Sunday, 19 September 2021

UK Audio Show 2021

Chester Group are hosting the UK Audio/AV Show in Daventry on 9/10 October at the DeVere Staverton Estate.

Given the lack of shows in the UK, the exhibitor line up looks very strong and its likely to be busy with visitors starved of shows for so long.

Show Site: https://www.chestergroup.org/theaudioavshow/2021

Exhibitor List: https://www.chestergroup.org/theaudioavshow/2021/brands-and-exhibitors

Sunday, 20 June 2021

LINN's "Classic" Klimax System Hub (2018 Variant) Gets A Surround Module

The recent introduction of the new Linn Klimax System Hub (reviewed here) means there are a few of the previous versions appearing on the used market - a small glut means great pricsd so the 'Musings system has had a nice upgrade to the "front end".

As usual with Linn, the ability to process surround sound is an option and requires a module to be installed into a System Hub (nee Exakt DSM).  Unfortunately for me, the module from my existing Akurate EDSM is not compatible with the Klimax System Hub, so a visit to the dealer was necessary to install the new unit. 

Being a 2020 version of the classic Klimax System Hub, this example has been built on Linn's newest component placement machines and their vapor-phase soldering machine.

Below are some photos of the install steps.

The System Hub is flipped upside down for access to the circuit boards - lifting off the heavy alloy baseplate reveals the Dynamic PSU on the left, an alloy wall for sepration, the main board across the rest of the unit and the HDMI daughter board bottom left

  
Here the HDMI daughter board has been removed to allow access to some of the mounting components.  The metal stand-off in the centre of the board is replaced as it now needs to support 2x boards and the screws centre and right along the bottom edge of the picture need to be replaced with new stand-offs

The new surround processor module is positioned on the newly installed stand-offs

HDMI daughter board re-installed and the ribbon cables reconnected.  Time for a last check on torque of the mounting screws and for the baseplate to be refitted.


For contrast, the install in the Akurate Exakt DSM (System Hub) is quite different as it uses a multi-pin connector to sit directly on to the HDMI board. One picture below for comparison, full series of pictures here.







Sunday, 16 May 2021

It's In The Bag - Semi Portable Music System

Strangely, although I've been using this system for probably 6 or 7 years, I've never written about it here.

When away for 1 night and travelling light, I use a FiiO X3 and a pair of Beyer Dynamic IEMs. Sometimes I'll add the Chord Mojo DAC to improve the sound.  If its a couple of nights or more and I'm on the train or flying I'll add Audioquest Nighthawk headphones for a particular good sounding travel system.

But if I have the car and I'm away for a couple of nights or more then I'll take the semi portable system.

When I first set this up I had a Trends TA10.1 T-Amp to boost the sound from the FiiO X3, which still features as the source.  Later the Trends was replaced by the amazingly versatile Project MaiA DAC / integrated amp.  The Trends was a little more dynamic, but the MaiA is a little more refined and suits the use case better, particularly as it has a weightier bass and less strident top end - perfect to complement a very small pair of speakers. I managed to pick up the MaiA in a sale for £225, a considerable saving on its usual £380-400 price mark.  Its quite a solid bit of kit, so adds weight over and above the Trends, but that was a very simple device with only analogue inputs.

The MaiA allows connection of any standard analogue component using RCA phono sockets - the FiiO DAP, a phone, a TV or whatever.  It also allows a digital source to be connected to its internal DAC by coaxial, optical or USB cable plus I use it to connect my phone over Bluetooth for Tidal or Internet radio listening, particularly late at night so I can control music and volume from the bed - too lazy to get out of bed to switch it off! Carry a 3.5mm to dual phono cable and some hotel rooms will allow connection to the room TV too. A feature that I don't use but that adds to the value is a moving magnet turntable input! Other cables are very standard 42 strand speaker cables fitted with 4mm banana plus, a USB charger and cable and a USB cable in case I want to set up the laptop for some TV catch up or YouTube videos.

Is the FiiO DAC and analogue output superior to using the DAC in the MaiA? I would say that they are on a par, but different.  The MaiA is a little clearer but lacking solidity, the FiiO a bit better with timing and rythmn. Horses for courses.  For sure, adding the Chord Mojo between the FiiO and the MaiA is the best result, but that's more to carry and more time to cable up.  Talking of which, it takes about 5 minutes to set up and about 10 minutes to tear down and pack into the carry bag. Ideal.

Speakers are a pair of Tangent EVO.  I don't know much about the brand but they were about £80 from Richer Sounds around 2010, probably no longer available.

Complete system, a great size for many hotel room desks

The multi-input MaiA amplifier. The Tangent EVOs are fitted with soft foam feet to reduce transmission of energy into the surface - typically a hotel desk.


    
A UK pound coin gives you a good idea of just how compact this system is

The final component of the system is perhaps its most important attribute.  OK, its a very large camera bag, but the whole thing slots perfectly into a padded Lowepro so it can be slung over a shoulder and carried out to the car very easily.


What about how it sounds?  Well, its not a miracle from that point of view, but keep your expectations within reason and its very capable.  Bass goes a little deeper than you might expect and the system goes far louder than I ever need whilst not annoying other guests. There is no doubt the Chord Mojo /  Audioquest Nighthawk is a far superior listen, but the freedom to move around the room and lie in bed without the restrictions of headphones compensates nicely.

Saturday, 15 May 2021

Product Review: Linn's Next Generation Klimax Streamer, KDSM/3 Organik

 


HOW MUCH?

Let's get the most, err, controversial element of this new Linn product on the table right from the start.  But its going to take a while to get there, so bear with me for a few minutes please. 

Here is a £65,000 BMW M4, first sold in 2015 (just over 5 years ago at the time of writing):

https://www.autotrader.co.uk/car-details/202104221685194?model=M4&radius=1500&advertising-location=at_cars&make=BMW&price-from=27500&sort=relevance&include-delivery-option=on&onesearchad=New&onesearchad=Nearly%20New&onesearchad=Used&postcode=ch71eh&price-to=30000&page=1

If the link to the ad no longer works, here's the summary:

BMW M4 DCT;   2016 (under 5 years old);  Mileage: 38,000;  Cost New: circa £65,000;  Price Now: £30,000

But 'Musings is a music and hifi blog, so what's that all about?  Well, as they say, follow the money.

