The LINN CD-12 – part 2

The LINN CD-12 – part 2
Compact Disc Reproduction Extraordinaire!
Jim Merod
29 December 1999

Note: for technical specifications refer to “Part One“.

Price: $20,000. Approx. no. Of dealers – 100 worldwide.

Manufacturer: Linn Products, Ltd.
Floors Rd, Waterfoot, Glasgow G76 OEP Scotland.
Tel: (44) 141-307-7777.
Fax: (44) 141-644-4262.

US distribution:
Linn Products, Inc., 4540 Southside Blvd., Suite 402
Jacksonville, Florida 32216
Tel: (888) 671-LINN (Us only), (904) 645-5242
Fax: (904) 645-7275. Web:

“Music played with the CD-12 avoids the compressing and truncating of dynamic range so frequent in the world of vinyl playback.”

Over the many months that I was able to live with the glorious Linn CD-12, it ingratiated itself into my listening heart, and also, into my daily working life as a recording engineer. I was not prepared for the subtle ferocity of this state-of-the-art CD machine. While I now await working with new techno-gadgets such as Sony’s Super Audio CD player, I’m content to be in the musical grasp of a one box CD player that owns a serious “rightness” of tone, weight, dynamics, and every other musical value, that anyone dedicated to superb recorded sound will surely admire.

The insinuation of Linn’s sonic magic into my working life took off in earnest as soon as I used the Linn, first as a digital transport in mastering my own recordings, and next, as a full digital sound stream (involving the Linn’s entire sonic delivery, sometimes including its internal D/A feed in my work).

As I noted in the first part of this review, my experiments with the Linn CD-12 had just begun with the circuitous transfer from a CD “master” disc, to another disc mediated by Magnan and Nordost cables and the Linn’s characteristic sonic signature. That term, “sonic signature,” is NOT an indication that the Linn player is flawed or imparts a quirky or eccentric shape to the music it reproduces. Nothing could be further from the truth. That term, however, does indicate that the Linn CD-12 has character. It possesses a musicality that it bears proudly each time you plop a disc into its transport.

The closest I can come to describing this signature and its musical quality is this. The Linn CD-12 delivers CD reproduction closer to the global sonic relaxation that we associate with analogue recordings at their best, and closer than any other digital playback medium I have yet experienced. The wonderful surplus with the Linn is evident in what it avoids, as well as in what it executes. Music played with the CD-12 avoids the compressing and truncating of dynamic range so frequent in the world of vinyl playback. Music played with the CD-12 is not “like vinyl”. It avoids the etched, harsh, and deliberate sonic character of even the previously most advanced and sophisticated CD players (along with the best transports plus outboard D/A conversion). Music reproduced on a Linn CD-12 is extremely engaging, friendly, truthful and, “musical”. When you hear your favorite CDs played on the Linn CD-12, you find yourself re-engaged with them. The Linn box draws you into the music because it allows the music to emerge vividly with a stunning sense of natural leisure, as music heard live is vivid with relaxed immediacy. You can see that I like the Linn CD-12 a great deal. It demands admiration. It solicits praise by seducing your heart and mind.

There is, inevitably, a sonic cost to pay when you move from the digital domain over to the analogue and then back again. The first experiments that I engaged with the Linn and my own-mastered recordings bore the signs of such cost. One is well aware that second generation recordings in the analogue domain are inferior to their originals unless sophisticated instruments and mastering techniques are employed to enhance the sonic transfer. The black art of sound mastering in either domain (analogue and digital) cannot be summarized, or circumscribed in any textbook. Audio mastering is an art more than a science. It depends upon equipment, media quality, and most of all, exquisite hearing with equally exquisite instinctual and intellectual understanding of sound in its immense complexity.

My companion in reviewing the first iteration of my initial Linn-mediated digital/analogue experiments, Steve McCormack, owns a great deal of audio instinct. I believe it’s accurate to report that the outcome of the initial experiment, with the CD-12 at the mid-point of sonic transfer, did not violate Steve’s expectations or my own hopes.

