Once upon a time there was a Glaswegian engineer called Ivor Tiefenbrun who was dissatisfied with his recently purchased hi-fi system. He realised his turntable was being detrimentally affected by his speakers’ sound pressure, and, so, he went about creating a deck that wouldn’t be. The result: the Linn Sondek LP12, now considered one of history’s greatest turntables.
Those humble, well-told beginnings represent the genesis of one of today’s best-loved and acclaimed British hi-fi brands, Linn Products. Fittingly, its logo is a geometric illustration of the LP12’s 'single point' bearing.
Fast forward 47 years and the company’s merits span not only several further editions of that same turntable but also music streamers, one-box streaming systems, power amplifiers, active speakers and accessories – all high-end affairs, all assembled in its Glasgow-based factory. And, seeing as it's British Hi-Fi Week, here are our picks from over the last five decades...
Linn Isobarik (1974)
Linn’s roots may be turntable-shaped and grounded in a “source-first” philosophy, but it wasn’t long before the company spread its wings to make a pair of speakers. Just a year after the Sondek LP12 came the Isobarik speaker, priced at £1000 (around £12,000 in today’s money) and designed to deliver cleaner, extended bass response from a smaller-than-was-then-typical speaker cabinet.
How? Through its patented isobaric loading principle, which was based on the renowned ‘50s design by RCA Laboratories’ Harry Olson. This saw two bass units in a cone-to-magnet (in-phase) arrangement driven in parallel in a sealed enclosure. As for the two midrange drivers and two tweeters above, one of each faced forward while the second of each was mounted on the top surface of the cabinet.
Perhaps most notable about the existence of the active version of the Isobariks, however, was that their design led to Linn’s active speaker systems, which have been regular fixtures in the brand’s catalogue ever since. Inside each of them is an active crossover that splits the audio signal and matches it to each drive unit before being amplified by its own power amp.
Linn Kan (1979)
At the end of the '70s came a new entry-level speaker, Kan. The non-isobaric, two-way bookshelves used the same drivers as the previous speakers – a 19mm soft dome tweeter and a modified 110mm KEF B110 mid/bass unit – and were famously designed to work best near a wall. “Ideally the rear of the loudspeaker should be between 5 - 10cm from the wall and at least 45cm from any corner”, says the manual. Linn also designed bespoke stands for them. The second revisions, the Kan II, arrived in 1991, and were now biwirable.
Linn Axis (1985)
The rest of the ‘70s saw Linn sell its first moving-coil cartridge (Asak) and tonearm (Ittok LVII) for the LP12, and into the ‘80s Linn’s attentions spanned vinyl records (it cut its own acetate masters and started up its own independent record label), its first pre-amplifier (LK1) and power amp (LK2), and yet more upgrades to the LP12.
In amidst all of this, Linn also launched another turntable, the Axis – despite the prospect of CDs becoming the format of choice. (Ironically of course, its decks far out-lasted its own CD players, which ceased production in 2010).
You'd have felt for the Axis when it arrived, for it was always destined to sit in the shadow of the LP12. Still, the Axis had one-up on its sibling: it was more affordable, at £313. It was also easy to use (other than fitting the cartridge, the Axis required little in the way of setting up) and, as we said in our original review, delivered a "clean and tidy performance without fuss or untidiness. It was detailed and articulate, with a dependable, solid sort of presentation. Some may think that the LP12 turntable is a tough act for LInn to follow. The new Linn Axis shows that it's not."
Troika MC (1986)
One of those aforementioned LP12 innovations of the '80s is the Troika MC cartridge, exclusively designed for its Ittok tonearm.
Linn modified its existing “direct coupled” Ittok tonearm to cater for this new metal-bodied cartridge and its triple-mounting system, which due to its mechanical rigidity and strength, limited movement and vibration, and thus reduced signal distortion.
The 7g cartridge had a lifespan of eight years – it was discontinued in 1994 – but it very much lives on today in the second-hand market, and not far off its original price!
Linn Karik CD system (1992)
The Karik started life as Linn's debut standalone transport but soon enough Linn packaged it into a one-box affair.
The Karik of old was designed to be used with the brand's Numerik multi-bit DAC, the two flying the flag for jitter reduction in the digital-to-analogue process. While the new manifestation integrated different DAC technology to that found in the Numerik, we noted the similarity of the two's sonic performance.
The single-box Karik was "highly detailed" and "highly polished" – if you wanted to revel in precise detail, this was the box for you.
Linn Sondek CD12 MK1 (1997)
The creation of Linn’s flagship Klimax range of products can be traced back to the first Sondek CD12. This player featured the first loading mechanism that Lin had manufactured in-house and the chrome-plated drawer was machined from solid aluminium in an effort to make it completely silent. It also had another unique feature: you could simply tap the front of it to control the player.
