World Premiere Review!
The old days are gone... well, almost. How many of us still have piles of audio equipment connected via cable spaghetti? Is it crazy to dream of simplifying Hi-Fi systems into a very few items of equipment? Doesn't such simplicity come at the expense of quality? There are of course economies in reducing the Hi-Fi box count; chassis costs are high so fewer of these should result in a major saving. Reducing the number of power supplies is beneficial too as is directly connecting circuits internally which can cut the costs associated with providing external connectivity. Sounds simple doesn't it? It's not that easy if you're aiming at great sound quality. Here I take a look at and listen to a very impressive reductionist approach.
A cynical or lazy approach to the reduction of Hi-Fi boxes would be to buy-in circuit boards to assemble into a one-box or two-box audio system. This will probably result in a compact and convenient system that is decidedly Mid-Fi. There can be good reasons to buy-in carefully selected parts but there is also a lot of thoughtful design needed to implement a successful and worthy product. Enter Lindemann Audio. In this review I am covering the Lindemann Musicbook SOURCE and Musicbook POWER 500.
The SOURCE is a very modern digital streamer and the POWER 500 is an equally modern class D power amplifier. These two sleek and slender Lindemann Musicbook products are housed in matching bright aluminium chassis machined from solid aluminium billet. The SOURCE comes with a beautifully clear OLED display, which is much clearer than my photographs suggest. The quality of the chassis is very good indeed and would be perfectly in place with significantly more expensive products.
What is in the SOURCE streamer? It is a very flexible piece of kit. It can stream from Qobuz, TIDAL, Deezer, Hi-Res Audio, with native Spotify and Amazon HD due shortly. In the meantime, "non-native streaming" can be achieved via Bluetooth. For the ROONers out there it's Roon Ready too. Internet radio and podcasts are also included. You can play files these being your downloads and rips - via a USB connection or from a music server (NAS). You can even connect a USB CD drive to enable the playing of CDs. This is a very comprehensive digital streamer but there's more! There is even an MM phono stage derived from the well-renowned Lindemann Limetree Phono, this is wonderful for luddites such as myself.
If all the source options aren't sufficient there are 2 additional analogue inputs. The SOURCE also includes coax and optical digital inputs with USB being purely for storage, USB is deliberately not available as a digital input. There's also a DAC, Pre-amp and a headphone amplifier; yes, all of this is one chassis. It's a small and beautifully formed chassis too. Outputs available as are both balanced XLR and single-end RCA. Quite how so much kit has been squeezed in the diminutive chassis defeats me, it's a work of wonder. The SOURCE connects to the internet either via Wi-Fi or Ethernet and as already mentioned there is Bluetooth connectivity too.
The Musicbook POWER 500 is more straightforward as a power amplifier. There is the usual stereo mode plus there's vertical bi-amp mode with adjustable gain for bass matching and mono bi-amp mode too, so even POWER 500 amplifier has sophisticated features. The POWER 500 is good for 250 Watts per channel into 4 Ohms. There is also POWER 1000 available with 500 Watts on tap.
Getting Into The Technical Details
Lindemann Musicbook SOURCE
The SOURCE will stream from TIDAL, Qobuz, Deezer, Hi-Res Audio, plus Spotify with internet radio and podcasts also being on offer. The SOURCE is "Roon Ready" so it will be automatically discovered by Roon and can then be used for Roon playback. Spotify at the time of writing was only available via Bluetooth (Spotify Connect), it works well enough but of course, you're limited in terms of needing to place your Bluetooth device (likely a phone) fairly close to the SOURCE. Spotify along with Amazon HD are both due to become natively supported in the way that TIDAL, Qobuz and others are already. The SOURCE supports network and USB updates so when it's time to update the firmware to support new streaming services this should be a painless procedure.
There are S/PDIF inputs in the form of RCA coax and TosLink optical; connecting a TV via optical is probably something many purchasers will want to do. Aside from connecting storage, there is no USB input, this is deliberate for quality reasons. I have sympathy with this as I've found USB to give variable results. USB works well enough for most people but to get the best from it can take effort to ensure that noise doesn't enter the rest of the audio chain. Norbert Lindemann feels that USB wasn't designed for real-time audio data and that because power and data lines are encapsulated within the same cable shield this results in noise & coupling issues. This is probably the reason why changing sources and USB cables can result in differing sound quality.
