Thursday, 19 November 2015

Listening In A Meadow? Exaktly.

I quite like pizza.  And red wine.  Generally, these are consumed indoors – either at home, or in a restaurant.  Occasionally (it would be summertime), it might be on a terrace overlooking the Med, or perched on a stool outside a tent.  It’s not normal to be consuming these treats in a field, but that might’ve been what was happening the other night, accompanied by Dire Straits playing in the background on a pair of Linn Exakt 350s. Maybe I just have an over-fertile imagination.  It’s strange though, as in reality, we seemed to be sat in a large top-floor room which was as real as the pizzas, and the red wine.

What is this opening ramble?  What does it mean? Was the wine too strong?  Were there too many glasses consumed?  Let’s start back at the beginning and work through to what that opening paragraph is all about.  Maybe.

Cards on the table.  I’ve heard lots of Linn 350 speakers.  And Linn Exakt systems.  Some were combined together.  I tend to like Exakt systems, when they’ve been set up properly (not a given), but tend not to like 350s.  When I’ve heard them both together, they’ve been in inappropriate locations, like a massive double storey hard surfaced furniture shop (not a great approach to showing off your systems Linn), or in the factory in a ballroom with 200 people, etc.  So Exakt and 350s have not been a great experience so far, but then they’ve not had much of a chance either, with the best I've heard them being in the main dem room at HoL - my preference still being for the Akubariks or Komris.

One of the more enjoyable systems featuring 350s belong to Linn Forum member (let’s call him “A”) and uses a Renew DS/0, Akurate Kontrol/0 and a non-Dynamik Twin.  That system still features their special feature – a slightly “disconnected” bass.  A and I meet up from time to time with music and hifi always the excuse – be it at shows, dealer demos or in the listening room.  A lives down South, I don’t.  So we get together when it makes sense.  Through A, I met P, also a forum member and living down South, and we tend to meet up at either of their houses when there’s a good excuse to listen to some music, or compare the effects of software changes and other bits n pieces of new kit.

The 2 guys down South have recently added another member into this happily sceptical band of middle aged music listening blokes.  For simplicity, this new bloke, also a forum contributor, will be called N.  This week was the first time I’ve had a chance to join in, with another trip to London being necessary for work purposes.  Logistics sorted, pizza orders confirmed for the 3rd time (sorry P) and all was set for a bit of Exakt 350 listening.  It even all went to plan.  Decent pizzas, great red wine and we settled into the listening room to munch over the background Dire Straits.

And what a listening room.  Perched on the top (2nd floor) of a substantial place, approx. 6m by 4m and with a sloping wall / ceiling down one long side as it tucks under the roofline.  A pair of rather tasty looking Linn Exakt integrated 350s in piano black stand guard either side of powered grey screen on one of the shorter walls, with a TAG MacLaren centre speaker stood on a pedestal stand.  A venerable Linn Melodik and associated Exaktbox sub are in one front corner. That’s all you see from the listening seat – side / rear speakers are multi-driver MK units flush fitted into the side walls.  There’s a large L-shaped sofa for 5 or 6 and a vast footstool big enough for all.  This is a very comfortable place to settle into for tunes and movies.  Across the back wall there are 2 built-in cupboards.  One houses the very large SIM2 projector (watching movies with all the lights on is no problem), the other the equipment rack.


Piano Black Linn 350 Exakt.  Tasty. And old skool Linn Melodik sub


And what a rack this is.  Much of what’s in there will be on the wish list of many an audiophile / music lover.  Perched on traditional Quadraspire are (from top to bottom): an SME 30 turntable equipped with series V arm and Koetsu Red; Linn Klimax Exakt DSM; Tom Evans Audio Design phono stage, Anthem processor and multi-channel TAG MacLaren power amp (for centre and rears).  Music is normally held on a 4 bay QNAP NAS, but with some currently stored on a Melco N1A and some on a Melco N1Z whilst the resident A is being compared to a demo Z.  All connectivity to the main stereo system is with standard Cat 5 ethernet cables.  Exakt links included, with one cable from the KEDSM to each speaker and the sub daisy-chained from the right hand 350.

Main Quadraspire Rack,  Untidy Cables Due to Experimenting with NAS Storage (see later pic below)
SME 30 / Series V / Koetsu Red

It’s gonna be good, right?  

The 350s are stood very close to the front wall, to enable them to be positioned either side of the off-centre screen (off-centre due to the sloping ceiling).  This is possible due to Linn’s SPACE Optimisation+ feature.  During set up, the room is measured, the speakers are manoeuvred until they’re at the point they sound best in the room (the ‘ideal’ position measurement), then their position is also measured.  The speakers are then moved to their practical position and measured in this position, relative to nearby walls.  All this data is then entered into Linn’s Konfig software, algorithms are crunched and the signals sent to each speaker allow for their compromised position in the room.  I’ve heard this demo’d a few times and its very impressive.  It doesn’t perfectly recreate the sound generated in the “ideal” position, but its very close, considering what it allows in terms of much more physically discrete speaker locations.

