Linn Kisto System Controller 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Tim Hart   
Wednesday, 01 February 2006

Introduction
The proliferation of home theaters has been the driving force and market growth area for the audio industry for the last decade or so and has inspired the design of some really great gear for home theater components. As AV manufacturers gained more practical knowledge on how their products are used, the integration of audio and video control has gotten much better and far simpler to use. In the case of the preamp/processor, never has it been more critical that this component in your rig pull everything else together. It used to be that you wouldn’t dare run a video signal to anything other than your display for fear that it would be adulterated by the less than awe-inspiring video section of older preamps/processors. And if your audio requirements are for CD, DVD-Audio or SACD, are you always sure that the set-up for each format is correct? It’s not always obvious or straightforward.

Audio and video switching has taken precedence with designers because they better understand the integration issues early adopters went through. Without a system architecture that is easy to interface and extremely flexible, your frustration level will be proportionate to the difficulty of navigating the set-up and of running your home theater and music. The real merits of these products are two-fold: how well they integrate other components in your system, and how easy it is to get the right output for the intended use.

The Linn Kisto System Controller at $12,995 is one of those special products that takes the genre of preamps/processors to the highest level. Staying within the mantra of the ultimate sound, Linn engineers have devised a product that provides superior performance in any just about every disc format for music, as well as topnotch video switching that integrates seamlessly with other components within Linn’s product line, like the Unidisk or the Knekt multi-room system, for the ultimate in home musik distribution; oops, got caught up in the phonetic spelling phenomenon the folks at Linn seem to enjoy.

The Technology
The diminutive size of the Kisto falls in line with Linn’s other components. Linn engineers seem to revel in their ability to optimize space requirements for their gear. The Kisto is probably the largest piece in the product line, yet it is small by all other preamp/processor standards. The elegant and simply stated enclosure is 15 inches wide, 15 inches deep and five-and-one-half inches tall, weighing 16.5 pounds. It houses three separate chasses and 11 circuit boards, all engineered by Linn. The Kisto comes in two different finishes, either silver or black (the review sample was the latter).

The first thing that stands out about the Kisto is the lack of knobs and/or myriad buttons found of other preamps/processors. The dominant feature on the front panel is the large six-and-one-half-inch by two-inch blue vacuum fluorescent display that is large enough to be easily read and allows you to forgo using the OSD for system navigation. Below the display is a single rectangular power switch, which is dimly lit blue when the system is in standby mode. Below this switch is a access panel that, when manually raised, exposes a connection for a keyboard to type in the name of sources you want to add that aren’t pre-configured in the Kisto, a pair of stereo analog inputs, an S-Video and composite video input, one optical digital in/out, and a output for Dolby headphones. For system manipulation without the remote, there is a navigation button array similar to the remote, with 10 ancillary buttons for anything from set-up to adding a new source to changing the surround sound format. Using these controls was a snap and easily navigated and understood. The last button operates the slick door-closing mechanism of the access door, putting the front panel of the Kisto back into its sleek appearance mode.

Just because the Kisto is a smaller unit than the typical pre/pro doesn’t mean that you have to make due without. The easily upgradeable Linn-designed software and configurable nature of the hardware allows for quite a bit of connection flexibility. The processing side of the Kisto handles Dolby Digital, Dolby Surround EX, Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS, DTS ES, DTS 96/24, OCM, MPEG-2 and AAC (MPEG-4), as well as Linn's Limbik Party mode, which is Linn’s own proprietary software for taking two-channel material and outputting a signal to all speakers.

Nuts and Bolts
Looking at the organized and well laid-out rear panel, the functionality of the system is evidenced by all of the inputs and outputs, over 100 in all. The video section resides at the top of the panel. Here you’ll find 12 composite inputs that can be reconfigured to four component inputs, five BNC inputs and outputs that can do double duty as component or RGBHV for older video sources, two S-Video outputs and six S-Video inputs, and three composite outputs that can also be configured for one component output. Because the Kisto is a European product, the requisite SCART input and output connections are present, eating more real estate than I’m sure Linn would like.

