The Linn Sondek CD-12

The Linn Sondek CD-12
Compact Disc Reproduction Extraordinaire!

Jim Merod

6 December 1999


Digital outputs: one BNC with Linn “sync link”; one AES/EBU balanced XLR; one ST optical; one TosLink optical.
Analogue outputs: two pairs of unbalanced RCA; one pair of balanced XLR.
D/A conversion: four 20-bit Burr-Brown PCM 1702U-K DACs.
Digital filter: Pacific Microsonics PMD-100 (8x oversampling).
Frequency Response: 5Hz-20kHz @ +/- 0.2 dB
THD: 0.0017% @ 1kHz; 0.0017% 10 Hz – 20 kHz.
S/N: better than 108 dBFS, 22Hz-22kHz, unweighted.
Channel separation: better than 120 dB @ 1 kHz. Max. output: 2V RMS. Output impedance: 200 ohms unbalanced, 300 ohms balanced.
Dimensions: 12.5″ (320mm) W by 3.125″ (80mm) H [including feet] by 14″ (350mm) Weight: 26.4 lbs.
Serial number: unit reviewed – 000088 {note: affectionately referred to back @ Linn as “Number
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.

Part One

“The Linn CD-12 retails for $20,000–a price that has staggered a number of visitors to my studio. Almost no one who has listened critically to the sound quality of the CD-12 disputes its unrivaled sonic ease and “rightness” of musical weight and feeling.”

In the last year I’ve read laudatory reviews that greeted the appearance of LINN’s price-no-object, stand alone, one-box CD player, the Linn CD-12. Its gorgeous buffed aluminum splendor graced the covers of two well-respected audiophile journals. Words acclaiming its unrivaled digital sound reproduction sought, and sometimes matched, the unit’s elegant (cosmetic) aesthetic beauty.

The LINN CD-12, without question, is an impressive piece of audio gear. It may be a harbinger of sleek twenty-first century styling. Perhaps, on a deeper level of value, it is an ultimate statement of what late twentieth-century 16-bit digital technology has been able to achieve for lasting audio enjoyment. Certainly, the Linn CD-12 is among the very few sonically beguiling single-unit compact disc players ever made.

It is an ultimate sonic product. In fact, the Linn CD-12 may have created a new class for itself, or at minimum, taken its place quietly at the top of a class of machines [16-bit digital music boxes] that have earned both advocates and opponents in increasing numbers across the span of fifteen years or more. The convenience of using compact discs is undeniable, as are the limitations of the current format’s resolving abilities. One points toward the new Sony SACD player (see review by Clem Perry here), as a contender for a new standard of digital audio playback, that, along with the emergence of DVD-Audio, is now in the process of opening a door upon new regions of musical reproduction well beyond the capacity of 16-bit/44.21 kHz limitations.

Linn CD-121999 has seen MP3 take off, and in the other direction, brought forth the promise of much greater musical resolution in the near future. 1999 has been an interregnum: a near-end to a millennium that in itself has been an extended transitional moment for the technologies of sound sculpturing. Many of us still appreciate the glories of superb vinyl reproduction; although used vinyl is sometimes indelicate with scratches, pops, hiccups and other sonic garbage. But since a great many important albums from the “golden era” of recording (roughly 1952 to 1966) still have not been transferred to the CD medium, for many, the LP offers a viable and necessary alternative. On the other hand, in the case of most modern recordings, we are largely condemned to the “perfection” of CDs, as we search for ways to enhance their performance

Thus, when Brian Morris at LINN offered to let me spend an extended period with the precise review unit that had elicited high praise from journals and reviewers, I agreed. My agreement carried something like the small boy’s attempt to restrain his sudden delight at the prospect of inheriting his first bicycle.

A reviewer’s adult lust for audio machinery seeks out just such temporary delights, balanced, one hopes, by sobriety from the no less transitory understanding of whatever technological magic comes to his impermanent grasp. The world’s splendors are fleeting but our knowledge of their meaning and their inner mechanisms is equally fleeting, since at each moment that one is certain (absolutely dead on “sure”), one is precisely then standing on the precipice of more ignorance. That too, no doubt, is part of the mystery and allure of seeking knowledge alongside joy. The world of sound is infinite. The universe of music is endless. Superior playback equipment increases one’s awareness of their vastness.

“The Linn Corporation appears to build audio products to survive California earthquakes, Malaysian humidity, adolescent abuse, and the ravages of time. And why not?”

