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Linn Klimax DS

Price (Klimax DS only): 10 450 GBP

Distribution: Linn Polska

Contact:
Linn Polska

e-mail: info@linnpolska.pl

WWW: LINN

Text: Wojciech Pacuła
Translation: Marek Dyba

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Lets try to imagine a designer who hit the wall with his design. He can keep working on some improvements, enhancements but it will still keep him at the same side of this wall. To make a real breakthrough he has to risk it, go to the places nobody went before him to. That sounds crazy, doesn't it? It is crazy … and that's how the greatest ideas are born, how the progress is made. I think you could use this small story anywhere, anytime and it would always fit somebody who does some great things. One of such people is Ivor Tiefenburn, the owner of Linn.

I remember exactly how excited I was when listening to this company's HDCD player - Sondek CD12. It was designed out of Ivor's love for … vinyl and it proved how skillful and ambitious Scotts could be. It was (as it is not manufactured anymore) brilliant, beautiful device offering highest quality sound. When it came to improving it the designer hit the wall I mentioned at the beginning. He said it was still possible to design a better player – SACD one. But that would be just a small step – surely not a leap forward. The solution came from unexpected side – from Linn Records which was a part of the same corporation but dealt with recording and issuing the music. They realized that they had a great archives of high resolution mother-tapes. The next step was done with creating professional internet store where anybody could buy their music in almost any format including files almost identical to mother-tapes. Almost, as not all new 24/192 recordings are really mother-tapes. For couple of years already Linn puts their recordings to DSD files. As I've just learned Linn is presently the largest SACD label in the world! That's why some 24/192 and 24/96 recordings are in fact conversions from DSD format to PCM. Then Scotts realized that Sony didn't really care about their own technology so they moved from DSD format to DXD. That means they now record 24bits/384kHz PCM signal and then convert it to 24/192. For now DXD is still used only by recording studios. Audiophiles don't really have the means to use this format but hopefully it should change soon enough.

But I wanted to tell you about something else: Ivor asked his engineers to design a new player but they told him that any technology based on using some physical medium and thus involving some mechanical parts would be a dead end. The answer was the first DS – Digital Stream Player. Well – it is a file player. Every company that offers such devices came up with their own name - Naim, Blacknote and Linn. These device are sometimes called „servers” (which is wrong of course), but in fact these are specialized devices for playing audio files. So I am going to call them file players. So what such a player do? You might say it does exactly the same as CD player, but it can do more. Within CD player we might name three main sections: drive, D/A converter and output, and user interface. It is the same with file players but each section's functions were redefined. Klimax DS, that represents a great example, consists of three separate elements:
1. The main one which is a player and DAC with output section.
2. Hard drive – so called „mass storage device”, where you save and store your music files.
3. User's interface.

The main difference (comparing to CD player) is that you need a CD only once to rip it and save on the HDD. Distributor delivered together with Klimax also a device called RipNAS – you just have to put in the CD and it will be automatically ripped to FLAC file. RipNAS includes in fact two HDDs – one is for storage and the other one is a backup copy (to make sure you won't loose your music if one the drives fails). Software used is dBPoweramp CD Ripper – I have also my copy on the notebook. Using it you can rip a standard CD in less than 4 minutes and decode HDCD with 24-bits resolution! The final result will be always a perfect copy in a FLAC file. If you have high resolution files you need to send them to RipNAS directly from your computer with a cable, but wireless connection will do it too. It might sound like a complex process but it's not – once you try it you will find it very simple. The second difference comparing to CD player is lack of any buttons or knobs in the main unit. There is only a small display showing artist's name and song's title – but to be honest from my point of view they might have even skipped installing this display. You can display the content of your whole music library in one of few ways – on your computer's screen (Linn delivers software for the computer called KinskyDesktop) or on your iPod Touch (iPhon too), or you could use a large touch screen tablet. Playing files is even simpler than playing CDs. Of course CD player's users have some habits so for me personally it was easier to play files with Bladelius Embla and Naim HDX, because these devices had a touch screen and a front panel which made them more similar to a CD player. I didn't have to use computer to play the music – but this is just me.

