Published On: January 11, 2009

Linn CD 12 Compact Disc Player Reviewed

Published On: January 11, 2009

Linn CD 12 Compact Disc Player Reviewed

While LP enthusiasts will be horrified that Linn would use the number "12" for anything besides their beloved turntable, the CD 12 attempts to do for CDs what the LP12 did for LPs. The CD 12 represents a solid player that looks good and performs nicely with red-book CDs.

Linn_CD12_CD_Player_review.gif

‘Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?’ Given the recent flap over Elia Kazan’s honours at the Oscars and my belief in a conspiracy that was Linnism, I feel it’s somehow appropriate to adapt this question to audio. ‘Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Flat Earth Society?’ My answers would be ‘No’ and ‘No’, but I hadn’t reckoned on the Linn Sondek CD12. It is, in its own way, as comprehensive a denial of Linn’s past as would be Clinton embracing celibacy.

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It’s necessary to back-track, both to inform readers under 30 and to remind older ones that a selective memory won’t alter the fact that, during the early years of CD, Ivor Tiefenbrun – Linn Products Ltd in anthropomorphic form – had a favourite party trick of concocting preposterous anti-digital declarations, likening CD to every ill imaginable. He may wish to retract, to disavow, to , but I, like so many others, witnessed the espousing of such homilies as ‘A Dansette sounds better than CD’. OK, it was pure salesmanship, but underlying every remark was the bile of sincere fanaticism. [See Barry Fox’s history of Linn in 3/99 for a definition of the 20-80/hype-to-fact ratio.] As the years rolled by, and Linn was forced to admit that digital audio was here to stay, Ivor’s maxims evolved into, ‘We never hated digital; we just didn’t think it was good enough’, or ‘We decided not to make a CD player until it was as good as an LP12’, ad nauseum.

As the sayings go, there are none more anti-cigarette than an ex-smoker, nor more self-righteous than an ex-hooker.

Thus, Linn changed its mind. Now we are so far down the path to post-analogue perdition that I’d be amazed if there were any who still think we can stop such juggernauts as digital audio, let alone the Euro, the Labour Party and other evils which will render the 21st Century something less than Paradise. And so Linn did produce CD players early on, none of which to my ears sounded anywhere near as good as an LP12, let alone a CAL Tempest IISE, a Theta DATAIII/Pro Gen 5a or a Marantz CD-12. (Sorry, Ivor, Marantz got there first, just like AR and Thorens…) Maybe that’s just me; either way, I was not prepared for the Linn Sondek CD12 simply because I was not conditioned to look to Linn, as opposed to say, Krell or Theta, for cutting-edge CD players.

Now we’re faced with the CD12, Linn’s no-compromise entry/final word on the subject. As has been pointed out more than once, CD is the last major audio-only format which doesn’t use ANY form of data reduction or compression. Linn recognised this, and it’s why I was told by Ivor himself – while showing me the prototype at CEDIA in 1997 – that the CD12 was conceived to be “the World’s Last Great CD Player”. Or, more accurately, the Last Great Source Component Free Of The Deceit Of Digital Space-Saving.

At £12,000 a pop, it ought to be.

Immediately upon removal from its flight case, you sense greatness. Although it’s tiny – a mere 320x350x80mm – it weighs a serious 12kg. It has the sort of fit and finish associate only with precision gear made in Switzerland, however much IT wants to blather on about Scotland’s unchallenged global supremacy in feats of engineering. The production of watches and cameras are yardsticks for this sort of manufacturing, not stuffing cereal into sheep bladders.

A thing of beauty? So clean, so uncluttered, so is the look of the CD12 that people with any semblance of taste are predisposed toward it without any verbal inducement from a salesperson or otherwise. It is, like a Zippo lighter, so that all other CD players are rendered instantly and forever ugly. (The only alternative with aspirations to perfection would be one favouring total ‘function over form’ – the laboratory look of Nagra, for example. But they don’t make a CD player.) If the truth be known, this is the digital successor to Technics’ marvellous, charming, LP-sleeve-sized SL10 turntable.

Its total absence of buttonry and switches has become the CD12’s most talked-about aspect. Linn created a command system which rendering conventional push-buttonry obsolete. Every operation is available on the hand-held remote, like nearly every other CD player on the market, but, for occasions when you are near the player itself, you can perform the primary functions simply by touching the CD tray’s front edge. Called ‘Linn Smart Drawer’ operation, open, close, play, stop and skip forward can be accessed by this method; customisation moves let you create your own learning curve. If ever a hi-fi product’s operation deserved to be called elegant, it’s the CD12’s.

A thin, exposed edge is all you see, the drawer/tray made from electro-nickel-plated aluminium alloy. Open, close and ‘nudge’ are detected by optical sensors mounted within the CD Engine; all detection circuitry is electronic, so there are no parts to wear out, while software controls acceleration, de-acceleration and speed control. If left open, the drawer will close after two minutes, a bonus feature being a solenoid locking the tray when closed (whether the power is on or off) to prevent it opening when the CD12 in transit or threatened by children or drunks.

