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Equipment Review

November 1999

Linn Ikemi CD Player

by Marc Mickelson

 

Review Summary
Sound Smooth and refined top end along with a present and resolved bottom; offers "a gentle but unadorned quality to music"; "conjures a large soundstage and resolves very well."
Features Trickle-down technology from Linn’s flagship Sondek CD12, including "2-D" processing and Linn’s proprietary servo-controlled transport mechanism; single-ended and balanced analog outputs; coaxial, AES/EBU and TosLink digital outputs along with Sync Link connection.
Use Small and light, will fit almost anywhere; remote will control other Linn products too.
Value As one of the finest integrated CD players you will find, the Ikemi’s value, given its price, is very high; but you should consider what the very near future has to offer too before deciding on a CD-only player.

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 don’t 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 hasn’t changed radically, and I suspect the answer has to do with not fixing what isn’t broken. The LP12 design is sound and sounds great, so why mess with success?

But this doesn’t address why Linn has chosen to release the Ikemi and less costly Genki CD players now. As I recall, Linn’s first foray into digital came over a half-dozen years after CD’s introduction, so maybe the company is now hitting its stride with digital hardware. More likely is the introduction last year of the CD12, Linn’s 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 doesn’t seem so out of place after all.

What’s an Ikemi?

As I’ve mentioned, the Ikemi benefits from the work done in the development of Linn’s top-of-the-line CD12 player. Most notable is the inclusion of Linn’s proprietary "2-D"digital signal processing "for lowest possible jitter." The Ikemi also uses Linn’s 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. It’s 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 there’s 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 Linn’s 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 that’s not intuitive, however, is accessing directly tracks beyond number 9. With most CD players there’s 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.

System

The Ikemi played along with a whole host of equipment, much of which I’ve 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.

Sound thinking

Although the Linn Ikemi is a smallish and lightweight CD player, it is the product of much considered thought. Linn, it seems, does nothing that’s not deliberate and calculated, and the sound of Linn equipment, at least the products I’ve 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 won’t mistake Linn gear for tubes, you equally won’t 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 I’ve heard over time.

Bass done well is not just a single entity, however. While it should display weight and depth for sure, there’s 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 Becker’s 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 don’t 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 I’ve enjoyed all of the ones I own on the Ikemi, especially one of my all-time faves, Eric Dolphy’s 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 I’ve reviewed and praised, are virtually identical, which is to say they’re 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 -- it’s so extended and liquid that you’ll feel gypped that this couldn’t 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 player’s 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 doesn’t have anything to do with the Ikemi, but does with the music itself -- I digress). I’m not sure I can adequately explain this, but if you are a fan of Earle, you’ll 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.

Comparison

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. There’s more heft to the presentation overall. The No.39’s highs are not as sweet as the Ikemi’s, 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 doesn’t 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.

Conclusion

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 you’ll hear from most CD playback available today. While at $3595 it isn’t 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 I’m sure they see it as part of an evolutionary process that takes time to develop fully and doesn’t 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.

...Marc Mickelson
marc@soundstage.com

Linn Ikemi CD player
Price: $3595 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Linn Products Limited
Floors Road, Waterfoot
Glasgow G76 0EP Scotland
Phone: (0141) 307-7777
Fax: (0141) 644-4262

E-mail: linnincorporated@compuserve.com
Website: www.linn.co.uk

US contact:
Linn Incorporated
Suite 402
4540 Southside Blvd.
Jacksonville, Florida 32216
Phone: (904) 645-5242

Website: www.linninc.com

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