A visit to Linn to hear the new Klimax Exakt system, and the 40th Anniversary LP12 turntable in an all-digital system
Quiet night in Glasgow last Tuesday: thanks to the small matter of a football match (don’t ask), the city’s bars and restaurant seemed strangely empty, at least until the game was over, and then small knots of disconsolate green-and-white-scarfed fans could be seen trudging through the rain.
Our taxi driver was philosophical when a road closure diverted him: ‘It’ll be a stabbing,’ he deadpanned, adding ‘There’s always some numpties when there’s a match.’
The next morning at Linn’s factory in Waterfoot, set amidst a park to the south of the city, there were things to celebrate: not only has the company just marked its 40th anniversary with the launch of a very special version of its famous LP12 turntable, it’s also just starting to ship what’s probably its most adventurous product to date.
Well, at least since it decided to stop making CD players and concentrate on streamed and ripped digital music, anyway.
The Limited Edition Sondek LP12 is a fully-loaded version of the company’s founding product, complete with the latest Kandid cartridge mounted in an Ekos SE tonearm, sitting on the Keel sub-chassis/armboard assembly, and with the Radikal motor/power supply and Urika phono stage.
The wood, which can be up to 100 years old – that’s life in service, not including how long the oak took to grow! – has been dried, bead-blasted and then oiled to achieve its finish.
The drying was needed because the wood the Linn factory received was too wet for immediate use, and more to the point too wet with whisky, which meant it was rather too redolent of its former life even for this application!
However, no attempt was made to smooth away marks on the wood such as those made in making the casks, such as nail holes and the like, and scuffs and dents it suffered in up to a century of use.
As Linn says ‘If we did that, it’d just be another piece of oak’.
The turntable comes complete with a bottle of 40-year-old Highland Park, itself rumoured to be worth £1000 or so, and the whole package is around the £25,000 mark.
That sounds like a lot of money until you consider that a full-specification standard Sondek LP12 is nearer £20,000 than £10,000 these days – although LP12 ownership starts at nearer £2000 –, and that apparently all 40 turntables have been snapped up by Linn’s network of retailers and distributors, ready for sale to their customers.
However, that celebratory and very exclusive LP12 isn’t the only story from the company’s first product, which originally appeared in 1972: development work continues, and the latest addition to the family is the Kore sub-chassis/armboard assembly.
This is designed to improve on the rigidity of the unit fitted to the basic Majik LP12 (itself now fitted with an improved assembly as standard), but without going all the way to the upmarket Keel fitted in the flagship versions.
Using a combination of folded box-section aluminium and a machined armboard made from a single billet in the Linn factory – there’s not much the company buys in! – the Kore is just part of the upgrade path the company offers, enabling the buyer to upgrade an original turntable to current specification, or indeed start with the current entry-level version and gradually build up to the top-end model
It’s encouraging that Linn isn’t merely still hand-building the LP12 at its factory, but also making its components and continuing to improve those parts as it goes.
And that’s doubly impressive when you consider all the ‘abandoning the past’ hoo-hah there was when it stopped making CD players – though it was far from abandoning anything apart from physical disc players – not to mention what it’s also doing now.
A tour round the production areas reveals that it’s very much business as usual at Linn: circuitboards are being populated rather than bought in as completed assemblies, and the metalwork is folded and finished in-house.
Even the printing of the legends on fascias and rear panels is done here, using the machine below.
Products are still built up from a kit of parts by a single person (above), rather than running down a production line, whether they be an LP12 or one of the company’s DSM streamers, and at every workstation automated test-jigs stand ready to check all the functions of the completed products.
There’s even a separate climate-controlled room where the company’s tonearms are assembled by hand – and when ears aren’t quite good enough, stethoscopes are used to check for any untoward noises in the arms.
Reference versions of products are kept to hand for checking against production samples – anyone want to play ‘spot the Linn’ in the shot below?
Oh, and the ‘roadways’ around the production line are still patrolled by Huey, Dewey and Louie, Linn’s robotic trucks shuttling components from storage and completed products back there.
They were there at the start of this factory back in the 1980s – when someone asked when last I’d visited, I said ‘Well, not his century’ – and although the place has expanded a bit in the meantime they’re still there, and still named after the three drones in sci-fi film Silent Running, not the cute nephews of Donald Duck after whom the Silent Running drones were named. If you see what I mean…
And as befits their sci-fi origins, the three are looking a bit bruised, battered and menacing now: the odd missing panel reveals their internal circuitry, and they occasionally hesitate while deciding what to do next. But then I guess they have literally been around the track a good few times.
Anyway, what H, D & L have been shifting from production to Goods Out of late is Linn’s latest product – Exakt. Or to give it its full name, the Linn Klimax Exakt system (above), with its slogan suggesting ‘The source is in the speaker’.
Now since Linn announced the Exakt concept a couple of weeks back – actually, ‘concept’ perhaps isn’t the best word, given that systems are already shipping –, there’s been a lot of internet discussion about what it is an what it does and how the source can actually be in the speaker when an extra ‘box’, in the form of the Klimax Exakt DSM, is needed upstream of the Klimax Exakt 350 loudspeakers.
The demonstrations and explanations given in the Linn Home suite (above) when I was up at the factory the other day clarified things no end, Technical Director Keith Robertson taking us through Exakt step-by-step.
For a start, ‘the source is in the speaker’ because the digitised signal, at resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz, is passed direct to the Exakt Engine in the speaker itself. This sits upstream of the amplifiers and drivers, and performs all the crossover processing – and rather more – in the digital domain.
Linn calls it ‘pushing the digital journey further into the speakers than ever before’, enabling the losses common in analogue systems to be eliminated.
