Gramophone Dreams #84: dCS Lina D/A processor and Lina Master Clock

June 21, 2024 0 By JohnValbyNation

I was at least 40′ away when I spied my first dCS Lina stack at CanJam. It was black, sitting conspicuously on a table emitting a strong Space Odyssey Monolith vibe. I can’t remember which headphones I used, but I do remember how good it felt to face the stack and experience its startling clarity, showing off the bass end of a piano keyboard with a force I could feel in my shoulders. That impactful piano bass plus the stack’s matte-finish, neo-Brutalist façade, and feels-like-cashmere volume control, made a strong first impression.

We all know everything sounds like what it looks like—right? It also sounds like what it’s made of, who made it, and how much it costs. Well, the $13,500 Lina D/A converter (footnote 1) could hardly look more different or feel or cost more different than the $46,500 dCS Vivaldi. The Lina is dCS’s lowest priced streaming DAC, so it has to sound less good than my long-term reference Bartók, or the Bartók Apex I reviewed in Gramophone Dreams #75. That’s just logical, right?

I also wondered, what can the Lina DAC do that my beloved $6500 Denafrips Terminator Plus D/A converter, or the excitement-inducing $3098 KTE Edition of HoloAudio’s Spring 3, cannot do?

First listen

My quest to address those questions began with the first recording I streamed through the Lina via its Mosaic control app: the soundtrack to the 2023 movie Poor Things, which I have not yet seen. When I’m looking forward to a new film, as I am to Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest, I read everything I can about it, watch the trailer, and learn the plot. I might even go to YouTube and watch talk show appearances featuring the movie’s principal actors. Always, when I am extra excited about a film, I buy or stream the soundtrack. If I hate the soundtrack, I may never watch the film. If I like the soundtrack, I might play it over and over until I have it almost memorized. That way, when I see the film, I can watch how its sound and visuals are woven together and get a sense of how the director wanted the audience to respond emotionally to the narrative.

The chief reason I am stoked for Poor Things is that it stars three talented actors with strong faces and dynamic personas: Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, and Willem Dafoe. And now, after playing Jerskin Fendrix’s soundtrack a half-dozen times through the dCS Lina DAC, I am fascinated by how most of the sounds, on most of the tracks, appear to suggest the dynamic realtime thinking of Emma Stone’s character Bella. Each scene’s sounds flow like quick-moving thoughts, making me feel like I am observing Bella’s mind operating just behind her big, wild eyes.

With the Lina DAC, the Poor Things soundtrack demonstrated how easily music can communicate the inner experience of living—way better than words, which seem better suited to explaining ideas than describing sensations or feelings.

Nevertheless, the effect of swapping in a new DAC is simple to assess: I just notice what I notice that I didn’t notice before, with the old DAC. In this case, my first impression with the Lina playing the Poor Things soundtrack (24/48 FLAC, Sony-Milan/Qobuz) was how spatially expansive and physically present it made the soundtrack sound, and how big-screen it made the soundspace “look.”

During my first day of listening, I wrote “feels real” in my notes. What I meant by that (I think) was unimpinged. The Lina was offering an extraordinarily clear view of the “reality” of the recording. My goal with these Lina DAC auditions was to keep what it drives as simple and familiar as possible. For the first part, I connected the Lina server-converter to HoloAudio’s Serene preamplifier sourcing the Parasound A 21+ power amp driving my Falcon Gold Badge speakers, with all Cardas Clear Beyond wire. For the second part, I double-checked my observations from the first part using the Lina headphone amplifier with a variety of top-tier planar magnetic headphones.

Watching movies in theaters is exciting because theater sound is engineered to power a big room. Audiophile sound is mostly faint clouds hovering between boxes.

A movie theater is a voluminous dark space where, when the movie’s going, every air molecule is charged with high-powered sound energy. You can feel movie sound on your skin and bones, even in the quiet passages. I presume the multitrack version of the soundtrack I hear in the theater is less dynamically compressed than the 24/96 “domestic” version I stream at home.

When I played the Poor Things soundtrack through the Lina and my LS3/5a’s, it seemed that some amount of the uncompressed theater version was coming through. In my system, the Lina DAC didn’t just kick out some cinema-scale dynamics; it made the Poor Things soundtrack sound bigger—much bigger—and more room-filling than it was with my NOS DACs, like it charged the air more.

As it expressed those Poor Things dynamics, the Lina DAC did not sound mechanical, hard, or gray. Nor did it over-damp, discard, or dull reverberant data I knew from previous listenings was on the recording.

