dCS Lina Headphone System Review

Posted on 22nd February, 2024

dCS Lina Headphone System Review

From a prestigious audiophile brand comes this ultra-premium streaming DAC, clock and headphone amp combination. Matthew Jens listens in…

dCS

Headphone System

  • Lina Headphone Amplifier (AUD $15,900)

  • Lina Master Clock (AUD $12,750)

  • Lina Network DAC (AUD $22,000)

This is it, folks, the top of the pile, the cream of the crop. If you’re reading this, you are about to read about my time with the single most expensive headphone amplification system that’s come across my desk in all my years of reviewing such gear. And it’s undoubtedly one of the most impressive, too. 

This towering pile of technology comes from dCS (Data Conversion Systems), the British company famous for creating the genre-defining 950 hi-res DAC of the early nineteen nineties. Chris Hales (director of product development) and Colin Barker (Production Manager) have been in the dCS family for twenty years and have – along with many others – poured their heart and soul into making one of the company’s most extraordinary feats so far.

Lina isn’t just an amplifier; it’s a three-part listening system featuring a network streaming DAC, a solid-state headphone amplifier, and a top-quality master clock. All of which has been assembled by hand in the UK and is jam-packed with proprietary hardware. Can this dCS system’s ultra-premium price tag be justified by the level of craftsmanship and audio excellence it promises?

UP CLOSE

The Lina system comes in three parts, which you can use as a stack or side-by-side if you prefer. The compact footprint of each unit means that they are better suited to a stacked configuration if they are sitting on your desktop. No corners have been cut, as every corner, plug, knob, nook and cranny is built to impossibly tight tolerances. The cases are made of billet aluminium, which may not be entirely scratch-proof, but the finish it provides screams ‘exotic electronic component’ at every corner. There’s even a ‘power link’ feature that lets you power up all the units at once at the touch of a button.

The Lina DAC is an FPGA-based streaming digital-to-analogue converter, which is jam-packed full of hardware and software I/O. It boasts Spotify, Deezer, Qobuz, TIDAL, Internet Radio, and Apple AirPlay support, and I was delighted when my Roon server happily reported that it was Roon Ready. It offers both balanced and unbalanced outputs, and also gives additional audio processing functionality such as crossfeed and frequency filters, all of which can be adjusted on the fly.

Even in isolation, it’s quite a thing. The Lina DAC employs the company’s bespoke Ring DAC conversion engine, as found inside other dCS flagship systems. This is designed to minimise the subjective effects of digital noise on the music. The roots of the technology go back to the company’s original incarnation as a UK defence contractor, working on advanced radar systems. Like all dCS DACs, it is firmware upgradeable – the company is legendary for its customer support.

This is the first time that dCS has fitted a touchscreen to its products, and it works well for adjusting the settings and source selection. The dCS Mosaic control app (Android/iPhone) is the alternative if you don’t want to get your grubby mitts all over the screen. I do wish the streamer had Wi-Fi compatibility, but dCS sees this as compromising on sound quality. The large colour display is a missed opportunity for album art to be displayed rather than just technical playback information. However, such drawbacks are minor compared to the powerhouse capabilities of the DAC itself. It doesn’t skip a beat regarding performance, pairing seamlessly with the other Lina components. 

The DAC plugs directly into the Lina Master Clock, which is something that’s more commonly found in professional audio applications. In recording studios and mastering facilities, such things play a vital role in ensuring precise timing and synchronisation of multiple audio devices, and can directly impact the quality of recordings. However, it’s arguably less necessary in consumer audio, but this is a no-compromise product. dCS is deadly serious about minimising digital ‘jitter’ (timing inaccuracies) to maximise performance. The unit has a clock in/out on the back and a status LED on the front, and is built with impeccable precision to match the rest of the Lina lineup. 

The Lina Headphone amplifier is where I rub my hands together in glee, as it’s my favourite component. Inside its beautiful case lives a bespoke Class AB amplifier chock-full of proprietary technology and selected components, with two flavours of balanced headphone outputs and a single unbalanced headphone jack, plus both balanced and unbalanced inputs. I’d like to give a special shout-out to the volume knob – very rarely do I find such a perfect harmony between material, position, size, and feel. Every single volume adjustment is a joy to make.

THE LISTENING

This is simply the best headphone audio system I have ever heard, with performance that’s unmatched, at least to my ears. I have reviewed countless head-fi products for StereoNET over the years and have not experienced anything better. It squeezes the maximum performance out of pretty much any type of headphone at any price, and shows that the source driving the headphones is just as vital as the headphones themselves. I tried a variety of types, from my trusty Sennheiser HD800S to the little Sennheiser IE900 IEMs, with fabulous results.

With the former, I got a rousing rendition of I Gave You All (Live At Shepherd’s Bush Empire) by Mumford And Sons. It proved no challenge whatsoever to this dCS stack. Adjusting the volume in minor increments to the preferred level, I was immediately struck with the overwhelming feeling of “this scenario is exactly what the Lina was built to do”. The almost impossibly silent noise floor and commanding level of power behind the system were brilliantly suited to the task, with plenty of headroom to spare. When the song’s crescendo hit, the system didn’t even break into a sweat, and chose instead to showcase its superb dynamic range. At the same time, my Roon server reported gleefully that the dCS wasn’t performing any downscaling; the entire song was presented in its raw, lossless glory. 

Next, I switched to some high-end planar magnetic headphones through the balanced output of the dCS amplifier. Firing up Better Than Gold by Justin Hawkes was a delightful experience; the country and western section of the song was delicately and faithfully reproduced with all its detail intact, and the drum and bass section pounded with great authority through the planar drivers. It was lovely to hear the bassline being driven carefully but forcefully, with so much control apparent. Considering the Lina stack can throw a claimed 2 watts of power over a 30-ohm load, I’m not surprised that this song was no challenge. The result was a highly memorable listening experience.

How does the dCS Lina system fare with small, sensitive, in-ear monitors? Often, desktop amplifiers that thrive with big, power-hungry planar magnetic headphones don’t do so well with tiny, delicate transducers. Streaming Nadir by Christian Loffler gave me the answer - ‘admirably’. Each haunting sample was represented with pinpoint accuracy. I detected no colouration of the sound or any output impedance woes – instead, there was detail, dynamic range and rhythmic prowess in abundance. Another flawless, mesmerising performance from this superlative little stack!

THE VERDICT

A headphone lover’s dream, the new dCS Lina system is unmatched in terms of sound quality, technology, design, build and finish. Its impeccable craftsmanship and sonic performance make it a highly important product if head-fi counts for something in your world. The network DAC, master clock, and headphone amplifier work seamlessly together to deliver exceptional clarity, detail, and power – catering to the most discerning audiophiles. 

The only downside is, of course, the price. Yet it’s an unashamedly ‘cost no object’ product - one that sells on the same terms as supercars and super yachts. So, condemning it for being out of the reach of mainstream hi-fi buyers is completely missing the point. If you’re fortunate enough to afford this and place an especially high value on listening to music through headphones, it’s an unmissable audition. 

For more information visit dCS

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    Matthew Jens's avatar

    Matthew Jens

    Constantly keeping himself busy, Matthew is a production manager, Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt, Head-Fi fanatic, coffee enthusiast and all-round cool Dad.

    Posted in:StereoLUX! Headphones DACs Sources Streaming Applause Awards 2024 Headphones Headphone Amps
    Tags: dcs  advance audio 



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