What about the sub?  Well Linn have just added subwoofers to their Exakt system with the Exaktbox Sub which is designed to take the Exakt signal to a sub with built-in power amps.  N had just hefted the sub into the room a couple of days before (his and his mate’s back are probably still recovering – its not exactly lightweight), and it hadn’t been set up.  We had it powered up to start with, but then chose to shut it down and come back to it later.
Pizzas done, music was loaded up into a playlist on the iPad Mini (or the iPad, or the Macbook!) and we got on with some listening.  It was very quickly clear that there’s only one sweet spot in the room – the intended listening seat.  Being elsewhere in the room was a real compromise – even just one seat to the right of the hotspot.  Not to worry, that’s not at all unusual.  We listened to some classical organ music (vague, sorry about that, it’s not something I know much about), some Clapton on video and some Seal.  We settle into focused listening with something we’re all very familiar with – Daft Punk’s Georgio Moroder from the Random Access Memories album.  It has an interesting opening with a narrative by Georgio, underpinned by background chatter and some bass meanderings.  Then of course it kicks in with some driving bass lines and electronic tuneage.  It’s very good for understanding system resolution and tunefulness.  Tune dem anyone?  We don’t discuss that, as everyone has their own way of listening for what they like, but we all do try to figure out if we’re just enjoying the flow of the music and if it’s causing foot tapping or not.

It was difficult to establish what’s going on away from the hot seat, so we take turns to try it out.  For me the sound was OK, but not overwhelming.  I suppose I was expecting something special, and to hear that from the off.  We mess about a bit more with some more material – including a great scene in the film Fifth Element.  I’d forgotten just how quirky and amusing that film is – must get around to watching it again sometime very soon.  Having got used to the sound, we start thinking about tweaking a few things and start with the QNAP and Melco options.  Various combinations were tried – each Melco on its own, then with the QNAP fed through one of them.  I think I heard some small differences, with a very slight preference for the N1A Melco, but there was nothing there that was making the system sing, nor were any changes (real or imagined) very significant.  Another aspect was a serious lack of imaging – there was no single point for the singer’s voice and London Grammar’s album just didn’t shimmer and fill the space in the room.

To the left, QNAP NAS main storage and a couple of Melco NAS boxes, the N1A being resident, the N1Z being a demo unit

I think it was P who finally bit the bullet and we cranked up Konfig on the Macbook.  We switched SPACE Optimisation on and off a few times, but I really couldn’t hear it making any real difference.  Strange, it’s normally very obvious.  We checked the SPACE filter graph and found a straight line.  Those familiar with looking at what SPACE does, will know that this is unusual.  Essentially, the software calculates where the room is likely to give bass humps (due to the dimensions of the room) and then feeds a signal to the system that has very narrow, often quite deep, notched attenuation filters – the idea being that the deep notches in the signal cancel out the humps created by the room.  Most rooms have 2 to 4 nodes.  Yet here we have a completely flat profile.  And a room map with no speakers or furniture identified.  Now, there have been some recent software updates that have had odd effects in Konfig, such as completely shutting down one speaker, forgetting which speaker models are in use etc., all fixable by restarting the software and the system, although forgetting the speaker model did actually need the model to be re-input.  So maybe a software bug has caused the problem, but it’s not really possible to track down what’s happened here.  The cause of the lack of filtering was soon obvious and I hope it’s been down to an error somewhere along the line as N clarified that there had been notches on the graph previously.  Perhaps a software or hardware change had caused the problem.  One for owners to check back on from time to time (rather like I discovered that my speaker model had been dropped from the standard SPACE config in my own system – noticed one day after a software upgrade seemed to have degraded the sound a bit).

Anyway, thinking back to some stuff I’ve read on the Linn forum, the problem was soon identified.  The room dimensions are supposed to be entered into Konfig in metres.  Here they had been entered in cms.  So a 6.3m long room becomes a 630m long room, as far as the calculations are concerned.  And when that room is also recorded as being 410m wide and 255m high, the speakers imagine they are living in a field.  And when a set of speakers live in a field, they don’t create any bass humps as their field is too big to have bass humps.  So SPACE sets a correctly flat profile.  Except we weren’t in a field, we were definitely in a room.  The measurements were quickly corrected to metres, and we entered a rough position for the subwoofer.  But when we did this by roughly guessing its distance from the room boundaries, the Konfig diagram showed the subwoofer was half outside the room. Hmmm.  Something not right there.  A quick run of the optimisation software delivered 4 notches and we were clearly starting to head in the right direction.

N quickly dug out the laser measure and we got to work stepping through Konfig’s measurement requirements.  Even when converted from cms to metres, some of the dimensions were out – the room width was recorded as 4.1m, but turned out to be 3.66m – an error of 0.5m is quite significant.  About 15 minutes of measuring, checking and entering the data and we had a new optimisation ready, with 3 notched filters – the lowest frequency notched to about -29dB with the other 2 much further up the frequency range and much shallower.  Due to time restrictions, we just converted the speaker’s “ideal” location from the cms already in the system.  With much more time it would be worth revisiting the ideal position data too, but that involves removing speaker spikes and shuffling the speakers about in the room – there wasn’t time this evening.

