Linn CD 12 Compact Disc Player Reviewed

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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.

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*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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HTR Product Rating for Linn CD 12 Compact Disc Player

Criteria Rating

Performance

5

Value

3.5

Overall

4.5

Disagree with our product rating? Email us and tell us why you think this product should receive a higher rating.


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