Linn Majik DSM 4 Streaming System Review
Majik DSM 4 (2020)
AUD $5,995 RRP
Mention the name Linn, and immediately thoughts turn to the Glasgow company's iconic Sondek LP12 turntable. However, this manufacturer has a long history in zeros and ones, too. After a little early scepticism, founder Ivor Tiefenbrun took Compact Disc very seriously indeed – and the Karik/Numerik transport/DAC was a reference product of the early nineteen nineties. Years later, Linn's Sondek CD12 joined the ranks of the world's best silver disc spinners when it surfaced in 1999.
Linn's Kivor music server appeared in 2001. It paved the way for the Klimax DS networked music player of 2007 which boasted playback of “studio master quality recordings” at up to 24/192kHz resolution – significantly exceeding what CD could do. It was a landmark high-end streaming product, and more affordable versions soon followed – the Akurate DS, Majik DS and Sneaky Music DS. The latter was interesting for being arguably the first-ever streaming amplifier, an idea that's all the rage nearly fifteen years later. Linn incorporated HDMI inputs into its new DS players in 2011, which it called Klimax DSM and Akurate DSM, and the Majik DS-I was renamed Majik DSM.
No one can accuse Linn Products of being stuck in a vinyl ghetto, then. It has been at the bleeding edge of digital music streaming for decades, and arguably laid down a blueprint for how modern hi-fi looks and/or works, today. Needless to say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and we have many 'all in one' or 'lifestyle' streaming music players now. Even the company's small form factor separates proved to be eerily prescient.
The Linn Majik DSM 4 you see here is Linn's latest and greatest streaming system. It wants to be the centre of your home entertainment system and needs only a pair of loudspeakers to get you up and running. Digital audio is welcomed via wired or Wi-Fi, networking up to 24-bit/192kHz PCM and grabbing virtual libraries stored on your own networked device or from one or more of the popular subscription-based streaming services. Additionally, there's internet radio via TuneIn, alongside Bluetooth and AirPlay streaming options.
Lovers of physical media are also catered for, thanks to eight cable inputs including four 4K-compatible HDMIs and one USB Type B, plus optical and coaxial digital inputs (which can be configured as outputs), along with a set of line-level stereo RCAs. Vinylistas have the option to log into their Linn account (you can also use Konfig for now, but its days are numbered) to switch up the RCA and change it from analogue to phono in the Majik DSM's menu. Doing so updates the setup and makes the RCA line input a moving magnet (MM) phono stage that's said to use the architecture derived from Linn's reference Urika II model.
More pilfering from Linn's upper echelons benefits the Majik DSM's 24-bit/192 kHz DAC design, which has trickled down from the flagship Katalyst streamer. The claimed results of this are improved upsampling, a lower noise reference voltage, and a low jitter clock for better timing accuracy. Everything is pushed along by a 100W per channel Class D amplifier, which sports a digital volume control to reduce distortion.
As well as tinkering inside, Linn has freshened-up the compact 100x350x350mm (HxWxD) Majik DSM on the outside too. Here you have an enigmatic, glossy, monolithic black facade matching its siblings higher up the food chain. There are no colour sleeve images or touchscreen displays here, either – instead, just a straightforward, cut-to-the-chase monochromatic TFT screen; you get OLED if you venture further up the ladder. The screen doesn't stay on and has a lovely effect as it fades away while the Majik DSM disappears into your darkened room, as if by – errm – Majik. The company says that sleeve images are pretty pointless on a screen this size, given that you'll most likely be sat a fair distance away – and I agree. Besides, you have the Linn app or Roon, should you want pictures. The LED underlighting is pretty cool, too. Set to blue by default, it can be adjusted in the settings – unlike the display.
The six handy chrome shortcut buttons along the top are configurable via the smart device app, iOS users get the latest Linn app, while Android fans, such as myself, continue working with Linn Kazoo. That said, the Majik DSM is also Roon Ready so – while Kazoo isn't terrible compared to some others I have used – Roon is my streaming safe place.
Linn's Space Optimisation software is included; in this instance, it's an acronym rather than a place. It stands for Speaker Placement And Custom Environment. Space Op is room correction technology similar to Dirac Live or Anthem's ARC, and ensures that the Majik DSM's output is optimised for your speakers and their placement within your room. However, rather than going down the mic reading path, Linn goes down the measurement route where the room (or rooms if open-planned/you leave the doors open), size is measured, along with ceiling height. Furthermore, the wall, floor and ceiling materials are included, as is your speakers' make, model and position in the room, naturally.
Before you give out a big sigh, as it all does sound like a lot of work, this configuration is typically performed by a Linn specialist. That said, if you want to get stuck in after knocking down a wall, let's say, the software is there in your Linn account and is relatively straightforward to use. Better still, as it's cloud-based, should you get stuck or go wrong, your Linn specialist can sort things out remotely, from wherever they are. Nice…
Chatting with Joe Rodger, Linn's Brand Ambassador and Trainer, about Space Op, I asked why the company decided not to use microphones and instead go about things in what to me appears to be a much more time-consuming method. His first response was simply, “Accuracy”. As he's from Linn, perhaps he meant “Akuracy”? Anyway, he added that “even with serial numbered and calibrated mics, things can go astray with the method”. He continued, “ignoring how easy it is to not position the mic correctly, there could also be background noise being picked up by the mic that you might not necessarily be aware of which can skew the readings”. Fair comment.
