|Linn Sondek CD12 CD Player|
|Home Theater Audio Sources CD Players|
|Written by Bryan Southard|
|Monday, 01 October 2001|
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For many years I have found the pursuit of perfect musical reproduction to be equally a passion and a challenge. My love of music started very young, as did the understanding that music reproduced accurately provided a vastly greater musical experience. As a child, I was enchanted by the family stereo system, which at the time was one of the better systems on the block. By the time I was 14, I had convinced my parents to co-sign a loan for my very own system from a local high-end retailer, all in pursuit of my drug of choice – music. The only difference today is that there are many more choices and looming format wars that years ago were outside our wildest dreams. In the end, there is one constant that has not changed, which is the reason that we all have music playback systems – we want to get as close to the music as we possibly can.
More than 25 years ago, Linn introduced the acclaimed Sondek LP12, an analog record player that rocked the playback industry. In 1998, Linn brought us the Sondek CD12, a single-disc player that was designed to reproduce music recorded on compact discs at the very highest conceivable level. This player was designed to have no limits, either from a performance or a cost standpoint – a product for those with an appetite for perfection and a budget to match.
The Linn Sondek CD12 is a single-disc CD-only player, which utilizes Linn’s own transport engine. It features dual 20-bit digital-to-analog converters for each channel, and provides HDCD decoding, seemingly a lost format in this day and time. The retail price for this reference quality player is, hold on to your britches, $20,000.
The Linn Sondek CD12 measures 12-5/8 inches wide, 13-3/4 inches deep, and three-and-one-eighth inches tall. It weighs a seemingly moderate 26.5 pounds but, even with its rather diminutive size, the CD12 feels as dense as a stack of bricks. The enclosure is made from cast and machined aluminum and is built like a tank. In an effort to give the CD12 a handsome look, Linn incorporated a touch control system that eliminates all visible controls on the front panel. The Sondek CD12 can be controlled by simple touches to the CD drawer. This function provides the ability to start, stop and open the CD transport with a simple tap of the drawer. This is easily the coolest and most original CD player interface on the market. For more in-depth functionality, the remote handset provides more control than you will ever need, including highly sophisticated macro programming. The remote is everything that you would expect from a player of this price. It adorns a feel of wealth in a solidly machined, well-thought-out package.
For connections, the CD12 provides balanced and single-ended analog inputs and outputs, AES/EBU analog input, BNC S/PDIF digital output, high-grade optical, and Toslink inputs, and remote input/output for switching capabilities. The Sondek CD12 offers dithering capabilities with eight selectable values for correcting system linearity, as well as RS232 inputs for software upgrade downloads and overall system control.
Experience of Ownership
One of my most frequent gripes, and a point frequently made in my product reviews, is that regardless of how a product performs from a mechanical or sonic standpoint, the experience of purchasing and owning the product as well as the aesthetic look and quality-of-build should be as high as the price paid for component purchased. If you pay $5,000 for a preamp, it should provide a certain level of class, starting from the retailer and extending all the way to your living-room floor and beyond. Gone are the days when a retired lunch pail with a power tube sticking out of the top is considered acceptable, even if the sound is fantastic. The Linn Sondek CD12 comes in an Anvil suitcase that is custom-foam-lined, with pockets for the remote, cabling and operation manual. The case is sturdy and provides a good way to transport the unit if necessary. The CD12 aesthetically looks fantastic and has the fit and finish you’d expect from a product with such a hefty price tag. With no visible screws anywhere, and a rich bead-blasted aluminum finish, the CD12 is a piece that gets my approval as a product that feels like a special experience.
