A major series of revisions of the classic Linn Sondek is now available, with some subversive changes inside - starting with a precision machined all-metal subchassis and armboard...
It’s no idle exaggeration to say that the Sondek LP12 has been a touchstone for record playback during the three decades-plus of its continuous production. And although Linn Products has earned its credentials as a progressive company by embracing new areas of business such as multiroom and AV electronics, and despite the low demand for record players compared to the heyday of the 1980s, the LP12 has stubbornly stayed in the catalogue. It’s a reminder of the company’s heritage but also surely a testament to the turntable’s abiding popularity, since Linn wouldn’t trouble itself to make something no-one would buy.
Externally almost identical since 1973, many small changes have been made inside over the years in order to improve its sound, principally by tightening tolerances on metal components and substituting superior suspension pieces. Aside from the deck itself, Linn has also made steady developments in its tonearms, cartridges and power supplies to keep the design fresh.
Notable changes to the core motor unit include the Nirvana upgrade in 1981, using new springs, grommets and fasteners; and the late 1980s change in main bearing, made available to older decks as the Cirkus upgrade. However, since the Lingo power supply upgrade in 1991, the Sondek motor unit has effectively been in stasis, remaining essentially the same for over 15 years. Until now.
THREE'S A CHARM
Linn Products made three updates for the Sondek in 2007 – a new version of the Trampolin isolation baseboard, moving from plastic to a metal plate; a revision to the flagship Ekos arm, up to ‘SE’ status; and most subversive, the Keel metal subchassis upgrade.
Like an iceberg, the important part of the subchassis component lies below the surface out of view. And the Keel is intriguing because, excepting a change from spot-welded folded steel to one with a glued-on brace, the subchassis has remained a constant on the deck since the first model.
Part of the synergy of the Sondek is based on a lossy coupling between the armboard and subchassis, traditionally fastened together by three tiny wood screws. Linn has traditionally warned against any modification that ‘improves’ this joint, as the result is said to be a harder, brighter sound that actually results in a loss of low-level information and a deterioration of the all-important ‘tune’. Yet the Keel is fashioned from a single piece of aircraft-grade aluminium alloy – forming a composite, unyielding subchassis/armboard/arm collar platform – precision machined to leave diagonal strengthening webs on the underside. The resulting platform is designed to match exactly the weight and centre of gravity of the original assembly, and the differing wall thicknesses and variations in the depth of ‘pockets’ is said to break up unwanted vibrations.
Linn introduced the Ekos tonearm in 1988 as a development of its popular Ittok. Important changes then included the use of aluminium-loaded industrial adhesive to fix the arm tube into the bearing assembly on one end and headshell at the other, along with improved bearing components. For the new 2007 SE version, Linn has selected titanium for the arm tube instead of aluminum alloy, and the bearing mating surfaces are machined ‘to an even higher tolerance’ to reduce friction. Also the wall thickness of the bearing assembly has been increased threefold, and the armtube is now mounted directly to its collar, removing an intermediate tube assembly.
Linn’s new upgrades have raised a few eyebrows with owners. A fully specified LP12 is now a major financial investment, since a bare Sondek costs £1540 and first requires a £990 Lingo power supply. Add to this £2950 for the Ekos SE arm, £1980 for the Akiva cartridge and £140 for the Trampolin, and you’re already up to £7600, before including the Keel subchassis for another £1950. As tested, this flagship Sondek would set you back a heady £9550, moving it away from many enthusiasts pockets into a rarefied high-end league.
In order to assess how the Sondek has responded to the new changes, and in particular the revision to the new subchassis and armboard assembly, I set up a second LP12 as a point of reference. This deck, a walnut-plinth model of mid-1990s vintage, represents the current level of Sondek construction before any of the 2007 upgrades, and includes Linn’s relatively recent engineering additions such as plinth corner braces, an additional top plate fixing screw, and Cirkus bearing.
Also on hand for reference was my second Sondek, a late ’80s afromosia LP12 fitted with the Funk Firm’s DC motor Vector upgrade [May ’07]. This runs with a black Ittok LV II tonearm and Ortofon MC Windfeld.
Listening time was spent with these three decks, and a system based on either Music First passive preamp with Chord SPM 1200C power amp, or Leema Acoustics Tucana integrated, into B&W 802D loudspeakers. I tried a variety of phono stages, including Trichord Diablo NC, GSP Era V with Audio Note AN-S2 step-up transformer, and an Anatek MC-1 before settling with the Diablo.
