In early 2020 I had the good fortune to review EMM Labs’ DV2 DAC-preamplifier ($30,000), and despite my efforts, I struggled to find fault with it. Consequently, the DV2’s fit, finish, and performance remain the benchmark against which I compare all components of its ilk, including the subject of this review, Linn’s next-generation Klimax DSM ($39,000 when configured as DSM AV, see below, all prices USD). Unlike the DV2, a digital-only preamplifier equipped with a SOTA volume control and a world-class DAC, Linn’s Klimax DSM offers features beyond the scope of the DV2, including analog inputs, two control apps, onboard lossless streaming, and onboard room-correction software. Linn’s reimagined Klimax DSM is by far the most complex, feature-laden audio component I’ve ever reviewed.
Unpacking Linn’s catalog
Before I dive into the nuts and bolts of the new Klimax DSM, I need to try to unpack Linn’s multifaceted product catalog. For the most part, Linn products are divided into three tiers: Majik (good), Akurate (better), and Klimax (best). Within these ranges, Linn offers a host of turntables, network music streamers, speakers, and power amplifiers. The waters get a bit murky when exploring the potential upgrades available within each of these tiers and their respective product ranges. Linn offers myriad upgrade paths for almost all of their products, and this can include both products that are currently available and discontinued models. Linn also offers passive and active speakers; speakers in the latter category include independent amplification of each driver, a DAC (upgradeable depending on the model), and Linn’s proprietary Exakt technology. Exakt is essentially a bespoke, all-digital crossover network specifically calibrated for the speaker it’s installed in. Joe Rodger, Linn’s brand manager, explained to me how this technology operates when it’s built into a Linn active loudspeaker:
Exakt phase aligns each driver while simultaneously eliminating magnitude distortion by applying a series of filters to correct for minute variations in each drive unit’s performance. By keeping the music signal in the digital domain for as long as possible, and only converting it to analog in the DAC immediately before it arrives at the drive units in the cabinets, we minimize any loss due to heat/electromagnetic interference along runs of analog cabling.
If you own a pair of passive speakers, be it Linn or another brand that’s compatible with their technology, Linn offers a series of standalone Exakt boxes, which can be installed between the Linn DSM and your speakers via an ethernet link (Linn has a complete list of Exakt-compatible speakers on their website). Note that this requires the user to physically disconnect the existing crossover within each passive speaker. Depending on your specific system requirements, Linn offers five standalone Exakt boxes: Exaktbox Sub ($2280); Akurate Exaktbox-I ($10,430); Akurate Exaktbox, which comes in both six- and ten-channel models ($7720 and $10,220, respectively); and Klimax Exaktbox ($20,870). Linn also offers Akurate-to-Klimax DAC upgrades for all Akurate Exakt boxes, and as of April 7th of this year, all variants of the Klimax DS, Klimax DSM, and Klimax Exaktbox products can be upgraded with Linn’s new Organik DAC architecture for $7020. A pair of Klimax 350 active loudspeakers can also be upgraded with an Organik DAC for $14,040. To add an additional layer of complexity, all of Linn’s digital network players, from their Series 3 wireless speaker to the Majik, the Akurate, and their entire range up to the Klimax DSM, come equipped with Linn’s proprietary Space Optimization software. But more on this later.
