Despite having been founded in 1973 and having long produced audio gear in a full range of categories, this is the first SoundStage! Network review of a Linn product in a long time. Too long a time. I say that because the Scottish company is rich in innovation. Famed for its Sondek turntables and early active loudspeakers, and pioneering in its decision to stop selling CD players in 2009 to focus efforts on their network music players, Linn would much rather lead than follow. The Majik DSM integrated amplifier and network music player ($4900 USD) demonstrates just that.
The little box that could (do everything)
The Majik DSM doesn’t look like a high-end amplifier. In fact, considering its thin case of folded metal, vented top panel, and plastic remote control, it has all the gravitas of a cable box. Its svelte dimensions of 15”W x 3.6”H x 14”D and its 12-pound weight also mean that it’s something of a lightweight when compared to similarly priced integrated components from other high-end stalwarts. A small, rectangular dot-matrix display, flanked by Volume and Mute buttons, a 3.5mm headphone jack on the right, and Power and Source buttons on the left, make up the unencumbered front panel.
The rear panel boasts a wide range of connectivity. Analog: four single-ended inputs (RCA), and pre out and line out. Digital: four HDMI inputs, one HDMI output (video only), three coaxial inputs, a coaxial output, three optical inputs, and an optical output. The fourth RCA input can be configured to accept a moving-magnet phono cartridge; moving-coil is an option. Network connections include Ethernet and, for use with some Linn speaker models, the company’s proprietary Exakt ports. Rounding things out are five-way binding posts (spades can access these only from below), mains input, ground, and a Fallback button (for use in reprogramming the Majik DSM).
I noticed a few things right away -- first, the copious numbers of digital inputs and the rather unusual digital outputs. Second was the conspicuous absence of a USB input, which Linn omits because they’ve worked hard to perfect their streaming playback via Ethernet. USB, they argue, is not as good for the end user. It’s a bold choice to forgo USB while offering just about everything else, but, as you’ll see below, it appears to be a justified one. The Majik supports Apple AirPlay, Tidal, Qobuz, and Internet Radio.
At this point, I felt a bit ambivalent about the Majik DSM. It’s not the most inspired-looking thing, and its dimensions made it easy for me to assume that it was an off-the-shelf class-D design -- not a category of amp I’ve derived a great deal of enjoyment from. I couldn’t plug in my Apple MacBook Pro via USB, as I’ve been able to do with everything I’ve reviewed in the last few years. So I hooked up my dedicated music laptop using a proletarian optical cable. Admittedly, all of these judgments were terribly unfair.
A few weeks after I received the review sample, someone at Linn phoned to talk me through how to properly set up the Majik DSM. Despite my being a relative noob about networked audio, the process turned out to be relatively painless and intuitive, and not something the buyer will ever need worry about -- your Linn dealer will install and set up your Majik. That’s rare at this price point, and a huge boon for those who might be intimidated by just how flexible the Majik DSM turned out to be (see below). Hooking everything up mainly meant running an Ethernet cable from my primary network router to the Linn and powering up the Majik. It quickly found my network, and the real fun began.
For the user to take full advantage of the Majik DSM’s considerable flexibility, Linn’s website provides a suite of computer applications, and first up was Kazoo. The app immediately found the Majik on my network, and its simple interface let me select sources, Qobuz and Internet Radio, adjust the volume, and manage music and playlists set up through a networked music server(s). Because I store my music files on a simple external USB drive, I was unable to neatly manage and play my music with Kazoo. For the purposes of Kazoo, a Network-Attached Storage (NAS) device is strongly encouraged. Using Kazoo’s companion software, Kazoo Server, as well as third-party server softwares such as Minim, users can direct the Majik DSM to any networked hard drive that contains music files -- even if my own inimitable incompetence prevented me from getting such a system to work. But, again, a Linn dealer can set this up for you.
Linn also includes a free 60-day trial of Tidal with the Majik DSM, and Kazoo boasts a dedicated Tidal mini-app to make full use of Tidal’s CD-quality streaming service. When I realized that I could open Kazoo while using Wi-Fi in my upstairs office, turn the unit on, adjust the volume, stream Tidal, and use AirPlay to play music from my iTunes library, I began to understand why Linn has insisted on ditching USB. After using Linn’s wunderamp for only a few weeks, I found it difficult to go back to a traditional hi-fi setup.
