Linn Unidisk or Musical Fidelity kW SACD or ???

OK, at the risk of starting a fire I can't control, I am looking for thoughtful advice and input before I buy my next digital source.

I am driving B&W 803Ds with McIntosh (SS) gear. I am in the market for a new CD/SACD player and have scoured the net for reviews, specs, etc. I have been focusing on the Linn Unidisk 2.1 (maybe the 1.1) and the MF kW SACD. My local dealer expects to have audition samples of each in the near future for me. Obviously, I will give both a try and see how they sound in my system. Nonetheless, at the risk of coloring my own perceptions, I am interested in hearing reactions from others to help sharpen my critical listening. For example, some have commented that Linn's Unidisks tend to be smooth, but a bit weak in the bass. This is useful for me to know because it helps to focus my attention.

I am also interested to hear if there are other players that other members think I should seriously add to my list (Accuphase? dCS? Etc.). SACD is a must; DVD-A is a plus, though I wonder whether these universal machines are trying to do too much. My budget is around $7K, but I will go up to $11K if performance justifies it.

This does not have to turn into a "my cdp crushes everyone else's cdp." What I am hoping to get here are "reasonably" objective comments -- based on first hand listening -- about the strengths and weaknesses of the Linn, Musical Fidelity and other CD/SACD players.

Thanks, in advance, to any who jump in and share their thoughts.

Hi there,
I have a Nu-Vista (for about 3 years) and it really comes close to my vinyl which is pretty much all I ask of the format given it's undoubted convenience(especially when alcohol enters the equation).
I have never heard the newer MF players but imagine they will be nice.
Very impressed by my friends Naim player (2nd from top of the line). Sounds like my Nu-vista but better bass and very detailed and supposedly taken to another level by the dedicated psu.
Gryphon players are nice and people whom I respect reckon the Linn CD12 is fabulously 'vinyl like' but it's to dear for my budget.
I have found Musical Fidelity gear to be reliable over many years of use.
Hope this helps a bit.
Thanks! This is exactly the type of info I need. I would like to add Naim to my audition list, but I don't think any of their gear can play SACD. If you were in the market for a new player, would you stay with MF, or would you look for something with more bass and detail?
Just went thru the same quest. I believe the answer to your search is the Classe Omega SACD 2. The price +- $7,000 and the unit is beyond superb. I have an ARC Ref 2 preamp and Atma-sphere amp. Every nuance is there without the dryness. I have a highend analog system, this unit tops it. It is simply a the most enjoyable experiance I've had with my setup. I've auditioned the Lnn, Music Fidelity, Esoteric and Wadia......the Classe is the one for me.

Thanks for mentioning the Classe unit. I was just trying to do a little research on it, but have not found much. How would you assess the Classe's imaging, etc. as compared to the other units (Linn, Esoteric, MF)? I have been frustrated in the past with players that seemed to do a poor job throwing a wide soundstage and holding images in place (maybe it's just my ears, but some players seem to cause the musicians to "move" around the stage, and I am pretty sure they aren't doing this while recording). Can you tell me a little more about what you found when you auditioned the Linn, Esoteric and MF players?
Also check out Ayre's new Cx5e Universal Player just reviewed in Stereophile. Ayre makes excellent products across the board and has first rate customer service. They also stand behind and their support their gear (and customers) with upgrades to existing units instead of rolling out new "breakthrough" pieces every year like MF does.
Biggest problem with Ayre is that they upgrade their website less frequently than their product line! I can't find any info on the Cx5e on their website. I will watch for the Stereophile article. I have another addition to my watch list -- Cary 306 SACD. Thoughts, anyone...?

