POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 28
The Kisto controller/processor, Unidisk 1.1 & Akurate 242, 225, and 212 loudspeakers
as reviewed by David W. Robinson
All photographs and image processing by Robinson.
Way-back Machine Time: History Compressed by Extreme Acceleration
"Sherman, set the way-back machine for the 1950s through the mid-1970s. We'll visit the earlier years of television."
"OK, Mr. Peabody."
[And a younger generation or two of PFO readers immediately pop open a Google session to find out who the heck "Sherman" and "Mr. Peabody" are…]
In the halcyon days of yore, fine audio existed in either monomaniacal mono (days that I barely recall) or that generally preferable option, stereo. "Home theater" didn't exist as a category—you went to the movies if you wanted "theater." That was the only place that you could get air conditioning, big sound (including various early essays into surround sound…remember the first time you saw 2001?), big picture, and complete immersion into the experience of film.
Home? Heck, that was where you watched television if you had it; there was absolutely nothing theatrical about it. "Home theater" would have been an oxymoron, given the philosophy of the TV network moguls, movie distribution, and general video/audio technology of the time. Watching television meant being subjected to the dictates of the big three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) as to what was viewed, when it was viewed, and how it would be chopped up to allow wonderful dollops of advertising to massage your mind. (Interested readers are directed to Stuart Ewen's classic work, Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture for more on this disheartening topic.) Television was quite often seen in black and white, like it or not, while color sets of the 60s and very early 70s were generally execrable in their color rendition and (often) their reliability.
Let's leave the Way-Back Machine, Sherman.
By the late 70s things began to change. Color TVs achieved a noticeably higher degree of color fidelity, and became more reliable. Cable systems sprouted in metropolitan areas around the country, improving image and audio quality over the uncertainties of rabbit ears or roof-top antennas. Cable-based networks used this new infrastructure to bring new specialty programming, thus liberating viewers from the lock that the Big Three had on content during the prior three decades. The parallel advent of consumer-grade VCRs (both Beta and VHS) made the handling of video tape quite simple (just like cassettes had done vis-à-vis open reel tape), allowed consumers much greater latitude in their video fare, and acceptable quality consumer playback, to boot. With the US Congress's blessing of a suitable fair use doctrine, the time shifting of taped content could become both legal and commonplace. It was now possible to set up stereo audio playback with your VCR and color TV, enhancing both video and audio. The television experience was morphing into some more than an evening with the idiot box …but it wasn't nearly "theater" yet.
In the 1980s, Beta faded and VHS thrived, a fine example of the format with lesser quality triumphing in the marketplace. (Sony waited too long to get longer capacity tapes onto the market.) The development of S-VHS would eventually remove many of the criticisms of the format when it came to home taping, though S-VHS never became common in the pre-recorded market. Meanwhile, the arrival of laserdisc technology in the 80s provided a superior optical format for pre-recorded movies, with noticeably higher fidelity than most VCR's could match. Many videophiles, yours truly included, bought into the laserdisc format rather than tapes, since they were higher quality and more robust. (I've owned four or five laserdisc transports, two of which—a Theta Data III and a Pioneer unit—I still use.)
Laserdisc's run as the videophile source of choice lasted from the mid-80s to the later 90s. The late 90s brought the arrival of the DVD disc, with its smaller form factor and its digital video encoding. (Many folks still do not know that the video signal on laserdiscs was actually an analog one.) It took more than just a few years for DVD's to catch on…laserdiscs would persist until 3-4 years ago …and VHS was still highly popular among the general public until 2-3 years ago. That's when the great sea-change occurred, and DVDs truly began to displace both laserdiscs and VHS.
Parallel to this video development was the honing of surround sound for this new and very promising market. Dolby Surround™, Dolby Digital™ and AC-3, THX™ certification, clever DSPs to simulate various kind of "hall sounds" …all these drove a burgeoning market in 5.1 channel for the home. A number of manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon that rolled out: compact speakers and subs, in-wall installation, active speakers, and even full-house/multi-room systems, mixing surround and stereo deployments. Both later generation laserdiscs and the newer DVDs quickly deployed these surround specifications in response to a growing consumer demand for an improved audio experience in the home—one that would be "theater-like."