Inside the next-generation Klimax DSM
A high-level breakdown of Linn’s core product catalog and the seemingly endless array of upgrade paths available for both their new and old products is pertinent to this review for two reasons. First, any Linn DSM serves as the nerve center for the system. It can function as a typical DAC-preamplifier (converting digital signals to analog before sending them to an amplifier connected to passive speakers), send digital signals to an Exakt Box for processing to feed amplifiers connected to formerly passive speakers, or send digital signals directly to Linn active speakers. Second, the new Klimax DSM is available in three variants: AV, Music, or Hub. Each of these variants is intended for a specific application while supporting connection to various Exakt-equipped devices. The AV option is identical to the Music variant, with the exception of having an HDMI board. The board comprises 4x in and 1x out connections with the out doubling as an eARC port. All HDMI ports offer full 4K video pass-thru capability. The Hub variant ($19,500) is basically an AV Klimax DSM without the Organik DAC and is intended for those who already own Linn active speakers or those who are working their way up the upgrade path using external DAC and Exaktbox modules. There is an optional Surround Sound Decoding DSP Module (up to 7.x channel) that can be added to either the AV or Hub variants for an additional $1560, but be aware, this is not a simple RCA output solution. To build out a 5.x or 7.x system, you’ll need to determine how many speakers you want to enable with Exakt, and then you’ll potentially have to invest heavily in a series of Exakt boxes to accommodate each pair of channels, plus a center, plus one or more subwoofers. Exploring this option is quite complex and can quickly become extremely expensive.
All variants are available in silver or black, and my silver AV review sample arrived cocooned in high-density fitted-foam inserts within a well-traveled cardboard box. When I pulled off the foam and lifted the Klimax DSM onto my rack, I was impressed by its 36-pound weight. But it wasn’t until I removed the thick peel-off plastic wrapper that I was truly in awe of what I was seeing. At nearly 14″ square by 5″ tall, the Klimax DSM is stunning to look at. Fit and finish are easily on par with the EMM Labs DV2, and the theater of the Klimax DSM in action is darn near as addictive as watching a pair of large blue McIntosh meters bounce around while at play. The cut-glass dial adorning the front third of the top panel is illuminated by 100 individual LEDs, one for each step up or down in volume. Dial movement is silky smooth thanks to a turned-brass bearing, and the illuminated Linn logo at the center is surrounded by a thick brass ring bearing the “Clyde Built” epitheta salute to Glasgow’s proud engineering heritage. Long-term Linn fans will recognize this because it’s been printed on all Linn circuit boards since the company’s inception. There’s another Linn logo engraved into the back left corner of the top plate, which has been machined to produce two finishes: the front portion is milled silky smooth, terminating in a curved line bisecting the glass dial, and the larger rear portion is textured with a series of fine curved lines to emulate the grooves of a record.
An illuminated “Linn Klimax DSM” logo is located on the lower right corner of the full-width mirrored glass front display. Subtly positioned within a valley carved into the front edge of the top plate are six polished stainless-steel smart buttons, which can be programmed for source or album selection. Symmetrically positioned beneath the glass dial on the bottom plate resides one of three all-new finely machined and polished support feet. Each foot contains a damped blue O-ring intended to contact the mounting surface within a machined groove, and the front foot is hand signed by the engineer who built, assembled, tested, and packed the unit. The Klimax DSM’s bottom plate is honed smooth and cleverly conceals an easily accessible power toggle positioned about 1″ in from the front panel off to the right.
Around the back, there are numerous well-spaced inputs and outputs; these differ depending on the variant. The AV version has two pairs of RCA inputs and one pair of XLR line-level inputs located towards the top left. Beside these is a ground connection, and on the far right are a pair of RCA outputs and a pair of XLR preamplifier outputs (these are omitted on the Hub variant). Directly beneath is the HDMI board and to the left is a pair of Exakt Link terminals for connecting to an external Exakt Box or a pair of Exakt-equipped Linn speakers. Continuing left, you’ll find a series of digital inputs—two S/PDIF coaxial (RCA), one S/PDIF optical (TosLink), one USB-B, one USB service input, one ethernet (RJ-45), and one optical ethernet (SFP socket)—and a 15A IEC connector.
Each Klimax DSM starts as a 66-pound billet of aluminum, which is precision milled into six smaller pieces. Total milling time is just shy of 48 hours, and each unit is built to order using Linn’s in-house three- and five-axis CNC machines. When I asked Joe why Linn chose such a costly and elaborate approach, he offered this explanation:
Noise isolation and effective screening between all the different electronic stages were the primary goals. The mass also contributes to minimizing the effects of vibration on the electronics. Machining from a single billet of aluminum also enables us to deliver a very high standard of fit and finish in the overall product assembly.