That M4 has endured £35,000 depreciation in 5 years. £7,000 every year, £1 (ish) per mile.  Here are some guesses for other costs per mile:

Servicing (5x £300) =£1500 =  £0.04 per mile

Insurance (5x £750) = £3750 = £0.10 per mile

Road tax (5x £500) = £2500 = £0.06 per mile

Fuel @ 28mpg and £8 per gallon = £10,850 = £0.28 per mile

Cleaning 1x per month at £15 =  £900 = £0.02 per mile

2x sets of tyres @ £350 per tyre = £2800 = £ 0.07

So the guesstimate total for under 5 years use is £57,500 or £1.51 per mile.


Now, if this car has travelled at an average of 50mph (lets assume its not used for commuting in London!) then that is 760 hours of travel / entertainment.

So £57,500 for 760 hours is £75 per hour.


And that's a pretty typical way to spend "disposable" income on a luxury product.  Whilst some might find that a little profligate, its really never questioned.  Luxury cars and the money they consume are normalised.  But hifi?  Oh no, that's in a completely different space when it comes to luxury products.

Let's do a few more loose calculations:

Listen to music = 10 hours per week, that's 520 hours in a year or 2,600 hours in 5 years.

Buy music = 5 new albums per month at £15 (expensive for a FLAC download, a little low for a slab of vinyl) = £900 per year or £4,500 over the 5 years.

Electricity?  Let's call it £1,000 over 5 years.

So, if you prefer music to driving, where does that leave us?

The "sunk" costs of new music and electricity over 5 years = £5,500. So how much should you invest in your system to give you that 2,600 hours of music in 5 years, compared to the M4?

Let's take the £5,500 music "running costs" from the £57,500 BMW 5 year costs, leaving us with £52,000.  So we can now look at this in 2 ways:

Spend the same money on the music system = £52,000 divided by 2,600 hours = £20 per hour (compare with £75 for the BMW)

OR spend the same amount per hour on the music system = £75 x 2,600 hours = £195,000 to spend on the hifi

OK, the arithmetic might not be perfect and its probably easy to pick holes in it, but here's the thing - compare the equivalence factor in cash vs the equivalence factor in "acceptability" in the eyes of others. £75 per hour on a car is generally accepted, but spend £20 per hour on listening to music - you must be crazy is the normal reaction!  But why do I bring all of this car based accountacy to the 'Musings? Its because there are plenty of people losing their cool that Linn has just launched their new "next generation" Klimax DSM - a streamer / pre-amplifier that costs up to £30,000. That's not a typo - it is essentially twice the price of its predecessor, the Linn Klimax DSM/2.

You put a brand new £65,000 M4 on your drive and most will take no notice or be impressed. Put a £30,000 streamer on your hifi shelf and those same people may well be questioning your sanity.  But look at the numbers above - assuming the Linn will be worth around £12,000 in 5 years time you'll have spent £23,500 against the car which will have cost you £57,500, but you'll have had 3.4x the number of hours of entertainment.

So who's the crazy buyer? Either, neither or both?  I think its a choice for the individual here, and I'm sure there are a subset of people who can enjoy both of these luxury products, but really I'm trying to drive at perceptions of value and social norms.  The new Linn is crazy expensive for a hifi product, but its not crazy expensive when compared to luxury products, per se.  A BlueSound node will do as much or more as the Linn in the same way as a Dacia Sandero will do a similar job to an M4 - but that's not what luxury products are about, is it?  I do wonder if the Linn brand can sustain that level of pricing - its a new tier of luxury somewhat higher than their normal heartland.  I wish them well with it, but also think that those (like me) who might've aspired to the earlier Klimax products are just, well, disheartened by the size of the new gap - discouraged rather than encouraged to save for the flagship product. I hope Linn choose to maintain a product priced somewhere between existing Akurate and this new tier of Klimax.

By the way, I'm not in the game of justifying the price of the new Linn streamer, I just wanted to provide some kind of context that challenges why that price may or may not be reasonable in a World of luxury products. Everyone has their own perception of value for money, everyone has their own ceiling that they consider is reasonable within a product category. And that's fine and quite right. But please don't lecture others if they choose a different mix of parameters from you.

Which is a long winded way to get to the product itsself, so let's take a look.

(NEXT GENERATION) LINN KLIMAX DSM

Naming - sometimes Linn are inspired (LP12, Klout, Kremlin), sometimes mundane (350, Basik) but quite often just a bit, well, contrary.  And here, in my view, we're in the latter territory.  Klimax has been the top of the house range for about 15 years. The last streamer / pre-amp was called the Klimax DSM/2 (being, confusingly, the 3rd generation of this product).  That's a very elegant, slim, understated but quality design. So now we have a new Klimax DSM/3 (2020 variant) which is in a brand new enclosure, features a brand new Organik DAC and is twice the price of a DSM/2. It'll be a replacement, right? Well, no, or at least not yet. The existing DSM/2 will continue in the range with its onboard Katalyst DAC.  As will the Klimax System Hub which is the Exakt only version that has no DAC - of which there is also a next generation version, presumably named Klimax System Hub/1.  Even more confusing, the older Klimax DSM/2 will later be upgradable from Katalyst to Organik DAC.  Goodness knows what they'll call that version!  Its almost as if its all designed to be confusing so that you feel the need to go to a dealer just to figure out what's going on - if they're not scratching their heads too of course!

In physical terms, here's the old one (black and silver options):


and here's the new one (black and silver options):


Looks are very much a personal thing, of course.  For me, the pictures make the new DSM look a bit, well, clunky next to the original which is slim and elegant. The review sample was silver, which, when looked at from the top is well finished and attractive with is machined in "record grooves" and classy but understated Linn logo to the left rear, also machined into the panel.  From the side though, the way the silver top plate overlaps the black display glass is a little jarring.  I expect this will not be an issue with the black version.  The 3 feet (the front one aligned centrally, echoing the dial) are well finished with a polished look - high quality but a little blingy for my taste. The front full width panel acts pretty much as a mirror when the display is dormant.  When the display is in use the font is extremely clear, simple, attractive and understated but its pretty obvious that the display is not full width which spoils the effect a little.  There is a "LINN KLIMAX DSM" illuminated logo at the bottom right of the front panel which is much nicer that the old Linn ultra bright blue LED.  The display goes to sleep after a few seconds of no changes but comes back to life when you approach the device (optionally - this can be switched off) or when the track changes or an instruction to do something is sent to the device or input by the dial.

