Linn Akurate Exakt DSM Player and Exakt Akubarik Loudspeaker Review
My first exposure to a new Linn technology named Exakt was at the 2013 CEDIA Show in Denver. I didn't have a chance to listen to the system on display because the show floor was very noisy, but I talked to Linn's Managing Director Gilad Tiefenbrun about Exakt. I walked away from the conversation enthusiastic about the capabilities of Exakt and about the possibilities for better sound reproduction in home environments. I'm a big supporter of using technology, but only when it's appropriate. Linn's use of Exakt technology to send lossless digital data via CAT5/6/7 cables into the loudspeakers and keep that data in the digital domain, through the crossover and volume control, until just before the final amplification stage within the loudspeakers is what I call great use of technology. Less than one year after that CEDIA show I have an Akurate level Linn Exakt system in my listening room. I had reservations about setting aside my large analog equipment, state of the art digital to analog converter, and TAD CR1 loudspeakers in order to put the Exact system in place. There is no going in to this system half-way as it's fully active with amplification attached to the loudspeakers, digital to analog converters attached to the loudspeakers, and RJ45 ports rather than binding posts for receiving the incoming signal. I couldn't even use an Aurender music server if I wanted to with the Exakt system. None of this is good or bad in and of itself. It's just a fact of using any Exakt system. There's no hodgepodge of components to select, interconnect, and hope for a good synergy. Exakt works within its own ecosystem, and it just works. After the initial setup and two weeks of extensive listening I am very impressed with the Linn Exakt technology. In fact, the Akurate Exakt DSM and Exakt Akubarik loudspeakers comprise the best Linn system I've ever heard. Period.[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
Linn Exact Technology
Linn's approach to home audio reproduction is somewhat similar to Apple's approach to everything in which the company is involved. Both companies produce products that are distinctly their own and easily recognizable with a glance. High quality look, feel, and integration. In the world of computing the way to control the user experience and make it unique is to product software and hardware. In the world of HiFi this is done by controlling every step in the music reproduction chain. Linn has controlled every step, including production of great music, for decades with its analog and digital sources, amplification, pre-amplification, and loudspeakers. Linn is now taking this control one step further, or perhaps one step more granular, with the introduction of Linn Exakt technology.
Linn isn't the first company to send digital data to loudspeakers or even use Ethernet cables to transmit signals to its loudspeakers. Engineers at Linn are well aware of that fact they they don't pretend to be the world's first audio company using this type of technology. However, Linn has put its own engineering resources and capabilities into the technology to create its unique Exakt Link. Digital audio into loudspeakers = nothing new. Linn Exakt Link into loudspeakers = new. Exakt Link is the new protocol Linn created to send lossless digital audio from the DSM player to a current maximum of 8 channels at 24-bit 192 kHz. Where some "digital loudspeakers" receive AES / EBU signals, the Linn Exakt loudspeakers receive Exakt Link signals. Exakt Link signals travel over CAT5/6/7 cables but at this point the protocol is not routable or switchable. This means one can't plug Exakt system loudspeakers into an Ethernet network switch and still receive signals from the Exakt DSM. In an Exakt system the DSM player provides data routing from an Ethernet network input to the Linn Exakt network outputs. The DSM players feature a single Ethernet input and four Exakt Link outputs. Connecting over four channels is done by daisy-chaining the loudspeakers. When listening to music, UPnP / DLNA is used to send audio data to the Linn Exakt DSM player. This DSM player losslessly routes the audio data from its Ethernet input to its Exakt Link outputs and on to the loudspeakers.
The main difference between an Exakt system, previous Linn systems, and most other audio systems is lossless digital audio transmission to the loudspeakers. Transmitting lossless digital audio up to the final amplification stage enabled Linn to address three areas involved in audio reproduction to a level that it was previously incapable of reaching. These areas Linn identifies as design, manufacture, and room optimization.
The design area is where Linn addresses magnitude and phase distortion. Traditional passive crossovers suffer from manufacturing issues because of imperfect tolerances. These imperfections lead to variances in the crossover point. What the user of the loudspeaker hears is an increase or decrease in volume at certain frequencies. Active crossovers can reduce magnitude distortion because of lower voltage and current levels, but the fact remains both active and passive crossovers are still analog. Linn addresses this issue through the use of digital crossovers in its Exakt systems. Splitting the signal in the digital domain removes the chance of traversing analog components with noticeable manufacturing tolerances. The Exakt crossover's magnitude distortion is measured at 0 dB.
Phase distortion has to do with frequency fundamentals, harmonics, and timing. Analog crossovers, in a strange digital kind of way, are turned to the on position when it comes to timing delays of the signal. All signals are delayed the same amount of time. The problem rests in how long it takes certain signals to travel from the analog crossover to the listener's ear. Because the highs and lows are delayed the same and because the highs will travel through the loudspeaker as a whole faster than the low frequencies, listeners will hear a slightly out of phase signal at the listening position. Some loudspeaker manufactures have attempted to correct for this by physically moving tweeters further back from the listening position. Linn addresses this issue in the digital domain with the Exakt system. Exakt delays the digital signals in memory for the appropriate amount of time before delivering the signal to the drive units and on to the listener's ears. The result is a more phase coherent listening experience.