Several immediate impressions came with the CD-12’s arrival. In addition to the extraordinary solidity (and heaviness) of this beautiful silver digital-weapon, one is also struck by the massive size and daunting appearance of the remote control unit that comes with it. The remote is an art object in its own right. This is no ordinary adjunct to comfort and control from a distance.

Linn’s hulky remote unit does in fact “control” the player with ease and efficiency of operation. The first fifteen or twenty minutes using it make such use part of your natural interactions with the CD-12. At the same time, you become accustomed to its heft. The Linn Corporation appears to build audio products to survive California earthquakes, Malaysian humidity, adolescent abuse, and the ravages of time. And why not?

Dan Musquiz of California Systems, in San Diego, had extolled the sonic virtues of several recent Linn products (including the CD-12), and so, when Brian Morris came to town on one of his regular jaunts to the West Coast from England, Dan introduced us. Brian Morris is an astute, low-key man who is one hundred percent devoted to Linn’s design philosophy. He knows what Linn is up to and he is both urbane and articulate. Time spent in his company is both educational and truly fun. Morris’ explanation of the operating logic that governs the CD-12 increased my anticipation of the time I would spend with it.

Dan Musquiz had suggested, with adept under-statement, what Brian Morris drove home with laconic British cheer. Both told me that the unit would change how I would hear the sound of my own recordings once they were transferred to compact discs. They got my attention in earnest. They were right.

Lest we forget that many world-class products come with requisite stratospheric prices (another British creation, the Bentley, is an example), let me slow your rush to snag one of these superb music machines at your neighborhood dealer. The Linn CD-12 retails for $20,000–a price that has staggered a number of visitors to my studio. Almost no one who has listened critically to the sound quality of the CD-12 disputes its unrivaled sonic ease and “rightness” of musical weight and feeling. Many who have been charmed by it however, have disbelieved its price. “Why would anyone spend so much to hear CDs?” some have blurted out.

To be more accurate about the shocked response of several visiting musicians, who loved the sound of the CD-12, their disbelief was not a function of disagreement about the unit’s value. Rather, they had difficulty understanding that audiophiles might be willing to spend so much when quite good sound quality, as they saw it, can be purchased at a sliver of the cost. After all, one of them suggested, a used and not so old Mercedes-Benz can be bought for less.

Well yes, I agreed, but the folks at Linn (and no doubt some that know more about cars than I do) have a preference for spectacularly reproduced music–and for high-end British cars, as well. “Let them drive my twenty-two year old Mercedes,” one of my percussion companions insisted. “It still whoops down the freeway.”

Teasing aside, the LINN CD-12 was meant to be a “statement” product, price-no-object. In my estimation, it has succeeded. Just as the LINN LP-12 turntable, in various revisions and iterations, has achieved the status of a “classic” sound-reproduction machine, so now the LINN CD-12 should be recognized for its remarkable audio achievement in the digital domain. Whether we will look upon the CD-12, twenty years from now, as we look today at the LP-12 is an interesting prospect. Few, if any, vinyl-based sound reproduction machines of any sort can match the LP-12 for durability, quality, and value. The cost of the CD-12 places this last item out of reach of most people, but this one-box CD player promises to outlast its owners and to continue giving magnificently musical sound for decades to come.

My special interest in the extraordinary sound quality of the CD-12 began in earnest one afternoon as I was pursuing mastering work on a recording that features the great pianist Mike Garson, premier-bassist Dave Carpenter and the exquisite percussion work of Mark Ferber. It is an “on location” (live-to-two-track) recording, captured as a 24-bit digital master. Only five microphones were employed. The A/D conversion was via a 24-bit Crane Song HEDD [“harmonically-enhanced digital device”] unit, that was fed from a mix, driven by Requisite tube microphone preamps.

“…I consider the Linn CD-12 to be one of the most remarkable “real world” diagnostic tools for the difficult, sometimes mysterious, task of learning about the hidden complexity of recorded sound.”

The trio’s playing, captured late at night in a club with better than average sonic ambience, is probing, detailed, and delicate. One hears the long transient decay of individual piano notes as well as the complex and deep-droning overtones sustained in Dave Carpenter’s bass notes. Mark Ferber’s brushwork is captured with all its grain and sizzle. The whole sonic envelope is beguiling. This is a masterful trio of genuinely great jazz musicians, in top form, playing at length, at ease and with exceptional intimacy. Among pianists today, few are as emotionally engaging and simultaneously explorative as Mike Garson is.

