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A Visit to Linn – Factory Tour

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Back in 2010 I was introduced to Linn audio products when I reviewed the Majik DS-I, an integrated amplifier and digital streamer. At that time I first began to learn about Linn’s audio philosophy and the highly creative thinking that goes along with it. In 2011 I reviewed the Akurate DS digital streamer and found it to be among the best network music players that I had heard to date. I was able to add the Kontrol pre-amplifier and 4200 amp to hear more of the Linn sound. Finally, at the end of 2011 I was able to hear a complete Linn Aktiv system by adding a pair of Akurate 2200 amps and the Aktiv 242 speakers. This was the first time that I had a completely active speaker system whose crossovers were all active components and whose drivers were each powered by separate amps. The level of clarity was exceptional.

I was so enamored by the Linn products I heard that I vowed to visit Linn’s Glasgow headquarters and factory if I was ever in Scotland. The opportunity arose when my family scheduled a spring break vacation to Edinburgh and London. I contacted Linn’s US distributor, Darrin Kavanagh of TC Group. Darrin and his wife Jen Kavanagh were fabulous in handling all of the logistics and setup of my review of the entire Akurate Aktiv system, and they came through again by arranging a tour on Monday, March 25th.

Heading to Glasgow

Glasgow is only a 45-minute train ride from Edinburgh, and my hotel was next to the central Edinburgh train station, so I hopped the train and then a cab to get to Linn’s headquarters, which is located at the far south end of the Glasgow metropolitan area, where the country transitions from an urban environment to farms and woods. As I drove up the access road to the facility I thought that it would be very pleasant to work on high end audio in this tranquil environment.

The people at Linn were all very welcoming and friendly, and I was introduced to Mark Hanson, Linn’s Sales Manager. Mark started with Linn after engineering school and worked in various engineering and manufacturing positions before becoming sales manager. As a result, I had a tour guide who was familiar with the design, manufacturing and sales sides of Linn.

I had hoped for an hour of his time and a brief tour, but Mark treated me to a complete and detailed factory tour, lunch in the cafeteria and some very fine listening in the company’s full-home system demo rooms. It was a fascinating journey through some of today’s most innovative audio concepts.

Linn’s Purpose-Built Facility

The first thing I learned was that the Linn factory and headquarters were conceived as a purpose-built facility for the design and manufacture of high end audio components. Let’s start with the factory.

Some parts of the factory focus on components for Linn’s famous turntables, some on Linn’s cutting edge digital products, some on speaker assembly and some on amplification. The entire manufacturing area is served by a sophisticated automated warehouse where bins of necessary parts and components are mechanically retrieved and delivered to robots that deliver those parts and components to individual work stations. Specific subcomponents are made in specialized manufacturing areas and then sent to individual workstations where the complete product is finally assembled by an individual who puts his or her name to that product. There is no traditional “production line.” Each assembler assumes responsibility for product quality.

Once I donned my anti-static jacket we started the tour. Though Linn purchases some parts and subcomponents, such as woodwork, from third-party suppliers, virtually all metalwork is done in-house. That is where we started the factory portion of the tour.

The Factory

Since much of Linn’s production is made in response to specific customer orders, and since many of Linn’s digital and amplification products can be customized, there is a substantial amount of production that is custom-made in small quantities. The metalwork operation reflects this, including the ability to paint products in custom colors (within reason!). The metalworking operation is also responsible for ensuring that all fasteners fit within very tight tolerances to ensure, among other things, excellent electrical continuity. The metal parts are also masked, painted and labeled. As you can imagine, the pre-painting masking process is one critical point since even a very small amount of paint in the wrong place can impair electrical flow.

While in the metalworking section of the factory I got to inspect the cases that are used for Klimax components. Those cases are each machined from a solid billet of aluminum (“aluminium” in the British Isles). Among other things, this enables the case itself to act as a very good heat sink, thus minimizing or eliminating the need for add-on heat sinks and similar heat-dissipating techniques.

We next moved into the portion of the factory where the circuit boards are assembled. As you might expect, today’s audio electronics make extensive use of circuit boards for numerous functions. In particular, front-end digital components such as DACs perform their magic using sophisticated calculations, and Linn is especially well-known for its front-end components. Linn makes all its own circuit boards, and this operation is fascinating and impressive to watch. The tiniest parts come first, followed by the larger ones, and followed further by testing of each board’s electrical connections and functionality. Records are kept of all of the testing history for future reference.