What the Lina did best was expose subtlety, which made listening a fuller, more complex experience, exposing the different sonics of the various tracks of my Walter Greisking Debussy piano collection, which were recorded at different times with different equipment, possibly in different places. The Lina revealed this clearly by reproducing the subtlest levels of reverb in what felt like their proper proportions.

As David Chesky says, “recordings are all about the ‘verb!” When recorded reverb is exaggerated or curtailed, it either blurs, fuzzes, or oversharpens the sound, making very different recordings sound very much alike. That’s not high fidelity.

Compared to the Bartók Apex, the Lina’s sound (without the Master Clock) had a slightly different textural quality, not coarser or finer grained but as though I was viewing performers under a different quality of light. The Lina’s light felt slightly more brilliant than I remember with the Apex and maybe 3o cooler. I rather enjoyed this Lina light—which changed considerably when I changed the Lina’s Filter and Mapper settings as described below.

Lina tech

The Lina DAC 2.0 DAC came in a thick, easy-to-lift (14″ × 20″ × 11″) cardboard box with no tape at all; its end flaps were sealed with industrial-grade rubber cement. On its broadest side, it says “dCS only the music.” On its smaller side, it says “Made in the United Kingdom.” To open the Lina’s box, I had to grasp a glued end flap on both sides with the fingertips of both hands and pull briskly upwards. More fun for me than slitting plastic tape with a box cutter.

Snuggled inside the corrugated outer box was a luxurious-looking lidded box—the kind women’s hats come in, made of black, fabric-textured cardboard with a big, silver-inked dCS logo and tagline. Under this lid, I found a black, synthetic-leather envelope containing a thick booklet of startup instructions and a clear plastic envelope holding a soft cleaning cloth for the Lina’s display. Under that partition, in a cloth bag, was the attractively proportioned Lina DAC, which measures 4.8″ high × 8.66″ wide × 13.3″ deep and weighs 16.3lb.

The menu of digital inputs on today’s DACs can be unpredictable. But I like it when I get all the options the Lina offers: two AES3 inputs, two electrical S/PDIF (one via BNC, one via RCA), one TosLink, one USB Type B, and one USB Type A, plus Ethernet (LAN). Both balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) analog outputs are provided. There are also two Word Clock inputs, two “Power Link” connectors via RJ45, an IEC connection, and a rocker switch for main power.

The Lina’s easy-on-the-eye display sits above four tiny white-light touch buttons that occupy the center third of a neat, smartly designed touch panel. The panel’s glossy surface responded well to my greasy artist fingers and required frequent application of the included display cleaning cloth.

For these auditions, I connected the Lina DAC/server directly to my router via its LAN input and downloaded dCS’s Mosaic network control and streaming app. So far, in my diverse DAC auditions, I’ve found dCS data delivery, operated by the Mosaic app, to result in music with what feels like a purer transparency than I get from my Mac mini or Roon Nucleus+. Using Mosaic with Qobuz felt very minimalist.

What’s inside

During a phone conversation with John Giolas, dCS’s vice president of sales and marketing, I asked him to explain how the Lina DAC is technologically different than the Bartók converters I’m familiar with. He responded that in designing the Lina, “dCS applied no limitations.” They told their engineers to do “everything they wanted without compromise” to optimize sonic performance within the Lina’s form factor and at the Lina’s price point.

John said that the Lina DAC is built around the Ring DAC in the Vivaldi with a slightly different implementation, and that the Lina employs the latest “flex-rigid” circuit board topology, like the Lina headphone amp I reviewed in GD82. As far as he knew, John said, these Lina components were the “first audiophile products” to use this cell technology, derived from phones and cameras, which reduces noise by eliminating the point-to-point wiring traditionally used to connect separate circuit board–mounted subassemblies. When I asked about the Lina’s power supply and transformer, he responded, “Same as Bartók!” (footnote 2)

I reviewed the Lina headphone amp separately because in this report I want to feature the Lina DAC as a stand-alone two-channel audiophile product, to see if it is capable of going head-to-head with any other converter in its price class.

Footnote 1: dCS (Data Conversion Systems), Ltd., Unit 1, Buckingway Business Park, Anderson Rd., Swavesey, Cambridge CB24 4AE, England, UK. US distributor: Data Conversion Systems Americas, LLC, PNC Bank Bldg., 300 Delaware Ave., Suite 210, Wilmington, DE 19801. Tel: (302) 473-9050. Web:

Footnote 2: See

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