Looking at the Klimax DSM AV, I found that there were no visible fasteners holding the unit together, except for two screws on the back that lock the top plate in place. To get inside, I removed the screws and slid the 3/8″-thick aluminum top plate back until it could be fully removed. The PSU, encased in aluminum, occupies the front third of the chassis. Directly behind live the ADC and DAC boards, each mounted to a larger aluminum plate forming a mezzanine-like layer that can be removed to provide access to the boards below (Core and HDMI). As with all DSM products, the circuit boards, like the chassis, are all made in-house. Linn prefers to manufacture as much of a product as possible in-house so they can “protect and maintain absolute quality throughout our products.” To facilitate this, Linn has spared no expense in procuring its advanced pick-and-place machinery to populate the complex circuit boards used across all the company’s latest products. The most recent example is the aptly named Organik; it’s the first of Linn’s DACs to be completely designed and built in-house. Guido Schuetze, Linn’s brand ambassador and product trainer, explained that one of the driving factors behind the development of the Organik DAC was that Linn felt it had reached the pinnacle of what it could achieve using third-party-supplied DACs, like the AK4497EQ used in the previous-generation Klimax DSM (from 2016). By building its own DAC, Linn believes it can more tightly control quality, implementation requirements, and tailoring the sound of the DAC.
Specifics about Linn’s Organik DAC were limited, but the company says it’s a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) partnered with a unique discrete conversion stage. Linn describes the Organik’s modulation method as Delta-Sigma PWM and its conversion stage as using a discrete analog finite impulse response (AFIR) implementation. During development, Linn also paid specific attention to the implementation and optimization of associated components, in particular the design of the power supply, clock, and PCB. Through my correspondence with Murray Smith, head of the electronics team that designed the Organik DAC, I learned that the Organik DAC is implemented across an eight-layer, double-sided circuit board to ensure optimal delivery of power while minimizing the distances between critical components such as the clock and the DAC. Smith also noted that the “clock traces have been matched to within fractions of a millimeter to ensure that every part of the DAC receives its clock (using ultra-low jitter oscillators) at precisely the same time.”
The Klimax DSM is powered by Linn’s Dynamik switched-mode power supply, which utilizes separately regulated outputs for digital and analog circuitry. While it would have been easier to use switching regulators, I’m told that the voltage feeding the analog circuitry and both channels of the Organik DAC is tightly regulated using a series of discrete Linn-designed ultra-low-noise linear regulators. The result of these significant efforts culminates in the production of noise levels at -140dB relative the full-scale 4Vrms output. As a point of reference, that’s a full 20dB (ten times) lower than the outgoing Klimax Katalyst DSM.
I reviewed the Klimax DSM in two ways, by considering its performance as both a dedicated DAC-streamer and as a digital/analog preamplifier. I used Kimber Kable Select balanced interconnects between my Audio Research Reference 6SE preamplifier, Classé Audio Delta Mono monoblocks, Musical Fidelity M6x Vinyl phono stage, Pro-Ject Audio Systems RPM 10 Carbon turntable (equipped with a Sumiko Starling cartridge), and the Klimax DSM. Music was streamed to the Klimax DSM from an Intel NUC computer running Windows 10 and Roon over an AudioQuest Vodka ethernet cable. Kimber Kable Select speaker cables coupled my amplifiers to a pair of Paradigm Persona 7F speakers, and I used a Shunyata Sigma XC power cable to pull power from a dedicated 20A circuit and feed a Shunyata Denali 6000 V2 power distributor. All remaining power cables were Shunyata Alpha series.
Once on, the Klimax DSM connected to my network that appeared in the Linn app, in less than a minute, after which Schuetze and I began the first of two one-hour sessions to properly configure the Klimax DSM for my specific environment. I strongly recommend that you ask your dealer to do the same if a Klimax DSM is in your future; I found the Linn app cumbersome to navigate at best. Thankfully, Linn has created a dedicated website called Linn Docs as a repository of common questions and answers for past and current products. I found this site quite useful when looking for specific information pertaining to their Space Optimization software and other how-to issues.
