November 1999Linn Ikemi CD Player
by Marc Mickelson
Somebody ought to tell Linn that CD is out and DVD-A and SACD are in. Then again, they probably know about the alphabet soup of new digital formats and dont care. This is Linn after all, the company whose Sondek LP12 turntable has changed some over the course of its 25+ years in existence, but its guiding design principles (and look) have remained the same. But the real question is why it hasnt changed radically, and I suspect the answer has to do with not fixing what isnt broken. The LP12 design is sound and sounds great, so why mess with success?
But this doesnt address why Linn has chosen to release the Ikemi and less costly Genki CD players now. As I recall, Linns first foray into digital came over a half-dozen years after CDs introduction, so maybe the company is now hitting its stride with digital hardware. More likely is the introduction last year of the CD12, Linns only digital component to earn the Sondek moniker. The Ikemi is the product of the research and development that went on with the CD12, and so it is trickle-down technology at work. It also comes in at the sane price of $3595 when compared to the $20k CD12.
But perhaps the greatest reason that Linn has decided to release the Ikemi now is that they still believe in the CD. HDCD as well as the progression of recording techniques -- and recording companies paying closer attention to sound quality -- have helped produce CDs that generally sound better than those of just a few years ago. CD seems to be going through a renaissance of sorts, and the Ikemi doesnt seem so out of place after all.
Whats an Ikemi?
As Ive mentioned, the Ikemi benefits from the work done in the development of Linns top-of-the-line CD12 player. Most notable is the inclusion of Linns proprietary "2-D"digital signal processing "for lowest possible jitter." The Ikemi also uses Linns proprietary Brilliant power supply and precision-machined transport mechanism with a rigid circuit board that locates all servos, decoding circuitry, control circuitry, software, motors, pulleys, belts and optical sensors together. The slim CD drawer is milled from solid aluminum and is the only visible part of the proprietary CD mechanism. The Ikemi uses Delta-Sigma conversion and includes HDCD decoding. Its also very quiet and elegant in operation, a soft "thunk" heard when the CD drawer closes.
The Ikemi measures 3 1/4"H x 12 1/2"W x 12 3/4"D and weighs a mere 9 pounds, so it is easy to place on any equipment rack. It has two sets of single-ended line-level outputs as well as a single set of balanced outputs. Digital outputs include BNC coaxial, AES/EBU and TosLink. Linn has also included a Sync Link connection so the Ikemi can be used as a transport with a similarly equipped external DAC and have its internal clock slaved to that of the DAC, reducing jitter. Linn used this same feature with its Karik/Numerik combo, but theres no need to run out and buy a Numerik to use with the Ikemi. Linn admits that the Ikemi outperforms the Karik/Numerik -- and it costs a little more than half the price too. Also around back are a Knekt remote input/output for use with Linns Knekt system and an IEC power-cord receptacle.
Using the Ikemi is a piece of cake, and the remote that comes with it will control other Linn products too. One remote feature thats not intuitive, however, is accessing directly tracks beyond number 9. With most CD players theres a "10+" button that you press first to play track 12, for example. With the Ikemi, you press and hold down the "1" button for two seconds, then press the "2" button. At first I thought I had to step through the tracks with the forward button until I found the right one, but the informative manual that comes with the Ikemi explained how to do it correctly.
The Ikemi played along with a whole host of equipment, much of which Ive written about: ProAc Response Four speakers, Lamm ML1 and ML2 mono amps, Lamm L1 line stage. Signal cables and power cords are from JPS Labs, Audio Magic, API, ESP and Tara Labs. I also used JPS Labs, Marigo and ESP power-distribution strips for serving up the juice to the equipment. My equipment sits on Target equipment stands and/or Bright Star products.
For comparison purposes, I had the Mark Levinson No.39 CD player around as well as my reference Timbre TT-1 2000 DAC and the Bel Canto DAC1/Pioneer DV-414 combination.
Although the Linn Ikemi is a smallish and lightweight CD player, it is the product of much considered thought. Linn, it seems, does nothing thats not deliberate and calculated, and the sound of Linn equipment, at least the products Ive heard, is similar in some broad ways -- and often in terms of the small touches too. Does the Ikemi fit into the Linn family?
In the traditional ways, yes. While you wont mistake Linn gear for tubes, you equally wont think of it as having a distinctly solid-state character either. The treble of Linn equipment is too refined and its bass generally not as fully realized as that of other products that seemingly do only the bottom end really well. But while the Ikemi does have a sophisticated and refined top end, its bass makes no apologies, thumping nearly as impressively as that of the various reference products I had on hand as well as out of character for the Linn products Ive heard over time.