I used TIDAL, Qobuz and Spotify streaming services with the SOURCE. I also played some of my 1000+ albums (FLAC) I have stored on a 1TB Samsung T5 SSD. Files played via USB is not Lindemann's preference as the primary method of playback though it works very well. The Lindemann reticence for direct USB files playback is due a to lack of album art being available when searching; art is shown when files (tracks) are being played though sometimes artwork can be delayed if you have a lot of files. I have over 20,000 tracks so it's a lot of scanning for the SOURCE to perform; I had art delayed a few times but it wasn't something that bothered me.
The Lindemann preferred method for files playback is for the SOURCE to access files from Network Attached Storage (NAS). The NAS device connects to your router, it answers requests for music files. The NAS also does the work of indexing and accessing artwork which results in art being available when searching from the app used to control the SOURCE. The NAS needs to run a UPnP / DLNA server, which most do. The suggested software is Twonky. A couple of years ago the company offering Twonky ceased development; the software is however still available. Other DLNA servers will be just fine, Plex being a fairly obvious alternative to Twonky. DLNA is a ubiquitous standard so there's no problem substituting Twonky with other software. I expect Lindemann will have fresh recommendations shortly. I should add that the chances are that Twonky will continue in useful service to many years to come I'm certainly happy to use it.
Given that I hadn't been using a dedicated NAS but I wanted to see full artwork displayed in searches I installed Twonky on my fanless media PC running Windows 10. This was painless. I had originally used Window Media Streaming (DLNA) which worked well enough except for one well-known Windows foible. Windows streams album tracks in alphabetical order; it ignores the track number specified within the music tags. There is a workaround which involves using a tagging program to add track numbers to the title tag; this only took me about 10 minutes to carry out with the excellent MP3Tag software but I understand why Lindemann prefer more specialist DLNA server software such as Twonky. Note to self... send a donation to Mp3Tag.de. The complexity due to DLNA isn't hard to get your head around if you are IT literate but in reality, anyone starting out without a big music collection should simply subscribe to a streaming service.
Streaming services and local files are both very easy to use so decide on your preference or use both, which is what I do. A USB connected DVD/CD drive will play music via the SOURCE through having splashed out on a streamer spinning CDs are unlikely to be your main source of music however, it's good to have this option available for when someone pops round with a CD.
Streamer Processing Technology
Further probing revealed comments about the importance of the quality of DAC chip, clock chip, jitter performance, board layout and power supply quality. Norbert Lindemann described how complex jitter can be; there are marketing materials suggesting very low jitter specifications for clocks but many of these specify jitter above 12 kHz. This avoids having to reveal what jitter performance is below 12 kHz, where it can increase by well over 100 times this is in the audio range so it's particularly important.
In a streamer, both the digital signal and master-clock are generated by the streaming processor. Cleaning the clock and re-sampling the data with a very precise clock is a vital ingredient. The master-clock in the SOURCE is re-clocked synchronously via a PLL with a Femto reference. MEMS clocks are used by Lindemann as they don't suffer from microphony or temperature drift and ageing. An ultra-low noise power supply results in the clock giving excellent jitter performance measured down to 10Hz. The clock is then used to re-sample the data with 32-bit precision in PCM or DSD as per user selection in the Lindemann app.
Lindemann specialize in re-sampling, they've been working on this for 20 years. In the case of the SOURCE, they use an AK4137 to re-sample using 32-bit resolution. This feeds two AK4493 DACs configured in dual differential mono mode essentially working in balanced mode. The DACs are capable of 768 kHz/32-bit and DSD 512. On playback, you have the option to select traditional PCM or DSD playback. These ingredients are some of the best available.
At this point, I'm better quoting Norbert Lindemann directly rather than attempting to paraphrase.
