"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

Thursday 19 July 2012


Rioja when it should've been a claret.

Is this a major faux-pas?  Would this be the end of a fruitful evening before it had begun?  Would it leave a sour taste in the mouth?  How would my host react?  Would I be invited back?  Did I single-handedly save the Spanish economy?

The answer to one of the above was "no", but can you work out which one?

If your host agrees that a red wine fits into the "that'll do nicely" category then, as a visitor when you're trying your best to follow the protocols of polite society, you can't always get it right, but some things are near enough.  And so it turned out on this particular occasion.  The ingredients weren't 100% what was expected, but the result was entirely acceptable, it would seem.  So claret might have been preferred, but rioja can be equally acceptable, but different.

What is he waffling on about this time?  Isn't this supposed to be about music and hifi?  Well, I'm trying to do that clever journalist thing of making parallels.  Maybe I can pull this off, maybe I shouldn't have given the game away so soon in the post!

So we come back to the point.  Tom's system.  First off, I could say that Tom is a very brave man.  Some bloke from a hifi forum sees pictures of your system and identifies the view outside the window.  Same bloke spends a good bit of time in that location for work purposes and thinks listening to some music on someone else's system would be a good way to fill in an evening, perhaps strike up a friendship.  So a message goes out and a complete stranger is invited round for a listen.  So kudos to Tom.

We strike up a discussion on the way to Pizza Express to get sustenance to accompany the rioja.  Suprisingly, we discuss the local area, living in the city etc., rather than diving straight into hifi.  Pizzas ordered we headed back through the inevitable July 2012 (oooh, can I use that phrase without being shut down by LOCOG???) showers.  Tom's flat is modestly sized and carries a minimalist theme - white being the dominant hue and one which means that speaker choice can be somewhat limited, unless a spray can is involved.  The listening room has 2 opposing sofas - one for listening from, the other having the speakers either side.  Speakers are probably a touch further apart than they are distant from the listening position, but the practicalities of living have to be factored in of course.

Being a flat, standmounts are the speakers of choice.  We started out with a test.  Not sure if it was the speakers or me that was being tested, but it turns out that I managed to pass the test, if indeed it was me being tested :-)  A Nick Drake track was fired up to have a listen to a pair of white (inevitably) Linn Majik 109 stand mounts.

These are a recent used purchase by Tom, and they've already been "repaired" after Tom noted they weren't all quite what they should be.  So it took about 60 seconds to decide that one of the mid/bass drivers is less than 100% - sounding muffled and un-dynamic compared to the driver in the other box.  They didn't sound as good as my 109s either.  So they left the room and I believe are on their way back to the dealer to have another crack at fixing them.

The system we listened to for the rest of the evening:

Linn Klimax DS/1 in black (I didn't spend too much time gazing at this as desire can be very unbecoming)
Lejonklou Tundra in black
Linn K400 speaker cable (using one pair of the conductors in single wired mode)
Linn Katans (hey, they're white!)

Some of you will know about the Tundra - essentially this amp seems to have arisen from a Linn enthusiast who decided he could do better than Linn in the power amp area.  As you can imagine, this has been extremely controversial.  There are claims that the £2,800 power amp is equal to or better than Linn's own Klimax Chakra Twin (approx £8,000).  There are counter claims that it's not comparible to the KCT.  And there are lots of claims from people who have never listened to it, to the KCT or to neither.  Hey-ho: as in many hobbies, some people seem to be able to make decisions or pronouncements without the appropriate experience.

Down to the nitty-gritty.  And in some ways there's lots of that - nitty-gritty detail that is.  But none of it is grating nor excessive.  It took me a while to dial into the characteristics of the system.  The main reason for that is the need to re-adjust to a pair of standmounts. My main system and my second system both feature floorstanding speakers and there's no way that the Katans are up to the kind of bass that a floorstander can produce, so it takes a good 30 minutes or so to dial-out that aspect as it tends to be overwhelmingly obvious at first, masking other aspects.  Once you start to put that to one side and start to focus on what the system is actually doing, then you can settle into listening to and enjoying the music (or not of course).

2 glasses of rioja in (it was going down reasonably well with my host too) and time to relax with the music.  We listened to Blues Company, Nick Drake, Hurts, Yello and some other bits and pieces.  Once you get over the lack of really deep bass you can notice that the bass actually goes deeper than you would expect for such small speakers and is definitely tuneful - toe-tapping being involuntary but constantly present.  But moving on to other parts of the spectrum I heard some great vocals - male and female - easily picked out and emotionally charged.  Treble is not the best I've heard - sweeter than my Linn Keilidhs, but not as sweet and smooth as you get from either of Linn's current 2K and 3K higher frequency arrays.

Then you get back to the details, the layers, the tiny tiny details that I've not heard before - slightly more sustain on a cymbal, an extra bit of fizz from a distorted electric guitar string, a high frequency ping that's now a bell, not just a ping.  And this is laid out in front of you across the room - precisely located left to right, but a little 2 dimensional compared to the very best.  Close your eyes and the imaging is still a little shallow and the gaps between instruments feel unrealistically spaced out - we discuss this for a while and agree that the speakers are probably a little to far apart - but needs must when you can't have a fully dedicated listening room.

Is the system musical?  Absolutely.  It's easy to listen to (don't confuse that with an easy listen - its not bland, its not over polite, it just doesn't shove the music down your throat nor does it grate with excessive and synthetic amount of detail), cultured, sweet and drives a rhythm beautifully.

Would I want to live with this system?  Well, it wouldn't be my first choice - I still missed that low bass and the way it can help music (e.g. Yello's Drive/Driven) to fill out into a room and envelope the listener.  But if I had to have a system for a flat, then yes, it would provide many hours of listening fun and I'm sure Tom's enjoying just that.  So perhaps the rioja didn't have quite the depth of a good claret, but it did go down well, much like the music we enjoyed.