Once connected, I embarked upon months of extended listening and evaluation. Not always a luxury I can afford, I took advantage of this extra time to evaluate the CD12 with a huge variety of music. As with any CD source, the best choice shouldn’t be the piece that makes a particular CD sound great, but a player that produces the best sound on the majority of your favorite listening material. All digital sources have sonic characteristics. The best player for you is the one that reproduces your music with the highest degree of accuracy in every aspect. This means correct instrumental timber, openness or lack of sonic compression, the ability to reproduce detail and delineate the quickest of sonic transients, and much more. Probably the most important factor in reproducing music at this level is the ability to convert the digital information on the disc to analog music. The most common failure of CD playback, and the reason the slogan "The perfect sound forever" has been in question since its inception, are the issues associated with jitter or timing inaccuracies. This is often referred to as "clock." As the digital language of ones and zeroes are converted to an analog signal, they are done so in timing to the clock in the digital processor. When there is even the slightest separation in timing, the music will begin to sound metallic and reproduced. The top end will start to sound brittle and artificial. This aspect of CD reproduction has long kept the CD slogan from living up to its promise. As players get better and better, this is the aspect that most improves – the realness of the reproduction. For comparison purposes, I used my reference, the Sonic Frontiers Processor 3, and I2S-e modified Sonic Frontiers SFT-1, the combination retailing for $10,000.
Let’s start with Lyle Lovett from his 1989 release, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band (MCA). On the song "Here I Am," there are many instruments and vocals. This recording is quite good, entirely capable of separating itself from the musical event, and able to provide some remarkable listening experiences. My initial reaction to the performance of the CD12 took mere seconds. The performance from my reference CD source is the best that I have ever heard and although I was expecting competition, I hadn’t anticipated the sheer ease and effortless liquidity of the CD12. Lovett’s voice sounded astoundingly real and natural, without the slightest edginess or grain. The kick-drum had authority without the slightest move forward. The drum itself had a very natural timber and a coherent wholeness that made me raise an eyebrow. The background vocals were not only beautifully separated from other instruments, but also further separated from one another in an extremely articulate way. They had a natural decay, void of any sheen whatsoever. They flowed with an ease that I had not heard from a digital playback system before.
From Eric Clapton’s 1977 classic Slowhand (Polydor Records), I went for the rhythmic cut "Lay Down Sally." This cut can expose shortcomings in every aspect of your playback system, due to the fact that this recording can sound compressed and lifeless when not reproduced at its best, a byproduct of the less than superb recordings of the ‘70s. The background vocals sounded extremely realistic, with a distant separation reminiscent of a large venue. The soundstage had great depth, considering the very average recording quality. The guitar was tonally unimpeded by sonic artifacts heard in almost every other player I have auditioned. I found that the lack of induced compression made this classic a go-to favorite when before it had simply been a disc for my less critical listening sessions.
I next reached for what is, in my opinion, the greatest blues lead guitarist to have graced our planet, Albert King from his release I’m In a Phone Booth Baby (Fantasy). In the track "Phone Booth," which was originally written and recorded by Robert Cray, Albert’s vocals were deep and musical. When compared to how it played on my Sonic Frontiers Processor 3, I found the guitar sounded a tad less dynamic but more natural in every aspect. The overall reproduction was more realistic and convincing. . In the song "The Sky is Crying," originally recorded by Elmore James and later recorded by the late Stevie Ray Vaughn, I was romanced with Albert King’s incredibly tasteful guitar riffing. His guitar possessed a tone that was so liquid I was inspired. It was as if I had an emotional awakening.
Now let’s delve into some old school entertainment from Tony Bennett’s MTV Unplugged (Sony Music). This recording is so good that if you are even remotely a fan and do not own this, you are really missing out. In the standard "It Had To Be You," the circular motion of the sultry percussive brushes against the snare drum was set back and separated with a fantastic and natural bloom. The surrounding air was an entity of its own. The high hats had life and, rather than a gritty chirp, they sounded with a coherent ring. When compared to their sound on the Processor 3, they lacked some of shine, a synthetic tendency I am used to hearing.
Overall, I found the CD12 to possess less leading-edge detail and often less dynamic pop when compared to my Sonic Frontiers combo, yet I found every aspect of the CD12 preferable. The CD12 has a greater sense of being and a more natural texture than that of the Processor 3. The CD12 embodied the instruments with greater definition, providing a less compressed and more natural bloom in live recordings. There were CDs that sounded less energetic than they did on the Sonic Frontiers, but overall, I enjoyed the music better when played through the CD12. I felt that there were more layers to the images and the embodying fabric made instruments sound more alive. In many cases, I seemed to feel their breath on my face.