A Conversation with Brian Morris of Linn
|A Conversation with Brian Morris of Linn
|18 September 2002
Brian Morris of Linn stopped by San Francisco on June 7 2002 after the New York Show, and we got together for an evening of music listening and conversation at my home. I played him some CDs not readily available in the U.S., including a track from a British CD, “Moonlight Shadow“, from Mike Oldfield’s 1982 album “Crisis“. Then, the conversation soon changed to the development of music, from Jazz to Rock to present day.
Brian mentioned the “Talking Heads”, a band prominent in the 80’s, a period in which I stopped pursuing the pop culture after the demise of Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Abba, and the like. He explained to me the brilliance in the music making of “Talking Heads,” and in particular a live concert feature film and now DVD release “Stop Making Sense,” in which David Byrne sings and plays guitar live onstage, to be sequentially joined by other emerging instruments and members of the band. This culminates in a wondrous piece of music and a brilliant example of a Live Tune Demonstration similar in principle to that which Linn has used since 1972 to set up hi-fi systems – listening to one instrument at a time and then all together.
For the pleasure of listening to music that evening, I chose the 47 Lab Flatfish and Progression digital front end, Audio Note M3 preamplifier and the 47 Lab Gaincard S drove the ELAC 518.
Among the topics we touched on, Brian revealed interesting perspectives on the CD12.
CS: Let’s talk about Linn’s emergence from a relatively quiet company to a glamorous, high profile one, with a surge in ultra high-end products, such as the CD12, Klimax amplifier and Komri speakers. What caused such a tidal wave from Linn?
BM: Perception to most people is reality. CD12 was released in 1998 and Klimax in 1999. But before that, leading up to that, like today, Linn has always been providing products with real performance advantage to its customers.
CS: Like the LP12?
CS: You are still making it?
BM: Absolutely, and still improving it. The Linn Sondek LP12 is in production today after 30 years. It is also probably the oldest turntable in production that you can bring up to current specification. For example, you can still buy an old LP12 and bring it to current spec. You can rebuild an old LP12 from the original 1972 model, if you can find one, and update it. To provide a performance advantage, you have to create products that perform at that level. The glamorous side of it, as you noted, is also interesting from an industrial design perspective as well as performance. The performance that occurs within recent source, control and playback products came from the development work for the CD12, especially in the power supply, which is most fundamental. That led to the creation of the switching power supply in 1994-5 around the time we introduced it in the Karik/Numerik 2-piece CD Player and Kairn Preamplifier. The production version is now called Linn Brilliant Switching Power Supply. And for the CD12, we had to develop a special switching power supply. And for the Klimax – an even more robust, more powerful switching power supply that can handle the current requirement. And that was a long process from what we discovered in 1994.
Industrial design apart, we are talking about a different kind of aesthetic, different from the black boxes.
CS: The CD12 is of 2-piece casework construction, am I correct?
BM: The CD12 is a departure in terms of how CD players normally look and operate. The casework housing the CD12 is not fundamental to its performance, but important for providing a stable environment. The processing is what we are really talking about in the CD12. The process is patented, and although I can’t reveal how we do it, I can explain the fundamentals of it.
The CD12 was about producing a definitive CD player the way the LP12 is a definitive vinyl player for people with a large collection of records. For people with 15 years of CD collections, our objective was to produce a CD player that can overcome the inherent flaws of the CD medium. Imperfection in CD manufacturing causes the jitter since all the minute CD pits are uneven. Everyone is approaching the jitter reduction in his or her own way. Linn looked at the CD replay long before the CD12. We learned a lot from the Karik and Numerik; but we wanted to take it beyond that, and to do that, we had to look at what the problem really was.
CS: So you were just holding off until the technology become available?
BM: Until we learned enough. The more we learn, the better position we are in to improve. We can do as much as we learned to implement. The issue with the CD12 was to eliminate jitter from the music chain. We believe we have accomplished that to the extent that you can play an LP12 and CD12 side by side and not be sure which one is playing. And we had demonstrated that in music meetings and to scholars. The CD12 separates the jitter from the music.
CS: Is there a name for this process from Linn?
BM: It’s a Linn process. The idea is that if a CD’s data is 1-2-3-4, you want to play it exactly in the sequence of 1-2-3-4. The difference is the jitter. I can’t get more hypothetical than that. The idea is to identify and discard the jitter.