Daft Punk went back on, Leonard Cohen, Seal and some London Grammar.  Some listening, some small tweaks on the depth of the optimisation notches.  We dial in a +1.5dB treble shelf to compensate for the heavy soft furnishings between speakers and listening position.  I think we ended up with the notches back to the SPACE recommended settings in the end – quite unusual.  This was quite some improvement.  Bass lines are now tuneful, and there’s real imaging going on – still a little shallow front to back (possibly an effect of being so close to the front wall of the room), but very wide left to right and instruments and voices easily pinpointed as individual parts of the whole.  The opening to the Georgio track had a stable, central voice, the background noise was recognisable as chatter and the quiet underlying bass line is playing a clearly distinguishable tune. Excellent.  What a difference a few measurements can make (although, to be fair, changing from cms to metres isn’t exactly a subtle tweak).  Next we mess about with some cables and the system really starts to sing.  Now, we’re listening to the best pair of 350s I’ve heard.  The bass lines are even in time with the rest of the music, which is not a 350 forte – Exakt must be doing its stuff, and perhaps the latest 4th order bass roll-off changes have been really fundamental to getting the best from the 350s.  This system is now really enjoyable – something quite special, given my previous challenge with enjoying 350s.  Sitting position in the room is now much less critical, although still best from the hot seat of course.
N then played Porgy and Bess Summertime, Procol Harum performing A Whiter Shade of Pale with the Danish National Concert Orchestra, Eva Cassidy Fields of Gold and some of his other favourites (he has a very extensive and eclectic music collection) which all sounded very engaging.

There’s probably more to come.  Given that we have relied here upon the “ideal” speaker positions that were existing in Konfig (but converted to metres), there’s probably scope to go right back to the beginning and determine the “ideal” speaker position again.  If that’s not right then the SPACE Optimization+ facility for positioning the speaker into the practical position will be based on some incorrect calculations.  If that is the case, then this system really could move on from excellent to truly stunning.  That’s the work of at least half a day.

Now I’m hoping to get back again soon (probably in early 2016) to spend the evening listening to music, to give that SME a good listen and to put that fantastic screen and projector to good use. Hopefully, over the next few days and weeks, N can enjoy settling into some serious music listening too.  Thanks for your hospitality N, a very enjoyable evening.

(with thanks to P for a contribution on the tracks played and correction of some of the details).

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Bling Removal

Linn's Klimax electronics come in a choice of silver or black machined from solid aluminium ingots. And very nice they are too.  Solid sculptures that are both elegant, understated, but oozing quality.
I like them.
But bolted onto their bottoms, supporting them above their resting surface are 4 large diameter feet. They're also very nicely made machined solid lumps of metal, but, disappointingly for me they're chromed, and therefore rather "blingy". This might not be too bad a thing for those who have the silver version, but mine are the black version, chosen to be more discrete and not so much of a distraction when listening to music.
So, with these been Linn's top of the range kit, there'll be a choice of feet for those who don't want highly polished chrome gleaming out from under their kit?  Nope, not even the black version of the kit has the option of more subtle feet.
So what to do about it?  Well an early experiment used the insides of toilet rolls coloured black with a marker pen - just to see if they would look better. They do, indeed, look much better, to me at least. As the feet are quite far back on the underside of the unit, when the feet are black it gives the impression of the kit "floating" above the shelf. Quite pleasing, and no distracting glinting.
So the search was on to find something more permanent than the loo roll inners, but that would not be permanent to allow for return to standard, should that be required later. Its taken over a year to get around to something better, the addition of KK/1 and KCT/D into the system this year meant either doing more loo rolls or putting that time into something better.  At the factory visit in September 2015, Linn forum member Steven someone suggested heatshrink (thanks for that, a great idea to try) and that was so blindingly obvious really, don't know why that wasn't thought of before.

So here is the step by step description of what I've done - keeping it all reversible of course:

Materials:
- 200mm or so of 80mm diameter black heatshrink - no writing printed on it, no adhesive inside
- Evo stick glue (optional)
- insulating tape

Tools:
- small screwdriver
- allen key
- sharp craft knife
- cutting board
- try square
- steel rule
- heat gun (or hairdryer)

NOTE: only do this if you are completely confident.  Do not do this if you have any doubts.  If you decide to do this, it is entirely at your own risk and no liability will be accepted for any mistakes in the instructions or in your actions.  Take great care with the tools and the heat gun. Take great care with the finish on your unit - its easily damaged. Thanks!  :-)

First, disconnect your Klimax unit from everything. Clear a flat area - make sure it is very clean, then cover with a thick soft material such as a clean towel.  Lay the Klimax kit upside down on the clean material.

