RECOMMENDED COMPONENTS

LINN SONDEK LP12

UPDATED MAY 2006

INTRODUCTION

A SHORT HISTORY

The Linn Sondek LP-12 is now an obsolete 1970's design that has had a number of minor (in audibility, but not in cost!) improvements in the last 20 years. It is, by far, the most overrated audio component of all time and it is also the most obvious example that, especially in the audio world, "marketing skills" are much more important to the commercial success of a component than its ultimate performance.

The Merciless Reality

While the Linn obviously "sounds very good", all of the turntables above have sonic advantages, and some of them (the latest VPI, Oracle, Orbe or all the last generation Maplenolls) are superior to the Linn by a relatively large margin (for turntables)

Why and how?

These others turntables all have much more up-to-date designs. It is actually amazing that the Linn sounds as good as it does, but the Cetech modification, discussed below, demonstrates what Linn has overlooked and ignored all these years. This is the result of marketing trumping basic engineering.

What are the problems with the Linn?

The Linn "simplifies*" and homogenizes the music, and it is also noticeably colored compared to its competitors. The frequency extremes (especially the bass) are also substandard. This is the reason why Linn, and its dealers, usually stress focusing on the most basic and simple audio goal ("follow the tune") when it's auditioned.

The Linn actually does "excel" in this one area. How?

This is because "the tune" will always be relatively easier to hear, in comparison to superior turntables, when the natural musical complexities have been compromised (by being subtracted). This ploy epitomizes the most cynical and misleading marketing strategies; those which turn actual weaknesses into "strengths".

*For those skeptical readers who require further confirmation of this "characteristic", from an actual, well-known "Linn Lover" no less, you are in for a rare treat. There is even the added bonus of an excellent example of the use of The (Secret) Audio Reviewer's Rule No. 3D* (see "The Audio Press" file for the complete "Rules").

This is what Art Dudley wrote about the Linn compared to the VPI Aries/JMW 10 combo in Listener Volume 6 No. 2:

"The Aries' timbral balance is different from that of the LP12/Aro combination - the latter sounding a little more "open," the VPI making chords sound a bit richer, thicker, and more tonally complex. Which is right? Beats me."

Mr. Dudley didn't just come out and write that the Linn sounds "simple" by comparison. He also avoided* stating a clear preference, which should be a "no-brainer" in this particular instance. I'm a little more direct. When it comes to music (though not "audio"):

Complex is "right", Simple is "NOT right". Period.

Even the Linn's "pleasant" character, which is just an innocuous distortion and coloration, has been misrepresented by them (and their fans) to be a "'musical' strength".

The Linn also has a practical downside...

The Linn (along with some other spring-loaded turntables) has a tendency to "bounce" if it is not placed on the proper shelf or stand. This problem must obviously be corrected before an expensive cartridge is mounted on it.

But the Linn does have one important "upside"...

The Linn, when optimized, retains a noticeable share of "musical life", which many other turntables do not possess to the same degree. This is the primary reason why the Linn is still recommended, even though this "life" is at least partially caused by a distortion from its mat. This positive observation is a "gut feeling", but that's what most music appreciation is ultimately.

My Conditional Recommendation

However, despite these sonic problems, the Linn LP-12 is still recommended, though only under certain, strict conditions:

If a reader can find a USED Linn:

  1. Manufactured "recently" (after "Valhalla" and "Nirvana")
  2. For a decent price (at least 50% off retail),
  3. In very good condition,
  4. And which is set-up properly, or can be done so (in your house) for a reasonable price, then "go for it".

The financial investment and risk are reasonably low at that point, and the reader will have a turntable quite a bit better than (the budget) Regas, Aristons or most Thorens etc. Linn's service reputation is also excellent.

Don't go too far...

Whatever you do, avoid the Lingo (which may create RFI problems) and any other expensive accessory (unless it is "thrown-in"). For that much money, a new VPI, Orbe (etc.) is a better turntable and investment. Don't forget that the Linn is manufactured in Scotland, and costs much more in North America than in the UK (where it is still a good value).