All manufacturers live with the reality that their parts can't be made perfect every time. Manufacturing variations are inevitable whether a company makes its own drivers or has them outsourced to the biggest or best driver manufacture in the world. In a traditional passive loudspeaker the designer must accept these variations as facts of engineering life. Linn's Exakt system is capable of handling variations in the manufacturing process. At the Linn factory every drive unit's electrical characteristics and response are measured. These measurements are stored in the Cloud for use at the right times. One of those times is during the installation of the loudspeakers in a user's home. The Exakt system checks the Cloud for information relevant only to the user's specific drive units. Once Exakt has the information it makes corrections within the digital crossover to insure the loudspeaker is performing exactly as designed. In essence a large group of Exakt loudspeakers could be measured with identical results even though manufacturing variances exist between all the products.
Linn Exakt loudspeakers are designed to be placed in the user's preferred location, not the preferred location of the loudspeaker designer. Linn understands its users live in real homes with real furniture and real obstacles to perfect loudspeaker placement. Thus, a combination of the dealer and the user personalize the system to each environment. Linn calls this room optimization, not room correction or any other variant of the name. Linn Exakt room optimization isn't rocket science, but I felt more comfortable with Linn's Darrin Kavanagh here to assist during setup. Plus, Darrin saved quite a bit of time with his Leica laser measurement tool. Optimizing for my listening room we placed the loudspeakers in, what we thought would be, the best position. Fortunately I have a dedicated listening room and placement of the loudspeakers was unencumbered by other considerations. We listened to a few familiar tracks before moving the loudspeakers several inches. Darrin would ask if I thought the sound improved of worsened after each loudspeaker move. After several position changes we both agreed on a perfect placement for the Akubarik loudspeakers. This was the first step in room optimization.
Darrin proceeded to enter the coordinates of the loudspeakers into the Linn Konfig software. After some calculations the software provides optimization options for what it calls room modes. Konfig does not automatically calculate high frequency response, that one has to be manually adjusted in case of particularly reverberant or absorbent room furnishings. The allowable range of adjustment is +/- 2dB above 8kHz. The Linn Exakt system is only subtractive. It isn't possible to add a frequency bump anywhere between 10 Hz and 100 kHz. Darrin and I spent the most time adjusting for a single room mode. Surprisingly my room only had a single mode that needed to be adjusted. The optimization software suggested we should place a single large frequency dip of -18 dB at 33.78 Hz. Making adjustments was as simple as entering a value and listening. Darrin sat next to me and made changes to the gain of the dip on his MacBook Air while I had the iPad in hand ready to tap play as soon as a change was saved. We tried a few settings and settled with a -12.00 dB gain at 33.78 Hz. After setup we spent time toggling the Exakt optimizations on and off. The differences in my listening room could easily be heard, but were not night and day differences. This is mostly due to my dedicated listening room and free placement of the loudspeakers. When I visited the Linn factory in Glasgow I was given a demonstration of Exakt optimizations when loudspeakers were place against a wall with a television between the left and right channels. The positive difference that could be heard in that system was night and day. I suspect most people considering a Linn Exakt system will benefit greatly from the Exakt optimization.
The Linn Exakt technology addresses the aforementioned issues in typical Linn fashion, taking its system approach one step beyond its previous offerings. Exakt systems keep the lossless audio signal digital from the network attached storage (NAS) through the DSM player and on to the loudspeaker until the final amplification stage. This system cuts jitter in half compared to Linn's previous top of the line Klimax DS player. In addition to performance upgrades, all parts of the Exakt systems are software upgradable.
Using and Listening to Exakt
Prior to receiving the Linn Exakt system I was very hesitant yet very excited. I hesitated because I hadn't moved my TAD CR1 loudspeakers in over two years. Needless to say I was very used to the sound of my reference system. I could pop a component into my system and recognize differences easily. My excitement stemmed from the fact that I really like how Linn is using technology to improve the listening experience and from an engineering perspective it all makes a lot of sense. There's no hocus-pocus with Linn.
The evening before Darrin's arrival I unpacked the Linn road cases and placed everything in its approximate position. This system consist of the Akurate Exakt DSM player and the Exakt Akubarik loudspeakers. The DSM player is much like the other DSM models in that it's a UPnP / DLNA renderer with Ethernet input and is compatible with most of the DLNA control point iOS applications. On the outside the Akurate Exakt DSM player differs in that it features four RJ45 outputs rather than analog RCA or XLR connections. Internally this DSM player has added software that connects the user's Ethernet network to the Linn Exakt Link network, thus it's a router interfacing two networks. I connected the DSM player to my Ethernet network and ran CAT7 cables from the DSM player into the Akubarik loudspeakers. I fired up the system and sent audio to the DSM player without configuring a single item. To my pleasant surprise I had music playing through the Exakt system. The only issue I experienced right away was that I had the right and left channels reversed. This was resolved by simply swapping the channels through Linn's Konfig software on my Mac. While I was viewing the Konfig application I clicked a single button to disable the previous user's Exakt optimizations as they were for a completely different listening environment and would likely make the system sound a bit strange in my room. In a very short period of time I was up and running with a full Linn Exakt system and getting a taste of what was to come after optimizing for my listening room.