Klimax DS is capable of playing many types of files and their resolution might be up to 24/192. FLAC, WAV, AIFF, MP3 are not a problem and it offers a possibility to listen to internet radio too. It is also upgradable device as the changes are done to the software and software upgrades are free for all customers. Linn is one of the very few manufacturers who work hard on software development and when they come up with some novelties delivers them to the customers without any fee. What's more they are supported by a great tool – their own records label and their internet shop where HD music files are available. Combination of all these three elements: hardware, software and knowledge how to use them both together puts Linn in a unique position on the market and gives them obvious advantage. Watching closely company's development, devices they offer, and listening to these devices you can come to only one conclusion - Ivor is making most of this knowledge.
Tested player - Klimax DS – is the top model in Linn's range and one of the most expensive ones on the market. Its design was supposed to look much like legendary Linn's Sondek CD12. Klimax size differs from CD12's and the weight is even bigger as the chassis was made of solid aluminum slabs. There is a blue display in the front placed under half-round Sondeck-like frame. Back panel includes one Ethernet socket – and the outputs – gold-plated Neutrik's XLRs and high-quality WBT's RCAs. As usually in this manufacturer's products signal goes in the device in unbalanced form but there is also a new solution for outputs. This time Linn decided to use fantastic Lundahl's output transformers with separate secondary windings for XLR and RCA outputs. This allows for simultaneous use of both outputs and make the output stage simpler as there is no need for using active DC-servos.
It all looks super-professional but I wish that digital inputs were included. Yes I know that there is RipNAS, and one could also use computer for input but I am still bit old-fashioned and from time to time I would like to put „good old CD” to the transport and than use digital processing by Klimax. But that's just me, and it's just one small thing I came up with after visual inspection of the device.

So far we've tested following Linn's products:
Classik Music + Majik 109
Majik DS
Majik CD + Majik-I
Akurate CD

SOUND

When I listened to more and more recordings ripped by RipNAS, these ripped on my computer, sent wireless directly to DS, and also the same files played from my computer using USB D/A Converter Wavelength Cosecant v3 and comparing them to the recordings played by my new Ancient Audio player (it was supposed to be called Prime SE, but finally this was a totally new design so the name should be different – probably Air) I created some story in my mind. But such stories are usually full of shortcuts, emotions so I would like to take a different approach this time and describe my impressions recording by recording. It should be different from my regular test descriptions but this approach should help to make it more clear and unequivocal And this is very important as in my opinion Klimax DS is a milestone device – revolutionary one, something like Matrix for the movie industry.

Barb Jungr, Love Me Tender, Linn Records, AKD 255, SACD/HDCD; review HERE
CD version was played by my Lektor, SACD by Accuphase DP-700; but I also had a chance to compare these two with PCM 24/96 file downloaded from Linn Records. This was the first recording I listened to with Klimax, and I already knew that there had really been a reason for creating this kind of device. This was a sound of highest quality comparable only with the best CD players I knew. It is high resolution material that is a clear advantage of Linn but the rich timbre, harmonics, great ability of differentiating sounds made me willing at the very beginning to admit Ivor was right. At first I couldn't really comprehend what I heard, I thought it sounded bit lean. After some time I realized it was a problem of the level of volume. Klimax DS needs to play bit louder – it can't just create a background for reading a book or talking – than you might think that the sound is kind of boring, lean, lifeless. Only turning the volume up will get the best out of Linn.