We were distracted a little by discussions on classic cars (another shared passion - but very differently focussed), working life, the system at Tom's other house and his plans there, The Australian Pink Floyd and other stuff.  But hey, life isn't just about hifi is it?   Shame we didn't find time to compare Tom's Klimax Renew DS against the KDS/1, but I suspect that the KDS/1 won't be around next time, we'll see what time brings.

So thank you to Tom for such an enjoyable listening session and for being so welcoming and easy to spend time with.  We're hoping to do a Katan vs M109 session sometime in the near future.  I'll get a claret for that one, perhaps there'll be a parallel with the difference in the speakers?  Or would that just be me trying a bit too hard?

Sunday 8 July 2012

Actively Listening. Was it Majik?

Majik.  Not my favourite name in the Linn range.  Sounds a bit twee, childlike maybe.  Klimax sounds too much like an adult oriented konversation.  Akurate works well as a name.

Anyway, a rose is still a rose etc. ...

Recent discussions with TWKMS (those who know my system), including me, has led to the general conclusion that the 18 year old Linn Keilidhs are probably the bit that's holding it back.  I tend to agree - although their ability to reveal upgrades in the front end and amplification over those years has always astonished me.  I kept wondering when they'd run out of ability.  I'm sure if I added a Klimax DS and a Klimax Kontrol they'd go on improving.  But there's been a niggling doubt and much conversation about their ability to really be delivering what my existing front end is capable of, never mind further upgrades.

Linn Keilidh

I subscribe to the "rubbish in, rubbish out" school of thought that leads to the inevitable conclusion that a good deal should be invested in the "source" of a system.  Hence the departure of my LP12 in order to fund an upgrade from Squeezebox Touch / Cyrus DAC-X to the current Linn Akurate DS/0 Dynamik.  However, if you spend £10k on a source and £100 on a set of speakers, I reckon you're not getting the best sound for your investment.  Perhaps it should be more like 40% source, 30% amps, 40% speakers?  So having now got a much better source and set of amps, I think the speakers need to be next.  But they need to be good enough to reflect any later upgrades to source and amps.

So off to my friendly local Linn dealer to listen to some loudspeaker options.  Having heard my brother's Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grands recently on an all Linn system, I found them to be superb with acoustic, atmospheric music and great with vocals - imaging superbly, especially when we tried them with Cyrus power amps.  But put on some Yello (I listen to a lot of acoustic music, but I listen to a lot of Yello too) and it all fell a bit flat.  Not exciting enough to listen to, for me.

Here's what we had set up to trial the Linn speakers at the dealership:

My Linn Akurate DS/0/Dynamik
Linn Akurate Kontrol/1
Linn Akurate 2200/D amp for super tweeter
Linn Majik 6100/D amp for the other drivers
Linn Silver interconnects
2 x Linn K400 speaker cables
Quadraspire shelving

So apart from the AK/1 rather than my AK/0/D the system was as my own current system at home.  The room is in a large Victorian(?) terrace - ceilings about 11 feet high, very solid walls, about 13ft by 16ft at a guess, with the speakers firing across the shorter distance, and standing just inside each end of the bay - about 2ft 6ins away from the back wall of the bay.

We tried the following Linn speakers, both driven by the above amplification combination in fully active mode

Majik 140s first

then Majik Isobariks

Its difficult to A-B them as it takes about 20 minutes to swap the speakers over, get them level and to swap all the aktiv cards between the amps. None of the aktiv cards are common.

All FLAC ripped CDs were used, so all at 16 bit / 44.1 kHz. Tracks:

Blues Company - Dark Day; Cold Rain
Yello - Tangier Blue; Till Tomorrow
Eagle Eye Cherry - Shooting Up In Vain
Kiki Dee - Amoureuse (live)
Tom Baxter - Night Like This


Both are way more detailed and easy to listen to than my Keilidhs -they manage to deliver a much more detailed treble with really clear, sharp edges, but without any hint of harshness or edginess
They both have good drive and deliver the rhythm well.
The 140 superficially seems to have more bass, but actually, the Isos go deeper and deliver a better definition of a tune and instrument pitch in the bass, whereas the 140s are loosing control - this is relative and the 140 is still a great listen.  We heard a couple of the tracks where the 140s deliver a bass tune, but the 'bariks deliver a more clearly defined tune and on some tracks there are 2 instruments playing in the bass that sound like one on the 140s.
Initially I was sat back on the sofa, but the sofa is backed up to the wall.  Sitting forward on the edge of the sofa markedly improved the bass definition, narrowing the gap between the two speakers.  At home my sofa is about 4ft from the back wall, so sitting forward was more realistic in terms of recreating my listening position, but takes you nearer to the speakers and I was already sitting closer to the speakers than I do at home.
The 'bariks deliver a very different mid-range when compared to the 140s and the Majik 109s I have at home - male vocals are better defined but recessed further back in the mix. Its a strange effect - I wouldn't say it was wrong, but it didn't feel right to me either.
The 140s produce a much more precise image (instruments are easier to pin-point) and the speakers themselves "disappear" as a point source better than the 'bariks. Not sure if that is due to the extra width of the 'bariks front baffle compared to the 140s?

Overall, I think the 'bariks are the better speaker, particularly the way they deliver bass. But they really are quite different in their presentation compared to the 140s, which came as a suprise - I wasn't expecting such a different presentation, given the common components in the "2k array".  I was expecting the 'bariks to be a more refined and defined version of the 140s.

I would be happy with either.
The 140s also look better to my eyes!

Thanks to the gents at HoL for the session.