The Linn Lp12 Turntable System - Revisited
|The Linn Lp12 Turntable System - Revisited|
28 January 2002
LP12 turntable with current mods: $3300
Ekos Tonearm: $2700
Arkiv II low-output cartridge: $2200
Linto phono pre-amp: $1600
Address: Linn Products Ltd.
Floors Road, Waterfoot
Glasgow G76.0EP, Scotland, UK
US Distributor: Linn Inc.
8787 Perimeter Park Boulevard
Jacksonville, FL 32216
Phone: (904) 645-5242
Fax: 904) 645-7275
The purpose of this review is to compare two implementations of the Linn LP12 Turntable: 1) my highly tweaked and customized analog front-end, and 2) the current, top-of-the-line, all-Linn package. I've moved far away from the stock model in the dozen or so years I've owned an LP12. In fact, the only thing that is still Linn, other than the table itself, is the arm. When I began this review, I had no clue what the stock table sounded like. Taking a benchmark seemed like an excellent idea. This was an ideal opportunity to hear what the synergy of the manufacturer's parts would yield. At the same time it would tell me what I'd gained, or maybe what got lost, in my quest for the "best" accessories. I intended to leave the new LP12 just as it was setup by the manufacturer's representative and to use it as Linn recommends.
Brian Morris of Linn Products did the table setup. He also checked out my current rig to make sure it was up to spec. I managed to site both tables on the top shelves of my two PolyCrystal racks. This was ideal: after playing a record on one table, I could walk it over to the other, drop the needle, and flip the pre-amp selector switch to hear it on the other. I felt very privileged to have the two LP12s in-house for this direct A/B comparison. It's one thing to have multiple amps available to swap in or out. Turntables are a different matter. They are more persnickety due to compatibility issues and setup requirements. 'Twas a dream scenario come true.
The "Brown" Lp12 Rig
Over the years I've carefully assembled an assortment of third party accessories that I felt were worthwhile replacements for the manufacturer's offerings. I imagined I had the table tweaked out to the max and that it would easily out perform the stock model. Otherwise, why on earth would you lay out more cash for inferior performance? Of course, I had never been able to put this assumption to the test - until this review. The "Brown" LP12 rig, as I'll call my present table since that's the color of it's plinth, consists of the following: Linn Sondek LP12, Lingo, Trampolinn base with feet, Ittok II tonearm with AQ7000 NSX cartridge, Graham IC30 phono cable, American Hybrid Technology Non-Signature Phono Pre Amp, Harmonic Technology Magic Power Cords on Lingo and AHT, Legend Audio Design prototype interconnect between AHT and the pre-amp, and QNR DNM Ringmat Developments platter mat. The table, with its Trampolinn base and iso feet, sat on a Townshend HD Seismic Sink. All of this was plugged into a Legend Audio "Live Performance" AC conditioner, in turn plugged into an Accuphase PS-500 conditioner fed from the wall AC.
The "Black" Lp12 Rig
The current top-of-the-line package that was delivered consisted of: the Linn Sondek LP12, Lingo, Trampolinn base with feet, Cirkus bearing, Ekos tonearm with Arkiv II cartridge, Linto phono pre-amp, power cords, Linn Silver interconnect and the famous black felt mat that always clings to the back of the record and then falls on the floor. The Lingo and the Linto were first connected to an Ensemble Mega power strip. Early into the review, and per Linn's recommendation to not use line conditioning, the Ensemble strip was removed and the Lingo and the Linto were run straight into wall outlets. In this corner you have the Black contender, consisting of all Linn offerings, which, I might add, are liberally represented in the Class A listing of Stereophile's Recommended Components.
First, I need to dispel one of the lingering myths from the LP12's distant past. For the first decade or so of its life, the LP12 was notorious as a maintenance nuisance. Minimally it required annual check-ups for suspension tuning. This was remedied in the eighties and nineties by Linn with the introduction of several mods that have since become standard. Fast forward to the present. The modern LP12 can go for years without needing a tune-up. My table had not been looked at for two years prior to this review, and it was found to be in good shape, including the suspension.
