Thursday, 19 December 2013

Cassette Retro-Geekery

Not exactly audiophile, but capable of decent results in a decent deck, here's a thorough collection of images of the humble audio cassette.
Very thorough.
Very very thorough.

I've pointed to the TDK page as an example.  Lots of SA-X in my collection.

http://www.c-90.org/catalogue/tapes/TDK

Sunday, 8 December 2013

AM Audience

Here's the latest Google map of the Audiophile Musings Audience.  The darker the colour the higher the number of readers in that area:

Graph of most popular countries among blog viewers

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Renewed Listening Experience

Long suffering Audiophile Musings readers might remember this post when I went for a listen to another forum member's system in the South East of England:

Akurately Kontrolled Klimax

Have a quick read through to refresh yourself of the system and my thoughts from that first visit.  One of the best non-Exakt 350 systems I've heard (when the subwoofer was off), but still having that 350 bass that I don't get on with 100%.  Since then, Andrew (system owner) has been to my home to listen to my somewhat more modest system and we keep in touch regularly through the forum.

Disclaimer:  all my opinion, no double-blind testing, just some A-B-A comparisons which the reader may find informative
KRDS = Linn Klimax Renew DS - a Klimax DS/0 in a lower cost box
KDSM = Linn Klimax DS/1 with a built-in pre-amp

Contants in the system tonight:
Linn Klimax Chakra Twin (non-Dynamik) power amp
Linn K400 speaker cables
Linn Klimax 350 passive speakers

Stuff we messed about with:
Klimax Renew DS vs KDSM
With and without an Akurate Kontrol/0/D pre-amp
Without the pre-amp: unbalanced versus balanced interconnects

So I was down South again recently and got in touch with Andrew to see if he was around to listen to some choones.  Despite the short notice, everything was sorted and planned very quickly, but with knobs on!  Andrew arranged for Peter (forum member peter@57m) to meet up with us to make an evening of it.  And Peter was planning to bring his KDSM along to the party which made it that bit more interesting.  I headed out of Town late afternoon and Andrew kindly picked me up at the station.  We didn't go straight to the 350s, but diverted around to the home of another of Andrew's friends for a quick (very loud) blast on his home cinema system.  This is based around some B&O dalek speakers which can pump out some volume.  They're hidden away behind a massive screen which also doubles as a golf game screen - a real man cave!  I think this system is good for the whizz bang of movies and concerts, but it didn't feel musically engaging to me.  Great fun, but not threatening Andrew's system for and engaging listen.

We then had a tour around the rest of the house.  Underground garage and workshop with cars and motorbikes, a swimming pool, snooker room and the piece de resistance - the wine cellar.  The content of this room was beyond my limited knowledge, but its impressively laid out, including a little bar and all the wine is labelled by year of production and the range of years in which they should be drunk.  Of course, we had to sample some too...

Unfortunately, Andrew's friend was too busy to join us for the rest of the evening so we moved on all too soon, but onward to the main course.  Thanks to Andrew's friend - a very friendly guy who is much more down to earth than his house!

Soon we're facing the 340 centre speaker again and comfortably settled in to the listening room.  We start with a few tracks on the Klimax Renew and switch the sub woofer on and off a couple of times to decide which way to have the system configured.  Andrew loves his bass, Peter and I preferred the system without the sub - from where I was sitting there was less bass without the sub, yet strangely it went deeper.  And I'd worn jeans this time to try and avoid trouser flapping!  The sub stayed off for the rest of the evening.  A couple of minor changes to the system since I was last there - K20 has been replaced by K400 speaker cable and some kind of Russ Andrews filter mains cable now feeds the Renew DS.

We listened to some Blues Company, Seal, and some other stuff that slips my mind (maybe Andrew or Peter will be along soon to help me out here).  Then we picked a track and listened to the first 90 seconds or so 3 times.  Then Peter got to work behind the Hutter rack with the KDSM and cables.  Konfig was spun up and the volume control disabled on the KDSM as we kept the Akurate Kontrol/0/D in the system and used unbalanced silver interconnects from both streamers.  Then we went back to the track we'd listened to three times.  It took about 3 or 4 bars for us to be convinced.  We all looked at each other with a look of surprise.  This wasn't slightly better, it was significantly better.  Using the usual hifi terms then the separation between instruments was massively better and the noise floor had fallen again, enough to hear instruments you didn't notice with the Renew.  The acoustic of the recording venue (or maybe the effect of the acoustic of the recording venue added in production) opened out - for example on the Seal track it sounded like he'd moved from a living room into a concert hall. Going back revealed the closing in of the sound stage and now we could hear those instruments we hadn't heard before, but they're in the distance and they're muffled in comparison with the KDSM.  Vocals loose some richness and texture, the bass is that bit less tuneful and more difficult to follow.

We swap back, using a different track for before and after.  We're all agreed - the difference is quite distinct and much bigger than I think all of us were expecting.  Also interesting is that the Akurate Kontrol/0/D pre-amp was clearly capable of revealing these differences which is good for those of us who like to have a Linn processor for our movies.  But how much is it hiding?

Peter leaps into action again, Konfig is booted up and the volume control is enabled again on the KDSM.  The KDSM is then connected directly to the Klimax Twin power amp using balanced silver interconnects and no pre-amp.  Yet another layer of detail is revealed, along with yet further differentiation between the instruments.  However, a touch of harshness has come into the system - perhaps a hint of graininess.  I almost feel like it there is a little more "hifi" to the sound rather than just the music.  We go back to the unbalanced cables into the Akurate Kontrol with the KDSM volume control disabled.  Sure enough, the sound is a little less distinct and there's a much warmer feel to the sound - the graininess disappears.  Its one of those changes that really is more about personal taste rather than one being distinctly better or worse.  Hmmm, interesting.

Poor old Peter was again pressed into cable swapping duty (to be honest, I'm usually the one doing all this stuff so it was good to kick back and let someone else take the strain).  What now?  Well, how about taking the pre-amp out of the system again, re-enabling the KDSM volume control and using unbalanced silvers into the power amp?  So that's what we did.  Interestingly this was, for me, the best sounding the system had been all evening - this configuration sat neatly between the system with the pre-amp (warmer, friendlier, no harshness, no grain) and the system with the KDSM connected directly to the power amp using balanced cables (more detail, more separation, some grain /  harshness).  So we get more detail and separation (but not quite as much as with the balanced connection) but some of the warmer, less challenging sound of the system with the pre-amp.

So what did we learn (and, it must be said, very much agreed upon):
KDSM is significantly ahead of the KRDS - a much bigger difference than I think any of us were expecting
The Akurate Kontrol/0/D is a decent pre-amp, it clearly shows the difference between the DS products
The Akurate Kontrol/0/D is not transparent - it adds a warmth and a little haziness to the sound
The KDSM without a pre-amp is a mixed blessing - choose your method of connection to the power amp with care

We briefly listened to the KDSM with the HDMI switched on and with it switched off.  At this point, I was sitting to one side of the room so I found it difficult to hear a major difference.  Peter was finding it easy to hear and preferred the sound with HDMI switched off, as it had been through the earlier listening comparisons.

So a very revealing and entertaining evening (I know, some will find this a bit sad!) with excellent hospitality from Andrew (and his friend earlier in the evening), and generous support from Peter - great of him to bring over his KDSM, doing all the cable work and dropping me back at the station.

p.s. received a note from Peter the following day - his Klimax Twin Dynamik and Wilson Benesch standmounts and a sub is a very different system to Andrew's set up.  He doesn't use a pre-amp and had spent a little while the following day re-checking balanced vs unbalanced cables in his own system.  This allowed him to confirm that he still prefers the balanced cables in his own system.  The previous evening must've created some doubt in his mind, so good to hear that he's confirmed his original choice as working well in that system.


Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Extraordinary Rachelle Ferrell

Just discovered this incredible singer thanks to a recent Exakt demo evening at House of Linn.

See here live performance below on YouTube.  If you only have a few minutes to dip into this, try minutes 56 through to 70 to get an idea of what she's capable of.  Enjoy.

<iframe width="560" height="315" src="//www.youtube.com/embed/Of6l1JTLjok" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Britney Spears!

Browsing Qobuz.com today (other high res music sites are available) I noticed a Britney Spears album available in 24 bit. Its not my kind of music so I won't be buying it, but is this some kind of pop music tipping point that might be significant in terms of availability and security of the format for the future perhaps?