Walked over to my pile of mail and found the July Stereophile issue with the Ayre Cx5e review. Thanks for telling me about this. If you read the sidebar about the measurements first, your expectations are lowered. But when you read WP's review, you start thinking, "I need to audition this player!" Which I will. I will call my local Ayre dealer tomorrow and see when I can get this unit home for a listen. I am intrigued...
As far as a wide and solid soundstage I would rate the Classe and Linn 1st, Music Fidelity and Esoteric ($13,000) 2nd, Wdia last. The most remarkable quality of the Classe is the immediacy, you become totally involved in the music as if the musicians were in your livingroom. CDs sound so good that you'll never care if there is a new format. SACD is even better. Before you fork out the big bucks definitly check this one out.
Ok, here is where I am. Today I brought home the Ayre C5xe and the Linn 2.1. After listening for 3 hours, I give a slight edge to the Linn on CD, and to the Ayre on SACD. I tried DVD-A in both, but the Linn choked on all 3 DVD-A discs, so I skipped that round. Overall, the Ayre seemed more solid on the bass. The Linn seemed to throw a wider soundstage, which was great on some recordings, but not so great on others. For example, on recordings where the Ayre seemed to compress the stage a bit, at least it was able to keep the vocalist in the center. The Linn, on the other hand, seemed to take these same vocalists and s-t-r-e-t-c-h them to the point where they were coming out of both the left and right speakers in an artificial way. Having said that, I must admit that on an SACD recording of Vivaldi's Four Season, the wide soundstage presented by the Linn player was really great. So in this respect, I have to agree with Steve's comment about the Linn and its ability to create a wide soundstage.

At this point, I am mostly just confused. I look back at my notes, and I see that my biggest critism of the Ayre (its somewhat narrow soundstage) is a mirror-image of my biggest complaint of the Linn (its too-wide soundstage on acoustic and vocal recordings). If I had to choose tonight, I would probably give the edge to the Ayre unit, mostly because of its general balance and the fact that it beats the Linn on price. My local Ayre dealer is also a dealer for Esoteric, so I think I will ask him for a demo of the X-01....Let's see if the big price difference also brings a noticeable performance difference. Unfortunately, he does not carry Classe, so I may have to find another source for a SACD-2 demo unit.

Despite my angst, I have to admit that I am having a lot of fun!
Thanks for the comparison. BTW, are you running the Ayre balanaced through a fully balanced system? That would make a difference. Ayre gear performs best balanced.

Also, it occurs to me that at this price level you may want to consider the EMM gear, which is superb.
Bsal -- Yup; XLR connections from the CD player to the pre and on to the amp. No question, the balanced connections reduce the noise enormously. wouldn't that be nice!
Dear Tin Ears:
Your trepidation was justified -- nobody has said a word about the Musical Fidelity KW SACD. I've owned one for a couple of months now and here are my subjective ramblings I posted elsewhere. I hope that it helps you. I think that the unit is fantastic, and deeply satisfied with its performance. I have not compared it to any of the other units you're considering, but have listened to a fair amount of high end players, and wouldn't trade the KW for any of them. Here is my earlier post:

Hello fellow Musical Fidelity and fidelity fans:
I've been eagerly awaitng some reviews of the new KW SACD player, as I was lucky enough to get one in the first wave. I finally realized that I probably should just share my enthusiasm for the unit.
My KW SACD joins my TriVista 300 integrated, which power Wilson Sophias, and all are connected by Transparent cables. I listen to blues of all eras, blues based and psychedelic rock primarily from 66-71 (and some stuff that the still living dinosaurs from that era currently put out) and a bit of late 70's punk/garage/indie stuff. Also, Pink Floyd, Bowie, the Velvets, Norah Jones, the White Stripes, the Stooges, Dylan, the Stones, some reggae, and whatever else is good and/or catches my fancy. I've been known to listen to some stuff just because of the sonic ear/mind candy quality (it just sounds so good) but generally I hate myself in the morning.
That being said, I am bowled over by the KW SACD. I had trouble imagining how my system would improve (for my ears; after all, this is all subjective). My soundstage was deep and three dimensional, high and wide. Dynamics were great, instrument placement was good, and the sound allowed you to hear quiet little touches while other instruments were booming away.(I won't embarass myself by telling what my prior cd player was . . . oh, what the hell -- it was a much loved and faithful Denon that will be of voting age in another two or three years . . .)
That being said, I was knocked out - out of the box - by the dramatic improvement brought by the KW. The soundstage, already big, became HUGE, as if a billboard of sound appeared in my listening room. The low end not only tightened up, but whole areas of it appeared for the first time. The dynamic range is spectacular, from a whisper to deafening in the same passage (music permitting). The broadening of the soundstage was also accompanied by what a music loving nonaudiophile friend descrbed as "being surrounded by the music." Before, my system exhibited great depth; now, the music seems to come out and wrap around you, and is far less constrained by the lateral edges of my Sophias, as it once was.
The clarity and precision of instrument placement, and reproduction of minute detail is, well, startling. You really can hear the pick hitting the guitar strings; you can feel the steel of the brushes washing across the drums. Speaking of feel, the emotional impact of the music through the KW is remarkable (I'm running out of adjectives). More than once, and to more than just me, the music has brought up goosebumps -- flushes of them, in fact. You know what I listen to, but okay, I'll admit it, Norah Jones brought on tears.
I have done a litle bit of back-and-forth between the tube and solid state output stages, but I've pretty much settled on the tube stage. The realism, presence, feel, warmth, palpability, emotion of it is more to my liking. The solid state stage is good, don't get me wrong, but it seems to trade a bit of these qualities for a bit of a higher frequency push (and maybe even a bit more volume). In one or two instances I found it helpful as a sort of a limited equalizer, but on the whole, I can live without it.
Now, SACD. Aaaah, SACD. With the KW, SACD is like uber-vinyl. There is a distinct smoothness and analogue quality imparted by the (admittedly very few) SACD discs I've spun on the ol' KW. Because the KW does what it does so magically, I might never have considered that there was yet another level of sound reproduction possible. Having heard the SACD side, however, I know differently. All of the redbook playback qualities are, well, just a little more yet with SACD playback on the KW. Now, the hunt for SACD's begins!
Well, there you have it -- my thoroughly unscientific, biased, subjective and rambling thoughts on a great player. Perhaps the greatest praise I can lavish on the KW comes in the form of my wife's reactions. She, who upon learning of my, er, investment in my self, I mean system, quietly refused to come into my listening room. Ever. Until the arrival of the KW. Drawn in by the huge, beautiful sound, she begrudgingly confessed, "I hate to admit it, but that really is amazing." She, who was quietly plotting ways to burn down only this room of the house, looked at me, looked at my system and completely seriously said, "We're going to need a bigger room for this."
Bill P

I love the piece. Its simply amazing. Hope that this helps.

Great post! Thanks for taking the time to give that review. I, too, was surprised that no one had chimed in with a nod for the kW SACD. But it is a relatively new unit, so maybe all those who have one are too busy listening to it to respond ;) I have been trying to get a demo unit, but my local dealer doesn't have any in stock right now. I would love to audition the kW along side, say, the X-01, which is another unit I am surprised no one has said anything about. I guess people are kind of tired of these "help me buy my next piece of gear" threads!
Bill, et al -- Good news (I think)... my local MF dealer is suppose to get a kW SACD in next week from Signal Path. He promises to burn it in a bit and let me audition it. He also carries Linn, and he wants me to run it against the 2.1, which I have already heard. But it should make for an interesting comparison. I wish I could get the kW up against the Ayre, but I had to give that back so someone else could give it a listen. Don't these people realize I am on a qwest?
Good evening, Audiogonnnnn -- In case anyone is out there listening, here is an update....

Today I went to my LD and gave a listen to his Linn 2.1 and the Musical Fidelity kW SACD he just got in last night. I had heard the 2.1 at another dealer, and was interested to see whether I came away with the same impression as last time. Answer -- yes. It is a nice unit and does a good job with the soundstage and keeps the higher end pretty liquid. Still, it is kind of weak in the bass. Interestingly, both this 2.1 unit and the 2.1 unit I listened to from the other dealer could not play the vocal on track 6 of Elenor McEvoy's "Early Hours" SACD.