Klimax shiny chrome feet, as standard

Place a small piece of insulating tape on the edge of the foot (to protect the finish), then use the screw driver to lever up the rubber foot pad, pivoting on the protected edge of the foot - it lifts easily. Once started, it can be peeled back using fingers. Remove the insulating tape.

Levering up the rubber pad - insulating tape protects the finish of the foot
Removed rubber disc

The rubber pad is held in place by a very thin film of double sided tape.  Using the sharp knife, cut away a disc in the centre to allow the removal of the mounting bolt.

Double sided film cut away to allow access to the bolt
 Using an allen key, loosen the mounting bolt.  The foot can then be lifted clear of the unit.

Under the foot is the threaded mount and a step in the inner side of the cut-out

The removed foot, from the top - there is a step in the foot to match the step in the unit casing

Removed foot on the 80mm strip of heatshrink
Align the long edge of the strip of  heatshrink with the edge of the cutting board. Place the try square against the edge of the cutting board and cut the heatshrink along the edge of the try square, to create a clean 90 degree end on the heatshrink.
Using the steel rule, measure a length of heatshrink - 17.5mm is ideal if you can be that accurate, but 18mm is fine too.  17mm isn't enough as it doesn't cover the full depth of the foot. Now, using the try square again, with it and the heatshrink aligned with the edge of the cutting board, use the sharp knife to cut across the heatshrink.  You will end up with an  17.5mm or 18mm tall hoop of heatshrink.

Aligning the cutting board edge, try square and long edge of the heatshrink ready for cutting

Place the foot on a heat proof surface, with the double sided tape facing down onto the surface (to protect it from the heat).  Drop the loop of heatshrink over the top of the foot, so it rests on the heat proof surface.  Now gently heat using the low setting on the heat gun (or a medium / high setting on a hairdryer), moving around the foot evenly, from about 10cm away.  Heat for a few seconds then make sure the heatshrink is still touching the heat proof surface, then repeat several times all around the foot until the heatshrink is fully in touch with the foot, all the way around.  Do not keep heating as it will get too tight and start to shrink vertically, which is not helpful.  Most times you will get a nice smooth surface, but sometimes the heatshrink will have some slight indentations.  If it does this, you can choose to do it again, or not, up to you.
You will note that the heatshrink shrinks into the cut-out section of the foot - this is the part most likely to lift up from the surface, if you heat the material for too long.


Heatshrink fitted
Where the foot has a cut-away section, snip through the heatshrink at each end of the cut-out, and about 3 times across the width of the cut-out.  These "tabs" can then be trimmed off with the sharp knife - trimming flush with the bottom edge of the cut-out.  Take care not to scratch the chrome finish with the knife.

"Tabs" cut into the heatshrink where there is a cut out in the foot

Trim the tabs away with the sharp knife
Now re-fit the feet to the unit, aligning the cut out in the foot with the step which is nearer to the centre on the unit.  Make sure the foot is full engaged and sitting flush, if not, re-check the part of the heatshrink that you cut away to make sure none of it is fouling the casing.  Now re-fit the mounting bolt and nip it up gently with the allen key - no need to tighten it much, just enough to hold it in place. Re-fit the rubber pad (smooth side to the foot, textured side is the outer surface).  Most times the double sided tape will hold the rubber pad in place.  Optionally you might want to put 3 tiny blobs of EvoStick glue onto the double sided tape before placing the rubber pad back on.  Your choice.  If using the glue, leave the unit upside down for a couple of hours to allow it to set.

Completed foot back in place

Klimax Twin amp with standard feet in the foreground and stealth feet in the background

Stealth feet on the Klimax Twin (and some dust)

DS

DS

DS and KK
DS and KK "floating"

Rat's Nest In The Garage?

I've decided that wiring the 5 channels of an active Linn 5.1 system using Ninkas, Trikan and Katans is not for the faint hearted.

Here's the back of the AV5125 amps:


Friday, 23 October 2015

Travel? Still Great Music

After hearing some decent headphone systems as the recent National Audio Show at Whittlebury, I revisited the idea of using them more for music in hotels - as a step up from in-ear buds (I use BeyerDynamic 101 with the iPod and occasionally the FiiO player).

Having a good source (FiiO X3 which plays FLAC files up to 24bit/96kHz) and a reasonable mid-range pair of Sennheiser Momentum headphones, the biggest improvement I could make would be to insert a dedicated headphone amp into the mix.

At Whittlebury, I really enjoyed the sounds being played by the Trilogy 931 amp but its price puts it out of range for experimenting with deciding if this was a sensible solution for the longer term - ie will I enjoy headphones enough to cart the kit around with me?

So ebay to the rescue and I picked up a Mk1 version of the very well regarded Schiit Magni - a product of the USA and very good value for money, even when new.  The used one I have is in mint condition and functions very well.  First foray with the kit away from home this week proved a sonic success - still not sure about the comfort of wearing headphones in bed just before going off to sleep.  The iPod into a small portable speaker is still better for this part of the day - no headphones and set it to 30 minute sleep setting and I hardly ever hear the end of the music.  With phones you have to take them off and switch off the kit which means not exactly nodding off to sleep.  Still, it does sound much better than the portable speaker.

