A visit to Glasgow to get to grips with Linn's groundbreaking new digital speaker/system technology
A couple of weeks ago, as part of its 40th anniversary celebrations, Linn launched not only a limited edition of its LP12 turntable, complete with plinths made from 100-year-old Highland Park whisky casks, but also the Exakt system, with the intriguing promise that 'The source is in the speaker'.
Intrigued by the coverage of that launch, and the fact no-one really seemed to be quite sure what Exakt is, or quite what it does, I travelled up to Linn HQ in Scotland last week to take a listen to Linn Exakt in action, and try to get my head around the whole concept.
The answer is that Exakt isn't quite what many had assumed – it's not a room correction system of the kind to be found on many an AV receiver these days, able to do a quick tailoring of the sound of a pair of speakers to suit listening distance and speaker location.
Exakt is both simpler and more complicated than that, with implications not only for the way a system can be set up at home, but also for the design, manufacturing and servicing of the products in which it's employed.
It's been a good while since I visited the Linn factory, in its parkland location just south of Glasgow – when I was asked, I was able to say 'Yes, I've been here before, but not this century' –, and many things have changed. The former office area now houses automated lines on which circuitboards are populated and soldered, and there's now a complete Linn Home demonstration suite, complete with dining and living areas, a kitchen and bedroom, to show how the company's whole-house music idea can be implemented.
But while the 40th anniversary turntable may be attracting the headlines, with its limited run of 40 units, complete with a special bottling of 40-year-old Highland Park whisky and a £25,000 price-tag, Linn is still developing its original product.
The entry-level Majik LP12 now has an improved standard sub-chassis and armboard assembly, for improved rigidity, and as a step-up there's now the new Kore sub-chassis/armboard, using a combination of a folded metal chassis section and a machined aluminium arm board. It's all part of coupling the platter on which the record sits and the fitting for the tonearm as rigidly as possible.
The metalwork for this, and other Linn products, is done in-house – unusual in an age when most manufacturers have such components made by outside companies, but all part of Linn's belief in keeping maximum control over the quality of its products from start to finish. It's the same thinking as that behind the substantial investment in the 'board-stuffing' equipment, and the fact that even printing the labelling on components is done on-site.
This philosophy still informs the way Linn products are made: a kit of parts is delivered to a workstation by one of the company's trio of robotised trucks, which circle the production area almost constantly, and then a single employee builds and tests a product from start to finish, whether it's a turntable or one of Linn's latest digital music players.
So what is the latest of those digital products – Exakt – all about? And how is it that 'the source is in the speakers' when an external box of electronics, the Klimax Exakt DSM, is needed upstream of the Klimax Exakt 350 active – or Aktiv – speakers?
Linn Technical Director Keith Robertson explains that the slogan reflects the fact that so the signal path is digital, at resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz, all the way to the Exakt Engine in the speakers. That removes the losses usually found in analogue systems, and enables connection from the Exakt DSM to the Aktive speakers to be a single, relatively thin, cable, not unlike a computer connection.
So all the crossover processing is done in the digital domain, and the signal is only converted to analogue for final amplification and delivery to the loudspeaker's drive units – six of them in the case of a Klimax Exakt 350a.
However, that's just the start of what Exakt can do: for a start, it optimises the speaker for each drive unit used, both at the design stage and in manufacturing.
And I mean each individual drive unit, not just the model of driver used. By measuring every single driver before it’s installed in the speaker, even the slightest variation from the ideal (of course within the usual acceptable tolerances) can be taken care of by the Exakt Engine, so the speaker always performs exactly – sorry – to specification.
That also makes servicing much simpler: as the details of the speaker and its drive units are filed away in cloud storage, should a driver fail or be wrecked by careless use, a replacement can be fitted, its individual identity entered via Linn’s Konfig app on a computer or tablet, and then the Exakt Engine will adjust to optimise its performance.
And the Konfig app is at the heart of the rest of the Exakt bag of tricks: as already mentioned, this isn’t a room compensation or equalisation set-up of the kind found on, say, AV receivers; but rather allows the installing Linn specialist (or indeed owners) to adjust the speakers to optimise their performance in the room where they’re used.
The idea is that the installer can set up the system for the very best sound in the room in which it's to be used, however inconvenient that may be for domestic harmony, then use the Exakt processing to reproduce that sound with the speakers where the owner actually wants them to be, whether that means they're up against a wall, in corners, or at unequal distances from the listening position.
The Linn team thinks of the Exakt process as optimisation, but on a human scale, given that listening is still at the heart of the initial set-up, and the changes applied are all about making the most of that listening experience. By contrast, Robertson says, automatic set-up systems, using a microphone and test tones, are something of a blunt instrument, and can create as many problems as they solve.
At the most basic, Exakt will ensure the ‘time of flight’ of the sound is the same from all the drive units to the listener’s ear, but much more adjustment is possible in the Exakt system. Just how much is still being explored by the Linn engineers, meaning that as things move on a set-up will literally be software upgradable, taking in factors such as the surfaces in the room and so on.
What's more, with settings being 'cloud-stored' and the Exakt system network-connected, it's possible for the company to access systems in the field and download such upgrades as they become available.
The complete Klimax Exakt set-up, shipping now at a price of around £50,000 for the speakers DSM, may look like something of a closed system, but Linn is at pains to point out nothing could be further from the truth. There are upgrade packages for existing owners of the Klimax 350a active loudspeakers, and next month it will be launching versions of its Klimax Aktiv Tunebox electronic crossover boxes, complete with Exakt Engine technology built-in.
These can be used with existing Linn systems of power amplifiers and active-ready speakers: we heard demonstrations with the big Komri speakers, and Linn is working on software for speakers back to the classic Keltiks, even taking account of the fact that some owners may have changed or upgraded some drive-units over time.
There's also the intriguing possibility that Linn is committed to an open architecture for Exakt, either developing or allowing third parties to develop software to work with other speaker designs.
Bringing the story all the way back to the LP12, I was also given demonstrations of the turntable running via its Urika phono stage into the Klimax Exakt DSM, with the signal then digital all the way through to the speakers.
Comparing one set-up comparing the big Komri speakers run using a Klimax DSM/Tunebox/power amps set-up running in analogue from one of the anniversary LP12s, and then the same set-up with the turntable’s phono stage running into an Klimax Exakt DSM, where the signal was digitised, fed through to Klimax Exakt Tuneboxes, and then on to the same speakers, it wasn't hard to be convinced of Linn's belief that the latter is the best possible way to listen to its flagship record player.
Indeed, the next stage would seem to be a direct digital phono stage, taking the signal from the Kandid cartridge in the turntable and processing it in the digital domain before passing it direct to the DSM: after all, that DSM 'head unit' does have extra Exakt Link inputs.
That opens up a whole new world of possibilities, when digital streaming meets analogue playback: it seems Linn's 40th anniversary is not so much about looking back, but carrying its four decades of heritage forward into the future.
Written by Andrew Everard