One of the best sounding systems I've heard over the years was a Linn LP12 with Naim electronics (135 mono power amps in particular) driving active Linn Isobarik speakers. It must have been 25 years ago, but I still remember being stunned by the musicality of it all - although coloured in a charismatic way, the uneven tonal balance of the system became irrelevant because it just allowed the music to flow.
So what? Why am I recounting a 25 year old experience from a time when telephones had just become pretty much standard in our houses (not in our hands) and the nearest you got to an audio blog was the letters page of the monthly HiFi Answers magazine? Because an experience listening to a fellow Linn Forum member's system earlier this week had some distinct parallels. Number one - it was Linn's top of the current range (like the Isobarik was all those years ago) 350 loudspeaker. Number two - both were in rooms that, at first glance, seemed unfeasibly small for such large speakers. 25 years ago I was in a room that was about 12ft x 10ft with the speakers on the longer wall, hence they were about 7ft in front of me. Earlier this week it wasn't quite so extreme, but it did bring the 'bariks in a corrugated iron shack on the top of a moor in Kent to mind again.
After a number of interchanges on the Linn Forum, I met one of the forum members (let's call him Andrew) at the recent Scalford Hifi Show where he visited our room a couple of times to both enjoy the system, but also to provide him with a "Linn sound" reference point against which to baseline the other systems at the show. He made some very complementary comments about my system too, which was much appreciated. As it happens, through a number of coincidences of location and timing, I was in the right part of the South East of England earlier this week when Andrew had a free evening, so a listening session was set up. As a consequence, Andrew has kindly agreed to let me write a few words about the evening and my thoughts on his system. A brave man.
So let's start with a few pictures plagerised from the Linn Forum (note that the system now has a Pioneer Blu-ray on the top shelf and the Akurate DS has been replaced by a Renew DS since these pictures were taken). The centre speaker really is THAT big and really is THAT close to where you sit. In the middle picture in the bottom left hand corner you can seen the main listening seat - a reasonable distance from the main stereo speakers, but the centre speaker kind of dominates the room and is very much "in your face". Also changed since these pictures is that the centre speaker is fitted with a full frontal black grille now, which does tone down the effect a little - at least it doesn't feel like you're being stared at by this speaker. I have to say though, hats off to Andrew for not letting anything as trivial as room size from stopping him having the system he really wanted:
And a kit list:
Linn Klimax Renew DS streamer
Linn Akurate Kontrol/0/D pre-pro
Linn Klimax Twin (non D) to drive the 3K array in the 350p speakers
Linn 350p main speakers (in-built Akurate amps for the bass drivers)
Linn 340a active centre speaker (in-built Akurate amps)
Linn 345 active subwoofer
Linn Majik 2100 amp for rear speakers
Linn Akurate 212 rear speakers
Linn K20 speaker cables
Linn Silver interconnects
Let's not talk too much about prices here, as that would be tasteless at this level. However, Andrew was wise enough to find many of his speakers just as Linn were ending the Maple finish, so end of line pricing helped put this system into this room, which is a great result.
Andrew is a big advocate of the opening sequence from Quantum of Solace, so that was my first experience of this system. I guess its probably also worth mentioning that I'm going to describe what I heard relative to my own Akurate / Majik active system at home, although I will try and describe what I heard in absolute terms where I can. I know its a bit of a cliche now, but I think I understand the origins of the term "shock and awe" now. My own system can go pretty loud, but once passed about 65 on the volume control with music (which is pretty loud already) you can start to tell that its working hard - normal serious listening is usually between 55 and 60 volume levels. Andrew's system is still cruising at volume levels of 71-75. It's just astonishing how loud it goes, yet somehow you're no more aware of the system working hard than you are at more sane volume levels. Even at these volumes, there is absolutely no sense of strain, distortion or any other nasties. I've also heard, but never experienced, "trouser flapping bass" before. Now I have - the lower fronts of my chinos were literally flapping in the bass - astonishing. Good job the house is well built. How you can get such steering, impact and power in such a small room without it sounding OTT is beyond me, but Andrew's system manages it with ease. And you know what? That centre speaker works really well - you don't notice it's existence in the soundfield that envelopes you - whilst it's visually right there, in terms of sound, all the speakers disappear - you're just not aware of them as point sources. We watched the last song from a live Shakira concert too - the welly available in this system made for a very realistic concert experience - that thumping you get from a PA system, but without the grittiness that you get higher up the frequency. Made Shakira's music enjoyable, which is not something I'd normally say.
After recovering from the introduction, we turned the volume down somewhat and started listening to some music - the system defaulting to the 350s for L and R and the 345 sub for music. We used Yello (The Race, Otto Di Catania from Flag), Kiki Dee (Don't Go Breaking My Heart from Almost Naked), Fleetwood Mac (Go Your Own Way from Rumours 24/96) and a couple of other tracks that slip my mind. During these tracks we briefly listened to just the stereo speakers, taking the sub out of the equation. First of all lets get the musicality out of the way - this system delivers. Toe tapping is impossible to avoid, be it on music or music videos. In more "hifi" terms then clarity and effortlessness are probably reasonably good descriptions. Oh, and I'm not sure what the techie term is, but the system's ability to do starting and stopping is stunning. I think my own system is good at this, but the separation of instruments and understanding when they start and stop is in a different league altogether (but you can, of course, have my entire system for the price of the 350 speakers), and I'm pretty sure that its this aspect that makes the system so tuneful and easy to toe-tap along to. I can't really emphasise enough how easy this system is to listen to - not in the sense that its inoffensive or easy going, but that attacking cymbals attack but don't mug you, bass slams but doesn't wallow (when not using the subwoofer - goes deeper still with the subwoofer, but becomes a little too dominant for my taste) and voices are as natural as you could hope for. We listened to a Seal track from a HDTracks 24bit download (it may have been "Prayer For The Dying") in which the singer's voice had real three dimensional character and texture, in addition to being rock solid centre in the soundstage.
The only real criticism I would have is probably more down to Andrew's set up of the system than the system itsself. I really enjoyed the system for music without the subwoofer and feel that the sub becomes too dominant at times, detracting from the rest of the mix. It's great for movies, I think dialling it out altogether or experimenting with turning down its influence on the music side would bring some benefits. To be fair, Andrew did mention this and I'd encourage him to experiment a bit more with that. Along with the 350's occasionally slightly "detached" sounding bass.
Then Andrew's mate turned up - he's much more into the movies side of things with his own system, so we put my copy of Yello's Touch Virtual Concert DVD into the Pioneer's drive to give it a quick whirl. With the sofa kicked back into lounger mode, we just let the whole DVD play through - transfixed by the visuals and the music. Brilliant - there was a bit of stunned silence as the film came to an end, then Andrew's mate immediately got online and ordered 2 copies of the disc - one each for the locals. One thing that has given me food for thought for quite some time is the lack of a pre-pro in Linn's current line-up. On this evidence, it seems that the Akurate Kontrol/0/D is quite capable of holding its own in a Klimax sandwich. Good, because I just don't have the cash or the room to have separate stereo and cinema systems - it seems that the AK is well up to much further upgrading of the system around it.
So my thanks go to Andrew for his hospitality and friendly welcome (and also thanks to Andrew's wife and daughter for letting us play!). It was a most enjoyable evening. I hope Andrew will be up in my neck of the woods sometime so he can call in to hear my system in its natural habitat where it sounds a bit better than it did at Scalford.
Now, how long will it take for 350 speakers to get down to about £3k???