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

AVForums Article On Linn Factory Tour Exakt

A reasonable read.  This report says that the most important part of Exakt is the ability to compensate for poor speaker placement in the room.  I don't agree, but that's their view.

http://www.avforums.com/article/linn-40th-anniversary-factory-tour.9502

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

First UK Dealer Exakt Demo

See below about the date and location of the first dealer Exakt demo evening:

http://audiophilemusings.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/house-of-linn-demo-of-exakt-will-there.html

And here's the report on activities.  How exact is Exakt?  I deliberately didn't comment on the sound of Exakt heard at the 40th Anniversary event at the factory as the conditions just weren't suitable to make a sensible evaluation.  Tonight's event wasn't perfect as most of us won't be listening to a system with 18 other people, but it was much more realistic than the factory event, and later in the evening when the room emptied out, even better conditions were experienced.

As usual, Brian and Trevor were excellent hosts - drinks (including an excellent Malbec from Morissons, a bottle was seen in the hands of one Managing Director on his way out at the end of the evening...) and snacks made available and a relaxed atmosphere as the gathering built momentum from about 19:45 onwards.  For those who don't know House of Linn, it is just that - a very large substantially built end terrace house.  So the rooms are much more "domestic" than most dealers, including the kitchen / diner at the back of the house where we gathered - in the case of HoL the party starts in the kitchen, but usually ends with ears glued to the music in the large listening room at the ground floor front of the house.

Gilad Tiefenbrun, Susan and Andy represented Linn this time around and they were running the first dealer version of the Exakt demo for the UK, being an evolution of some demos done during the 40th Anniversary weekend at the factory.

Gilad kicked off the evening with about 18 customers in attendance (many happily making the best of the Malbec) explaining the basics of the Exakt technology (see here: http://audiophilemusings.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/more-exakt-info.html  and here: http://audiophilemusings.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/exakt-photos.html  for the salient points) and introducing some nicely produced animated videos to help with the explanation.  If anyone was still confused about what the technology is, the Q&A session didn't reveal any fundamental mis-understandings.

Andy from Linn (standing) and Gilad Tiefenbrun (sitting) and Some Abstract Art (hanging). Note the Dark Wood  Non-Exakt 350a Speakers in Place At This Point
 
Disclaimer:  I'm not the biggest fan of Linn's 350 speakers.  So please bear that in mind here - I prefer the Akubariks and Komris.  Having heard 350s in a number of different system configs and locations, I've never really got on with them.  However, its also worth saying that they sound much better at HoL than the did in the Linn Home dem rooms at the factory...  I mention this as I won't be able to say that what I heard was the best system I've ever heard (which I would expect Linn to be hoping customers to be saying), as there are compromises with these speakers that don't suit me, whereas the compromises in the Akubariks (for example) are easier for me to put to one side given how well they do pretty much everything else - particularly their ability to be difficult to listen to as a hifi component, because there's just so much music to listen to.  Anyway, I digress - so back to the 350 speakers used tonight - I'll not describe what I heard in absolute terms (other than setting a baseline from the non-Exakt system), but just in terms of the way they changed as the demos progressed.  Hope that makes some sense - trying to evaluate the effect of Exakt, rather than the basics of the system.   As usual, these notes are only my opinion and thoughts, based on the experience of the evening - its not definitive!

With the system feeding from PS Audio power re-generation products all evening, Andy then stepped us through the demo process as follows:

Starting System: KDSM, maxed out Klimax LP12, 350a in "tune-dem" determined position
2 x 30-45 seconds of track 1 - 24 bit FLAC
2 x 30-45 seconds of track 2 - vinyl

Audiophile Musings thoughts: the usual sound here - very tuneful, bags of detail in the treble and mid, sparkling smooth top end, something not quite right about imaging and the integration of the upper mid and lower mid drivers (exhibited, for me, as the vocals being clear, but strangely recessed in the mix, but moving forward and back in the mix, depending on the singer and even which part of the tune is being sung) and deep, powerful, but somewhat (struggling for the right phrase here) less than detailed bass.  I know this is not the KDSM electronics as it sounds great with other speakers in the Linn range.  So a very good sound, but not the ultimate sound, for me at least - but remember this is in context of a very expensive system - I suppose I just expect a bit more at this level of spend, but in terms of the complete hifi spectrum, this is still a very good sounding system.


Changed system to: KEDSM, maxed out Klimax LP12, Exakt 350 in the same location as the 350a - room optimization settings off, speaker position optimzation settings off
2 x 30-45 seconds of track 1 - 24 bit FLAC
2 x 30-45 seconds of track 2 - vinyl

Discussion on the differences
Audiophile Musings thoughts:  The tune is just as easy, if not easier to follow.  Timing of the bass lines improves dramatically, snapping into line with the rest of the music.  Instruments much more separated, much more stability in the vocals in terms of front to back in the mix and in terms of left to right image stability.  350s much easier to listen to.  Generally the room agrees it can here a significant difference but not all are fully convinced that everything is unequivocally better.  There is no disagreement about the effects being just as dramatic on vinyl as it is on the digital source.


Changed system back to KDSM, maxed out Klimax LP12, 350a in "tune-dem" determined position
1 x 30-45 seconds of track 1 - 24 bit FLAC
1 x 30-45 seconds of track 2 - vinyl

Discussion on the differences
Audiophile Musings thoughts: Going backwards in the upgrade path for me is usually easier to hear than an upgrade.  And so it proves here.  In the upgrade, what I've described above as much greater separation of instruments, in the step back, is much more discernible muddling (remember, this is all relative and the system is still very good in absolute terms - I think the reference point has been moved by Exakt, up a couple of steps on the ladder).  The vocals are much easier to identify as changing position over the pitch range to the point where its now clear that they are wandering around quite distinctly.  That lack of detail in the bass is back too.


2 x 30-45 seconds of track 3 - 24 bit FLAC
2 x 30-45 seconds of track 4 - vinyl

Changed system back to: KEDSM, maxed out Klimax LP12, Exakt 350 in the same location as the 350a - room optimization settings off, speaker position optimization settings off

1 x 30-45 seconds of track 3 - 24 bit FLAC
1 x 30-45 seconds of track 4 - vinyl

Discussion on the differences
Audiophile Musings thoughts: unsuprisingly all the Exakt changes are back.

Changed system to: KEDSM, maxed out Klimax LP12, Exakt 350 in the same location as the 350a - with room optimization settings on (determined earlier in the day), speaker position optimization settings off

1 x 30-45 seconds of track 3 - 24 bit FLAC
1 x 30-45 seconds of track 4 - vinyl

Discussion on the differences
Audiophile Musings thoughts: Bass much more tuneful.  At first it sounded less extended, but this is often the effect heard when bass is brought under greater control.  This also freed up the mid-range somewhat to let vocals be rock solid in the image now, and to really breath freely and flow in a very natural and fluid way.  Given that this software works based on the physical measurements of the room, I found the effect more profound than expected.  Was it a complete success?  May be not - I thought the music lost a touch of liveliness or impact, so its a different set of compromises.  On balance on the evidence of the evening, I preferred the music with the optimisation on, but I think its something that would have to go through a more thorough comparison in your own home to be absolutely sure.

Changed system to: KEDSM, maxed out Klimax LP12, Exakt 350 moved back into either side of the large bay window - with room optimization settings on, speaker position optimization settings off

1 x 30-45 seconds of track 3 - 24 bit FLAC
1 x 30-45 seconds of track 4 - vinyl

Discussion on the differences
Audiophile Musings thoughts:  Disastrously bad positioning of the speakers in this room.  Image collapsed and the tune was dragging its feet through mud.  A clearer demonstration of the benefits of placing speakers in the correct place in a room as I've ever heard.  And its amazing how you can pick this out in the first 3 or 4 bars of a very simply constructed acoustic track such as Emily Barker.   The idea here is that the speaker placement optimisation software is supposed to allow for a more "domestically acceptable" positioning of speakers, but only when the ideal position is not tenable.  To configure the speaker optimisation software, first the dealer will identify the best place for the speakers in the room using "tune dem" and record the measurements (from back and side walls), then tell the software the domestically acceptable position in the room and the optimisation is then applied to the signal by the Exakt engine in each speaker.  Interestingly, the distance to the side walls became the distance to the edges of the bay window, not to the edge of the room.

Changed system to: KEDSM, maxed out Klimax LP12, Exakt 350 moved back into either side of the large bay window - with room optimization settings on, speaker position optimization settings on (determined earlier in the day)

1 x 30-45 seconds of track 3 - 24 bit FLAC
1 x 30-45 seconds of track 4 - vinyl

Discussion on the differences
Audiophile Musings thoughts: The tune comes back, imaging somewhat improved, but its not a complete success - having the speakers in the correct position in the room is still clearly better.  But its an impressive result.  If 350s are too big for the room and you would need to apply speaker position optimisation, I think it would be worth trying some smaller speakers in the correct room position before making a decision.


