Linn Knekt Kivor hard-disk multizone music system

My friend Ed (not necessarily his name) used to be an audiophile. Ed had a great-sounding pair of floorstanding Joseph speakers, optimally placed so as to create a magic soundstage when he sat in the sweet spot. His component rack featured such famous high-end names as Mark Levinson, Meridian, and Z-Systems. But then Ed went DSL and discovered MP3s. Pretty soon, he was hanging as many hard drives on his PC as he could manage. His Josephs and his Levinson CD player gathered dust. Ed was enjoying his music sitting in front of his high-end Dell, with an active NHT Pro mini on either side of the monitor.

When I visited him a few months back, Ed was jazzed over how easy it was to access his music. He could play albums on his PC the old-fashioned way, one at a time, calling up the cover art and track information. But he could also use the computer as a database manager, compiling playlists from his MP3 collection. With his music stored as intangible bits on his PC's drives, Ed had total control of his music in a way that an ordinary 'phile, tied to a physical medium like CD, can only dream of. As I sat next to him, drinking in his enthusiasm, I envied Ed for recapturing the excitement I'd felt in the 1960s, when I would catalog and cross-reference all my LPs and open-reel tapes on 3x5" index cards.

But...MP3s? Ed may have traded in his audiophile credentials for new ones as a music lover, but I ventured the opinion that that was a heck of a price to pay. "MP3s're good enough," he said. And for him, they were and are. But as impressed as I was by the marriage of PC and music, I don't want to pay that price. I've fooled around with MP3 encoders enough to deeply distrust what they do to the music. When I've compared my own recordings to MP3s ripped at the usual 128kbps, the results have been cartoon versions of the originals—all the image solidity, the sound's palpability, replaced by flat, textureless pastiches. Increasing the data rate to 256kbps gives a better impression of what was meant to be heard, but reduces the data compression to 5:1, which results in files a little too big for easy downloading.

Then I got a press release about Scottish company Linn's Knekt Kivor music-on-demand system, based on a server with tens of gigabytes of hard-disk space. Yes, it can be used to store MP3s. But the Kivor offers its owner the option of storing CDs in uncompressed form. I could have my cake and eat it too.

The Knekt Kivor consists of three discrete components. The Kivor Tunboks is the heart of the system. A big black or silver box, it has a slot on the front for access to its CD-R drive, under which is a scoop accent softly illuminated in blue. Inside is space for up to 11 high-capacity hard-disk drives from IBM. The sample I tried had two hard drives, each capable of storing 124 hours of uncompressed music data. When a Tunboks is maxed out with drives, the total storage is an astounding 57 days, 7 hours of uncompressed CD-quality music.

Linn makes much in their literature of a proprietary PCI soundcard designed by Linn specifically for the Knekt Kivor. I say "soundcard," but the Kivor PCI Musik Machine has only digital inputs and outputs. While these conform electrically to the usual AES/EBU balanced specification, they use 8-pin RJ-45 jacks, which resemble slightly larger phone jacks and are familiar to anyone who has networked his or her computers with Ethernet connections. There are two RJ-45s for data output, each one handling four pairs of stereo channels. A third RJ-45 (not activated on the review sample) gives four pairs of data inputs. The Tunboks can hold two Musik Machines, giving 16 stereo output channels.

To my surprise, when I looked behind the Kivor Tunboks, in addition to the RJ-45 jacks used by the Musik Machine card I found a full set of computer I/O sockets: keyboard, mouse, monitor, modem, RS-232, Ethernet, and USB. The server is, in fact, an AMD Duron-based PC running the Linux operating system, as I found when I booted it up with keyboard, mouse, and monitor attached.

The Tunboks feeds its digital music data to the Kivor Oktal D/A processor via inexpensive Cat.5 cable, this using four twisted pairs of conductors and offering a 100MHz bandwidth when correctly terminated. As well as two RJ-45 jacks to handle the eight AES/EBU signals, there are eight S/PDIF data inputs on RCA jacks and, of course, eight pairs of analog outputs, again on RCAs. The Oktal can detect and decode HDCD datastreams, the eight green LEDs to the right of the front panel indicating when one or more of the input signals is HDCD-encoded.

There is also a pair of analog inputs feeding an A/D converter. The sensitivity of these can be adjusted with the top and bottom silver buttons to the left of the front panel (the left and right buttons allow the left and right channels to be adjusted independently). Two columns of four LEDs indicate left and right analog signal levels. However, the analog inputs were not operational on my Oktal review sample; the necessary software not yet written.

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MikeMaine's picture

Or you can buy a Mac

CuteStudio's picture

... that you can run the SeeDeClip4 multiuser music server on a regular, noisy PC in the spare room and access and/or control the music using any modern gadget like a Chromebook, tablet, iPad etc.

This makes the choice of client easy - there's lots of cheap alternatives and an iPad can be hooked up to Toslink using an Apple TV or Airport Express etc.

The free version does a lot more than you'd think, it's a complete home audio solution.

JonGreen's picture

A little late to the table(!), but thanks for an excellent, well-balanced review.

I was the systems architect of the Imerge SoundServer, which was rebadged (with some enhancements) as Linn's Kivor. I also designed the XiVA-Link communications protocol, and worked with Linn's Alan Clark (designer of the iconic Sondek CD12) on the S/PDIF hardware and drivers: Alan did most of the hardware work; I assisted in some of the FPGA firmware, and write the drivers.

I can confirm the accuracy of just about everything reported here. During 2000, both SoundServer and Kivor were going through a series of rapid evolutions. Towards the end of 2001, the products were settling down.

I'm a little surprised that they were reported as being MP3-only, though. One of the key selling points for audiophiles was that both products were able to rip and play uncompressed audio. This is why SoundServer (and, I believe, Kivor) came with up to 1.1 TB of storage - a massive amount at the time - configured as eleven 100 GB drives. It ran hot and heavy (and, yes, a bit noisy), but had enough elbow room to accommodate a lot of raw audio.

It was true that we only had one genre allocated to a track or album. This was partly because of the limited information we received from Gracenote. I always felt that having more than one genre per item in the database would be a good thing, but I was over-ruled. Apart from anything else, it would have made genre-based searches substantially slower, for a bunch of technical reasons it's not worth going into here. I think that if we'd done it today, we'd have used a noSQL database such as MongoDB or Couchbase, so we could have had the flexibility to enhance with additional fields such as user-assigned genres or arbitrary tags.

Anyway, thanks again. Great memories, revisiting that part of my career!