The MF kW SACD was interesting. I thought it did a very good job reaching low and controlling the bass. It was a tad edgy on the high notes, but I attribute that to the fact that it is a brand new unit with no break-in time, and because the dealer hooked it up by its solid state RCA connections (the cool thing about this player is that it has both solid state and tube connections!).

I have the kW at home now, and I will be auditioning it this weekend. I am listening to it right now, and I am pretty impressed. Not sure where I will come out on this one, yet.

So here is the question, for anyone who has a view -- Audio Aero is launching its new "Prestige" CD/SACD player in a couple of weeks. This will be a $13K unit. If I like the MF after this weekend, should I just get it, or should I hold off for the AA Prestige? Anyone out there hear the Prestige at any recent shows that would like to share the experience? Is any player worth $13K??? Ahh, what an obsession this has become....
Never mind. I have ended the audition. What a huge disappointment! After running the MF kW SACD for a few hours, it would lock up if I tried to play an SACD disc after playing a CD. Instead of just starting with track 1 after the SACD was inserted, the player would flash "Play" and then start scrolling through the tracks on its display screen -- 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. The first time this happened, I grabbed the remote and keyed in the track I wanted. This worked the first time. However, the next time I went from a CD to an SACD disc and had the same lock-up, I could not coax it to play even with the remote. I tried powering the unit down and restarting it, and it worked (what is this, a Microsoft op system???). BUT, the next time I went through the CD to SACD sequence, neither the remote nor the power-down efforts could convince the player to play. Despite the fact that the kW SACD sounded pretty good, I won't get it. At this price point, it is just unacceptable to me that the unit is so finicky that it cannot play a disc. The search continues....

Just curious - did you ever get the chance to hear the Classe Omega SACD 2? Seems like it would be a "bargain" considering what you went through with the MF. How disappointing.
No, I have not heard the Classe SACD-2, yet. That is now at the top of my audition list. The MF demo unit was working this morning. Must be a problem with an overheated circuit or do-dad. Anyway, it is going back to the dealer.
I'm honored to have the opporunity to help break in my dealer's brand-spanking-new KW SACD this weekend --- it's changing sonically almost by the hour, becoming better and better.... The sound is absolutely stunning already --- I've never heard as much detail, dynamic range, or as deep a soundstage as this player produces, and I've done a large amount of auditioning of the high-end players. It also pulls more texture and detail out of the bass nether regions than I've heard before. It really does almost sound like vinyl, especially on SACD. The most amazing part is that it makes CDs sound SO good --- they're absolutely NOT digital-sounding (unless, of course, it's a terrible recording or mastering).

As far as the tube or solid-state output stages, so far I like the tube output stage better. Music just has more body through it, especially vocals. It perhaps sacrifices the absolute minutest bit of detail, but just overall sounds better than the solid-state output.

Anyway, I've just got a couple comments for those others auditioning one/considering one.... I have 2 beefs with the unit:

(1) [BIG BEEF] The drive mechanism is so dang noisy that in quiet passages, I can hear it quite clearly from my listening position (which is about 7 feet away from the KW in one of my 2 systems). With all the ventilation holes in the top, the unit just makes a lot of noise.

(2) [SMALL BEEF] It takes about 25 seconds to load up and play a CD, all the while making all these nasty-sounding noises that are clearly audible per my point (1). It takes only about 10 - 15 seconds to load an SACD. My best guess is that the player must try to recognize discs as SACDs first, fail a few times, then read them as CDs.

Oh, and just so you know, be careful moving this thing around -- it weighs about 45 pounds (oof!) and is fricking huge! (19 inches wide, 18 inches deep, almost 7 inches high). And please note that you probably won't want a rack shelf right near the top of this thing --- a tremendous amount of heat (for a CD player) comes out of the ventilation holes on the top....

Overall, it's an outstanding player. I'll be serious time comparing it to the other player I've got in my house at the moment (a Copland CDA 822, which is also a stunning player for CDs) today. If anything interesting happens, I'll write again....
FWIW, I auditioned the Classe SACD 2, the Linn 1.1, the Ayre C5xe, Esoteric X-01 (and Dv-50), as well as a couple of other front runners...for the money the Ayre was far and away the most impressive. All cdp's were run balanced through my BAT electronics. Some sessions were longer than others and I was only able to a/b the Ayre against the Esoteric, but IMS the Ayre was a wonderful performer and I would recommend this cdp to anyone who needs an SACD/DVD-A/Redbook platform.

