Linn Unidisk 1.1 universal player Page 2
How a decoder's chroma-upsampling algorithm was written determines, in part, how smooth the color images look. Another factor is how the decoder deals with progressive (film and computer) and interlaced (video) images, which are normally identified by a special "flag" embedded in the data. Properly implemented decoders use different chroma-upsampling algorithms for progressive and interlaced material, but many decoders simply use an interlaced algorithm for both types. This leads to the so-called chroma upsampling error (aka CUE or chroma bug).
In addition, there is simply no way to upsample the chroma information in interlaced material without introducing visible artifacts; this has been called the 4:2:0 interlaced chroma problem (ICP). At present, the only fix is to use sophisticated filters to minimize the problem. Apparently, Linn does all the right stuff, because I found very little visible evidence of chroma problems when watching with the Unidisk 1.1's progressive output set to High (4:4:4), as they recommend.
The Silicon Image deinterlacer chip used by Linn recognizes the progressive-frame flag, but Linn gives you the choice of setting the Video Detection to Auto, or manually setting it for progressive (film) or interlaced (video). Video Detection is not well-explained either. If you want to learn about 3:2 pulldown, MPEG decoding, or other technological issues relating to DVD encoding and playback in greater detail, check out the book DVD Demystified by Jim Taylor, or go to www.dvddemystified.com.
Better explained in Linn's manual is the Dither setting, which can be used with plasma and LCD panels to improve light and shadow color transitions. Linn probably figures that most techie Unidisk buyers will know what these settings are for, and the rest of their customers won't care because, for an $11,000 player, the dealer will do the setup.
Using the Unidisk 1.1
Using the Unidisk 1.1 proceeded, for the most part, as advertised. When I slipped in a DVD-A, it played. Same with SACD, CD, DVD-V, even VCD (a video-on-CD format that Philips promoted for a while). The 1.1 decoded and played every format I tried, but not every single disc played with ease. A few DVD-Vs and DVD-As at first produced only a display of "unknown disk," but eventually, after many tries, every disc did play.
But wouldn't you know it—on the final day of the review period arrived the stunning, stupendous, unforgettable Deluxe Edition of The Who's Tommy (Geffen/UMG B0001386-36): two SACDs, including a 5.1-channel remix. It gave the Linn fits. Attempting to play back the 5.1 mix, it skipped constantly during various tracks and stopped altogether on others, then locked up—I couldn't get the disc out without pulling the plug and then restarting the player. This happened repeatedly, even after the disc had been carefully cleaned. Sony's SCD-XA777ES SACD player had no trouble with the disc. That said, the two discs of Tommy were the only SACDs that seriously confused the Linn; "unknown disk" flashed a few times during the many months I had the Unidisk, but otherwise, it performed flawlessly.
Linn's press release and literature for the Unidisk devote most of their attention to the player's audio aspects—not surprising, given the company's heritage and the amount of attention it paid to developing and implementing the Silver Disk Engine. Judging by its performance and Linn's longstanding engineering excellence, the Unidisk's video side, while meticulously implemented, is not nearly as innovative. Linn uses Silicon Image's excellent Sil504 deinterlacer chipset. It's considered one of the best—especially for watching films—and is used in highly regarded players from Denon, Ayre, Arcam, Camelot Technology, and others. Other chipsets are said to be somewhat better at handling video sources, but I suspect most SGHT readers are primarily interested in watching movies, and the Sil504 does a more than adequate job with video sources.
However, despite having the same deinterlacer chip as other players I've used, including the highly regarded Arcam FMJ DV-27A currently under review, the Unidisk managed to suppress the chroma bug that is so apparent when those machines play the Toy Story DVD. Watch the top of Woody's red microphone in the early sequence, when he's giving a pep talk at a meeting of the toys. On many players (including the Arcam), the red will break up into stairstep edges with horizontal lines running through it. The Unidisk managed to show it smoothly without softening overall image detail.
Otherwise, whether I watched basic video test patterns from the Avia test DVD or regular film fare, the Unidisk's video performance was absolutely topnotch in every way. Its presentation was comparable to, but not significantly better than, some other players costing considerably less. Compared to my reference Camelot Technology Round Table and the Arcam, the Unidisk's picture quality seemed to have a slight edge in terms of color richness, image depth, and transparency, as viewed on my Hitachi 65-inch RPTV.
But the differences were not what I'd call profound, as all three players offered impressive picture detail and freedom from obvious artifacts (except for the Arcam's chroma-bug problem, which I've noticed during initial auditioning). I raved about Ayre's very expensive D-1 player in the February 2001 Guide—at the time, its subjective picture quality, especially in terms of its creamy yet transparent overall presentation, was unique in my experience. Since then, a few less expensive players appear to have caught up to the D-1.
You won't be disappointed by the Unidisk's video performance, but if you're interested only in video playback, there's little point in spending this much for it. These days, the limitations of DVD playback seem to be with the format, not with the best-engineered players. And once you've seen a high-definition image, the problems inherent in the DVD format become strikingly obvious.
The Unidisk's DVI output was not functional during the review period, so I wasn't able to check out its performance with either my reference Hitachi 65XW20B or Samsung's DLP-based RPTV, the HLN467WX (currently under review); a simple software upgrade will activate it when it becomes available. If you want gamma control, or upconversion to 720p or 1080i, or some of the other picture enhancements available on some other players, you'll have to look elsewhere.
There's no black-level control when the 1.1 is set to NTSC, and the player will not pass "below black." Setting black level using a PLUGE test pattern can be a bit more difficult than with players that do pass below black. With players that can display below black, you set the monitor's Brightness control to where the Below Black stripe just disappears, but the Above Black stripe is still visible. Without the Below Black stripe, you have to approximate the appropriate brightness of the Above Black stripe.
Linn's video design goals for the Unidisk 1.1 match those for their audio-only products: state-of-the-art performance and, once you've set a few basic parameters, no-hassle operation. That's been accomplished on the video side in terms of picture quality and ease of use. In every way, the Unidisk's video performance was as good as I've seen.
Why the 1.1 is Worth $11k
That you can play any kind of video or audio optical disc in the Unidisk 1.1 is a very attractive feature, but Linn built its reputation as a sound company, and the Unidisk was, first and foremost, designed to showcase the company's audio prowess. While the 1.1's video quality was merely first-rate, the audio quality on CD, SACD, and DVD-A was astonishingly good.
But keep in mind that, in the interest of transparency, the Unidisk has no bass-management capability for those DVD-A and SACD discs. If you don't have full-range speakers all around, you'll need to use your processor (Linn hopes it will be their forthcoming Kisto system controller) or an outboard bass manager. With Aerial Acoustic's L/R5s in front (–3dB at 38Hz, rated), CC5 in the center (–2dB at 40Hz, rated), L/R3s in the rear (–3dB at 50Hz, rated), and two SW-12 subwoofers for anything recorded on the 0.1 LFE track, I could get along without bass management.
All of the SACD and DVD-A discs I surveyed in my "Multichannel Sound-Go-Round!" survey (November 2003) were auditioned with the Unidisk 1.1. SACDs were also referenced on Sony's excellent-sounding SCD-XA777ES. Good as the XA777ES is, the Unidisk's sonic performance was on another level entirely. It made the XA777ES sound rhythmically sluggish, lacking in resolution of inner detail, somewhat reticent, and yet hard on top and thick on bottom.