Throughout, the TV in the room displayed the configuration in use and the track being played, to help us remember what was going on!  Also worth noting is that the speakers not in use were wheeled out of the room, so Brian and Trevor had a good deal of (heavy) box shifting to do through the evening.  So particular thanks to them for the hard work on this.

Brian Installing the Exakt 350 (again!) in Oak Finish

A Q&A session followed with Gilad which covered a number of topics.
Will there be an Akurate Exakt DSM? Nothing definite yet, but probably.
Will there be a Majik Exakt DSM?  Highly unlikely.
Will there be an Akurate Exakt Tunebox - probably and like the Klimax Exakt Tunebox it will eventually cover most, if not all, of Linn's current and previous speakers.
Including the Keilidh?  Yes, as there are around 27k Keilidhs out there, it would seem to make sense to do so, but it might not be an economically sensible way to spend a system upgrade budget, particularly with the Klimax Exakt Tunebox.
Akubarik the next to have an Exakt module?  Very likely, given that it was developed in parallel with Exakt and it has the ideal amp module format. As an aside, Gilad shared that there is no such thing as an "Aktiv Akubarik".  There is only "Akubarik" and "Akubarik Passive" as Linn now see active as the norm at Akurate and above, not the exception.
Will there be Exakt modules for the rear of Majik speakers and older Akurates such as the 242?  No, Exakt Tunebox will be the approach for these - the speaker cabinets are not designed for a built-in or built-on module.
Gilad confirmed that the Klimax (and Akurate, should there be one) Tunebox will be the same for all Linn speakers, with only the software for the digital crossovers being different for each speaker model - these will be downloadable from "the cloud" as the Internet seems to be referred to these days.
Confirmation that Exakt Tunebox and the relevant settings for Komri and Keltik will be next and soon.
Will there be a Urika Exakt version?  Unlikely.
Which is Linn's top system - is it KEDSM and Exakt 350a, or is it KEDSM, Exakt Tunebox, lots of Solos and 350p?  Gilad's answer was very revealling of Linn's thinking - they're both seen as the Linn reference system.  With KEDSM and Exakt 350 being the reference simple solution and the KEDSM / Tunebox / Solos / 350p being the reference enthusiast system.  They meet different demands and exhibit different compromises so are different references. So Audiophile Musing's take on this is that there is a "tidy reference" and a "geek reference".
Questions about pricing - no change here.  KEDSM with Exakt 350 is £50k.  KEDSM and Exakt upgrade for 350a / 350p / Artikulat priced at £25k (in this case you retain your KDS or KDSM to re-use elsewhere or sell on.
Will the optimisation software improve over time?  Yes, as more and more data is collected from installations, then the algorithms will be amended to improve the capability of the optimisation software - and these will be downloadable to be applied to their systems.

We then went back to KEDSM, maxed out Klimax LP12 (interestingly, not used for the rest of the evening), Exakt 350 in the same location as the 350a - with room optimization settings on (determined earlier in the day), speaker position optimization settings off and some really great tracks (I have to say this, they were from my own playlist!) were enjoyed as folks came and went - music in the demo room, chatter in the kitchen.  As usual, I came away with an introduction to some new music that I'll be buying.  In this instance it was Rachelle Ferrell's Individuality album.  Give it a try on Spotify - particularly the track "Sista".  Incredible voice.  Stayed until after midnight, just to be sure I'd given the system a good listen in a quiet room and with some very familiar music.  Overall the system at the end of the evening (I wasn't on the Malbec by the way, so I hadn't mellowed through the evening!) was significantly better in pure hifi terms and in sheer musicality - but my prejudices about the 350 remain - I just don't get lost in the music the way some systems can take me. 

Came away with a positive impression of Exakt - can't wait to hear KEDSM / Exakt Akubarik!  Best start saving, or buy a lottery ticket.  Probably both.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Sony Hi-Res Walkman Plays 24/192 FLAC

According to What HiFi news, Sony's forthcoming Walkman will play 24/192 hi-res FLAC files and will have high quality audio circuitry.

Quite an interesting prospect, but with 128GB of storage, management of music will be key as you won't be able to store many hi-res files in that space.

http://www.whathifi.com/news/sonys-flagship-high-res-walkman-revealed

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

International News

Interesting to see a complete cut and paste from this blog appearing on AV news site in Japan:

http://www.avcat.jp/main/avnews/2013/09/21/linn%E3%81%8B%E3%82%89%E3%80%81%E3%80%8C-exakt-%E3%80%8Dthe-source-is-in-the-speaker%E6%8A%80%E8%A1%93%E7%99%BB%E5%A0%B4%EF%BC%81%EF%BC%81/

No credit given to the source - if anyone can figure out where the link is on that site to allow me to contact them, please comment below.  Cheers!

Thursday, 24 October 2013

House of Linn Demo of Exakt - will there be fireworks?

5th November 2013

House of Linn with special guest Gilad Tiefenbrun, Linn's Managing Director, on 5th November from 8pm, will be launching Linn's new Exakt system.  So it will be the first chance for me to hear this system in more familiar surroundings.

HoL say: Gilad, Brian and Trevor will be on hand to answer any questions. Relax, drink, chat and listen to music. A variety of music will be played via Klimax Exakt DSM from standard digital rips, studio masters and vinyl. Music selections will be played courtesy of HoL customer Neil - the playlist contains a fantastic and varied selection of music. Take your own music on USB, CD and Vinyl.

To register for the event, you can email HoL or call via the contact details at the House of Linn website.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Here There Be Beards (and irony)

Tonight was definitely not hifi. Nor was it what I was expecting.  But for the beards it was clearly what they were after.
A few hundred gathered together in the sweaty London undercrofts they call Heaven, somewhere in the vicinity of Charing Cross station.  That's right, even in October the clubers' favourite can get hot.  If you suffer from even the mildest form of claustrophobia,  this venue probably isn't for you. Given the matt black walls, dusty ceiling drapes and euro fizz served in plastic glasses, someone's idea to name the place Heaven was either sadly lacking in ambition, has a very different perspective on life compared to Audiophile Musings or just has a great line in ironic naming standards.
Still, its usually the band and the crowd that makes a gig, not the venue. And here there be beards. Its not a very scientific survey, but I reckon about 2/3 of the male audience tonight were sporting the full facial forest. The audience ranged from mid twenties to mid fifties and it was quite an international contingent.  Whimsical attire mixed comfortably with jeans n t-shirts. Thankfully, I didn't spot any cheesecloth.  All were in amiable mood and when Tunng walked out on stage they received a warm, if fairly muted reception. 
For most of the evening Tunng were a 6 piece of acoustic guitar, electic guitar, bass, drums, keyboards/additional percussion and synth.  Vocals from most of the band contributed to the harmony style the band carry so well.  Only for the encore were they joined by a guest singer.
For me the band got off to a shaky start with some slightly duff harmonies and the occasional missed musical cue. Did they need more gigs under their belts? With music that is as inticate as Tunng's and with song structures that are as quirky and, at the same time, less than intuitive, it would be very easy for less than accurate playing to produce a messy result. 
Its difficult for me to describe Tunng's music in traditional genre terms. The best I can say is that its rooted in folk-rock with several twists - sometimes melancholy, sometimes with whimsical overtones, often with dark undertones.  Overlay that with a touch of tribal, sprinkle with psychedelia and you probably still won't get the full flavour. Give it a try and see what you think.
Their recorded music, at least on the 3 albums I have, tends heavily towards the folk end in its carefully crafted, beautifully presented ways. Expect the unexpected, don't yearn for verse chorus verse, but instead just let what happens happen and see where the music takes you. Which takes me back to the gig. 3 songs in and we're starting to get somewhere. Perhaps they're on more familiar territory now? Its hard to tell - I don't know their songs that well, but even if I did, I'm fairly sure some of them would still be difficult to spot tonight. For tonight we were definitely at the ROCK end of Tunng's difficult to define spectrum. And by track 4, the beards were starting to rock out too. Songs built, crescendos were reached, guitars were thrashed and kick drum was well and truly kicked. And it worked well too. So well, the set went too quickly. Just about an hour in fact,  followed by 2 encores in response to well deserved enthusiastic cheering and applause.  Another 15 mins wouldn't have gone amiss.
So a slow start but a quick ramp up into a vibrant and rocking gig. Perhaps I should take a little of my own advice and expect the unexpected.
A word on sound quality of the PA, given this blog's primary purpose.  Adequate. Very much a horn based set up, the bass kick was fast and slamming followed by a swampy mass of gloopiness. Vocals indistinct.  Top end not too harsh. Probably a 5 out of 10.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Will 2014 Be The Year of High-Res Audio?