The next app, Konfig, lets you fully manage the Majik. You can turn off inactive inputs to make cycling through sources less laborious, set an upper volume limit and the startup volume, adjust various display parameters, turn off the rear-panel Ethernet and Exakt input LEDs, and micromanage each input to your liking. Konfig also checks for software and firmware updates; when you approve an update, it is completed quickly and wirelessly. And the app’s Diagnostics tab can diagnose any problems that might arise with the Majik.
By a wide margin, the Majik DSM’s most fascinating feature is Linn’s Space Optimisation. Linn wasn’t forthcoming about the details of what makes this proprietary system tick -- it’s a competitive landscape out there -- but in broad strokes: Linn “models” a given loudspeaker’s enclosure, drivers, ports, and layout to develop a software profile. When you enable Space Optimisation in Konfig, you select your loudspeakers from the more than 225 speaker models Linn has profiled so far (Linn has since updated their Space Optimisation software to work with any loudspeaker). You’re then prompted to enter precise data about your listening room: overall dimensions, types of building materials, and where, exactly, the speakers are placed in relation to the front, side, and rear walls. These should be the speakers’ “ideal” positions, according to Linn -- that is, where they sound their absolute best. From there, the Linn has you place, and measure once more, the speakers in their “practical” positions -- they assume that listeners will have to contend with furniture, television stands, equipment racks, and other space restrictions. The Majik DSM crunches some numbers, then spits out a profile for the lowest frequencies (10-200Hz) that adjusts the speakers’ frequency response to offset the various room modes. Linn promises that the Majik will then deliver, from your speakers’ “practical” positions, the sound you hear from them in their “ideal” positions. Cool, right?
Linn already had a profile for my bookshelf speakers, KEF’s LS50s. I entered all the relevant room measurements into Konfig, and was then presented with six room modes, at 79.85, 70.14, 66.41, 49.75, 44.33, and 22.57Hz. The profile suggested that the speakers’ output at each of those frequencies should be reduced by a larger margin than the frequency above: -8.41dB at 79.85Hz, all the way down to a whopping -26.61dB at 22.57Hz. The frequency and gain-reduction points can be manually adjusted for each mode, so the output can be tailored to the user’s preferences.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I engaged the profile. I knew that my LS50s were getting a bit of room gain that helped them sound fuller than perhaps they actually were, but ameliorating that gain was a bit of a shock. The KEFs now sounded a bit lightweight. After a couple hours’ listening, the extent of the change became less pronounced, as I adjusted to my new normal with Space Optimisation in place. I ultimately shaved a few dB off each of the six adjustments that Linn suggested, while also noting that the 22.57Hz mode was effectively a nonissue: the LS50 is hardly full-range, having a claimed frequency range of 47Hz-45kHz, -6dB, and a claimed frequency response of 79Hz-28kHz, +/-3dB.
Space Optimisation didn’t produce a revelatory or groundbreaking change in my listening experience. However, my horrorshow of a listening room features a large entryway to my kitchen on one side, uneven front and rear-wall distances, and a set of steps immediately behind my head. Space Optimisation did offer an immediate improvement in terms of minimizing my room’s contribution to my music. I’m pretty confident that, if I’d had in-house help from a Linn dealer, as any buyer will, I’d have derived even greater improvements. But even when used by this newbie, Space Optimisation was a highly impressive feature that should reap the user benefits in any type of listening environment.
With the LS50s now properly set up, I was able to explore the last few apps Linn provides for the Majik DSM. Kinsky, available for iOS and Android devices, gives you limited control of the Majik from a mobile device. I tried it briefly, and it worked as advertised, without a problem: It let me accurately adjust the volume, turn on or mute the Majik, and select inputs, all without any lag. I don’t have a NAS device on my network, so I couldn’t verify Kinsky’s claimed ability to browse a networked music library and associated playlists.