You may "live happily ever after" with the used Linn, but if not, it should be very easy to resell it and recoup most, or even all, of your money, but never fool yourself into thinking that you own "one of the world's finest turntables", you don't.

A Contrarian Advantage

To end the "Linn bashing" on a pragmatic note: Serious audiophiles can use all the Linn-hype to their advantage when reading and assessing the opinions of 'audio reviewers' and all other self-proclaimed 'experts'. The rule is simple:

The more a 'reviewer' (or any fellow audiophile) is impressed with the Linn LP-12 in comparison to any of the finest turntables recommended above, the less credibility (with turntables) he or she deserves.

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UPGRADES

Cheap and Effective Linn Upgrades

A few readers have informed me of Linn LP-12 upgrades that they claim may dramatically improve the performance of the Linn. The first, and most important, is the:

Cetech subchassis

This is a description from one of those readers:

I've just upgraded (the LP-12) with a Cetech subchassis. Hell, the Linn one does ring like a bell when you tap it. The Cetech one is (a) carbon fibre/aaluminumhoneycomb composite; light, rigid, virtually non resonant. Why it works is like this: It allows the armboard to be bolted up to the chassis ... instead of being nipped up with tiny screws. The latter loses the ringing of the chassis by being 'lossy'.

The Cetech chassis makes a MASSIVE difference. Well, like changing to a better class of tt. Much more low level detail is there; extra musical phrases and instruments for a start! Yes, as big as that. Mainly, it's a total cleaning up of the sound. And much better 'tonality', individual natural tone of each instrument.

The LP12 is seriously compromised in terms of the behaviour of its subchassis and the linking of this chassis to the armboard. This causes the loss of considerable low level information, and a corresponding high sound floor. The single most effective way to lower the sound floor of the LP12 is to fit the Cetech subchassis. As this costs about 100, it is also by far the most cost effective upgrade. And this is a Linnie saying these things."

Below is a description from another reader:

The Cetech carbon fiber subchassis DOES what Linn's "Cirkus" subchassis/bearing upgrade claims to do (and for less than half the price!) Many have said that the Linn "Cirkus sound" is more in the subchassis design and not the "new" bearing (though the bearing is likely improved - the original will suffice for Cetech upgrades). A few have said that the Linn Cirkus subchassis (which flattens frequency response compared to previous incarnations), still has that "ringing" and thus the armboard is still connected with the three tiny screws (thus making the Cetech mod still necessary after paying Linn their $650+ for Cirkus upgrade). Others say there's virtually no difference in the Cetech and Cirkus mods (except the steep price of Linn's upgrade). Though I might be a "Linnie", I don't believe in the "School of Tiefenbrun" bullshit either and am open-minded (as seen by my own opinions)."

More on the Cetech- A reader, who has owned a number of these turnables, of all vintages, just sent some relevant information about them. Here it is, slightly edited:

"I wanted to buy a second Cetech subchassis for my second Linn, but as soon as I found out they stopped producing them, I sold off my second LP12, only to find out they had their website up again (..perhaps only to sell off their remaining stock?). Now that I'm finally getting a second fixer upper LP12, Cetech is once again out of business, or "in limbo" from what I hear (hopefully not for good)...Perhaps this is added incentive to try some good ol' homemade modifications, etc.

Early LP-12 tables are likely to have a slightly larger inner platter - If changing to a later inner platter, the motor tilt will have to be re-adjusted and it's recommended to change to the correct belt as well. The combination of an early inner platter and newer belt may cause some speed adjustment problems (not quite fast enought). I've noticed problems seem to mostly occur when the earliest tables were changed from a 60hz motor to the 50hz with the Valhalla supply, but this can still occur with the early motor setup - often when the belt is replaced (no matter how much the motor tilt is adjusted with the current belt, the speed often can't quite be adjusted fast enough when using the early inner platter).