And Now, A Word About Burn-In
Out of the box the sound of the Black was stiff, two-dimensional, and cold. However, within a couple of hours after unpacking, this LP12 was already strutting its stuff. It sounded very open, fast, dynamic, and more direct, as if there were less electronics between you and the music. This was quite a bit different than what I was used to hearing. I was freshly reminded of the enduring qualities that make this table a classic. Still, at this early point, there wasn't much of a contest. I noticed those good things in the Black, but I couldn't wait to switch to the Brown. Brian suggested that I let the platter spin continuously for a weekend to burn the motor in. Otherwise, there were no recommendations regarding burn-in. I did that and also left the Linto and Lingo on. Nights later, when I listened again, the sound was warmer and more limber. Then I gave the Linn Silver interconnect three days of burn-in and heard a still warmer and fuller sound. Gradual improvements accrued over 3 - 4 weeks (maybe 35 hours) at which point the table stabilized. Now the contest became much harder to call. Especially with a jazz source, the attractive qualities I noticed right off made the Black a heavyweight contender.
Perhaps the best approach to honing in on the differences between the tables is to talk about recordings.
Do yourself a favor and get the Analogue Productions re-issue LP ofThe Alternate Blues [Pablo APR3010]. This has to be one of the top dozen jazz LPs on anyone's list. It presents the outtakes of a session featuring the trumpeters Clark Terry, Freddie Hubbard and Dizzy Gillespie taking turns with the standard blues chord progression. The tunes are supported by Oscar Peterson's uncharacteristically restrained piano work, Ray Brown's tasteful bass action and Bobby Durham's drum kit, which are heard in distinctly different locations on the stage. Rhythm and pace are superb; the foot-tapping meter is almost off the scale. Palpability that is as good as it gets.
"Alternate One," the first track, has Dizzy up first, defying gravity. The way he ascends into the nether treble regions reminds me of sports car advertisements that claim zero-to-sixty in four seconds. The initial transients of these huge leaps over the instrument's range should startle you. Then, about a minute or two into the track, Freddie takes over. The style of playing shifts radically. Where Dizzy startled, Freddie surprises. He plays around with the melody, bending notes inside out. With Black you hear him change his breath control to effect the note bending. The micro events that reveal this are something I've never heard before either on the LP or CD of this recording. Likewise, Dizzy's incredible trumpet leaps are larger. The dynamic responsiveness of the system and the speed of those responses have been ratcheted up. This speed, dynamic freedom and all those details give the impression that less editing is being done on the wealth of information in the vinyl as it is dished up for your delectation. The effect brings you closer to the performance, in the sense that what's coming out of the speakers is a good facsimile of what's in the grooves. Mind you, this includes all the tics, pops and other analog hallmarks. You are aware you are listening to an LP. And, by golly, the bass is deeper, more tuneful and punchier than what comes out of my digital front-end! This is also something new.
Now to the Brown. All the notes were there, and they sound very good, and the musical intent is certainly conveyed, but Freddy's technique is not revealed so clearly, and Dizzy's leaps aren't as startling. You don't have all the details available with the Black. What you do have is a smoother, more focused and controlled trumpet sound, which is much further back in the soundstage. It sounds very tuneful, a bit less raw. And the bass definitely isn't in the same league.
Next up, the Decca re-issue of Leonard Bernstein Mozart [Decca SET 332, 180 gram LP], with Lenny conducting the Vienna Philharmonic from the piano. I confess to liking this recording not so much for the performance, which is adequate, but for the full-bodied and muscular sound. In the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 15, the overall acoustic with the Brown resembles what you'd hear in a warm concert venue like a mid-orchestra seat at Carnegie Hall. There is a fair amount of blended sound spread across the stage and the full weight and dynamics of the chamber orchestra are heard. The piano has a nice shimmer to it. The strings get a little shrill at times, just as they do in life. The Black presents a wider stage. It gets big and fills the room. The string tone is good - somewhat darker, and not shrill. The acoustic sounds equally warm, but drier. There's less apparent hall acoustic. The piano sounds much closer - the notes are heard individually with less blended sound. Indeed, you'll see that this was a recurring difference between the tables.