Meanwhile, optical disc and television technology have played the push-pull game over the past 5-6 years. The DVD format pushed television manufacturers (and, for that matter, computer manufacturers) to produce sets/monitors that could handle higher resolution feeds (400+ lines) and better interfaces with truer color rendition and much higher resolution (from RCA composite to S-Video to RCA component to BNC component to DVI/HDMI). Television, in turn, upped the ante by jumping past the venerable NTSC standard entirely, and going to a much higher resolution standard.
"What the people want": HDTV
Which is how we ended up with HDTV. The arrival of high definition TV (HDTV) in the Portland area around 1999 was emblematic of a truly massive format change, from the foundational television format in the USA of NTSC (approaching 400 scan lines if you had a good set, well calibrated) to the new 720p/1080i and even 1080p resolutions. The next big thing will be the arrival of optical formats for HDTV: Sony's Blu-Ray, and the rival HD-DVD. (Yeesh. "Format Wars" redux.) These HD formats are the predictable results of the push-pull game from television to optical and back again. And optical formats themselves will have to fight the war against high-bandwidth on-demand streaming media via broadband in urban/suburban settings, as well as hard disk-based multimedia servers in the home. We'll be digesting the implications of these changes for the next 5-10 years, as their deployment has already begun this year.
Audiophiles will (and do) debate the merit of various audio formats, but in the realm of videophilia, there is no question about it …HDTV is the wave of the future. Even the most died-in-the-wool NTSC user is generally knocked out by a good HDTV setup, and as the prices have come down dramatically, and TV networks/stations scramble to deploy FCC mandated parallel digital TV systems, consumer interest is rising. (Unlike, say, the dreary consumer drift from CDs to compressed downloadable music, a definite step downward from the striking possibilities of DSD and SACD.) SACD will be an audiophile format, like specialty LPs (unless Sony/UMG/etc. get off their backsides and take the now unlikely step of doing a total inventory conversion to hybrid SACD, a step long overdue); HDTV will become the mass standard within the next five years or so. For those of us who love home theater, this is a good thing! (For those of us who hate change of any kind, I guess this is a bad thing. Uncle Mort really did want to be buried with his RCA, you know. All believers in que no haya novedad get to step to the rear of the bus.)
As a matter of fact, I have been following HDTV's development since the early 90s; once the new standard went into production, I got into the game. Since Portland was an early test market for broadcast HDTV, I purchased my first HDTV, a Toshiba 65" rear-projection HD-ready with separate HD broadcast tuner, in the fall of 1999. (I calibrated this with the Video Essentials Disc on laserdisc, since supplemented by the Digital Video Essentials DVD. This is an absolutely critical step to take with any video playback system; uncalibrated video systems destroy much of the capability of your video system. Check amazon.com or your favorite video emporium for this DVD.) This has since been upgraded by the addition of a Mitsubishi S-VHS/D-VHS (digital HD tape format) VCR and a Comcast HD cable with digital video recorder (DVR). Over time, the DVR has become my primary recording format for video, with the video tape system demoted to archiving purposes and tape playback. The ease, convenience, integrated programmability, and multi-tasking capabilities of the DVR (simultaneous playback while recording, or recording up to two programs at the same time) together with its high speed access of recorded material make it the platform of choice for video recording in this household. I suspect that most American users will find the same to be true, which means that HD + DVR will eventually win both the video standards and "time-shifting" wars.
I guess you could say that I really enjoy home theater. I find that it's a completely separate gestalt, quite distinct from what I look for or experience in my listening room. I therefore keep them in two different spaces; the home theater downstairs, in the great room, while the listening room is housed upstairs. Not everyone has this luxury, and compromises are quite often required by our circumstances in life, but I had the opportunity to divide the two, and have done so.