CS: Does it upsample?
BM: NO. No upsampling at all. The design is purely form following function.
CS: Now, tell me, did anybody’s wife have a say on how it looks?
BM: No [laughs]. Ivor Tiefenbrun, Linn’s MD, and our Industrial Designer is Alistair Brown. Alistair has been with Linn for a number of years and designs all our products and lectures on Industrial Design. Linn is a TQ company with a team structure for all of the operational and management functions within the company. Each team is responsible for its own area of the business i.e. Design and Engineering, Production, Marketing; there must be around a hundred teams and an individual team can be created to deal with specific issues – Linn has an essentially flat management structure in this respect.
CS: It has some of the highest WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor).
BM: Yes, that I understand. Almost as high as the Klimax’s [Laughs]! Yes, we understand the look is important. The design cues of the CD12 came from the LP12. If you look at the plinth of the LP12, and the height of the CD12, they are exactly the same. If you put them side by side, they sit side by side at the same height. The CD12 fascia “smile” is a vinyl design metaphor for the “stylus in the groove”.
CS: What an interesting design concept. We never looked at it that way.
BM: There is a background of how we design things. You take a product and you look at the form and its functions, that’s how we took the design cues. The idea of the CD12 is that while the LP12 is analog, the CD12 is the next generation of the LP12 – in the digital domain.
CS: It is quite remarkable how you approach the implementation of ideas.
BM: To determine how the product should look, you go back to the philosophy of the product. And the philosophy was to get the best possible sound from CD, and if we can make the CD sound like vinyl from the LP12, then that is the best possible sound from CD. The idea is to do what the LP12 does for vinyl. The full name is Linn Sondek Transcription CD12. It is the only other product to carry the Sondek name. It transcribes a CD.
CS: Will your new Super Audio CD player carry the Sondek name, too?
BM: Oh, I don’t know. We are not at that point yet. The design of the CD12 is a lot like the LP12. We wanted to make a statement product, which will remain as a classic. The metal extruding company is still the same one we used on the LP12, which is the Castle Precision Engineering and is a Linn company. We machined everything on the CD12 from the case to the bolts that go through it. Same for the Klimax. Starting from the CD12, we began evolving in the high-end, coming back to our roots as a high-end company, from a high-end analog company to a high-end digital company. Employing 320 people, we have tremendous resources in product development.
CS: I remember from a picture that you have quite a large office.
BM: We have a factory extension in progress now.
CS: New plans and new products?
BM: Oh yes, we have many new products in the works. Linn is in different markets. All of our products are designed to work in a 2-channel, multi-channel and multi-room environment. Like two-channel, all are flexible solutions in that you can add Linn components to extend or upgrade system performance.
CS: That involves huge amount of engineering and planning.
BM: Oh yes, the fundamental approach to building products hasn’t change. We employ “Single-Stage Build”, which means one person builds the whole product, not in a production line. It is the same hierarchy system Ivor used since 1972, by establishing the LP12, as the most important part of a hi-fi system, when most people thought the speakers was the most important part of it. Source, Control and Playback is the system and manufacturing method.
CS: Ivor carried the LP12 around for demonstrations, didn’t he?
BM: Yes, Ivor went around the world with it. You have to make demonstrations to show people what it can do. In a way, since 1972, the LP12 gave rise to hi-fi retailing as it is today, as he [Ivor] went from store to store to show people what it could do.
CS: The Klimax Solo monoblocks came out 2 years ago for $19,000 for a pair. This year, you introduced the stereo version, the Klimax Twin.
BM: Our goal was to produce a reference amplifier, the like of which no one has ever heard or seen before. Whether you are playing vinyl or digital, with the Klimax, you can turn up full gain and there will be no noise coming out of the speakers. Part of the key is the switching power. It is very clean.
CS: What exactly is a switching power?
BM: It switches at nanosecond speed stabilizing power in the component. The product is not subjected to the variances of main supply. At all times, the power coming to your house is constantly being affected. The Linn switching power supply cleans it up, and regulates it accurately.
CS: Will an AC conditioner help?
BM: The thing about conditioning is you need to look out for what is coming out of the wall. With the switching power supply, it looks at the power and within millionth of a second, regulates it accurately. There is absolutely no degradation of the audio signal with Linn switching power supplies. Consequently, the noise floor and dynamic range is at a superior -120dB.