Linn CD-12If on one side, a straight analogue tape “dump” from the master to a second generation analogue tape holds the promise of sonic degradation, on the other side (in the digital domain) there is an as yet not fully comprehended phenomenon, that might be called “second generation digital sonic enhancement.” This is not something that occurs every time a straight transfer of digital data takes place. But the enhancement I am pointing to here, depending most of all upon variables such as jitter reduction and the choice of digital media (compact disc blanks, like various brands of digital and analogue tape, are not created equal), is often subtle and can be quite elusive. Second generation digital sonic enhancement is, nevertheless, a phenomenon that one can demonstrate to people with good hearing. It is not mystical. Nonetheless, this is a phenomenon that has received little attention and virtually no discussion in audiophile journals and publications.

I have frequently shared with colleagues my experience with this apparently unexpected enhancement. A good number of music lovers and audio-devotees have heard the concrete manifestations that demonstrate this enhancement effect. Several people more technically savvy than I am have offered possible explanations. The most reasonable one I think, suggests that the depth and shape of the pits burned into the second disc, may very well in themselves carry more digital information (more well-defined burns; more accurate digits) and thus generate sonic enhancement on playback. No one I have talked with about this offers a sure-fire interpretation for the “enhancement effect.”

Those who attend to its appearance are left somewhat groping for sense. How can this be? And yet, there it is-a second generation disc with greater musical definition, i.e., more sonic information rendered musically, more musical “thereness” captured or produced, on the second disc. Sometimes subtle mysteries are not benign puzzles.

“The power of the Linn player resides essentially with its seemingly truthful recreation of a now distant yet still vivid musical event–such as the fortunate Sunday afternoon performance of the Bill Evans Trio digging in on the musty air of Max Gordon’s basement club in Manhattan.”

Within the orbit of this quasi-mysterious enhancement-by-digital-transfer, my inclination to use the Linn CD-12 as the master transport and digital launching pad to pursue concrete musical results was more than whimsical. It seemed obvious that with a player of the caliber of the Linn, previous enhancements with my own-recorded material might be improved upon.

My guess was right. The qualities that the Linn lent to digital recordings, i.e. analogue-like relaxation, musical ease and depth of soundstage, harmonic rightness and spatial palpability, were imparted permanently to recordings that were mastered (or re-mastered) from the Linn CD-12 to the Marantz 615 and the Marantz 620 CD recorders. The usefulness of this phenomenon may erode as we listen to new depths of musical detail created by DVD-inscribed audio and by Super Audio Compact Discs. Until that time, I continue to be pleased and mildly surprised by the added musical vividness imparted to my own recordings by the Linn player. I will testify to the enhancement effect of Linn mastered second generation discs, whether I set up the transfer with the more circuitous A/D and D/A conversions at work on the signal feed, or subsequently with the transfer of data (music) carried straight through digitally, via an extremely thin run of silver wire made by Alan Yun of Silverline Audio.

The folks at Linn seem to feel that the CD-12 has precisely the same sound whether it is driven from its single-ended analogue outputs or from its AES-EBU, or its BNC/coaxial digital outputs. In several months of pursuing that belief I am somewhat chastened to say that I have to agree with them. I can find no appreciable or discernible difference in sound quality when listening to the Linn player from any of its outputs, though I do find a slight difference in transferring data to the Marantz 615. Sound is cleaner, without audible artifacts of any kind, when the Marantz CD burner’s digital input receives signals from the Linn. This of course avoids the Marantz unit’s A/D conversion (as well as the Linn’s D/A) and keeps the most direct signal path.

In the ongoing exploration of all this, one day I decided to find out what improvement (if any) might occur if I took a recently re-mastered classic–in this instance, the Bill Evans’ Trio’s Sunday at the Village Vanguard (JVC JVCXR-0051-2), and copied it from the Linn CD-12 directly to a blank disc. On my first try, I used a pair of the Nordost Quatrofil interconnects. Thus, the less direct signal path was the route of data transfer. As before with my own recordings, the disc copied from the Linn player was significantly improved.