Funniest thing, not only does Linn claim to only have ever made one size inner platter, but that any speed issue is a bearing problem (this allows Linn to "cover up a problem they claim doesn't exist, by replacing the inner platter and bearing as a set ...to the obviously corrected one). If one has the means or access to a professional machine shop (to carefully machine some material off the early platter), then the speed issue can be fixed (I've done this with two of my Linns with great success). Otherwise, find a later "Nirvana" style inner platter, preferably with the bonded crossbrace subchassis (or better yet, a Cirkus kit - though those can be pricey). Check the inner platter for "slight run-out" or "warp", as it seems the earliest ones usually have the slightest warp, even if just a few thousandths - often this issue has no audible effect (the later inner platters seem to be perfect in this respect, probably due to improved machining techniques in later years? - my guess, since Linn won't reveal their secrets).

I've also done modifications to the early subchassis to improve the sound (adding a layer of thickness to the bearing mount region - this seems to help with the mid-bass bloom issues) - often the earlier spotweld subchassis suffer from slight warp, and require careful straightening by a knowledgeable person."

Personal Note- What a shame that the Cetech subchassis may no longer be available. I've had no personal experience with it, but a number of Linn LP-12 owners all claimed it was a significant improvement over the stock part. It wasn't expensive either.

Important Note- There is a link to the Cetech website in the Links section of this website.

Another Modification

A different reader sent me a simple and cost free modification that may also improve the performance of the LP-12. Here it is, with some minor editing:

"... an interesting improvement I found years ago was to make a very thin paper ring that fits between the platter and sub-platter. It takes a day or so to settle in depending on the paper type. It fixes the ringing when the table gets all excited on those loud passages. Bass gets a wee better I think as well. Every Linnie I tell this to enjoys the mod until some idiot dealer gets all stupid and puts other thoughts into their heads that Ivor is a god." (9/04)

Personal Note- While this modification sounds reasonable to me, which is why I posted it, I am not in a position to verify or dispute this reader's observations, so I would appreciate hearing the experiences of anyone who carries out this mod in their own system.

Lingo Problems?

Meanwhile, another reader informed me that the Lingo's RFI problems can be rectified with a modification. This is the URL with all the details, and even pictures: http://bubwub.com/lingo/.

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A READER'S LINGO CHALLENGE

A READER'S CHALLENGE

The same helpful reader, who also provided the useful link above concerning the Lingo, complained in a subsequent e-mail that I have not given the Linn LP-12 a fair shake. This is his (edited) letter. My reply (which differs slightly from my personal reply to him) is greatly expanded, because it leads to my take on the much more important issue this reader brought up:

It is impossible for you to make this judgement:

'(The Lingo) brings the Linn's total cost up to the VPI Aries and other turntables which are far superior'

If you have not heard the Lingoed LP-12 in the right circumstances. The performance may be ...close or equal to the Aries.

You, yourself, agree that your comments on the LP-12 have created your most contentious backlash from readers, so why not do this right and be beyond reproach. Your admission that you have based all your comments on the LP-12 without a Lingo is already quite unsettling for me.

The cost of the Lingo may not be a concern for a lot of people, as they may have already owned the LP-12 for years...The "big picture" (general) comments you make on the LP12 is on principle not right. And being a self critical person like yourself, you should set things right...Anyway, you owe it to yourself to hear a fully fitted Linn - after all, almost anyone old enough would know the LP-12...

My Reply to this Reader

Though I've heard many Linns since the 1970's, in all configurations, some of which I owned personally, it's true that I haven't heard the Linn with a Lingo, at least not in a "controlled environment". The question is, does that fact make it "impossible" for me to make a "judgement" about the Linn without it?

To me, the answer to that question totally depends on the degree the Lingo effects (improves) the stock Linn's performance. Can I know the exact degree of that improvement without actually hearing it? NO! But I do know the approximate (and highest possible) degree of the improvement because of the basic nature of the Lingo, which is:

The Lingo is a high-quality power supply, and nothing more.It enhances and optimizes the (relatively cheap) motor that comes on the LP-12. It will improve speed stability, which, from my experience, improves the performance of turntables in a number of areas. I recognize this reality, but, on the other hand, the Lingo is not a unique component, with unique qualities, that makes unprecedented improvements with the LP-12. That is not possible for the Lingo, or any other turntable power supply.

