Sunday, 23 September 2018

The 4th Generation – Can Less Really Be More When You’re Learning To Drive? Linn vs Lejonklou


What makes us interested in hifi?  

I’m sure there are many reasonable responses to that question but for me it goes back to when I was in my early teen years, that time when many of us began to listen to music that captured our imagination or encouraged to think differently or, for some, to be rebellious.  At that time I was fortunate enough that there was a decent stereo system in our house – nothing particularly fancy, it was a Marconiphone branded Thorn EMI radiogram – but it had a Garrard turntable, Goldring cartridge and separate speakers that were big enough to stand on the floor.  My brother and I played lots of stuff on that equipment – Yes, Sabbath, Floyd, Steely Dan and more.  But I didn’t appreciate that the record player made a difference.  Until, one day, I took an album around to my mate’s home where it was played on a Fidelity UA4 – a plastic box with plastic speakers not much bigger than a hardback book, a BSR turntable and probably a ceramic cart.  It sounded terrible.  And so, for me, there was a realization that the kit could make a difference.

So from there, the possibilities became of interest.  There was a mate of my brother’s who had a Sony music centre that did a better job than our Marconi, and so it went on.  In our small town there were 2 hifi shops (no, really!) and it was a simple transition from looking at Hornby trains in toy shop windows to looking at electronics with lots of controls, VU meters, lights etc.  Then I got a part-time job when I was 16 and the saving started.  Enough to one day venture into one of the hifi shops to see what was what.  I went for the smaller shop, which, I was to learn later, was far more focused on music playing systems, the other being focused on the latest shiny far eastern products.  In there was playing a Linn LP12 turntable (I forget the arm and cart, probably something like a Grace 707 and whatever was flavour of the day) feeding into a Nytech amplifier and on to Heybrook HB3s. Wow, that was an ear opening moment when I first realized what was possible, given the budget.

I’ll get to the point.  Soon.  Ish.

But supermarket Saturday jobs don’t feed LP12 and Heybrook habits. So the budget meant looking at Sony / Pioneer turntables, Pioneer / JVC / Technics entry level amps and speakers at that level seemed to be ubiquitously Wharfedale.  But there was also a thriving specialist press at the time, with lots of black and white magazines with glossy covers seeking attention.  And there I discovered a few things about what was available from dealers and how not everything with flashy finishes, impressive sounding technologies and lots of lights were necessarily the best thing around.  Examples from the speaker world were the AR18s and the original Mission 700 – simple designs, but ones with music in mind.  I also began to understand that a used decent turntable might be more worthy than a brand new plastic model from Japan.  So, cutting the long story a little bit shorter, the first system was a used Thorens TD160 with a Mayware arm and a pair of Mission 700s.

So what sat between source and speakers?  Many of you will probably have worked out where this is going.  In the one shop we have JVC shiny amps with slider controls, sat alongside Technics SUV-something-or-others with the Super Class A circuitry.  Amplifiers with 0.0001% distortion, 50 watts per channel, the ability to connect 2 pairs of speakers, lovely needle or fluorescent VU meters.  In the other shop, a dowdy looking, drab little box with just a set of tone controls and a meagre 20 watts per channel.  Yet the magazines were praising this little box so further investigation was necessary.  Well, as it turns out, and I’m not sure that the same can be said very often today, the magazines were right.  The Japanese amplifiers sounded slow, lacking in sparkle, flat, they played notes not music and they didn’t engage you when you listened.  Yet the little NAD 3020, for all its build quality faults, its slightly over-warm upper bass, a mere 20W per channel and dull looks was full of life, got you involved and created the heart of a system that I wanted to listen to for hours.  Fantastic value for money.

And so, eventually we kind of get to the point.  In the above example, the simple, “less is more” amplifier did a great job of playing music rather than being led by technology claims and objective measurements.  Is that relevant today?  After my visit to an audio dealer in Lisburn, NI, I decided to find out in my own system.  Might be worth a quick look at the report from Lisburn, as it’s a kind of prelude to this post.

So where are we today, in the Musings system?