"In regular DAC chips, the PCM signal is over-sampled and then transferred into a modulation signal by a system which is called "Delta-Sigma-Converter". The output of this system is very close to a DSD-signal. DSD is nothing else but the signal in front of the output interface in most DAC chips! We are using the DACs from AKM in Japan which allow for direct DSD in these chips. You can say we are de-constructing the DAC by splitting it into DSD re-sampling in the SRC and conversion into an analogue signal inside the DAC chip. Advantage: the DSP of the DAC chip is by-passed. The DAC does not have disturbance effects caused by RF signals on-chip. It is completely quiet. Further: the DSD signal is at about 12 MHz. This means the distance in frequency between the audio signal and modulation carrier is very big. So, in playback, the analogue filtering can be placed at 100 kHz. Given a low noise supply, this concept yields a high potential for clean audio. Besides this, the new AK4493 DAC chip is the best performing DAC in terms of low-level resolution and distortion performance so far. I really like it for its musicality."
Preamplifier, Analogue Inputs, And Headphone
There is a well-crafted volume control wheel on the top surface of the SOURCE, this also doubles as an input selector and mute function when pushed rather than turned.
Gain can be set for each input via the app. Headphones between 16 Ohms and 200 Ohms are catered for, the gain is switchable. There is an optional remote control available for the SOURCE, it looks beautifully made what I've seen but I didn't get to try it. The app is what you really need.
I initially used the app with two Android phones and an iPhone 8. It worked well when selecting and playing music. I found the volume control slider a bit hit and miss sometimes, either I maybe missed the slider with my finger or somehow it didn't respond as quickly as I'd expected. It was ok but not as good as I'd hoped so I tried an iPad. The larger screen in landscape mode was so much better for searching, this was a real boon. I found the volume control was very responsive indeed I have no qualms here at all. I recommend using a tablet. A phone will work but honestly, you really want to use a tablet.
The app is where it all happens. You can set the naming of the inputs, choose between 3 gain levels for each analogue input, 2 levels for headphones, set display brightness, enter your streaming service login credentials, access radio stations. Searching for and playing music is all via the app. The app automatically finds your UPnP / DLNA files in your local network, should you be using a NAS.
Lindemann Musicbook POWER 500
The amplifiers have an input impedance of 150kOhms, which is admirably high for a solid-state amplifier. The POWER amplifiers are based around Hypex NCore modules with a custom J-FET input buffer and power supply. Rather than designing a power amplifier from the ground-up it's a smart move to use the NCore modules as they are excellent designs. Norbert Lindemann has brought his own flavor to these amplifiers, which is as it should be.
The POWER takes a couple of seconds to wake up when music is first played, it will go to sleep when music isn't playing, this is after 1.5 hours so that's not an inconvenience, indeed it's a benefit. There are LED indicators on the front panel to indicate the amplifier is on, these denote DC warning, over-temperature warning, over current warning. Not once did I see a warning LED light-up other than quite correctly during the power-up sequence.
Do The Lindemann Musicbooks Sound As Good As They
Given that the SOURCE offers so much functionality in a very neat and diminutive package, it was a natural step to complete the electronics side of the system with the power amp. Having gone down this route I can report it was a good move. The SOURCE and the POWER 500 make huge sense as individual products but should you lust after one, I'd be very surprised if you didn't want to complete the matching set.
The Musicbooks arrived in excellent and very well-padded packaging. Being milled from solid billets of aluminum the chassis-work is substantial. The finish is bright and very attractive. I found the finish to be flawless.
It was good to discover the app I was using to communicate with the Limetree BRIDGE is the very same app used with the Musicbook SOURCE. Even better was that I could use the app to operate with both BRIDGE and SOURCE from the same phone or tablet. For controlling the SOURCE I recommend using a tablet, as previously mentioned I found the volume control to be much more responsive on a tablet than I did via a phone. I'm not sure what the volume control issue was on my phones, possibly it was due to screen size. A tablet makes the most sense anyway, landscape mode displays searches on the left and the album playing the right, it's ideal.
The control app is crucial for any streamer and the Lindemann app doesn't disappoint. Device settings (naming, gain, display brightness), streaming credentials/searching, volume, balance, input selection, radio and podcasts are all integrated within the app and are simple to use. Computer-hosted web streaming apps from TIDAL, Qobuz etc have more richly functional search and recommendations options; however, the simpler in-app Lindemann search works well, allowing searches by artist, album or tracks plus many other options.
