Linn Retro Lp12 (£1925 Deck Only)

'Simplicity' was the old slogan but the subsequent variations on the original LP12 turntable package take some sorting. So how does it sound in this latest incarnation?

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Simplicity! That was the slogan when Linn advertised in the 1974 Hi-Fi Yearbook. ‘Simplicity itself... that’s the Linn Sondek LP12’, it said. You could have the turntable chassis on its own for £46.30, or with plinth and cover for £56.40.
   Today, those old black-and-white letterpress ads, and the pre-oil-crisis-inflation prices, seem to come from a different world. But the LP12 is still going strong, and for all Linn’s added complexities and changes over the years, it is essentially the same turntable. At least five out of the six key selling points listed in 1974 still apply today: single point bearing; belt drive; 4.1kg non-magnetic platter; precision engineering; and stainless steel chassis.
   I say at least five, because the sixth bullet point was ‘24-pole synchronous motor’. That last one still signifies if you choose a standard LP12, but it won’t if you specify the latest top-of-the-range LP12SE, including a Radikal DC motor with its external power supply, and Urika built-in phono stage.

Our impetus for this review was the launch of the Limited Edition Retro LP12, really the same as any other current LP12 except that it revives, in kiln-dried walnut, the attractive grooved plinth design which was phased out in 1999. You pay a little more for this fluted fabrication, as the Retro LP12 (turntable only) costs £1925 compared with £1750 for the standard LP12. An initial run of 30 pieces should be followed by more if there is a demand, but the Retro plinth is not likely to be made available separately.
   Of course, the appeal of the Retro is mainly nostalgic and entirely cosmetic. And it would have been crazy to review the Linn turntable in late 2009 without covering the latest enhancements. So our Retro LP12 became a complete LP12SE system, fitted with Radikal and Urika and supplied ready to use with an Ekos SE arm and Akiva cartridge.
   This arrived in several boxes which were strapped to a pallet, together making a two-man lift. The price tag was pretty weighty too. As supplied, the retail value was no less than £16,285!
   I wish I’d thought of the headline ‘Licensed to Keel’, which graced our last LP12SE review, in March 2008, and referred to the most important of the ‘SE’ upgrades up to that time. The Keel is a single, complex metal component that replaces both the old sheet-metal subchassis and the armboard screwed to it. Along with this came a new damped metal version of the previously-plastic Trampolin base, while the Ekos arm had undergone several improvements to become the Ekos SE. All this brought the package price of the LP12SE/Ekos SE/Akiva system as then reviewed to £9550.
   This time, we had the £2350 Keel as a matter of course, while the Trampolin base, now £150, had been revised again to suit the Urika phono stage bolted on to it, with a ‘chute’ at the back giving the extra Radikal cables a comfortable exit.

If you’ve got this far, you might be wondering why, even with a phono stage added, our 2009 package costs some £6000 more. But remember that £2000 of that is the premium for the milled-from-solid version of the Radikal power supply. Impressive though this is, you will only want it if you are already the proud owner of a Linn Klimax system. For a visual match with other Linn systems, you can have your Radikal in standard black or silver casework, at £2500.
   Because there are no audio signals inside the box, there should be no sonic difference between the two versions. The Radikal power supply feeds both the new DC motor and the Urika phono stage, via five-pin locking connectors.
   Unlike some other makers’ external power supplies, the Radikal does not have an on/off or speed-change switch. You still control the turntable using its own switch, in the traditional front-left position but this now selects 33.3 and 45rpm as well as start and stop.
   Apart from this, you will only see evidence of Radikal tendencies when you remove the platter. The motor pulley looks the same, but the old and arguably redundant aluminium belt guard has gone, to be replaced by a small circuit board carrying an optical sensor. This constantly monitors the speed of the platter, detecting a black marker placed at one point inside the rim.
   There is one control button on the back of the Radikal supply unit, which you can forget once you’ve used it to choose one of two operational modes. When set to ‘Normal Operation (Lingo)’, you press the turntable’s switch once to start at 33.3 rpm, but press and hold for a couple of seconds to switch to 45. Another short press will then turn the LP12 off.
   Or, if Urika is installed, you can choose ‘Enhanced (With Mute)’. You then start play or change speed in the same way, but a short press on the turntable switch applies a soft mute (–25dB) to the phono stage. Another press restores the volume level while a longer press will turn the player off.
   In a nutshell, you can have Radikal without Urika, but you can’t have Urika without Radikal. Urika alone costs £2250, but Linn encourages you to have both by offering them together at £4200 (£6200 with a ‘Klimax’ type Radikal). So, if you put off buying the Urika until later, it will cost you £550 more.
   Leads from the Urika’s phono outputs emerge from the back of the deck alongside the power connections. They can be replaced by balanced cables if desired, as the Urika has both kinds of sockets. On the input side, short, compliant leads connect the arm-base plug to the Urika, obviating the arm-cable dressing and P-clip-tightening rituals of old.
   Unchanged, I believe, since 2008, but costing a little more now, the Ekos SE arm and Akiva moving-coil cartridge completed the package. Current retail prices are £3540 and £2270 respectively.