Up until the arrival of the Linn reference surround system discussed in this article, I had already owned three systems of varying quality …some Yamaha gear, a Pioneer/Pioneer Elite system, a Panasonic SAO monitor, and the usual bevy of Sonys. Each generation was a decent step forward…
…but then came Linn
In the summer of 2004, I discussed doing a home theater/surround sound project with Brian Morris of Linn. I had seen the Linn Kisto/Unidisk/Akurate/5125 amplifier system debut in Seattle at Definitive Audio all the way back in the fall of 2003 (see my photo essay in Positive Feedback Online, Issue 8, at http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue8/linn.htm), and was eager to hear the results in my home theater room here in Portland. Linn was willing to do the project, but it would take some time for them to get the gear my way.
As it turned out, it was about a year later that the Kisto, Unidisk 1.1 universal player, a pair of 5125 switching amps, and the Akurate 242/225/212 speaker system arrived. (The Melodik Subwoofer was already in place.) It was quite a pallet of gear; as usual, Linn had done an impeccable job of packaging for shipment, with not a single item experiencing any biffs or bruises. Anyone with much time on the clock dealing with fine audio gear being shipped knows how much of an achievement this is—you might be surprised at how often expensive gear takes it in the chops when it isn't properly parceled. Brian Morris flew out shortly thereafter to assemble the components and help dial in the complexities of the Kisto controller.
As far as the setting was concerned, our home offers only one acceptable site for home theater/surround sound: our great room. The dimensions are pretty decent, being 18' wide by 24' long, with a peaked and vaulted ceiling along the long axis that's 16' high at the center. Unfortunately, our fireplace forced a shift to the left of the front end of the system. This unhappily skews the sound somewhat (traditional designs certainly were not developed for home theater, it's clear), but I find that it still allows for a satisfying home theater/surround sound experience.
Brian Morris shares his Dr. Svengali-like gaze with Ye Olde Editor…
The first task was to clear out the audio section of my old home theater system. Out went the Yamaha surround receiver/amp, a Sony DVD player, the TC Audio front left/right speakers, and the NHT center channel. The 10" in-ceiling rear speakers were disconnected, as well. Also out, my vintage 1997 Bell'Ogetti equipment stand …handsome, but not very solid, and very "hard" sounding. Out it went.
In the beginning - the old gear before being moved out.
In its place we deployed the Linn gear. At the heart of the Linn system is the Kisto, a remarkable control unit and audio processor. It supports just about every audio option you might like in stereo, Dolby 5.1 and Dolby, DTS, DVD-A in stereo or multichannel, and SACD two/three/four/six channel. The Kisto auto-detects the incoming audio signal and switches to the appropriate decoding for that signal, a very handy feature in the current bewildering audio-video environment of competing and confusing standards.
The Kisto is a beautiful piece of work, but setting one up is not for the faint of heart. The documentation is very good …typical of Linn …but this component is very complex. I assisted Brian in the setup, and was able to learn the body English of the menu structure in a reasonable amount of time. (Then again, as an IT professional in my secret life, I'm probably a lot more comfortable with menus and flying the controls of the Kisto than many end users would be.) Having gone through this, I would recommend that anyone planning on purchasing a Kisto have an experienced Linn installer do the work for you. Which I was very glad to let Brian do.
I/O, I/O, so off to work we go! A glimpse of the incredible input/output options on the rear of the Linn Kisto, as Brian Morris began the work of cabling the beastie.
A closer view: let's see, two complete sets of BNCs, six s-video, three sets of component video, surround I/O in RCA and XLR …what's not to like, Maynard?
Another look, further right: six RCA digital inputs and 2 RCA digital outputs, and six (!) TOSLINK inputs with two TOSLINK outputs. Analog left/right XLR inputs. Not much missing here. In fact, the only thing missing from the Kisto as far as I could tell was video I/O for DVI and HDMI. On the other hand, SCART is included, but is of interest in the European market, and not in the USA.
The Linn Unidisk 1.1 universal player deployed on top of the Kisto for control cable preparation. The final placement of the Unidisk was not on the top of the Kisto, though …it has its own shelf …to avoid thermal overload.