Below the tray is the usual display, providing track and time read-outs, which you can show in elapsed or remaining time. Another nice touch is the CD12’s ability to play from a precise time position on the disc; you can, if you desire, go straight to that solo at 2min 09sec on Track 4. Naturally, this player can cope with all manner of programming options, including some you’d never think of in a million years. I suppose the reasoning is that it’s better to leave nothing out, even stuff that will never be used, than to upset some sick freak who actually uses, say, A-B repeat mode. All of which is a far cry from the minimalism Linn once championed…

Read more about the Linn CD 12 on Page 2.
Linn_CD12_CD_Player_review.gif

Coloured a natural metallic grey, the case is extruded and precision
machined from two solid aluminium alloy plates for structural rigidity
and ‘dimensional accuracy’. Linn chose the alloy for its strength and
stability, and for the finish it can offer: smooth to about one micron,
or, as Linn points out, as ‘smooth and precise as a compact disc
itself.’ Entering audio’s apocrypha is the oft-repeated item that each
CD12 takes ‘a full working day to machine from solid using machines
costing millions of dollars.’ Note: dollars, not pounds.

All aluminium parts in the CD12 are anodised, with the chassis and
lid ‘hard-anodised’, a process which Linn uses inside its power
amplifiers for heat transfer and electrical insulation. The case
isolates the internals from acoustic noise and vibration by virtue of
its weight and rigidity, while the bolting down of the lid and the
close fit when the drawer in its slot offer little scope for any dirt
or dust enter the box. Inside, the circuit boards and transport are
bolted to the chassis; the rigidity is such that it does not allow the
circuit boards move, to minimise microphony.

Linn calls the transport the ‘CD Engine’, described as being
‘massively engineered to ensure that the data retrieval systems within
the Linn CD12 are allowed to operate at their optimal levels.’ Thinking
like the analogue turntable manufacturer it was/is, Linn has focused on
details which make the Sondek name wholly appropriate: the laser
pick-up assembly is de-coupled from the main chassis proper, itself
designed to be immune to mechanical and air-borne vibration to ensure
that the servo electronics are not affected by motor spindle shaft
vibration, which could increase the possibility of errors. Indeed, the
whole CD Engine has its own internal housing, and with the lid removed,
it looks like what lurks beneath the bonnet of a modern German
automobile.

With servo circuits controlled by high-speed DSP, the system reacts
quickly to disc irregularities. Moreover, the disc is clamped to the
turntable using a magnetic puck, further minimising resonance in the
disc. Here Linn further exploits links to its past by pointing out that
the player can correct ‘the worst possible warp and eccentricity’. I
have to say, though, that after 16 years and playing more than 10,000
CDs, I’ve never found one which was so warped or eccentric that it
defeated player. But, hey, it’s their hyperbole, and such
concern for warp and eccentricity in a CD is no more spurious than a
former tube amp builder describing his solid-state efforts in terms of
(betrayed) valve amp values.

Three isolated sub-systems control the CD Engine electronics: 1)
‘Radial Actuator/Focus Actuator/Laser Drive circuitry’, 2) spindle
motor circuitry and 3) DSP/microprocessor control. A brushless spindle
motor guarantees quiet operation, with three-phase servo-control
derived from a PWM control signal from the servo/decoder. The CD12
laser assembly itself is made by Philips; the DAC complement consists
of four 20-bit/x8 Burr-Brown PCM1702U-K D/A converters, Linn ‘using
only the best selected samples of these devices to help achieve the
lowest possible distortion figures’. HDCD, too, has been included, so
there’s nothing this side of a DVD which the CD12 can’t exploit. (Roll
on, the DVD12…)

Completing the CD12 is a new variant of the Linn Brilliant SMPS
power supply module, with 16 stages of power supply regulation, the
CD12 being the first product to use this version. In keeping with the
rest of the bomb-proof topology, the CD12’s power supply is encased in
solid aluminium, in a chamber machined from the solid chassis. Linn
feels that this ‘extreme engineering further reduces the connection
between the CD12 and the incoming mains supply’.

An area where Linn hasn’t skimped – in a display of generosity which
I would love to see emulated by brands which make certain outputs
optional – is the sheer wealth of connector choices. Arranged across
the back, beneath a protective ledge, are two pairs of RCA phono and
one pair of balanced (XLR) analogue audio outputs, plus every common
type of digital output: BNC, AES/EBU balanced (XLR), ST TOSLINK
optical output. And for those of you with complete Linn systems or
full-blown multi-room installations, the CD12 can be incorporated into
sophisticated remote-control networks via RS232 ports.

If the plethora of outputs raises any question, it has to be: Why, then, a one box player? It’s as if Linn
you to experiment with external DACs. But the company believes that
single-chassis designs suffer no detrimental interface problems between
transport and DAC, thus eliminating data-induced jitter and other
negative artefacts caused by breaks in the chain. Linn’s Sync Link
interface, familiar to Karik/Numerik owners, exists in the CD12 in an
enhanced form, especially ‘in the event of the CD12 being used as a CD
Transport (i.e. a secondary output to a KNEKT system)’. They thought of
everything, then, to create – as much as is possible – a future-proof
machine.