Finally, Linn’s Songcast app works in the background of the Windows or Macintosh OS to broadcast all system sounds to the Majik DSM. Again, I tried it briefly, and it worked as well as Linn’s other apps: perfectly. There was no problem of lag or sync when I viewed Internet-based video on my laptop while wirelessly beaming the audio signal to Linn’s streaming amplifier. I could turn it on and off with ease from my toolbar, and it was never unruly or intrusive.
Linn gets a ten out of ten on the software front -- not only were its apps easy to use, with full functionality, they also just plain worked. For a high-end amplifier that does everything the Majik DSM can, that’s a serious accomplishment, and a major consideration for someone who wants a one-box system for a living-and-listening room. Once a Majik is properly set up, just about anyone should be able to figure out how to effectively use the unassuming little box.
On the hardware side, Linn uses a patented amplifier topology they call Chakra. Although the Majik DSM’s tidy dimensions and modest weight had led me to assume it to be a class-D design, the Chakra circuitry is in fact class-AB. According to Linn, it “Uses an array of bi-polar transistors as ‘boosters’ around a single monolithic” amplifier circuit. “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.” Linn states that this approach offers “virtually unlimited” current output; it’s also compact and thermally efficient. Linn partners the Chakra amplifier with a Linn-made switch-mode power supply rather than the linear supplies seen in most class-AB amps at or near $5000. The Majik’s power output is specified as 90Wpc into 4 ohms (no 8-ohm spec is given). Other Linn specs for the Majik DSM: total harmonic distortion plus noise of <0.015% (1kHz, 1W RMS into 4 ohms), a signal/noise ratio exceeding 115dB, and a damping factor of 170.
Linn offers little information about the Majik DSM’s built-in D/A converter, other than the fact that it supports PCM word depths of 16 to 24 bits and sampling frequencies of 7.35, 8, 11.025, 12, 14.7, 16, 22.05, 24, 29.4, 32, 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, and 192kHz. The Majik DSM does not natively handle DSD signals; for that, Linn recommends using JRiver Media Center software for on-the-fly conversion of DSD.
Because the Majik DSM is a one-box system, associated equipment was at a bare minimum. I used KEF’s LS50 speakers for most of my listening because Linn offered a Space Optimisation profile for them. For the rest of my listening, I swapped in my reference Definitive Technology Mythos ST-L speakers, for which Linn has yet to create a profile. I used DH Labs’ Q-10 Signature speaker cables for both. The Ethernet and optical cables used were generic.
Old habits die hard. Before I start writing about a component, I tend to do as much research on its manufacturer’s products as I can, via the company’s website and other reviews. In this instance, I’d read that Linn gear tends to have a house sound that’s a bit dry or analytical. While I don’t entirely agree with that assessment, I’d say that anyone looking for a music system with a warm, dense, forgiving sound should look elsewhere.
The Majik DSM painted highly articulate, incisive, and well-defined sonic landscapes. The Linn gave the music an immediacy and a sharpness that differentiated it from most other amps I’ve heard at or near $5000. The sounds of traditional class-AB integrated amp-DACs from Bryston, Hegel, and Simaudio, for examples, have a liquidity and ease that the Linn didn’t quite share -- the illusion of the real thing being re-created in front of me never quite happened during my listening with the Majik. Still, the Linn’s acuity and resolving ability were within a stone’s throw of Hegel Music Systems’ H300 ($5500) and Simaudio’s Moon Neo 340i ($4600, or $5200 with built-in DAC). The Linn did seem to produce a flat, linear response from top to bottom of the audioband, as do most of today’s solid-state amps.
I know neutral sound when I hear it, but if I had to choose, I prefer a sound that’s superdynamic and lively. In that sense, the Linn delivered -- and how. Via Tidal, I loosed “Younger,” from Seinabo Sey’s For Madeleine (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Virgin), on the Majik DSM through Linn’s Kazoo app, and was taken aback. The track has a thumping, blow-your-hair-back bass line that thrust me back into my seat. Even though my LS50s’ 5.25” midrange-woofers aren’t bass monsters, they provided plenty of slam with the Linn, and with the kind of start-stop control that listeners should come to expect from a proper hi-fi amp.
