Military manoeuvres come no more complicated. Merely considering a 'top secret' review involving a panel of seven or so listeners is to court disaster, as 'secrets' and 'journalists' are mutually incompatible. But we knew, as the only British hi-fi magazine surviving from 1972, that it was down to us to mark a momentous occasion: 25 years of the controversial, notorious Linn Sondek LP12. Linn, we knew, would be celebrating with the gorgeous, highly desirable, limited-edition LP12 bearing suitable anniversary cosmetics gracing our front cover. We, on the other hand, decided to ring in the changes by gauging the LP12's entire evolution in one searing, never-before-performed comparison test.
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Arranged, under Linn's auspices, was the comparison of a Mk I, circa-1972, pre-upgrade, pre-killer-power-supplies LP12 versus the very latest incarnation. We would chart its evolution not bit by bit, an upgrade at a time (though that would have made an interesting book-length test), but by comparing the eldest with the youngest to learn what 25-years' worth of upgrades offered over the undiluted original. With the exception of the two decks themselves, everything else would be absolutely identical: arms, cartridges, phono stages, shared amplification and speakers. But we hadn't reckoned on the Seventies Linn disease and its Linn-gering symptoms. Which you could look at another way: at least that particular aspect of Linn ownership appears to have remained constant over a quarter century...
It started out with the inability of a Linnman to understand that this article was about the LP12 - not Ittok, not Kan, not Arkiv, not Ivor. What we required, just as in Olden Times when such things as comparative reviews of turntables existed, were nothing more than two LP12s representing the beginning and the present. Same arm, cartridge, ad nauseum. After much pleading, it was agreed if never quite understood.
To ensure that Linnman would not be able to whine and moan, it was stated categorically that:
(1) Linn would set up the turntables, be present during the listening sessions AND participate, even though the latter was an iffy proposition as they would know which turntable was on the left and which was on the right, through the screen semi-obscuring the decks;
(2) I would only collate the information and write the report rather than join the panel given that (a) the session needed a moderator and (b) I have been, am and always will be a Linn Skeptik;
(3) The panel would have Linn's approval.
We settled on the two Linnmen plus
Head Linnman either owns a cheap watch or firmly believes that the press is there to be harrassed. The sessions were scheduled for noon. He arrived at 1.30pm. With two LP12s 'still in the crate': no pre-mounted arms nor cartridges, ad nauseum.
The listening began at 4.30pm.
Our bile having settled by that time, the listeners rated eight pieces of music on each turntable, not knowing which deck was in use, with the following criteria on a grade of 1-10, with 10 being the best: Bass, Mid, Treble, Transparency, Dynamics, Stereo Imaging and PRAT (pace, rhythm and timing). In cases where some listeners chose not to assess a track or a category, the averages were adjusted, but none involved less than five listeners except for PRAT, where only four of the seven didn't feel that it was "A load of bollocks", "A load of old cobblers", "Crap" or "Wha?!?".
Unsurprisingly, seven listeners judging two turntables with six selections and seven categories generate a lot of data. Track by track and turntable by turntable, here's how they scored, with the averaged ratings reading left-to-right for bass, mid, treble, transparency, dynamics, stereo imaging and PRAT, followed by the averaged overall scoring.
1) 'Satin Doll', Bill Berry:
Turntable A (new LP12): 5.5/6.0/6.6/6.1/6.1/6.5/6.7 (AV = 6.21)
Turntable B (old LP12): 6.0/6.8/6.8/6.3/6.5/5.9/6.6 (AV = 6.41)
2) 'Cry Me A River', Ella Fitzgerald:
Turntable A (new LP12): 5.8/6.4/6.2/6.0/5.7/6.5/6.6 (AV = 6.17)
Turntable B (old LP12): 5.5/6.5/6.0/6.0/5.5/6.4/6.5 (AV = 6.05)
3) St Paul Chamber Orchestra
(Sound 80 Direct-To-Disc)
Turntable A (old LP12): 5.5/6.2/6.2/5.8/6.1/5.8/6.0 (AV = 5.94)
Turntable B (new LP12): 6.0/5.9/5.9/5.7/6.0/6.5/6.7 (AV = 6.10)
4) 'Blues Power', Albert King:
Turntable A (new LP12): 6.2/6.8/6.5/6.8/6.5/6.7/7.7 (AV = 6.74)
Turntable B (old LP12): 5.3/6.1/6.0/6.1/5.8/6.5/7.0 (AV = 6.11)
5) 'I Can See Clearly Now', Ray Charles:
Turntable A (old LP12): 4.9/5.7/5.5/5.1/5.2/5.1/5.4 (AV = 5.27)
Turntable B (new LP12): 6.3/6.1/6.0/6.5/6.5/6.8/7.2 (AV = 6.48)
6) 'Jerusalem', Alpha Blondy & the Wailers:
Turntable A (old LP12): 5.5/5.6/6.2/5.8/5.0/5.0/5.0 (AV = 5.44)
Turntable B (new LP12): 7.0/7.0/7.4/7.4/6.5/6.6/6.5 (AV = 6.91)
Now let's look at the overall average scores for the two turntables:
Original LP12: 5.87
Latest LP12: 6.43
While there are those who'll question the validity or methodology, I'm dazzled by the consistency. For example, the old LP12 'bettered' the current version only once, and that was with the first track when the listeners were becoming acclimatised. Then there are anomalies, like the only track which actually had panelists withdraw from the listening was the one chosen by Linnman and which presented the most favourable performance from the current LP12. Other nasty little thoughts which occurred were: Did the Linnmen do a better set-up job on the current model than on the original? Since they set up the decks, could they tell which one was being played just by my movements, and did they score accordingly?