Source is a combination of the following, in order of where the information starts to where it ends up:
-          Dell laptop with Exact Audio Copy creates FLAC rips of CDs OR purchased downloads from sites like Junodownload, Qobuz, etc.
-          This data is loaded on a Melco N1ZH which is the HDD version
-          The database and media server is MinimServer which runs with the 24-bit WAV up conversion
-          Chord Ethernet cable
-          Linn Akurate Exakt DSM pre-amp / streamer (this adds internet radio and Tidal options to the data from the Melco)
-          Meicord Ethernet cable
-          Linn Akurate Exaktbox6/1 DSP/multi-channel Katalyst equipped DAC

So that lot then sends 3 signals (treble, mid-range and bass) per channel to a pair of Linn Akurate 4200/1 power amps – via Linn Silver interconnects – one channel per driver in the speakers.  Using 6x channels of the 8x available in these amps, I run treble and bass in one amp and mid-range in the other – I’m not sure if this is a general rule, or if its down to the PMCs which have the mid-range at ear height, but I’ve found in this system that any possible improvement should be applied to the mid-range first, hence the amp doing the least work gets to drive the mids. The spare 2x channels then run the centre channel speaker in passive bi-amp mode, which is only used for TV and movies.  A mix of Linn and Naim speaker cables – which will eventually all be Naim - take the signal out to PMC Twenty.26 speakers.  The PMCs have been converted to work in active mode (no passive crossovers in the speakers) and they stand on IsoAcoustics Gaia feet. All equipment is mounted on Mission/Cyrus Isoplats on 2 flavours of Quadraspire.  Linn’s SPACE is used to deal with room modes in a mildly adjusted form, only applied after making sure that the speakers are in their best position in the room to start with.

A while I go I toyed with the idea of trying 3x stereo Naim NAP250DR amps in the system – I’ve heard this amp sound very good in systems that don’t include other Naim stuff and considered it might be worth a try. But what else might be worth a try and would it bring enough improvement without spending very silly money?  Linn’s Klimax Twin would be worth considering, but I’ve been there before and whilst it is a very good amplifier – it does just sound like a more powerful Akurate amp rather than a major step forward.  Linn’s own Solo amps would also be worth a try, but when you need 6 of them, the price and space required becomes a VERY real issue.  I suppose there is a very long list of options, and possibly Audionet should be on that list too.  Finding dealers (or friends) who have 3x amps on demo or available to borrow is a challenge too. One thing I didn’t want to do is leave Exakt behind and go back to a conventional system – I hear too many benefits to think about going in that direction.

So if you’ve read the post about the visitto Lisburn then you’ll have guessed already the path I wanted to explore further.  The Lejonklou (say Lay-on-cloo) Tundra Stereo 2.5 impressed in a Linn Exakt system, with Kudos Titan 707s, but that was just whetting the appetite – there’s no compensation for trying changes in your own system, in your own room.  The room is an intrinsic part of the system, and can’t be ignored.  But 3x amps?  Who was going to be able to help with a demo like that? Well, Kantata-Audio stepped up to the mark – they already have 2x demo amps of their own, but John put the effort in to get a third one lined up and the plan was hatched.  Great service too – amps delivered to home in Wales from over the water in NI.  I guess John would prefer to come along to install the gear, but maybe he felt it was safe enough to let me get on with it on my own, especially this far from base!

Remarkably, despite the best efforts of the couriers, the amps turned up safe and sound, packaged in their very simple, unassuming cardboard boxes.  No box branding as such, just Lejonklou branded sealing tape.  One by one the amps were unboxed and in each box we find an amp, a simple instruction leaflet, a Lejonklou branded box containing the power lead and a multimeter – more of which later.

Simple cartons

A smart box for the power cable

Instructions on setting up using the supplied multimeter



Once all were unboxed, I listened again for a good hour or so to the system as-is (it had being playing quietly for at least 30 mins beforehand), just to get a good feel for what it sounds like, trying to keep that in my most recent memory.  It might not have helped much, but I felt I should try and make the comparison as fair as possible.  Given that it was about to take about 1.5 to 2 hours to disconnect cabling, change over the amps, re-cable, test etc., then this wasn’t a comparison that was going to be of the A to B variety.  In the limitations of the amount of rack space I have, it just wasn’t possible to do this the most ideal way, with all the amps set up ready to just change cables – I don’t have that kind of space.  Even with this last listen, given the set-up procedure for the Tundras, it probably made only a small difference, given it was going to be 30 hours or so before serious listening could be undertaken -  more on set-up soon.