Just to see if sound came out, I put on the first disc that came to hand, which happened to be an ancient Chess R’n’B compilation on the cheapo Marble Arch label [The Blues, MAL 804] – mono of course. But I couldn’t take it off again. Hearing this through the Linn was a bit like coming home after a long absence. I just marvelled at the fabulous guitar and bass on Washboard Sam’s ‘Diggin’ My Potatoes’ from 1953, the sheer depth and clarity of the mono and the way the music flowed so effortlessly, with such natural rhythm.
   For the sake of propriety I forced myself to move on and into the stereo era. With the still fresh-sounding Harry James band on The King James Version direct cut [Sheffield Lab LAB-3] the string bass was well reproduced down to the depths of its range, with a rather bloomy and cushioned kind of sound, while the drums were big, bold and weighty. In the upper registers, though, it seemed that the ‘edge’ of the brass instruments was a little smoothed off.
   Coming forward to 1988 and Tracey Chapman [Elektra 960 774] the Linn again did very well in conveying a full, low bass sound. On that beautifully simple but effective arrangement of ‘Fast Car’ the weight of the low fundamentals could be felt, and at the same time the bass line was clear and easy to follow. I felt that the voice was good but, to be picky, there could have been a little more feeling of real presence or ambience around it.
   Moving back a decade again, Eric Clapton’s Backless [RSO RSD5001] again displayed a strong and relatively heavy bass line forming a convincing foundation to the sound. On ‘Walk Out In The Rain’, there was a big, stable and solid stereo image. Here Clapton’s too-buried vocal sounded fine, although the Linn did not seem to be making any special efforts to lift it out of the mix.
   With Dire Straits [Vertigo 9102 021] there was again a big and wide stereo image, with an impressive and sometimes surprising sense of space around the instruments bustling within it. In ‘Sultans of Swing’, the rhythm guitar parts were revealed with great detail, while the bass was insistently powerful, once again showing the Linn’s ability to reveal the player’s lowest notes with aplomb. Against a colourful and busy background, the vocal and lead guitar seemed subjectively less prominent than on some systems.
   Feeling like some jazz piano, I turned to Oscar Peterson and Action (Vol 1) [MPS 68.073], made in 1975 in, I think, a room that wasn’t really big enough for a grand piano. Yet the Linn conveyed this record’s great sense of freedom and immediacy, and you could feel that the piano was recorded close-to, rather than just sounding too clangy. The lowest notes of Ray Brown’s bass clued you in to the somewhat non-ideal room sound very revealingly.
   Listening to Bob Marley And The Wailers Live [Island ILPS 9376] from 1975 brought both the music and the cunningly-mixed Lyceum audience to life. The Linn remained in control despite everything this recording could throw at it and portrayed the sounds of instruments cleanly, from the bass drum upwards, so that you appreciated their individual contributions to the wave-like momentum of the band. And you could hear enough detail in the audience sounds, which stopped them from becoming just a background mush.
   For the first time in a long while, I put on Kind Of Blue, in this case a bog-standard old UK issue [CBS 62066], and found a thoroughly excellent rendition given by the Linn. Once Paul Chambers got going, his walking bass was conveyed with great tunefulness and a feeling of humanity as well as a real fleetness of rhythm. You could say the same for Jimmy Cobb’s drums, which sounded great, especially the cymbals, which had life and realism.
   Much as I wanted to listen to a thousand other discs, I simply had to put on ‘Ballad Of The Runaway Horse’ from Rob Wasserman’s 1988 album Duets [MCA GRP 97 121]. Here Wasserman’s bass had effortless weight and authority as he marked the beat with metronomic perfection. Warnes’ voice had depth and substance, with a silky finish.

As you can see, my listening comments were predominantly positive, and yet words like ‘sparkle’, ‘excitement’ and ‘vibrant’ had somehow just not come to mind. They did, though, when, as an experiment, I temporarily substituted a Koetsu Black for the Akiva. This made me suspect that either the Akiva is the weakest link in this formidable Linn chain, or that perhaps our sample was below par [see Lab Report].
   Yet Linn’s latest upgrades really have made the LP12SE sound even cleaner, smoother and more neutral than before. It may now be a little too smooth and neutral for some tastes, although the original, undeniable ‘musicality’ is still there. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend £16,000 to get a taste of this. Linn’s ‘entry level’ LP12 Majik, reviewed in July 2008, is still good value. And unless you have already clambered a good many rungs on the Linn upgrade ladder, this might be the best place to start.

It might seem surprising that Linn’s latest subchassis, motor drive, and phono stage each cost more than the turntable itself. Even with its Retro plinth, the LP12 accounts for less than 15% of the cost of the ultimate ‘SE’ package. The upgrades are expensive, but then, would we rather have had Linn throw away the LP12 and start again? Probably not. I think we should be glad that it’s still with us.


Originally published in the December 2009 issue