Bass done well is not just a single entity, however. While it should display weight and depth for sure, theres also definition to consider, and this is most apparent at frequencies above the lowest that a component will reproduce. The midbass of the Ikemi is palpable, and the lowest end of the Ikemi has all three elements happening. Walter Beckers 11 Tracks of Whack [Giant 24579-2], especially "Hard Up Case," will let you know what your speakers can do down low. With the Ikemi in my system, the dual 9" woofers of the ProAc Response Fours move in and out in unison, the bass tone losing no depth or weight from what I hear with my reference Timbre TT-1 2000 DAC. There is also excellent definition, the bass portraying more than one muddy note. While the Audio Research CD2, as I recall, did bass with more power and drive, the bottom end of the Ikemi is definitely present and accounted for.
Images via the Ikemi dont have the palpability of my Timbre DAC, but then this is the Linn sound at work. As I noted earlier in the year about the Majik integrated amp: "image outlines are not as distinctly rendered as you will encounter." Consequently, however, the Ikemi is very, very impressive with jazz, where a huge and airy soundstage is cast and delineation of instruments is acute. The Blue Note RVG remasters are terrific, and Ive enjoyed all of the ones I own on the Ikemi, especially one of my all-time faves, Eric Dolphys Out to Lunch [Blue Note 7243 4 98793], which is so far improved from the original CD that there are no comparisons to make. The Ikemi conjures a large soundstage and resolves very well, giving more peaceful music (anything but poorly recorded rock) a clear canvas on which to play.
In general, there is a gentle but unadorned quality to music made by the Ikemi. Everything is very well resolved, but not thrown at you, harsh or grainy (unless the disc is intrinsically this way). Unlike classically "musical" components, the Ikemi is not lush or voluptuous. In fact, some might think its presentation thin, even a touch cold. But then the highs have such a natural way of trailing off that they sound both highly detailed and friendly at the same time -- not at all blunt or rolled. Great stuff.
With certain recordings -- those whose sound is very good to begin with -- the treble balance of the Linn Ikemi and the Bel Canto DAC1, which Ive reviewed and praised, are virtually identical, which is to say theyre both smooth and sweet on top. I would say that the Bel Canto DAC1 is a slight bit more sweet, but nothing to call much attention to. The Ikemi does bass in a more powerful manner and handles images in about the same way. But the treble is what I keep coming back to -- its so extended and liquid that youll feel gypped that this couldnt have happened earlier in the development of digital sound.
HDCD decoding is very good overall and competitive with that of the Mark Levinson No.39, if a little less detailed and airy. I use Lucinda Williams great Car Wheels on a Gravel Road [Mercury 314 558 338-2] to test a players HDCD prowess because I know the disc very well -- I listen to it at least every few weeks. The skin sound of the drums on the title track is very resolved -- the tick of the stick, then the pop of the drum -- and Williams voice hangs effortlessly between the speakers. And on "Jackson," Steve Earle on guitar sounds like Steve Earle (which doesnt have anything to do with the Ikemi, but does with the music itself -- I digress). Im not sure I can adequately explain this, but if you are a fan of Earle, youll know what I mean. The HDCD decoding of the Linn Ikemi is a nice addition and made me seek out the HDCDs in my music collection.
The Mark Levinson No.39 is certainly one of the most heralded CD players there is, and comparing the Linn Ikemi to it is an exercise in describing the sound of two very good units. Down low, the No.39 has a bit more fullness, and this creeps its way into the midrange too, where voices have more body. Theres more heft to the presentation overall. The No.39s highs are not as sweet as the Ikemis, displaying more extension and air but not sounding as friendly. The Ikemi and No.39 are equal in their ability to draw you into a performance, but they do it in different ways, the Ikemi via its modest but sweet disposition, the No.39 by way of its sheer deftness throughout the frequency spectrum.
While the Linn player doesnt beat the Levinson outright in terms of detail and air, it is certainly competitive, and given its cheaper price, this is very good news. I will generalize a bit and say that solid-state systems may benefit from the gentler sound of the Ikemi, although I suspect that an all-Linn system would also sound very fine with the Ikemi as source, strength matching strength.
I listened to the Ikemi shortly after it arrived, liked what I heard, then put it away for a while to clear my aural palette (and complete a few other reviews). Coming back to it reminded me of what I admired -- and deepened my appreciation. The Ikemi is another of the new breed of top-flight CD players; it sounds unlike the digital of only a few years ago and splendid overall. Nothing about its presentation is a compromise, and in its endearing smoothness it is a cut above what youll hear from most CD playback available today. While at $3595 it isnt cheap, it will certainly compete with separate players and DAC/transport combos that cost a lot more.
With so many interesting and impressive digital products out now -- and still to come -- Linn has taken a risk by introducing the Ikemi, although Im sure they see it as part of an evolutionary process that takes time to develop fully and doesnt rely on perfect timing. I would certainly seek out the Bel Canto DAC1/Pioneer DV-414 combination to hear alongside the Ikemi as well as a player like the Mark Levinson No.39, which, to be fair, costs quite a bit more money. In the end, though, the Ikemi offers a taste of both of these CD front-ends and may be the CD player to have in these waning days of the format.
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