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Linn Ikemi CD Player Review

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Ikemi CD PlayerAs evident in my recent 47 Laboratory 4713 Flatfish CD Transport/Player and 4705 Progression DAC review, it would seem that as our understanding and implementation of the art of CD playback advances, more companies are able to produce excellent CD playback systems with unprecedented implementations of the 16-bit/44.1kHz non-upsampling technique. Prime examples are 47 Lab’s standard decoding scheme, Audio Note’s 1×oversampling™ and in this review, Linn’s HDCD®-based delta-sigma conversion.

Linn experienced a surge in creativity in the 1990’s, when the company had already been hailed for its Sondek LP12 Transcription turntable for over a decade. This creativity-spawned development of a number of projects, among which was the far-reaching adaptation of the switching power supply for audio use. This technology is now in its third incarnation, patented as the “Brilliant” switch mode switching power supply. Embodied ultimately in the advanced Linn Klimax series of amplification, Linn’s superlative Sondek CD12 Transcription and Ikemi CD Players also draw power from the same power management technology. Drastically diminished in proportion to the common, bulky toroidal-based power supply system, Linn claims that its new “Brilliant” Switch Mode Power Supply is just as reliable and robust, able to regulate incoming power irregularities in the animation-suspending intervals of nanoseconds. Place the Klimax Solo amplifier next to an amplifier of a comparable 500-Watt/4-Ohm of rated output and it would be like putting a sleek briefcase next to a microwave oven. In fact, the Klimax is thinner than the Sondek CD12.

Linn is also working on a SACD/Multi-format player, which they hope to premiere at the January 2003 CES. When it becomes available, I shall also share my findings with our Stereo Times readers.

The Ikemi

Ikemi is Linn’s best CD player next to the Sondek CD12. Major technological highlights of the Ikemi are the Linn Brilliant switch mode switching power supply, the proprietary “2D” DSP algorithm, 24-bit/96kHz compatible 8-times oversampling Pacific Microsonics™ PMD200 HDCD® conversion and a 3.5-bit multi-level Delta-Sigma modulation. I shall let Linn address the technicality of this conversion system in a future column at the company’s discretion. Weighing at only 9 lbs, the Ikemi sports a one-piece, smooth-skin processed metal chassis that wraps the top and sides of the machine. While the Ikemi is larger than the Audio Note DAC One 1×Signature (being reviewed) and the 47 Lab Flatfish and Progression, it is deeper and narrower than the average CD player, and much smaller than my Sony SCD-777ES SACD Player, CEC TL1 CD transport and my former reference DAC, the Wadia 27 Decoding Computer. This unique physique distinguishes Linn’s new series of products from other companies’ in the touch of retro styling and subdued metallic appearance.

Predominantly occupying the front panel from the middle to the far right, the aluminum “precision-machined drawer” had a substantial feel, and along with the sturdiness of the operating mechanism, looked expensive to manufacture, differentiating itself instantaneously from trays found in other CD players. To the left of Ikemi’s front panel, seven main buttons lined up with five tiny ones inserted in between, resembling the keys on a piano keyboard. A low profile but versatile display resides above the buttons, and the power button sits at bottom right.

Ikemi’s two pairs of analog RCA outputs were very useful as I used one RCA pair for the 47 Laboratory 4706 Gaincard S Integrated Amplifier (under review) and a second pair for the subwoofer amplifier of the Genesis VI speakers. Since my system was optimized for RCA applications, I did not assess the Ikemi via its XLR analog outputs. Ikemi’s digital outputs were in BNC and XLR standards.

The included Linn system remote can turn off the digital output, as well as customize the operations of the Ikemi, such as auto play upon power on, last play memory, etc. I conducted the review with standard factory settings and the stock power cord.

System & Audition

This review will discuss the performance of Linn Ikemi as a CD player only. Its significance as a CD transport will be addressed in the future when space and time allows. The review took place amidst speaker changes. Excluding my Apogee Duetta Signature for its drastic inefficiency, all my speakers were rotated to play music with the Ikemi amplified by the dual-mono 47 Laboratory 4706 Gaincard S, with the Audio Note M3 presiding when driving the 89dB/4-Ohm ELAC 518. Then, the $20,000 Audio Note AN/E SEC Silver arrived in the last few weeks of the audition, and the listening impressions of the Ikemi via the AN were among the most definitive. Interconnects were my trusted Granite Audio #470, and speaker cable was my Cardas Quadlink 5C, supplemented by the Tara Labs Phase II TFA Return on the woofer when bi-wiring was necessary.