e.s.t., Viaticum, Music+Vision, ACT 6001-2, 2 x CD; review HERE
RipNAS ripped this CD with standard 16/44,1 kHz. I compared it with CD played from Lektor. It confirmed what I heard already with Jungr's recording – sound offered by Linn had bit less weight and was less rich that the one I knew from the best CD players I'd known like Jadis and Reimyo, and to some extension also comparing to my new Ancient Audio player. And it didn't have less weight because bass didn't have the proper extension – just on contrary… Linn's bass went really deep, it was almost as low as from these best CD player - Jadis. It was more consistent and better differentiated comparing to my Lektor, which by the way was a huge step forward in this regard comparing to Lektor SE. But since Klimax bass was not that rich like the one from mine CD player or from Accuphase DP-700 and it seemed that the tonal balance was moved up. Interestingly Klimax upper high-range was bit laid back. The problem was not with the tone of cymbals – these were presented perfectly specially when played from HD files, but the problem was in the noise even above the tone of cymbals – Lektor showed more of this noise because it was there in the recording. Of course noise is not what we listen to but different presentation proved that particular device modified this part of the range in some way. Cymbals were very nice, precise but not rough, with the „taste of sweetness”, meaning something that made them more real sounding than hyper-precise presentations of some CD players. Lektor showed piano closer to the listener – it had a really big „body”. In comparison Linn seemed less colored which made a bit of warmth in Lektor's lower midrange sound like an abberance from neutrality. From many other comparisons I knew that this was not really a flaw of Ancient Audio player – it simply showed bigger body also over time, but Klimax DS's sound was so precise that any different one would have seemed not „accurate”.

Helge Lion Trio, Hello Troll, Ozella Music, FLAC 24/96; review HERE
I used same material on both Klimax and my laptop and it was 24/96 FLAC file downloaded from Linn Records. It turned out that Linn's player let all recordings had their own character but at the same time it always presented also its own attributes. So I could hear that bass was not that massive as the one from above mentioned Wavelength Cosecant v3. American DAC made the diaphragms of my Dobermanns „fight” the air in every single millisecond. Bass was extremely well controlled and still very punchy and „big”. It was not how double-bass really sounded like or the sound of this instrument recorded with microphone placed in some distance – just the opposite. I could hear that the microphone had been placed very close to the bass and it was the effect sound engineer wanted to achieve.

Not that Linn played it in a „light” way – there was drive, extension but no such a slam I was used to. On the other hand top-range was significantly better than from Wavelength No doubts this was forté of this player. Cymbals were extremely clear, very well placed in the space. The piano, a trio in fact, was presented with a little too bright upper midrange and wasn't so colorful. But it might have been more true sounding. What I meant was that this American DAC had been created with some specific vision of how it should have sounded. Yes, you could improve some things here and there but the basics: clarity, lack of coloration and great resolution of sound point out Linn as more prospective device. In this comparison Cosecant's sound was more euphonic and bit „slow”. It was still a very good sound achieved from laptop and USB DAC, but comparing to Klimax it looked just as the beginning of the road, and Klimax went down that road much much further. This particular recording confirmed what I had heard before – if I used a good hi-res file (as with every format also hi-res has to be done right to sound good) new perspectives opened for exploration. Something that couldn't be achieved using regular CD because of the limitations of this standard. Such a greatly prepared hi-res recording revealed the real class of Klimax DS – kids would have said „Klimax DS ruled!”. First contact with this medium showed only small improvements over playing CD – sound was clearer, deeper, richer etc. But as with every hi-end device I needed to learn it first to appreciate its real value.

The Beatles, 09.09.09 sampler, Parlophone/Apple/EMI Music, 84414 2 5, promo 2 x CD; review HERE
For this duel I used CD remastered stereo version and hi-res 24 bits/44,1 kHz file on a pen-drive. This was amazing experience. 24 bits version played by Klimax and 16 bits one from Lektor sounded almost identical. Almost as there was one small detail that became more and more obvious and more important to me with every recording and eventually caused CDs to loose this battle. At the beginning version from the file seemed to offer quieter vocal. Voices were more hidden, melted in the background, not so distinct as from the CD. But I realized that material on CD was simply more compressed and that made them sound more evenly, there was no ease in vocal's dynamics changes that I could hear from hi-res file. The timbre of voices was similar in both cases, but file offered „more” of everything and ”better” which proved that with more information in the hi-res source material the sound of Klimax became richer bit more rounded, which made it more like the sound from Lektor but offering better resolution, dynamics, and some smoothness that my CD player simply didn't have.