Physically, because 2x 4200s are being swapped out for 3x stereo amps, there was a re-shuffle on the centre rack.  Previously the Exaktbox had a dedicated shelf and sat central with the amps next to each other on the shelf below.  Once done, the Exaktbox was off to one side with a Tundra alongside and two futher Tundras side by side on the shelf below.  Another Isoplat was extracted from the loft too, to keep changes between the systems to a minimum by making sure all the amps were isolated equally.  I normally use ClearerAudio Copper Alpha shielded mains cables for the Linn amps, but stuck with the supplied (very unassuming) mains cables provided with the Tundras, as their designer has strong views on this, so I thought best to stick with the recommendation – if there was any experimenting to be done, that could wait a while.  There’s another significant difference between the Linn and Lejonklou amps – Linn offering 200W per channel (into 4 ohms, but to be fair to the industry norm, most manufacturers would call this 100W into 8 ohms) whereas the Tundra makes do with a seemingly very modest 25W per channel – echoes of those NAD 3020 specs.  In my active system, this means a total of 75W per channel and each amp only has to deal with a direct connection to the speaker drive units with no passive crossover to consume power.

The Exaktbox moved to the left to accomodate the first Tundra.  Linn amps still in place on the bottom shelf

Back to what came out of the boxes.  3x of the latest iteration of the Lejonklou Tundra Stereo 2.5.  v2.5 is probably about the 7th or 8th iteration of the amp, the history of which can be found here.  It was Fredrik Lejonklou’s first amplifier product.  Interestingly it reminds me, at least in the way it looks, of a combination of Linn LK range (the Klout of that range also had twin blue LEDs on the front panel) and the no-nonsense solid engineering of the Naim amps.  These boxes are not heavy (they use SMPS power supplies, not big heavy transformer PSUs like many amps) but they do feel very well built from quality materials.  Everything is black with a nice matt finish that feels like it will be robust – the front features the central company logo flanked by the aforementioned blue LEDs.  One of my favourite non-audio features (probably the amps’ only non-audio feature) is the ability to turn these LEDs off using a simple back panel toggle switch – the less distractions in the room the better when focusing on enjoying the music.

Unassuming, but seems to be well built

 On the underside we find a myriad of allen bolt heads presumably holding boards, components and earth straps in place.  I don’t take a look inside for 2 reasons – first these are not my amps and that would be inappropriate, but secondly because Lejonklou are fastidious about their fasteners – each and every one has been adjusted to a particular torque level where it sounds best to the designer.  I find this fascinating, have no experience of the difference a torque setting for an amp board mounting can make, but I’m quite happy to accept that every little change added up can make for a big change overall.  Other than that there are 4 rubber feet of everyday appearance, each mounted on a metal washer.

Around the back the action doesn’t get any more exciting.  Functional is the approach.  The LED on-off switch, the mains on-off switch, 4 phono socket connections, 4x 4mm speaker output sockets and that’s almost your lot.  Fredrik has tested the amp and signed off on a small label.  The only thing here that’s somewhat unusual is a 3.5mm trim port and a small rubber knob next door. That’s your lot.  The 4x phono connectors are in pairs – a pair for each channel – one is the input, the other an output that can be used to pass the signal along to another amp for passive multi-amping of speakers by duplicating the input signal.  In my system, just the input connections are required. The top plate is even simpler – just a flat panel with a narrow row of cooling vents running just along the back edge.
Connecting up took a while, but I did take the opportunity to do a bit of dusting along the way J.  The usual power-up sequence for an active system was used, music was played and the bass amp powered up first.  Then the mid-range, then the treble.  This sequence means that if, for example, what I expected to be the bass amp was actually outputting treble, the bass driver would have no issue.  Try that the other way around and the tweeters would soon be smoke.  And then was the patient bit.  How patient?  Well, 30 hours or so.  But I managed to do it.  The Tundra has a lower gain compared to the Linn amps – over the weekend it correlated with what I’d read – the pre-amp needs to be 9 or 10 units higher than with the Linn amps to get the same kind of listening level.  So a very quiet 40 volume level with the Akurates is a very quiet 50 with the Tundras.  And so they played for an hour or so before it was time to take a break and get some kip – turning the rig down to a barely audible level 35 to keep things ticking over, but not disturbing the household.