Along the front are a row of high quality feel switches which can be "pinned" with a user defined function - perhaps go straight to a radio station, or a streaming service playlist, or an album.  Useful if the unit is being used by members of the household who aren't into the whole hifi stuff for quick access to what they normally like to listen to.  The remote is the standard £55 Linn slimline unit - neat enough, but not in the same league as the finish and luxury of the main unit.

Knob - where do you stand on the knob, or "dial" as Linn prefer to refer to it? Its a beautifully crafted thing - the action is smooth, the circle of LEDs very responsive, the finish first class, the inscription full of confidence.  The vertical click action (for on/off) is not very positive and has a tiny bit of "squish" - the rocking action (for next track, for example) is quite a pronounced movement, much further than I was expecting, but I guess that is to avoid accidentally actioning something unwanted. For me, and I know this is a personal thing, the dial is fabulous in a couple of ways - it is a fabulous bit of jewellery and a fabulous waste of money.  I would never use it as everything it does can be done from the listening position - on your tablet, PC, phone.


Beautifully crafted jewellery. From my perspective, it adds nothing to the user experience and nothing to the way it sounds.

The top plate is machined with curved grooves from about 1/3 of the way from the front right to the back and this is enhanced by the deeply machined "Linn" logo at the left rear corner.  All very crisply executed.

Groovy

Back panel connectivity depends on if you select Music (no HDMI) or AV (with HDMI) versions. Included are ethernet ports in both copper and (new to Linn) optical connectors, USB, optical digital, analogue, coax digital and Exaktlinks. Addition Linn is now supporting wifi and bluetooth connectivity.  As with other Linn streamers, management of the product (setting preferences, amending room optimisation options etc.) are available through the desktop Konfig application and your online Linn account in a browser.  I noted that Konfig does not allow the rear panel LEDs to be turned off as they are in other streamers, but Beta versions of the Davaar operating system suggest that this is on the way.  It is totally necessary otherwise the flashing network LEDs reflect distractingly against the wall behind the device (post review update: software has been updated to allow the LEDs to be switched off).   I'm not clear on the precise details, but I understand some, or all, of the circuit boards inside the unit are on suspension systems and this was a major part of delivering the performance improvements.

Here are a few shots of unboxing the device:

 

Chunkier than the traditional Linn packaging

Pair of Linn "silver" interconnects, standard mains lead, standard Linn slimline remote

The unit is enveloped in a folded thick soft plastic wrap which curiously leaves the dial uncovered - I understand that there is a separate piece of vinyl for the dial which has gone missing on the review sample - this unit has already been out for demos in several homes

Peeling back the wrap

Unboxed

The KDSM/3, as with all Linn streamers, supports the Glaswegian approach to room optimisation called SPACE.  I won't go into the details here, you can learn more at Linn: SPACE Explained

As with the original generation of Klimax product, this new version is machined from solid alloy billets in Linn's in-house machining department. Here's a video featuring the previous generation Klimax DSM where you can see the complexity of the internal machining:



Some internal photos of KDSM/3 from Linn dealer Silences are available here: https://blog.silences.be/2021/04/klimax-dsm-organik-ouverture-des.html

Then there's the whole Selekt comparison - they're visually, superficially, very similar but sit in very different price brackets indeed.  Clearly Linn like this form factor, but is the Selekt too similar and might it therefore subconciously eat into the Klimax's kudos?

Price run-down:

Klimax DSM/3 Music - £30,000; onboard stereo Organik DAC, aimed at being a source / pre-amp in a traditional system. Can be used as a source / pre-amp in an Exakt system, but that's not very cost efficient.

Klimax DSM/3 AV - £30,000; onboard stereo Organik DAC but also HDMI inputs to enable connection to video related sources. Can be used as a source / processor in an Exakt system when equipped with the optional £1200 surround processor module. Can be used as a source / pre-amp in an Exakt system, but that's not very cost efficient.

Klimax System Hub/1 - £15,000; no onboard DAC, can only be used as a source / pre-amp in a full Exakt system (Linn Exakt active speakers or more interestingly with Exaktboxes and power amps to feed a wider range of speakers). Has HDMI inputs and can be used with the optional surround processor module (£1200) for DTS / DD high definition surround goodness. 

The unit on review as the AV version and has been used for several tens of hours already - I didn't notice any "burn in" nor "warm up" when listening - but then again all listening was done after at least 20 minutes of playing as that's necessary for the Lejonklou amps to come fully on song.

Highly reflective front panel

AV Version Rear Panel - inputs on the lower half and top left, outputs top right

Once connected to the network, just like any other Linn streamer, the new box appears in Konfig for set up purposes:



At the time of the review the product was about 2 weeks old. There was already a software update available to install.


NEXT GENERATION KLIMAX DSM AS A SYSTEM HUB IN AN EXAKT ACTIVE SYSTEM

Snappy subtitle there.  There are 2 ways you can use a new fully featured Klimax DSM/3 - either with its internal stereo Organik DAC as a source into a traditional pre-amp / power amp / passive speaker system, or you can use the Exaktlink output and connect it to a pair of Linn Exakt active speakers or to one or more Linn Exaktboxes and power amps into speakers that are ready to accept an active signal per individual drive unit.  It is this second context that we explore here as that's how it easily sits into my regular system.  If used in this way then it would be better to go with the DACless Klimax System Hub/1 which halves the purchase price. Of course, its necessary to have the Linn Exaktbox DACs or a set of Linn Exakt speakers with their integrated DACs and power amps, so that money is spent elsewhere, albeit with more choice of price points.

More information on Linn's Exakt technology can be found here: https://www.linn.co.uk/uk/technology/exakt  If you look at that page you'll see that Linn claims Exakt transfers digital data to the DAC and on to the speakers flawlessly.  So why would anyone purchase a Klimax System Hub at £15k when "exaktly" the same digital information can be delivered by a new Akurate System Hub at £2700 or even a used Majik DSM at £1500?  A very valid question. 

So, finally, on to some listening.  The system used for this demo:

PS Audio PowerPlant 5 power regenerator powering DSM, Exaktbox and Melco.