Frank Sinatra, My Way, Reprise/Universal Music Japan/Sinatra Society of Japan, UICY-94368, SHM-CD; review HERE
I compared CD played by Lektor and same material ripped on RipNAS and played by Klimax. Copy made by RipNAS was a very good one and sounded very similar to CD played by Lektor. But I was able to find out some differences. CD player offered deeper timbre, upper end was bit sweeter. Klimax sounded more dry, not so thrilling. But these differences were incredibly small. After thorough consideration only if I really had to choose I would have said that I preferred sound from Lektor. That was the first time I heard such a great sound – except for very few ultra-expensive players – from other player than my new Lektor. Klimax offered also something I was lacking a bit in Lektor's sound – clearer sound and bit better resolution. So me choosing sound from CD proved rather my devotion to physical medium (CD) and my personal choice of a tone. If I really had based on something we call „neutrality” than I would have chosen Scottish player. This was a really tough choice and made me appreciate guys from Linn even more!

Tina Brooks, True Blue, Blue Note/Wave Audio, AWMXR-0004, XRCD24
XRCD24 was ripped using RipNAS and than compared with CD played by Lektor. Linn offered bit more spacial sound. I could hear more „air” behind performers. Lektor on the other hand showed Hubbard's trumpet and Brooks saxophone in more intimate way, slightly pumping up lower midrange. Cymbals sounded bit richer from Lektor but the difference was very small. To be honest if I hadn't been trying so hard to hear the difference I probably wouldn't have, even though I love my Lektor so much!

John Coltrane, Blue Train, Blue Note/Classic Records, HDAD 2010, DVD-A 24/96+24/192
I own hi-res 24/192 version issued by Classic Records as their version of DVD-A format called HDAD. I copied it on my laptop using DVDExplorer first as WAV file and than as FLAC. I wanted to compare these two formats to find out which one sound better at least played by Linn. In Munich I participated in some sessions where the new invention of Reference Recordings called Hrx was presented. These were DVD-R discs with hi-res 24/176,4 material identical to mother-tape. Keith Johnson, the inventor of HDCD claims that only WAV files guaranty perfect reproduction of the sound that can't be achieved when using any compression, not even the lose-less one. He says that any processing of a file even in the digital domain alters it, and also that executing decoding of FLAC file effects the sound. In Munich we compared WAV and FLAC files with same material played with genius Boulder's 1021 player. This remarkable device accepted DVD-Rs with both FLAC and WAV files. And then I had absolutely no doubts that things should have been kept simple and this favored WAV files. This was the reason of quite a long dispute with Linn guys who came to install Klimax. They, basing also on Linn's boss – Ivor opinion, were convinced that properly prepared FLAC file played with decent player offered as good sound as WAV. So I decided to test Klimax and came down to it quite hard with hi-res 24/192 material. The file was big and secondly this particular music was a real challenge to any player. To be honest I thought that FLAC version sounded better, cymbals were better differentiated and saxophone sounded less nasal. Again the differences were very small but each time I listened to this particular piece of music (and I listened several times) I had same impression – WAV's sound was bit lifeless. That would have supported Linn's opinion.. Before I could declare it as a universal truth I would still have to listen to same files using different players. But for Klimax DS it was a fact – I chose sound from FLAC file over WAV.

Summary
Above I presented only some of the recordings I listened to when Klimax was here. I listened also to some HDCDs – RipNAS converted 20-bit HDCD signal to 24-bit files – and many, many CDs. It took me some time but finally I was able to formulate some conclusions that were vital for my own education and development. Klimax DS is one of the best players I've ever heard. Yes – players, not „servers” as its design might suggest. And as a player Klimax DS offers amazingly refined, precise, high resolution sound. When compared using material from CDs it could easily match with the top CD players. Of course I could say that Jadis, Reimyo and my Lektor offer bit richer midrange, that they sound attractive even at low sound levels. But at regular sound levels what you get from Klimax is just another vision of highest quality sound. Offered resolution and ability to differentiate recordings is simply superb. Soundstage is large, precise and well integrated with core sound. When hi-res files are used sound becomes richer, and bit softer but in a more natural way. The differences are maybe not overwhelming but if you play well prepared hi-res material you will realize the limitations of CD format very clearly. I am pretty sure that Mr Waszczyszyn and other visionaries haven't said their last word concerning CD players yet but what they can achieve are just some small improvements and not real quality leap forward. Klimax DS Progress in this area is really fast but you won't have to change the player, you will only have to upgrade its software when it is available.

