Linn Sondek LP12 Turntable 
Home Theater Audio Sources Vinyl/LP
Written by Bryan Southard   
Sunday, 01 August 2004

Technology surrounding music reproduction is progressing at a skyrocketing rate. Consumers are being introduced to new digital formats, such as DVD-Audio and SACD, with promises of even greater resolution formats around the corner, like Blu-ray and HD-DVD. Since the inception of CD musical playback in the early ‘80s, most of those old enough to have experienced its processors, such as vinyl records, cassettes and eight track tapes, have since purged their collections of such relics in favor of the more convenient and seemingly “perfect” digital formats.

Many consumers decided to let their ears decide which format sounded superior. What many of them found was that the compact disc was not all it was built up to be. Sure, the CD succeeded in eliminating some of the annoyances of the older generation formats, such as eight-track tape track changes, the poor compressed sound of cassette tapes and the irritating pops and scratches of vinyl records. But with this new technology, many argue that although the resolution has increased, we have not moved any closer to the insatiable palpability of live music, something that keeps concertgoers flocking to their local live music venues. Although this debate is sure to rage on long past this review and into the future, surprisingly, LP vinyl record sales are growing as many rediscover the positive virtues of this somewhat forgotten format.

If you trace the history of high-performance LP playback, it will lead you straight back to Linn’s LP12, the world’s first high-end record playback system. First introduced in 1972, the LP12 was a revolutionary piece that helped define the importance of the source product. Prior to this time, manufacturers and consumers alike placed all the importance in downstream gear such as the amp, preamplifiers and speakers. The introduction of the Linn LP12 was a new era in understanding of the importance of your system’s playback components. Although initially displaying some resistance in this theory, the world soon climbed onboard and manufacturers followed trying to produce better players to compete with the Linn LP12. Some 29 iterations later, the Linn LP12 remains a (some argue the) standard in vinyl playback.

The Linn LP12 set-up being reviewed is comprised of several elements: the LP12 table mechanics, Linn LINGO power supply, Linn EKOS tonearm, Linn AKIVA cartridge and Linn’s LINTO phono stage preamplifier, at a total price of $11,650.

At the heart of the Linn SONDEK LP12 is its table, referred to as the “Mechanics.” The LP12 Mechanics retail for $2,400 and consist of a solid wood plinth, stainless steel chassis, suspended sub-chassis and a solid arm platform to eliminate any vibration and acoustic feedback. The precision platter is belt-driven and perfectly balanced for speed, accuracy and reliability. It’s then coupled to the motor using a patented low-noise, single-point bearing to eliminate noise and provide the highest possible performance. There are optional speeds for both 33-1/2 and 45-RPM media.

The LP12 uses Linn’s LINGO power supply, once their best power supply option, now the only available power supply for the LP12 at a cost of $1,600. The LP12’s assembled overall dimensions are 17.5 inches in width, 14 inches in depth and five-and-one-half inches in height, weighing 28.5 pounds.

Linn offers two tonearm options for you to choose from, starting with the AKITO at $1,100, and the EKOS, used in the review model, priced at $3,000. Both tonearms are manufactured with painstaking steps to assure precision playback. All critical components are machined from a solid piece of material to eliminate unwanted vibrations. Linn uses the finest alloys and adhesives to maximize the strength and integrity of the arm. Linn tonearms use ultra low-friction bearings, assembled in a cleanroom for long-term, guaranteed performance. In addition, The EKOS and AKITO both employ temperature-compensated precision springs to ensure constant tracking and bias forces.

Last but not least is the ever-critical cartridge. Linn offers two different Moving Coil cartridges to choose from, the entry-level KLYDE and the top-level AKIVA that retails for $2,995.

In the old days, you simply plugged your turntable into your receiver and voila, you were spinnin’ music. These days, you will still find phono preamps in the better receivers but almost all higher-quality preamps do not offer a phono stage (preamp), or if they do, it’s an option.

The Linn LINTO direct-coupled precision phono preamp is a moving coil phono preamp that uses the finest and most advanced technology to maximize your playback experience. It has a state-of-the-art silent power supply with Linn Brilliant SMPS technology providing immunity to mains noise or variation. It allows for the option of two gain settings for use with both low and high output moving coil cartridges. For connection, the LINTO has one pair of RCA phono input connectors and two pairs of RCA phono outputs. It has a high gain of 64 dB @ 1 kHz (x1600) and a low gain of 54 dB at 1 kHz (x500). The Linn LINTO Phono Preamp has a retail price of $1,700.

The set-up of the Linn SONDEK LP12 is very detailed and should be performed by a professional to assure maximum performance from the player. I watched as Linn set up the player, which involved detailed precision adjustments. The power supply needs to be installed and required detailed routing and soldering. After hours of set-up, followed by some good old-fashioned tinkering, I determined that it is essential that a seasoned veteran familiar with the unit perform this job. This is something that all Linn authorized dealers are qualified to perform.