Melco N1ZH "NAS"

Linn Akurate Exaktbox 6/1 (with Katalyst DACs)

3x Lejonklou Tundra Stereo 2.5 power amps

PMC Twenty.26 speakers converted for active use, Gaia III feet

PMC Twenty.26 Exakt Filters Production v2.2 by Speakerfilters.com

Quadraspire Evo racks, Cyrus Isoplat isolation platforms

Cables by Chord, Meicord, Linn, Naim, Puritan

Comparisons between the AEDSM and KDSM/3 were achieved by moving the cables to the Melco and the Exaktbox between the 2 units, hence minimising changes. Both were powered from the PS Audio using Puritan mains cables.  As the KDSM/3 on demo was not fitted with the optional surround module, all the listening was to stereo music.

SPACE Optimisation was the same for both devices - my regular settings were used.

Here's the silver demo unit sitting alongside my Akurate Exakt DSM (now named Akurate System Hub, but functionally identical to each other):





A streamer - it just takes 1s and 0s from a storage drive (local, or in the cloud) across a network, reads some metadata for control / information purposes, and passes the 1s and 0s unmolested along to the DAC which turns them into analogue waveforms that we can listen to, after amplification.

Right?  So as long as the streamer is competent, there will be no difference in the 1s and 0s that get to the DAC and its all about the DAC. Right?

In my Exakt system the Klimax DSM is doing precisely the same job as the Akurate Exakt DSM that is the main source / pre-amp in use every single day.  With the system being Exakt, the DAC is at the end of another piece of Cat 5/6/7 cable in the Exaktbox which does the Exakt phase correction, separation of frequencies for each speaker drive unit and applies time correction, room optimisation and volume levels. So, in this demo the Klimax DSM/3 is only acting as though it were a Klimax System Hub/1 which would be a much more cost effective approach in this system.

Start up sequence:


 

 EXAKT LISTENING

Below I list the tracks used for testing.  My notes are not "absolutes" about the tracks, what I've tried to capture is what KDSM/3 does over and above AEDSM and these are highlights from tonight's session:

Agnes Obel - Aventine - The Curse - 16/44.1: Strings that "breath" as they are bowed. Pizzicato that twangs with a convincing staccato pluck. Coherence across all the strings as they form the flowing build up with the piano remaining crisply contrasting with its clipping percussive feel. You get a much better sense of not only what is being plucked / bowed, not only how it is being plucked / bowed, but much more about why its being played the way it is being played.

Rufus du Sol - Live From Joshua Tree - Eyes - 24/44.1: A track that drives along at a pace but that pace is far more "driven" and precise with a much wider image filling the room better.  There's a bridge at about 2:50 that I've never really thought fitted in with the song but now it seems to make far more musical sense as the song "rests" from the driving beat - giving a breather along the way.

Rufus du Sol - Live From Joshua Tree - Underwater - 24/44.1: From about 50 seconds in this track has a deep bass / percussive underpinning which is a little loose and bloated on the AEDSM but now it i taught, balanced in the mix with the notes having incredibly complex texture. I close my eyes and get a little lost in the way the music is structured, layered - complex but fully coherent. 4 minutes in and there's a tense build up using entirely synthesised sounds that works on a more emotional level than usual. Its impossible to ignore the music's message.

Christine and the Queens - Chris - 5 Dollars - 16/44.1: A track I really like musically but it can get a bit strident in the chorus, and to an extent its still there in way, but is better tamed here.  Other than that and a little more stability in the imaging, I didn't get a great deal more out of this than I do with the usual streamer.

Renegade Creation - Bullet - Bullet - 16/44.1: Blues rock from Robben Ford and friends, not a bad recording but not the best - perhaps a more rough and ready feel is part of the intended approach. Again that timing thing - there is a sense of urgency here that works perfectly on this track, plus the vocals are easier to follow as the cacophony of instruments are both controlled, aggressive but not overwhelming the singer. Somehow the track seems about 30 seconds shorter than usual!

Eddi Reader - Mirmama - Hello In There - 16/44.1: A very emotional piece and one that didn't become any more emotional here.  There was a little more definition in the the breathiness of Reader's vocals and perhaps a little more insight into the technique of the percussionist.

Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises - Half Moon Bay 24/44.1: In typical downbeat mood, SKM uses short stringed instruments (mandolin?) to illustrate melancholy with short piercing minor chord changes that give a feeling of extra pains experienced from time to time. Here those minor chords carry just a little more heartache and as the track reaches its conclusion I'm under the impression that life continues regardless, may be even despite of the singer's grief. The instrumental finish is beautifully resolved and emotional. Blimey.

Calexico - Carried To Dust - Man Made Lake - 16/44.1 - opens with a delicate bell-like sound that floats effortlessly mid air and then is punctuated by a bass drum of solidity in stunning contrast. You pay attention. The carefully picked guitar has a hard twang that's better defined, the distorted screaming guitar is better resolved but not painful to listen to (to be fair, its not painful on the AEDSM either, its just a little less screamy) and the lyrics float over the top but bring it all together as something that gels better on the KDSM.

Oh, I've been listening for 3 hours.  Where did that go?  Off to bed and more appraisal tomorrow.

Submotion Orchestra - Fragments - Thinking (Mark Knight Remix) - 24/44.1: Opening with some lightweight faux percussion, this track doesn't bode well. But then the bass percussion punches in and the track gets going - the KDSM/3 really kicks this out, super tight, really driving and a bit addictive. At 1 minute there's a break and the bass riff gets going. The electronic instruments are just bleeps and blops, right? Well no, not with this source - its difficult to get across just how much more nuance is in these notes, and there's that differentiation between notes but with a timing precision that's better again. Some of the background intertwined vocals, electronic swooshes etc. are more prominent here, yet they add to the feel of the track, they don't shout "look at me", then add to the mix. Its quite the trick.

Joan Armatrading - Love And Affection - 16/44.1- the opening sequence has a very gentle set of chords that introduce us to the feel. Now the strings are struck with more care, with more thoughtful intervals, the background splashes feel more like a part of the feel rather than mere jewellery. The background male vocals have more of a raspy edge. Unfortunately for my family I feel I just want to "sing it, sing it, sing it".

St. Germain - St. Germain - Mary L. - 24/44.1: complex multi-layered jazztronica sophistication. Who knew there was even more complex multi-layered stuff going on here. Plus, that underlying bass rumble is now not just bass, but a little threatening and tying the whole thing together much more coherently. You know when you watch an artist start a painting of a lanscape with a pink base, then adds multiple coloured layers that are nothing to do with what you see as a moor of heather, then, with the last layer or 2 and a few brush strokes it comes together to give you the feel, the atmosphere of the scene? Well, that, but with music.