FiiO X3 FLAC player, Linn Silver interconnect, Schiit Magni (v1) and Sennheiser Momentum

Monday, 28 September 2015

"Vintage" Amps Review

A couple of years ago, I thought it might be interesting to compare a bunch of late 70s / early 80s amps against the big "star" of the time, the NAD 3020.

So I collected some examples, over a 6 month period, from Hitachi, JVC, Pioneer and Technics.  All good working examples.

I tried them, they all worked and did a reasonably good job, but the idea of reviewing them and comparing them to the NAD really wasn't worth the effort of writing it all up.  It would've really just been a feature count of the shiny amps and ranking them in positions 6 to 10 for sound quality.  The NAD would've occupied positions 1 to 5.

At the time, when I bought my first amp (which was a NAD 3020), I listened to it against a Technics and a JVC (in one shop) and chose the NAD (auditioned and purchased from another shop). Because these were separate listening sessions, all I knew was that I liked the NAD better, but didn't really have the chance for a back to back comparison.  Collecting them now and listening just showed how big a gulf there was been the mainstream feature count amps of the time and the NAD.  OK, age may have affected them in various degrees, but its the consistency of the mainstream amps' peformances - polite, a little slow, ill-defined bass lines, rolled-off top end etc., contrasted to the bouncy, enjoyable, tuneful bass of the NAD that is so starkly better.

However, gotta say that I liked the trad VU meters on the Hitachi HA-3500, the sophisticated looking flourescent VU meters on the Technics SU-V3 and the brash blue VUs on the Pioneer SA-610. They're not much use, but they nearly swayed a naive 16 year old buyer, until they played music, when the NAD won the hard earned Saturday job money!  The NAD still looks dull and a bit cheap though.

So, some of the collection is up for sale in the next few posts.  They'll be good for the study, kitchen, garage, kids room etc., to provide background music, but not for really enjoying listening to music.  For that, choose a NAD - but it'll cost you 3x as much now, as NAD amps fetch more than they cost new...

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Linn Factory Customer Event - Series 5 and More Exaktitude

Having launched the new “lifestyle” series 5 range of speakers in a suitably “lifestyle” location – The Violin Factory in London - a couple of weeks ago, Linn kindly arranged a factory event for their more traditional customers.  How far do people travel for such an event?  Well I think Vancouver was the furthest that I know of, so clearly there’s something worth going to Glasgow to see and hear.
The launch of series 5 has, predictably, caused some debate on the Linn forum about the company’s focus and direction.  Gilad Tiefenbrun’s presentation(he’s the Linn MD) at the event made it very clear that series 5 is supplementary to their traditional product range, not a replacement – hence the naming doesn’t sit in the traditional hierarchy.  Within the more traditional range, it’s also become very clear that the company has bet the future on more and more integrated solutions – starting with DS/Pre-amp and Exakt built into power amps and fully integrated Exakt / amp / speaker offerings.  There was no mention of more traditional analogue active either – something that quietly disappeared from integrated speakers (such as Akubarik and 350A) with the most recent product launches, but still an option inside Majik and Akurate power amps.
After a successful night-before-get-together of forum members back at the 40th Anniversary event in 2013, we again gathered at the Counting House to discuss the latest products, speculate on the next day’s activities and generally not take things too seriously.  The forum has been awash with lifestyle product speculation of late, and here, the truth was revealed with the latest in Linn accessories – the Tea Kloth, exclusive for Forum GTG members. I don’t think we’ll be seeing a full production run…

INTRODUCTIONS
So what of the event itself?  Well, this was extremely well organised, clearly thought through, and focussed more on the non-lifestyle products, concentrating on the latest thinking with Exakt and the new Exaktboxes in the Akurate and Majik ranges.  Linn laid on a coach from Glasgow city centre out to the factory at Waterfoot.  I guess a total of about 80 to 90 customers attended the event.  The local dealer was present, but this was very much a customer event.  We kicked off with a buffet lunch at the back of the ballroom, then gathered for the initial presentations.  Gilad welcomed us all and talked about the new products and how they’re focussed on bringing people into considering a quality music system for their home, in circumstances where large and more functional looking equipment is not thought to be acceptable in the home.  He spoke about how buyers are now buying as couples with joint input and how Linn wanted to give them a simple solution that worked with multiple different interior d├ęcor situations.  More on the technicalities behind the series 5 speakers below.  He referred to the ever evolving capabilities of Exakt and how it has been an enabler for series 5, for more domestically acceptable speaker positions and every increasing performance in the Linn range.  In addition to Majik Exaktbox-I, the new Akurate Exaktbox 6 and Exaktbox Sub, Linn are bringing phase aligned benefits to owners of Linn speakers over 20 years old, thereby upgrading legacy kit, something other manufacturers don’t offer.


