|Linn Kisto System Controller|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps|
|Written by Tim Hart|
|Wednesday, 01 February 2006|
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The Kisto is a very complex system that can handle some very complicated AV situations. It is aimed at the custom installer, but because it is so flexible, you could quickly get into trouble if you didn’t fully understand the system architecture. Let it be known that this is not a path you go down alone when purchasing the Kisto, as the dealer or your installer will do all of the set-up and integration for you.
There are two set-up menus, one for the consumer and the other for installers. The installer menu allows for configuration of different aspects of the system interface to other components and should be left to the professionals. The main set-up menu is surprisingly simple and easy to navigate. Starting off with the speakers, you can set the size, distance and run the calibration for level matching. There is a graphic representation of each speaker to the right of the menu, which is highlighted if any adjustments are being made to it, so that you don’t mistakenly adjust the wrong speaker. This is a nice touch.
Source set-up is next. Here is where you can add more sources and name them as you wish, edit existing sources, or remove ones that are no longer required. Linn has default profile settings for components, including CD player, tuner, SACD, DVD, satellite, VCR, cable, game and even minidisc, and assigns a likely connection type for each aspect of that source. For instance, a DVD player will use an S-PDIF audio connection and a RGB component connection for video, so that specific default setting will accommodate that situation. When you add the component in the source set-up menu, simply plug the corresponding connections into the assigned connections given under the audio and video input sections of the source set-up menu. These connections can be changed if you don’t have the right set of cables. For instance, if you wanted to change the default setting for the DVD player from component to S-Video, you can do so in the set-up menu. Unlike some of the latest pre/pro’s which can convert composite to s-video or s-video to component, the Kisto cannot. You have to stay the same on both input and output. This feature seems to be showing up more on newer gear but I question if there is any visual benefit or not to doing this.
For adding other components not already anticipated by Linn, the logic to the flexibility of the Kisto is that the connections are assigned to groups. Video connections have similar group numbers, as do audio connections, so that the user can understand where to plug the corresponding connections of the component being added. Then, going into the source set-up menu, you can assign those connections to the component, create a name and save this information.
I had on hand the Linn Unidisk 1.1 universal player, which was sent with the Kisto for review, as Linn has engineered these two components to work seamlessly together; the intent is to sell them as a pair. Using an ES232 and RCU (used for hooking the Kisto to a KNEKT system) connection, the Unidisk can communicate with the Kisto for the ultimate in operation simplicity. Once properly configured, the Kisto recognizes any format sent to it from the Unidisk and configures the correct decoding, speaker configuration, level output and bass management for that particular format. If you want it to recognize a particular format, you can push the audio adjust button to change from Dolby Digital to DTS, and the Kisto will remember that until changed. With two exceptions, the Kisto performed admirably in this regard. I had to reboot the Kisto once when it chose to play a DTS disc in stereo instead of 5.1, and another time when no sound was coming out during the start of a movie. To be able to put in a disc of anything and have the preamp/processor recognize it and change itself to the proper settings is extremely cool and says a lot about the sophistication of the software developed by Linn.
The Kisto can also be configured, via its RS232 port, to directly switch inputs on your display or other components. For instance, if you have a digital display that you want to send a direct digital signal to and a DVD player with that output capability, within the profile for a video source you can define the video type as Custom/DVI. This function allows the RS232 monitor switching to send a command to your display to select its DVI/HDMI input. You can program the Kisto to select the correct input on the display when you start the DVD player, which becomes transparent to the user. Very slick indeed and keeps the signal path as unadulterated as possible.
Linn chose to exclude THX certification and all of its associated overhead, a move that I applaud. This is not surprising, based on the emphasis Linn puts on its sound reproduction. Nor will you find any of the numerous DSP settings, graphic equalizers or tone knobs you are likely to find on other products, and thankfully so. This is first of all an audio product at the highest level.
Audible and Ocular Excitation
I am still floored by the CD playback of the Unidisk 1.1. I reviewed it back in October and was really curious to see what the Kisto added to the pair. I ran the Unidisk through my Anthem AVM30 and was impressed with how well the AVM30 did when connected to the Unidisk. The Kisto raised the bar several notches higher, not only in sound, but also in operation. When configured with the Unidisk, the Kisto ceased being a separate unit. I never had to touch the Kisto, other than turning the power on and off, which I did most of the time with the remote, the same uninspiring unit used with the Unidisk. Disc format information is automatically sent to the Kisto from the Unidisk. All that is left to do is push play and adjust the volume. Sweet!