As previously mentioned, Darrin and I ran through the Exakt room optimization steps and both agreed on a configuration that reproduced the best sound in my listening room. After spending a few hours with Darrin he had to catch a plane back home to Denver, and the system was all mine. Beginning the minute Darrin left and concluding shortly before typing the first word of this review I listened to the Akurate Exakt DSM player and the Exakt Akubarik loudspeakers for hours on end each day. This is a wonderful system to use and with which to listen to music.
One of my new favorite albums that just happens to work well as demo material is Laith Al-Saadi's Real. The first track titled Gone is a terrific recording and a terrific song. Through the Exakt system this track sounded very good. Individual instruments occupied their own spaces with good delineation and a solid presentation. Laith's voice was presented in all its fullness with a bit of texture. A couple items I didn't hear with this system playing this track were a more sharp edge on transients and more texture in the vocals, both lead and backing, especially in the lowest registers. Perhaps this is due to my usual system consisting of beryllium drivers and the Akubarik's more forgiving soft dome tweeter.
Testing the phase coherence of this Exakt system I played Roger Waters' Amused to Death album. The track Perfect Sense, Part I revealed the most enveloping soundstage I've ever heard. The opening voices and breathing emanating from the left side and the piano coming from the right sounded like a 190 degree sound field. I felt enveloped by the Q Sound experience and its requirement of a phase coherent system. The Exakt system was marvelous with this album.
Listening to Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band play several tracks from its That's How We Roll album I immediately noticed the rich tonal balance and timber present in this Exakt system. Identifying all the trumpets, saxes, and trombones was as simple as just listening. None of the horns ran together in a big blob of horn-like sound. The Exakt system reproduced the Big Phat Band's big sound wonderfully.
Nat King Cole's The Very Thought of You is one of my all-time favorite albums and tracks. Listening to it through the Exakt system very enjoyable. Nat's rich voice was beautiful from note one. The backing orchestra was as pleasant as ever. However, I was missing a bit of texture in the vocal and a certain gloss or sheen was also not as apparent in Nat's voice as I am used to hearing. Which version is more accurate, my reference system or the Exakt system, I'll never know. The Exakt system has an incredible smoothness to it that can keep one listening for hours without fatigue.
The Exakt system didn't lack detail one bit. Playing Randi Tytingvag's Red or Dead really made the Exakt system shine. This track can pierce one's ear drums if played through a bright system or played too loud. Through the Exaky system I heard all the detail without any of the harsh brightness. The smoothness and possibly a bit of darkness present in this Exakt system proved for a great match with Randi's entire Red album.
Playing a bit of my favorite rock and roll through the Exakt system was also a treat. Pearl Jam's Yield album opens with the track Brain of J. This track has a very large expansive soundstage. Exakt didn't disappoint when the drums kicked in at 0:07 into the first track. The large soundstage and smoothness of Jack Iron's drum rolls was exactly how I love to hear this album.
The Linn Exakt system is yet another step in Linn's evolution toward a better listening experience in one's home. The Exakt Link protocol is a digital audiophile's dream in that it keeps the audio data in the digital domain unit the final amplification step at the loudspeaker. This near complete digital pathway addresses inherent design issues with analog crossovers, unavoidable manufacturing variances between drivers, and enables personalized room optimization for each listening environment. Based on two solid weeks of listening to the Linn Akurate Exakt DSM player and the Exakt Akubarik loudspeakers I am convinced Linn has made a large step forward compared to its previous analog based systems. Phase coherency, tonal balance, and timber are hallmarks of this system. Listeners may not even realize how much each of these characteristics matter until they hear a Linn Exakt system in person. The sound quality of this Exakt system is very good in my dedicated listening room. I have no doubt it will be equally as good in many more traditional home environments that contain the elements of real life such as furniture and clear paths for walking through the living room. Room optimization with the help of a Linn dealer can work wonders, as I heard at the Glasgow factory, if needed or simply get out of the way when the loudspeaker placement requirements are less stringent. I'm willing to bet all current Linn owners will fall in love with the Exakt system. They understand the Linn ethos and completely "get it." I'm also willing to bet potential Linn customers won't be able to get the Exakt sound out of their heads once they hear a demonstration. Linn gets technology and puts it to great use with the Exakt system. I highly recommend the Linn Akurate Exakt DSM player and the Exakt Akubarik loudspeakers.
- Product - Linn Akurate Exakt DSM player and Exakt Akubarik loudspeakers
- Price - $41,000
- Product Page - Link
Where To Buy (CA Supporter):
- Source: C.A.P.S. v3 Carbon Server
- Remote Control Software: JRemote, Kinsky
- Remote Control Hardware: iPhone 5, iPad (3rd Generation)
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, AudioQuest Vodka Ethernet Cables throughout system, Apple AirPort Extreme, PFSense Router / Firewall, Cisco DPC3000 Docsis 3.0 cable modem, Comcast Extreme 105 Mbps Internet Service