Linn LP Playing System

Long before the Swedes at Ikea did it, the singular Scotsman Ivor Tiefenbrun began giving his products funny-sounding names. For some reason positively phobic about the letter c, he banned its use in any of those names. Someone once told me his real last name is Tiefencrun, but since it wouldn't sound any different with a k, he settled for a b. "I could have been Ivor Tiefendrun, or Tiefenfrun, or Tiefengrun, for that matter," he's quoted as having said once while krunching a krakker.

I'll never forget the evening of gourmet dining and right-wing dogma I shared with Tiefendrun last fall in a posh, lively Glasgow restaurant. As I remember, he advocated: drilling for oil anywhere, the plus sides of global warming, and the certain and overwhelming economic benefits of huge tax cuts, enormous military spending increases, and all-of-a-sudden who-cares-about-deficits economics. But it was long ago, I'd had too much wine, and my recollection could be faulty, so don't hold me to any of it. It's also possible that, knowing my political proclivities, Tiefenzrun was just playing with me. That's how I chose to take it. I do remember laughing all evening.

Stalling? Me, stalling?

Yes. A legend can be intimidating, especially when it's also a classic, a revolutionary, an iconoclast, a survivor. I'm not talking about Ivor. I mean his original brainchild, the Sondek LP12 turntable. Though the LP12 was originally issued way back in 1972, until a few months ago I'd never heard one—just one of those odd gaps in experience that everyone has. (Another for me is being rich.)

But while I'd not actually heard the LP12, I'd heard plenty about it, and for many an audiophile, that's more than enough to form an informed and authoritative opinion. I'd read the LP12 reviews over the years. I'd heard people talk about it online and in bars. I'd heard that it's the best turntable in the world and worth every penny, that it's overpriced and doesn't sound so good, that it's unsteady and bulbous in the midbass, that it's really natural in the midbass, that it's tuneful, that it can't carry a tune. Definitive things like that. So, starting this review, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect.

As befits a legend
As befits confronting an oft-reviewed legend, I broke many of my long-standing rules and wrote some new ones. Rather than evaluate the turntable, tonearm, cartridge, power supply, and phono preamplifier as separate products, I would review them as a complete system—a phrase editor John Atkinson is as phobic about as Tiefenkrun is about a certain letter of the alphabet. So while I was curious to hear the Akiva cartridge's output processed by the Manley Steelhead and ASR Basis Exclusive phono preamps (I reviewed the ASR in last month's "Analog Corner"), and the LP12's motor driven by Walker Audio's Motor Controller, I ran a complete Linn analog system into the remarkably neutral, ultra-quiet Halcro dm10 preamp I was lucky enough to have for a few months.

Linn's Brian Morris came over to do the setup. My Sondek was professionally set up, as will be yours by your dealer, so I didn't pay much attention to the operation. I did watch as Morris suspended the LP12 upside down in the special setup jig he'd assembled on my kitchen table, however. Whatever else he had to do, I knew that Job No.1 was to adjust the springs so that the suspension would behave pistonically instead of rocking from side to side. That's key to the proper performance of any spring-suspended design. Morris took me on a tour of the innards before final assembly. The setup jig is still here; I find it makes a fine frame for hanging-file folders.

Linn Sondek LP12 turntable
Though Linn has upgraded and modified the LP12 ($2000) too many times to go into here, the turntable's basic suspended design remains the same—and it's a familiar one, similar in concept to the old Acoustic Research turntable. A well-braced outer frame of kiln-dried hardwood—the "plinth," as the Brits call it—holds a stainless-steel base plate to which is affixed a Philips-sourced AC synchronous motor. A subchassis incorporating the armboard mount, MDF armboard, and main bearing is suspended via three adjustable hung springs attached to the base plate. Thus, both tonearm and main bearing are well isolated from motor-induced vibrations—more effectively, some would say, than in nonsuspended designs in which the plinth and outboard motor share a platform.

This scheme can mean that the distance from the fixed motor to the suspended subplatter can vary if the suspension is excited, thus creating microvariations in speed. This problem—the so-called "porch glider" effect—is greater in high-mass turntables like some SOTAs, and when warped records can cause such high-moving-mass arms as Eminent Technology's ET2 to get the "glider" moving. It would appear to be less of a problem in Linn's lower-mass design.

