Linn Unidisk 1.1 universal player

The war of the high-resolution audio formats has ended in an unofficial truce, with both sides declaring face-saving victories. Not everyone has won. Consumers who took sides and bought either a DVD-Audio or SACD player lost big time, because they're left unable to access all of the great software available in the other format.

I'm one of the losers. I bought an SACD player for my 2-channel system, but the time I've spent with Linn's Unidisk 1.1 player in my home theater convinces me that there's plenty of superb-sounding music available in both formats worth enjoying. There's no need to take sides.

Some early, so-called "universal" players performed a format shell game by converting the 1-bit DSD datastream of SACD to multibit PCM. The latest universal players supposedly play it straight, converting each format's datastream from its original form to analog. But according to Alan Clark, Linn's head of electronic design and the man responsible for the Unidisk 1.1, most, if not all, universal and DVD-Video players offer seriously compromised CD playback. Clark claims that when you put CDs in the drawers of "everyone else's" players, the datastream is routed to the MPEG decoder chip used for DVD playback, where it's processed by a 16-bit/44.1kHz decoder incorporated in the chip. According to Clark, this is easier for the manufacturer, but, for reasons he didn't feel were essential to explain in detail when we met, it's a "fairly compromised scenario."

According to Clark, building a DVD-V player never appealed to Linn, because the company has always considered itself an audio company, and because they felt the audio side of video was merely a "soundtrack" medium. Clark said he'd been invited to Philips' Netherlands headquarters to see the precursor to SACD. But instead of waiting for that format to mature, Linn set about designing and building, from the ground up, its ultimate CD player, the $20,000 Sondek CD12, which many consider to be the finest-sounding, best-built CD player available. It's still available; somewhere between 40 and 50% of the units made so far have been sold in Japan.

But while Linn chose not to build a DVD player, it was a member of the DVD Forum "since day one," according to Clark. When Sony introduced SACD and the DVD Forum finally got around to acting on DVD-A, Clark said, he and Linn became "frustrated" by the looming format war and decided that a true universal player was the only solution.

Linn chose not to buy components from larger Japanese manufacturers that had the engineering resources needed to seamlessly "glue" together incompatible SACD and DVD-A chipsets because it did not want to become dependent on an outside company. Most big Japanese firms build relatively inexpensive products; when problems arise, they put out a new product rather than fix the current model. Reverse-engineering someone else's work to provide customer support when copy-protection standards might change or new disc configurations won't play didn't interest Linn's engineers. As they had with the CD12, they set about designing a universal player from scratch.

According to Clark, designing a CD player is straightforward, as is designing one that also plays SACDs. Designing a DVD-V player that plays CDs properly and "bolting on" DVD-A is also straightforward. The big problem, he claims, is adding SACD to that last configuration.

Linn set about designing a circuit board containing all of the decoding and programmable software chips that would allow the user to slip in a disc, hit Play, and get the desired result, whether the disc was CD, DVD-V, DVD-A, or SACD. The result is Linn's Silver Disk Engine, used in the Unidisk 1.1 and available as an OEM part to other manufacturers in two versions (one uses less expensive parts and somewhat lower build quality). Both feature a complex, amazingly compact, 8-layer, all-digital circuit board. When you slip a disc into a player equipped with the Silver Disk Engine, the board recognizes the disc's format, awakens the appropriate circuitry needed for decoding, and puts to sleep what's not needed. It then directs the datastream where it needs to go and formats it for decoding to analog.

Clark showed me a sample of the board. "If someone had showed you this board 20 years ago," I asked, "would you think it had come from outer space?"

"No," he said. "I would have thought it was a secret military project. Had it even been possible to build such a circuit back then, it would have been the size of a tabletop. No other company has this technology," he said proudly.

But, of course, they can, if they're willing to pay Linn's price for the OEM part. Apparently, many companies have; soon we'll have other adaptations of the Silver Disk Engine, hopefully some less expensive than the $10,995 Linn asks for the Unidisk 1.1. In fact, as this review was submitted, Linn announced the Unidisk 2.1, for $7500.

While some companies trumpet their flagship product's heft, bulk, and, worst of all, operational complexity, Linn has taken the opposite approach with the Unidisk 1.1. They describe the Unidisk as a "convergence" product able to transparently decode and play CD, SACD, DVD-A, DVD-V, VCD, SVCD, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, and DVD+RW, as well as MP3 and JPEG files on CD. That is, stick any of those in the Unidisk's drawer, hit Play, and it plays automatically. If you chose the 5.1-channel layer of an SACD last time, next time you insert an SACD it will automatically choose the 5.1-channel mix, if the disc has one.

Weighing less than 11 pounds, the Unidisk is a brilliantly compact, suave-looking piece of kit (as they say in the UK) somewhat smaller than a Bose Wave radio. Its front panel is simplicity itself: a slim disc drawer of high-tensile metal with smooth, silent action; a large, easy-to-read vacuum-fluorescent screen; and buttons for Open/Close, forward and reverse skip and search, Pause, Stop, and Play.

The rear panel is as loaded as the front panel is simple. There are separate interlaced and progressive component-video outputs, and an RGB output that includes separate horizontal and vertical sync (the latter two not yet functional because of legal issues), all of them with 75ohms BNC, not RCA jacks. A SCART output (common in Europe but not used in the US) is also provided. There's a DVI/HDCP output (not yet functional), 5.1-channel RCA analog output jacks (including two pairs of front L/R jacks wired in parallel), balanced L/R audio output jacks, pairs of S-video and composite video jacks, TosLink and coaxial (BNC) digital outputs, two RS-232 ports, remote ins and outs for use with Linn's Knekt control system, an IEC AC jack, and an On/Off button. While there's no SACD or DVD-A digital out, Clark says that provision has been made for one on the board; when such a standard is agreed to by all parties, the Unidisk will have it.

Then there's the remote control—a long, narrow, unlit but "luminous" torture chamber populated by a thousand (well, about 50) tiny round buttons, mostly lined up in neat rows. At least the navigation compass feels nice to the fingers. An $11,000 player demands an elegant, user-friendly remote. This isn't one.

Video and Audio Setup
The Linn's onscreen display and menu system are as good as its remote is bad. Setting up the Unidisk was fast and relatively easy, thanks to the mostly excellent instruction manual. If your display device accepts both NTSC and PAL signals, set the Unidisk to Native and it will play back both standards automatically. I set the player to NTSC. When you set the video output for Progressive, the Unidisk automatically delays the audio to compensate for the video delay inherent in the deinterlacing process. So far, so good.

The Unidisk 1.1 offers a wider range of setup choices than you'll find in some players, but the manual's explanation of what each option does is skimpy. In the progressive-scan setup, you can choose between two different color-resolution settings: the default setting, High (4:4:4), which adds processing to the video signal that "improves color detail," or Normal (4:2:2), which "does not add processing." I was told to use the default setting, which I did. But a better explanation of what these settings mean seems warranted; most of us are uncomfortable with such processing as scan velocity modulation (SVM), which supposedly "improves" the picture but usually does the opposite.

The three numbers associated with each setting represent the relative amounts of digital information in the luminance (Y) and two color-difference (Cb and Cr) channels, respectively. Because the eye is more sensitive to luminance (brightness) information than it is to color information, the amount of data required to represent a video signal can be reduced by compressing the color signals more than the luminance signal, which removes more color information than luminance information. As a result, a 4:2:2 signal has twice as much luminance information as either color-difference channel on each scan line.