Not a great deal of post-recording refinement was needed on this recording since the raw musical data was extremely clean and coherent. The “magical” element in the success of this recording was a combination of attributes. The room it was recorded in has much better than average sonic properties. The piano was superior and had been tuned immediately before the recording. And there was no vocalist, with the complexity of the human voice and its interaction with instrumental registers, to pile up sometimes difficult-to-decode sonic complications.

When the small amount of initial mastering was completed, I listened to a CDR copy that had been dithered down from the 24/48 master tape to the 16-bit compact disc realm through the digital signal shaping of a Meridian 518. Everything on the disc sounded good. In fact, the recording holds a degree of sonic magic that froze me in place–listening again and again with pleasure. The more I listened, the more I was pleased (a response that is not at all automatic with my own recordings, soon after their creation). Almost invariably, such recordings elicit deep degrees of scrutiny and critique. The pleasure of listening is, on initial inspection, deferred until long thereafter. One hears only the warts and flaws and one’s approximations of a sonic ideal.

I took this disc over to Steve McCormack’s audio workshop. We listened on his factory-revamped Vandersteen 3’s that were driven beautifully by one of McCormack’s maxed-out “rev A” DNA-1 amplifiers. The sound was precisely the way you would want to hear great music. McCormack, who has remarkably acute ears and an equally gifted capacity to discriminate sounds from one another, gave the recording his blessing. Such approval is difficult to obtain, and welcome. We tasted a wee bit of single-malt liquid in confirmation of success.

Soon after, for the sake of an experiment, almost whimsically I decided to find out what, if any, sonic difference might transpire if I created a disc (on a Marantz CDR 615) using the already-made Garson Trio disc as a “feed” from the LINN CD-12. First, I used the single-ended analogue outputs from the LINN to the CD recorder. That meant the Linn’s internal digital to analogue conversion would factor into the transfer, and that the Marantz CD burner’s analogue to digital conversion would also be in play. A circuitous route, one might think, but as a start, that was the opening gambit to test my whimsically serious interest in the potential alteration, however slight, of the CD-12’s sonic inscription. I reserved a straight digital transfer from the Linn to the Marantz for later.

The first “Linn copy” was made using a standard 4-foot length of Magnan Vi interconnects, one of the best cables to be found or bought anywhere, period. In subsequent explorations of this transfer chain, I used several other single-ended runs, mostly one-meter lengths, to repeat the experiment. For the sake of accuracy, I must report that discs crafted during this bemused but wholly earnest experimentation were via two wonderful cables, the Magnan Vi and the Nordost Quatro-Fil. These delivered the most detailed, open, and sonically complete musical information. One expects some information loss, some tonal shift or blurring, in the digital-to-analogue-to-digital transfer process. Moving from the LINN, playing a master CD, to the second-generation disc, there was, of course, a subtle degree of sonic degradation. With these two sets of cables the loss and shifts were minimal, and genuinely interesting on their own terms.

The Magnan Vi cables can be noted for their ability to excel in the presentation of harmonic coherence and in the warmth of musical ambience. Nothing in their agency altered the sense of presence and intimacy from the original 24-bit tapes that reside, quite beautifully, on the first generation CDR. Nordost’s Quatro-Fil cables excelled in their delivery of finely etched details (such as the decay of natural reverberation tails) and the representation of space between, and the musical “atmosphere” around, musical instruments.

One recognizes the interaction of the units’s own A/D and D/A conversion processes in all of this. I am quite sure that the very slight degree of softening that one hears in low-level information on the second-generation disc is a product of the Marantz’s analogue-to-digital conversion. Linn’s analogue-to-digital conversion, compared to subsequent transfers made from its digital outputs, reveals itself to be extremely clean. It is essentially identical to signal feeds from the Linn’s BNC and AES/EBU digital outputs. There is no discernible difference that I could identify. On all of the CD-12’s outputs (analogue and digital), one finds none of the etched, fuzzed, or hard “digital edginess” that one encounters at moments even with expensive compact disc rigs.

Nonetheless, for what it is worth, the Magnan Vi cables can be noted for their ability to excel in the presentation of harmonic coherence and in the warmth of musical ambience. Nothing in their agency altered the sense of presence and intimacy from the original 24-bit tapes that reside, quite beautifully, on the first generation CDR. Nordost’s Quatro-Fil cables excelled in their delivery of finely etched details (such as the decay of natural reverberation tails) and the representation of space between, and the musical “atmosphere” around, musical instruments.

