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 décor 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

5 comments:

  1. On the first demo with the Klimax amps, Exact and Keltiks the description of the final demo is not quite what I experienced (but I was in a different group). The final change was to use a pair of exact boxes instead of a single exact box, the klimax amps were unchanged. This gave enough channels of exact correction (so 4 channels used per speaker) to enable the 2 bass drivers in each speaker to be treated individually with phase correction to time align the front and back pair of bass drivers (this could not be done with the single exact box). It certainly made an audible improvement. I found the explanation somewhat unclear when first presented as so much was going on but my question as to why there was an advantage in using the 2 exact boxes was answered by Philbo. The answer came down to the extra channels of correction available (and the necessary dacs in the exact boxes). This was possibly the best stereo reproduction I have ever heard, I could have spent all day listening to music with that final configuration.
    EricJ

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  2. Eric, thanks for that - I think you could be right. I will check with the customer who was involved in the development of this with Phil Budd and correct if necessary. The key point about driving the 2 bass drivers from 2 Exakt DACs still stands and that's the crux of the change. Thanks

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  3. I thought (and said) that I thought that the Majik Demo was a little unfair. We were comparing an Exakt with 8 seperate channels of amplification, with the "analogue" solution simply using the two channels passive in the DSM. A comparison I would like to have heard (but I do understand the limitations on the day) would have been Exakt against a fully aktiv analogue system. Example, my system is MISO's with a 2100 and 6100 fully aktiv. I would loved to have heard a Majik Exakt-I box swopped for the analogue variant. Maybe one for the future.

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  4. Bob - its a fair point. This demo was done in the Keltik room. Active analogue to Akurate Exaktbox to Klimax Exaktbox (stereo) to Klimax Exaktbox (mono). So, although this wasn't at Majik level, it did take an existing analogue active system and convert it to Exakt active with the same inputs and amplification.
    For the Majik system, I think they are aiming the demo at the most likely audience for Exaktbox-i, those with only stereo passive at the moment - they only have to buy the one amp box now to go Exakt (assuming they have an Exakt enabled DS, or opt for one of the upgrades).
    As you rightly point out, there's only so much they can do in the day. I would like to have heard a Klimax DS with active analogue Majik vs Majik DS Exakt into Exactbox-i too, because it would be interesting to contrast the performance of a high quality DS DAC against the lowest quality Exaktbox DACs.

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  5. EricJ: I've confirmed with the factory and have added a small tweak to the wording of the blog post around the Keltik demo. Essentially I was correct in the post (each group was given exactly the same demo, by the way). For the 3-way demos, the 2 Isobaric drivers in each Keltik speaker were driven by one channel of a Twin amp. Here is the confirmed running order:

    Klimax Aktiv Tuneboxes (dual mono) running 3-way Aktiv into 3x Twin amps
    Akurate Exaktbox 6 (stereo) running 3-way Exakt into 3x Twin amps
    Klimax Exaktbox (stereo) running 3-way Exakt into 3x Twin amps
    2 * Klimax Exaktbox (dual mono) running 4-way Exakt into 4x Twin amps

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