June 27, 2011

The Best Digital Vintage? Linn Sondek CD12 CD Player.

The Linn CD12's smiley face has inspired the sleeker, more sinister looking, smiley face of the current Klimax range.
For me, 1999 was the best vintage year in digital, the year that saw statements like the Marantz CD7 and this Linn CD12 being brought to the market. If you've been a faithful enough reader, you'd know of my fondness for the Marantz CD7 and some of it's more luminous 16 bit TDA1541 DAC based ilk. By 1999, the said DAC chip had ended of it's production run. So this Linn CD12 does not use the TDA1541 architecture, instead it uses the then latest state of the art Burr Brown 1704 DAC chips, which is now still considered the top dog "for CD use only" chip, in the form of the BB1704-K. Like the Marantz CD7, Linn also used the Philips CD Pro transport, in an even more ambitiously modified guise.

Linn says that a product with the no.12 designation as it's model name only comes around once every quarter of a century or so! It's the only other product with a no.12 designation after the Linn Sondek LP12, which was first made in the seventies. Linn said at that time, it would not make a CD player until it can make one that sounds comparable to the LP12. That's a very lofty goal indeed.

The all metal CD tray has been given the "Chrome" treatment. The tray also responds to simple commands, like play, stop, and next track. Once the tray is closed, the CD will automatically play and if you push the tray once, the CD will skip to next track, nudge twice for two tracks. A solid holding nudge to stop play. That's how Linn gets away without buttons on the front face plate. A full feature, learning remote is provided to allow whole Linn system operations. A second simple Philips RC-5 remote is provide too, for people who just want to simply operate the CD12. 
This particular example of the Linn CD12 belonged to a buddy who recently got distracted by CAS in the form of the Bryston BDP/BDA-1 combo. He had left this CD player sitting aside for sometime now. I had cheekily told him that CD players must not be left sitting around for too long, or the transport would die soon after once it's reverted to regular use. I asked if he'd allow me to "keep this player spinning for a while?" Ha! Ha! Here's another perfect example of the "What you do not ask, you do not get!" theory in practice.

This CD player cost RM$90k when new, once upon a time, when the great British pound was truly unassailable in it's value. Since it's launch, among those lucky enough to have auditioned one, many have declared the CD12 as the best CD player in world. I wasn't one of those people, I've never heard one till now.

The Linn CD12's output circuitry is fully balanced, as evident by the 2 pairs of single ended RCA out, and a single pair of XLR output. AES, toslink, BNC and co-axial digital out is provided too.
Sound wise, there's a lot to remind me about my other Linn no.12 Sondek turn table, especially that dense, creamy smooth mids. The high frequencies are some of the finest, and most delicately reproduced, that I've heard from a digital source, albeit, if slightly rolled off. The bass line is fat, and just a little bouncy, enough to "follow the tune" so to speak! It seems to go just about an octave lower too, compared to other "bright" sounding CD players out there!

This CD player will lay out all the details it could dig out of those five inch silver dics. The result is a highly detailed and transparent window in to a musical event recorded on CD, albeit, if some what flat and two dimensional kind of sound stage(only if compared against the best of today's up sampling capable players). However, one of the performance aspects that kept me astounded for the whole 2 weeks that this player was with me, was the way it held images tightly, calmly unfazed by musical peaks within it's allocated space within the sound staging(at this stage most players would start to sound nervous and the sound stage falling apart!). Can a player this creamy smooth rock too? Surprisingly it can. Rock music never lost it's vital bite and energy when playing thru this Linn. They just sounded a little darker and flavourful, just like a fine bottle of 24 year Chivas Regal malt. The Linn is certainly in it's element when doing the usual audiophile music variety of vocal(especially simple girl guitar stuff!), jazz and classical music. The Linn has an amazing ability to sweeten, and make female singer's voice more sultry and alluring than usual, and searing string sections of an orchestra at full on tilt always sounds pleasantly woody in harmonics, accompanied by the necessary attack and vigour yet never cutting in to the ears. Playing the Linn CD12 does in a lot ways sounds like the LP12, but I'd have to say the later is still superior in many ways, sonically speaking, of course.

Compared to today's available digital technology, the Linn loses out somewhat on band width and out right dynamics. For the little that the Linn lacks, it more than makes up with what is lacking in most of todays' high end hifi, and that's a musical soul.

The display is simple LED only. It'll display the usual information track no. and various modes of time. 
How much would one have pay these days to buy in to a little bit of hifi memorabilia, and a great digital classic at that? A scan thru e-bay's UK history revealed 4 units of Linn CD12 were transacted in the last 2 years. Prices start at 2,800 pounds for an early production model and a mint condition, late production model was seen transacted at 4,500 pounds. Linn CD12 production went on for a full decade between year 1999 till December 2009. Apparently, Linn made a revision to the CD12 some time in 2003, which some claim to have result in improved sonics. I don't know, but I checked and found that this particular unit is made in year 2007, which certainly places it as a late model.

As I write, the unit has been returned to my buddy. I have a burning question on my mind, will he return to CDs from CAS???   I also wish to thank him for sharing his joy with us.


mikelau.2 said...

Hi Big E,

I also have a burning question for you ! Any chance of you returning to playing the cd ??



Ken said...

For red book cd source, I will always prefer Meridian which to me sound much more "alive" and "voluptous". As they always say, YMMV

mikelau.2 said...

Hi Ken,

I have no experience with the Meridian but I share almost the same experience you have with my Ayre CX-7 too.

May I know which dac or soundcard you use for your cas ?



Big E said...


I've not abandoned CDs. I just ripp, then play instead of playing them direct.


Why am I not suprised that you do not agree with me? Ha!Ha!

Ken said...

Hi Mike,
I am using the Meridian 508.24.

Hi Big E,
Everyone has their likes and dislikes. I am just not that enamoured with Linn.