Linn Arkiv B phono cartridge

Ten years ago, I'd probably have got pretty good odds from industry insiders on a bet that Stereophile would still be reviewing phono cartridges into the new millennium. Linn's Arkiv B may not be a brand-new design—I heard my first sample in mid-1997—but phono-cartridge technology is about as stable as anything in hi-fi today. This Stereophile review is long overdue.

Furthermore, this review addresses a complaint often directed against reviews and reviewers: that we rarely spend enough time with a component to gain a properly balanced, long-term perspective. While a couple of days might be enough to get a pretty good handle on a pair of beer-budget bookshelf speakers, I'd rather have weeks or even months to get properly acquainted with the serious stuff.

In the case of the Linn Arkiv B, that acquaintance has now lasted more than two years. In fact, my first example (serial #5166, from 1997) was showing signs of wear by the middle of 1999. The need to replace it (with serial #5675) provided the original impetus to do this review.

My history as a user of Linn cartridges goes back some 20 years. Way back in the mid-'70s, to partner its Sondek LP12 turntable, Linn was importing Grace 707 tonearms and Supex 900 low-output moving-coil (MC) cartridges into Britain at a time when everyone else was using high-output, high-compliance moving-magnet (MM) types like the Shure V-15 III.

Those Supexes started the whole moving-coil revival bandwagon rolling in Britain. The MMs seemed to hold all the cards: higher (voltage) output, better compatibility with existing preamps, lower cost, better tracking abilities, and easy stylus replacement. But a few renegades (including yrs trly) insisted that the MCs simply sounded better...when they weren't mistracking.

The pros and cons were fiercely debated at the time, but in my view, the apparent disadvantages of MCs were often misunderstood, and some of their strengths were overlooked. MC cartridges were harder to build, required more precise engineering, and therefore cost more. Their fixed styli were a positive boon to the cartridges' mechanical integrity, while their stiff compliance, though limiting trackability, also reduced subsonic intermodulation effects. They also fed more mechanical energy into tonearms that had much less structural rigidity than do today's best arms, which often compromise an MC cartridge's ability to perform at its best.

Today in Britain, the MC is the unquestioned king. Of 184 currently available cartridges listed in the UK's Hi-Fi Choice magazine, 46% are MCs, that proportion rising to 68% of the 115 models costing more than £100 ($160).

Turntables, tonearms, and cartridges are mechanically interdependent, so improving one element often allowed the others to follow. The Supex 900 begat the Linn-badged, Supex-sourced Asak, as Linn began to nudge the MC's design evolution. The Asak then begat the Karma, whose alloy body considerably improved structural integrity, and this in turn begat the three-legged Troika, which attended to the structural integrity of the cartridge/headshell interface.

The Troika was the last of the Supex-sourced line, and some enthusiasts still regret its passing, but I am not among them. The 1992 Arkiv might not have looked or sounded as romantic as its lovely red predecessor, but its open neutrality and superior dynamics won me over from the start. Despite outward appearances, the core elements (coils, cantilever, stylus) of the Troika and Arkiv were essentially the same, the main change being that the magnetic stator and cantilever bearing were now mounted directly onto a machined T-bar backplate, without the phenolic interface used by Supex.

At each step in the evolution from the Supex 900 to the Arkiv, Linn took specific steps to improve the structural integrity of the cartridge's stator assembly, yet continued to use the same basic aluminum-alloy cantilever, at a time when competitors were employing all manner of exotic materials. Having finally sorted the stator with the Arkiv, Linn spent the next four years focusing on the rotor part of the generator—ie, the cantilever and stylus. The Arkiv B features a ceramic boron pipe in place of the metal alloy, and tidies up the coil lead-out wires by threading them through the bearing hinge. The result is a piece of engineering that has been thoroughly and painstakingly developed and refined through several generations.

At 7.4gm, the Arkiv B is not a particularly heavy cartridge, and its stiff compliance will suit high- as well as medium-mass tonearms. (Linn's own medium-mass Ekos is probably the best match.) Output level is close to average for a low-output MC, with a recommended 100 ohms loading, so electrical compatibility with MC phono stages is virtually guaranteed.

US distributor: Linn Products
4540 Southside Blvd., Suite 402
Jacksonville, FL 32216
(888) 671-5466