Simple rear panel with the LED toggle far left and the trim port next to that

Underside

Next morning they’re back up to 50 to play away to themselves, apart from the essential break for a cuppa when I’d head back into the room and listen for 30 mins or so, just to hear what was going on.  So back to that trim control and port.  That’s where the multimeter comes in too – each amp is supplied with one which is labelled up on the back with the correct mV reading for the amp.  The idea here is that the amp’s idling current can be adjusted to suit it’s set up to make the best of the temperatures that arise from its working location.  This has to be adjusted after the first 24 hours, then again an hour later, one month after installation and then annually there after.  Unless you re-locate the amp to a new environment, when the 24 hour/1 hour process should be repeated.  An amp for the enthusiast audience rather than the mass-market then.

First amp connected up.  Trim port and trim knob just this side of the speaker cables

Well, I said I managed to be patient – but its confession time!  I actually lasted 20 hours of running before I got down to the first adjustment – I figure these are demo amps and have probably had a good few hours running already.  Turning off the Exaktbox meant there is no signal going into the amps – they’re idling. Plugging in the multi-meter and turning to the mV setting the trim knob is adjusted until the correct value is showing.  Very simple, very straightforward, no specialist knowledge required.  I did one amp, then ran some music again for about 15 minutes before going silent and adjusting the next one – hopefully this kept the temperature closest to normal operating.  I repeated this for the third amp.  Two amps needed just a small tweak, the third quite a bit more – it must have been operating in a fairly different type of rack previously.  So then I put in about 2 hours of listening at a modest 50 to 55 listening level, but didn’t make the second trim adjustment until the next morning – another 9 hours of running.  So after breakfast on the Sunday, the final adjustments were made (just one amp actually needed a tweak) and at last, some proper listening can be done.
Sometimes, when listen to music in order to work out what a component is doing in a system (or a complete system, as is usually the case at hifi shows), its difficult to get the words right to describe what’s being heard. And more often than not, they’re questioned, mis-interpreted, inadequate, or need to describe things in terms of characteristics when you’d rather be talking about the way the music is playing or feeling.  Whilst there are “technical” characteristics to what’s heard, they’re a small part of what matters – its what the music does for you rather than the way its presented that’s key.  If it doesn’t stir emotions, then there seems little point in using anything other than the basics and using music as a background rather than a priority.  I’ll try to give a flavour of both technical and musical here, to try and cover the bases.

All 3 Lejonklous in place.  Here with the LEDs switched on - I prefer them off to reduce distractions

So the technical – well, what I’ve noticed, and I found it a little difficult to understand when reading this elsewhere, these amps need 15 to 20 minutes warm-up time.  And by that I don’t mean switched on, that’s not enough, they need 15 to 20 minutes of actual music playing.  At the start they sound very good, but the imaging is flat and there’s nothing particularly special about them. But then, after that time, they wake up significantly.  The left to right imaging opens up enormously, spreading across the full width of the room, and those phase effects used extensively in electronica, where the sound seems to come from beside and sometimes behind, are very effectively delivered.  Depth front to back comes in too, but perhaps never gets quite as deep as with the Linn amps, even after a full warm up.  Bass lines are just a touch softer on the leading edges than with the Linns, as noted in the Lisburn system, yet it has more believable textures and timing.  Goes just as deep, is just as substantial but yet more stable on the Tundra compared to the Akurate. Running with SPACE in my home system to deal with room modes helps to reveal just how good the timing is on the Tundra, in addition to opening up their mid-range clarity.  The rest of the frequency range is handled extremely well, but it’s the treble that has a delicacy almost absent in the 4200.  Spashiness is much reduced, sibilance takes a further step back and there’s yet another level of detail in terms of hearing how a struck cymbal’s note changes as it decays, or the ability to differentiate between the different areas the instrument has been struck.

In the mid-range, I find that instruments take another step towards being clearly defined as individual sounds.  Some tracks reveal multiple instruments taking the lead where before there had been a single, less well defined, tune line.  Notes also last longer – they decay away convincingly and add to the sense of the venue on live recordings.  Vocals are easier to follow, but also carry so much more emotion and expression.  At the end of tracks as the notes fade away, they do so into a much quieter background.

