw up the sound if not set up properly. And while it was useful and instructive to be present during the process, it’s not something that an untrained end-user should attempt without assistance. But Linn does encourage the end-user to be present during installation to offer feedback. Given the extreme flexibility of the system, it can and most likely will be adjusted more for the end-user’s personal taste (and to overcome the room’s most pernicious sonic issues) than to achieve a ruler-flat frequency response.

Although the Linn Majik DSM can be used in any room, from a dedicated purpose-built listening room to a multi-use family room, the adjustment features built into the Space Optimization and Space Optimization+ were designed to cope with the less-than-ideal listening environment that you would encounter in a multi-purpose room. Space Optimization can be used with any networked Linn music player, but I tried it only with the Exakt and Majik 140 package.

Linn gives you several ways to control the Majik DSM system. You can use the supplied remote, which gives you access to most of the Majik DSM functions; it can also be programmed for several macros (multiple functions from one button push). But if you plan to use the Majik DSM primarily for streaming content from your NAS or remote sources such as Tidal, you’ll want to use the Linn Kazoo app, which can run on Mac OS, Windows, iOS, and Android. Since I don’t own an iPad, I used Kazoo on my MacBook Pro Retina 13″ computer, 2009 Mac Mini, and 2013 MacPro desktop computers.

The Linn Kazoo app takes a bit of time to get used to, primarily because it is so fully featured and graphic-oriented. Fortunately, there’s more than one way to do most operations. Unlike the Roon playback app, which combines your Tidal and home music libraries into one gigantic library, with Kazoo these two libraries remain separate, similar to the way Sonos handles them.

Linn also has a second program for the Majik DSM called Linn Konfig, which is primarily for the initial setup. Konfig lets you name and rename inputs, add or subtract sources, and check the operating and current status of your DSM player. While I used Konfig during the first couple of weeks to check and redo some settings, after that it was basically there for insurance to make sure that everything was still operating optimally.

I did have some initial set-up issues caused by connection glitches between my Synology NAS and the Majik DSM. Linn recommends the QNAP brand of NAS, and during the first couple of weeks I used a loaner QNAP before I broke down and bought one of my own, after which I had no additional connection issues. The only additional bit of computer weirdness occurred when I initially activated Linn Kazoo via my MacBook portable after sleep mode; it couldn’t find the Majik DSM until I went into my MacBook’s WiFi connection panel and designated the 5.6MHz WiFi mode instead of the 2.6. Once changed, everything connected as expected.

The primary and most pernicious technical issue I had with the Majik DSM was that it refused to play HDtracks-sourced AIFF-format music files. It seems that all my HDtracks files did not adhere to Linn’s rather stringent requirements for a properly configured AIFF file. Anyone who has an extensive library of HDtracks files will find this current situation less than desirable. The quick DIY solution is to make another set of files in WAV or FLAC format, which will play via the Majik DSM. Those with an especially large HDtracks music collection in AIFF format can use a batch conversion tool such as dBpoweramp. Since the Majik DSM does not currently support DSD files, they too will need to be re-sampled into a PCM-friendly format.

 

The Sound
When I used the Majik DSM as a source component connected to the Parasound P-7 via analog outputs I was immediately impressed by its overall sound quality. I had been using two high-end DAC/sources in that system: the PS Audio Direct Stream DAC and the Cary DS-600SE digital player. After adjusting for output levels, when I compared identical music files I found the Majik DSM could produce comparable sound quality. The Majik DSM’s soundstage size and imaging specificity were equal to those of the PS Audio Direct Stream DAC. Surprisingly, I found the Majik DSM bested that DAC when it came to low-bass energy, with a response that was more dynamic and had greater impact. Compared to the dual-output Cary DS-600SE, the Majik DSM had more inner detail when the Cary was in tube-output mode, but it proved to be almost indistinguishable from it in solid-state-output mode. Though the Cary had slightly greater overall image height, the bass response and treble extension of both DACs were identical.

While I did not find the music played through the Majik DSM any more “hummable” than via other players—remember that “Where’s the Tune?” pin from 1984—I did discover that playback through the Majik DSM did have a certain unique musicality that successfully negotiated the fine line between euphony and an excessively analytical presentation. And while probably only a small minority of owners will be employing the Majik DSM exclusively as a source device, the component certainly has the sonic chops to perform on a high level when used in that manner.