I used the Musicbooks in two systems or more accurately with two sets of speakers in two rooms. The Musicbooks ARE most of the system when I think about it. Just add speakers and you're done. My Bastanis Sagamatha Duo open baffle speakers at 102dB sensitivity and a 14 Ohm load are not a typical mate for the POWER 500 but why not? The other speakers were the MarkAudio-SOTA Viotti Tower at 88dB/W/m sensitivity and 6 Ohms these are likely to be a more typical match for the POWER 500 but there's no reason to think even the Bastanis would be a mismatch... they weren't. I'd expect with a very well sorted Class D amplifier even with 102dB sensitivity speakers to betray zero evidence of hum, the POWER 500 passed this test in complete silence. That was a promising start.
Before commencing the writing part of this review, I spent over two months with the SOURCE streamer and six weeks with the POWER 500. Here's a quick characterization for the two units together and individually. What I hear is a sound that provides a wide-range; nothing is missing from the extremities. Dynamics are very strong when the source material demands this. Resolution is high, it's not an artificial juiced-up treble giving this impression, it's real. Separation of instruments and vocals is excellent; unusually so.
I'll dig into three specific tracks to try to put into words what it is that I find particularly special about the Lindemanns. Yes, they are neutral sounding I mean that as a complement there's no euphony which would result in the favoring of particular genres or instruments. An impressive aspect I noticed, and I found this with the baby of the Lindemann range too (the BRIDGE), it was the totally excellent instrumental and vocal separation. This provides a great natural clarity which so often is missing from many systems. The separation I'm talking about is especially noticeable when music becomes highly complex and "full-on" but it can be beneficial with individual instruments and vocals too.
I have a few versions of "Adagio for Strings", listening to the Barber version (and others) I frequently struggle at around five to six minutes into the score when the strings are being worked hard. Many systems turn this section into a confused buzzing sensation. If I were listening via a single-end amplifier I'd be accusing it of Intermodulation Distortion (IMD) where differing frequencies in effect interfere with each other. Google it if you want a fuller and much more accurate definition! I find this IMD effect to happen with a lot of equipment. I'm NOT saying it is IMD, it's just that it has that sort of character. I find a Raspberry Pi as a digital source can sound this way.
I realize the digits-are-digits supporters will say this isn't possible but this is what I hear. Even digital sources have to be well designed. Maybe vibration of critical clock circuitry is a contributory factor. The point is that the Lindemann equipment I've heard does not remotely suffer blurring of complex pieces of music. I particularly notice this with classical music and since I've been using Lindemann equipment I found myself listening to far more classical music that had been typical for myself. I've been enthralled by music which didn't make much sense to me previously; now that music makes musical sense. This is fundamental for musical appreciation.
I played the Nils Lofgren live track "Keith Don't Go", a track that's been used and abused at many a high-fidelity audio shows. It's an amazing demo track for sure. This is a simple, uncluttered recording. When Nils sings "message to millions", on most systems I lose a little clarity such that "millions" sounds more like "zillions". With the Lindemanns, I heard perfect clarity. It's a small thing which I'd thought was due to the recording but now I know for sure it isn't. It's not a big deal for this particular track but carry this effect over to many other tracks it becomes significant.
Another hi-fi clich้ is Jazz At The Pawnshop another great recording. I must admit I've not been the greatest fan of the vibraphone used on this recording or any recording. Truly this was the first time I enjoyed the recorded sound of the vibraphone being played. So often it can sound "plinky-plinky" but again with the Lindemanns I enjoyed what I heard. The instrument made so much musical sense whereas generally on most systems I can't take the vibraphone seriously.
Over the auditioning period I put the SOURCE up against several computer-based players as well as a Pi, another single-board computer and also the Lindemann Limetree BRIDGE, these were fed into DACs costing 1000 to 2000. The only setup that got to being in the same league as the SOURCE was the Limetree BRIDGE into a Chord Qutest DAC powered from a SuperCap-based power supply. Even so, I preferred the SOURCE. It's admittedly difficult to separate all the variables as the SOURCE includes a preamplifier, yet the SOURCE was a step upward in sound quality versus this second best configuration.