And what about the music? After the initial 15 to 20 minute running time, this is the area that demonstrates a great deal of superiority to the Dynamik power supplied Linns.  Its also the most difficult to describe in words.  The thing that really stands out for me is their timing.  It seems completely counter-intuitive that timing should be a “thing” that might be a challenge for a modern amplifier.  I mentioned it when listening in Lisburn, its about the musicians playing together. On every beat. Every time.  Of course, the Lejonklou’s probably still don’t get it completely right, but there’s a definite sense of the removal of a layer of complexity in the music – note, I don’t say a layer of detail, that’s something completely different.  For example, the 2 guitars on Dire Straits’ “Six Blade Knife” around 2:30 into the track and onwards – what was previously 2 different instrument lines is now an interplay making a complete tune together, yet the 2 instruments are still clearly distinguished.  Another example being the clicks and tricks on Tunng’s “Jenny Again” – they no longer feel like add-ons, but a part of the music.  This integration of “special effects” into the feel and flow of the music, I notice time and time again – another example would be something that sounds like sheets of metal being tapped on Pitch Black’s “Filtered Senses” – the way they impact into the music and then fade away is no longer rather incongruous to the tune.  This track also has some interesting bass depth that rumbles underneath – but now with a sense of tune and flow, not just a rumble.  The complex percussion (finger cymbals, castanets etc.) contribution to Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy” as an integrated part, not as a seemingly unnecessary distraction.  The bass line in Leftfield’s “Afro Left” introduction kicks solid and stable, building a sense of anticipation of what might be to come.

Kiki Dee’s live rendition of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” from the “Almost Naked” album is a great track.  I’ve enjoyed it on most good systems I’ve had but now we have more emotion in her voice, a greater sense of the venue and something that flows between her vocals and the backing track. Its easier to hear the message Dee wants to put across.  On Yello’s album “Toy”, there are 2 guest female vocalists who have quite a different contribution to make to these tracks.  Malia’s smokey smooth jazz style is contrasted with Fifi Rong’s lighter, mysterious vocals.  Now this contrast is greater still – Malia’s out to convince through gentle persuasion, Rong seems to be out to unsettle, disturb and put doubts in your head.  And talking of unsettling, Mary Gauthier’s seriously unhappy on “Falling Out of Love”, its already pretty obvious really, but here her vocals grab you and almost force you to take notice of just how unhappy she is.  Gripping stuff.

All of this got me thinking about how to describe the effect of the Tundra 2.5s in my Exakt system.  The above kind of tries to get the experience across, but then probably not adequately enough.  So how about comparing the 2 amps to learning to drive?  When you first pass your driving test, its because you are competent and safe on the road.  You know what to do, when to do it and how to do it.  But that’s all.  It still takes a great deal of concentration and it doesn’t come naturally.  You have to think through what you’re doing and you do it sequentially, as per the instructor's directions.  But then, as you get more and more competent as a driver, things start to flow – actions gel together, you start to anticipate traffic, you get smoother with gear changes and clutch engagement, you gradually stop thinking about the mechanics of what you’re doing.  The stuff you have to do all the time almost become subconscious and you can flow into the traffic and start to enjoy the actual journey, perhaps placing the car on the road to get the best out of a corner, to feel the way the car reacts to your inputs etc. Driving is no longer a set of individual motions, actions and set pieces, it becomes a continual flow and blends together as one journey.  Yet you’re still controlling individual functions such as the throttle, steering, gears etc. – they’re still distinct actions.

So that’s what I think the Tundras are doing over and above the Linn Akurate amps.  They give that flow, that sense of an easy to follow musical experience, rather than a set of individually processed notes and voices.  Its also interesting to note, although source first is still true because you can never recover what’s lost at source, there’s a good deal here to learn about how much components further down the line can lose and waste what the source is doing and prevent the musical side getting through to the listener.  A fantastic source can be wasted by not giving it good enough support.

Linn DSM / Exaktbox Source, Lejonklou Amps, PMC Twenty.26 Speakers

So after NAD, Rotel and Linn amplifier generations, a new generation takes over the reins in the system and a seemingly simple amp brings greater enjoyment of the music.  They’re here to stay.