The Ikemi had an immediately noticeable wide band presentation, with consistent frequency extension at both ends of the spectrum, lending rare clarity to the experience. The 18-minute late-Romantic orchestral showpiece,

“Don Juan,” from Karajan Gold – Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra op. 30, Don Juan op. 20 [Deutsche Grammophon DG 439 016-2], became more substantial in the bottom-end when the drum rolled in unison with the soaring of the orchestra. Via the superlative JET tweeter and the dual, long-throw vented woofers of the ELAC 518, the Ikemi showcased exemplary top and bottom-end deciphering capability, in a.presentation infused with tremendous amount of delicate tonalities from brass,.cymbals, strings and triangles alike, accomplishing superb presentation clarity.

The Ikemi was also highly affluent in the effects of drama. From its.HDCD®-fortified heart, the Ikemi excelled at displaying contrasting and wholesome dynamics reminiscent of that from my former reference DAC, the Wadia 27, at the same time possessing a rare tonal clarity distinctly similar to that of the 47 Lab digital system.

With the Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones [Sony SK 89932] soundtrack, composer John Williams used restlessly engaging horns as the undercurrent force intertwining with complex percussion to depict “Jango’s Escape.” The Ikemi exerted suitably powerful dynamics depicting the horns, culminating in a sound impressive in its massiveness and yet compelling in its swiftness. Remembering similar characteristics with my Wadia 27, the incorporation of a potent power supply in both the modest-looking Linn and imposing Wadia was undoubtedly indispensable.

In the midst of such drama, despite its physical lightness, the Ikemi’s dynamic and tonal magnificence was reminiscent of the 47 Lab Flatfish and Progression system’s reactivity to fluctuating dynamics. Yet, in contrast to the Ikemi’s dynamic finesse from the complex DSP algorithm, HDCD® and delta-sigma conversion, the Flatfish and Progression had a passiveness so fundamental that all signals passing through it, for better or worse, were excluded from possible further processing. Consequently, while the Ikemi’s piano sound articulation would represent less objectivity, it also had a lesser degree of the 47 Lab’s relentlessness.

Take Ikemi’s showcased fidelity in a particularly reflective rendition of the pianist Maurizio Pollini’s mastery in dynamic control with Beethoven’s 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli [Deutsche Grammophon 289 459 645-2]. The Ikemi recreated piano sounded particularly massive and reverberant, trickling out notes in concurrent droplets of resolution. Maestro Pollini’s poetic yet powerful reading was complimented by high quality recording and mastering, embedded with soft radiance that supported the mighty dynamics. The Ikemi unleashed the pianist’s energy and vigor, while passing along definitive instrumental intricate tonalities with a presentation slightly less energetic and reactive in dynamics than the 47 Lab. Vangelis’ 1989 best-hit compilation, Themes [Polydor 839 518-2], contained some of the most instantly retentive tunes. “Love Theme from ‘Blade Runner'”, “Memories of Green” and “La Petite Fille De LaMer,” for example, are electronica classics. The Ikemi conveyed a surprisingly complex and yet communicative sound of the resonating synthesizer, endowing the experience with an unexpectedly contagious and inviting tonal quality, sounding beyond its ultimate artificiality. Retrospectively again, the 47 Lab digital system exposed the discrepancies in this CD’s varying recording qualities to a greater extent than the Ikemi.

Having said all of the above, I have saved Ikemi’s forte for last. Amidst all the digital front ends that graced my system, the Ikemi produced a most dazzling soundstaging in the company of the comparably priced ELAC 518 Loudspeaker, driven by Audio Note’s M3 preamplifier and the Gaincard S. Depth of hall and studio, and specificity of instruments was, simply put, most expertly delineated.

Take the delineation of soprano Kathleen Battle’s voice amidst the overwhelming scale of the Vienna Philharmonic from New Year’s Concert from Vienna [DG 419 616-2], for example. Voice and instrument separation and imaging was effortlessly clear with the Ikema, as Dame Battle’s flamboyant and chiming intonations in “Voices of Spring” came through exquisitely along with underlying orchestral layers. In capturing an aural experience rich in soundstaging subtleties and extended spectral definition, the Ikemi was perfectly suited for such orchestral power play. Dame Battle’s, as accompanied by the Vienna Philharmonic and Maestro von Karajan, was most satisfying rendered, and the Linn Ikemi produced it most beautifully.

Instruments separation and imaging was also effortlessly clear with the Ikema in James Galway Plays Khachaturian [RCA RCD1-7010], as Mr. Galway’s flute was heard with exceptional clarity against the full-blown orchestra. My favorite was the “Masquerade: Waltz”, in which the Ikemi’s portrayal of flute and orchestra collaboration carried an acute sense of localization and had a beautiful sense of pitch precision. Similarly, in “Gayaneh: Sabre Dance”, the Ikemi depicted the flute aptly as an instrument fully capable of assuming the daunting task of a driving, rhythmic string section, successfully charging the dance to higher festive ground.