It could finally be happening.

Perhaps the flood gates will be opened.

There's a potential explosion in the offing.

etc.

For a while the audiophile community has been listening to "better than CD quality" high resolution music.  In simple numbers terms, a CD is always recorded at 44.1kHz (every second of music is sampled 44,100 times per second) and stored as a "word" comprising 16bits of digital information.  Most studio recordings are made at 96kHZ (96,000 samples in a second) and 24bits of digital information.  So the studio recordings sample twice as many words and the words can store thousands of times the information in comparison to CD.  Studio recordings are compressed down into the CD format.  So CDs are effectively a compressed format, never mind MP3!

There are many factors that affect audio quality, particularly the diligence of the production and engineering teams.  However, if we are to assume that a good team is in place and is capable of producing an album that sounds great on CD, then theoretically the 24bit, higher sampled version should sound better.

A number of audiophile companies (e.g. Linn, Naim, Devialet and others) have produced players capable of reproducing these higher quality audio files for up to 6 years.  However, that hasn't lead to a vast array and choice of widely available sources of music in the higher resolution formats.  Linn Records, Naim Label, Bowers & Wilks, HD Tracks and Quzbo have soldiered on, adding a couple of albums to their repertoirs per month.  Even some of this is of dubious origin with some files being alleged to be merely upsampled CD quality recordings - I'm not saying all of these providers indulge in this, but it pays to take care.  In the last 2 years, mid-range manufacturers such as Marantz, Pioneer, Cambridge Audio and others have added this high-res capability to streamers, CD players and AV receivers.  So you'd think that we'd be seeing lots and lots of choice of music in the market, but it just hasn't happened yet.

However, according to news in What HiFi magazine, we could see this change significantly in 2014 and the following years.  Sony has just announced a full range of hi-res capable products, including a Walkman and, most significantly, a high-res download site - at the moment this looks like it will be a gateway to existing sites.  With the vast range of source materials available to Sony, this could be the tipping point -hopefully they will start to release their catalogue in hi-res.  I'll watch this with great interest!

http://www.whathifi.com/news/sonys-flagship-high-res-walkman-revealed

http://www.whathifi.com/news/sony-launches-high-resolution-audio-product-range-and-hi-res-downloads-site

Testing, Testing

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

More Pictures From Linn's 40th Anniversary Event

Thanks very much to Peter of Linn specialist Cymbiosis who has kindly provided permission to re-publish these pictures.

www.cymbiosis.com

Ivor Tiefenbrun Receiving a Very Long Round of Applause After His Speech



Machines Which Insert Surface Mount Electronic Components Onto Circuit Boards
Main Factory Floor
Special Edition LP12 (note, no "n of 40" branding on this one)
Linn Home Main Room
Klimax Exakt Demo
Highland Park Whisky Sampling Session
And here are all my own photos collected into the one post:

Visitor Passes - Front Size

Visitor Passes - Rear Side

Admiral Fallow Gig at Merchant Square, Glasgow





Exakt 350 Rear Panel


Goodie Bag Contents

Anniversary LP12 on Highland Park Barrel

Anniversary LP12 Plinth

Anniversary LP12 Highland Park

Klimax Exakt DSM Front

Klimax Exakt DSM Rear

Morning Demo of the Highland Park Anniversary LP12 in the Klimax Room of Linn Home

In the Museum - a Prototype Passive Crossover for the Komri - note at that time the speaker name was Komrie

Main Room at Linn Home

In the Museum - Cutaway Majik Isobarik

In the Museum - Sketches of rejected designs for LK range - there were 10s of pages


Monday, 23 September 2013

Linn's Future Approach to Exakt - an Audiophile Musings Interpretation

I've been thinking about the Exakt strap line - the source is in the speaker.  As in the digital data file gets all the way to the speaker (the file being the source) without being corrupted or distorted, then the Exakt module does its stuff to turn this into analogue and amplifying it before this signal goes to the drive units.  Of course this doesn't make quite as much sense with a turntable as a source, but lets just think about purely digital systems for the moment.

So, "the source is in the speaker" could be a great way of justifying why upgrading the speaker end of things is going to make sense in an Exakt system, and allows Linn to keep to its "source first" message at the same time.

I suspect, after November, it will make sense for the next product to be released to be for the Akubarik.  Its their latest design, will have been in design and development in parallel with Exakt and has a very conveniently shaped electronics module to sit on the back.  So what will be in that module?  An Exakt engine, DACs and power amps, just like the Exakt 350 module.  Also given how recent the Akubarik is, there needs to be an heavy discount for those trading in their Akubark Active module.

However, what range "level" will those DACs and power amps be?  Will they be Klimax level or Akurate level?  This is where I think we will see range differentiators in the future.  And it would make sense, with the first Exakt module for the Akubarik to be at Klimax level (because the work is largely done already for the 350).  So KEDSM and Klimax Exakt Akubarik and a very attractive trade-in deal.  Then the next release could be the first Akurate Exakt module for the Akubarik so your system would be KEDSM, and Akurate Exakt Akubarik, also needs to have a great trade-in deal. 

Given that many of the speakers will need refreshing over the coming years, this is how I see that modules and speakers can be upgradable in the future, without changing the EDSM along the way.

109 replacement passive
109 replacement with Majik Exakt module
109 replacement with Akurate Exakt module
140 replacement passive
140 replacement with Majik Exakt module
140 replacement with Akurate Exakt module
MIso replacement passive
MIso replacement with Majik Exakt module
MIso replacement with Akurate Exakt module
MIso replacement withKlimax Exakt module
Akubarik passive
Akubarik Akurate Exakt module
Akubarik Klimax Exakt module

So you want to upgrade your source (Linn's long term philosophy) then you upgrade your speaker components.  As all of the current speakers are replaced over time I can see that they will follow the Akubarik design path.  The aluminium rear module for the Akubarik is just an extrusion cut to length. It has very flexible mounting points for the electronics inside.  So various lengths of this module are easy - to suit the cabinet heights of future speakers.

Same thinking for the Tunebox of course too, but applied to the older speakers and really only consisting of software variations through Konfig.  The idea that this is upgrading your source doesn't fit so well here, but it does work very well with the commitment to support customers in upgrading and extending the lifetime of their products. So:

Majik Exakt Tunebox in versions for 109, 140, MIso, Ninka, Keilidh, Katan, Kan, Tuakan etc
Akurate Exakt Tunebox in versions for 109, 140, MIso, Ninka, Keilidh, Katan, Kan, Tukan, 5140, Kaber, Keltik, Sara, Akubarik etc
Klimax Exakt Tunebox in versions for 5140, Kaber, Keltik, Sara, Isobarik, Akubarik, 350, 320, etc

All of this can be very modular indeed, from an hardware design perspective, keeping flexibility up but cost down.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Admiral Fallow

Gig is on.

Linn 40th Goodie Bag

For each of the 300 visitors to Linn's 40th Anniversary celebrations this weekend, there was a parting gift.
A vinyl copy of the 40th Anniversary Collection Linn Records album and a rather nicely packaged Linn branded whisky glass and 50ml of 12 year old Highland Park.  Very generous.

More Exakt Info

The basics of Exakt:

A new type of DSM that accepts analogue and digital inputs.  Analogue signals are converted to digital (yes, including the Sondek!).  The Exakt DSM translates the data into Exakt Link format and sends this to an Exakt engine which can be either inside an Exakt Tunebox or inside an Exakt active loudspeaker.  The Exakt engine knows which speaker it is inside so takes that signal from the Exakt link and then decodes it into the correct frequency bands for each drive unit inside the speaker.  Each frequency band is then fed to a dedicated DAC and power amp for each drive unit.  Volume is controlled by the Exakt DSM but applied by the Exakt engine in the Tunebox or speaker at the last point in the digital chain before it goes to the DACs.

The Exakt engine is capable of correcting for manufacturing variation in the speaker drive units, 0dB distortion frequency crossover filtering and, by delaying some of the signal, 0dB phase distortion too.  It can also be fed room dimensions during installation to compensate for the type of room modes (typically heard as bass boom) expected for that size of room.