Sometimes critical writers point to one of the qualities about this sonic envelope of information in terms of the “air” that surrounds each instrument. More “air” is regarded as desirable. It is an indication of greater detail in a musical performance’s soundstaging. This intriguing sonic representation of discrete instrumental placement ranks high as an audiophile value. On a two-track recording, especially of a live concert performance, such “air” can be extremely palpable as a kind of interactive connection between the body of an instrument (as well as the player’s physical presence to microphones) and other musical, human, and incidental sonic elements on the performance stage. I am sometimes amazed at the vivacity of small, non-musical “events” that enter into the representation of a magnificently captured recording. I am, also, amazed at the over-valuation of such things–the importance sometimes ascribed to a listener’s ability to discern the rumble of a subway outside the performance hall, for example.

These finely wrought details are very difficult to talk about accurately, with graphic descriptive precision, because the involvement of one’s ears, and of one’s heart and mind, is inextricably engaged not only with such details. Such feeling and its entire cortex of comprehension is also engaged with the unfolding discourse of melodic narratives among the musicians that are “overheard,” as it were, on a vivid recording. One literally hears a complex integration of physical being–notes, people, chatter, crowd noise, accidental sounds, and the environment in which all this occurs–alongside, and within, the larger presentation of musical renderings. Magnificently captured recordings are sumptuous carnivals of nearly infinite potential for a dedicated listener who attends sharply with a great sound system. The decoding, layer upon layer, is for some, the primary focus of the aural experience.

I seem to be inverting normal space/time relationships here. Music, no doubt, resides within the physical space of the room or stage on which it was recorded. Without question, that is a vivid fact of one’s listening experience anytime one hears a well-recorded performance. The experience of physicality, of “being there,” is enhanced with correctly made direct-to-two-track recordings. But this inverted presence of space and musicians within the greater nimbus of the music–inside its melodic, narrative, harmonic, and dramatic urgencies–is an aspect of the audio experience when you are listening to a superior recording on a superior playback system. It is one in which the music takes on a majesty that supercedes (and to some degree envelopes) individual notational and physical elements, including the appearance of “air” around an instrument, and cannot be imagined as easily as it is heard and felt. This curious experience of music enveloping everything (and everyone) producing it, is, I think, a large part of the “magic” that rivets devoted listeners and brings them back to re-enter this transcendental realm over and over again.

These topics are difficult to discuss, but my point is simple. My digression means to call attention to the curious way that some interconnects and audio gear can capture an aspect of sonic truthfulness even as they seemingly smudge its perfect replication. The insight we gain into our own recordings can increase because of such subtle differences that audio transfer and audio playback reveal in the musical sound field.

In this regard, I consider the Linn CD-12 to be one of the most remarkable “real world” diagnostic tools for the difficult, sometimes mysterious, task of learning about the hidden complexity of recorded sound. Recording engineers are well aware of the vital role that accurate studio monitors play in their work. But a digital “feed” to the sound chain, on the high order of the Linn player, is no less important … and, in truth, more difficult to create.

I reported to Brian Morris at Linn that, in my studio, sonic “details (which had not been rendered obvious to me before using the Linn) are discernible” with it placed at the head of the signal path for diagnostic work in mastering. “That knowledge,” I continued, “is of enormous value to me” since on location recordings, which comprise the bulk of my work, carry many sonic surprises. Clarity is frequently obscured in subtle ways by on and off stage movement, by talk, and by other incidental sounds. The improved sonic and musical clarity that I have come to enjoy in my post-location recording work, I added, has been “possible, I’m certain, solely because the Linn resolves such a whopping degree of detail.” My certainty, when I wrote that in July, has increased across five additional months of listening and working with the CD-12.

Of course one believes in his intimate personal knowledge. Each of us can confirm instances of private awareness that are extremely difficult to articulate. The inability to fully define what we “know” to be true –what we have heard on a recording, for instance, does not deter us from our belief in our own personal understanding.

The rule is at work here, too. I recorded this music and, therefore, I know exactly what it is, i.e., what it holds and how it sounds. Well, perhaps, but not unambiguously. One’s “intimate” knowledge is compromised by unfolding revelations within repeated experiences before a specific sonic reproduction. The music “caught” is an illusion waiting to be substantiated.

How it is brought forward into “reproduced sound” has everything to do with what we comprehend to be there on the original recording in the first place–what it means as we listen and feel its persuasion. Knowledge of musical sound is a rolling ride in a small boat sloshing up and down out at sea.

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