Before doing any listening, you’ll want to experiment with Linn’s Space Optimization software, but before you can do that, you’ll need to take detailed 3D measurements of your room. Space Optimization is only effective up to 80Hz. The problem I found with the configuration process is that outside of the room measurements, temperature, and humidity inputs, all the rest of the slider bar-type settings are based on Linn’s predetermined values of material absorption, and the user’s blind guess if that value, which you don’t know, is too high or too low. When I asked Schuetze why Linn decided to take a “black box” approach towards room correction as opposed to designing measurement-based software, he said that “Linn wanted to take a more scientific approach towards correcting room anomalies” and that “taking measurements introduces too much potential for errors.” Unfortunately, even after spending close to four hours building and testing 15 different models using various manipulations of the software, I failed to find a balance that yielded superior sound quality. My first model, which was based on taking precise measurements, inputting all known values, and leaving all slider bars at their neutral position, proved the most successful. I heard a smoother overall bass response in my room but at the cost of lower overall bass volume. Schuetze noted that to compensate for this, I could adjust the slider, balancing flatter frequency response against shorter decay time, more towards the latter to increase low-frequency energy in the room, but it simply wasn’t enough, nor was the resulting bass as refined. In the end, I left Space Optimization off for the duration of the review.
I started by using the Linn as a dedicated DAC-streamer. The Klimax DSM offers onboard streaming from Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify Connect, AirPlay, Roon, TuneIn, and Calm Radio. Users can choose between the Linn app or the Linn Kazoo app to access these services to render and stream FLAC, Apple Lossless, WAV, DSD (64/128/256), MP3, WMA (except lossless), AIFF, AAC, and OGG files stored on a NAS device, or they can use Roon if they store their music files elsewhere. I tested both apps and preferred the look and intuitiveness of the Linn Kazoo app for playing music, but I used Roon for the duration of this review as I prefer its interface and don’t store my music files on a NAS device. With the Klimax DSM configured as a DAC-streamer, I queued up an old favorite: Norah Jones’s “The Long Day is Over” from Come Away with Me (24-bit/192kHz FLAC, Blue Note / HDtracks). In over a decade of reviewing audio gear, I’ve never heard one component make such a profound difference in the way music sounds in my room. The most obvious improvement was how vast the soundstage now sounded. I didn’t hear a huge change in depth, but the width, the layering, and the microlevel details were stunning. The definition in the Klimax DSM’s rendering of Jones, her piano, and Kenny Wollesen’s taps of the drum created the best impression of three-dimensional instruments and vocals I have heard in my room. The holographic imaging of Bill Frisell’s electric guitar was captivating, to say the least, and the layering of Wollesen’s brass placed behind Jones was more obvious than I’ve ever experienced it.
There’s a wall 2′ to the right of my right speaker, and the Klimax DSM seemingly dissolved this wall while projecting Frisell’s guitar deep into the space beyond it. In addition to creating more space between each entity on stage, the focus, resolution, and texture with which each instrument was illustrated were also beyond anything I have heard before in my room. It sounded even better than it had over EMM Labs’ achingly good DV2. I could more easily hear the force behind each tap of Wollesen’s brass, and the decay of Jones’s piano against Frisell’s guitar was more apparent. The delineation between these two decays is most often blurred, but not this time. The slow plucks of Lee Alexander’s bass guitar were clear as day with ample weight, and I loved how, despite the hyper quantity of microlevel detail being communicated, the track never came close to sounding over-lit.