I've heard various power supplies over the last 20 years. This includes the SOTA, the VPI PLC and SDS used with eir own turntables and others; the PS Audio power regenerators etc. and a number of others I've now forgotten. I know what improvements are possible with a better power supply. These improvements may be important, but they are limited, why?

The basic turntable is still the same: the motor, platter, subplatter, mat or LP interface, clamping system, suspension, isolation system, the basic materials, bearing, plinth, base, construction quality, etc. etc. These basic parts each make as much, or more, of a difference to the final sonics than the power supply. This is obvious to anyone who has actually heard the differences when these parts were exchanged and contrasted. (I.E. At the CES, we heard a platter "shootout" with the Teres.)

In fact, when speed stability is the main goal:

A flywheel makes a much larger difference (improvement) than a power supply. It has to, it is directly connected to the platter. I've heard a number of turntables over the years, with and without flywheels, in controlled enviornments, including my own system, and the improvement in speed stability has always been much larger, and much more easily noticeable, than with ANY power supply.

It boils down to this: the Linn, as is, can only be improved so much by an enhanced power supply. This is also true of ALL other turntables that have ever been made. The Linn's improvement may be greater than average because: 1. Its motor is cheap, and 2. the platter is light, but the improvement is still limited. It is certainly not enough for the Linn to even approach the performance of the VPI Aries, which, it is important to note, neither I, nor any of my associates, heard with ITS own enhanced power supply (the SDS).

One single refinement of a component, such as the Lingo, is not nearly enough for me to want to go back and totally re-evaluate it. Especially when every other turntable I/we recommend, with the exception of the "special" VPI HR-X, also didn't have an enhanced power supply when I/we heard them. If I re-audtioned the Linn, I'd have to go back to all of the others to be fair. No thanks! Let's just say that all but one of the turntables that are recommended, and all the others for that matter, can be improved, more or less, with better power supplies, but the "big picture" stays the same.

When Linn makes a serious change of the LP-12, meaning a total redesign based on the engineering and materials available to them in this century, I will be glad to hear it again in a serious environment. Until that highly unlikely day, what I wrote stands.

I feel the mistake this reader has made is confusing "refinements" with "fundamentals". The Lingo is only a refinement, and so is the VPI SDS and every other enhanced power supply I've heard. (So are the majority of the modifications I recommend, and even flywheels, though I still have an open mind on them.)

Now to the BIGGER Issue

This reader brought up, at least indirectly, a much larger issue: The important difference between a "refinement" and a "fundamental improvement". For each listener, and evaluator, the vital distinction between these two terms will be very subjective, because it is based on the listener's own reaction to the perceived improvement.

To me, a "refinement" is just that, a generally small improvement that may be somewhat difficult, or quite easy, to hear. It will pleasantly enhance the sound. You may notice it, now and then, for maybe a day, or even a week or so, and then it will be mainly forgotten, absorbed by the system. You could live without it, if you had to, with only minimal suffering.

A "fundamental improvement" is very different. This profound transformation shakes you, changes you and may even shock you. It will make you re-evaluate everything that occured prior to hearing that component. You will almost feel like your system was "born again" (no religious inference implied). This change is a "matter of kind", not a "matter of degree". You wouldn't dream of returning to your former system, even if only one component caused the particular transformation.

Many audiophiles experience a literal state of "ecstasy" when hearing a fundamental improvement, especially their first time, and how it greatly enhances their appreciation of music. It's the desire to repeat this intense experience which transforms ordinary people into "audiophiles". Sadly, it's inevitable that with each experience an audiophile has with the finite amount of different designs that exist, the less chance that audiophile will once again experience another fundamental improvement. Of course, this may be divine intervention to encourage a greater focus on the actual music, which can be easily forgotten during the excitement in the quest for audio ecstasy.

