November 2009 Archives

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A journalist I spoke to the other day said to me: "Your father, he's rather opinionated, isn't he?"

"Oh, how so?" I replied.

Journalist: "In the 1980's he said that CD would never catch on."

Me: "Well, he was right! It just took 20 years for his prediction to come true!"

The End of the CD?

Who — apart from Ivor — would have thought back then that vinyl would out-live CD? Yet who today would dispute that this is likely to be the case? In fact Ivor said two things; firstly, don't throw out your records because you haven't heard what's on them yet (and LP12 upgrades in 2007 and 2009 are the most recent vindications). Secondly, CD would be an interim format, before an eventual 'true' digital format would come along to rival vinyl. With Studio Master downloads and format-independent Linn DS music streamers, Linn believes Ivor's digital prophecy has been fulfilled.

Yet Linn is not claiming the end of the CD format. I have a good CD shop at the bottom of my street and still find it an enjoyable way to buy music. I take my new CDs home, rip them to my NAS and use the Direct Play feature in KinskyDesktop to play the music immediately. My guess is CD's will be around for a few years yet. So why end CD player manufacture?

CDs That Sound Better Than CD

Although over the years it did become progressively harder to source CD engines and loaders of the quality required, the real killer was performance. Once we proved out the theory that streaming a CD could and should sound better than playing the same CD, it was only a matter of time before we stopped making CD players. We now have Linn DS players at Klimax, Akurate and Majik level, as well as integrated offerings for various applications, each of which outperforms any CD player and offers more value than its CD-playing counterpart. We have far greater control over the supply-chain, with the benefit of far superior product reliability and longevity.

What about customers who want to buy a CD player? Is Linn turning its back on those people?

We thought long and hard about this. In the end, we decided that we'd rather take the time to explain to existing and potential customers why we believe the time is right to get into music streaming even if it means we risk losing a sale.

Of course we will continue to support our CD players in the market to the very best of our ability. Linn has a consistent track record of maintaining long product service life, and our decision to stop manufacturing new CD players does not jeopardise this.

When you bought a CD player, that's all you got — a CD player. When SACD came along we were told we needed to buy a new player. Same again with DVD, same with Blu-Ray disc.

Music streaming, and Linn DS, offers format — and resolution — independence and, crucially, upgradeability. That's why Ivor calls it the "digital LP12".

I'll be available for an online Q&A on 1st December from 5pm to 7pm GMT.

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As I mentioned in my earlier entry on introducing Cara to Japan, Linn has been responsible for introducing music streaming into the Japanese audio market and probably because of that I was asked to speak to an invited audience of over 200 press and public at the Ototen show in the Akihabara district of Tokyo recently.

The seminar at Ototen is organised by the publisher Ongen, who owns around ten specialist audio-video titles. They, along with the StereoSound magazine group, dominate the Japanese specialist press. Ongen's audiophile website PhileWeb is the number one online portal and you can see the coverage the event received here.

The event took place as an-onstage dialogue between me and Yamanouchi, a highly-regarded critic, with discussion ranging from the story of Linn DS so far, to the future for downloaded music quality, to the future of the hi-fi industry, to the future for the music industry.

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Yamanouchi-san pronounced this a time of great significance for audiophiles and the hifi industry, that will be looked upon in future as a critical turning point. We could not avoid the bare facts: CD players and printed disc media are on an unstoppable and accelerating demise, to be replaced with music streaming and downloading. The emergence of higher-than-CD quality downloads means, for the arguably the first time since the introduction of mass-market digital music, quality is finally on the rise.

And to drill the point home, following my seminar, was a presentation from a Japanese company called Kripton, who were launching a new download portal called HQM (High Quality Music).

For those interested in the details of my demo at Ototen:

We had a Klimax DS / Klimax Kontrol / Klimax Twin / Akurate 242 set up, allowing me to illustrate the differences between mp3 and Studio Master quality for the audience?--?the difference sounding surprisingly clear in what was a very large auditorium. I used Claire Martin's "Everything I Got Belongs To You" from her new album A Modern Art that I'm becoming quite a fan of.

I also couldn't resist playing the whole of Alfie Boe "Love Unstuck" from his new album Love Was A Dream. I've never listened to operetta in the past, but I challenge anyone to listen to these traditional love songs from The Merry Widow and others without feeling incredibly uplifted. The quality of the recording, the lightness of the Scottish Opera orchestra, and the emotion in Alfie Boe's voice are all wonderfully joyous.

Although I've been at Linn for over 6 years, this was my first ever business trip to Manhattan... and I was nervous as hell! I find the place intimidating to visit even as a tourist, so the idea of presenting Linn DS to a room full of high-powered, straight-tawking New Yorkers filled me with fear.

Here's a sample of what my "normal" hi-fi audience in Manhattan looked like:

  • Owner of private equity investment company
  • Portuguese first secretary to UN
  • Entertainment lawyer to the stars
  • Owner of chain of diamond jewelry retailers
  • Deputy state governor (retired)
  • Hedge fund manager

and

Craig Kallman, head of Atlantic Records, the most profitable record label in the world, which sold more records than anyone in the U.S. in 2008. Craig's a Linn customer, and he popped in to say "hi". Elliot Fishkin, owner of Innovative for over 35 years, has a personal friendship with Craig Kallman through supplying him with hi-fi equipment over the years.

Hats off to owner Elliot and his manager Scott Haggart (from Scotland, who drinks Scotch!), for the wonderful environment they've created below street level on E58th Street; a truly innovative use of space in an over-crowded, expensive city.

Craig has one of the largest private record collections in the world >300,000 vinyl (!) and a passion for great sound. He owns Linn, SME and Wilson: you can read this excellent interview he did with Stereophile for more info.

Here is a young, visionary leader of a record label, taking the fight to the Majors, unafraid of the digital future, embracing change and delivering success to his artists.

If proof were needed of Craig's commitment to high quality audio reproduction, he has bought a full floor of his apartment building in New York's upper east side which he's in the process of converting into top-spec listening rooms for Atlantic recording artists. He wants his artists to hear their music at its best. Expect to hear more about this come the new year.

Back to the evening itself. Sticking to my main presentation theme of the last few months, I talked about the improvements we're making to the recording process at Linn, and to demonstrate I played a sample of the latest studio masters from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Claire Martin. To my surprise, I was asked to make a straight Majik CD vs Majik DS comparison, which told me it was DS Day One for most people there. Having been expecting a confrontational audience, I was pleasantly surprised that everyone heard and agreed the improvement of the DS over the CD player.

As is often the case at Linn DS musical evenings, the conversation turned to the music industry itself, and whether Linn and other specialists were alone in fighting for the higher quality of digital music. Luckily, I could point to Mr Kallman as evidence of a mass-market future for high quality downloads.