For the custom installation and other Linn gear, the control section occupies a small section to the left, and consists of an Ethernet connection, RS232 in/out (RJ12), in and out provisions for linking to a Knekt system (RJ45), four 12 volt triggers (Phoenix) and two IR connections.

The remainder is assigned for audio and consists of one set of eight RCA analog outputs for four stereo pairs or configured for 7.1, two pairs of RCA analog outputs for recording or configured for outputs to additional subs if you like, six RCA audio inputs for three stereo pairs or configured for SACD and DVD-Audio, eight XLR balanced outputs, a pair of XLR balanced inputs, four Toslink inputs, two Toslink outputs, two S-PDIF outputs and four S-PDIF inputs. The Toslink, S-PDIF, RGB/YPrPb+H+V and S-Cideo connections are all configurable for total component flexibility.

What the Kisto does extremely well besides being a killer pre-pro is provide integration of all of your other components with an eye on total system synergy. If you have control issues, the Kisto can take that personality flaw up several notches by allowing the manipulation of every aspect of your entertainment system. Not only will the Kisto integrate and optimize the function of your source components to the nth degree, it will also combine other elements of your entertainment system, like lighting, screen operation and closing curtains.

Set-up
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.

The Downside
Videophiles wanting the ultimate preamp/processor with tons of bells and whistles, such as room correction software, equalization, HDMI or up-conversion to 1080P, will have to look elsewhere. There are other high-end products that offer these features. The Kisto is more of a minimalist design that is very flexible in all other areas except those mentioned above, and if you are a knob twister or the kind of guy who compares AV preamps on their features lists, the Kisto likely won’t float your boat. The Kisto is designed for you to make your judgments with your ears and eyes.

The Kisto does not have switching capability for DVI/HDMI due to the fact that when it was released in 2003 HDMI switching had just made its debut and no one at that time was picking that option as the clear winner for the high bandwidth digital audio/video interface standard. If you have a digital display with HDMI inputs the work around is using the RS232 interface on the Kisto that will allow you to control the inputs on your digital display. You would have to run the output of your video source directly to the input of your display, which for some would be preferred, but the Kisto can configure both to run seamlessly together. The problem with this configuration is you have now bypassed the ability to see the Kisto setup menu when watching any source material that goes through the HDMI input.

As mentioned in the Unidisk review, the remote, which is identical to the Kisto remote, has all of the function necessary to run all aspects of the system, but the tiny, similar-sized buttons with tiny lettering are difficult to see and are not backlit. It does look cool, but for a product of this caliber, the remote could be a little less ergonomically challenging.

Conclusion
Despite the aforementioned shortcomings, which are minor, the Kisto is an engineering marvel. The upgradeable software takes a complex system and makes it more user-friendly than just about any other pre/pro on the market. I don’t know why other products can be confusing in operation, but the Linn engineers did their homework. In conjunction with other Linn products, like the Unidisk 1.1, it doesn’t get any easier than this. Put a disc in, push play, adjust the volume and you’re off to nirvana, whether it be music or movies. Customizing the Kisto can create an incredible experience by integrating all aspects of your music and movie endeavors, such as lighting, screen operation or pulling the drapes closed. The sound quality of the Kisto is stellar, which is not surprising, since Linn has always excelled at music reproduction at the highest levels.

Audiophiles who are reluctant to make the move to integrating their music-only system with a home theater experience might just want to check this out. If you’re one of those folks with means who don’t care about knobs and superfluous gizmos and want ease of use, a simple interface, high performance and something that is future proof with software upgrades, then this could be the product for you. I now know why Linn charges what they do, and if I had the cash (or a spare kidney to sell on eBay), I would own one.
Manufacturer Linn
Model Kisto System Controller
Reviewer Tim Hart





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