Ballroom and 5x Series 5
Next to present was Keith Robertson – Linn’s chief technical lead.  He talked through the virtues of Exakt and the new products, and how the development of Exakt algorithms continues apace, with a new software release later this year that will improve the handling of bass roll-off.  Also, the achievement of the engineering team to get 8 channels of 100W power amps, an Exakt engine and 8 channels of Majik level DACs into a single integrated Exaktbox-i.  I’ll cover these in the individual demo comments below.  Worth noting that all Linn speakers are measured for Exakt, and have been so for the last 2 years – Majik right up to Klimax level, in anticipation of owners choosing something Exakt either at purchase or in the future.  So for under 2 year old speaker, there’s Exakt data stored in Linn’s systems, ready to apply Exakt algorithms specifically tailored for that speaker’s serial number.  For pre-Exakt speakers, a “generic” set of measures are used for the speaker model in question, and this is expected to be within a less than 5% tolerance – typically around 2 to 3%.

DEMOS
After the intros, we were split into 6 groups and then hosted around the various locations around the factory – this was extremely well organised, timed to fit into the available slots and offered a good variety of well thought through demos, a coffee break slotted in part way through the afternoon:
-          Factory Tour
-          Series 5
-          Akurate / Klimax Exaktbox & Analogue Active Comparison (and latest thinking on Keltik Exakt configurations)
-          Exaktbox Sub
-          Majik Exaktbox-I vs Majik Passive

DEMOS – Akurate / Klimax Exaktbox & Analogue Active Comparison (and a bonus for Keltik owners)
In the back right hand demo room of Linn Home (a domestic-like environment in a segregated corner of the factory) we had a 40th Anniversary LP12, Klimax DSM and, a bit of a surprise this one, a pair of Linn Keltik speakers.  Why was this a surprise? Well the Keltik used to be at the top of the Linn range, but hasn’t been in production for at least 10 years, if not longer.  So why are Linn using a legacy product when inviting customers to a product launch event?  Well it’s quite straightforward – they’re showing that they’re committed to looking after as many of their customers as possible, by making sure that initial investments can continue to be developed and new technologies brought to bear.
Here the demo went through several steps –first using 3x Klimax Twins to drive the Keltiks with original, analogue Klimax crossovers, using the analogue outputs from the KEDSM.  Sounds good – using a 24 bit version of the theme tune to the Money Programme.  We then get an Akurate Exaktbox version, still using 3x Twins but now the Exakt outputs from the KDSM.  There’s a step change in focus and timing – it’s pretty convincing.  We then step up to the Klimax Exaktbox which features a higher quality set of DACs and there’s another decent change in performance.
Many of you will know that the Keltik uses an isobaric bass system – that is 2 bass drivers, one behind the other, with the chamber between being sealed.  This gives deeper bass from the speaker without needing massive drivers on a very wide front baffle.  The air chamber between the drivers is sealed so that they act as one.  According to speaker designer Phil Budd, this is what is known within engineering as “an approximation”.  Reality is that a sound wave passes through the air in the chamber, hitting the back of the front driver slightly after the front driver has started moving.  Exakt now allows for this to be modelled and compensated for.  So the next demo added a further Klimax Twin power amp so that the bass drivers could be driven independently, each from their own Exakt DAC channel - which involved adding another Klimax Exaktbox as this is a 6 channel device.  It was a surprise (to me at least) that it added so much more clarity to the rhythm of the track.  It transpired, in the bar in the evening, that the idea for driving the isobaric drivers separately had been cooked up by acoustics engineer Phil the day before the event, calculated and implemented in the morning, then used for the demos in the afternoon.  This is an impressive demonstration of the abilities of Exakt, and the confidence of the Linn team that they’d found a better solution and successfully implemented it in front of customers.  They can sell more amps to customers with Keltiks too of course….  I expect this will be coming for original Isobariks, Akubariks and Majik Isobariks in due course.