Spinning LPs in a High-Resolution Digital World
As a kid, I would take my $5 per week allowance and march it directly to the local record store to purchase the latest releases on vinyl. At the time, they cost a scant $4 and some change. I would ride my bike home and load them up on my parents’ old stereo console (at least, I think it was stereo – I am not sure). This trusty player tended to track poorly, so we would put a quarter on the cartridge headshell to keep the records from skipping. As you can imagine, this did little more than inflict irreversible damage to the grooves of the record. Of course, it was impossible to tell on this poor player, but I later realized that much of my collection was worn beyond repair. As the ‘80s ushered in the new digital era, I replaced much of my old worn vinyl with CDs and now DVD-Audio and SACD material. The virtues of vinyl never drifted far, as I often found myself in front of the fantastic-sounding record playback systems of friends and colleagues. I resisted adding a record playback system to my reference AV setup for several reasons. Firstly, I have been lucky to have owned and referenced the very best CD and DVD players this industry has to offer, players such as the ultimate CD player, the Linn SONDEK CD12 and Sonic Frontiers Processor 3/Transport 3 combo, as well as the Meridian 598 that I am currently referencing. These players offered me uncompromised sound and convenience. And, unlike many of my friends, I had for the most part dusted my old record collection in the mid-‘80s. It was too late to start collecting vinyl, right? Wrong. There are dozens of used record stores local to me that have great quality, new and used records that are downright cheap. Also, I am finding copies of records that I love that were never made available on CD and likely never will be. In a recent trip to the record store, I purchased classics like “Tommy” for $1.95. I purchased records from Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent and other ‘70s material, all for under $2 each. Some were real gems that I had all but forgotten about due to lack of availability. Collecting used records is easier than ever and extremely rewarding. I now make weekly trips to several local record stores and am beginning to amass a substantial and incredibly rewarding collection that is costing me little.

Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti was viewed by many in its time as the greatest and most refined and influential Led Zeppelin album. Following the footsteps of the first five Zeppelin albums that clearly solidified their place as the greatest rock band of all time, this recording has more musical creativity than virtually every rock album since, combined. I cued up my Classis Records 200-gram reissue copy and went to side one of the first of the two-record set to the rock classic “Rover.” I first took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the CD version before evaluating the vinyl version. The CD version has always been slightly thin-sounding and lacks the warmth of the better recordings today but nevertheless provided a rich, detailed sound. When listening to the vinyl version, there were distinct differences. The drum intro had more musical depth. Bonham’s drums had a more natural “pop” and ensuing decay. It didn’t have more detail – in fact, it tended to seem a bit more compressed – but overall, it sounded considerably more like they did when I witnessed them live. Page’s guitar sounds very synthetic on CD, yet it has a warm timbre and extremely palpable presence on vinyl, as it was intended to have. It made me want to go purchase a ‘57 Les Paul to try to capture some of Page’s magic. Clearly the vinyl version played through the Linn LP12 was more enjoyable, realistic and sounded more like it was intended to originally than when played through the impressive Meridian 598. I must also note that the Meridian 598 is one of the best-sounding CD systems that I have heard, only bettered by a select couple of players today.

Another great example of vinyl improvement came from the 1979 Ronnie Montrose offering, Gamma 1 (Elektra). The number one is an important number in the career of Ronnie Montrose because the first release from each band he created was clearly the best, including his fist release with Sammy Hagar titled Montrose, his Warner Bros. Presents release with his second band and the impressive Gamma 1 offering. In the song “I’m Alive,” the vinyl version transformed the keys in the intro from synthesized garbage to a real-sounding instrument. From the time that I received the Linn LP12, I found that there were more and more recordings that I simply no longer wanted to listen to on CD, yearning for the better and more natural vinyl sound. There are some annoyances in vinyl that you don’t find in CDs, such as popping and static caused by poor pressings and worn records, yet they tend to blend in, and your brain has a way of eliminating them much like someone who lives near a freeway no longer hears cars. Perhaps I am conditioned to this sound having grown up with records or perhaps I am turning a deaf ear to it in favor for the better more palpable sound. This was never an issue for me whatsoever.

The intro to the tune “Razor King” was not only improved on vinyl but made its way from being a CD that I broke out every two years as a nostalgia piece to become a go-to reference rock recording. The Linn LP12 makes this and many LPs truly more enjoyable and rewarding.