Signal  Exakt DSM to Exakt speakers is along cat5 using proprietary Exakt link protocols. Its not ethernet.  Lossless, guaranteed delivery and ultra accurate clock sync:
CD12 jitter 41ps
KDSM jitter 11ps
Exakt jitter 6.3ps 

Individual clocks in the Exakt engines. 1.8 nano seconds clock sync accuracy. This is equivalent to getting both speakers located to within 1/100th thickness of sheet of paper distance from the listening position.

Components:

Klimax Exakt DSM has analogue, digital and ethernet inputs. Only ethernet RJ45 style outputs. Cat5e cables to speakers which carry proprietary Exakt Link signals.  There is no concept of left / right channels for Exakt Link outputs - there are just multiple outputs to enable connections to multiple speakers.

Speakers have an Exakt engine inside (to decode its signal from the Exakt Link and to filter the signal into individual frequency bands) which then feed to a DAC and amp dedicated to each drive unit.

Pricing At Launch (from a dealer conversation and updated during the week after the launch through Linn forum posts by Linn employees, not officially provided by a Linn presentation nor on their website at time of writing):

£ 50k for KEDSM and a pair of 350 Exakt speakers
KEDSM and upgrade to existing 350 speakers £25k
A KEDSM and 2 x Exakt Tuneboxes will be £26k for owners of Keltiks or Komris
No official word on the cost of a KEDSM on its own at the moment, but word from Linn employees on the Linn forum that it will be "substantially less than the current KDSM" - so that means under £13k then

Klimax Exakt DSM
Futures

Exakt will be available in stand alone version for older speakers as an Exakt Tunebox which will contain an Exakt engine and 6 channels of DACs. Komri and Keltik for certain in November.  Other Linn speakers to come, but no schedule released at this point.

Possibility of Akurate and Majik versions later, but no definitive statements yet.

Exakt Photos

Klimax Exakt DSM Front Panel



Klimax Exakt DSM Rear Panel

Top row from left to right:
- L & R unbalanced inputs
- L & R balance inputs
- 4 x Exakt link RJ45 outputs (with 2 x Cat5e cables plugged in - one going to each Exakt speaker)
- 2 x SPDIF inputs
- 1 x Ethernet RJ45 network
- 2 x optical inputs (I think, but not 100% sure)
- Mains power input

Bottom row from left to right:
- Earth post
- 4 x HDMI digital inputs (not sure, but being HDMI, digital output may be possible here - I expect these behave in the same way as a KDSM)

So no analogue outputs. At all.







Exakt 350 Loudspeaker Back Panel.  From the top: Exakt Link connection, another Exakt Link connetion, power switch, mains input.
 
Inside the Exakt 350 Module (photo courtesy of musiikin.com)

  
 

Exakt - Initial News As It Is Announced

Exakt KDSM has analogue, digital and ethernet inputs. Only ethernet style outputs. Cat5e cables to speakers.
Speakers have DAC and amps.
Software driven room compensation to adapt the speakers to the room and to compensate for manufacturing varations in speaker drive units.
 
 £ 50k for KEDSM and a pair of 350 Exakt speakers

Linn's 40th Birthday Party

Established in 1973, Linn is celebrating its 40th Anniversary at the factory this weekend.  Via some communications on the Linn forum I was fortunate enough to secure a couple of tickets (thanks very much Dan Steel).  Here are some notes and pictures from the event.

Around 300 visitors had a choice of various presentations and listening sessions through the day.  An opening address by Ivor Tiefenbrun at 11:00 and a major product launch (see the above posts about Exakt) at 14:00 were "compulsory" attendance events.  Throughout the day there were presentations on the history of Linn Records, how Linn Records records an orchestra, meet the engineers (speakers, control software, LP12 and DS sessions available) and various music playing sessions in the Linn Home dem rooms.  Tours of the factory were also bookable.

For us the party started with a listen to the Highland Park LP12. The plinth is made from lids of oak whisky barrels which could be up to 200 years old.
Due to the different material the plinth is made from 4 separate pieces of wood rather than being assemled from 4 pieces cut from a single piece.

Highland Park 40th Anniversary LP12
Listening Through Fully Active Solo Driven 350ps in the Linn Home
Example Plinth with Branding Literally Branded Onto the Wood
Over The Barrel
Only 40 produced.
Includes all the top end kit such as Ekos SE, Uphorik, Radical etc.  Also includes a bottle of 40 year old Highland Park in a presentation case.
Rumour has it that they sold out over the weekend (although, as dealers have to buy their kit from Linn, not all may have found a final home yet).

Sounded nice enough, but still vinyl with its inherent surface noise problems (although, of course, at this level surface noise is very much reduced).

Of all the dems in the Linn Home (main room and the 2 lounge size rooms at the back of the building) were less than brilliant - I don't think this facility does the systems any favours - the Akurate room with the Emily Barker demonstration was the most enjoyable.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

How Good Can It Be?

I've now had my current system config for about 12 months, and we seem to be getting on well together.  I feel as though the upgraditis of the previous 18 months was worth all the box shuffling and uncertaintity has paid off.  In that time I've also made a few friends along the way through the forums, at House of Linn and with some local audiophiliacs.  Good stuff.  Music has not been so addictive before and I truly relish and look forward to the few hours I can find each week to sit down and get immersed into the music and play "just one more track".

So, lots of self-contratulations there - perhaps I should get into the theatre and the award ceremony merry-go-round.  Perhaps not.

So this means all is good and no further upgrades are required, right?  Yes.  For now.  But I work in a strategy role, and that occasionally kind of spills over into non-work time.  Plus, any significant changes are going to take equally significant chunks of cash.  So a plan needs to be worked on so next steps can be planned out and funds saved over time.  If you don't know where you're going its difficult to know which way to go, how long its going to take to get there: you might end up in the wrong place and get lost along the way.

Way back, when I'd decided that the Marantz CD40 wasn't the best CD player out there (this kind of decision is usually linked to availability of cash), I could've taken a number of steps over time and worked my way up the CD player hierarchy.  But I chose not too - deciding to save over a period of time and go straight to where I thought I wanted to get to - the Meridian 508.  Perhaps that also saved some cash due to less depreciation steps along the way. And maybe that's what I should think about now.  Indeed, the 508.20 worked well for me and actually did end up being my last serious CD player, so the wait was worthwhile and I didn't hear anything in the 10 years it was in my system that convinced me there was a need to move on.  Plus, it sold for a reasonable price and, along with letting the LP12 go to a new home, gave me the opportunity to go into streaming at a reasonable high level of quality.

So does that mean it'll be straight to the top with Klimax DS, Klimax Kontrol, lots of Klimax Solos and a pair of 350s in active config then?  Errr, no, not really.  The end game doesn't need to be the ultimate possible, but a balance of what's best within a budget and a time frame.  If you aim too high, there's a very real possibility that you'll never get there.  And I've heard the 350s, and I don't think they're as good as the Komris they replaced.  Timing can also allow for the secondhand market and when the products currently available might reach a more acceptable price point.

So there's the usual bit of pre-amble and positioning stuff out of the way, now lets get down to the content of this post.  And its more on the Akubariks.

House of Linn ran an Akubarik open couple of days recently, so having booked into an evening session, I took local Roksan owning neighbour Chris along to listen and get a second opinion.  In typical HoL style we were welcomed with cups of tea / coffee, a bit of a chat and introduction to Chris before moving into the front listening room where we found a pair of Oak active Akubariks, Klimax DS/1 and Klimax Kontrol all hooked up and ready to go, powered by PS Audio mains regenerators.  HoL know that the LP12 doesn't interest me these days, so vinyl was off the menu.  We loaded up my list of demo tracks (see here for clues) and got stuck into listening to some music.  The demo tracks are chosen for the following reasons, in order of priority: emotionally involving; excellent songwriting and/or musicianship; excellent recording quality; something that would test at least one aspect of what a system can do, such as bass depth, slam, delicacy of the treble, female vocals, imaging etc. etc.

If you've read the post below, you'll know that I found it difficult to concentrate on the sound being produced last time I heard the Akubariks - as hard as I was trying, I kept getting distracted by the music and forgot about the sound quality.  Well, as we were using music I'm very familiar with this time, perhaps it was a touch easier to focus on the system, yet still I struggled to find a flavour, or character for this system.  For sure, the bass goes deep - deeper than the Majik 140s - but there's something there that just doesn't happen with the 140s, Majik Isos, 242s, 350p, 350a and many other non-Linn speakers such as those from Wilson Benesch, Kudos, Vienna Acoustics and many others on which I've listened to the same tracks.  And that's the tune.  There is so much more tune going on in the bass that I've not heard on any other system before.  I know some systems can differentiate bass notes better than others, and can remove some of apparent monotonic bass lines presented by other systems (such as moving from Linn Keilidhs to Majik 140), but this combination of components really plays a tune in the bass - its quite a remarkable revelation and one I encourage you to seek out.  I found myself wrapped up in following this aspect of the music - to the point where I was smiling involuntarily at the revelation.  Marvellous.