I ultimately purchased a new Capitole II and am very pleased with its performance. BTW, the AA Prestige has been about to be released "in a couple of weeks" for more than a year; one of the reasons I bought the Capitole is the trade-up that my dealer guaranteed me for the Prestige.

I've been watching for the Audio Aero Prestige, too. Based on the great reputation of the Capitole, it promises to be a good unit. I have been speaking to the distributor, Globe, and a dealer on the west coast. Both tell me that the Prestige has just shipped from France and should be available for a demo in New England (where I am) in mid-July.

However, I think I may have found my new player. I have had the new dCS P8i in my system for the past couple of days and I am shocked at how good it sounds. Sure, for the money, it had better sound good, right? But I had no idea how good digital could sound until I put this player into my system. I was half-expecting, half-hoping that it would not create this big of a difference. That way, I could be content with a more reasonably priced unit. But this dCS unit was a HUGE upgrade in my sound -- amazing 3D sound stage, incredibly well-controlled bass and silky smooth treble where cymbals sound like...cymbals! Seriously, I was floored. Redbook CDs were particularly good, due I suspect to the fact that the P8i upsamples CD to DSD. My wife would come into the room and just seem me with my jaw agape and shaking my head in disbelief.

If I can work out a decent deal with the dealer, I am going to get one. I expect that the AA Prestige will be quite good, but I love this unit. Besides, the dCS will allow me to run a digital coax from my whole-house music server into it and access its DAC.
I've found the information very interesting because I'm also looking for a new SACD. I was using a Krell Standard (bought used) and had problems with the tray that got stuck. I've also had a Shangling T200 for about 20 months: excelent livelike sound. But, its not reading only SACDs and is mistraking hybrids. Where I live there's no chance of auditioning these players so I have to rely on the opinion of my friends, on reviews and on the web. I've had good reports on the MF kW. The dCS its tempting but it's price is almost twice of the others you have in consideration. The Shangling is a tube sacd, this is perhaps the reason of its livelike sound, very impresive. This drives me more towards the tube like the MF and the Audio Aero. I hope you continue with your reviews.
This was fun and I am glad you and maybe others found it useful/interesting. As fun as the auditioning process was, it had to come to an end. I ended up getting the dCS P8i. The price tag definitely makes you swallow hard, but I new once I heard it that I would be fighting upgrade-fevor if I bought something else. In the end, I probably would have spent more by buying a different player and selling it later at a loss. I was hoping I would get to hear the Audio Aero before I finished the search, but I think it just got into the US. As you know, the Prestige uses tubes, and I expect it will sound fantastic. I was a little bothered, though, by the fact that it converts the SACD DSD signal into PCM. The P8i converts CD redbook to DSD, and leaves the SACD data in its native form. While the players take very different approaches to the D-to-A conversion process, I wonder how they would sound in an AB comparison. Both units are priced about the same, so it would be fun to audition them together!

I am not surprised to hear your comments about the Shanling. I have heard others complain that the T200 transport and pick up are unreliable.

As for the MF kW, despite the mechanical problems I had with the one I auditioned, the sound was very impressive. The build on that unit was almost over the top. It is a huge player and weighs a ton. The sceptic in me had to wonder whether the weight was a matter of form following function, or if MF intentionally beefed it up in order to make it seem more substantial to those audiophiles who tend to think pounds=performance.

Another player I would like to have heard is the Classe SACD-2. I expect it would have been a real contender. Alas, the dCS unit "ruined" my fun. After my audition with it I just had to get one for myself.

It is too bad you cannot audition players in your own system. There really is nothing like testing a player in your home. I brought home several players that I expected I would not be taking back to the dealer, only to find out that, in my system and to my ears, something was not quite right. Oh, well. Good luck in your search.