Linn Ekos tonearm Page 3

First, what groove noise there was seemed quieter than with the Ittok. You might remember from my review of the Nitty Gritty Hybrid record-cleaning machine in March that I noted that a noticeable effect of vacuum cleaning was to reduce the granularity of the background noise. The difference between the two arms was similar, the Ekos's cleaner background allowing instruments to stand forward from the silence just that little bit more three-dimensionally. With a naturally miked recording of a single instrument—the new recording of violinist Arturo Delmoni made by Kavi Alexander for loudspeaker manufacturer Apogee Acoustics, for example—the effect was to lift the entire system that essential bit closer to the live experience. Yes, you are still gazing into the concert-hall acoustic through a rectangular window, but someone just replaced the glass with optically flat quartz. The differences between instrumental tonal identities seemed therefore more extreme—and more real.

Second, the system seemed to be able to play louder. The effect of resonant colorations is insidious in that they tend to determine your chosen listening level. You turn the music up until it starts to sound unnatural, even unpleasant, at which point you back off the gain. The difference between the Ekos and the Ittok seems fundamentally to lie in this area. You can listen at a louder, more lifelike level without feeling anything like the same sense of strain, something particularly important with the many recordings that have been desecrated by a heavy hand on the mixing console.

Of all the recordings in my collection, my favorites are those made live. And of all those live recordings, one of my musical favorites is a younger, 1972 Aretha Franklin singing gospel in LA's New Temple Missionary Baptist Church (Amazing Grace, Atlantic SD 2-906). Fundamentally, the engineers have adopted a documentary approach to recording the sound. The choir is set well back in the ambient bloom, but well-focused nevertheless, and the drums, bass, organ, and piano have that ease to their sound that suggests suitably distant miking, yet done with enough intelligence that the acoustic power of the instruments communicates. But why, oh why, did they feel the need to mike Aretha, the woman with V-8, four-valve-per-cylinder, fuel-injected vocal chords, so closely? And why, then, with her voice given no room to breathe, did they mix it so loud that at anything other than high playback volumes, everyone else seems to be peeking over her admittedly ample shoulders? But then—the real crime—they used a mike for her voice that has one of the most forward, colored midranges I have ever heard, so that when you do play the recording at a level where you can hear past Aretha into the rest of the church, the sound becomes a textbook example of how bad mikes can really sound (footnote 1). "Produced by Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin, and Aretha Franklin" it says on the sleeve. I can only assume that Aretha was so overawed by the track record of two of Atlantic's main men that she didn't like to complain about the disservice paid her talent in the engineering.

This recording is therefore a great acid test—the gross levels of midrange energy excite just about every resonance in the audio chain. If I can stand to play it loud, therefore, without being driven from the room by the quality of Aretha's voice, I know that something good is happening. It was just this recording that proved to me the excellence of the SME V, for example. Her voice was still too loud, and was still colored. But those facts could now be duly noted and ignored. I had exactly the same experience with the Ekos with Amazing Grace. Yes, Aretha was loud. And yes, you hear that her mike was a piece of cardioid garbage. But, oh, the music! Wherever this arm does have its first resonance (and Martin Colloms will be writing a technical follow-up to this review in the near future), it certainly sounds to be above the critical midrange where it will be excited by such an overcooked vocal recording as this one. Plus on the Linn, the Ekos bass was considerably tighter, better defined in time, than with the SME when mounted on the Linn.

Third, the Troika seemed to track better in the Ekos than in the Ittok. The Ittok is already pretty good at allowing styli to stay in contact with the groove walls, but there was just that bit better sense of security at climaxes involving boys' voices, for example. The Ekos gives the cartridge a more stable platform against which its generator can referenced. Finally, low frequencies were even tighter in quality than with the Ittok—and you know how I feel about that aspect of reproduction.

It has been one of the ironies of audio that two of the best British LP-playing components, the always musical Linn Sondek LP12 and the always neutral SME V, don't work well together. The SME is clearly less colored in the low treble than the Linn Ittok, lacking the Scottish arm's upper-midrange "zing," but in combination with the LP12 it endows low frequencies with a heavy, "slow" character to the bass which impedes the music's flow. With the Ekos, Linn Products has shown that they can produce an arm to rival the SME in overall lack of coloration, but which will work in harness with the LP12 to produce a sound of stunning neutrality. In a Sondek-based system, the Ekos will allow a cartridge to give of its musical best, and I can confidently recommend it to all LP12/Ittok owners who have been worrying that modern arm technology has been passing them by. Linn's new Ekos is a true Class A pickup arm!

With what seems like singularly bad timing, I suffered my first-ever reliability problem with a Linn Sondek just as I sat down to write this report. While strictly not relevant to my review conclusions, editorial policy insists that I communicate what happened. I finished my evening's listening, took off the record, pressed the button to stop the platter rotating, and went to bed. The next morning, I got up, made coffee, put on a record, pressed the button—nothing. No little red light. Rien. A record sitting resolutely still. On went more than a few CDs while I sat disconsolately tapping at the keys of the Toshiba.

Finally, I plucked up the nerve to set the LP12 up on the jig and disinter the Valhalla board, replacing it with the older one from my own Linn. Success. Now I could have music again, but it seemed odd, as there were no signs of overcooked resistors on the inoperative board, the fuse was intact, and the DC voltages seemed to be in the right place. The problem was nothing that a Linn dealer could not have solved in a matter of minutes, but it puzzled me nonetheless. A Linn breaking down is like watching Dwight Gooden walking seven men in a game: it just doesn't happen.

Footnote 1: I know I've mentioned this recording before in the pages of Stereophile, but the enormity of the engineering strikes me anew every time I listen to it. I mean, I wouldn't care if it were Tiffany, or Whitney Houston.
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