"What a refreshingly honest blog about listening to music through hi-fi. So happy to see views based upon the enjoyment of music rather than so-called sound 'quality'." - Peter Comeau, Director of Acoustic Design at Mission / Wharfedale

Wednesday 31 August 2011

Linn Streaming Evening, Chris Brooks Audio

Late summer and Chris Brooks Audio in Warrington has a streaming open evening (A Mid-Summer Night's Stream, but we'll forgive that one!) to launch the new Linn Akurate DS/1 and Klimax DS/1.  The local debut of the new Isobarik speaker was quite and interesting addition.

Chris did lots of talking about the technologies and why they were so much better than CD etc. etc.  As is often the case with this kind of evening, there was a bit too much talking rather than letting the music do that by itsself, but I guess us punters need to pay for our glass of wine / orange juice!  It was a very warm evening which gave the guys in the shop a bit of a problem as the main upstairs listening room was rather stuffy with 10 or so bods and some heat producing hifi gear.  Windows open to cool the room was just too noisy so it was a constant swing between noise then heat then noise then heat.  A shame, but a bit beyond the control of the shop.

In the upstairs room, the comparisons were performed - and very well too, it must be said.  Constantly swapping between different streaming devices could've been a problem as the iThingy control devices could've easily suffered from user error and be pointing to the wrong source at the wrong time. The system was an interesting mix of amps (all from Linn of course), and I can't remember if the speakers were being driven actively or bi-amped.  I think the Isobariks were being driven by the power section of a Majik DSi (that's a Majik DS and integrated amp all in one mid-sized case) and an Akurate amp of some description - probably a 4200.

Firstly, impressions of the new Majik Isobarik speakers.  They're about £3,500, so that makes them low mid-range in Linn terms and top of the Majik speaker range.  The shop had only had them for a few days so they might not've been run-in properly, I wasn't convinced that the Majik DSi amp would be really grunty enough for a speaker of this size and quality and I would imagine that the shop guys would need to experiment some more to get the best positioning for them.  There was a Linn guy on hand from the factory, so they had a reasonable chance of being about right.  I found them extremely dry but really rather superb on the detail front.  Bass, for an Isobarik, is not as deep and extended as I imagined it would be, but as expected from Linn, timing felt very accurate and enjoyable.  They were great for hearing the differences in the sources - but they didn't really give that sense of excitement that I look for in a system - just a bit to restrained.  Amps?  Not run-in? Or is that just the way they are?  Perhaps we'll see them in the press soon and find out what the "experts" think.

So to the sources.  All the following were demonstrated through this system:

Majik DSi (no recent changes to this, save the addition of the Dynamik power supply about 12 months ago) - the standalone streamer version of this (without the integrated amp section) is £1,900

Akurate DS/1 - the new version @ £4,500

Klimax DS/1 - also a new version @ £10,000 (top centre in this mouth-watering stack of music playing technology drool-fest)

How was the sound?  Well the Majik was very impressive as a starting point - lots of detail, good timing, clear vocals, good imaging.  Bringing in the Akruate was a big step up, much larger than any of the audience were expecting - the imaging filled the room, timing was stunningly better, separation of the instruments very clear and the pace of the music seemed to pick up somewhat.  Those in the audience with a Majik DS were either reaching for their cheque book, or looking a bit glum.  Then comes the Klimax.  If you look at the pictures of the Klimax circuit board vs that of the Akurate that can be found on the internet then there doesn't seem to be that much difference until just before the final analogue output stages.  Of course, the box is significantly different too.  However, it is clearly different to listen to.  I remember from the first generation of DS products that there was a big difference from Majik to Akurate, then a smaller difference from Akurate to Klimax, meaning that the Akurate was the price / performance sweet spot.  Now though, when you listen to the new Akurate DS/1, you're probably going to think "good grief, how can the Klimax be better than this?".  But it is, and significantly so.  The step from Majik to Akurate described above is delivered again in the next step.  Very, very impressive.

So those with Majiks and Akurates where then concerned that they were going to be disappointed when they got home, and those who have yet to go streaming were thinking that they would have to save up for the Klimax, or give up now if that was unlikely to be attainable.  However, Chris had another trick up his sleeve.