The Kisto has a complete set of control I/Os that allow it to act as a center for all of the associated Linn gear. Linn's smashing Unidisk 1.1 universal player plugs into the Kisto for all audio and video output. In the configuration here, we set up the video output from the Unidisk via three interlaced BNC's (top row to the left above), using BNC to RCA adapters and running video cabling to the component inputs on the Kisto. Surround audio out was piped via six RCA outputs on the Unidisk to the Kisto. PCM S/PDIF via coax was used to output PCM, though we could have just as easily gone with XLR. Due to I/O limitations on my older HDTV, I wasn't able to connect the BNC's for progressive video, something that I would have done in a heartbeat if it had been possible. An RS-232 input pipe via twisted pair and an RCA remote control input via RCA rounded out the cabling between the Unidisk 1.1 and the Kisto.
Once basic cabling was checked, Brian and I set the Kisto on one shelf of its new stand, and the Unidisk 1.1 on the next shelf down. The reason for this is quite simple, and important for our readers to understand: the Kisto and Unidisk 1.1 do run very warm, and require sufficient space to properly ventilate. Unlike some mid-fi stackables, these components are extremely sophisticated devices which generate significant levels of heat. Not only should they not be stacked directly on top of each other, you must plan for shelving or cabinet system that allows adequate spacing and air flow. I think I can quite safely say that failure to do so is inviting a very nasty thermal failure.
Surround amplification was provided by a pair of Linn 5125 five channel amplifiers, wired in parallel. (During the extended course of this review, the 5125 was superseded by the Chakra series, with the C5100 mapping most closely to the earlier 5125.) In this configuration, each of the five channels was supplied with approximately 200 watts of power. The older Melodik subwoofer, no longer in production but which was used for this project, had its own dedicated amplifier with 200 watts for the lower end.
Brian Morris begins the bi-amping of the Linn 5125 amps; this will produce 1000 watts into the five channels; the Melodik .1 sub has its own 200 watt amplifier.
A pair of the Linn 5125 5.1 channel switching amplifiers (top two units), resting on the Unidisk 1.1 - engineering and beauty need not be polar opposites.
The new audio rack in the middle of setup and component shifting. On the bottom shelf is the Theta Data III Laserdisc player, with the Mitsubishi D-VHS/S-VHS VCR, and the Benchmark DAC1 (Laserdisc playback only, and since returned to Benchmark). The second shelf down has the old Sony DVD player, soon to retire to another room.
A rear view of the Unidisk 1.1, showing the final cabling configuration. Don't try this at home, children!
The new Linn system in place …quite an improvement from the previous setup!
It took Brian and me a couple of days to get everything more or less in place. Bravo to Maestro Morris for his meticulous work, and for his ability to get everything possible from the Linn surround system in its "shift to stage left" configuration. Once we finished, and gave it some listening to make sure that all was well, Brian departed. I dug in on the break-in both of video and audio.
Months passed…which was necessary, since the Akurate speakers do require a couple of hundred hours of vigorous workout to hit their stride. The Akurates that I have here are the passive models, by the way; Linn also has an active (powered) version of its home theater speakers. I have always preferred Linn's active speakers to their passives, but I've have to say that these passive Akurates have nothing to be embarrassed about. The punchy 5125 amplifiers in bi-amp mode do just fine, thank you kindly!
Impressions: the Sound of One Linn Klapping
There are audiophiles who have combined their love of audio (stereo and multi-channel) and video into a single system in a single room. They claim that they are able to find a golden mean that allows them to enjoy both types of playback without discomfort. That may be so for them; long ago I gave up arguing with anyone about their taste in musical playback. (And wine. And cigars. And single malts. And cars. And women. You get the drift.) Nevertheless, and no matter what anyone else might prefer, I have to say that I believe videophile/surround sound systems operate according to different expectations than an audiophile's stereo system does. In brief, I believe that we are looking for fundamentally different experiences in a home theater room than we are in a listening room.
This is no surprise; I'm looking for something different at a concert than I am at a film theater, too.
The Unidisk 1.1 playing a Michael McDonald SACD in surround mode - righteous stuff!
