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Linnenberg Audio u:c:a - Fully discrete Hiface based USB/coax DAC+headamp combo

Discussion in 'Dedicated Source Components' started by leeperry, Aug 1, 2012.
  1. leeperry
    Hi guys, I'm quite surprised to see that there is no discussion thread about this very promising DAC+headamp combo from Linnenberg Audio so I thought I'd create one[​IMG]
    A friend of mine ordered it a few weeks ago, he's been really thrilled by its performance and wanted to hear my opinion. He was kind enough to let me try it for a week-end, he even took care of the burn-in part so all I really had to do was sit back and enjoy...I can do that [​IMG]
    [​IMG] [​IMG]
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    Anyway, we're all gear sluts and this DAC doesn't disappoint [​IMG]
    6moons already posted all the internal pics you could possibly think of, this DAC isn't mine and under full warranty so I didn't bother cracking it open: http://www.6moons.com/audioreviews/linnenberg2/2.html
    What's so good about it then?
    [​IMG] Hiface based USB input, connected via I²S
    [​IMG] non-USB powered, as explained here: http://www.6moons.com/audioreviews/linnenberg2/sidebar.html
    So that means that 1) you won't have to mess around with USB power kludges 2) your computer stored music won't go through the usual S/PDIF clock recovery mumbo jumbo(I²S doesn't mix the clock) 3) It's fully async using two low jitter clocks that are multiples of 44.1 & 48kHz(no nasty PLL based clock synthesis from a 12Mhz clock) 4) It supports 88.2/176.4 and 192kHz
    Quite frankly, this seems as good as it gets! Plus, the Hiface is known to play really nice with jplay in hibernation mode which was a mandatory condition for my friend.
    [​IMG] The coax input is managed by WM8804(up to 192kHz), the famous reclocking chip that has become the market leading solution for S/PDIF. Many companies keep using the utterly obsolete CS8416 because it also supports AES-EBU(and DIR9001 is capped to 96kHz), but quite frankly the only real world difference with S/PDIF is that it'll allow the use of longer cables....when the usual audiophile user will use a one or two meters cable.
    [​IMG] Small form factor at 55 x 165 x 224 mm, you can easily carry it around.
    [​IMG] Real 75Ω BNC plug, no out-of-specs RCA here. Every little bit counts, and BNC always sounds better than the 50Ω RCA for coax in many ppl's opinion(it also matches my own experience).
    [​IMG] Fully discrete I/V stage and headamp, no opamp or IC whatsoever.
    [​IMG] Linear regulated 15V PSU with high grade voltage regulators.
    [​IMG] Full Class-A design.
    [​IMG] Manufactured in EU so should you also live in the EU and require RMA, you woudn't have to go through stellar overseas shipping costs, customs duty taxes or weeks of wait until your reseller would ship it back to his own overseas supplier. It also comes with a 30 days cooling-off period.
    So that was for the theoritical part [​IMG]
    Now to the subjective impressions then:
    First, the pot feels really really nice! Inertia is perfect, neither too hard or too light. It definitely has a "german" feeling to it, it's like operating a precision machine of some sort. Its shape is also very convenient for über-finetuning.
    The headamp gain is not ridiculously high, so I can get away with 10:30 o'clock when feeeding my 150Ω orthodynamic Yamaha's. Non-stepped attenuators are known to provide poor stereo tracking <9 o'clock, so all is well here. The drawback of stepped attenuation is that you usually get a maximum of 24 volume steps and some of those attenuators are really hard clicking and create stereo misbalance/static between the steps. So a non-stepped attenuator with a reasonable gain is a perfectly acceptable compromise IMHO, kudos!