Many Linn enthusiasts claim that the LP12 sounds better with the supplied feet and bottom cover removed, but I didn't try those tweaks, preferring to review products "stock."

The rest of the design is pretty standard fare: a flat belt riding on a crowned pulley drives an inner aluminum alloy subplatter over which fits a full-sized outer platter of machined aluminum alloy. We've all seen these elements before, so the key to the Linn's fabled performance must be equal parts design and execution. Since the design concept has remained fixed, it's the execution that has been modified over the years, including strengthening the plinth and subchassis, improving the materials in the main bearing, suspension, and armboard, introducing various electronic power supplies, and tighter overall manufacturing tolerances. Virtually every one of these changes has been colorfully named: Trampolin, Cirkus, Lingo, Nirvana, Valhalla, and Billy. (Scratch that last one; it's an Ikea name.)

When used with the Lingo power supply, the LP12 is supplied with an umbilical terminated with an eight-pin DIN plug (footnote 1). On startup, a single On/Off switch on the turntable's top plate selects the playback speed. A short push gives you 33 1/3, a long one 45.

Linn Lingo power supply
Previously reviewed for Stereophile by John Atkinson in January 1991, the $1550 Lingo uses a high-quality crystal oscillator to generate a high frequency that is electronically lowered to 50Hz (for 33 1/3rpm) or 67.5Hz (45rpm), then cleaned up and amplified to 120V to supply both phases of the motor. Anyone who has experience with a familiar AC synchronous-driven turntable supplied from the wall or from a sophisticated, synthesized power supply understands the profound value of a device such as the Lingo.

Linn Ekos tonearm
The Ekos is a gimbaled-bearing tonearm designed, built, and assembled by Linn—as I found out when I toured the factory last year and visited the in-house machine shop, equipped with the latest and greatest in computer-controlled machining gizmos. The Ekos, previously reviewed by John Atkinson in June 1989, is a no-nonsense design: a straight aluminum pipe with a bonded, machined headshell and ultra-low-tolerance bearings. The tracking and antiskating forces are set by springs. As with many arms that favor rigidity over infinite, on-the-fly VTA adjustability, the Ekos's arm height is set by raising and lowering the base support shaft within the mounting collar, then locking it with a set-screw.

As with the SME arms, the Ekos's headshell terminates with pins, requiring a set of headshell wires. That's not a problem with Linn's new Akiva moving-coil cartridge, which is terminated with wires that conveniently plug directly into the headshell's pins.

Linn Akiva low-output moving-coil cartridge
Linn's mum about the provenance of the $2995 Akiva cartridge, but I suspect Lyra (formerly known as Scan-Tech), who manufactured Linn's earlier Arkiv cartridge. The three-screw mounting system (now also used by Rega) makes installation and alignment of the Akiva's rigid alloy body foolproof. The Akiva has a ceramic-coated boron cantilever and a line-contact stylus. Its output is 0.4mV (1kHz at 3.54cm/s); Linn recommends loading with a minimum of 50 ohms and using a tracking force of 1.6-1.9gm. Mine was set for the 1.9gm maximum.

Linn Linto phono preamplifier
The main goal Linn had for its modestly priced ($1600) Linto phono preamplifier was low noise. The minute cartridge output is direct-coupled to the bases of the Linto's input transistors instead of going through the usual loading circuitry—Linn claims that limiting the tiny voltage adds noise and diminishes the quality of the signal in other ways. Linn also claims that the switch contacts commonly used to select loading can generate more voltage than the cartridge itself! They contend that, rather than turning much—if not most—of the minuscule cartridge output into heat by applying it to resistors, the Linto's direct-coupled design yields far higher resolution because "every electron is used." Linn claims that most cartridges' already low output impedances make them "relatively unaffected" by any "reasonable" loading impedance anyway. Halcro's brilliant designer Bruce Candy made a similar argument to me in an e-mail that I hope to decipher and present to you, but I'm afraid that only a long prison sentence will give me sufficient time to completely grok what he wrote.

Footnote 1: The Basik version of the LP12 turntable will play using the raw AC wall voltage. It uses a 60Hz synchronous motor in the US, 50Hz in the UK.—John Atkinson
Linn Products
8787 Perimeter Park Boulevard
Jacksonville, FL 32216
(904) 645-5242