When I go into a listening room optimized for fine stereo playback, I'm looking for qualities like transparency, detail, tonal rightness, soundstage breadth and depth, and proper dynamics. When things are right, I dim the lights, relax into the sound, and usually close my eyes. I measure the excellence of stereo sound reproduction by the degree of introspection it compels in me.
Surround sound systems can be quite rewarding—I've heard exceptional examples from the likes of Sony/Philips (CES 2001) and Ray Kimber (his brilliant IsoMike™ DSD recordings played back via EMM Labs multi-channel over the past several years)—but they are challenging to set up correctly, and place a real premium on space. Done right (and contrary to the audio contrarians), they can extend the delight and introspection of one's experience of recordings, especially from SACD done from DSD sources. Done wrong, they're pretty bad; who needs ping-pong sound in six channels? The result is a long way from introspection.
Home theater, on the other hand, is almost always optimized as a dynamic experience, above all. Most sound tracks nowadays are hardly exercises in restraint, nuance, or transparent detail; car chases, explosions, violent conflicts, and the excesses of technical effects nuke audiophile values like "inner detail" or "microdynamics."
Or Red Book PCM.
"Same difference," a friend of mine used to say.
All of a qualitative family.
The cynical audiophile might note that the compressed limitations of Dolby Digital has a tendency to "dumb down" the sound, much the same way that the uncontrolled use of compression in modern recording and FM playback has produced an undifferentiated muck for the listener. (No wonder your typical iPod user considers the quality of his or her playback to be so striking; compared with the noise floor of our contemporary culture, in some ways it is.)
Then again, cynicism may well be the last refuge of perceptive sensibilities.
Can surround sound/home theater systems be restrained from the trap of the bomb(astic) above all? Of tiresome tinnitus-inducing trauma at all times? Of boomboxery times 5.1?
My show experience has been discouraging. An awful lot of home theater/surround sound systems that I've heard over the past five years were little more than exercises in excess. Probably the worst that I saw was Tomlinson Holman's demonstration of his "10.2" (with only 10.1 installed …the other sub was MIA) surround system at CES in 2001. Ping pong (literally) in ten channels, and thus pretty dreadful all around. I've heard many other bad rooms since then, though; the same thing, only on a smaller scale. You know: Terminator 2, Star Wars I/II/III/IV/V/VI, [insert your favorite car-chase flick], at shrieking volumes in relatively small rooms.
I was hopeful that the Linn Kisto/Unidisk 1.1/Akurate system would rescue our home theater/surround room from such multi-channel mediocrity.
I'm very glad to say that it has done so—and exceptionally—which I was not sure would be the case when I took the project on.
I commented on the excellent stereo playback of the Unidisk 1.1 back in PFO Issue 16 (see http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue16/unidisk1.1.htm), and have nothing to add to that very favorable commentary. As a stereo SACD and CD player, the Unidisk 1.1 is absolutely terrific.
The Linn Akurate 242, upper section, with its magnetically attached speaker cover removed. The 3-K driver array (midrange, tweeter, and super-tweeter) is floating in the silver frame above the mid-bass. Note that there is another woofer lurking just outside of the lower edge of the frame. Linn lists the frequency response of this 5-way passive system at a nominal 49Hz - 33kHz @ 8 ohms, with the subwoofer shouldering the balance of the bass playback.
On the multi-channel side of things, the Unidisk 1.1/Kisto/Akurate system showed itself to be highly synergistic…not shocking at all, given the fact that unlike most fine audio manufacturers, Linn is able to provide a truly complete system, from source components to cables and speakers. This equipment was made to work together magnificently, and sounds like it. Instead of sounding boomy, brash, forward, or tubby, the Akurate playback system was clean and coherent. I haven't noticed any boxiness in the sound during either SACD surround or DVD video/Dolby Digital 5.1 playback; there's a very fine transparency to audio playback with the Akurate surround system.
The Linn Akurate 225 5-way center channel speaker in place on the Toshiba HDTV. The 3-K array is used on this speaker, as well. Linn lists the nominal frequency response at 66Hz - 33kHz @ 8 ohms for passive playback.
