I figured Mark Sossa didn’t really know what he was doing. Sossa is, after all, a young guy (in audiophile terms), lacking the decades of experience of most of us audiophiles -- we’re generally older dudes, and Mark is in his mid 30s. His idea was to bring down a collection of gear he represents through his distribution company -- Well Pleased Audio Vida, of Tysons Corner, Virginia -- and install it in my brand-new listening room. (You can read about that daylong adventure in my “Opinion” column in this month’s SoundStage! Ultra.)
Why did I agree? Well, I admire Sossa’s approach to audio -- his goal for his company is to replicate or even exceed, at middle-range prices, the sound quality of the high-dollar, big-name brands you see assembled at shows like Munich’s High End. Most of the components he carries cost well under $20,000 each, and many of them are priced at less than $10,000. I wondered if Sossa knew what he was doing in wanting to install some of his best gear in a room not built for audio, not yet acoustically treated, and had housed a stereo system -- mine -- for only a week. I had no idea what kind of sound we’d get, and my standards are pretty high: My aural memories of audio gear are of the many components I’d listened to and reviewed in my listening room in my old house: the Music Vault, with which you’re familiar if you’ve read practically anything I’ve published in the past decade. That room was all of the things this new room wasn’t: custom-built for sound, acoustically treated, and constantly housing the best gear money could buy.
So I wasn’t holding my breath for great sound -- not because of the quality of Sossa’s gear, but because of my room. But he didn’t seem fazed, so I acquiesced. I figured it would be a good opportunity to learn what was right and wrong with my new room. Not only that, it would quickly enlarge the number of different sorts of sounds I will have heard in the room, which in turn would help me more quickly establish a baseline of sound quality that I could then use as a reference.
One of the components Sossa brought along was Linnenberg Elektronik’s Telemann DAC-preamplifier ($5600 USD), and it turned out to be a product I’d have wanted to write about anyway, and for several reasons. First, its price: I’m of the mind that 5600 bucks should buy a really good DAC-preamp. After all, for months I’ve been listening to the Hegel Music Systems HD30 digital-to-analog converter, which costs $4800 and has a built-in volume control. It’s not the state of the art, but its sound does come within striking distance of some upper-crust DACs costing thousands more. The HD30 has given me a baseline for great digital sound at a price that’s not crazy expensive, and I figured the Linnenberg Telemann would be a perfect comparison product. Game on.
Linnenberg Elektronik was new to me. They’re based in Schwerte, in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, about 50 miles east of the Dutch border. They’ve been in business since 1994 -- 24 years of experience in the tough business of the high end, a not-inconsiderable feat. Perusing their website for background information, I found it encouraging that Linnenberg says it pays close attention to technical details -- “make every single spec at least 10 times better than what is actually required” -- while acknowledging that “the human ear is always the final judgment.”
The Telemann is a diminutive 6.7”W x 4.7”H x 10.2”D, but inside is packed some serious functionality. One feature that distinguishes it from the Hegel HD30 is its lone set of stereo analog inputs on RCA jacks. Though these jacks come configured as analog outputs, they can be converted to inputs with the change of an internal jumper, a process detailed in the owner’s manual. The digital inputs are labeled thusly: USB, AES/EBU, Coax 1, Coax 2, and Optical. There’s also a set of stereo balanced outputs (XLR), which I used for this review. The USB input will accept resolutions up to 24-bit/352.8kHz for PCM, and up to DSD512. All other digital inputs except Optical are capable of 24/192 operation. Optical is limited to 24/96. The only other rear-panel connection is the IEC power inlet, and immediately above it is the main power rocker. The front panel is even sparser: a Power (standby/on) button dead center in the lower half, and above it are LEDs indicating power-on and whether the unit is being fed PCM or DSD digital input. A simple display gives you information like volume level and input selection. The Telemann’s all-aluminum case is a simple extrusion with machined front and rear panels, all held together with machine screws.
Once the Telemann is connected to a system, it’s operated using a small remote control (supplied), which has aluminum top and bottom plates separated by a foam-lined divider. The remote’s four buttons are Vol -, Vol +, Mute, and Select, the last for scrolling through the inputs. One other function of the remote is to cycle through the Telemann’s seven digital filters, usable with PCM sources:
DF1: fast rolloff, linear phase
DF2: slow rolloff, linear phase
DF3: fast rolloff, minimum phase
DF4: slow rolloff, minimum phase
DF5: apodizing, fast rolloff, linear phase
DF6: hybrid, fast rolloff, minimum phase
DF7: brick wall
Most of my listening was with the DF1 filter selected, as that’s the Telemann’s default setting. In DAC reviews I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of endlessly describing the sounds of various digital filters, and in the process have often lost track of the overall sound quality of the component I’m testing. Not gonna happen here.
