Linn Selekt DSM: First impressions

Feature

Linn Selekt DSM: First impressions
Monday, October 15, 2018

In September I was invited to the press launch of Linn’s Selekt DSM, their all-new configurable network music player. After being briefed on its design and architecture and taken on an extensive tour of the factory where I saw the new product being made, I auditioned Selekt in numerous configurations and got a feel for what each one has to offer to different systems. 

Linn is a pioneer of music streaming; its players featured an Ethernet input as far back as 2007, when few other high-end hi-fi companies foresaw its potential and importance as a means of delivering high quality audio. Whether that be from personal libraries or online streaming services. Committed to remaining at the forefront of innovation, the firm recently invested £1.1m in new machinery across the entire production process at its Glasgow factory where every product is built, tested and packaged. This has increased its capability to produce precision-engineered metalwork and populate surface-mounted circuit boards. Selekt DSM is among the first of Linn’s products to benefit from this new manufacturing technology. Having witnessed a unit being built from start to finish, the attention to detail that goes into every stage is very impressive. 

Reaching out
Linn has placed Selekt DSM between their Majik DSM and Akurate DSM network music players, with a price that starts at £4,000. A ground up design, Selekt sports a new dual-core processing system and modular design that allows signal pathways to be minimised and makes future upgrades straightforward. Elegantly-styled, the new streamer seems an attractive proposition regardless of where it sits in the DSM hierarchy, not least because it reaches out to customers who may not necessarily subscribe to the Linn ecosystem (or even Ekosystem). Selekt promises lifestyle functionality and high-end performance within any existing system without the prerequisite of owning other Linn products. Linn were keen to stress this at the press launch, and they chose to demonstrate the new streamer using B&W 804 D3 and KEF Reference 3 loudspeakers, instead of their own models. 

Selekt DSM is designed to “bring the feeling back to digital audio”, Linn’s Managing Director, Gilad Tiefenbrun, explained. It attempts to give users the more tangible sensory connection to their music that physical media once provided, a connection that has been diluted with modern methods of music consumption. Central to the new player’s enriched user experience is the jewel-like, cut-glass dial that crowns the unit. Embellished with 100 individual LEDs, the puck-like dial glows when approached and turns with watch-like precision in response to touch. 

As well as serving as a volume control with conventional clockwise and anti-clockwise rotations, contextual tilt and press gestures can start and pause a stream, cycle through a play queue or list of radio stations, and switch to other connected sources. Controlling music in this way is intended to provide a more tactile and physically immersive user experience than the non-haptic swipe or tap of a tablet screen we’ve become accustomed to. It also means music can be accessed instantly without the constant need for a touch screen. 

A row of six customisable smart buttons, crafted to feel like piano keys, are elegantly set in a bevelled edge in front of the dial. These can be assigned to activate a source, internet radio station, playlist, genre or artist from a streaming service or local library, and the relevant information displayed on the onyx-black OLED panel that adorns the front of the player. A half- press of a button cleverly reveals how that particular smart button has been programmed, without interrupting the music that’s currently playing or requiring the selection to be committed to. This is especially useful if you don’t have a particularly good memory and want to avoid the embarrassing situation of unintentionally revealing to your guests that you are a closet fan of Coldplay! The dial gestures and smart buttons can be customised and assigned using Linn’s Kazoo app. 

Selekt DSM streams files over a standard network via DLNA and promises to integrate seamlessly with Tidal, Qobuz and Spotify Connect streaming services. It can also play internet radio via TuneIn and is compatible with Roon. Supported audio codecs include FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, MP3, AAC, WMA and OGG. DSD support is due in a future firmware release.

Connectivity
In addition to the must-have Ethernet port, there are coaxial, optical, HDMI ARC and USB inputs. The latter will undoubtedly pique the interest of computer users and is somewhat of a surprise, given that USB has not featured in any of Linn’s previous streamers. Whether this is a strategic decision to broaden appeal, or a genuine belief that USB has now reached a level of performance that can compete against other protocols, its belated inclusion is welcome as it allows users to reduce their box count by removing the need for an external DDC (digital-to-digital converter). 

On the analogue side, one line level input is provided along with two phono preamps - one for MM cartrdges and the other for MC - that are ripe for pairing with an LP12. The analogue line and phono inputs are digitised to 192kHz 24-bit at an early stage to preserve the fidelity of the audio signal, meaning the phono RIAA EQ curves are applied in the digital domain. The digitisation is also necessary for the use of Linn’s Space Optimisation DSP (more on this later). 

Thanks to its modular design, Selekt DSM’s outputs can be specified at the time of purchase or added at a later date, these take the form of removable cartridges that allow a Linn Specialist to perform an upgrade in a customer’s home with minimal fuss. Selekt DSM can presently be configured as either a source/preamp or as an integrated amp that is loudspeaker-ready. The source/ preamp configuration costs £4,000 and has line-level RCA (2V) and XLR (4V) stereo outputs that can be programmed as fixed or variable and drive either an existing external pre and/or power amp or active loudspeaker system. 

The integrated amp configuration costs an additional £1,250 and has a cartridge containing a bridged Class D 2-channel power amplifier that is capable of delivering 50 watts per channel into 8 Ohm loads and double that into 4 Ohms. The bespoke design applies an additional feedback loop around the low-pass filter which, it is claimed, significantly improves performance over conventional Class D designs whilst retaining the desired benefits of a compact footprint and minimum heat dissipation. 