DEMOS – Series 5
Moving next door to the other dem room, we were introduced to the series 5 loudspeakers.  Here they are being demonstrated along with an Akurate DSM – the way they are being marketed and priced, in fact. A little technical discussion first.  The 520 (20 litres internal volume) and 530 (30 litres internal volume) are completely new loudspeaker designs. They’re built using a laminated construction.  Seen on the production line in the factory, they have a very smooth black satin finish to them, under the covers.  They are not designed to be seen or played without a cover.  They use new to Linn drive units, manufactured elsewhere but to Linn specification.  The tweeter is new to Linn and costs approximately 3x the cost of a 2K array.  It’s in a very shallow waveguide mounted over a very wide iteration of the scoop that sits behind 2K and 3K arrays seen on other Linn speakers.  The mid-bass driver is around 5” and has a radially cut fibre cone where the cuts are then filled with a damping compound.  Both speakers have these drive units at the top of the cabinet, with the tweeter below the mid-bass – very Missionesque.  I know that Linn have been criticised in some quarters in the past for under-investing in the quality of drive units, so this seems to go some way towards addressing that.  The 530 adds a downward firing pair of 6” drivers in isobaric mode, exiting through the grille / slot at the base of the cabinet.
The cabinets have very much rounded corners – this seems to have been driven more by aesthetics rather than acoustics.  The top and base plates are glass and are available in black, white or mid-grey at the customer’s choice.  Also replaceable later if required (and Linn still stock them of course).  The covers feature a number of different fabrics from various designer brands, in addition to Linn’s own Fabrik which has been developed for the printed versions.  Customer defined prints may become an option at some time in the future.  The material is tailored to the speaker and features a glued in place frame that fits over the mid-bass and tweeter.  This allows Linn to stretch the fabric over this frame to a pre-determined degree, with the glue then holding it in place.  This is to allow for the acoustics engineers to then compensate for the effect of the fabric on sound quality – the process making the acoustic properties of the fabric predictable.  I do wonder about the acoustic effects of the cover’s rigid frame which is so close to the drive units.
Each of these speakers are driven by an integrated Exakt engine / DAC / power amp module that fits into the rear lower part of the cabinet, hidden under the cloth wrapper.  I asked about cooling – apparently the effect of the cloth on cooling has been allowed for.  I guess with Linn’s SMPS and cool running Chakra amps, it’s not a big challenge anyway.  Each driver in the speakers has an amp and DAC dedicated to it, rated at 100W.  The amp and DAC are “based on Majik” level products.  Not sure if the 530 has one or 2 amps per isobaric woofer, I didn’t ask, but I suspect just the one.
We started with the 520 – which is quite dinky – a bit smaller than a Keilidh.  They look OK – the VPL of the driver frame is very cloth dependent – sometimes it’s obvious (plain, lighter colour fabrics), sometimes pretty much invisible (heavily patterned, darker coloured fabrics).  I said on the forum that I didn’t like it at all in the photos, but it’s less offensive “in the cloth”.  As for sound, well I don’t think Linn have thrown the baby out with the bath water, but for £9k with the streamer, I would say that this was a bit underwhelming.  There is a caveat though – well, a couple really – I don’t like Linn’s dem rooms, they’re a bit dead sounding, and this is a big room for such dinky speakers to fill.  I did get the impression that I’d rather have a Naim SuperUniti and a pair of Focal 928s though.  It was all a bit lightweight which over-emphasised the top end too.
In came the 530, which is still a very slim and compact speaker.  But this is a much more serious sounding speaker.  No doubt set up with all the Exaktness sorted, room optimisation dialled-in etc. it performed very well.  The fuller bass really balanced that top end nicely.  And that bass is very well controlled, nicely articulated and not over-blown like the Majik Isobarik can be.  I think this speaker could stand comparison against my own analogue active Majik 140s, it would certainly be an interesting back-to-back to test out.  A bit more on this later though, because the Majik 140s featured later too.  Both 520 and 530 had been placed in what Linn considers the ideal position for these speakers in this dem room – which seemed to be pretty much identical for both of them – this makes some sense, as the 530’s additional bass output comes out from the base of the cabinet and as such probably doesn’t interact with the rear wall any more than the sides.


520

DEMOS – Exaktbox Sub
There’s a very large room in Linn Home – one that the largest Linn speakers, the 350s, can just about cope with if turned up a fair way.  So Linn chose to demonstrate their current top of the the range standmount in here, the Akudorik Exakt.  Are they mad?  Quite possibly, but not based on this demo.  Some music was played and the Akudorik did their thing – which is to sound detailed with decent drive and timing, but I can’t really envisage these at home, trying to bang out some electronic dance music.  No.
But that was the point.  The usual solution to this is to (other than buying decent floorstanders in the first place) add a subwoofer.  This was done at this point, but in such a way that demonstrated the effects of bass from a subwoofer arriving at the listening position, out of time or out of phase (or both), with the music.  And that effect was obvious.  The bass was fuller, but was a bit tuneless, lumpy over the frequency range and slightly out of time with the rest of the tune.  Exakt was then applied using the Exaktbox Sub (for which you have to measure the subwoofer’s position in the room) so that the subwoofer’s output arrived both time and phase aligned at the listening seat.  This was a vast improvement and joined the bass up to the rest of the tune.  But the little 226 sub really wasn’t enough for the massive room.  So a second sub, positioned underneath the very long dining table and a good 5 metres behind the listening position was added – time and phase aligned of course.  At this point the bass really did suit the room (perhaps a touch too loud for my tastes) but also very well integrated so that it sounded like this huge amount of bass was coming from the same place as the rest of the tune.  A very impressive demo.  I’m guessing, but just FYI, it looked like the Akudoriks had been placed in their “ideal” location in the room, rather than the less obtrusive position that is possible with Exakt SPACE+ optimisation.

FACTORY TOUR
I’ll not say much about this, as Linn’s factory, processes, methods etc., have been documented many times in many places.  Not much has changed in this respect – just the addition of the new cloth / frame stretching and bonding process, which we didn’t see.  The production line was dominated by series 5 speakers this time – presumably to build up the dealer network’s demo stocks.