DEVIL IN THE DETAIL
Getting the best sound from a Sondek still requires very careful setting up, typically a Linn dealer’s job. The assembly and tuning of a Sondek has been regarded by many a dark art in itself, lying somewhere between alchemy and necromancy as an arcane practice to be carried out only by skilled Linn-trained technicians armed with the correct tools and know-how. A complete overhaul or ground-up assembly takes around an hour by a methodical worker, although the final tuning, including much twisting and resetting of springs and the tweaking of the arm cable held fast by a P-clip, can often double that time. Time spent here is rewarded with a platter and arm that sit precisely level and will bounce evenly up and down when tapped by the finger at the subassembly’s centre of gravity.
As supplied, the review Sondek LP12 had a standard subchassis and armboard, so the first task was to rebuild the deck with the Keel subchassis, a process that necessitates an almost complete nut-and-bolt strip down. Comparing new Keeled Sondek with old involved the repeated transfer of Ekos SE with Akiva between decks, along with the new Trampolin base, with careful calibration and tuning on a Linn setup jig at each stage.
Listening began with a playthrough of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2, a 1960s Decca Eclipse pressing [ECS 510, Katchen, NSOL], using the standard LP12 Lingo plus Ekos SE and Akiva. This showed the familiar Sondek sound, majoring on an easy listening quality with instruments held in a natural balance. The key melodies of piano and orchestra were revealed with good stereo dimensions, strings sometimes standing a little proud and massed together rather than cleanly separated, and basses and low-register piano holding some additional but not unpleasant warmth.
On the full SE deck with Keel, something akin to a new recording was heard, a leaner and tighter sound that had the effect of opening the soundstage to delineate both the image position and character of Katchen’s piano. A challenging piece for a pianist to play, and to recreate from record, the Keeled deck made conspicuous gains in fidelity, without straying far from the ease of listening found on a standard deck.
Reveling in the playful menace of Borodin’s Polovetskiy Marsh [Svetlanov, USSR SSO, Melodiya C01377-8], the Sondek SE could show Svetlanov’s taut control of the Soviet orchestra in a widened stereo space. A brighter, better lit sound, the effect was less lush, more incisive and ultimately of a younger sounding recording. High strings were notably more cleanly etched and sweeter in tone while the low end seemed sited on a stronger, more naturally resonant foundation, painting in more cues to the venue.
‘Sad Old Red’ was always a useful test track for setting up Linn systems, a soulful jazz piece from flat-earth favourite Simply Red [Picture Book, Elektra EKT 27] that includes walking acoustic bass, sparse hi-hat and ride-led percussion, and sensitive piano and rhythm guitar to support Hucknall’s dynamic voice. Linn’s listening philosophy has been based on ‘following the tune’ over considerations of timbre and space, yet this piece demonstrated superior tone accuracy that actually benefitted the underlying melody. A harmonised tenor and baritone sax break opened out better, at once improved in tone, transparency and separation, and in its relationship to the rest of the song. and below, somehow the bass just seemed more vibrant and defined in pitch.
With reference to the Funk DC refit for the Sondek, there remains a trace of the AC motor signature but now so small as to be almost inconsequential. A Funked LP12 has yet lower perceived noise floor and arguably better pitch definition, but perhaps can no longer be considered a Sondek anyway!
With these SE updates Linn has taken some of the remaining bloom and mellowness from the classic Sondek sound, bringing it closer to digital sources’ levelness, without sacrificing the deck’s legendary musicality and timing. In some respects, the ‘tune’ aspects of the Sondek LP12 SE were even heard to be enhanced compared to when non-Keeled, once the upward tilt in tonality – and with it, transparency – had been ‘heard through’ and acknowledged. There’s a radiant effect for sure, a more lustrous sound that is secured over a tauter and drier bass. It’s this effect that may divide die-hard Sondek users the most, since the organic mellowness of an original Sondek has been one of its prized qualities. Ultimately, resolution has moved forward another step, a testament to better low-level detail retrieval.
The latest Linn-sanctioned refits of Keel, Trampolin and Ekos SE build on the classic Sondek sound, bringing out more detail, focusing stereo images, tidying the top and tautening the bottom, while preserving most of the essence of the Sondek charm. Solid precision engineering brings tangible benefits, albeit at a considerable price.
This review was originally published in the March 2008 issue
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