The special quality of this enhancement is an improvement that I have shared with visitors to my sound room, each of whom agrees that the copied disc makes more vividly convincing music, in real space, without loss of sonic detail. This for me is deeply personal. The amazing, probing work of the Bill Evans’ Trio on that lucky September Sunday afternoon in 1961, is for me, a subject of profound interest. I am sure that I have not played any album more often than this recording. I bought the vinyl version when it first appeared on Riverside Records. That LP almost never left my Garrard turntable throughout the ’60s. It played over and over without stop for hours. I wore out several vinyl discs and I wrote dozens of essays and course papers in college as I listened to it. The music made by Evans’ trio on that now classic recording session has followed me wherever I have worked and lived. It is a part of my internal landscape.

I talked to Bill Evans in the late ’70s about those Vanguard sessions, and about his remarkably intuitive trio which included Scott La Faro on bass. La Faro was killed in a car accident soon after the recording was made. Evans and his subsequent trios, with various personnel, were regularly engaged at the Vanguard throughout the ‘60s and beyond. The somewhat shy but extremely articulate pianist (then young) noted very little about the playing from that special day in 1961. Evans did acknowledge that he was glad that his dear friend Scott La Faro had been captured at the Vanguard with the fullness of his lyrical gifts for all time to come.

Later, on the west coast, I wrote many more essays (most of them considerably longer) that gained momentum in writing from the exquisite height of that trio’s playing. My personal note here indicates, I hope, my familiarity with the material on this once-in-a-lifetime recording. Akiro Taguchi’s re-mastering of the album, for me, is an important contribution to jazz history. To find that an already powerful, beautifully rendered session can be strengthened and deepened in its essential sonic attributes, as it was here by the mediation of the Linn CD-12, has been something close to divine for me.

I point to the joy, the comfortable stunning impact of a digital “trick” (one might call this), made less of a gimmick and more akin to a lasting revelation by the Linn CD-12’s ability to resolve musical detail with authority and sonic “ease”. Second-generation sonic enhancement is brought to a high power of magnificence when the Linn CD-12 is part of the transfer process. The power of the Linn player resides essentially with its seemingly truthful recreation of a now distant yet still vivid musical event–such as the fortunate Sunday afternoon performance of the Bill Evans Trio digging in on the musty air of Max Gordon’s basement club in Manhattan.

The magic of the Linn’s work can also be found, in the enhancement it lends a recording that I made three months previous to its playback (and digital transfer) on the Linn–or the one made twenty-eight years (and several digital transfers) earlier. For the time I have been fortunate to use the Linn player, I have included it in my mastering chain as I craft BluePort jazz recordings made in the field (in clubs and in live “on location” recording sessions) that have been brought back to the studio for editing, sonic tinkering, and whatever lasting usefulness the making (and recording) of music may finally earn beyond the simple private joy of its creation. In all my years of recording and mastering, I have felt more emotionally attached to the Linn CD-12 than to any other piece of gear; no doubt because it conveys a maximum degree of “musical meaning” within a sublimely detailed and truthful sonic envelope.

Perhaps the best analogy that I can give to indicate the subtle depth of digital sonic enhancement accomplished by the Linn CD-12 is to invoke my old professor, Harold Bloom–that critical academic guru, laboring with nearly constant awe, under the sublime instructiveness of great writing. Bloom’s recent and popular book,Shakespeare: The Invention Of The Human [New York, 1998], points to a quality, alive at every point in the plays, that exceeds and finally escapes the Bard’s writing: “A Shakespearean audience,” Bloom writes, “is like the gods in Homer: we look on and listen, and are not tempted to intervene.”

At the end of this century, another audience, literate in its way, witnesses the poetry of music scripted on the most precise and revealing playback systems the world has ever heard. In the presence of such musical dignity, augmented by a rare machine like the expensive Linn box, we who listen become, for a moment, godlike with inspiration from the humanity of what we hear–if we listen with full hearts and do not, with any itch, intervene.

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