Linn Klimax DS network D/A processor Page 2
"You're good—you're very good"
That's why you'd want a Klimax DS. Listen to "Red Book"–quality files and you'll be happy, but you won't be getting better sound than with many other high-end CD players. Linn would argue that point—and perhaps they're right. Certainly, the DS sounded very much as good as I remember the CD12 sounding, which was about as good as "Red Book" gets—but that was another country, and besides, the wench is dead.
In any event, when I listened to FLAC files, such as Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler's All the Roadrunning (CD, Nonesuch 44154), the DS was easily the match of my current reference player, the Ayre C5-xe, delivering the smooth electric thrum of a tight rock band and the warmth and timbre of two of rock's most relaxed vocalists. That was my first impression—as time went by, I began to think that it was my Ayre that might almost match the Linn. No, there wasn't a night-and-day difference, layers weren't revealed in previously unsuspected places, and my room didn't magically "disappear"—but I did begin to feel that the music was more solidly present. When it came to coaxing "Red Book" digits into analog, the Klimax DS was definitely first-tier.
But get above "Red Book," even ever so slightly, and the Klimax came into its own. Linn had supplied the NAS drive with several demonstration tracks from their own recordings, but most of those revealed only the differences between MP3 and CD formats. I had no need of convincing on that front, so I went on a music hunt. My first score was a 24-bit/44.1kHz recording Len Moskowitz made of the early-music ensemble Angelica, using a pair of DPA 4023 microphones. Now you might think an extra 8 bits wouldn't mean that much, but comparing the 24-bit version of Toda Pulchra Est to the same track on the "Red Book" CD of Angelica's Sing We Nowell (footnote 3), I clearly heard more of the overtones from the handbells, and Angelica's voices floated within the church's acoustic with greater solidity.
Huge difference? In one sense, not colossal—yet every time I followed the 24-bit version with the 16-bit, I realized I was missing something I really, really wanted.
On to Linn's Studio Master downloads. Barb Jungr's cover of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?," from her Walking in the Sun (Studio Master 24-bit/44.1kHz FLAC download), was stunning, and not simply because it was audacious for a woman to record such a macho swagger song. It begins with tablas that simply pop into the room before being shoved along by a driving double bass that's all about power. Jungr enters breathlessly, a guitar chiming in—ching! —on the line "made out of human skulls." As Jungr continues, a piano enters, she calls and responds to herself, and a Hammond B3 choogles underneath.
Generally, recordings that build like that start out on a dynamic plane that remains more or less consistent no matter how many instruments are added. In real life, the more people are playing, the louder things get—more is more. And so it was with the Studio Master files. The tablas were life-sized and did not get smaller when the bass entered. The bass was big, but when Jungr came in, it didn't overpower her—quite the opposite—and with each addition the sound and the soundstaging grew.
Grew? Well, not really. Those tablas were in a large room all along, but tablas don't fill a room. An acoustic bass does—and when it entered, it was immediately apparent that we were in a large room, one that kept filling up as the song progressed.
Did I mention that it totally rocked? The band—and the Klimax DS—were slammin'.
Want a really big room? The Dunedin Consort's recording of the 1742 Dublin Version of Handel's Messiah (Linn Studio Master 24-bit/88.2kHz FLAC download) puts you in Edinburgh's Greyfriars Church, and trust me—you want to be there. The performance is spectacular, and the balance of instruments and voices is phenomenally clear and easy.
And oh—my—gosh—Clare Wilkinson's "He Was Despised" will just totally lay you out. I've heard many a Messiah—play brass in high school and you'll work for weeks every Christmas and Easter doing it in one church after another—and I wasn't sure anyone could ever make it sound new and fresh. Dunedin do. A huge part of that was the solidity of the sound, the way it was placed within the Greyfriars acoustic, and the complete lack of dynamic compression the Klimax DS revealed in the recording. I noted the same thing, of course, on Barb Jungr's Walking in the Sun, but it was even more apparent in an even bigger room. This is one of the most vivid ways that live music beats recordings, and the Klimax DS conveyed that sense of realism better than just about any component I have auditioned—at least when fed the high-octane stuff.
"The best goodbyes are short—adieu"
Unlike the format wars of SACD vs DVD-Audio and HD DVD vs Blu-ray, file downloading is finally heading toward acceptance. DRM seems to be on the way out, and full-sized and high-resolution options are proliferating. Even though my track record as a prophet is dismal, I predict that we audiophiles will soon be spoiled with a plethora of choices of legally available hi-rez downloads. Based on my experience with the Linn Klimax DS, I can't wait.
In the January issue I reviewed the McIntosh MS750, an all-in-one music server that included a burner drawer, hard drive, and an interface that was a joy to use. Too bad it didn't actually sound all that good without an external DAC. The Linn Klimax DS offers the opposite extreme: it's a one-trick pony saddled with the clunkiest interface I've experienced. However, that pony's trick is spectacularly good—so good that, God help me, I'm going to miss it.
I suspect that it's going to be a lot easier for Linn to find a software programmer than it's going to be for any other company else to find an electrical engineer up to taking digital to the Klimax DS's level. Other companies do offer hi-rez music servers, and they're all in the Klimax DS's price ballpark—and I hear through the grapevine that they haven't solved the interface problem either.
That brings us to the question of value, always a tricky one—my wallet isn't in your slacks, and vice versa. At $20,000, the Linn Klimax DS is about as good as digital gets. It's better, when playing hi-rez files, than any "Red Book" player I've heard. That has to count for something.
As more and more hi-rez downloads become available, the incentive to own a Klimax DS will increase. Audiophiles of a certain age will remember when new turntables, tonearms, and cartridges revealed musical details that had previously remained hidden in the grooves—and they'll also remember how addictive that experience was. "Red Book" CD hasn't given us nearly the same number of veils to remove, but hi-rez digital can. Or so the Klimax DS has me thinking.
Will that be enough to make the Klimax DS seem like a bargain? No, it will remain a niche product, an aspirational product—something that only audiophiles who care about owning the best would even consider. The rest of us punters will have to content ourselves with "almost as good." But we can always dream.
The Linn Klimax DS is the stuff that dreams are made of.
Footnote 2: The NAS drive supplied by Linn also had three USB 2.0 ports, to which you can plug a USB flash drive with music files on.—John Atkinson
Footnote 3: Available from Angelica, 765 N. Broadway #2E, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY 10706.