Selekt’s chassis provides two spare bays for cartridge upgrades that will be available from 2019. These are expected to include a headphone amplifier and a surround sound module containing additional speaker outputs. Bluetooth and WiFi receivers are also amongst the upgrades promised next year. Customers who presently opt for the 2-channel amp configuration will receive a beefed-up power supply which, I am reliably informed, is generously rated for multiple amplifier cartridges. 

Selekt DSM is available with two DAC configurations, standard and Katalyst, which are both modular and ingeniously slot into the larger output cartridge. Each configuration uses state-of-the- art D/A converters made by AKM; standard uses the recently released 4493 chip, while Katalyst uses their flagship 4497 chip. There are lots of excellent DAC chips on the market at present and the AKMs are two fine examples, but the DAC chip is only the starting point. 

Implementation ultimately determines a DAC’s performance within a system, and Linn has spared no expenses with its Katalyst architecture which, for an additional £1,500, provides improved data optimisation and a master clock, independently isolated power supplies, an ultra-low distortion analogue output driver and high-stability input reference level. The latter is apparently an especially important advancement as it eliminates variations during analogue signal creation which, according to Linn, reduces distortion to provide a “deeper insight into your music”. 

Digital room correction (DRC) applies digital filters to ameliorate the undesirable effects of a room’s acoustics, allowing the listener to hear more of the recording and less of their room, and thus providing greater freedom over loudspeaker positioning. Linn’s Space Optimisation (SO) is different to DRC methods that use a microphone to measure the in-room response. It instead predicts the necessary corrections by modelling the physical characteristics of the listener’s room and those of the loudspeakers being used via a series of defined user inputs. Each approach has its own advantages and drawbacks. 

The latest version of SO, which Linn has made available to all DSMs, allows the listener’s loudspeakers and room to be modelled in greater detail than before. Using an improved interface (now accessed through the cloud), users can input more specific information about their room’s shape, construction and furnishing, allowing non-standard arrangements to be represented with much greater accuracy. SO continues to operate at lower frequencies only (i.e. below 200Hz), as this is usually where the most audible problems are and where it’s easiest to correct without impairing the naturalness of the overall presentation. It can now account for the frequency response, as well as how pressure levels in the room change over time, which allows it to control both amplitude response and decay times. It can also apparently vary the priority given to each, depending on what is most appropriate for a particular listening space. 

Impressions
During the press launch I was able to listen to the source/preamp configuration of Selekt DSM, with and without the Katalyst DAC upgrade, and compare it to its pricier elder sibling, Akurate DSM. Through B&W 804 D3 loudspeakers, Katalyst’s superior transparency, cohesion and expression over the standard DAC implementation was palpable. ‘Katalysed' Selekt is in fact surprisingly close in performance to Akurate, and for that reason is worth the £1,500 upgrade to my ears. 

The next audition rather interestingly pitted the amplified Selekt against what would be considered its closest competition in this sector, Naim’s Uniti Nova. The Nova costs £4,200 and is equipped with a Class A/B amplifier delivering 80 watts per channel into 8 Ohms. Both streamer-amps impressed, with Selekt's presentation being a little cleaner, faster and more revealing with superior articulation in the mid frequencies, and Uniti Nova’s being a little warmer and more laid back. The differences were fairly subtle to justify Selekt’s £1,050 premium over its Naim rival, but when you factor in its other features - particularly the DSM’s upgradability and room correction capabilities - the pricing makes more sense. The differences became more appreciable when Uniti Nova went head-to-head with ‘Katalysed’ Selekt, with the latter displaying superior authority, clarity and openness. This of course wasn’t unexpected, given the £2,550 price delta between these two units. 

The final comparison centred around Linn’s new and improved Space Optimisation DSP that Selekt is equipped with. The new SO audibly improved the performance of KEF’s Reference 3 loudspeakers in Linn’s demo room by cleaning up the low end and reducing overhang and smear. This is another advantage that the Linn DSM offers over its Naim counterpart, particularly for listeners who are not blessed with a balanced sounding room or do not have free rein over loudspeaker positioning. Even though SO only acts on lower frequencies, I noticed that the reduction in bass overhang also had the positive effect of improving definition in the upper frequencies. As a seasoned user of digital room correction, I did feel the extent of low frequency correction applied to be somewhat conservative. Less is often best, however, as it is very easy to inadvertently rob music of its cohesiveness and dynamic impact by overcooking DRC. I’m very keen to try SO in my own system to discover how it compares to my existing approach.

Verdict
Experiencing Linn’s brand new, beautifully crafted, ’tactile’ music streamer at its Glasgow HQ was very interesting. It is clear that the company is making a conscious effort to reach out to a wider customer base who do not necessarily own Linn products. Thanks to a modular, configurable and upgradeable design, Selekt DSM can fit within any existing system - as a high-end streaming source and preamp or a ‘one-box-solution’ like the Naim Uniti Nova - or can instead be the desirable nucleus of an all-Linn separates system, passive or active. 

From my brief auditions of Selekt DSM, its sonic signature is very much consistent with Linn’s other DSMs with a focus on clarity and speed, and I feel its performance is appropriately placed in the DSM hierarchy (although I was surprised by how close the Katalyst-equipped Selekt sounded to the more expensive Akurate). Configured with a Class D power amp Selekt offers a clean and revealing presentation. Watch this space for my full review.