Elsewhere, the 3K array seems to integrate very well with the lower mid-range driver - in other Linn designs with the 3K array it's often discernable where this unit finishes and the lower frequency drivers take over - if there is a problem with that in the Akubarik, I need better ears to detect it.  There's been a change to the phasing of the crossovers for the 3K array itsself and, as noted in the earlier report below, this seems to have driven out a step change in the ability of a Linn speaker to image properly.  L to R, front to back and up & down, this system images extremely well - little to no vagueness, realistic instrument sizing (where the recording allows of course) and rock solid in the soundstage (but see the next posting above about other observations on this particular aspect).  I expect that the tuning of the crossover to match the actual drive units installed in each speaker (to the point that the crossovers in a pair of speakers may be very slightly different between left and right speakers) to eliminate any differences that manufacturing tolerances may have introduced could well be a contributor to this new found imaging performance.  The other characteristics of the array remain intact - such as the very clear highest frequencies with no edginess - good news.

And that's about all I can say about this system (I know this is primarily about the active Akubariks as they are the new bit here, but they can't perform unless they're given a good signal).  Acoustic music, bass heavy electronica, happy dance music, female vocals covering depressing scenarios, all came across with heaps of emotion, extensive detail, rock solid imaging and lots and lots of tune laden attitude.

You might've detected that I'm a fan.  I've heard systems that can do that last nth level of deeper bass, I've heard those that can perhaps slam a touch harder, I've heard systems that cost twice as much and were abysmal and I've heard Linn's current top of the range speaker system.  All of them have compromises that tend to outweigh the benefits of that little thing they do just that little bit better. You can read about many of those experiences elsewhere in the blog, but for me, this is the most tuneful, enjoyable, uncompromised system I've heard to date.

I think I see some clarity of direction emerging.

Thanks to B & T at HoL for hosting and Chris for looking a bit gobsmacked (by the music and the list prices!).

Friday, 3 May 2013

What's All The Fuss About?

I'm fairly sure that Linn don't launch new speakers very often, the last being the Majik Isobarik in late 2011/early 2012.  Their speakers also spend a long time on the market - 6 years is fairly typical. I also note that the current floor stander in the Akurate range, the 242, is both aging somewhat and, from forum chatter, something that polarises opinions. Ive heard them sounding very good on the end of a fully active Akurate system (that'll be 10 channels of amps), but have not heard them driven passively.

Its worth noting at this point that, with the Majik Isobariks, Linn has returned to a speaker design technique that served them very well in their earlier days.  This is the isobaric principle where 2 bass drivers are working in tandem with each other, the space between them being a sealed chamber - the idea being to get close to double the surface area of a single driver, but without the need for a large amount of front baffle space. This approach was applied to the early speakers such as the standmount Sara and the floorstanding Isobarik. It also put in an appearance in the Keltik which was the top of the range in the late eighties/early 90s. Funilly enough, all of those speakers polarised opinion in their days. The more recent Majik Isobarik doesn't seem to have caused such extreme reactions, but it doesn't seem to have driven much enthusiasm amongst those with cash to spend. Personally, I like their bass, but don't like the way they struggle with imaging nor the strange way they push male vocals back in the soundstage. They're also a visual challenge for me, so I chose the 140 speakers as a preferable set of sonic compromises, at half the price.

That's probably enough background and pre-amble, lets get on with some content. Unfortunately the descriptive element of listening to the speaker will be necessarily brief, the reason for which will become clear soon.

So the "big event" for Linn is the launch of a new speaker in their mid-range, the Akubarik (I don't like the name really - its a bit twee, I thought Majik Isobarik was fine, so Akurate Isobarik would be fine too).  At first this will be an active only offering, with all the active filters and power amps built into a suspended aluminium casing mounted on the back of the each speaker cabinet.  The amplifier circuit boards and active filter boards are one and the same - so this is a new set of electronics.  Not sure what the power amps are related to, but its probably fair to guess that they will be Akurate based.  Power supplies are based on the Dynamik from the Klimax Twin power amp. Rumours abound of a passive version later, but nothing official. You can see a video interview with designer Phil Budd here, where he explains the thinking and tech behind the design. Briefly, we see the familiar 3k mid/tweeter/supertweeter array (with new crossover design and different phasing), an upper bass driver in the front baffle and a pair of lower bass drivers in isobaric configuration in the lower part of the cabinet with the outer driver facing downwards into the stand, along with a pair of bass ports. The cabinet has curved sides but a flat top and is available in the standard Linn finishes or any colour you like. The array is available in black or silver. Personal favourites all feature the black array combined with gloss white, piano black or black ash. Having seen them in a largish room, they look reasonably compact, beautifully finished and much less confrontational than the Majik Isobarik, 242 and 350 speakers. I like the way they look, probably a little bit more than is healthy!  I would prefer the option of the legs in black, perhaps they should match the choice of 3k array?

The first listening opportunity arose at the House of Linn's John Coltrane Linn Lounge event in the last week of April. The speakers were being fed by a Linn Klimax DS/1 streamer and a Kimax Kontrol pre-amp, both sucking their mains from a PS Audio P10 regenerator. A full spec Klimax LP12 / Ekos SE / Kandid was also pressed into action during the evening.  The Linn Lounge is a great idea - its either an evening where a full classic album is played on a high end Linn system, or the body of work of an artist is explored in some depth.  This is the first one I've been to, on this occasion local saxophonist Nat Burchill took us through a potted history of the life and works of John Coltrane.  I think it was an excellent approach - I have very little knowlege of Coltrane's work, but now understand and appreciate it much more than before.  Tracks were played from early albums recorded in the 40s through to his last albums in 1967, just before his death.  Nat demonstrated Coltrane's techniques from his early days of playing to the accepted standards of his earlier days, to how he developed his own interpretations of existing and new works by others, into the much more improvisational later stuff that was challenging in its day, and is still challenging for me today.  I also learnt some jazz terms such as modal, which I hadn't happened across previously.  Excellent presentation, very well illustrated with tracks at sensible points in the story and well received by the capacity (about 40 people?) audience.

So on to the music and the sound of the speakers.  Here, my comments are going to be (probably disappointingly) brief.  There are 2 reasons for this.  The first is that all the music we listened to being John Coltrane or Miles Davis or other artists to whom Coltrane was contributing, it was largely unfamiliar to me.  With the exception of Love Supreme Part I, all of the music was new to me.  It was also 99% lacking any vocals - as these carry much of the emotion of many pieces of music, I think I need to hear much more vocals and much more familiar music before giving a more full verdict on the Akubariks.

The second reason is one that I really find difficult to explain.  Once we got beyond the first couple of recordings (which clearly suffered from the quality of technology available when they were recorded) I tried time and time again to focus on not just the music, but how the speakers were representing that music.  I guess its worth noting that the Klimax front end is reputed to be very musical and very neutral (I've heard them a number of times in different systems and there have always been some kind of limitation - usually the environment, but sometimes the music) - some reviews have called the sound of the electronics as too sterile, but that's not something I find as a problem - I think that everyone is looking for something different in the way their stereo plays music, and those that find Linn too sterile are looking for some kind of colouration or warmth that they are more used to.  From a personal perspective I don't hear them as sterile, I hear them (or don't hear them!) as very revealing and very transparent.

So the first reason means I need to hear more later, hopefully reasonably soon, but after the HoL pair have had some more time running-in.  But the second reason I find both frustrating and very very telling about listening to these speakers.  Frustrating because its going to be very difficult to describe the way they sound. Telling because its now going to be very difficult to describe the way they sound!  Let's start with the one thing that really stood out for me, and that's imaging.  For me, Linn speakers have never been very good at this, from the first Isobarik through to the current range - imaging is approximate rather than precise.  Each upgrade step I've made with my system has brought better imaging - now it is very much three dimensional, and it extends beyond the speakers quite significantly, but a singer's voice is just kind of roughly in the centre and instruments tend to be wider than perhaps you'd expect.  Its one of the compromises and I'm happy to make that compromise given the other characteristics of the system around timing, musical flow, naturalness, unforced but dynamic etc.  Even the 242 and 350 speakers don't image as well as they should.  If you want a reference point for imaging, Cyrus electronics with Vienna Acoustics BBG speakers would be a good place to start.  In the Akubarik, Linn may finally have cracked it.  Even though I was just right of centre in the room, imaging is superb - 3 dimensional and precise, quite a revelation.