DEMOS – Majik Exaktbox-i
In an unusual move, Linn set up one of the demos in their R&D inner sanctum – the development listening room.  This has some interesting room treatment – with what look like absorbent panels on most walls, but the main speaker positioning area surrounded by hard plastic shapes – supported out from the wall a couple of inches and angled seemingly and random angles – this treatment extending a couple of meters or so along the side walls and ceilings.  Perhaps something to do with first reflection control.
In here we had and Akurate level LP12 feeding a Majik DSM and a pair of Majik 140 speakers.  First up we listened to the turntable and the streamer using the internal stereo power amps of the Majik DSM.  It sounded OK, but not brilliant.  The new Majik Exaktbox-I was then added and it was a revelation.  A superb demo of the benefits of the Exakt technology – much punchier, timing more coherent, instruments and vocals defined clearly.  The M140s were sounding really great with this Exaktbox.  At this point, I was thinking the series 5 530 would really be struggling to keep up with this.  The system was then returned back to standard passive and the change back was equally clear to hear.  The difference between standard and Exakt was much more pronounced on the streamer content than it was with the LP12.  Perhaps the Majik level ADC was constraining the turntable’s output?
Worth noting here that there was an announcement around Majik DS and DSM product upgrades.  It’s going to be possible to get any Majik DS, DSM or DS-I upgraded to the latest specification, including the addition of Exakt links.  For those with non-HDMI equipped DS-I and DSM, the HDMI ports will also be added.  No news on prices or when, but I would be very surprised if this existed as a stand-alone upgrade, I suspect it is much more likely to be offered in conjunction with the purchase of a Majik Exaktbox-I, Akurate Exaktbox or an integrated Exakt loudspeaker.
The Exaktbox-i is quite an achievement - 8x100W amps, an Exakt engine and 8x DACs in that small space.  Plus, interestingly, a set of 8x phono analogue outputs on the back - allowing the Exakt / DAC outputs to be fed to external amplifiers - hence allowing for an amp upgrade path over time - perhaps a Twin for your tweeters then a couple of Solos later for your bass drivers?  A nice feature, but why that way around?  Surely the traditional "source first" hierarchy says that the Exaktbox DACs should be upgraded before the amplifiers?  The phono sockets on the back would seem to be better placed as inputs to the poweramps for those who would like to upgrade to an Akurate Exaktbox later.  Better still make them switchable between inputs and outputs.

Rear of Majik Exaktbox-i:  8 pairs of speaker posts, 2x Exakt links, power input.  Interestingly, also 8x phono analogue outputs to allow for an upgrade to external amps later
Q&A
Throughout the day we were encouraged to fill out question cards.  After all the demos were done we gathered back in the ballroom and Gilad hosted a Q&A session with the chief technical officer Keith Robertson.  What did we learn from this?  Well, the main difference between the Exaktboxes is all about performance not functionality – basically, the DACs are aligned to the DACs in the DS products – they get better as you go up the range.  There will be a surround solution for Exakt coming, but there are no definite dates for this.  Later, in the bar, much more was discussed on this subject – suffice to say, there are lots of options and no certainty on which way (or even which ways) to do this.  Expect much more from Exakt going forward – including a new way of dealing with low frequency roll-off later this year.  The coverage of all legacy Linn speakers is underway and will be delivered eventually.
Linn has worked with Kudos on the Titan T-808, Super 20A and Super 10A speakers by essentially giving Kudos access to the Exakt development tools.  Kudos are using these to build their own Exakt crossover parameters – Linn have not done any of this development work.  Exakt will also be coming very soon for PMC Twenty.26, a JBL model popular in Japan and further models to be announced soon.  An Exakt phono stage closer to or inside the turntable?  It’s possible, and could happen, but isn’t definitively on a timeline yet.

EVENING
So after being bussed back to central Glasgow, we briefly dispersed to various restaurants and hotels to eat and freshen up, but were soon re-assembled in the bar of 29.  Here there were drinks and lots of natter.  Phil Budd and Keith Robertson headed up much of the technical discussion, both being open and receptive with ideas flowing in both directions between Linn and customers.  The surround debate was particularly interesting.  A couple of hints of some small (but possibly helpful) new product news soon, and a bit about next year’s plans which will, in the main, focus in a different direction.  Good discussion about the Linn records label too – and how busy they are – all 6 of them!

THANKS
I must say, this was probably the best organised event I’ve been to at the factory – Linn seem to learn and improve each time.  In the past, I’ve also heard some demos that were obvious, some that were less so, but this time every demo delivered what was promised by the Linn staff.  Still don’t like the over-dull listening rooms though.
Thanks very much to all at Linn.  An excellent day – covering their strategy and their latest products, but clearly aimed squarely at their traditional customer base, rather than the series 5 launch events in London.  Appreciate the time and effort they put into these events, and their excellent hospitality.  Oh, and what great company from fellow forum contributors.
 



 
A Wee Timerous Beastie wrap on the 530.  I think they look better in the flesh than they do in pictures