For many years now, I've only recommended spending "serious money" when a component makes a fundamental change. If it doesn't, keep your money. The real thing will eventually come around, and you'll be so happy you still have that money when it does.

This entire issue is another large problem I've had with most of the audio press. They have deliberately blurred the distinction between these two terms to the point of meaninglessness. Hearing fundamental improvements are routine events in most audio magazines. I only wish this were true. Their shameless exaggeration of minor improvements, and even less ("the boy crying wolf"), is one of the justifiable reasons why they've lost their credibility.

Finally, I don't want to give the impression that I don't think "refinements" are important. In fact, they're vital. They are what may transform an excellent system into a "great" system. Of course, it takes "a lot" of refinements to do this, not just one, or even a few. The point is, don't spend "big money" on them. That's for something much more important.

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MY PRESONAL EXPERIENCES

Further Personal LP-12 Experiences and Notes

Since my (actually our) opinion on this turntable has proved to be the most controversial of any of the components on this entire list, a further personal explanation may help to clear the air.

My Many Linn Experiences

I owned my first Linn Sondek LP-12 back in around 1976. I purchased another one in 1979 after I realized I had made a serious mistake selling the first one (for a number of expensive direct-drives and then an Ariston). I greatly enjoyed listening to them at the time.

Since then, I (or my store) have owned around 20 more of them. My most recent experience was around five years ago (1999). I have heard almost every version, and in-depth.

The Numerous (and TRUE) Comparisons

I have made more comparisons with the Linn versus other turntable designs than I care to remember, including many at my customers' homes. I routinely used the same models of tonearm and cartridge on both turntables, which is the only method that is fair and accurate. On a number of occasions, I even went to the further trouble of having both the exact same tonearm and cartridge removed from one turntable and placed on the other, just to isolate the exact differences between the turntables themselves.

I had the finest "set-up" men I knew do the actual work, to make sure there could be no "excuses" or "uncertainty" as to the final results. I even used special stands, that were supposed to enhance and optimize the sound of the Linn.

The results of those numerous comparisons are discussed above. The other auditioners were virtually unanimous in their agreement with my characterizations of those results. That is why I (actually my store) ended up with around 20 Linns; essentially all of them were "trade-ins".

(For years, I actually kept a Linn LP-12 in my store to help sell the VPI HW-19; making A/B comparisons on a regular basis. Those comparisons enabled me to become one of the best selling VPI dealers in the world during the 1980's. Tricks of the trade.)

These (consistent) results were not unique in any manner. Virtually every other knowledgeable person I knew in the audio business realized that the Linn's basic design was obsolete after the Goldmund and Oracle designs came out. At that time, more than 20 years ago now, we all expected Linn to radically change their design, but Linn decided instead to play the "follow the tune" marketing game. The fact that this ploy was actually successful is a depressing thought.

The Linn Sondek Owners ("Linnies")

The other common experience I had back then, and which is still very true today, is that most owners of the Linn turntable will rarely, if ever, seriously compare their Linn to the competition. There is a good reason for this reluctance...

It is the same reason why religious fanatics will never seriously study "comparative religions", or any "true believer" will always avoid the "alternatives"...

The stronger, more untenable and increasingly irrational their belief, the less likely that person will ever consider arguments or even information that would contradict that belief. It is just too emotionally painful and unsettling for that person to contemplate (let alone realize) that their now comfortable and deeply satisfying opinion may not be true.

Conclusion

I realize there has been a near "cult" (and an enormous emotional) attachment to this turntable for years (it started back in the 1970's). I don't care about that. To me, the Linn Sondek is just another tool for reproducing music, just like every other turntable (amp, speaker etc). It is nothing else. Nor can it be.

I see the Linn for what it is, not for what I want it to be.

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FROM READERS

This is the second letter from a reader who has spent a lot of time investigating the "guts" of this veteran and popular turntable. Here's his most recent communication, with only slight editing, which may prove informative to many Linn owners. (I will also look for his previous letters in my correspondence files, and post those as well. I'm even thinking of putting together a dedicated Linn LP-12 File, since the Linn owners are so numerous, while relevant and critical information about the model is difficult to find, especially in one place.)