Let’s move along and get to some mind-blowing recordings. As a lifetime music enthusiast and someone who has been on a quest for the best possible reproduction since the early age of 13, when it was recommended that I grab a copy of Soulville from the Ben Webster Quintet (Verve Records), I obliged in anxious anticipation. From the time the stylus hit the vinyl, I was in complete disbelief at what I was hearing. I was treated to the greatest audiophile listening session I have ever experienced, bar none. It was so good, I could hardly contain myself. The Linn LP12 milked a sound from this record that was eerily true to life. Okay, this is a worn-out phrase, yet this recording brought the quintet into my room without the slightest stretch of my imagination. The sound of Webster’s tenor sax was so real that it was scary. From the sound of escaping air to the incredible attack and ensuing decay, the LP12’s rendering of this recording left every CD player that I have yet heard in the dust. Piano is in my eyes the hardest instrument to accurately reproduce, yet the strike of the keys was so impactful and delicious-sounding that my heart skipped a beat. Not having the opportunity to hear live grand piano very often, I was treated to a private showing from the incomparable Oscar Peterson in my own home. This is musical reproduction at its very, very best. I am afraid to say “It can’t get any better than this” because it seems to always get better, yet this recording via the Linn LP12 is as close to the music as I have ever been or ever imagine being.

Throughout the audition, I took every opportunity to compare LPs to the CD versions of the same release. This gave me a good gauge of the pros and cons of both formats. One such comparison is from one of the greatest bluesman of all times, Muddy Waters, and his monumental release Folk Singer (Classic Records). I have long referenced the CD version for its pureness and superb recording quality. I loaded up the CD and 200-gram LP, giving myself the ability to switch between the two with a push of a button. The CD provided a small amount more information, most notably in the room decay. However, in typical fashion, the LP was more palpable and natural. The CD had good soundstage depth, but it was less detailed as it traveled rearward. There was less sense of infinity than with the CD. Most people who visited me and heard this demo selected the LP12 reproduction over the Meridian-reproduced CD. For me, it was unmistakably better on LP. Regardless of the pros and cons of both, the LP sounded realer – simple as that. I found myself wanting to listen longer and did so with much greater satisfaction. CDs can often sound more dynamic and have better control. Bass can tend to be more immediate and with improved dynamic range. Yet I always felt closer to the band and had a greater emotional connection with vinyl. This told me a many things. Music reproduction has taken a path that has led to more and more information. Bits are increasing, as is the sampling rate, making more information available. Those who argue for CDs all have great points. However, as a musician myself, I have learned that the sum is always greater than the individual notes. The LP12 allows you to recognize the sum more clearly and focus on what truly makes music special, what it does to us on the inside. I found myself reinvigorated and more excited about my music than I have been in years.

The Downside
Spinning records takes a bit more effort than playing compact discs. CDs you can just slap in the player, skip tunes with ease, and change discs in a blink. LPs, on the other hand, need to be handled delicately and cleaned for best performance. And forget skipping songs. This however is not a downside, in that I think CDs have made it too easy to skip songs you don’t favor, never giving them an adequate shot.

LPs will skip if the player is bumped, requiring them to be placed on solid footing, away from kids and drunken friends. There are stands that wall-mount and floor-mount. Either way, extreme care should be taken to protect your software and hardware investments.

LPs are larger than CDs and take more storage space. Additionally, they need to be stored vertically, preferably in a cool area. If you are like me with CDs scattered all over the floor during long detailed listening sessions, this laziness will not work with LPs, as they are easily damaged.

LPs sound their best when brand new and freshly cleaned. Because the stylist travels along a plastic groove, records will wear out and your favorites may someday need to be replaced. This is a vast departure from CDs that can be treated like red-headed stepchildren (cliché not factual) and play for a lifetime. The moral to this story is that records are delicate and therefore you likely won’t want the uncoordinated kid next door pawing your best albums.

Enthusiasts have long debated the question of which is the best-sounding format. All agree that the CD is convenient, durable and a fantastic invention that keeps improving. 98 percent of music enthusiasts look upon record playback in the same light as eight-track and cassettes with no knowledge that digital reproduction, although very good, fell miles short of Sony’s original claim of “the perfect format forever.” Many people who I discuss this with cannot fathom how LPs could be as good or better than CDs. It’s simple. Records are analog and are never converted to digital or any other format. The biggest shortfall in digital music is the D to A (Digital to Analog) conversion. This is very complex and only mastered by the very best. Poor conversion makes CDs sound metallic and synthetic.

It’s a major pain to clean, load and manipulate records compared to CD maintenance, yet the reward for doing so is unmistakable. I had the pleasure of possessing the Linn SONDEK CD12 for close to two years and consider it the best CD player in the world, hands-down despite its hefty price of $20,000. If that’s a little rich for your blood, the Linn LP12 is better-sounding at half the price. You have a collection of LPs that have sat idle for years or infrequently find their way to your older player? Perhaps it’s time to fix this problem. The LP12 is what I consider to be the workhorse of the LP player industry. It has been around for 25 years, a huge testament to its reliability and value. I have heard LP players from several top contenders, some costing many times more, yet found the set-up, operation and sound of the Linn LP12 to be over the top. It’s the first high-end LP player the market saw and would be the last player you would ever have to buy. I will pay the Linn LP12 the ultimate compliment – I’m purchasing it. Why? I can’t imagine my life without it – it’s that good.
Manufacturer Linn
Model Sondek LP12 Turntable
Reviewer Bryan Southard

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