The pair of 5125 switching amplifiers in tandem with the Akurate speakers provided a sound that was clean, quick, rich, and always very musical. Though the Akurates may look like customary floor-standing speakers, their 3-K speaker array with its near-point-source reproduction provided excellent coherence of audio reproduction. Surround music on SACD has a natural ease, with just a touch of warmth, without loss of detail or a movement to romantic gush. True DSD surround recordings were especially pleasant. For example, the Tilson-Thomas/San Francisco Mahler cycle (a truly superlative reference-grade series …if you don't have the whole set yet, get it!) is absolutely magic via the Unidisk 1.1/Kisto/Akurate system. I love the sense of spaciousness and fine presence that Linn is able to provide in our great room …and so have all of our visitors. (Once recent visitor couldn't quit smiling; a Maggie 3.6 planar owner himself, he said that he couldn't believe that dynamic speakers could sound so clean and unboxlike. Yep …they can.)
I should say in passing that while DVD-A is not my preferred format, I found that the Unidisk 1.1 did a very fine job making hi-resolution PCM and PCM surround sound…well, less objectionable. My DVD-A of the Greatful Dead's Workingman's Dead, or REM's Automatic for the People played back creditably via the Linn system. (Of course, with such terrific music I'll freely confess that I'm pretty forgiving with the drawbacks of DVD-A.) While I consider DVD-A to be an unfortunate format, there is some good music that was issued this way. If you want to hear it at its best, the Unidisk 1.1 does the job. Likewise well rendered were DTS surround disks. I don't have too many of these, but purchased a few to see how they would play back on the Unidisk 1.1. Not bad, as it turned out …DTS audio turned out to be tolerably listenable with the Linn gear, though I found it to be nowhere near the excellence of SACD surround. No shocker, that, I guess.
The beautify and sophisticated Linn Kisto System Controller in action - in this case, handling a stereo HD feed from Comcast.
On the DVD video/Dolby Digital side of the ledger, the performance of the Linn system was a pleasant revelation. Video playback was certainly a step forward from the Sony player that I had been using earlier: images from the Unidisk 1.1 via the Kisto (using component connections) provided a viewing experience on the 65" Toshiba that were freer from video noise, particularly in the deeper reds. (I should mention that I have calibrated the Toshiba using the Video Essentials disc. If you don't have this valuable tool for your home theater system, you really ought to get it and use it. Most video playback is poorly calibrated for true NTSC; the default from the factory is usually TECHNICOLOR …a preference for garish rather than realistic color.)
One of the most problematic DVDs that I know of for dark scenes and deep reds is The Relic. The Unidisk 1.1/Kisto made my earlier Sony look confused by comparison; instead of a somewhat muddy and bled-out presentation, the Linn system provided greater resolution of the troublesome "red zone" throughout The Relic. Ditto with the gloom in movies like Pitch Black and Aliens; muddy and vague rendition of shadows and glowing reds was knocked back noticeably.
Better yet, in the Linn system black and white classics were presented without the tendency to produce "chroma shimmer," that bothersome color noise that causes intermittent coloration of black and white scenes—where it definitely doesn't belong. This makes viewing Citizen Kane, Psycho, Touch of Evil, or Casablanca a distinct delight, instead of causing me to grind my teeth in frustration. (My dentist is pleased!)
I also note that pixelization in scenes with rapid motion were reduced with the Unidisk 1.1/Kisto, though DVD video as a format doesn't seem to have completely dealt with this problem yet. Very rapid movement still seems to provoke pixel blocking in digital video playback in my system. I should note that my Toshiba HDTV is a first-generation model; even with the Unidisk 1.1/Kisto, pixelization isn't eliminated. We are considering an upgrade to the latest generation HDTV playback in 2007, with modern I/O so that we can essay HDMI and 1080p. Perhaps this will help DVD playback, though I suspect that faster video processing and larger video bit-words are ultimately the only solution. (Blu-Ray and HD-DVD playback is something that I will also essay in 2007, just to see whether these formats can overcome this problem via higher resolution. I certainly hope so.)