A reader recently called me to task on my last integrated amplifier review for not trying the phonostage. My Majik DSM review sample came with the moving-magnet (lower-gain) phonostage installed. Linn has a moving-coil version that can replace the mm phonostage at an additional charge of $480. However, both of my turntables currently are set up with lower-output moving-coil phono carts, so I did not employ the phonograph inputs during the review, but I did route the line-level outs of my two phonostages into the line-level inputs of the Majik DSM. The results were such that I could not identify any noticeable loss of fidelity or increase in noise levels compared with routing those sources directly into the Parasound P-7.

When I installed the Majik DSM in my living room, it was the first time I’d had a chance to hear the DSM’s built-in amplifier. It had enough power to drive the medium-efficiency X-Static loudspeakers to satisfying volume levels; most of my critical listening was done with the volume setting somewhere between 45 and 60 depending on program material (the volume control goes up to 80, the default setting, but can be configured to go up to 100).

When I compared the Majik DSM’s overall sound quality with the rig it replaced—the Parasound P-7, Perreaux E-110, and Sony HAP-Z1ES—I felt like the overall sound quality was comparable. Both systems propelled the X-Static loudspeakers forward with a wide, deep soundstage, good low-frequency control, and excellent low-level detail and articulation. I did need to adjust the Velodyne DD-10+ subwoofer a bit, changing its crossover point from 60 to 70Hz and then turning down its level slightly. The small amount of additional bass energy that I noticed when using the Majik DSM as a source component was also present when it was used as a standalone system.

The majority of the sonic issues I noticed with the Majik DSM in my living room system were (and are) a result of the room. As in most non-purpose-built listening areas, the bass is not as well controlled as I would like, with several obvious resonant peaks and nulls caused by the room’s dimensional and structural factors. My solution so far with most systems has been to truncate the low bass into the main speakers and re-route that bass energy into the subwoofer, which I can position to minimize room interactions.

When I replaced the AV123 X-Static loudspeakers with the Linn Majik 140 floorstanders the overall sound quality changed somewhat. Imaging through the Majik 140 speakers was slightly more precise and the overall soundstage was a bit larger. The Majik 140s also produced more midbass power, which was a mixed blessing because the added low-end energy excited room resonances to a greater degree. To reduce this energy, I had to move the Majik 140s farther into the center of the room. Although this was a better position sonically, it was less convenient and not where I would want speakers to remain on a permanent basis.

For the final set-up iteration the $6320 Majik Exaktbox-I was installed into the system. And it sure isn’t your dad’s basic power amplifier. Along with eight discrete channels of amplification it also has D/As, digital crossovers, and additional digital horsepower. As I mentioned in the set-up section, placing it into the system necessitated the substitution of all the Majik 140 loudspeaker’s internal crossovers with the Exaktbox-I’s digital crossovers. At this point Linn’s Space Optimization+ room correction was also set up, which allowed me to move the Majik 140 loudspeakers back into a more acceptable position in the room.

The change in sonics was not subtle. Instantly the overall sound quality of the system went from very good albeit with obvious room-induced issues to excellent with most of the room’s issues reduced to a point where they were mere shadows of their former selves, especially in the lower midrange and upper bass.

How much of this sonic improvement was a result of the Exaktbox-I’s individually dedicated power amplifiers versus Linn’s Space Optimization+? Since turning off the latter was as simple as going into the Linn Konfig app and changing one setting from on to off, it was easy to hear that most of the improvements were from the combination of Space Optimization+ and amplifier rather than from the power amp alone.

Besides less low-frequency room bloom, the Exaktbox-I /Space Optimization+ also produced a more stable and solid three-dimensional image. Although the size of the image didn’t change, all the defining edges—the spaces where sound transitioned from an instrument in the soundstage to the space where there was no instrument—were more decisive and clear-cut.

Since Linn was kind enough to include a headphone output, I put it through its paces. The Majik DSM’s headphone output had no problems propelling my hardest-to-drive cans, the Beyer Dynamic DT-990 600-ohm version, up to my own personal max loudness level and beyond. The volume level was only at 57 out of 80. With the highly efficient Westone ES-5 custom in-ear monitors the Majik DSM needed only a fraction of its output capabilities. The volume setting was only at 31 when I maxed out my loudness limit. There was a faint hiss from the Majik DSM’s amp when no music was playing, even when the volume was set to zero. But with medium- and lower-sensitivity headphones the Majik DSM’s headphone amp was dead quiet. Overall soundstage size, inner detail, and imaging were excellent with any ’phones I tried. And while perhaps not quite as good as the very best can-amps I’ve used, the sound was nonetheless involving and musical.