The Reference Recordings LP of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring Suite [Reference Recordings RR22] presents the original version for thirteen instruments, with members of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra conducted by Keith Clark. This is the chamber version of the well-known piece scored for winds, strings and piano. The engineering is excellent, the performance is great, and the recording is very revealing of the textures of these instruments. On the Black, it sounds open, direct, lively and powerfully dynamic - sonically very pleasing.
The Brown is not as lively and you feel like there's more "stuff" between you and the sound. On the other hand, it sounds civilized and refined. The Brown has lots of overtone information, more warmth and conveys the musical intent wrapped in an emotion-laden casing. It's so relaxed and tasteful, you feel caressed. You're less aware of the medium and more attentive to the performance. Most importantly, it sounds musically centered. What I mean here is that the notes are focused and concentrated. If a B flat is being played, that is mostly what you hear, with an aura of overtones surrounding it. Musicians strive for this centered sound, which is considered evidence of superior playing. By comparison, the Black sounds somewhat raw. It gave equal weight to the fundamental note and the overtones, and consequently lacked that centered quality.
In addition, the Brown makes the sonic fingerprint of clarinet, bassoon and flute unmistakable: each sounds different, and there is no uncertainty regarding which instrument is playing. These things are extremely important with classical material. How do you get this "centered" quality? I found AC conditioning in particular to play a key role. I was able to swap the conditioning in and out of the Lingo, Linto and my AHT and dial in just the amount I wanted. I suspect tube electronics also contributes heavily.
Interestingly, there was a related difference in soundstage reproduction. To illustrate this I used track one on "Caverna Magica" from the Andreas Vollenweider album of the same name [CBS Records 37827]. In the first couple of minutes a man and a woman enter a cave, walk around, and converse in muted voices. You hear water dripping from the sidewalls and deep into the stage, which resolves the space, kind of like the depth tracks on some audiophile test CDs. Odd noises (like a bat flying) move from right to left. This track is a great diagnostic tool for soundstage resolution. It will tell all regarding dimensionality. If everything is dialed in just right, you will get a convincing illusion of being there. On the Brown, the claustrophobic atmosphere was resolved; you actually got that closed-in feeling. The Black gave you the acoustic cues of being in a cave, but never took the leap of suspending reality and psychologically transporting you. However, the track did reveal that the soundstage could have been wider with the Brown.
Next up, the famous audiophile recording Cantate Domino (original Proprius 7762, later released in a half-speed mastered version distributed by AudioSource). The title track is a contemporary composition featuring mixed choir, organ and brass instruments. Introductory blasts from the organ set a majestic tone. This climaxes in a small brass fanfare, followed by the muted entrance of the chorus. Spiritual and transcendent, you imagine yourself in a religious place. The music is fairly simply scored and consonant (i.e. not dissonant). On the Brown there is a noticeable change of musical color when the brass comes in and then again when the chorus comes in. The chorus feels intimately present. Then, at about four minutes into the piece, the singing swells, the organ continuo booms, and the trumpets really begin to blast. It's also at this point with the Brown that it all turns into distorted Jell-O. The strength of the crescendo is too much and produces break-up and distortion. I had thought this was a defective LP and had never heard the end of that track! I can play it straight through on the Black, and there is only the slightest hint of break-up.
