Linn "Sondek" LP12 - a 40+ year quest

Depending on who you ask, Linn's LP12 "Sondek" is either the best event since sliced bread, or the worst sounding and most overpriced affront in the hi fi industry.

Certainly, the conservative, retro styling does not suggest a laboratory precision instrument tasked with transcribing sub microscopic, mechanically encoded vibrations in the record groove. Neither does the hand crafted wood frame, the pure wool mat, and general absence of 'bling' suggest origins in a factory that could as easily produce components for aerospace as for record players.

The minimalist, even dry language at the Linn website belies an attitude within the factory where even the sonic influence of a particular weave of wool is subject of obsessive listening tests. How can I sum up the attitude at Linn? When its founder, Ivor Tiefenbrun, spent the present day equivalent of 20 million on a single machine used in just one stage of producing platters for LP12s (when a different method could have produced platters at much lower cost) industry colleagues told him he was potty (mad). He merely shrugged and said of the result "..it sounds better." (...and it did.)

Mr Popularity...

For many years, Linn's public image was centred upon its founder, and this had lasting effects... Ivor tended to spice his observations warmly; his plain speaking approach, and his insistence that folks can and should judge hi fi performance themselves using musical criteria - and ignore 'spec sheets,' sales banter, and the 'gurus' of the audiophile intelligentsia - caused consternation among some and resentment among others. From the beginning, Linn's products have been priced in the 'audiophile' range, and yet Ivor and his lieutenants distanced themselves from that sub-culture (sometimes mocking its more fanatical members). Even today, some who perhaps take it all a wee bit too seriously will cross themselves at the mere mention of a certain, Scottish, four letter word...

A brief detour: What's a hi fi system for?

The central tenet of Linn's message is this: it's all about the music and how the listener responds to it. Unfortunately, the truth about a hi fi system is often only revealed in the months following purchase. If a system gets used for only an hour before being turned down, it means there's something wrong with it - no matter how much was paid for it; no matter how many stars it has on a website; and no matter how plausible and charming the salesman or expert may have been - the actual enjoyment quotient is all that matters.

Linn has given advice on how best to choose a hi fi system ("even if it isn't ours"), and it boils down to 'active listening' (a borrowed term) rather than listening as one might in the elevator. Focusing only on 'the sound' is about as helpful as comparing the wetness of two wines. Follow the music - follow the tune, up and down, in and out, and round about - music is a path drawn in time by its creators; whether it's Beethoven, Dizzy Gillespie, or Katy Perry.

When listening in the shop's demonstration room, ask yourself critical questions: can I easily identify all the instruments? Can I follow each of them easily? Do they all sound as though they're playing together, in harmony? If you're finding negative results in the shop then you can be sure that the system will cause fatigue during longer listening (IE, at home). Crucially, where two components are being compared, the one that makes 'following the tune' easiest is the one most likely to give pleasure in the long term - that's the one you should buy - even if other aspects seem less good, and even if 'accepted wisdom' on the internet points the other way. The 'tune' method provides consistent and repeatable results; although, of course, all items should be compared in the same room using the same ancillaries and the same record or file.

Back to the Sondek...

Linn's advice on how to choose a hi fi system, as well as their use of 'blind comparison' during R&D (as used by orchestra directors during auditions - eliminating 'expectation bias' and 'confirmation bias') have helped the Sondek LP12 attain a rare level of refinement - and customer loyalty - during a development program now in its fifth decade. Today, Linn's LP12 range is extensive, providing options to suit almost every budget; and Linn still produces service parts for every turntable that has left its factory since 1973.

However, this page is not a love note to Linn, or to the LP12; as usual, there is a flip side to the story...

There are more than a hundred individual parts in a Linn record player (far more than in most others) and the status and adjustment of each of them contributes to the sonic end result, either for better or worse... This fact helps explain the wide variety of experiences the public has had, and the polarising effect that the mere mention of the word 'Linn' has within the world of 'audiophilia.' The supplying shop, or service provider, is always a factor in the performance of any vinyl player, but more so in the case of the LP12. For example, it is possible to spend a large sum on components yet achieve results that are less good than obtained from an apparently more modest combination. I've even come across Linn's that initially sounded less pleasing than Rega's entry level player, and I'm sure any experienced Linn retailer could report similar anecdotes.

Perhaps this is a long winded way of saying:

"The ingredients do not make the cake."

A commonplace statement, perhaps, but it's worth reflecting that two identically specified LP12s, provided by different shops, can sound very different.

While publicly minimising this weakness in their product, Linn have, behind the scenes, invested a great deal of effort training their retailers - though with mixed results. The unyielding truth is: Linn's full and pedantic control over the musical capabilities of their products ends at the factory gate. To make matters worse, some of the LP12's components are susceptible to acquired latent damage; any such damage will compromise what was achieved at the factory and degrade what the end user might achieve in the home.

Therefore, I will end by invoking a particular Scot, not known for watering his words: "Choose the f%4#**g shop first, then the product..."

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