A few design details: According to Linnenberg, the volume control “uses a highly sophisticated log. ladder network controlled by gold contact relays forming a constant impedance passive volume control preamp.” The DAC chip is the highly acclaimed ESS Technologies Sabre ES9028PRO. The USB receiver purportedly rejects jitter because “Any form of jitter in the incoming datastream is compensated by a small buffer. The audio data is clocked by a local high-precision quartz master clock, eliminating all timing-related distortions. Furthermore the transceiver circuitry is galvanically isolated from the rest of the DAC.”
Other specifications that you might find interesting are that the master clock used in the Telemann is rated at 82 femtoseconds of jitter, the dynamic range is 138dB, and the output level is 4V single-ended, 8V balanced.
I connected the Telemann to my usual system, which comprises a vintage Coda Model 11 stereo power amplifier capable of 100Wpc in class-A. The Coda drove either Monitor Audio Studio or QLN Signature 3 speakers, both stand-mounted models. Music streamed from one of three sources: an Innuos Zenith Mk.II music server, an Apple MacBook Pro laptop, or an Oppo BDP-103 universal BD player. Interconnects, speaker cables, and power cords were all Siltech Explorers.
The Linnenberg Telemann is a lively and vivid-sounding DAC that should breathe life into mundane-sounding stereo systems. I could see many listeners choosing the Telemann over competitors in an effort to liven up a boring sound that’s grown old and stale. I found that the Linnenberg punched up recordings that sound a trifle constrained to me, and it never did this in a bad way.
During the review period, my 13-year-old daughter asked me to help dissect the lyrics of the Shawn Mendes track “In My Blood,” from Shawn Mendes -- a song I’d heard only over the radio through my SUV’s JL Audio sound system. I hadn’t thought much of it, and still don’t, but I’m always eager to hear what my daughter is hearing and discuss it with her. So I cued it up (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Island/Tidal) on my home system and gave it a whirl. The first 30 seconds showed promise -- and then, of course, the pop production takes over and the sound got glassy and compressed. That first 30 seconds, though, were pretty decent over my home system with the Linnenberg at the helm. The Telemann let me hear fairly deep into Mendes’s voice, and I appreciated the apparent emotional candor of his cry for help. The Telemann just as ably let me hear the compression and glassiness way more than my JLA-based car system had -- it wasn’t much for glossing over poor sound quality.
Wanting to hear more from this Canadian singer -- partially so I’d know exactly what my daughter is listening to -- I found, via Roon, the 24/48 FLAC/MQA version of Mendes’s MTV Unplugged (Island/Virgin/EMI/Tidal). This was more like it. In the hit “Stitches” I could hear impressive depth -- the track’s acoustic sound is augmented by the crowd singing along. Mendes’s acoustic piano sounded clear and present, with enough tonal density to avoid the sometimes thin sound you hear on MTV Unplugged releases. The Telemann was easily capable of revealing each handclap and faint squeal from a teenage girl (or Hans Wetzel) in the distance.
The beat in “Don’t Need the Real Thing,” from Kandace Springs’s Indigo (24/44.1 FLAC/MQA, Blue Note/Tidal), was far more realistically produced in my room than anything from Mendes. This music is more listenable -- apparently, it was made by folks who care about the sound quality. For instance, the shakers sound like real shakers, each tiny percussion sound decaying properly in space. Through some DACs those specks of sound end abruptly in a way that reminds me that I’m listening to a recording. Not so with the Linnenberg, which was very revealing. It was adept at reproducing fine details -- there was no blurring together of the tiny individual sounds that make up a shaker’s sound. And Springs’s voice was smooth, but not because the Telemann homogenized its sound. Though I was aware of the effects that had been added to Springs’s vocal track, the tonality was balanced -- not too warm, not tipped up. It was just beautiful sound. The Telemann did a great job of maintaining the beat in this track in a display of foot-tapping pace, rhythm, and timing, partially because the bass was tight and textured.
On September 15, Joseph Taylor reviewed the Tord Gustavsen Trio’s The Other Side (24/44.1 FLAC/MQA, ECM/Tidal) for sister site SoundStage! Access. There, writing about Gustavsen’s “Re-Melt,” he said that the track “oscillates between major and minor melodies, [drummer Jarle] Vespestad and [bassist Sigurd] Hole laying down a solid groove that lets Gustavsen’s ideas flow easily and logically.” I could easily hear this right at the outset of the track. With my room energized with bass, the Telemann let the low frequencies flow out in a nuanced yet full-bodied manner. The sound engulfed my room, the system sounding bigger than I’d have expected from the size of the speakers used. Each instrument in “Re-Melt” came through distinctly, well sorted out.