Fed to a number of systems – Pathos’ Twin Towers integrated amp,
Musical Fidelity’s awesome Nu-Vista pre/power combination, Lexicon’s
DC1 driving Acurus amplifiers, Apogee Ribbon Monitors, B&W DM605 S2
semi-active floorstanders, Wilson WATT/Puppy 5.1 – the CD12 marked its
territory like a tom against a tree. No messing around: the Sondek CD12
has a sound so pungent, so distinct, and therefore so instantly
identifiable that I was reminded by its intensity of the first time I
heard an all-Linn system in my own hi-fi haven. But that experience was
a total downer; this encounter was its antithesis, making up for a
quarter-century’s worth of heinous sonic sins. Pick your favourite
cartoon icon for instant illumination; a light-bulb-in-a-balloon will
do nicely.

How deliciously ironic it is that the CD12 does everything that the
LP12 was supposed to do but didn’t. It’s not just its clarity of
purpose, its utter control of the medium, its lack of fatigue
inducing-nasties, nor even its freedom from the bullshit which was
needed to sell LP12s. Somewhere along the line, Linn’s pyrite-eared
listening team discovered stereo, stage depth, bass richness, treble
smoothness and midband warmth. It’s a miracle that they discerned it
through Linn speakers…

Quite blatantly, the CD12 transcends all of the Flat Earth nonsense,
even the now-hoary PRAT* factor. Apologies, lies, hyperbole, excuses,
exaggeration, rhetoric: none of these sales techniques are required
because the CD12 speaks – no, make that for itself. There’s no
need to have Ivor hiding behind a curtain, wiggling the controls for a
lion, a tin woodsman and a scarecrow. The CD12 makes music. And that’s
enough.

Those who first heard the Wilson WATT/Puppy, the original Apogee,
the Nakamichi 1000, the Krell KSA50 or other true milestones during
their launch periods know precisely what it’s like to witness the birth
of an audio landmark. It’s difficult, for example, to appreciate what a
revelation the original Quad electrostatic must have been, nearly 50
years after its unveiling. Conversely, the debuts of
yet-another-conventional-two-way-box-speaker or
the-umpteenth-30W-integrated make no lasting impressions. The CD12
falls into the first category, joining – specifically – a progression
of truly sensational, possibly revolutionary CD players which prove how
disastrously wrong was the circa-1984 patter of Ivor Tiefenbrun. What a
lovely way to be hoisted on one’s own petard.

At no point does the CD12 sound, uh, . It recreates space,
it doesn’t tamper with textures. It takes full advantage of the
background silence offered by CD, while rising above the very dynamic
constraints which Ivor always argued were one of CD’s intrinsic, fatal
limitations. Most of this month’s audiophile CDs were assessed through
the CD12, itself an act of largesse likely to add an extra [*] per
rating. As if endorsing Linn’s own Claire Martin CDs, the CD12 caresses
well-recorded voices. Recent Dean Martin and Bobby Darin transfers of
Capitol recordings possess a lush sheen uncannily in keeping with the
sound of rich moving-coil cartridges, classic tube amps and ribbon
speakers. I swear: the CD12 even highlights the sonic – as opposed to
the practical – virtues of gold over aluminium CDs.

I leave the CD12 baffled yet amused. That chewing sound is me eating
my words. The ’12’s supremacy is so audible as to be indisputable by
all but Linn’s rivals; none of them will be able to overcome their egos
to give credit where it’s due, to acknowledge the achievement of a
competitor (i.e. Schumacher’s attitude is typical; Jackie Stewart’s
largesse is not). Antithetically, I find it hard to accept that a
company once so opposed to CD rose to such heights. It’s sort of like
discovering gourmet food at McDonald’s, witty jokes by Mark Thomas,
human kindness in Milosevic, wisdom in Blair. This isn’t just top-grade
data conversion; it’s religious conversion.

Like I said, there’s no anti-smoker like an ex-smoker. And everyone knows that former-chimney Ivor quit.

Additional Resources
• Read more source component reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Find a receiver to pair with this source.
• See more about the audiophile world at AudiophileReview.com.
• Discuss all kinds of gear at hometheaterequipment.com.

*Pace Rhythm And Timing

SIDEBAR
Some of you might be wondering why our coverage – the
first in the UK – seems like the last in the world. Japan got the CD12
first, all of the American reviews appeared in print before April, and
I’ve seen reviews in journals from other territories. So what gives?
Simple: Linn is no longer the UK-centric brand it once was. Just as it
recognised (grudgingly) that CD was here to stay, so, too, has Linn
acknowledged the total insignificance of its home market. Like it or
not, the UK – once Linn’s
market – is now barely more relevant than Norway…which I know for a
fact is next in the queue. So this time, British grumbles about pricing
or availability will fall on deaf ears: the CD12 wasn’t made for you.
The CD12 is probably the finest CD player in the world, but – in
Wayne’s words – we’re not worthy.

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