Bear in mind that I have a Meridian CD player and chose this over and above players from Linn and Naim - albeit about 10 years ago.  I've never really been convinced about Linn's CD players - they've always been somewhat underwhelming.  However, Chris rolled out a Linn CD12 - no longer in production now, but a £12k machine in its day.  Lets cut to the chase - the Majik DSi completely wiped the floor with this CD player.  Period.  I hope there was no one there who'd bought one of these...  This made the Majik DS or DSi owners and those who can't aspire to anything further up the range much happier!

Elsewhere in the shop, the back room downstairs was running a Klimax DS/1, Klimax Control, and indeterminate Klimax power amp and a pair of 350A speakers.  Outside the dem room, this system was attracting the most attention.  It was sounding very detailed and bass was stonkingly deep but extremely well controlled.  But for me, there was something missing.  Its a bit difficult to put into words, but I would describe it as a coolness - and I don't mean a lack of warmth, I mean a lack of emotion in the music - for me this makes it a bit pointless as its the emotional content that's most important.  Technically very very impressive, but overall just not something I wanted to sit down and listen to attentively.  It doesn't help on evenings like this that folk like to chatter when there's music playing, so its not a truly fair position to take, and I won't write off this system on the basis of this event.

Fortunately, no-one was interested in the downstairs front room, given that there was lots of loverly Klimatic Kit to listen to in the bacK.  Here in the front room I discovered something rather wonderful - the opportunity to listen to a complete "as good as it gets within the Akurate range" fully active system, all on my own, with no interruptions from chatter.  Akurate DS/1, Akurate Kontrol, 3 x Akurate 4200 power amps and fully active Akurate 242 loudspeakers.  Once the guys got this powered up for me, initial impressions weren't all that good - good, but not stunning.  A quick look down the back of the source / control components an "ah!" and off went my attentive shop assistant.  Approx 30 seconds later, he returned to the room clutching a pair of Linn silver analogue interconnects.  Off went the system, out came the balanced XLR leads from DS to pre-amp and in went the unbalanced Linn sliver interconnects.  Once powered up again, this change was absolutely stunning.  I've read lots about balanced connections outperforming unbalanced - this is the conventional wisdom.  However,  I would suggest its a matter of the combination of kit in use and the cables in use too.  This was not a subtle change, in this system, the unbalanced Linn interconnects were clearly superior.  Never assume without listening!  At last I was hearing something truly great.  Track after track (16 bit CD rips and 24/96 high res) had me glued to the music, often staggered by the scale and depth of the soundstage, shaking my head at the resolution of female vocals and actually gasping at the lowest of low notes, slamming out in a controlled way, or rumbling - deeply underpinning the rest of the music.  I spent a good hour browsing through the tracks available on the shop's NAS via an iPad - this is a great interface and very intuitive to use.  This system is the top end of Linn's mid-range range.  But that's not mid-range in traditional hifi terms, its a Linn perspective.  This system is knocking on the door of £30,000 without cabling, so its truly in the aspirational class for most of us.  However, I'd have no hesitation in recommending this system as a must listen to anyone fortunate enough to be able to consider spending that kind of cash on music.

It gets me thinking though...how long will it be before you can pick up this system for under £5k on ebay?  I'd give it 5 years or so.  Hopefully the DS tech will still be relevant then!

There was no LP12 vs DS comparison at this event, I'm sure that would be an interesting one, but a top end LP12 is North of £10k now, and I doubt it would get close to the Akurate DS/1, never mind the new Klimax DS.

P.S.  There's a lot of debate in the bloggosphere and the forumosphere (?!) about what Linn's doing for owners of the existing Klimax DS (now known as the DS/0).  If you take your Klimax DS/0 to your Linn dealer they'll upgrade it to a DS/1.  I'm not sure how much this costs, but the key thing here is that they don't just throw out the old DS/0 innards.  In fact, they re-box them into a case that's somewhat simpler and more cost effective than that of the Klimax - they call it the Renew DS.  The idea is that it gives customers and "almost" Klimax DS/0 to use in a second system in their homes.  Some customers think this is a great idea, others seem to think Linn are exploiting them by charging them for a Renew box to put their old innards into.  For me, this sounds like a great solution - you get a lower cost Klimax DS/1 through the upgrade and then you get a brilliant DS player for another room, meaning that the old electronics don't go on the scrapheap.  Its optional.  What's not to like - it would be good if other hifi manufacturers could follow this lead - re-boxing older kit when an upgrade is applied to the main system, great idea.