Linn Abandons CD Players

On November 19, Scottosh manufacturer Linn Products held a press conference in London to announce that it was forthwith ceasing the production of CD players, and effectively replacing them by its new DS-series "digital streaming" components in its product portfolio.

Such a bold and radical decision requires elaboration. As the first major specialist hi-fi brand to announce such an exit strategy, the shock value of the announcement is clearly designed attract maximum media publicity. But it's also very much a statement of intent, and represents Linn's firm belief that digital streaming represents the future of hi-fi "beyond CD."

Linn certainly believes in digital home music reproduction, but considers that the streaming of flexible format digital audio material via home networks, rather than CD's rigidly fixed format, now makes much more sense.

Linn's Managing Director, Gilad Tiefenbrun, explained that when developing its first digital streaming component, the Klimax DS, the company found that its performance was actually significantly better than its equivalent top-of-the-line Sondek CD12 CD player. The elimination of the disc drive and the totally solid-state construction and operation of the DS streamer seemed to provide a positive benefit. Add to that the future flexibility an "open source" DS component should have in coping with whatever digital formats might come along in the future, and it's clear that, for computer-literate people at least, the DS approach has some obvious advantages over the CD player.

Linn's DS players have no display (GUI), no hard drive, and no CD drawer. They're simply an elegant box stuffed with solid-state electronics which links up to the home network. The music source is typically an external hard drive of some kind (called a NAS by those in the know), and music selection and operation may be controlled by a variety of graphic interface devices (eg, lap-top, PC, PDA, iPhone etc.). And because the various DS devices all operate under "open-source" software protocols, long term future proofing and compatibility with the widest possible range of other devices should be assured.

There's no disputing the fact that younger people in particular see music primarily as a computer-based and increasingly downloaded resource. Linn considers that its DS approach will provide a "bridge" which will bring real hi-fi to this computer music generation, and potentially provide a digital audio platform on a par (or even superior to) vinyl.

Linn backs up its decision with some interesting statistics. From its own point of view, over the last two years it has seen its CD player sales decline by 40% (by volume), while its DS component sales have increased by a similar 40%. Admittedly the latter is from a fairly small base, and covers a period when the range of DS players available increased substantially, but it's nonetheless significant that the six DS players now account for nearly 30% of Linn's total sales.

Its record label also supplies some interesting data. Whereas CD sales have declined by 17% over the last two years, downloads are up by 24% and now represent more than 50% of Linn Records sales. Furthermore, of the releases available as "high resolution" Studio Master recordings, 70% are downloaded at maximum resolution, 25% at CD resolution, and just 5% as MP3s.

Overall statistics for the music market as a whole reflect the same trend, also showing CD sales declining steadily while downloads, even for albums, are growing by similar percentages. Admittedly downloads are still only around 10% of the album total (whereas singles sales are now totally download-dominated), the pattern is clear enough.

At the press meeting, Linn demonstrated its top Klimax DS-based system to good effect. However, a few weeks earlier I'd visited Brian Pook (ex-MD of Rogers, who'd spent the last 25 years building a furniture-stripping business, until the EEC decided to outlaw the necessary chemicals), who has now set himself up as a home-based Linn DS dealer, not far from where I live. Apart from enjoying the reunion, I got to hear the much less costly Majik DS system, and was sufficiently impressed to want to try the Linn DS approach in my own home system context. (After many years' experience I still resolutely refuse to make value judgements outside my familiar home environment.) I'm now waiting for the opportunity.

Happily, Linn is continuing to support vinyl, not only through its latest Sondek LP12 upgrades (Keel subchassis/armboard, Radikal DC motor), but also through reintroducing vinyl versions of some of its records. Ultimately it sees the future of hi-fi as a mixture of vinyl and digital streaming, with both types of hardware having the same upgrade potential.

Furthermore one must acknowledge some consistency in the company's stance. In the furore that accompanied the introduction of CD, and Linn's openly critical hostility to the new format, I can well recall founder Ivor Tiefenbrun (Gilad's father) stating that CD was merely an "interim" format that wouldn't last for very long, and that vinyl would be back in 25 years. I hope he's too big a man to say: "I told you so!"