The cavity inside the CD12 that housed the circuitry was machined out of aluminum by Castle Precision Engineering (Tiefenbrun’s former venture) to provide a new level of isolation for the acoustic path. Linn felt that by doing this it had taken performance far enough to justify creating a flagship line of products – and thus Klimax was born.
Linn Classik (1998)
A then-£1020 CD player/tuner/pre and power amp combo, the Classik was the first of its kind from Linn. It married a CD transport with a delta/sigma DAC, a 50-preset AM/FM tuner and 75 watts per channel of amplification. It even came boxed with a 2.5-metre pair of speaker cables!
We called it “cultured and fabulous to use” (words we doubt have been repeated in the pages of What Hi-Fi? since), and praised its performance capability: "It’s hard not to be delighted with the Linn Classik: this is a great combination of style and substance, with the performance expected of quality separates wrapped up in an undeniably cute package."
There’s little wonder the concept later evolved into the Classik Movie home cinema system, for DVD and multi-channel surround playback.
Linn Klimax Solo (1999)
The Solo was one of the first Klimax models. A monster of a machine, the flagship power amplifier packed 500 watts of power into its compact, milled-from-aluminum chassis, which was marvelled at as much then as it is today. The Solo – a version of which is still available – used Linn's switch-mode power supply.
Linn has long recognised the importance of keeping electrical noise as low as possible, and here it used two circuit boards – one for the power supply, one for the audio circuitry – in order to keep the signal path short and simple.
Linn Klimax DS (2007)
In the wake of the birth of Spotify, and arguably the music streaming world as we know it today, Linn entered the streamer market with a network player capable of playing a digital file over a home network rather than any physical format. And not just any stream but one up to 24-bit/192kHz – Linn’s own studio master recordings. It was the first Linn product with such native 'hi-res' support.
The Klimax DS was one of the earliest high-end streamers, and Linn didn’t hang around rounding-out the product offering with Akurate DS and Majik DS variants.
The streaming offering was complete with the introduction of Linn’s own control app (Kinksy) for browsing music and building playlists on Windows desktop. In 2011, DS players got HDMI inputs, as well as a Windows/Mac application called SongCast that allowed them to act as sound cards for computers. And these days the network players also boast Linn’s Katalyst DAC architecture and Space Optimization room EQ.
In 2017, we said the Klimax DS, “was without doubt the most transparent and insightful music streamer we’ve had in our test rooms” – and that’s still the case today.
Linn LP12 Klimax (2017)
You aren’t surprised to see a LP12 featured in this list, are you? The original Sondek LP12 was designed in a modular, upgradeable way so that its principal design would stand the test of time even as its key elements were developed and improved in the future. While virtually every part has been upgraded since the original, the LP12 is still in production today – and true to Tiefenbrun’s vision, all the important improvements are retrofittable on older decks.
A few years ago we revisited the LP12 Klimax (the ‘best of the best’ version of the three available), which then was a £1860 package, including the Ekos SE tonearm, Kandid moving-coil cartridge, Urika phono stage, Radikal power supply and Keel sub-chassis.
“There’s no denying that the range-topping LP12 is a mighty expensive thing… Yet, in most respects it’s startlingly better than what has gone before and is still right up there with the very best at this price,” we said in our 2017 review.
In 1994, Linn's LP12 took top honours at the What Hi-Fi? Awards (a notable year, as it was the last time that turntables would get their own dedicated category right up until it was reinstated in 2001). And 23 years on we concluded that “this old-timer’s still got it". Oh yes indeed.
Linn Selekt DSM (2019)
The arrival of the Selekt DSM last year marked Linn’s first-ever just-add-speakers streaming system. But, as you’ll know if you’ve read further up this list, it was by no means its first one-box system; that was the popular CD-playing Classik system twenty-odd years ago.
While other brands such as Arcam and Naim saw Linn's success and began getting in on the all-in-one system act themselves, eventually moving to streaming systems such as the Arcam Music Solo and Naim Uniti Atom, Linn has brought itself back up to speed with the (amplified version of) the Selekt DSM.
A modular and upgradeable, 100-watt-per-channel amplifier, integrated with Linn’s established streaming platform and sporting various inputs, it’s a top-end box of electronics one should really consider if, a) they're looking for a do-it-all, space-saving solution, and b) they can afford the outlay.
Linn Series 3 (2019)
Linn expanded its product type offering not once but twice last year. The most recent Linn arrival is the company’s first wireless speaker – and it’s an ambitious one, too, with a near-£3000 asking price. Thankfully, Linn’s ambition has paid off.
The Series 3 is, at the time of writing, the best-sounding wireless speaker we’ve ever heard, and has everything (bar, perhaps, an optical input and MQA support) you’d arguably desire from such a product: an exhaustive streaming platform, Bluetooth, AirPlay, HDMI connectivity, and a beautiful design that’s intuitive to use and control.
To reiterate our five-star review, “this is proper hi-fi”, no mistake. We wonder where Linn will go next?