Rush - Moving Pictures - Red Barchetta - 24/96: chosen as this is one of my favourite tracks but is pretty poor in terms of production values. I listen to it now and then, but the poor quality is always a bit of a distraction. Well. Its very good this streamer, but its not a worker of miracles, after all. That thinness and feeling of compression is right there, unfortunately. On the plus side that ability to really drive the tune without aggression is displayed well.

An observation - the Linn Akurate Katalyst DAC is quite capable of revealling what this streamer is doing to the musical message, which is very good sign in terms of its capabilities.  There's lots of talk / hope of a version of the Organik DAC coming to the Akurate range, but I'd add that it would be great to get something of what this streaming platform is doing as an update to the Akurate Exakt DSM / System Hub please.

I think the imaging stability of my system is one of the best I've heard anywhere but the Klimax DSM/3 takes it to a level I've never heard anywhere on any system at any price. Its one of the most uncanny aspects of this source - what is it doing to the digital bits that its sends to the DAC that makes this happen?  What's wrong with systems that don't do this?

Summarising all the above is to say that this is another step closer to the musical experience - yes, there's lots of "hifi" improvements but they do not distract. And that's really important - too often at shows a system sounds amazingly detailed, or startlingly clear, or really dynamic but within a few minutes of trying to figure out what's going on with the artists' messages to the listener it becomes apparent that you either don't have a clue, its taking too much effort or you just can't be bothered.  There's something not getting through, or there's so many individual bits coming through at their own pace or volume or time that they don't join up at all.  I'm finding the dynamics of the tunes enjoyable at 4 or 5 volume clicks lower than usual - more dynamic but more relaxed at the same time? And that's the trick that the KDSM/3 (used as a KSH/1) pulls off - it does oodles of detail, masses of information, but the information is not tripping over itsself. Its not getting in the way of the message, its a solid and coherent part of the message. There's so little processing for the brain to do - the emotion is being provided for you, you don't have to go looking for it.  Given that this is "just" a streamer, that's a remarkable achievement and really clarifies that the streamer is important, that source first is still the right approach.

NEXT GENERATION KLIMAX DSM AS STREAMER, ORGANIK DAC AND PRE-AMP IN A MORE TRADITIONAL SYSTEM

By more traditional I mean no Exakt, and no active amplification. So source - pre-amp - power amp - passive speakers. I thought for quite some time about how to do this, and what would the comparison be with.  Certainly I needed to convert my PMC Twenty.26 speakers back to passive, but then I don't have a streamer that's capable of outputting an anlogue signal.  I resolved it using a feature Linn added about 18 months ago to their Exaktbox - if you're not interested in this detail, skip the next paragraph.

How to run passive speakers in a system with a Linn Exakt streamer and a Linn Exaktbox DAC / DSP that is designed to operate with multiple amplifers (one for each speaker drive unit) and active ready speakers?  Well about 18 months ago (maybe a little longer?) Linn added the option to run a surround module inside the Exakt DSM. But along with that they added a lot more options to the Exaktbox configurations so that an Exaktbox could be used as a multi-channel full range DAC. So rather than using an Exaktbox to DAC per drive unit, it was possible for it to DAC per complete passive speaker.  So that's the route I went down for this comparison.

PMCs after conversion back to passive

Using long Linn Silver interconnects to reach the power amp for passive use

Organik passive listening.  The table is faulty - no beer!

 

I don't have a previous generation Klimax Exakt DSM/2 to hand for comparison. But I do have Akurate level Katalyst DACs in my Exaktboxes - so here the comparison is with Linn's previous generation DAC, albeit from one down in the hierarchy.

Linn has been in the digital business since they launched a CD player (reluctantly, and late to the game) in the 1990s. Since then we've seen a number of DAC iterations in Linn products, culminating in their "Katalyst" architecture in Klimax and Akurate products about 2.5 years ago. This uses an "off the shelf" AKM DAC chip built in a Linn designed multi independent power supply setting along with Linn's usual FPGA based pre-DAC processing and upsampling etc.  Now, with Klimax DSM/3, Linn has moved to an in-house design from scratch DAC. For Linn its a major change and places them in a similar place to other high end DAC designs from the likes of Chord and dCS. So the previous Katalyst DAC was a major uplift in the musical ability of the Linn streamers - now they claim, with their in-house Organik design to have taken it a step or two further.  You can learn a little about it at the link, along with a nice marketing video.  Suffice to say, Linn are claiming much greater control over the whole digital to analogue conversion with the ability to prioritise what they believe is important in getting the music to the listener:  https://www.linn.co.uk/uk/technology/organik

The system used for this demo:

PS Audio PowerPlant 5 power regenerator powering DSM, Exaktbox and Melco.

Melco N1ZH "NAS"

Linn Akurate Exaktbox 6/1 (with Katalyst DACs) - used as a 2 channel DAC in pass through mode

Lejonklou Tundra Stereo 2.5 power amp

PMC Twenty.26 speakers running in standard passive configuration, Gaia III feet

Quadraspire Evo racks, Cyrus Isoplat isolation platforms

Cables by Chord, Meicord, Linn, Naim, Puritan

Comparison between the Akurate Exakt DSM, Akurate Katalyst DACs (not working as Exakt, but in pass through full range mode) and KDSM/3 working as a standard analogue output source with the Organik DAC.  This was achieved by switching the analogue output cables from each of the units at the back of the power amp, hence minimising changes (although the KDSM/3 location necessitated a longer interconnect, but both were Linn silver). Both were powered from the PS Audio using Puritan mains cables.  All the listening was to stereo music.

SPACE Optimisation was the same for both devices - my regular settings were used.

Mark Knopfler - Privateering - Privateering - 24/96 Qobuz: I'm not really a fan of Knopfler's post Straits work - it feels too much like American country and western which is not a genre of music I choose to purchase.  Americana yes, C&W, no. I'm listening to this track as part of a regular on line music introducing session run out of the Linn Enthusiasts Facebook page. Normally I would get about 30 seconds to 1 minute into a song like this and dismiss it. But these sessions are about recommended music to try, so I listen to all the tracks all the way through. And with Privateering this turns out to be a good thing as it develops into something more rounded and complex compared to my expectations. I get involved in the song. Is this just because I've forced myself to be more patient, or is it part of the KDSM/3 experience?  Either way, I enjoy this song - a first really. I can't give you specific comparison comments, but that bigger picture of enjoying a song I didn't expect to - perhaps that's enough to be getting on with.