The Linn Akurate 212 4-way Rear Channel Speakers on their dedicated stands. These speakers also feature the 3-K speaker array, and thus share the coherence of their larger siblings. Linn lists their response as 70Hz - 33kHz @ 8 ohms nominal. The efficiency of the Akurate line is a low-middling 87dB/watt/meter; this means that you'll want to have plenty of power for a surround system.
I must say that the sound tracks that the Linn system delivered for DVD videos were really spectacular. Even in passive mode—and even with all the inherent limitations and compression of Dolby Digital—the Unidisk 1.1/Kisto/Akurate delivered plenty of the punch!/biff!/bam!/BOOM!!! that home theater devotees appreciate, while not losing their way when playing back more subtle surround material (see above). For example, the crash scene at the opening of Pitch Black (a personal BOOM!!! reference for me) was dynamic, deep and piercing …scary good. In fact, I had to be careful with the playback volume; the Linn system drives some pretty definite SPLs. Another reference scene for me is the opening submarine disaster in The Abyss, which the Unidisk 1.1/Kisto/Akurate handled well …deep and explosive. Ditto the crazy chase scene in Terminator 2, or the shoot-out scene near the end of The Matrix; given non-maniacal playback levels, the 5125 amps had no problem delivering the dynamic goods.
Music videos were also enjoyable with the Linn system. Favorites like the Talking Heads Stop Making Sense, or Rush's 2004 concert in Germany (in high definition, no less!) definitely hit the spot; ditto with my VHS (not available on DVD) of Lou Reed's remarkable Magic and Loss. Is it like listening to SACD in surround? Don't I wish! No, you have to take most music videos as they are, and let the video fill in the blanks. For me, it's a willing suspension of distress, which is otherwise what I would feel at the quality of the audio that is usually conveyed on these discs. (Dolby Digital = PCM, in compressed mode, no less.)
Who knows? Perhaps Blu-Ray with its sub-spec of DSD/SACD will one day deliver high definition video AND high resolution DSD 6-channel soundtracks ...which would be the top o' the heap for both worlds.
Sony? Anybody over there listening? (Naaah! Too busy building PS3s!)
Overall, and despite these format drawbacks for DVD movies and music, the Linn gear definitely upgraded my home theater experience on both the audio and video fronts.
What about standard TV operation? Cable TV playback from our Comcast high definition feed, via our DVR-equipped Comcast tuner box, has been very satisfactory with the Kisto. Interestingly, the Kisto is a complete system controller, and so both audio and video feeds are handled by this brilliant component. Both audio and video inputs/outputs are programmed via the Kisto's very powerful menuing operating system. This allows the user to configure and bond video and audio I/O with complete flexibility, and get precisely the parameters that you require. Naturally, as I noted earlier, this much power and control means that there is complexity; the end user will have to either learn the OS, or will have to get a professional to do the setup in their home theater room. (I'd strongly recommend this option to anyone who is not either a trained home theater installer or an Information Technology specialist. Seriously.) Once you get the hang of it—and I have—then it's pretty simple to take a given set of video inputs, bond them to an appropriate set of audio inputs, then send the output to the correct audio/video pipes.
I should also say that the Linn remote control works magnificently with the Kisto and Unidisk 1.1. Once the programming of the Kisto and Unidisk are done, it is simplicity itself to use ONE SINGLE REMOTE to handle all the audio and video input/output functions. Given the pathetic tangled thicket that most home theater setups subject their users to, it is quite refreshing to find advanced sophistication and ease of use in a single remote control system. This bloody system works!
How's standard NTSC and HD playback via the Kisto? Subject to the usual limitations that may exist in your cable system, I'd say that they were excellent. Certainly my Comcast loop is delivering first-rate signal (analog NTSC, digital NTSC, and HDTV) which is handled with the greatest of ease by the Kisto. Portland being the hot bed of HDTV that it is, I was also able to check the quality of the handling of off-the-air HD signal via the Linn, through a Samsung HD broadcast decoder that I own. This was no problem at all for the Kisto; we simply defined a broadcast I/O set and fed it to the Toshiba and the Akurate surround system. Once it's set up, the Kisto worked like a charm.