When my wife found out that all my CDs could be ripped and stored in the small, black box told me she wanted to buy it immediately as she hated hundreds of CD boxes all over the house. She thinks the same about books which makes her potentially a first customers of new Apple's device that will allow reading books, surfing net and so on. She simply can't stand anymore the overwhelming quantities of all these things at home. And I can understand that. But still it will be difficult for me to get rid off physical mediums of music or books. A file is very anonymous, you don't know who prepared it (maybe Japanese will specialize in that too?). Even a good description of a file will not accommodate all the information we get in the booklet with CD, and also reading of that is easier in paper version. That is why I invested recently in the expensive CD player. On he other hand a vision of me not looking for particular recording on shelfs or all over the house and still getting the highest quality sound is very tempting. I think that these who plan buying Klimax DS will have to first change their habits, the way of thinking. Sound will not be a problem as they will get a top-performance player.

DESCRIPTION

As mentioned already before Klimax DS consists of three elements – player, file storage and user's interface. Some mass-storage you need to buy separately – Linn delivered along DS a RipNAS. It has two HDDs built in – one acting as a files storage and the other as backup. The main unit is made of a massive, heavy aluminum block with very nice proportions. The narrow font panel houses only a small half-round window with acrylic cover and blue alphanumeric dot-matrix display, that shows us information about the tune played at the moment. The top panel doesn't end when it meets the back panel. The idea behind it is that you can push Klimax against the wall until top panel touches it but even than there will be still enough space between back panel and the wall for all the connections, cables. There is a Ethernet socket, IEC socket with mechanical switch, and RCA and XLR outputs in the back panel. Placement of IEC socket excludes possibility of using any audio PC – you have to use a regular one „computer” type. According to Linn these work best – I disagree but I couldn't even try to prove that.

A look inside shows that this is a complex, technologically advanced device with quite small outputs circuits. The „heart” of the device is a microprocessor Virtex-4 Power-PC from Xilinx, and a precise clock placed next to it. There are also lot of different chips in there including one serving ethernet transfer, and some memory chips. But the most important is the output section. An important information – for each sampling frequency of input signal, starting from 32 kHz up to 192 kHz there are separate clocks with independent power supply. This solutions allows avoiding usage of PLL loop generators to create particular frequency which introduces lot of jitter to the signal. As this is top-of-the-line player so Linn guys maxed it out. D/A conversion is handled by two Wolfson Microelectronics WM8741GEDS chips per channel! Wolfson is quite a unique Scottish company based in Edinburgh – big enough to introduce to the market advanced applications, but at the same time small enough to cooperate with other companies to create some custom applications. Rega used this possibility already before and now Linn followed its footsteps. WM8741GEDS is a stereo 24/192 D/A converter with advanced ultra high performance Multi-bit Sigma-Delta architecture, with DSD bit-stream support. Its advantages include very low noise, high dynamics and advanced digital filtering. Device is equipped with interpolation system with dithering which means that all signals are changed to 24/192 form before conversion Signal is processed before in the powerful DSP chip. L4562 chips from National Semiconductor deal with i/U conversion All components use surface assembly except for output transformers. These are made by Lundahl and originally intended for matching microphone's inputs and these are the best there are. Another important information regarding Linn's design is that they use impulse power supplies. This technology has been almost totally abandoned by audiophiles (mostly for good reasons) but at the same time it has been perfected by Ivor. Even CD12 used same kind of PS… Klimax version I reviewed was equipped with the new version called Dynamik. You can control the device with remote control or iPod Touch (iPhone) or via computer. For the latter you will get nice software called KinskyDesktop. Regardless of how convenient this way of control was I lacked knobs and buttons in the front panel – old habits …

Klimax is extremely capable device when it comes to fitting into the system – you can use it for example to play files from your computer in your audio system. I can also recommend reading of a manual prepared by a Polish Linn's representative - HERE.

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