I turned off Space Optimisation and played the track again, and it was fascinating to hear the differences. The sense of pace in the bass line was diminished, primarily because it now had a boomy quality. Sure, some folks might like their room providing a dollop of extra bass energy to fatten up a two-way speaker’s bottom end. From my perspective, however, the canceling out of my room’s modes made for a far more honest reproduction of “Younger.” Of course, reaping the benefits of Space Optimisation will depend entirely on what you throw at the Majik DSM. If there’s no musical content at the frequencies adjusted by Konfig, the software won’t need to step in.
I pivoted to SoundStage! editor-in-chief Jeff Fritz’s favorite pump-up song for my next selection: Aloe Blacc’s single “The Man” (16/44.1 FLAC, Interscope). The Linn did such a great job of making tracks such as this just pop from my KEFs, with all the presence, clarity, and enunciation I’d ever want. Blacc’s voice was rendered with the utmost precision in the center of the stage, without colorful flourishes adorning his delivery. In fact, I felt as if I could hear the finest contours of his vocal cords, given how squeaky-clean the Majik’s reproduction of his voice was.
I loved the Linn for this kind of hyperarticulation of microdetail. For better or worse, it cast an intense spotlight on recordings. “Frail,” a single by Crystal Castles (16/44.1 FLAC, Last Gang), opens with a sizzling-hot top end courtesy guest singer Edith. When I blasted the track through the KEFs, the treble was a bit aggressive, so I had to turn the Linn down a few notches. While most of this was due to the sound of the recording itself, I did find that, pushed hard, the treble of the inefficient KEFs sounded slightly brittle.
I concluded my time with the Majik DSM by playing “Stay,” by the Swedish synth-pop duo 2nd Happiest (16/44.1 FLAC), and enjoyed the Linn’s many qualities. Other than Sara Ljungdahl Holst’s ethereally ruminative singing, the track is wholly electronic, and the Majik just nailed it. Space Optimisation exerted remarkable control over the KEFs’ bottom end, with zero bloat or overhang of the foundational bass synth. Imaging was excellent, with fine delineation of Holst’s voice that contrasted with the surrounding electronic fireworks, and a high-pitched synth that danced at the back of the mix in the chorus. The Linn’s ability to reproduce music with such visceral, immediate, exciting quality was uncanny. From the first song I played through it to “Stay,” the Majik DSM never failed to hold my rapt attention.
Though Linn’s Majik DSM couldn’t evoke in me the feeling of effortlessness that class-leading integrated amps from Bryston, Hegel, and Simaudio can, and fell a touch short in ultimate transparency, this integrated amplifier-streamer nonetheless proved a thoroughly engaging musical partner. I adored its invigorating sound, its speed, and -- courtesy Linn’s highly effective Space Optimisation technology -- its firm control of the low end. As a pure integrated amplifier-DAC, then, it’s “merely” very good.
But what pushes the Majik DSM into a class of its own is Linn’s suite of apps, which turn the Majik into a thoroughly reliable and easy-to-use daily companion. Media from just about any source can find its way through the Majik’s circuitry and into your listening room with consummate ease. And the fact that Linn’s dealers will set up everything for you, and that Linn promises to regularly issue software updates to ensure that your unit remains up to date, is icing on the cake.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers -- Definitive Technology Mythos ST-L, KEF LS50
- Earphones and headphones -- NAD Viso HP50 headphones, Shure SE535LTD-J earphones
- Power amplifier -- Benchmark Media Systems AHB2
- Integrated amplifier -- Hegel Music Systems H300
- Digital-to-analog converters -- Arcam irDAC, Benchmark Media Systems DAC2 DX
- Source -- Apple MacBook Pro running iTunes
- Speaker cables -- DH Labs Q-10 Signature, Dynamique Audio Caparo
- Analog interconnects -- Dynamique Audio Shadow (RCA), Nordost Blue Heaven LS (XLR)
- USB interconnects -- DH Labs Silversonic, Nordost Blue Heaven
Linn Majik DSM Integrated Amplifier-Network Music Player
Price: $4900 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Linn Products Ltd.
Glasgow Road, Waterfoot
G76 0EQ Scotland, UK
Phone: +44 141-307-7777
High Fidelity Ltd.
12359 Blue Terrace Way
Castle Pines, CO 80108-8154
Phone: (855) 889-9961, (303) 459-4594
Fax: (855) 797-6642