All this, and reliability too
The prolonged stay of the Linn surround setup, regrettable as it has been for timeliness, has given me one particular opportunity, however—it has allowed me to assess the Linn gear for quality over time, both sonically and in terms of reliability. This is a real luxury for a reviewer; most review projects are over and done with in a few weeks to a few months; this one allowed me to gain a greater perspective on the gear.
The result: since the completion of the installation, I have put in literally many hundreds of hours on the Linn Kisto/Unidisk 1.1/Akurate and their associated components. They have been on continually, without any significant shutoff, for nearly two years. Every hour of television, DVD video, VHS, laserdisc, and music playback in all modes (SACD/CD stereo, SACD surround, DVD-A surround, DTS, and Dolby Digital in its various incarnations) that I've done in my home theatre room for the past 24 months has transited the Linn. What have my findings about its reliability been?
First of all, and no surprise, the Linn designs have shown themselves to be remarkably reliable and stable. In two years I have seen only one glitch, and that was when the Unidisk 1.1 developed a thermal problem. It was a very early production sample with inadequate ventilation; it was replaced by Linn with an improved model (see my Brutus Award winners for 2006), which has worked flawlessly ever since. Other than that, there has been nothing to complain about; the performance of the Kisto/Unidisk/Akurate speakers and the 5125 amplifiers have been all that I would expect from Linn.
Upgrades are usually done by flashing the firmware; Linn provides a procedure so that the tech-savvy user can do this for him- or herself, or your Linn dealer can run the procedure for you. Linn scores points with me for the intelligence of their approach to the Kisto operating system and the firmware in the Unidisk 1.1. Programmability extends the life and utility of components like these in a way that increases the return on investment for the end user quite nicely. New features can be added, and the capability of the Kisto can be extended without debilitating down-time. Flashing the firmware also increases reliability by providing fixes for firmware problems that might turn up.
After 24 months, I have reached the point at which I can say with real confidence that Linn's very ambitious Unidisk 1.1/Kisto tandem is a reliable winner, and that videophiles can invest in the Linn system without worrying about having components that will either go immediately out of date or will fail without due cause.
The very attractive and powerful Linn remote control, providing complete direction for the Kisto and the Unidisk 1.1.
A few caveats for our readers…
That's not to say that there aren't a few things for the reader to consider with the Linn system. Let me summarize the caveats:
Well, here at the end of an extended time with the Linn Unidisk 1.1, Kisto, 5125 amplifiers, the Akurate speaker system, and the Melodik subwoofer, what conclusions have I come to? I can say that the Linn system represents a truly superior combination of beauty, performance, robustness, and proven long-term reliability. With the Unidisk 1.1, audiophiles and videophiles alike will find that all established major 'phile-approved audio and video standards are available to them. (Remember that the struggle between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD is too recent to count.) The Kisto is a marvel of power and flexibility as a system controller/processor, with little left over to wish for. And Linn amplification drives the very fine Akurate speaker system in ways that will satisfy both lovers of musical nuance as well as videophiles who demand BIG-TIME BOOM!!!
Elegance—and power; with the Linn Unidisk 1.1/Kisto/Akurate system, you can …and do …have both. And once you have it, you definitely won't want to go back to anything lesser for surround sound or for home theater.
The Linn Unidisk 1.1/Kisto/Akurate system (with associated Linn electronics and subwoofer) therefore richly deserves a "Ye Olde Editor's Very Highest Recommendation!"—and with the greatest enthusiasm.
Consider it given…
Prices of current production units reviewed (all USD):
Linn Unidisk 1.1, $10,995
Linn Kisto, $12,995
Linn Akurate 242 L/R front, $9545/pair
Linn Akurate 212 L/R rear, $5750/pair, plus optional stands at $900/pair
Linn Akurate 225 center channel, $3750
Note that the Linn Melodik subwoofer and the 5125 switching amps are no longer in production.