CS: Is the Klimax just as big as the CD12, then?
BM: No. It is smaller. If you put them side by side, the Klimax is thinner. The cooling mechanism of the Klimax is remarkable. It ventilates through the central canal. The heat tolerance of the Klimax is very high. The built-in fan will come on only when necessary. The degree of naturalness and neutrality of the Klimax is something I’ve never heard with other amplifiers – and many reviewers appear to agree with this since launch. In parallel with the time we were developing the CD12, we took what we had learned and created a new switching power supply specifically for the Klimax Solo. So everything was developed together, more or less.
With all that was going on with the CD12, we were also working on the LP12. The original power supply, the Lingo, was from the 1990’s. It has not changed until this year when we had a production change, to surface-mount technique. The original Lingo was very good; but the new Lingo was a huge improvement.
CS: Give me a few words to describe the improvement.
BM: The speakers become more invisible, less dry, the sound even more real. We didn’t promote it as an upgrade; but a production change. It is a new product. So, when we were developing the CD12, a dozen other projects were going on the same time: multi-room functionality etc. Over a period of the year, we are developing at various stages at least half a dozen new products.
CS: Your top-of-the-line speaker, the Komri, came out about the same time. Tell us about it.
BM: The $40,000 Komri was launched towards the end of 2001. The main feature is the “4K Array”. It is a perfect point source. Many people quote measurements; but the real thing is in the listening. It has both passive and active drive units. We believe this gives the customer the performance advantage, as the passive system will be upgradable to the active system after the Aktiv Komri is introduced next year. That way, you get value out of your investment.
CS: The Komri is quite large. How does it perform in different room sizes?
BM: I’ve heard the Komri in different rooms. Your room is almost the same as mine. The Komri is less confined by immediate room boundaries. It has the benefit of bass adjustment eschewing to the characteristics of the room, and the cabinet has no audible resonance traces. So, you have a system that is most tuneful in the room it is playing.
CS: Tell me about your own Linn System?
BM: It is important to live with a Linn System to discover what it can actually achieve. Like visiting the best Linn retailers, I have the opportunity to experience music through Linn in a listening environment where I can relax and qualitatively assess the improvements different Linn components make to the reproduction of music. I KNOW the level at which the best Linn system and our best components perform. This becomes my reference standard. I also know how Linn entry-level components and systems perform and how to get the best out of any Linn System. It is all down to system setup, listening for the tune and knowing when it is wrong and when it is right. The best Linn dealers know and practice this in their demo rooms and for their customers’ systems. A Linn system that has been properly setup to play music should move you and surprise you. I have held Linn events for classical music lovers where the audience sits with eyes closed listening to music as if they were at an orchestral concert; so realistic was the playback of the recorded performance through a Linn system. We also know from our own research that Linn system owners spend more time listening to music than for example, watching TV, and their tastes in music and collections of recorded music also broaden after acquiring a Linn system.
Soon, we’ll have a Klimax preamplifier, available from September 2002. So, then we’ll have a full Linn Reference System designed for music mastering and music playback. Then, we’ll have a multi-format CD player coming in January of 2003. It is a Linn Design in collaboration with ESS, and Sony, for the SACD. So, now Linn has its own multi-format design house, which is a one-stop solution for a multi-format mechanism, which we are offering on a remuneration basis to other companies in the Industry, and for others’ implementation.
CS: Linn makes its own recordings, too?
BM: We are a record label. We are manufacturing CDs only now, ironically. We’ve supplied Sony our SACD releases for a few years. We are recording engineers that also master SACD. Linn’s record business focuses mainly on jazz and classical music. We do have a heritage of very talented musicians and some of the world’s best recordings. If you check out our website, you’ll be able to see what I mean.
CS: My last question has to do with the way you name your products. What is this thing with Komri, Klimax, Numerik, etc?
BM: K has always been important in the company’s heritage. Sondek has a K, for example. Komri is named after Comri in Scotland, where the first seismograph trials were conducted. The seismograph was developed in Scotland. There is a seismograph museum in Comri. Linn has a strange synergy with the “K” alphabet. Sometimes people find it amusing; but you get used to brand names, don’t you!?
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