Gov’t Mule’s Dose (Capricorn Records) has a very live feel to it, although it is a studio project. Allen Woody struck out with Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes and Matt Abts to form Gov’t Mule and this outing displays a stunning trio of musicians at their best. Opening up with “Thorazine Shuffle,” Woody sets the rhythm, with a deep resonant bass line that is well-defined and visceral, joined by Abts’ pounding beat. The Kisto adds much more refinement to the Unidisk’s presentation. Musical and resolute with dynamics that were never edgy or overly bright, the Kisto further defined the layered texture of Haynes’ vocals and Woody’s thick bass lines. “Game Face” is piercing but never fatiguing, and just begs you to turn up the volume. The Kisto seemed to lift a veil or two off of the sound, revealing more nuance and presence in this recording. Spatial cues, depth of the soundstage, air around the instruments and vocal timbre are all done with an added sense of realism.
Incubus is, my opinion, an underrated band whose unique blending of alternative, metal, grunge and a splattering of hip-hop is captivating and intensive as well as complex. “When It Comes” from the album Make Yourself (Epic) highlights their killer rhythm section and it sounds incredible through the Kisto/Unidisk combo. Brandon Boyd’s voice is dead center and slightly set back amid the onslaught all around him on the opening of this tune. The Kisto keeps the maelstrom coherent and separated, so that the musical palette is still detailed. As the song progresses to the more melodic, staccato bass-driven segment, Boyd’s vocals are soaring. “Clean” displays the band’s musical chops with all cylinders firing. Bongo sounds, cymbals, synth and bass with scratch work by DJ Kilmore are presented with a quickness and clarity that are natural and musical and never fatiguing.
Given the performance of the garden variety CD, DVD-Audio was next on the list of formats to try with the Kisto. Workingman’s Dead by the Grateful Dead (Warner Brothers Records) is one of those special moments captured to tape that is reborn on DVD-Audio and is done right. The Dead were foremost a live band. Their studio sessions were mostly to abide by the record company contract for the required release of X number of projects and it was like herding cats to get all of them into the studio at one time to record. Workingman’s Dead, one of their two most notable studio efforts, the other being American Beauty, benefits substantially from being remastered to DVD-Audio and captures the intricate interplay and musical prowess of the fathers of the jam scene. “Uncle John’s Band” is mesmerizing in its simplicity. Jerry Garcia’s vocals are superb and are refined more than I thought possible with the Kisto handling the digits. The Unidisk paired with the AVM30 sounded good, but the Kisto added much more definition and layering to this tune, giving it a more lifelike presentation. Vocal sibilance, cymbal shimmer and decay, plucked guitar strings all sounded more detailed and better defined in space. With the Kisto and Unidisk working together, I popped in the disk and the Kisto received the format information from the Unidisk, set it up for DVD-Audio, and all I had to do was push play and adjust the volume. It worked as well for stereo and multi-channel SACDs and DTS-encoded discs.
One of the best examples of a project remastered to DVD-Audio has to be the pivotal metal project from Metallica and their self-titled album, aka the Black Album. Metallica went from a thrash/speed metal band, a genre they help to make popular, to a kinder, gentler band that still pounded out the energy but reached a wider audience. Some say they sold out, but others suggest that this was their pinnacle. Super producer Bob Rock was able to catch the heart and soul on this superb recording that captures the raw intensity of Metallica without sounding raw. On “Wherever I May Roam,” the recording is rich-sounding with great depth, clarity, resolution and a visceral impact that takes your breath away. The Kisto exhibits iron-fisted control of the harmonics and low frequency information with speed and agility. Hetfield’s crunchy sustained guitar riffs and Newsted’s earthshaking bass lines are as detailed as any audiophile recording you will hear. The soundstage is nice and laid back, with Hetfield’s vocals dead center. The detail added by the Kisto gives more life to an already well-done recording.
For video, the Kisto also added another level of clarity to the image, not so much improving the resolution of the video nor correcting any anomalies, but rather making the picture appear more bright and lively. The Kisto does not have an internal scaler or any video processing, but the signal path is optimized based on the results I saw with the Kisto driving. The biggest video issue with the Kisto is that there is no HDMI switching capability. For owners of digital displays, this will be an issue. You will have to use component connections for your video if you want to use the Kisto for video switching. I was unable to test the difference, as I have an older CRT projector that does not have a HDMI input, but I have to say that until I have the capability to have a digital signal path from source to display, I would be content to watch video through the Kisto. “The Fantastic Four” (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment) tested the Kisto in color rendition, saturation, black levels and clarity and all came up with improvements. The video section, like the audio section, is engineered for top performance and it shows in spades. Audio for movie sound tracks is handled as deftly as the multi-channel audio on DVD-Audio, DTS or SACD, bringing spatial cues to a higher level within the soundscape, with improved dynamics and articulation. Even dialogue benefited from the Kisto with a more natural sound.