North America Premiere Review!
Streaming is the last frontier of high-end audio, or so I've been told. This is critically important, and so here we're reviewing Lindemann's Limetree Network II music streamer. As reported within Enjoy the Music.com, streaming has already conquered mainstream audio with an 84% revenue share. But we audiophiles are a picky bunch. I have dipped my big toe in the audio stream a couple of times, with disappointing results. Both times, I used my laptop connected to my beloved ifi micro iDSD.
The first time I used Spotify, the second time I used Tidal. Both times I found the sound lacking in sparkle and involvement. Based on those experiences, I concluded that, while I might use a streaming service to casually listen to music using my phone, I would probably never use it for serious music listening. Since those initial tries, I've noticed that dedicated streaming devices from well-regarded audio companies have been popping up like weeds in my backyard. The plethora of new devices had me starting to question my stance on streaming. What if I had judged too early? Then, almost on cue, our Creative Director Steven R. Rochlin offered me a review of the brand-new Lindemann Limetree Network II Hi-Res Audio / music streaming device. Sometimes life can be good, very good indeed!
About The Lindemann Limetree II Hi-Res Audio
Lindemann's Network II is a network player and audio renderer that uses your LAN to stream the music. When I took it out of its box, the small size and lightness surprised me. Contained inside that cute little box, is ES9038 Hypersteam2 DAC, which is a brand-new professional-grade processor. This processor supports every file type you can imagine, including DSD. The output stage consists of a high-quality amplifier module, which powers both a headphone jack and line outputs. The power is supplied by a medical-grade wall transformer and the m=noise is filtered to a level of 10 uV. The exterior is classic simplicity with a toggle switch, two LED indicators and a 3.5 mm jack in the front, and RCA line outs, and USB, LAN, antenna, and 5V DC inputs.
Before I plugged the Network II in, I read the manual to figure out how to operate this nifty device. Yes, I'm one of those people. The Network II supports Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz, Deezer, and Hi-Res Audio / Music, and is Roon-ready. In addition, it can accept USB input. Since streaming is what interested me, that is the main focus of this review. I'd like to explore the world of Roon in the future when I have the time and resources. First I had to set up the Network II. I had difficulty linking it using the WIFI, so I temporarily plugged it into the LAN. With the help of my technology-savvy son,, we were able to get linked. Just a quick mention about our internet. We are lucky enough to have Google Fiber. From our living room, we have upload speeds of about 25 Mbps, so bandwidth was never an issue in using Lindemann's Network II.
To evaluate the Lindemann Network II, I used a systematic approach. I decided I would start with the most popular streaming service, Spotify, and go from there. To get higher file quality, I joined Spotify Premium. But before I could use any of the streaming services, I had to download the Lindemann app to my phone to interface with the Lindemann Network II. Once I loaded both, I found linking Spotify to the Network II quite easy. After choosing a song, I could click on the icon in the lower-left corner and link to the Lindemann as a remote device.
With that accomplished, I could use the Spotify interface to select and play music. When I went to the settings, I made sure that I was on the highest stream quality, but Spotify was a little cagey on this matter, since it never says what is the highest possible quality. I was disappointed to realize that Spotify states what resolution of the files. So, with that in mind, I decided to use Spotify as a streaming baseline and to break in the Network II using my Grado SR225 headphones.
Listening, And More Listening
Tidal made a splash as a new streaming service a few years ago, when they announced that they were "the first global music streaming service with high fidelity sound". When I joined Tidal, I chose their "HiFi" option, which allows the listener to stream at up to 9216 Kbps. In addition to the higher streaming rates, many of the files you can listen to the FLAC format, which unlike MQA, are true lossless uncompressed. Once I installed TIDAL on my phone and linked to my phone to Lindemann's Network II, I realized that the interface was different from Spotify. Instead of using Tidal's normal screen, I had to use the Lindemann app to control the device. This interface is quite different from Tidal's.
Looking through the library, I found it very similar to Spotify, with a few minor differences. One of the features I appreciated, using Tidal through the Lindemann app, was their up-front display of the file format, sampling rate, and bit depth. This is where things get interesting.