But those are churlish musings unworthy of this magazine. And besides: I'm not worried because the results, even given the desire to castrate an inconsiderate Linn employee, reflect what I heard. From my vantage point, and with the knowledge of which one was playing at all times, the latest LP12 was cleaner, clearer, more precise, better controlled and able to deliver deeper bass. The old one, however, wasn't massacred by the 25-years-younger descendent. It appeared a bit smoother, a shade richer, a bit less hi-fi.
But the real revelation is this: so close are the overall scores that Linn's designers and staff can be satisfied in the knowledge that they got it so right so long ago. By all means, make your way through the extensive upgrade path. But if you can't afford to uprate a vintage example, you can sleep just as easily as the owner of the 1997 vintage.
Linn Products Limited, Floors Road, Waterfoot, Glasgow G76 0EP, Scotland.
Tel: 0141 307 7777; Fax: 0141 644 4262.
Customer Services on Freephone 0500-888909
Web site: http://www.linn.co.uk
BOX NO 1: THE LP12 SYSTEM
Circa 1997, the complete top-of-the-range package consists of the LP12, a belt-drive, three-point-suspended sub-chassis turntable using a patented, low-noise, single-point bearing 'to eliminate noise and optimise information retrieval'. The unit features a solid wood plinth, stainless steel chassis, a beautifully machined 3.75kg platter and stable arm platform. It's driven by the Lingo power supply, which uses two low distortion sine waves separated by 90 degrees from two high voltage amplifiers, the sine waves derived from a low noise crystal oscillator. A special circuit monitors the motor and during start-up drives the motor hard enough to set the platter rotating; when speed 'lock' is achieved the power is reduced to a level at which the motor runs almost silently. It was introduced in 1972 as a 33 1/3rpm-only player, but has since been made capable of playing proper singles.
Both decks were fitted with Ekos tonearms, dynamically balanced and featuring temperature-compensated precision-springs ensure constant tracking and bias forces, ultra-low friction bearings and 'clean room' assembly to guarantee performance and longevity. All of the main components are machined from solid, with advanced alloys and adhesives employed to maximise strength and mechanical integrity. The Ekos is fitted with low-loss cable and gold connectors and an easy-to-use hydraulic lift/lower device. Effective mass is 11.5g This arm has been in service since 1988.
At the business end was the Arkiv moving coil cartridge, feeding the brand-new Linto phono pre-amp. The Arkiv was introduced in 1992; we heard its £1200 successor, said to be "a significantly enhanced version". Tracking has been improved and the output is higher than that of the original Arkiv. The new Arkiv features a revised stylus assembly, with a more highly developed line contact stylus shape attached to a super rigid boron cantilever. Constructed around a solid alloy chassis for its extra rigidity, Arkiv contains a damped suspension mechanism supporting hand-wound coils, terminated with gold contacts. Tracking force is 1.8-2.0g, the coil impedance 4 ohms, the recommended load >50ohms and the output 0.4mV, but none of these concerned us as the Arkiv was fitted to the arm for which it was designed, and fed into a phono pre-amp conceived to match it perfectly, thus ensuring that the review system was fed precisely what the Arkiv could deliver.
The Linto Direct-Coupled Precision Phono Preamplifier's input stage takes the cartridge signal directly into the Linto's amplifying transistors. As such, the phono signal sees neither resistors nor cartridge loading networks sitting in the signal path. The Linto is powered by the 'Brilliant Switch Mode silent power supply', proprietary power supply technology which, with extensive internal shielding, ensures sonic integrity. Signals were fed into the Musical Fidelity A-1000 line inputs and level matched by Paul Miller a track at a time.
By the way, an LP12/Lingo/Ekos/Arkiv/Trampolin retails for £4375.00. I think that for an original LP12, you paid just the last two digits.
Read even more about the LP12 on Page 2 . . .