"Let me start by admitting that the LP12 is likely not the "best turntable in the world", yet for me, (because I can build my own plinths, top plates, and acquire earlier subchassis for cheap or free), they have become the "best value in the world" and a fun hobby. Besides, compared to the plastic junk that some of my friends had been using, the Linn is light years ahead of them (even if it's yards or miles behind other designs).

By the way, I had sent email a few years ago when I began to learn some things about the LP12 (but couldn't find the information on what I had discovered). Well, I've been learning a whole bunch more about these turntables. Regarding the inner platter size difference, I came upon a possible different theory (since it seems the first 17,000 or so decks have this 164mm inner platter - I have no idea when they changed them to the 163mm). As for the motor pulleys, Linn only ever made one size (I believe the sizes are 17mm for 60hz, 21mm for 50hz). My guess (this is only my theory and not a known fact for sure) is that Linn "improved" the belt composition, which may have changed the coupling of the motor/inner platter, and also the grip/speed. Apparently, Linn's fix was to machine the inner platter (subplatter) a bit further to approx 163mm. Nobody (except Linn) knows for sure, since according to Linn, they only ever made one size inner platter. Someone needs to tell Linn that denial is not a place in Egypt (just had to say that one).

As for other Linn issues, I have discovered a few other quirks more notable to earlier decks. What I am about to mention are only my own theories/findings and may not necessarily be correct or totally factual.

Regarding the Linn platters: When I acquired an early LP12 with a slightly warped inner platter, I began to check all vintages. What I noticed was the mid-80's? and later decks seemed perfect while the early 80's and before seemed to have ever so slight warpage (when I gave them the "Sharpie spin-test"). Perhaps there's a reason why Linn mentions machining the platters over a month period (did they do this all along, or did they only discover later that this prevents warpage?) Could it be coincidence that all the early ones were mishandled and warped while all the later ones that passed my way (all mid-80's and later I've ever tested) always seem perfect in this respect.

Regarding the subchassis, I really discovered something interesting simply by applying some common sense when modifying an early 10 spotweld subchassis. I drilled out the 10 spotwelds, cleaned the surfaces, and not only rebonded the crossbrace with epoxy, but I added a layer of thickness to the bearing flange(thus doubling it ...the bolts were still long enough to mount the bearing). I also noticed that on one of the three spotweld subchassis I modified, the bearing flange was bent off-true. When I separated the crossbrace, I used a special auto body metal shrinking hammer to true up the flange before epoxying the crossbrace back. Then I installed the "top patch" at the bearing mount portion simply for added strength(as I'd done on the other two). Now it's true as new. I need to do further testing and compare to the Cirkus, but when my friend listened to one of the modified early versions (compared to a stock mid-80's setup), he thought the mid-bass was less pronounced. In other words, my modification may very well indeed be a cheaper alternative to what the Cirkus does (and a considerable alternative to the no longer available Cetech carbon fiber subchassis).

Which brings me to the Cirkus bearing/subchassis upgrade.... I picked up a new Cirkus kit in a trade deal and will install it in one of my Linns for comparison. What amazes me about the Cirkus is not it's differences, but it's striking similarities in appearance to the earlier subchassis. All they did was change the bearing flange and double the thickness of the bearing mount on the subchassis (by simply eliminating the "cutout" on the crossbrace, ....but this required a slightly different "offset" on the bearing flange due to the slightly altered mounting height). A great way to sell a "total package" and make it mandatory to buy all of the parts. My thoughts."

Personal Note- I'm not intimately familiar enough with the Linn at this time to understand even half of the details the helpful reader provides here, but I assume that the real* Linn LP-12 enthusiasts can benefit from the reader's experiences.

*Meaning those owners who don't believe that the LP-12 design is the result of some sort of divine inspiration, and that only Linn themselves, being the designated "prophets", can improve on it.

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TO BE CONTINUED!

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