Tidal touts their MQA (Master Quality Audio) files. These are files, directly from the record label, that are sourced from CD quality or better. If you use the Tidal phone app or PC software, it will identify an album as MQA, but nowhere will it tell you the file information. Thus the Lindemann app doesn't tell you if a file is MQA. A little switching back and forth and I came to realize that all the MQA files I looked at, are 1980's technology CD quality. In listening trials, I found that, compared to Spotify, using Tidal was a more relaxing experience, due to the lower distortion and more refined high-frequencies.
What was interesting, is when I did some A-B comparisons to music I had within my library. The pieces I used for comparison were a CD of Simon Rattle's most recent recording of The Rite Of Spring' [EMI Classics 7 23611 2] and a vinyl LP of Pat Metheny Group's First Circle [ECM Records – 25008-1]. The Tidal files I used for comparison were both MQA files. For each album, I went back and forth using my headphones, to listen to different tracks. I felt this was a fair comparison since my analog and digital front ends are equivalent in price to the Lindemann Network II music streamer. In both cases, I found that music from my library had greater dynamics, inner resolution, and upper-frequency extension. In other words, more of a high-end audio experience.
Based on my observations, Lindemann's Network II was a definite upgrade to my streaming experience, but not what I would call audiophile quality. I had started to write this review based on this experience. Then, Steven reminded me to check out Qobuz.
Qubuz To The Rescue!
Qobuz's wide selection of music led me to the discovery of Lukas Foss: Complete Symphonies by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project [BMOP/Sound 1043]. After listening to these gems, one wonders why Foss isn't better known. Even though this was labeled as CD quality, I greatly enjoyed these dynamic and introspective performances. Next up, David Bowie's Blackstar [Columbia – 88875173862]. This album is in full 24-bit/96kHz and I was delighted to see the Network II LED change from green to cyan, indicating the 96kHz sampling rate.
Once again, I noticed a measurable improvement in tonal textures, in David's voice and Donny McCaslin's saxophone. Mark Guiliana's drums also displayed more high-frequency extension and punch, than I heard with the other streaming services.
Another recording that showed an improvement in sound quality was Lutoslawski: Piano Concerto & Symphony No.3 by Rattle and Zimerman with the BPO [DG 479 4518]. If ever there is a piece of music begging for the audiophile treatment, this is it! All of the subtleties of the amazing Piano Concerto were there. Zimmerman's piano was both extended in frequency response with a deep soundscape. The nuances of the strings could be easily discerned. I felt I was getting closer to the goal, but not quite there just yet.
While I was working on this review, I re-read Enjoy the Music.com's interview with Qobuz's David Solomon. One of the things he mentioned was, to stream properly, you need to use a wired Ethernet connection. As I mentioned before, I had to use the LAN to log the Network II into our network. Unfortunately, our router box is upstairs in our bedroom and the living room, where I do my listening, is downstairs on the opposite side of the house. So, for my final listening session, I dragged everything upstairs and plugged the Network II directly into the router.
Once I was set up, I cued the Lutoslawski Piano Concerto. This was paydirt! The dynamics of this piece jumped right from the Grados into my cerebral cortex. The strings had new life and air, and Zimmerman's piano had true percussive authority. After thoroughly enjoying the concerto, I decided to go into full audiophile geek mode.
While perusing Qobuz's music selections, I noticed that it had Holst's The Planets by Zubin Mehta and the LPO [Decca SXL 6529]. For those of you not familiar with this 1971 recording, it has been on audiophile recording lists since they started making them. Not only that, but the Hi-Res Music version available on Qobuz is 24-bit/176.4kHz. When I hit play, the indicator LED turned blue, indicating the higher sampling rate. The status screen showed that my streaming rate was 5443 kb/s. For all the folks like me, who still remember green and black CRTs and punch cards, it's a little bit of a mind melt.
So how did "The Planets" sound? Quite frankly, amazing. The horns had a beautiful clear timbre, the percussion was jarring in punchiness, and every bowing of the strings was beautifully rendered. It was truly a high-end audio experience!
I probably spent more time listening to the Lindemann Network II music streamer than any other piece of equipment reviewed to date. I took my time, because my feelings were it was necessary for me to properly explore the possibilities of streaming. I did a lot of background research to understand this brave new world of audio streaming.
By the end, I realized the potential of Lindemann's Network II paired with the excellent streaming service, Qobuz. The Network II is an elegant little box that opened my eyes to a new way of listening to music. I would gladly use it as a source, from now on, in my system. Now, I just need to figure out how to run a LAN cable from my bedroom to my living room.