Linn Knekt Kivor hard-disk multizone music system Page 3
Although its fan was quiet, the Tunboks' whirring drives proved too noisy to permit it to take up residence in my listening room. Fortunately, the system's use of readily available and inexpensive Cat.5 Ethernet cable to carry the four two-channel AES/EBU digital data outputs came in handy. Linn's Alistair Steel sent me a 50' length of cable terminated with the necessary RJ-45 connectors so that I could install the Tunboks in my measurement lab down the hall, but site the Oktal in one of my regular component racks.
I had wanted to get a handle on the Tunboks' performance on its own by feeding one of its AES/EBU outputs to one of my reference D/A processors. I had also wanted to use the Tunboks to drive the Meridian DSP8000 active speakers I reviewed last month, as this would have been the ultimate minimal high-end system. With their digital data inputs, the only components that needed to be present in my listening room would have been the speakers!
This, of course, involved having to terminate one of the four twisted-cable pairs in the Cat.5 cable with an XLR. Unfortunately, even though I made sure I had soldered the correct pair of cables and I could get third-party D/A processors to lock to the datastream, I couldn't get any sound. Feeding the datastream to the AES/EBU input of an RME Digi96/8 Pro PCI soundcard and analyzing with RME's DIGICheck program indicated that the Tunboks' output data were flagged as "Non-Audio."
However, I could drive the Oktal's S/PDIF input with other digital sources than the Tunboks, allowing me to perform legitimate comparisons with other processors. I therefore fed both the Oktal and the $799 Perpetual Technologies P-3A (one of Stereophile's "Budget Components of 2001") from the Mark Levinson No.31.5 CD transport. I matched the two processors' output levels at 1kHz, so as not to be misled by the 1.7dB difference in output levels.
Overall, the Linn DAC consistently had a slightly lightweight balance, though the presentation was free from treble grain. The Oktal's soundstage was wide and deep. Though centrally placed images, such as Yo-Yo Ma's cello in the Aria from Bach's Goldberg Variations from Simply Baroque II (Sony Classical SK 60681), clearly stood a little forward in the image via the Oktal, the American DAC's presentation was slightly more ambient, with more depth apparent. The spatial relationship between Branford Marsalis's soprano saxophone and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on the transcription of the "Pie Jesu" from Fauré's Requiem (Sony Classical SK 89251) was just that little bit more clear via the P-3A.
On the other hand, the Oktal moved slightly ahead of the P-3A on HDCD material. Eiji Oue's superb recording of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde—one of Reference Recordings' (RR-88CD) continuing series of great recordings of the Minnesota Orchestra—swooped and soared in the appropriate manner, and the trombone pedal notes in "Der Abschied" sounded almost as ominously awesome as I had heard. (The megabux Levinson No.30.6 still wins here.)
Turning to the Tunboks/Oktal combination, this offered the same somewhat light balance compared with the Levinson/P-3A. More significantly, the Oktal's low frequencies took on a slightly less "tight" character with the Tunboks as the data source than they had with the Levinson transport. But the sound still rocked. Stanley Clarke's double-bass solo on "Nevermind," from Test CD 3 (Stereophile STPH006-2), had a physical presence in the listening room, and even raw rock like Tool's Lateralus (Volcano 31160-2) communicated effectively—perhaps helped by this disc's being HDCD-encoded. (This CD has great-sounding bass guitar and drums!)
Comparing the Tunboks with the Technics DVD-A10 DVD-Audio player as data sources driving the Oktal, however, there was little contest on CDs. The Technics' presentation was flatter, less involving. (I had hooked up the Technics to hear how the Oktal handled 24-bit/96kHz datastreams from Classic and Chesky DVD-Video discs, but it wouldn't lock.)