It looks like a CD player. It can perform in both solid state and tube mode. It’s a game changer, writes Andrew Baker.
THESE DAYS IT seems everyone is jumping on the computer audio train. Like toothbrushes, there’s a new DAC/server design almost every week with bold claims regarding ultimate performance and quality. But while I’m happy to stick any old thing with bristles into my gob I have different expectations when it comes to music, so if you want to be successful in this discerning market, you’d jolly well better create something that stands up to scrutiny and actually sounds bloody good. China’s Line Magnetic have decided to have a go and after hearing some of their fabulous valve amplifiers, it was with no little anticipation that I got my hands on their current contribution to the DAC battleground.
Sometimes referred to as the “Shindo of China” on internet audio forums, Line Magnetic are rapidly making a name for themselves as the creators of highly desirable home audio equipment. With their range of great sounding retro-industrial-chic-look valve amplifiers and Western Electric speaker clones, it is easy to see why. And to show that they do indeed move with the times, they have added the LM-502CA digital to analogue converter to the family – as well as a CD player (these days more retro than valves it would seem, but for many folks a welcome addition none-the-less).
Auckland’s illustrious audio merchants Turned On Audio very kindly supplied a unit for review, albeit only briefly – these DACs are already in high demand, with some happy listeners making the kind of favourable comments that could only serve to hurt the feelings of competitors.
Build & Features
The 502CA is a full sized component – 376mm x 345mm x 191.5mm (w x d h) and weighing 6.7kg with an all-metal body and a lovely thick copper coloured front plate, featuring a small LCD display window (showing the selected input and the sample rate), power on/off button and three buttons (all nice metal spring loaded types) for selecting output (tube or transistor) and input; simple, uncluttered and splendid to behold. It looks just like a CD player, but without a CD drawer. It does look lovely though.
Around the back are the usual analogue outputs and fused mains input, along with an asynchronous PC-USB input, optical and coaxial inputs, a BNC input and a balanced AES/EBU input. The USB input uses Xmos USB audio technology and utilises high speed USB 2.0 receiving and decoding 32/192 kHz signals. The company claims low distortion and ultra low jitter “clock recovery technology” with separate power supplies for analogue and digital – a Toroidal transformer for digital and EI transformer for analogue. Using a high quality ESS 9016 DAC chip, the 502CA will take digital signals from 32 bit (not that there is such a thing… yet) 44.1 kHz right through to 192 kHz (all displayed on the LCD screen). The tube analogue output stage uses two 12AU7/ECC82 valves to buffer the signal to true valve output and a 6Z4 is used for valve rectification.
As mentioned, you can choose, at the push of a button, whether to use valve or solid state output (the signal to noise ratio is given at 92 dB for valve and 98 dB for solid state) giving users at least some ability to adjust the sound to their personal taste. Of course tube-rolling is an option too, and if I’d had a little longer I might have experimented with some of the 12AU7s from my wee collection; however, the stock valves in the supplied unit sounded just fine to me.
The Line Magnetic 502CA is easily one of the best digital players I have heard. I’ve listened to a few high quality DACs lately but I reckon this one is a real game changer. With clarity, detail and superb timing and image separation – while remaining musical and uncluttered – it allows music’s rhythm to build naturally into a satisfying climax. It has the ability to make music sound alive and startlingly lifelike while still maintaining a somewhat refined, unforced nature. It is a great looker – pride of ownership is high – has many features and, given its performance, is very well priced. For some people, computer based audio is as daunting and stressful as trying to feed broccoli to a roomful of sugar-maniacal toddlers, but the Line Magnetic endeavours to make life as easy as possible, being easy to set up and use and, of course, sounding fantastic to boot. The 502CA still, for me at least, won’t beat out a good vinyl set up, but if I had to choose a digital source at any price, it would be high on my list without hesitation; in fact it would probably be first.
Audition one today, at the peril only of your bank balance. ANDREW BAKER