Linn Klimax Kontrol Stereo Preamplifier 
Home Theater Preamplifiers Stereo Preamps
Written by Ed Masterson   
Sunday, 01 June 2003

The Klimax Kontrol preamplifier is the newest in Linn’s series of no-compromise audio products. Included in this series, you will find the Linn CD12 CD player, a product that transcends previously known levels of perfection, as well as the ultra-slick Klimax Twin stereo amplifier, both previously reviewed in Audio Revolution.

The Linn Klimax Kontrol is a remote-controlled line-level stereo preamplifier that sells for the major league price of $10,000. The Kontrol measures 2.36 inches in height, 13.78 inches wide, 13.98 inches deep, and weighs 24 pounds. For such a diminutive package, the Kontrol packs a wallop when it comes to features. For I/O, the Kontrol accepts up to five inputs. Input One accepts balanced or single-ended connectors. Inputs Two through Four accept single-ended connections only. The fifth input is available via Linn’s proprietary Knekt connection. Output is available though either single-ended or balanced connections. The Kontrol features a unity gain function that is available on any input for synchronous use in a modern home theater system. This feature configures the designated input to pass the signal through without attenuation. All inputs have individual balance adjustments, as well as input gain adjustments to compensate for connected equipment output level variations. Inputs can be programmed and/or named to your taste.

When it comes to build quality, the Kontrol makes no excuses. The chassis is constructed with just two machined parts made from solid billets of aluminum. Its rear panel has the finest connectors that I have encountered. The component has a blue LED display, which looks a treat, although I found it a little too small to read from any real distance. Although the Kontrol feels tough enough to survive a nuclear winter, the jewel-quality satin finish inspires delicate handling and physical respect. According to Linn, this chassis is designed to provide mechanical and electrical isolation for the electronics. The case also performs the thermal management for the electronics. The Kontrol uses a proprietary Linn high-speed switching power supply and has two PC boards, one for analog circuits and one for the digital circuits. The remote is made of a molded aluminum shell, with a luxurious-feeling finish on the top. The remote has no backlighting, but it does have a layout that makes it reasonable to memorize the locations of the critical buttons.

Set-up was pretty simple, but required the use of the manual to get everything configured properly. I used the Kontrol with my two-channel system and also took advantage of the unity gain function for connection to my theater system. I used a Muse/Theta combo on the front end for CD playback, with the Klimax Twin amplifier driving a pair of Revel F30 speakers.

The Music
From the very moment I started listening, it was obvious that the Kontrol was special. My system sounded more open and natural than it ever had. With AC/DC Live from the Atlantic Studios (East/West Records), I was immediately impressed with the sheer lack of electronic signature. For a hard rock band, this is a great live performance and a pretty good recording. The last three tracks, starting with “Jack,” put me into the zone, as some audiophiles would call it. The equipment in my system seemed to completely disappear. All of the instruments floated freely in space with no hint of smearing. The Kontrol recreated the impact of the kick drum more effectively than any other preamp that I have heard. I could hear low-level detail throughout the entire audible frequency range. With other good preamplifiers, I have heard this low-level detail in the midrange and even highs, but with the Kontrol, I heard low-level detail in the bass region as well. The timing between hearing the initial sound of the guitar and hearing the echo off of the walls and other equipment on stage was convincing and helped to solidify the illusion of physically being there.

The saxophone in the first track, “Promised Land,” from Ani DiFranco’s Evolve CD (Righteous Babe Records), was impressively detailed. I could actually hear the lips peel off of the reed during breaths. What made this so amazing was that it sounded naturally detailed beside the sound coming out of the instrument. The Kontrol never sounded dry, etched or overly detailed. The guitar in Track Eight, “Phase,” had a percussive attack that showed off the low-level detail in the bass and midrange. All of the detail in the sound of the hand hitting the surface of the guitar was present, while the natural decay in the resonance of the body of the guitar faded beautifully and infinitely realistically.

Isaac Hayes’ Ultimate Collection CD (Hip-O Records) is full of some soulful tracks from the ‘70s. On Isaac Hayes’ signature song “Theme From Shaft,” the cymbals sounded extended, with loads of detail in the highest frequencies. This track has the propensity to sound a little harsh at higher volumes in some systems, yet with the Kontrol, the sound never became offensive in the least. This is unquestionably due to the Kontrol’s complete lack of grain throughout the entire frequency spectrum. On Track Four, “Do Your Thing,” the Kontrol’s bass presentation was engaging to the point of being addictive. In addition, I found it interesting that I could play the system louder than usual without overloading my room. The extensive use of effects in this recording was more obvious than ever before and surprisingly less offensive than usual. While listening to track Four, “Walk On By,” I was transported back to my childhood, when I was relegated to listening to my sister’s stereo because my dad wouldn’t let us listen to that “crap,” as he called it, on his system. This track makes use of many different types of instruments, including the trademark disco-sounding synthesizers. I wouldn’t claim that this is a great recording, but through the Kontrol, I enjoyed the presentation more than ever before.

