Linn Karik/Numerik CD player Page 4

Well, how does the long-awaited Linn CD Player sound?

Like no other digital processor I've auditioned. The Linn's musical presentation was very different from those of other digital products. In a nutshell, it was gentle, smooth, intimate, delicate, and had a remarkable sense of ease.

One of the first presentation aspects to strike me about the Linn was its laid-back character. The music was set back between and behind the loudspeakers rather than thrust forward. The word "vivid," used to describe some digital processors' presentations, certainly didn't apply to the Linn. There was a gentleness and analog-like ease that was somehow different from other digital products I've heard. Even compared to the Audio Research DAC1-20, a very musical and laid-back processor, the Linn was much more gentle and "un-hi-fi" sounding. More on this later.

The Linn's tonal balance and portrayal of instrumental textures was unusual—with good and bad aspects. I'll start with the good. The treble was perhaps the smoothest and most natural I have heard from digital replay. The high-frequency hash, glare, and steely hardness that often characterize digital were notably absent. Instead, the treble was velvety smooth, gentle, and soft, yet rich in detail. The entire high-frequency presentation seemed to take a step back, with a warmth and lushness that invited the listener into the music. There was a palpable feeling of relaxation and ease when listening to the Linn—like good analog.

This soft treble rendering resulted in a more natural portrayal of high-frequency-rich instrumental textures. There was a complete lack of edge, grain, and bite. Cymbals were smooth and "brass-like" rather than overlaid with a white-noise-like grain. Sax was round and smooth instead of thin and edgy. I found these characteristics an asset on the majority of recordings. With some music, however, I missed the sense of immediacy and palpability heard through the DAC1-20. On Dick Hyman Plays Fats Waller (Reference Recordings RR-33CD), for example, the sound of the Bösendorfer's hammers hitting the strings and the piano's transient characteristics were somewhat muted and less realistic through the Linn. (I listened extensively to the live piano when this recording was made.) There was a softness to the treble that "rounded the edges" of the piano's upper registers.

I noticed a trend concerning which music was better served by the Linn, which by the DAC1-20: naturally recorded purist CDs could sound a little lacking in life through the Linn, while the vast majority of overly bright and strident recordings made with peaky condenser microphones and brittle electronics benefited from the Linn's softer tonal balance.

The Linn had a somewhat light and dry mid and upper bass. There was less sense of warmth and roundness, resulting in a thinner presentation. Bass lines made less of a musical contribution, often becoming less distinct. I preferred the DAC1-20's bass presentation to the Linn's on virtually all recordings. Bass lines were more distinct and palpable through the DAC1-20, adding to a sense of weight and fullness. Paradoxically, the Linn had more extension and power in the low bass (below 60Hz) than the DAC1-20. Kick drum had more of the lowermost component through the Linn (an impression heard only with the Muse subwoofer), and slightly more punch. Neither processor, however, had the rock-solid, driving power and bass tightness exemplified by the Wadia or Theta processors.

The Linn's soundstage didn't have the huge, sculpted quality sometimes heard from the best processors and transports. Instead, it was smaller, intimate, and less dramatic. On small groups—jazz quartets and chamber music--this rendering was more realistic (Water Music (Harmonia Mundi 907010) and McCoy Tyner's New York Reunion (Chesky JD51), for example). Image outlines were less sharply defined, instead having a gentler perspective. The contrast between "light and shadow" was less vivid. The Linn's ability to spatially separate disparate musical lines, however, was superb. The synthetic homogeneity often heard from digital was replaced by a sense of individual instruments in real space. The sax and flugelhorn during the ensemble playing in one of my own jazz recordings were well differentiated. Some processors tend to blur these instruments into something other than a sax and flugelhorn playing the same parts. In this regard, the Linn was one of the best processors auditioned. The Linn also excelled in keeping individual instruments' timbres distinct, a quality described later.

Overall, I grew to enjoy the Linn's soundstage presentation. It wasn't a huge, three-dimensional picture window on the music, but it was natural, intimate, and successfully conveyed most recordings' musical values. Some may prefer a more "Technicolor" rendering, however.

Similarly, transients didn't have a razor-sharp quality. Instead, dynamics were softer and slightly rounded. On some recordings I preferred this gentler rendering. On others, the Linn could sound a little too soft and lacking in life. On the previously mentioned Fats Waller disc, the piano lost that transient edge that is part of the instrument's sound.

I've saved the Linn's best characteristics for last: There was superb resolution of natural timbres, and the ability to distinguish between similar-sounding instruments. Some digital processors have a synthetic character that tends to homogenize and blur the subtle textural distinctions between instruments. The Linn resolved the finely woven fabric of instrumental textures and allowed the natural character to emerge. Solo instruments benefited from this quality: Acoustic bass sounded more like acoustic bass, sax sounded more like a sax. This impression held true for virtually every instrument. Listen, for example, to the acoustic bass and vocal rendition of "Round Midnight" on Kenny Rankin's new Chesky CD, Because of You (Chesky JD63). The bass had more "bassness" and the vocal was more complexly textured and filled with nuance. This surprising sense of realism held for every recording I listened to. This was perhaps a primary reason why I enjoyed the Linn so much: The music was natural and right, not sterile and mechanical.

The clock's the thing
Auditioning the Linn gave me an opportunity to hear the difference between how conventional transports and processors are connected (a single cable) and Linn's technique of locking the transport to the processor with a separate synchronization link. Because the Numerik can be used without this sync cable (to make it compatible with other transports), it was possible to just pull the sync cable while the music was playing and then plug it back in. It was fascinating to hear what the minimization of clock jitter means to the music.

In the aforementioned Kenny Rankin track, for example, the image outlines became flat and smeared across the soundstage without the sync cable. The bass lost its round liquidity and sounded "ordinary." There was a reduction in clarity and transparency. The vocal became less finely woven. Instrumental textures became less realistic. The entire presentation just became less believable and involving.