Rush - Moving Pictures - Red Barchetta - 24/96: as earlier, the next gen Klimax is not a miracle worker, yet there is another improvement in understanding the song and the intent - possibly from the timing, possibly from better resolution but the urgency of the chase here is just that bit more, err, urgent.

Roisin Murphy - Crooked Machine - Capable Rhythm - Qobuz 16/44.1: this track has a very solid, driving bass line and percussion, played off against an insistent strumming electric guitar and interspersed short sharp chord changes. That "very solid", with Organik becomes 3 dimensional, tangible bringing the track into the room almost as if the bass is being carved into the air. At the end the backing track fades and the guitar strumming is crisp, sharp, intense compared to a more subdued feel with Katalyst.  It puts you on edge, eager to hear what Murphy is going to conjure up next.  And that's the point isn't it? Wanting more music.

Christine and the Queens - Chris - 5 Dollars - 16/44.1: As mentioned above, a track I really like musically but it can get a bit strident in the chorus, and to an extent it was better tamed with KDSM/2 as a system hub, but here its pretty much eliminated.  Using the Organik DAC adds to the sense of pace in this track, further driving foot tapping and appreciation of the energy involved - it remined me of the first time seeing "Tilted" being performed on Jools Holland and marvelling all elements of the artistry involved - words, music and dance.

As a complete source - streamer, DAC and pre-amp, there's no doubt from this experience that its a huge uplift from Akurate level Katalyst and - from memory - from KDSM/2 too. This is the first Linn source I've heard that makes a passive Klimax level source sound better than an Akurate Exakt Katalyst source - and its not by a small margin. Can't wait to hear Organik in an Exakt system!

SUMMARY

Do I want one? Close my eyes and ignore the bank balance and the answer is an unequivocal "yes", no doubts. Would I get more emotional connection to my music choices? Yes. Would I spend even longer browsing through new music on Qobuz to see what grabs the attention? Yes. Would I only leave the music room for food and beer? Possibly :) Open my eyes and it would have to be the black version. Open my bank account and it would be screaming at me with red ink. Do I need one? Not quite, but only because life's other priorities mean its just not realistic.

Is it value for money? In absolute terms, no, but nothing is at this level. The law of diminishing returns kicked in at many thousands of pounds further down the ladder. Is is value for money against the way a brand new BMW M4 depreciates? Yes, totally. But then again, that 5 year old M4 will depreciate much more gently now...

If you enjoy your music and can indulge yourself in luxuries at this investment level, by all means go and have a listen, the chances are very high that you'll place the order, probably you'll have decided within 5 tracks.  If you can possibly save hard and get there, go for a listen - you'll need to make your own vfm judgement of course, but don't be surprised if you start working out what there is in your house that could be moved on to make the KDSM/3 happen for you, within the first 5 tracks.

If you like the pace, rhythm and timing of a Naim system (downside: aggressive, sometimes harsh), but the refinement and sophistication of a Linn system (downside: too polite?), then finally you can have both without any of those downsides. But more and better than both combined together.

If you browse the blog from time to time, you'll know the number of systems, shows and homes that have been visited to bring the content to the readers. And you'll know that there are some seriously high priced systems that get short shrift for their lack of musicality. It would be easy to dismiss the KDSM/3 as a pointless luxury, a way to generate profit. But don't, it would be a mistake to miss out on what would seem to be a landmark product in the streaming world. I'm going to plagiarize and slightly amend a phrase from a friend: the songs don't serve the KDSM, the KDSM serves the songs. Unequivocally.

Enjoy a demo at your peril!



Thanks to Simon and Marcus at Grammo for persuading me to have a listen, bringing the unit over to allow this in very familiar surroundings and leaving it for a good few days to try out the different combinations and to get some time to get to grips with what's going on.

Sunday, 28 February 2021

Linn Tukatan

 Linn's little Katan standmount from the 90s and early 2000s has an excellent reputation, particularly in active form, and quite right too, its not the last word in refinement but the music it produces is very enjoyable indeed.  In Linn part number terms, it is fitted with the 038/2 tweeter and 039/1 mid-bass driver.

 


 

Its predecessor is the Tukan, is similarly small, but lives in a more conventionally shaped cabinet.  It has the older drivers - the tweeter being the 015/x family and the mid-bass the 016/2.  It has a reputation as being a very "fast" speaker, but there's a certain hardness and lack of friendliness to the sound. Its also considerably bass shy compared to the Katan.


Curiously, when taking either of these speakers active (aktiv in Linnspeak) they both use the same analogue active filter cards, despite their very different drivers.  So the crossover points, slopes and relative loudness of the drivers are shared.

Also, the driver cut-outs in the cabinets are identical allowing the drivers from the Katan to be fitted into the Tukan cabinet.  So I gave it a go.  Even with the passive crossover, the Tukatans are a huge improvement on Tukan, being more flowing, warmer, far smoother in the treble and they now have that Katan musicality and friendliness.

Here are the Tukatans:


 

Inevitably, of course, a set of Exakt filters had to be created and were built pretty quickly.  Below is the FR resulting for Tukatan Exakt (ignore below 120Hz as the room is having too much influence there).  A great fun pair of speakers!



Monday, 15 February 2021

And Now For Something Completely Different. And Pointless. Linn Formation is Born.

Sometimes, regardless of all the DIY that needs doing, the ongoing 8 projects that need attention, the exercise that should be taken and the need for a useful outcome all goes to the wall and something flippant takes priority.

Perhaps, when on the UK's third lockdown, rational thought takes a little bit of time off? Perhaps there was just too much idle time spent on ebay? Perhaps that old Linn LK box that's been in the back of the workshop stack finally found some "use" and was calling out? Perhaps its a very unusual audio version of a midlife crisis?

Whatever, here's what occupied about 25 to 30 hours of my time over the past few weeks - a "could it be done" rather than "there's a good reason to do this" kind of project took shape.