The CD Under the Table and Dreaming (RCA) by the Dave Matthews Band has some great music and a huge sound. On the first track, “What Would You Say,” the soundstage far exceeded the boundaries of my room. I am used to hearing lots of transient detail with solid-state gear, but through the Linn, I also heard the sweetness in the sound of the strings on the guitar and violin that I have only heard with tubes before.

My next pleasant surprise was an experience that I had with the Best of War CD (Rhino). This is another CD that I have had mixed results with in the past. On some systems, this recording can be almost unbearable. In fact, I usually save this quality of recording for my car stereo, where I just use it as background music. With the Kontrol, all of this changed. On “Low Rider,” I could hear a guitar that I had never even noticed before. This guitar is very low in level and is usually obscured by the bass line in the song. Damn, it’s fun when a piece of audio equipment allows you to hear things in a recording that you had never heard before. I really like the bass lines in War’s music, and through the Kontrol, the bass lines were more involving than ever. By the time I got to the fourth track, “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” characteristics of my entire stereo system had once again disappeared. I was so entranced with the music that when it ended, I realized that I had forgotten to take any notes, even though that is specifically why I had started that particular listening session.

The Weavers Live Reunion at Carnegie Hall-1963 (Analogue Productions) is one of the best live recordings that I have ever experienced. This CD includes tracks from two different concert performances, which were put together to celebrate the Weavers’ 15th anniversary. Track Four, “Ramblin Boy,” features Pete Seeger’s warm vocals, along with a guitar. Through the Kontrol, the size of the venue was more easily perceived than with any other preamp that I have heard. When the crowd joined in and started to sing, the surround effect was so good that it made me think that multi-channel sound might be unnecessary. One of the other aspects of the CD that makes it such a special audiophile gem is the vocal content in the music. On Track Nine, “Guantanemera,” all of the male and female voices sounded smooth yet detailed. The space between the singers was more evident and believable than ever. Even with some of the best equipment that I have heard, groups of singers tend to blend and merge into a single voice. With the Kontrol, the singers could all be easily identified separately. Track 10, “If I Had a Hammer,” again features Seeger’s powerful vocal presence. The Kontrol reproduced the power and emotion very effectively.

The Downside
While perhaps not a downside if you are deep in the pocket, the Kontrol is largely expensive. It is a product that will find itself beyond the reach of most working mortals. However, it still sells at nearly half the price of the Mark Levinson No.32, a preamplifier that Bryan Southard picked for his reference system.

Another personal nitpick would be the size of the equipment. Although some may firmly prefer the Kontrol’s diminutive size, it would be easier to work with if it were a little bigger. Due to the inherent space limitations, the connectors are tightly spaced, making connections slightly more difficult than usual. Also, due to the small size, the display is hard to read from further back than 10 feet or so. In practice, I really only used the display for the volume level reading and that was visible up to around 18 feet.

Another area to consider is the gain in the Kontrol. With my passive output stage on the Muse Model II DAC, I found myself running out of gain. Many other preamplifiers that I have worked with have had more gain than the Kontrol. In most cases, this will not be an issue, due to the fact that most CD players and DACs have an output level closer to two volts rather than one volt with the Muse.

The Linn Klimax Kontrol is quite simply one of the very best pieces of audio equipment that I have ever had the opportunity to audition. The Kontrol is the first solid-state preamplifier that I have auditioned in my system that clearly exceeded the performance of the best tube preamplifiers that I have heard. The Kontrol made my other reference preamplifiers sound veiled in comparison. In this price range, there are only a few players. The Audio Research’s REF II, Conrad Johnson ART and the Mark Levinson No.32 are some that come to mind.

I have extensively heard the No.32 in Southard’s system and it has never failed to blow me away. However, the Linn Kontrol performed at such a high level in my system that I have no doubt that they would compete head-to-head at all levels.

Linn refers to the products in its Klimax series as uncompromised designs, and I must concur. With its elegant looks, flexibility in set-up, build quality that is amongst the best I have ever seen from any product and ultimate sonic performance, the $10,000 price tag seems altogether reasonable. I only wish that I could figure out a way to keep it. Perhaps I could sell my car and walk to work?
Manufacturer Linn
Model Klimax Kontrol Stereo Preamplifier
Reviewer Ed Masterson

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