Summary

The Linn Ikemi possessed the dynamics and spectral superiority of a frequency-extending C-core transformer, reflecting clearly the advantages accorded by its Brilliant switch mode switching power supply. Endowed by a slew of advanced signal processing techniques, such as the Pacific Microsonics™ PMD 200 HDCD® processor, the Linn “2D” algorithm and the multi-level Delta-Sigma modulation, the Ikemi delineated soundstages with extraordinary density, and created a sound that was rich in transients and instrument textures sans a cynical precision.

It’s $3,595 MSRP lands well within the white-hot, fiercely competitive mid-class CD player price range. Compared to the 2¼ times costlier 47 Lab digital front end, the Ikemi conceded to the 47 Lab’s most passive and reactive D/A conversion mannerism, and yet impressed with a superb integration of sound. It pursued the 47 Lab’s dynamics and resolution, albeit with a calmer, more modest sense of scale. Compared to my discontinued Sony SCD-777ES SACD/CD Player, the Ikemi’s CD playback surpassed the Sony in soundstage dimensionality.

Sonic-wise, Linn Ikemi is a fine example of an advanced digital front end that exceeds the expected, standard criteria of a mid-priced audiophile grade CD player, and the 47 Lab a far more costly unit that induces subtle but real differences employing streamlined techniques. The Linn Ikemi is outstanding in its modest physique and satisfying presentation. For the 47 Lab, speaking from an owner’s perspective, being the recipient of unrelenting honesty can be frightening if it is not your cup of tea.

This difference was exacerbated when used with the Audio Note AN/E SEC Silver, gradually subsiding with Genesis VI, and then largely reconciled by the more accommodating ELAC 518 and the dynamically superior Klipschorn. Comparably priced, both Linn Ikemi and ELAC 518 are hardcore, grossly underpriced audiophile products from well-established name brands. Culminating in an enormously competent high-end audio system, the ELAC’s JET tweeters exploited the Linn’s resolute top-end without constrictions, and the Linn’s extension at the other end of the frequency spectrum gave the ELAC’s twin woofers definitive bottom-end output to boast.

In real terms, the 47 Lab mastermind, Junji Kimura’s exclusion of sophisticated processing, such as the HDCD® DSP that Pacific Microsonics Inc.TM developed for sonic enhancement, will discourage some readers. Yet, on the sole ground of musicality, while either product could appeal to the same pursuing audience, Linn with its CD12-derived advanced engineering will cost you less money than the 47 Lab with its singular but indisputably crowning impartiality.

There was a time when audiophiles had to invest thousands of dollars in CD hardware that was the State of the Art, and would still be far from being musically satisfying to everyone’s admission and frustration. But just as the 2001 $8,100 47 Laboratory Flatfish and Progression digital system surpassed my past reference, the 1995 $14,000 CEC TL1 and Wadia 27 system, so did today’s Linn Ikemi in attaining what other sub-$4,000 digital system over five years old had never achieved.

Although it is hard to fathom the degree of superiority of the famous Sondek Transcription CD12 lest direct comparison, from what the Ikemi achieved at its asking price, I can confidently say this: for readers who own elite CD systems of the previous generations, once you experience the Ikemi’s extended frequency response, resolute spectral definition, discrete dimensionality and the resultant musicality, you will not hesitate to spend the $3,595.

Of the CD systems I have reviewed so far, namely the Perpetual Technologies P1A/P3A processing system, the Sony SCD-777ES SACD player in CD mode, and the recent 47 Laboratory Flatfish and Progression CD front end, the underpriced Linn Ikemi beseeches my top recommendation in its well-rounded overall excellence and satisfying musicality.

Associated Equipment:

Digital Front End
47 Laboratory 4713 Flatfish CD Transport/4705 Progression DAC
Audio Note DAC One 1.x Signature
CEC TL1 CD transport
Sony SCD-777ES SACD/CD player

Amplification
47 Laboratory 4706 Gaincard with two 4700 Power Humpties S
Audio Note M3 preamplifier
Decware SE84C (monoblock pair)
McCormack DNA-1 Deluxe
Music Reference RM9 II
Z-systems RDP-1 digital preamplifier

Loudspeakers
Apogee Duetta Signature
Audio Note AN/E SEC Silver
Celestion SL700
ELAC 518
Genesis VI
Klipschorn

Cabling
Audio Note AN-La
Audio Note AN-V silver cables
Aural Symphonics AS-One
Canare L-5CFB 75-ohm digital cable
Canare D206 110 ohm digital cable
Cardas Quadlink 5C
Granite Audio #470 silver cables
Granite Audio #560 AC Mains
Illuminations Orchid
Illuminations D-60 75 Ohm digital cable
Van den Hul MCD-352
Virtual Dynamics Nite Cable System
Wadia ST glass fiber

Accessories
Salamander Synergy 20 (2), ASC Tube Traps, Flat Traps

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