Additionally, I found it interesting that Linn's Space Op also takes temperature and humidity into consideration, as both can impact how fast sound travels. This also means that you could have two Space Op settings saved – one for winter when you're relying on central heating, and another for summer, especially if it tends to get humid.
Some loudspeakers I had planned to test the Majik DSM with were not available in the drop-down menu, although other models of the same brand were. Joe explained that if your speakers aren't listed – and hundreds already are – it's mostly to do with the low-frequency driver and its measurements, as Space Op works mainly in the sub-80Hz range. So he suggested that I model a speaker as a point source. He added that, as Linn takes the speaker measurements to add to the Space Op database, the company can send someone out with their DATS V2 kit and measure even one-off speakers, pandemics notwithstanding.
When all is done, the software maps your room set out in 10cm cubes to create a waveguide mesh. Joe says to ignore room features smaller than 10cms, especially in the first instance. If you want to add those features into another profile to A/B them, you can, of course. The reasoning for this is, let's say you have a feature that measures 3cm wide, 5cm tall and protrudes 3cm into the room. Space Op cannot tell where in that 10cm cube this feature sits – is it central, to the left, or right? Armed with all this knowledge, it was time to spend an hour-or-so inputting my room measurements and then have a proper listen…
Linn's new Majik DSM 4 has all the qualities that its manufacturer is famous for. It sounds eloquently detailed, with just the right amount of precision so as not to suck the fun out of your listening experience.
With my Space Optimisation settings saved, I could flick the system on and off at will via the web app. As expected, with it engaged some of the lower ranges scurried back into the cabinets of my reference Marten and Audiovector loudspeakers. This made the music clearer and more evenly balanced, perhaps even more intelligible. However, some already quite thinly mastered nineteen-eighties rock tracks risked becoming genuinely waif-like. Thankfully, the web app allows you to tweak the Space Op setting using a slider between “Flatter Frequency Response” and “Shorter Decay Time”, the latter increasing low-frequency energy.
With Rush's Tom Sawyer via Roon, the Majik DSM gave an expansive acoustic vista, noticeably more so than that of the – admittedly less expensive – Naim Uniti Atom I had to hand when driving my Focal Aria 906 standmount loudspeakers. As the opening synth pad expanded out into my room, Neil Peart's drums marked time reassuringly while Geddy Lee's voice was perfectly placed within the musical canvas. The sense of scale that this dinky device was able to produce now had me in its grasp.
Moving between the Naim Atom and the Majik DSM, I detected an increased clarity with the Linn. It seemed to me like when the optician starts with your current prescription and then drops in that lens that's not hugely different but pulls everything into even sharper in focus. A case in point was Steven Wilson's 12 Things I Forgot. The strummed acoustic guitar was lively and the snare sweetly snappy. The accompanying piano was wonderfully weighted, and the harmonised backing vocals so much more tangible through the Majik DSM.
The wee Linn – talented as it was proving to be – didn't quite have its own way all of the time. The Majik DSM felt just a little too laid back compared to the Naim Atom on tracks such as David Bowie's Baby Universal '97 from the Is It Any Wonder EP. Where the Atom wanted to get up and dance, the Majik DSM was happy to sit with a drink and nod along enthusiastically. The Linn is not lacklustre by any stretch of the imagination, but I get the feeling that precision and accuracy is its main focus, whereas Naim erred more on the side of entertainment.
Dropping the needle down on to Andre Previn's take of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Majik DSM lived up to its name. Its vast and open soundscape proved perfect for orchestral works, and as the famous clarinet opening solo soared, the brass section sounded vast. The entire piece sounded quite hypnotic as the instrumental interplay progressed.
The little Linn box can also muster an impressive dynamic range, as I discovered when this fifteen-minute track progressed through its various themes. Previn's piano work was deft and lyrical, and the Majik DSM relayed this clearly to the listener. This is the kind of place where the Linn excels – it can utilise that precision and ability to keep everything in order and illuminate each element so that you get everything promised on the menu. Even the dense nineteen seventies production values of Funkadelic's Alice in My Fantasies were arranged in such a way that the individual instruments had their rightful space.
Indeed, the Majik DSM has a talent for putting the band in your room. This was confirmed with AC/DC's Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution. The lone guitar sounded quite distant due to the natural reverb captured in the recorded acoustic. However, when Brian Johnson lights a cigarette before singing – that sounded right in the room. Needless to say, I sat down with a beer and enjoyed the show!
Linn's new Majik DSM sports all the features that most people will be looking for in a smart AV hub – plenty of HDMI inputs to cater for their TV, Blu-Ray, gaming consoles, etc. – plus an analogue input that can be switched to a capable phono stage. Factor in its optical and coaxial digital inputs, USB, Bluetooth and networking smarts, and there's little that's lacking in this package.
Sonically it's highly able for a small system, with the incisive sound signature that Linn fans like, which helps to unwrap even the trickiest of tracks. This won't be everyone's cup of Irn Bru of course, but there's no denying it's good at its job. Then, of course, there's the intelligent and accurate Space Optimisation room correction, too. Overall, this is an elegant and versatile package that makes everything easy for the owner, and so comes warmly recommended.