I noticed the same thing with the Classic Records re-issue ofSatchmo Plays King Oliver [original Audio Fidelity ST-91058, the re-issue is 180 gram and 45 RPM speed]. Listen to "St. James Infirmary." Guarantee: you'll be in audio heaven. If anyone is unclear about the meaning of palpable presence, they need to hear this tune on a good table. Louis Armstrong does just what he's great at with a small backup band of sax and horns. I used to have to make excuses before playing this tune because all the crescendos distorted. But not when played on the Black. Later on, when I mixed the Black with my electronics, wires and component platform, breakup was banished from all my LPs. This primarily reflects the quality of the Ekos arm and its synergy with the Arkiv cartridge, but I think choice of a high quality component support is another big factor. This is interesting. It implies that much of what we call analog distortions may possibly be setup byproducts, or related to the arm/cartridge quality and interaction. I know I'll never assume that it's in the grooves again. First take that problematic LP to a rig with a really good analog front-end and see what happens.
You can see that this comparison is a pretty close match-up, in spite of the fact that there were big differences in the tables. Under the ideal circumstance of being able to immediately swap tables the differences were easily highlighted. There were aspects of both that were desirable. It is only because of my preference for classical fare that I preferred the Brown overall. It could easily go the other way if you listen mostly to jazz. The all-Linn rig made slightly more than half of the listeners tap their toes, and these were all jazz oriented, while the customized table held its own largely for the classical audience. Often visitors' opinions were quite strong, and sometimes in the course of a day we would hear both the Brown and the Black alternately trashed and extolled.
The Wish List
Let me sum up the strengths of the Black. First, there is the feeling of less electronics between you and the music. The presentation is open and direct, with robust dynamics, exceptional detail retrieval, and clarity. The Linn is known to go down deep, but I never thought bass response would rival my CD rig in terms of extension, power and tightness, not to mention tunefulness. A wider soundstage, plus exceptional rhythm and pace, round out the list. These are clearly virtues of the synergy among these products. It's quite a list, no? I would also include the overall neutrality. This last quality took some time to appreciate because I had grown so familiar with the allure of a romantic sound. What made me change my mind was that this neutrality came packaged with instrumental fullness and musicality, which are more typically associated with the romantic side. The neutrality probably comes from the Circus mod, which cleans up the upper bass response, and the Arkiv II cartridge, which is more linear than the AUDIOQUEST AQ7000 is in the same region.
Here's the good stuff first. This table sounds tonally rich, with more depth of tone and musical colors, especially on strings and winds. It's more controlled and refined, with that "centered" quality. Very civilized and sophisticated. The direct feeling with the Black has a downside -- there is also a kind of rawness, as if the source had not been scrubbed and artifacts removed. The Brown, on the other hand, seems cleaned up. The Brown makes you feel you're in Carnegie Hall. But this control and refinement is taken to an extreme, which results in a loss of immediacy. It sounds recessive and to a degree "veiled." This definitely gets between you and the performance.
My quest clarified. Was there a way to get the strengths of the Black mated with the sophistication and refinement of the Brown? In the end, I put together a new optimized analog rig comprised of the Black table with the Ekos arm and Arkiv II cartridge, and my existing electronics and wires. I reassessed my other tweaks and found they added something positive, so they remained. The only exception is the Lingo setup. This speed control is highly sensitive to accessories. I now find it doesn't like conditioning, or any of the isolation feet I tried. I'm now using a Harmonic Technology "Magic" power cord going straight into the wall.
The LP12 is a fabulous table right out of the box. Given about a month of regular use, it will sound world-class WITHOUT ANY TWEAKING! While not quite plug and play (it still requires an initial set-up), it will run maintenance free for years. You might indulge in a bi-annual check-up. The sound you'll get is neutral, full bodied, with a bias to the warm side (this is good), open, direct and dynamic. It won't surprise anyone to hear that a high-end table sounds more musical than CD. The treble is sweeter and more supple. The bass from the Ekos/Archiv II is actually better in every way than digital bass. The midrange of CD always has traces of hardness or coldness. Dynamic contrasts on LP are more credible.
Most people will probably leave well enough alone and stop here. If you do explore further, try adding a judicious amount of power conditioning. You'll get a more sophisticated sound, but you'll lose some of that direct feeling. It's a trade off. Of course, select wires can bring additional depth of tone and warmth, if you want. And electronics… well, the list goes on.
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