As stated earlier, I also had on hand the Hegel HD30. Hegel’s DACs are damn good, and something of a benchmark anywhere near their price points, which top out at the HD30’s $4800. Though I used my Apple MacBook Pro and Oppo BDP-103 universal BD player with the Telemann, for this comparison I used the Innuous Zenith Mk.II music server with both DACs. I matched levels in my system using the Decibel X app on my iPhone 6 and was off to the races.
The Hegel started off strong, with an airy, three-dimensional sound. I could easily appreciate how it let me hear deeply into the reverberant soundfield of the piano and voices in “Ophelia,” from the Lumineers’ 2016 release, Cleopatra (16/44.1 FLAC, Dualtone/Tidal). The sound made my new listening room sound bigger and more spacious, yet the voices remained distinct and dialed in to the soundstage. The center image appeared about 3’ behind the plane described by the speakers’ front baffles, showing that the Hegel was no slouch when it came to portraying depth. Reverberant sounds decayed cleanly, adding to the music’s ambience and mood. I wouldn’t describe what I heard as overtly detailed, but it wasn’t warm, either. I could easily relax into the Hegel’s sound -- nothing was grating or harsh.
The Linnenberg didn’t reproduce the Lumineers track with the same degree of focus or sense of spatiality. With the HD30, I was more aware of this recording’s dimensional qualities -- the Hegel made my room sound larger than it actually is. On the other hand, the Linnenberg produced a more vivid sound -- the piano was more tonally solid, and the tonal characteristics of the voices were more apparent. For instance, at 49 seconds into the track I was much more aware that Wesley Schultz was working harder to reach his high notes. The Hegel glossed this over to some degree. The Telemann brought tonality to the fore, and made any changes or aberrations in the faithful reproduction of tonality that much easier to hear.
Next up was “If I Die Young,” by The Band Perry, from their 2010 eponymous album (16/44.1 FLAC, Republic Nashville/Tidal). Kimberly Perry’s voice was smooth and round through the Hegel, while the bass was just a touch compressed, and the banjo less distinct than I would like. Still, the soundstage was spread evenly across the front of my room, mostly between the speakers, and the depth was again impressive -- at least for a track such as this, which doesn’t have much depth. The Hegel easily revealed this track’s shortcomings, notably the dynamic-range compression and lack of instrumental separation, but still let me enjoy the music. And the music was as enjoyable as ever.
But the Telemann gave me a clearer window through which to view/hear Perry’s voice, and the bass line underpinning the song sounded stronger. Perry’s voice was just a bit bigger and more solid, while the compression I’d heard with the Hegel wasn’t quite so noticeable. It was as if the sound had been beefed up a bit. If I hadn’t been careful to match the output levels, I’d have sworn the Linnenberg was playing just a hair louder than the Hegel. But nope. Although separation of instruments from each other was no better than through the Hegel, I did feel that the banjo’s sound had a touch more clarity through the Linnenberg.
Linnenberg Elektronik’s Telemann is a thoroughly modern DAC-preamplifier with just enough connectivity -- one analog input, five digital -- and audiophile adjustability (selectable digital filters) to satisfy a wide range of listeners. And though it’s put together nicely, it’s not audio jewelry. Its remote control is small and minimalist but works just fine, and the whole kit operated without a hiccup in my system.
But what’s important here is not a successful hunt for a hi-fi trophy but the Linnenberg’s sound. Music came to life through the Telemann, with tonal colors vividly portrayed, a lively jump factor with real transient snap, and soundstage precision to impress your friends. You can get more if you spend a lot more, but I’d want to run an A/B comparison of any such candidate with the Telemann to make sure I wasn’t just getting sound that was different.
Linnenberg’s combination of great specs subjected to final judgments by the human ear has resulted in good things for the Telemann. Compare it with your DAC-preamp of choice and you just may find out that, when the right company is making the product, $5600 worth of sound is all you need.
. . . Jeff Fritz
- Speakers -- Monitor Audio Studio, QLN Signature 3
- Amplifier -- Coda Model 11
- Sources -- Apple MacBook Pro running Sierra 10.13.6, Roon, Tidal streaming; Oppo Digital BDP-103 universal BD player; Innuos Zenith Mk.II music server
- Cables -- Siltech Explorer interconnects, speaker cables, power cords
Linnenberg Elektronik Telemann DAC-Preamplifier
Price: $5600 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Phone: +49 178-7672984