Linn used to produce pretty much all of their range in what is known as the "LK" box.  From the Karik CD player to LK100 amplifier, from the Classik all-in-one CD/amp/tuner to the Numerik DAC, the "LK" box was the cornerstone of the Linn industrial design approach. Simple. Solid looking. Understated. At about 2/3 the width of the traditional 420mm (ish) hifi design, it was different, fitted discretely into homes and is still thought by many as Linn's peak time in terms of audio performance per £, $ or Euro.  The LK design came with the first electronics - the LK1 pre-amp and LK2 Power amp combination, introduced in 1985 you can read about the luke warm reception given by Stereophile here.  These items were different widths, but, apart from a few exceptions such as the Lingo LP12 power supply, most of the following products followed the form factor of the LK 2 amp. By 1996 Linn had started to change direction with products such as the AV5103 pre-amplifer and in 1998 with the CD12, and by 2003 to 2006, all the LK range had been replaced by the newer look now known as Majik and Akurate/0.

   
LK2 and LK1 - the first examples of the LK enclosure design

It looks like the Majik-i was possibly the last of the style to be replaced in 2003, although I haven't done exhaustive research. That's around an 18 year lifespan. During that time Linn provided a multi-room system under the Knekt banner, many components of which were also housed in the LK unit. That system was proprietary and is now considered to be at least 10 years beyond when it was obsolete.  But there was a lot of it sold and if you're patient enough, non-working units come up for sale for very small amounts of money, given the quality of the box they're housed in.  So I've picked up a few over the years when they've popped up, imagining they might come in useful for a project or 2 at some point.

 

A couple of examples of LK Intersekt

That's the first rambling pre-amble.  The next is kind of related, but not directly.  One of the joys of the LK design is that its pretty much timeless, understated and the exact opposite of the bling we see all too often in so called "high end" audio.  It was also an antidote to the omni-present Japanese mass market products of the time. A time when the more knobs, switches, lights, dials and meters was the battlefield on the shelves of Currys, Comet and Lasky's. When, as a teenager, my brother went off to university and bought himself his first hifi, products from the likes of Linn were beyond aspirational. So he had the ubiquitous Dual CS505, a pair of Wharfedale Glendale XP2 speakers and, relevant to this tale, a Pioneer SA-510 amplifier.  So, in this project, 2 elements of nostalgia have come together in a loose association - in direct contrast to my normal desire for understated and inoffensive black products, here we have one of the most understated products of the hifi World combined with something to give it some of the flash of its lower priced contempories.

Back to that ebay question.  What happened to all those Pioneer amps which possibly sold in 10s of thousands in the late 1970s and early 1980s?  Well, there are still quite a few about, but for what they are and how they perform today (I tested one about 5 or 6 years ago against a NAD 3020), they're vastly over priced. But why the Pioneer amp anyway?  Well, in a market sector full of features, the Pioneer Blue Line power meters on the SA-510 and many other products of the time were always one of the best looking meters on the market and they would fit well into the nostalgia angle for this project (if there ever was one - if there wasn't I can make one up in hindsight!).

Pioneer SA-510

And then it occured that the Pioneer cassette decks also carried a very similar style of meter, and there could be more choice there, particularly as they are mechnical devices prone to failure, but I didn't need the tape mechanism, just the electronics.  But the LK box is a good deal smaller than a full width cassette deck, so there'd have to be some speculation (read, crossed fingers), that getting a set of Pioneer meters into an LK box would be physically possible. The other problem was that there are some Pioneer behemoth decks out there that still attract high prices - hundreds of pounds.  What I needed was something that was enough above entry level to have the blue meters, high volume of sales and with a broken mech.

After a few weeks of ebay monitoring, a suitably non-working CT-300 was found and picked up for a very small amount of cash.  In good physical order, with working electronics but a dead mech.

Pioneer CT-300

Its easy to get into these machines - just 4 screws removes the top and side panels.  It highly likely that new belts and a bit of a clean would've had this machine back up and running, but given the depth of the wear grooves on the main head, its likely to have been less than useful - maybe replacement heads are available. Anyway, that wasn't the objective.  A quick measure up of the mainboard proved that it could fit into the LK box with enough room for the transformer too.

The idea was to transfer enough electronics into the LK box to enable a connection from the "tape out" output of a pre-amplifier as a feed, then to have the LK box display the meters following the peaks in the music. In this way the meters live separately from the music signal path, hence avoiding why there aren't any of this kind of stuff in the Linn products - the potential for a negative impact on sound quality. So the end point LK box needed to fire up the meters on power up, and start to monitor the incoming music signal.  The easiest way to achieve this is to set up a tape deck in pause/record as if it was about to start recording the music. But with no circuit diagram and no idea what all the electronics on the main board are doing, how to achieve this?

It has to be said that the internals of the Pioneer are nowhere need as sharply etched nor finely executed as the exterior. In fact, they're fairy messy.  At least with all the cables from the board to the mechanism it did make the job of disconnecting the 2 a lot easier than if the mech had been mounted on the board.

Under the hood of the donor deck

The first thing to work out was which cables told the electronics that there is a tape in the mech and that it is not record protected.  This was pretty straightforward as there are microswitches so, using a multi-meter, it is possible to check if these are closed circuits or open circuits when there is a suitable tape on board. To make life unusually easy, both switches are open when the tape is present and recordable, so its easy to snip off their cables at the board end and that makes them appear permanently open circuit - the electronics now think there is a recordable tape at all times.

Removing the rest of the cables to the mech was a long and laborious but straightforward process.  The deck was put into pause/record with an incoming signal making the meters do their thing. I then switched off, disconnected the mains and clipped off one cable from the mech to the board. Switched back on, set up pause/record and checked the meters were still responding. Then repeated these steps for each cable, one at a time. In this way I'd know which cable I'd clipped last, should the meters stop responding.  As it happens, every cable to the mech was cut at the board end with no ill effects on what I wanted the board to keep doing. Next were the output cables, again, no issues. Then off came the front panel, base panels and out came the mech.  The level of engineering in these products is remarkable given they sold for around £150 back in the early 80s.

At this point, after stripping the Intersekt of its internal boards (about a 15 minute process of about 20 screws), I did some more careful measuring of the board and how it would fit into the LK space - orientation and position to allow room for rear connections, the record level control and the transformer. Satisfied that there was a plan in mind each of the cables from the transformer to the board was numbered with 2 labels about 20mm apart and then each of those cables was cut through, between the 2 labels.  