One other point to note was one occasion there was a track that generated some bass boominess.  Only one track though - every other track showed none of this.  It was one of the tracks played on the turntable - I'm not saying the turntable was at fault, more of an observation.  It would be good to get some seriously bassy tracks playing through the DS (think Yello, Trentemoller, Nitin Sawnhey, Blues Company) to check this out more thoroughly.

And that's all I have to say on the subject of how these speakers sound, at this point.  Because I really didn't hear them very much.  Yes, throughout the 90 minutes or so there must've been at least 45 minutes of music playing, but I just didn't hear the speakers.  I listened to the music.  I got wrapped up in the music.  I understood much of what Nat was explaining.  I still don't really appreciate some of the later non-rhythmic Coltrane music, but I did get engrossed in the nuances of his playing, the phrasing, the complexity of the tunes. This is the first system I've listened to that I didn't really listen to - within about 30 seconds or so of the start of each track I was completely focussed on the music, even though I was trying to evaluate the speakers.  And maybe that's all you need to know.

More investigation with more familiar music is required.  As it stands at the moment, I think my medium term plans for the system may be taking shape.

Apologies for my bad camera phone photo - should've taken the proper camera:



Thanks are due for Brian and Trevor at House of Linn for hosting another excellent and enjoyable evening.  Focussing on the music, of course.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Manchester Audio World Show - March 2013

www.chestergroup.org revived the higher end hifi show at the Radisson Blu hotel, Manchester Airport on 23/24 March 2013 - a welcome return for some of us, after having only the more mainstream / mid-range Audio T show for the past few years.  I say a welcome return for some as the majority of folks who went to the Audio T show in the city centre (which was very well attended), didn't bother with this show.  So it was easy to get a seat in the various rooms, but footfall might not have been enough to mean this show was commercially viable for the organisers.  Maybe it was down to the extremely unseasonal snow in the region - up to 2ft deep in some place surrounding Manchester, although access to the airport was not interrupted.  I hope it sees another year, as the variety of kit on show was good and the 24 or so rooms is probably just enough to fill in about 5 hours, giving enough time to listen to a few tracks in each room so you don't form a snap judgement.  The Chester Group website suggests there will be a Northern show again next year, so it looks promising at the moment.

As a customer I offered to help out in brianandtrevors room at the show, and they agreed it would be useful for me to discuss my customer experience (not the kit, not the pricing, just the service they offer) so I spent most of my time in there and didn't get time to get around all the other rooms.  So, after spending 3 hours with our neighbours digging the snow out on Saturday afternoon, here are my thoughts on those I managed to cover during the Sunday:

BRIAN AND TREVORS:

In here they were playing either the Linn Klimax DS/1 streamer or a full Klimax Linn Sondek fitted with the brand new Linn Kandid MC cartridge with the Uphorik phono stage into a Linn Klimax Kontrol pre-amp.  Then either Linn 350a or Adam Tensor Alpha loudspeakers - both of which are active and have built-in power amps.  The Focal 1038s were also played on Saturday, but I wasn't there to hear them.  Linn Solo power amps, Anthem power amps, Dynaudio Xeo and a couple of other speakers were also on static display.
I've heard the Tensor Alphas a couple of times at brianandtrevors shop / house, and I've found them to image superbly and be full of detail, but I've not really go on with them myself - there's something a little underwhelming about their presentation - I don't feel drawn into the music.  At the show they had a bigger room to breathe in (see picture below - you'll understand that they benefit from a bit of space).  I read on one of the www forums that someone had put their head in the door of the room when the Adams were playing and didn't bother going in, as it sounded like a "noise".  Well, I tested this and found that to be true - the entrance door was in one half of the room with the speakers in the other half and they didn't sound at all good - by walking into the room and sitting in front of the speakers you get a completely different experience. But the first 2 rows of seats were too close - you needed to be in row 3 or stood at the back to get a good sound - proof, I think, that these speakers need a truly huge amount of space to work in. Even in the 3rd row or back row, these speakers need a sympathetic track or source to make them work - fortunately the Linn KDS or Sondek / Kandid sorts out the source, but harsher tracks are exposed for what they are.  So I was still a bit confused about what they're about - but come 3.15 in the afternoon and on went a 20 minute track called "School Days" from the Stanley Clarke album "Live At The Greek", at a very high volume.  And everything came together.  The kick, power, dynamics and scale were stunning - kick drum thumped convincingly like a concert PA system but the subtleties remained.  It seems that if you have an enormous room and a liking for playing blues / rock / jazz concerts extremely loud then perhaps these speakers will work for you.  A legacy of Adam's roots in professional audio perhaps?
The Linn 350a speakers were at the other end of the room and backing onto the shorter wall.  I heard a pair of the passive version of these at a friend's house just under 2 weeks earlier and they were stunning - using slightly lower source components than were in use here and a Linn Klimax Twin power amp.  As a direct comparison to the Adam Tensor Alphas, the 350a were distinctly easier to listen to - more "friendly" if you like.  In this situation though, they weren't at their best - it seems as though the step in the ceiling was acting like an alcove causing the bottom end to be a bit over emphasised, slowing the music somewhat - reducing the dynamic impact.  At least I had heard them sounding great recently, so maybe the room really was the culprit this time - I know this is a favourite excuse for exhibitors - at least here there was a recent point of reference for comparison.

Interestingly, Brian and Trevor chose to focus on their service and they way they run a house rather than a shop and how they work on an appointment only basis - pretty much every other room was about the products.

Adam Tensor Alpha
Linn Sondek, Uphorik, KDS/1 and Klimax Kontrol



BRODMANN:

Here Brodmann were using Electrocompaniet electronics - a CD player and integrated amp - exact models not known (signs please exhibitors!!!).  Interesting to note these components were stacked on top of each other and on top of nothing more exotic than the hotel carpet.  When I was in the room they were playing the floorstander Vienna Classic 7.
Being a piano manufacturer of some repute is supposed to give Brodmann an advantage when it comes to speakers - and I can see some logic in that.  To me, it looks like the piano manufacturing has certainly paid off in terms of the veneers and the finish which is of a very high standard.  We heard some classical and some jazz.  These speakers are very refined, relaxing to listen to, but ultimately I found them very frustrating.  I couldn't really hear much of an image and vocals were OK when female, but oddly muted when male.  And when we moved away from classical music, they just didn't boogie along too well.  So another niche product aimed at a particular type of music perhaps?  Nice enough, but didn't stir me much at all.

Brodmann / Electrocompaniet
BURMESTER:

Seriously high end gear here, in a very small room - normally an excuse for a poor performance, particularly when they were using speakers that were around 5ft tall.
Listening to one of their CD players, a pre-amp (that may, or may not have included a DAC), what I think is the 956 power amplifier ($17k) and the B80 Mk 2 speakers ($60k) was a very enjoyable experience.  There's oodles of detail coming from this system, but its not grating, its not tiring (at least, not over 2 x 15 minute visits) it just flows.  There's deep confident bass that's very well controlled and which didn't cause a problem, even in a room that's very small for such large speakers.  I heard no familiar music in here but enjoyed all of it - toe-tapping along to the music.  They also played a few tracks on the Bergmann air bearing linear-tracking turntable which was delivering superb sounds.  Best of show?  Possibly - at a price of course - at least this time, in this room, the really expensive stuff wasn't a disappointment.  Just a small observation - the mirror finish front panels on the electronics really should never be combined with that hotel carpet ;-)

Burmester - if you need to ask, you can't afford it

SELECT AUDIO ROOM - LUXMAN / VERITY AUDIO:

 Verity Audio Parsifal Ovation loudspeakers, 70s VU meters on Luxman integrated amp.  Luxman CD player too - unfortunately I didn't get the model numbers on these.
This was a great sounding system.  The room looked too large for what are pretty diminutive floorstanders, but they weren't overwhelmed at all.  The larger room meant that even the front row of seats were a realistic listening distance from the kit - and having originally been in the third row, when the front row freed up I was keen enough to move forward to enjoy the system even more.  We didn't hear any driving rock music on this, but some upbeat jazz and some acoustic / vocals kept us engaged with the music.  One of the top rooms at the show (of the ones I managed to get to at least).
Interesting equipment rack too - the electronics are suspended on some kind of rubber belt (and that's a mains conditioner on the bottom shelf.  Need a better CD management system though ;-)

Luxman electronics, Verity Audio speakers
MUSIC FIRST AUDIO:

Something a bit different here - a really small, very focussed manufacturer - their website revealing nothing but passive pre-amps and a phono stage.  They brought along the Baby Reference Pre-Amp for visitors to listen to.  The guy running the demos (I think he might be the proprietor of MFA) was extremely enthusiastic about the passive pre-amp, suggesting that the quality of the system was entirely down to the pre-amp, pretty much to the exclusion of the rest of the components.  Have to dispute that - the pre-amp can certainly let the source components be shown at their best or impact on the sound produced by the source, but if the source is rubbish a pre-amp can't make a system sound good - it can't put the music right again.
Anyway, they were using a Macbook as a digital source, a Chord DAC (model not known to me), Bel Canto power amp (particularly well respected by Cyrus fans looking to move onwards and upwards - so they're probably pretty up-front in their presentation and will probably image well) and a pair of the classic Rogers LS3/5A speakers.
So what's special here?  Well a passive pre-amp has no power supply - just a way of stepping the volume up and down without any active / powered components inside.  Typically these will involve a potentiometer or multiple stepped fixed value resistors.  Here though, MFA feed the signal into one side of a transformer.  There are then multiple (24 actually) output windings on the transformer - one for each volume position available.  Each of those 24 windings have different numbers of coils wound within the transformer so that the ratio between the number of input windings : output windings changes at each volume control position, hence altering the volume output to the power amp.
For such a simple and unassuming system (containing a £4000 pre-amp - the transformers are wound by hand) this was a great and enjoyable listen.  Everything was even handed (within the limitations of the lack of bass available from the LS3/5A speakers of course), dynamic, no nasty edges, free-flowing, foot-tapping and very enjoyable.  We (brother and I) were impressed - enough to suggest that Brian and Trevor give this a try - but the room was being packed up when Trevor got the chance to take a look.  There was a sneaking suspicion about the use of such small speakers with limited bass.  Was this just a wise choice for the size of the room, or were they hiding problems with the bass output of the pre-amp.  Of course its not possible to tell, but subsequent research on the forums suggests that there are no generic problems, so we'll go with the benefit of the doubt here this time.

Macbook, Chord Dac, Music First Audio TVC pre-amp, Bel Canto Power Amp, Rogers LS3/5A speakers

ART / McINTOSH / SYSTEMDEK:

It's rather appropriate that my picture of this system has turned out to be blurred and a bit rubbish.  What we have here is possibly the worst demo I've had of an expensive hifi system.  A quick search tells me that this lot (without any cables) adds up to at least £60k (speakers alone are £42k).  Unbelieveable.  I visited the room twice because I could only think that they were using a very badly produced piece of vinyl on my first visit.  But both visits gave the same result - dull, flat, uninteresting, ill-defined (blurred anyone?), lacking dynamics, I really just couldn't hear anything to recommend or redeem this system.  Perhaps they can blame the pattern on the carpet for confusing the signals going along the speaker cables?  Other excuses are available of course.

Systemdek 3D TT, McIntosh pre and power amps, ART Alnico Reference - photo not blurred on purpose, but entirely appropriate given the sounds on offer

AUDIO T / REGA / PMC:

Having missed out on the opportunity to hear the new Rega RP8 turntable at the recent Chester Acoustica show (report here), this was fixed at Manchester in a system comprising the RP8, Rega electronics and the standmount PMC Fact.3 loudspeakers, which are a very narrow, suprisingly tall and very deep stand mount.  I'm not normally a fan of PMC loudspeakers, but all the ones I've heard have been floorstanders - I find the timing of the bass to be a bit odd - disjointed from the rest of the music somewhat.
Happy to report here that I didn't here any of this kind of artifact on this system. This was an enjoyable listen - lots of dynamics, lots of detail, no fatiguing sound (within the constraints of a 10 minute listen of course), good imaging and very little to no vinyl surface noise.  Didn't hear the CD player unfortunately.



dCS / ANTELOPE / ACCUPHASE:

Here we have a very digital system (unfortunately I can't remember the speakers in use here).  dCS CD player used as a transport, a Antelope Zodiac DAC, an Antelope Master clock and an Antelope atomic clock (!), an Accuphase integrated amp and some speakers that also slip my mind.
The atomic clock feeds the master clock from which the DAC and the CD transport derive their timing signal.  An interesting solution  - all I can remember is that this system bounced along very nicely - very musical but I can't remember much about the system tonally, nor emotionally.  It was good, but not outstanding.

There were a lot of very fancy looking cables in this system, to the point that they were into the teens of £1000s and pretty much contributing to 50% of the system cost.  Hmmmm.

dCS transport, Zephur DAC, Accuphase integrated amp and many clocks


HART AUDIO:

The show brochure says "a pair of loudspeakers that will literally blow you away".  Well, on looking at Hart's website, I note that they have a very eclectic approach to loudspeakers.  This could mean that they address particular needs with each speaker solution or it could indicate that they're struggling to find their way.  The speakers on offer at the Manchester show don't feature on the web site and I couldn't find any images of them on line either.  A rough description is a single large driver (around 12-15" in diameter and possibly a dual-concentric design with a tweeter in the centre) facing forward and mounted in the top of the cabinet and a similar looking driver underneath that is angled at about 45 degrees from the vertical - with the bottom edge of this driver pushed back into the cabinet - the driver kind of facing downwards towards the floor.
And the effect of this unusual looking design?  From what we heard here, they're chasing the Systemdek / McIntosh / ART sound - dull, lifeless and no emotion.  Let's move on.


VIVID AUDIO: 

You can see below what what playing in this room.  Clearly aimed at a particular taste from a design perspective.  Unfortunately we didn't enjoy these - they weren't that bad, there was a kind of "distance" to the sound and it lacked focus - blurring the edges of notes, and damping the dynamics.  Given they were running Devialet electronics, I was hoping for more.

Audio or Art? Both, but better to look at than to listen to





ALBARRY MUSIC:

A revived name from the past - I remember these unusual looking amps from way back when I bought my first components from Gilson Audio in Middlesborough / Darlington.  Fronted by deep red perspex front panels, you can see inside to the components - I still remember hearing these with a Linn LP12 front end and driving Heybrook HB3 speakers in the early 1980s and thinking they really were something to aspire to back then.
On this showing the re-launched range is capable of producing some good sounds.  Unfortunately (in my opinion) the system was compromised by the use of Focal Diablo speakers - a design I've heard 3 times now and I don't get on with them at all - they have a constant "fizz" in the treble which initially sounds like they are producing lots of detail, but which just becomes wearing and frankly inappropriate given that it doesn't seem to be a part of the music.  But the Albarry's were the most successful at driving these speakers that I've heard to date - being fast, dynamic, flowing but reducing the Focal's ability to irritate.  Would like to listen to them with some different speakers some time.

ICON AUDIO:

Demonstrating the new "for valve amplifier" loudspeakers and the "full range" speakers we heard some that looked like these, but with a pair of full range drivers - one above the other on the baffle. They were being driven by an Icon valve output CDX1 CD player and some of Icon's own valve pre and power amps (again, little detail as the exhibitors just don't put lists up on the wall to advise what they're demonstrating).
I've heard Icon amps previously at the Scalford Hifi show, and I find them some of the most enjoyable valve designs to listen too - they don't seem to suffer from the laid-back and languid sound that so many valve amp designers succumb to.  These new speakers were pretty enjoyable - suprisingly good at the frequency extremes which is where this type of driver sometimes suffer.  Enjoyable, but not enough to tempt me to buy!


Rooms I Didn't Get To:
  • Avid
  • Audio Counsel
  • Claro Audio
  • Fidelity Art
  • Inspire Hifi
  • MCRU
  • Pixll
  • Renaissance Amplification
  • Timestep


Overall observations:
  • Needs to be busier to make commercial sense (I would suspect, although I understand there will be another touring Northern UK show next year - no news on venue as far as I'm aware)
  • Good selection of vinyl on sale
  • £5 for parking was OK, but £13 entry is getting steep = £15 for both would be enough
  • Car parking was poor - not enough at the hotel and the rest is very expensive, given that its at an airport
  • No vegetarian sandwiches at the cafe bar!  Ridiculous!
  • Exhibitors - a kit list on the wall please!  Suggest that you don't play whole albums - if you're playing something the visitor doesn't like, they won't give your system a chance.
  • Good number of rooms - enough to bring variety, but not too many - gives a chance to listen to the kit for a good while to avoid snap judgements
  • Visitors- don't stick your head through a door and make a decision - you have to go in and listen as the doorway is never going to sound good!
  • Exhibitors - doors closed please.  Too much bleed through otherwise