Summary
If you’ve had the stamina to read this far you should have good idea of how and why the Linn Majik DSM, Majik 140 loudspeakers, and Majik Exaktbox-I, along with Space Optimization room-correction system work together to form a high-resolution, yet musical system that can be placed into an environment that is less than ideal and still offer optimal results. In short, if you have a lousy-sounding room wherein sonic issues can’t be fixed easily with room treatments, the Linn Majik system offers a viable alternative to giving up all hope of decent sound. While not magic, Linn’s Majik system comes as close as possible to musical alchemy, by turning leaden-sounding rooms into sonic gold.

SPECS AND PRICING

Majik DSM Network Music Player and Integrated Pre/Power Amp
Power amp: Built-in 2x 90W Linn Chakra
Digital audio formats played/supported: FLAC, Apple Lossless (ALAC), WAV, MP3, WMA (except lossless), AIFF, AAC, OGG
Digital audio resolution: Up to 24-bit/192kHz
Inputs: 1x Ethernet (RJ45), 4x RCA phono, 3x TosLink, 3x SPDIF, 4x HDMI, 1x 3.5mm stereo AUX
Outputs: 1x RCA phono (line level), 1x RCA phono (pre-out), 1x TosLink, 1x SPDIF, 1x HDMI, 2x Exakt Link, 1x 3.5mm stereo headphone out, two pairs of 4mm binding post/banana/spade
Built-in phonostage: Configurable to mm or line level and upgradeable to MC
Dimensions: 15″ x 3.6″ x 14″
Price: $4750

Majik Exaktbox-I
No. of channels: 8
Speaker types supported: 1 pair of stereo speakers, up to 4-way
Exakt connections: 2x Exakt Link
Analog outputs: 8x unbalanced RCA phono
Power amps built-in: 8x 100W Chakra
Speaker connections: 16x 4mm banana/binding posts
Dimensions: 15.1″ x 3.6″ x 14.3″
Price: $6320

Majik 140
Speaker type: 4-way floorstanding loudspeaker
Analog connections: Four pairs of binding posts (bare wire/4mm banana/spade)
Driver complement: 0.6″ silk-dome tweeter, 1.2″ PU dome midrange, 6.5″ doped-paper upper bass, 6.5″ sandwich-cone lower bass
Impedance: 4 ohms
Efficiency: 88dB
Frequency response: 55Hz—20kHz
Crossover: Analog passive, upgradeable to external Exakt digital
Dimensions: 9.8″ x 38.4″ x 13.2″
Weight: 46.9 lbs.
Price: $2995/pr.

Associated Equipment
Source devices: Late 2013 MacPro model 3.7 GHz quad-core computer with 16GB of memory with OS 10.11.1, running iTunes 12.3.1 and Amarra Symphony 3.0, Pure Music 3.0.1, and Audirvana+ 2.24, Roon, Tidal 1.1, a 2010 Mac Mini with 8GB of memory and OS 10.11.1, and similar apps. QNAP TS-251, Roon, Tidal, Sony HAP Z-1ES
Analog sources: VPI TNT III w/Graham 1.1 tonearm and ClearAudio Victory II cartridge, VPI HW-19 with Souther SLA-3 ’arm and Denon 103/VanDenHul cartridge. Vendetta 2B and Rossi LIO phono preamps
DACs: PS Audio Direct Stream DSD DAC, Cary Audio DS-600SE
Amplifiers: Perreaux E-110, April Music S-1 monoblocks
Loudspeakers: AV123 X-Static modified by Skiing Ninja, Spatial M-3+ Turbo, Emerald Physics 4.3, two JL Audio Fathom F-112 subwoofers, one Velodyne DD-10+ subwoofer
Cables and accessories: Wireworld USB cable, AudioQuest Carbon USB cables, AudioQuest Colorado single-ended RCA interconnect, Kimber KCAG interconnect, Audience Speaker AU24e speaker cable, PS Audio Quintet, Dectet, and Premier power conditioners

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