People buying a highly functional streamer may not have a record deck or if they do it may well be a secondary source. Given the exemplary performance of the digital streamer, it's not so easy to make a good case for a vinyl setup to sit beside it. I am however for good or bad, wedded to my pair of record decks and historical vinyl collection. Vinyl brings me great joy in listening and use but I recognize that some of these emotions stem from my long history with the medium.
Given my love of vinyl, I was very interested to try out the integral MM phono stage. The phono stage performs very well, it usefully has the option to set its gain set to any of three levels from within the app. I used my Trans-Fi Salvation deck with London Reference cartridge, this is quite a high-end setup, the cartridge alone costs close to the price of SOURCE streamer. I got great results with the SOURCE phono stage. Again, there was no noise (hum), the sound was very balanced and stood comparison with the digital side. Most sane people won't be running multi-thousand dollar cartridges into a very accomplished streamer but here I am doing just that. Even more rare is that I was using an MM level cartridge in effect it's a Decca.
Most expensive cartridges out there are MC types, those with such MC-based vinyl setups will need either a step device or would use a dedicated MC phono stage into one of the SOURCE analogue inputs. I wanted to compare some of the phono stages I had to hand. The best-matched phono stage for my London Reference cartridge gave me just a little more presence and authority. The difference was only noticeable on really punishing bass with tracks such as Kraftwerk "The Man-Machine". I'm pushing my testing here to the limit, searching for fine differences.
When playing 78s on my Garrard 301 with my Ortofon 2M Mono SE the phono stage embedded within in the SOURCE is waaay better than I need! Playing microgroove with my London Reference the quality was still very good indeed. Matching a phono stage to a cartridge is a personal thing. I suggest you try the embedded phono stage, if you have a mid-range deck with MM cartridge or high output MC the chances are high that it'll be perfect. If you still want to optimize your deck with a specific phono stage you can spend $3000 or whatever on an external phono stage to achieve your desired result.
I could write about a lot more examples describing the sheer quality and musicality I experienced with the Musicbooks but hopefully, the examples I have used convey some important aspects.
The Lindemann Musicbook SOURCE and POWER 500 do not do euphony, they instead provide playback which is highly accurate to the recording. Please don't "read between the lines" thinking that I'm saying the sound is clinical I'm not and it isn't. The digital conversion, re-sampling and preamp sections of the SOURCE are clearly very well designed with much experience being in-play here. The POWER 500 and 1000 are based on the excellent HyexNcore Class D amplifiers which are possibly the best measuring and most accurate and "straight-wire-gain" amplifiers on the market. Lindemann add flavor to the Ncore via their own input buffer. I compared the POWER 500 with another Class D amp I had to hand, as well as a couple of Class A/B. The other Class D came closest, matching the POWER 500 in the bass but not achieving the same level of transparency in the mid and treble nor in dynamics. So that's a great result for the POWER 500.
At 3280 for the SOURCE and 2480 for the POWER 500, these Lindemann products are not inexpensive but they aren't crazy money either. Ignore for a minute that their sound quality is superb, let's look at value. The aluminum chassis is beautifully made, proportions are very pleasing and sizing is amazingly compact. It's hard to imagine a setting in which they wouldn't look anything less than stunning. Let's now contrast a traditional system-building approach with similar functionality to the SOURCE:
Phono stage + outboard power supply 700
We can debate over some details of the list above but it's clear the 3280 SOURCE offers good value for money versus a system-building approach. In my view the SOURCE will significantly out-perform many traditionally assembled components. Then we have the web of cables and plethora of boxes scattered across your HiFi rack, frankly looking a mess and causing strife at home. The argument is made. The SOURCE is the conclusive winner. Whilst you're at it buy the excellent physically and sonically matching POWER 500 or 1000. Just do it!
The sound from these Musicbooks are clean, open, transparent, and highly musical. Add to this the value they offer it's a slam dunk!
Lindemann Musicbook SOURCE
Lindemann POWER 500