 

Bench testing with the board still in the chassis, but with the mechanism removed

With the board out of the deck (meter display still attached), the transformer came out next and the chassis of the deck is ready to go to the recycling centre to be part of the next Nissan Leaf or similar. I then installed temporary insulation around the mains side of the transformer and re-connected all the outputs to the board on the workbench.  This allowed another check to make sure everything was working and there were no dependencies upon connections to the chassis of the deck.  All working well. The slim play / record / pause etc. buttons on the front panel are a simple top pivot design with the bottom end of the button connecting with a micro switch mounted on the board.  So the next thing was to check with the multimeter on if the pause and record switches were electrically open or closed when in their engaged position. These were closed when activiated, so a small loop of wire was soldered into place between their pins to make them permanently "on".  All connected back to the mains confirmed that powering up the circuitry put the system automatically into pause/record and the incoming signal was fed to the meters. The record level control also remained fully operational.

Sorting out the location of the transformer, creating a mounting for the Pioneer 115V / 240V switch (the plastic round unit just above the earth wire) and temporary connection of LK mains switch to the transformer (later this connection was made permanent by soldering the wires together and double wrapping the joint in heatshrink insulation). Of course, all the appropriate fuses and earth connections are retained for safety purposes.



Now its time to trial layout everything inside the LK box, choose the length of plastic "stand offs" to support the board off the base of the box, mark up for mounting screws, check clearances for electrical safety, allow adequate room for the meters to be mounted on the back of the front panel, make sure there are no obvious places where components might not get a little air around them etc. Then the chassis was drilled to accept a mix of M3 and M4 bolts, depending on their role - M4 for the transformer, M3 for the stand offs. Each hole had to be filed to remove burrs etc.  The chassis is all aluminium sheet, so drilling and filing is easy work.  I did make a small error at this point, choosing 30mm high stand offs on which to mount the board, giving lots of access room underneath for the mains cables etc., but it meant 1 capacitor was about 3mm too high for the sleeve to slide back on, so the standoffs were all removed and reduce to 24 mm in height - allowing enough "headroom" but not creating any issues for the cabling.

Now the meter display cables were all labelled up twice, cut through and extended to allow them to reach the new location of the meters in relation to the new orientation of the board.  Compared to the original Pioneer orientation, the board is rotated through 90 degrees to give enough room for the transformer - you can see how the front panel headphone / microphone sockets and tape type selectors are up against the bank side panel of the LK box.

Above and below - extending cables for power or to the meters.  All the internal cables are very thin solid core copper - like telephone cables. Relatively easy to work with as they stay where you bend them to, but easy enough to snap off. Lots of photos were taken during the build from various angles.  Only once did I need to refer back to them to work out where a cable had sheared off level with the board, but it could've happened several times. Here a cable is extended by twisting the 2 lengths together, soldering the joint, straightening and then fitting with heatshrink insulation


Trial installing the board in its new orientation and checking it still works before re-routing the input cables (the pair of light grey cables travelling from left to right in the picture) to phono sockets on the back panel. On the left of the picture you can see the headphone / microphone sockets facing into the blank side panel of the LK box. Across the back of the box you can see some of the many holes left behind by the removal of the large number of connections required for an Intersekt

Now the captive lead for the audio input needs to be re-routed and connected up to phono input sockets on the back panel of the enclosure.  Note, the output signal cables have been removed entirely - there is no intention of this box being in the signal path, so no need for outputs. A pair of gold plated phono sockets were unsoldered from the Intersekt board and re-used here.  The Pioneer's "record" indicator LED needed longer wires so it could reach the small hole in the LK's front panel to take up its new role as the "power on" LED.

Extending the cable to the "record" LED so that it can be installed next to the power switch on the LK front panel

Re-using a pair of phono sockets from the Intersekt board, replacing the Pioneer's orignal flying input lead

Attention then turns to the exact location of the meters on the front panel.  They could have fitted pretty much anywhere along the front, but I chose the left of centre location as it kind of reflects the way the control / display panels on Classiks and Kairns are located.

The front panel looks like a chunky casting, but that's just a deception of the simple but very effective industrial design. Its is an alloy casting, but it only about 1.5mm in thickness.  So this is easy to cut due to the thickness and the relative softness of the material.  An 8mm drill and a jigsaw with a very fine blade gets the main work done, followed by some gentle filing and sanding.  In the location I wanted to use there are 2 cast bosses on the back of the panel, presumably drilled and tapped on some models to provide support for a component or board.  I used a powerfile to gently file these away, being very careful not to go too far and create unwanted holes in the panel.  Marking, filing and cutting pictures below.

Marking Up

Unwanted bosses (not the first time that phrase has been used, I'm sure!)

Bosses no longer getting in the way

Cut complete and edges filed

Prepped ready for painting

Now for the most laborious part of the project - painting the front panel.  There are about 8 coats of primer (2 of these would not have been required, if it wasn't for dust getting in the paint) and 6 coats of satin black. First primer coats flatted with 400 grade wet n dry (used wet), later coats with 800 grade then each coat of black flatted with 1000 grade until the last coat. Then the panel was baked in a 50 degree oven for 40 minutes. Rattle cans of Acrylic paint are sufficiently effective.

Finished satin black panel - a shame to loose the branding, but unavoidable

Final stages of assembly are pretty straightforward. The phono input sockets mount into existing holes on the back panel, as does the level control - something that should only need to be set once to match the level of the input signal from a pre-amp. I filled the rectangular holes along the top part of back panel with a small strip of black aluminium left over from another (half completed) project and some araldite adhesive. I really should have cut out the back panel and created a new one, but it was getting to the point where the time and effort had gone far enough.  So I chose to fill all the remain holes with 9mm rubber blanking plugs. Which I thought would be quick and easy, but in the workshop at -4 degC those things are tricky to work with!

So that's all done. Pointless, but proved that what I set out to do is actually possible. And maybe its one of those "because its there" challenges. Now my workshop system can have a Linn VFD VU meter display box without impacting on the sound quality.  There are simpler, easier and quicker ways to achieve this with a kit off ebay, but it wouldn't be quite the same, and it wouldn't be those iconic Pioneer meters.

I call this new box Linn Formation - Pioneer Blue Line Edition.  Here's the finished article.

The completed layout. Transformer with insulation on all the previously exposed pins, phono input sockets and input level controls on the back panel to the left of this photo, wiring now at least a little bit neater than Pioneer's

First test after the build



Back panel with over 30 blanking plugs. Silver coaxial left / right input level control and pair of input sockets. Top rectangular holes blocked by an aluminium strip bonded to the inside of the back panel