We then entered the area where assembly and testing take place. The assembly area adjoins the automated warehouse. Robots move between the warehouse and the assembly floor, bringing the subcomponents needed for the particular assembly task. There is no traditional production line – one person assembles the whole product at an individual workstation with robots moving the warehouse and each station, bringing the parts. Linn believes that this gives each assembler pride of authorship in each product he or she assembles, and the high quality and reputation of Linn products supports this approach. I had conversations with several folks in the assembly area and all of them appeared to genuinely take great pride in their work.

Final testing of each product follows assembly, and custom test stations are in place to handle this task. As was the case at each other step of the process, the automation involved was a treat to watch, but in all cases a human being verified what the automated machines were doing.

Though most of my time in the assembly area was spent with assembly of electronics, we also toured the speaker and turntable/tonearm assembly areas. The revered Linn Sondek LP12 is still in production. The Sondek was the product that first showcased Linn’s front-end-first philosophy – that information lost at the front end was lost forever, no matter how good the rest of the reproduction chain. I realized I was gazing at over 30 years of high end turntable design and manufacturing expertise.

The Linn Showcase

There was so much more to the factory tour than I’ve described here, but I want to get to the fabulous real-world demonstration area of Linn’s facility. Though the factory and its automation was very impressive, and notwithstanding the beehive of activity in Linn’s R&D area where 45 engineers work full-time to extract more and more from Linn’s products, Linn’s demonstration area is where it all comes together.

For those of you who don’t know, Linn has also been in the forefront of high end server-based music. Linn’s original DS products were the first high-end digital stream players that could natively play the highest quality 24-bit Studio Master files. The more recent DSM product line adds various analog, SPDIF, TOSLINK and HDMI connections as well as an on-board pre-amplifier (and power amplifier in the case of Majik DSM) so the DSM can be the hub for any and all of your sources. No wonder then that Linn’s demo system showcases power of a networked home system.

The hub of Linn’s system is compact and inconspicuous, employing a Mac Mini, a NAS and a router (see Linn’s website for descriptions of various system setup possibilities).

This hub runs a system that serves living room, dining room, kitchen, office, bedroom and bathroom audio systems. Each room is set up in a real-world configuration which permits the listener to hear what the system will really sound like when set up in a home. (Of course, some insane audiophiles – like me – will want room treatments, room correction, dedicated power, megabuck cables, etc.) The living room is graced with Linn’s Klimax components and the dining room with an Akurate system, while the other rooms use various Majik and Sneaky systems. Each room can play the same program (with perfect synchronization, by the way, — a gripe I have with some multi-room systems) or other programs. The system can be controlled via iPad or other tablets and the files are transmitted wirelessly throughout the rooms (using the fabulous Ubiquity wireless system – check it out). Using the Songcast app, any part of the system can override the main server and play music files that are not located on the main server but are (for example) on your laptop.

A Bit About Linn Music and Studio Masters

Linn folks will tell you that they are a music company, not merely a company that sells audio components. Indeed, they also record and sell music downloads and operate Linn Radio (with several stations). Linn Radio plays the music that Linn sells over the internet, so you can listen to it all in toto before buying without any ads to interrupt your enjoyment.  The music is transmitted at a higher resolution than the transmissions made by the vast majority of other Internet stations, and is available using the TuneIn Radio app.

Downloads are available at high resolution, and they include Linn’s Studio Masters. Studio Masters are high resolution music files, but many of them are also mastered in a unique fashion. Whereas most recordings are immediately sent to the mastering studio, many recordings which are done for Linn are immediately listened to by the entire orchestra or band, who can then immediately comment on where the recording is deficient. This information is communicated to the mastering engineer so that the engineer is not guessing about recording deficiencies. Instead, the engineer knows precisely what adjustments are appropriate to realize the performers’ intent. Simple, but highly effective.

Conclusion

I want to thank Mark Hanson and the other Linn employees who took time to chat with me during the tour. Your hospitality was greatly appreciated and made my already-enjoyable trip to Scotland something special. I hope to hear and review more Linn products in the future, and you readers should take a listen.

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