The Klimax Exakt DSM operates as a switching system for the entire set-up, and can also digitise analogue sources before passing them over a single digital link to each speaker, as well as acting as the control point for a complete Exakt set-up.
Perfect matching of driver to speaker
What’s more, that Exakt Engine goes way beyond just the functions of a digital crossover: for a start, it optimises the speaker for each drive unit used, both at the design stage and in manufacturing.
And I mean each individual drive unit, not just the model of driver used. By measuring every single driver before it’s installed in the speaker, even the slightest variation from the ideal (of course within the usual acceptable tolerances) can be taken care of by the Exakt Engine, so the speaker always performs exactly – sorry – to specification.
That also makes servicing much simpler: as the details of the speaker and its drive units are filed away in cloud storage, should a driver fail or be wrecked by careless use, a replacement can be fitted, its individual identity entered via Linn’s Konfig app on a computer or tablet, and then the Exakt Engine will adjust to optimise its performance.
MD Gilad Tiefenbrun chips in at this moment to give a case in point: setting up for Linn’s recent demonstrations at the CEDIA exhibition in the States, someone got a bit too enthusiastic with the volume control, and the 3K driver array –covering midband, treble and supertweeter – was damaged in one of the Klimax Exakt 350 speakers.
A replacement was sourced, and using the Konfig app the speaker was soon set up for the exact characteristics of the new driver.
And the Konfig system is at the heart of the rest of the Exakt bag of tricks: this isn’t a room compensation or equalisation set-up of the kind found on, say, AV receivers; instead it allows the installing Linn specialist (or indeed owners) to adjust the speakers to optimise their performance in the room where they’re used.
It’s not automatic set-up…
What’s more, it’s not a ‘plonk down a microphone, run some test tones and you’re done’ thing: instead, the installing Linn dealer will measure the room and the location of the listening seat, then set the speakers up in their ideal position using the Konfig screens.
That done, and using the Linn Tune Dem approach to ensure the best possible sound is achieved, the speakers can then be moved to positions acceptable for the new owners – whether it’s right back against the wall when the speakers would be happier with some breathing space, or one speaker in a corner and the other in free space, or whatever.
After that, the new position is entered into Konfig, and the Exakt Engine optimises the speakers for their less than optimal positions, to get back to the same sound.
The Linn team describes current automatic set-up systems, using a microphone and test tones, as something of a blunt instrument; it prefers to think of the Exakt process as optimisation, but on a human scale, given that listening is still at the heart of the initial set-up, and the changes applied are all about making the most of that listening experience.
At the most basic, Exakt will ensure the ‘time of flight’ of the sound is the same from all the drive units to the listener’s ear, but much more adjustment is possible in the Exakt system. Just how much is still being explored by the Linn engineers, meaning that as things move on a set-up will literally be software upgradable, taking in factors such as the surfaces in the room and so on.
There’s another way in which the system is just the start of the journey for Exakt: at launch – i.e. now – you can buy a complete Exakt system of Klimax Exakt DSM and a pair of Klimax Exakt 350 active speakers, each packing six drive units and six channels of amplification.
The whole lot will cost you around £50,000, and existing owners of the Klimax 350 speakers will find there’s an upgrade path to bring them to Exakt specification.
However – and as a sign Linn sees this technology spreading through its product range – from next month there will be Exakt versions of the company’s Klimax Tunebox Aktiv Crossover, usable with the Klimax Exakt DSM to turn existing active-ready Linn speakers, and Klimax Aktiv systems, into Exakt set-ups.
And that means speakers back to classics such as the Keltiks, many of which may have been modified by their owners with the substitution of drive units: the company’s already working on accommodating those speakers, along with the known driver changes.
It also opened up the intriguing possibility that the Exakt technology may become open source, at least to the extent of enabling third-party developers to come up with settings to enable other manufacturers’ speakers to be used with the Exakt products. Indeed, I hear whispers that at least one speaker manufacturer is already following the Exakt project with some interest.
To show how the technology can be applied to older models, at the factory we were treated to several demonstrations of Exakt, including one set-up comparing the big Komri speakers (above) run using a Klimax DSM/Tunebox/power amps set-up running in analogue from one of the anniversary LP12s, and then the same set-up with the turntable’s phono stage running into an Klimax Exakt DSM, where the signal was digitised, fed through to Klimax Exakt Tuneboxes, and then on to the same speakers.
To these ears, there were noticeable improvements using what would once have been seen as a heretical process at Linn – digitising analogue! – and it seems it can’t be long before the company has a direct digital phono stage for use with the turntable, able to feed straight into the Klimax Exakt DSM.
After all, the DSM does have extra Exakt Link inputs, so such a move must surely be on the cards.
That’s how keen the Linn team seems on the benefits of this approach for playing vinyl in the future: when one of our party suggested over lunch in the Linn canteen that he wasn’t too sold on the sound of LP12 plus Exakt, and that he preferred the all-analogue signal path, the always-opinionated Gilad Tiefenbrun had a very simple answer.
‘I can understand what you’re saying, but in this case you’re simply wrong!’
It seems that while Linn has been celebrating its 40 years, it hasn’t been doing so by looking back, but rather with its attention fully on the future – a future in which there will still be LPs, and still be LP12s, but coexisting with ever more complex digital technology inside the products, all designed to make life simpler for the end-user.
It’s all a long way from the ancient way of Linn-thinking, in which some fanatics more or less built their listening rooms around their speakers: now, however unsuitable your listening space, it seems it will be possible to customise the audio system to suit your needs, not vice versa.
Written by Andrew Everard