    You can always use digital attenuation but it will kill dynamics no matter what(http://www.6moons.com/audioreviews/resonessence/2.html) so quite frankly, there's a good chance that the pot of the u:c:a would make even the most OCD'ed audiophile happy...I know I was [​IMG]
    So it's only a matter of installing the Hiface drivers and firing up your favorite media player, which I much obliged. It's been a while since I had not used fully discrete gear and I have to say that the SQ of the u:c:a clearly doesn't disappoint. When plugging my orthodynamic headphones, I was instantly welcomed by a thick controlled deep bass response, some very neutral sounding mids, soft trebles and an immersive 3D sounding soundstage. Colored, Transparent? Hard to say, as literally everything colors the sound you know, and it's only a matter of finding a sonic color that will permanently leave a big grin on your face(a bit like this[​IMG]).
    All I can say is that PRaT is strong and that the head-bobbing factor is very real when listening to the u:c:a.......you do get to hear where your money went [​IMG]
    Its 192kHz upsampling feature provides very accurate trebles but the surrounding fully discrete design does its best to counterbalance any "over-analytical" character to the sound, striving to provide the best of both worlds: a smooth "analog" sound together with a very clear sounding DAC stage....which would appear to be the very pitfall where many manufacturers seem to have a hard time finding the right balance. Linnenberg Audio have been in the audio business for decades and the u:c:a audibly benefits for their long time experience to my ears, so kudos again!
    All in all, this is indeed a dead serious external DAC+headamp combo "on the cheap" so to speak: you don't get a line input and you can't disable its upsampling feature....but you do get a top of the line USB input, a nice smooth non-shrill sound signature, a highly enjoyable to operate potentiometer, a small form factor and no tweaking/kludging/OCD triggering possible: no opamp or USB PSU to roll, no need to feed a megabuck S/PDIF transport or use a reclocker, it's all there right here right now! 
    It's rather impressive to see this kind of uncompromising piece of audio gear without a 3 grand price tag, when a serious USB transport will already pretty much cost you half of its asking price.
    I was most happy to listen to the u:c:a and share the enjoyment, and I believe this little monster does indeed deserve a thread here on head-fi [​IMG]
  2. nick_charles Contributor
    Cited distortion seems a touch high at -80db, which is substantially worse than say the $350 Marantz CD5004 and that was at -10db which would make me suspect it has a tendency to clip at fullscale like the Udac - but without serious measurements it is hard to judge
  3. leeperry
    Hi Nick, nice to see you around [​IMG]
    Well, I would guess that the CD player you just mentioned is opamps based so surely its THD figures will show as many zeros as their marketing team saw fit(Thank you Dr Feedback). Neither you or I are EE's so if you feel so concerned about the figures visible on their official website, why don't you ask them for further explanations? Speculating is one thing, getting to the bottom of things another [​IMG]
    FWIW, I've heard the u:c:a and it surely didn't sound like a fuzz box.
  4. Deep Funk
    Interesting, more connections and settings would have been nice...
  5. smial1966
    I've had the pleasure of owning a u:c:a for a few days now and concur with everything that leeperry has so eloquently written. This diminutive units sonic capabilities continue to pleasantly surprise me, as it is an extremely accomplished combination DAC/Headphone Amplifier. The u:c:a resolves music files beautifully, with stellar transparency and no hint of digital glare or harshness. Bass, treble and dynamics are precise and not overblown with a lovely `analogue' feel reminiscent of hybrid amps. I'm extremely pleased with my purchase and know that the u:c:a is a keeper! 
    Incidentally, if any UK based Head-Fi members want to hear the u:c:a I will be demonstrating it at the 2012 UK Head-Fi Meet on September 15th in Cambridge - http://www.head-fi.org/t/601003/uk-2012-head-fi-meet-september-15th-cambridgeshire
  6. leeperry
    Hi Andy, glad to hear you liked it coz my friend who bought it is indeed still very much in honeymoon as well [​IMG]
    The combo of the high grade USB input, reclocked coax and fully discrete analog side hit the nail right on the head IMHO.
  7. leeperry
    So I thought I would give an update on my friend's feedback together with pics in his home rig:
    [​IMG]  [​IMG]  [​IMG]   ​
    These are german made ADAM A7X active speakers: http://www.adam-audio.com/en/pro-audio/products/a7x/description
    They even come with planar tweeters, how cool is that: http://www.adam-audio.com/en/technology/x-art-driver
    Anyway, after a few weeks of listening to the u:c:a, that's his feedback:
  8. leeperry
  9. Linnenberg
    u:c:a mk2
    Dear valuable headfi member, due to quite a lot of email enquiries regarding the native USB audio 2.0 support, I would like to take the opportunity to announce the availability of the u:c:a mk2. While enabling a driverless operation for Mac and Linux OS, this USB transceiver is equally well suited for Windows OS from XP up to Win8. The proprietary drivers are downloadable from our website.
  10. lamode
    This has apparently just been replaced by the Linnenberg ARIOSO. This is definitely one product I'd like to audition!

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