Linn LK1 preamplifier & LK280 power amplifier Page 3
Finally, a point that came up in my review of the Hafler Iris last month was the possibility that alien remote controls might inadvertently trigger false responses. I fired every infra-red remote I could lay my hands on at the LK1 and pressed every button. Nothing. No reaction. Like the Hafler, the LK1 is probably burst-proof in this respect, therefore. One thing did occasionally intrude, which was that changing the volume occasionally produced a faint background of soft clicks, especially at low volume levels, as the resistor ladder changed its overall value. This, of course, ceased when the volume had been set to the desired level. (For those concerned about such things, it appears to take about 12 seconds for the volume control to go from full down to full up.)
LK280 Against the Adcom
Comparing the LK280 with the Adcom GFA-555 proved interesting in that the two are almost typical examples of their pedigrees. The Linn is archetypically British—oops, almost said English—in that it is as physically small as its designers have managed to make it, and is relatively low-powered, in terms of output voltage swing if not of current delivery. Finished in plain black, with rounded edges, it completely lacks features, its sophistication all internal. It uses bipolar output transistors with a fully regulated power supply. To manufacture the LK280 and its cousin preamplifier, Linn Products established a new automated factory on a green-field site in Scotland.
The Adcom is as American as apple pie in that it is large, is intended for 19" rack-mounting, has sharp edges to its enclosure and heatsink fins, is very powerful, and, in my opinion, is ostentatiously styled, considering that it too is finished in black. While not as full-featured as some designs, it does include distortion-monitoring LEDs, and the ability to be transformed into a bridged-mono amplifier. The Adcom features a muscular but unregulated power supply with some 60,000µF of capacity. Perhaps sadly, it is also typically American in that, although designed in the US—I understand that Nelson Pass had a hand in its creation—I believe the GFA-555 is actually manufactured in the Far East (footnote 1).
The sounds of these two amplifiers are extremely different, perhaps also typifying the difference between the two schools of design. The Adcom packs a tremendous wallop in the bass, with noticeably more extension than the Linn. Bass guitar and bass drum had considerable impact, whereas they were more polite via the Scottish amplifier. The highs, too, were different, the Adcom either being clearer or too bright, depending on your taste, the LK280 softer, less lifted up in the top octave. For my tastes, however, the American amplifier comes over as being a little too brash, too forceful, with less detail resolved despite the impression of clarity.
Take Thomas Dolby's Aliens Ate My Buick (EMI Manhattan CDP-7 48075-2). The first track, "The Key To Her Ferrari," is an involved production, with just about everything, even the unmistakable voice of Robin Leach, thrown into the mix. Via the Adcom, you are struck by the sheer forcefulness of it all, the power of the bass and the clarity of the highs. But through the LK280, though it doesn't sound as "loud" (even with levels matched exactly), there is actually more detail apparent, presented more subtly. Buried in among everything in the intro to the crazed, quasi-technoswing arrangement are what sound like bongo drums. They are quite audible on the GFA-555 but are not well-differentiated when it comes to determining their position. The Linn presents the bongos with just a little more space around them.
In fact, it was this ability to better differentiate small details within complicated mixes that ultimately decided my preference for the LK280. Elsewhere in the arrangement, Dolby talks us through the subject of his obsession—"And then I saw her...she was a bright red '64 GTO with fins and gills, like...some obscene phallic symbol on wheels..."—his voice accompanied by pitch-shifted clones. Again, the Linn amp better differentiated the distinction between the original voice and those clones.
But again I must point out that this preference will be an individual affair. My wife Laura agreed with me on the nature of the differences between the two power amplifiers but preferred the Adcom for its clearer high frequencies, its "less muddled" presentation, and its greater bass weight. Me, I had to disagree. The stunning performance from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the not-widely-enough-known Requiem by the French composer Duruflé (Telarc CD-80135, coupled with the Fauré Requiem) just had more of a three-dimensional quality via the Linn, even though the Adcom underpinned the choir and orchestra with the organ pedals that much more effectively. In addition, the GFA-555's more forward upper treble seemed to accentuate what can best be described as a "fffy" quality that hangs over the strings on this recording.
It was the Linn by a nose, in my opinion.
I also briefly compared the LK280 with the original LK2. No contest. The newer amplifier, while still laid-back, perhaps a little polite, is fundamentally musical, while the LK2 is, well, typically solid-state, that "gray" coloration overlaying everything to the detriment of the musical flow. You should note, by the way, that the LK280 runs extremely hot. If you intend to hide it in a cupboard, be sure it has sufficient ventilation.
The Sound: Together
Then I hooked up the pair as a system.
Odd. From all my auditioning of the individual components and my notes on the individual aspects of sound quality, I had expected that, in harness, the sound from CD would be best served by the combination. Yet with CD, it seemed that the rather restricted image depth offered by the LK1's line stage failed to be compensated for by the LK280's good performance in this area. With LP as source, however, there was depth aplenty. The sound was "typically British" in that it lacked extension at the band edges, with restricted low bass and rather dull highs, but the music as a whole flowed, even bopped, with a powerful presentation of upper-bass and tenor instruments, cello and bass guitar, for example. I got the impression that the complete Linn LP-playing system and the Linn amps formed a synergistic combination.
No, it still didn't approach the sheer refinement coupled with musical verisimilitude offered by the (much more expensive) Vendetta/Mod Squad/Krell combination that has evolved into being my reference. But there was a rightness to the sound of the Linn combination driving the Celestion SL700s that led night after night to one LP following another. Whether it was Prince's Purple Rain (Warner Bros. 25110-1), Randy Newman's curiously evocative score to The Natural (Warner Bros. 25116-1), or the Rostropovich performance of the solo Britten cello suites (Decca/London SXL 6393)—to name three records that followed in quick succession the night I finished tapping out this review on the keys of the trusty Toshiba laptop—the overall sound was musically "right."
Exquisitely made but unusually styled, Linn's LK1 and LK280 can be used as stand-alone pre- and power amplifiers. I imagine, however, that they will almost always be used as a pair, due to the idiosyncratic XLR connectors, the '280's low input impedance, and, last but not least, the fact that they do appear to form a musically synergistic partnership. As Len Feldman said in the April 1989 Audio, perhaps the LK1 and LK280 should be regarded as a two-chassis integrated amplifier. But at $2545 total, this is one expensive integrated amplifier, and it is fair to point out that the hairshirt audiophile can achieve better performance in at least one of the separate areas of sound reproduction by carefully choosing separate, "universal" preamps and power amps. (Use Stereophile's biannual "Recommended Components" listings as a starting point.)
Achieving greatness in one area of reproduction at the expense of others is not necessarily the best way of achieving musical satisfaction, however, and the LK1/LK280 scores in its ability to present a satisfyingly whole sound. The combination is not so much intended for audioholics who need to mix'n'match components on a monthly basis, but for music lovers who require "Fit and Forget" high-quality amplification.
Footnote 1: Read Fred Warshofsky's The Chip War (Scribner's, New York, 1989) for a fascinating if disturbing account of how the US consumer electronics and semiconductor industries reacted to Far Eastern competition by deciding not to compete at all. See also The Economist, May 20, 1989, p.91, for a frank discussion of the same subject.