Roon Radio did me the service of selecting my next track: Shelby Lynne’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” (Just a Little Lovin’, 24/192 FLAC, Lost Highway Records / HDtracks), and once again I was treated to a culmination of precisely etched images recreated within a vast soundstage. Lynne’s voice was drawn center stage, dense yet velvety smooth with ample tonal color and texture. Normally I can’t hear a whole lot of decay in her voice or space around it against the backdrop of Gregg Fields’s taps of the brass, but through the Klimax DSM, the space between the two was clearly audible. Dean Parks’s acoustic guitar popped from stage left, appearing well beyond the confines of the speaker and was chock-full of golden tones with each crisp pluck of the strings. Equally as gripping was Kevin Axt’s electric bass guitar; I do not recall ever hearing this level of resolution, texture, and depth so cleanly recreated in my room.
Before removing my Ref 6SE from the loop and using the Klimax DSM to drive my amplifiers directly, I had a quick listen to “Bring on the Night,” from the Police’s album Reggatta de Blanc (24/88.2 FLAC, A&M). During my review of the EMM Labs DV2, I wrote that “I was again enthralled by the speed, complexity, and precision with which cymbals and other percussion were communicated. Sting’s plucks of his electric-bass strings were immediate and wonderfully nuanced, and I was taken aback by how deep, crisp, and airy Stewart Copeland’s drum thwacks sounded.” I heard much the same through the Klimax DSM, but there were also improvements with the Linn. Copeland’s drum work was even more impactful than I recall it being when listening to the DV2, and like every other track I played through the Klimax DSM, the soundstage was bigger by no small measure, easily eclipsing the already spookily good recreation of space the DV2 put forward. Images were equally as well focused, but microlevel details such as the short decay of cymbals, the airier, longer decays of sticks hitting the drums, and the implied tension of the skins were all more cleanly communicated through the Klimax DSM. The juxtaposition between each decay, short or long, and the snappy transient impact of the drum was also unavoidably involving.
Not Exaktly the same
The volume control of the Klimax DSM operates entirely in the digital domain. When I asked Smith how it was implemented, he explained that the volume control “is applied at the end of the upsampling chain, just before the PWM modulator, and operates at a sample rate of 98.304MHz. Forty-eight-bit resolution is maintained at the output of the volume control, ensuring no information is lost, even when you’re listening at low volume levels.”
For the most part, I’d agree with the last part of that statement; when I listened to the Klimax DSM back-to-back configured as a DAC-streamer only versus a digital preamplifier-DAC-streamer, the differences were almost imperceptible, but there were some changes. The most notable change was that a little less light was cast on the entire presentation. Music sounded a hint darker, spatial nuances were just a wisp harder to hear, and the walls of the soundstage were now a bit closer together. On the other hand, I heard no change in bass depth, impact, or tonality. Depending on your speakers, I could easily see many people preferring the way the Klimax DSM sounds without an external preamplifier in the loop. Moreover, the differences I observed using the Klimax DSM as a digital preamplifier were far subtler than those I remember hearing when using the D2V.
To assess the Klimax DSM’s performance with analog sources, I lowered the needle on Diana Krall’s The Look of Love and listened to “Love Letters” (LP, Verve 602547377074) back-to-back against a standard 16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC file. Through the balanced inputs, there was a nice fluidity to the music. Bass notes maintained their tonality, depth, and texture, and I enjoyed how at ease Krall and her band sounded. Unfortunately, regardless of the volume level I chose, the overall presentation sounded a bit dynamically restrained, and the soundstage lacked the spaciousness of its digital counterpart.
Linn’s new Klimax DSM has taken me on a rollercoaster ride, and I am in desperate need of an emotional rescue. On one hand, I found the analog input lacking in terms of transparency and dynamics, and I remain skeptical of the efficacy of the Space Optimization software. I’m also leery of the idea of spending this much money on a flagship DSM knowing that, based on Linn’s history, an expensive upgrade could be in the works. On the other hand, for a product of such vast capability, the Klimax DSM is an ergonomic marvel post-setup. The front display makes excellent use of its real estate in providing valuable configurable track information to the user. The theater of how the display lights up, seamlessly transitioning between volume and track information, and the way in which the beautiful glass dial illuminates to communicate volume information is second to none. The Klimax DSM is also built like a tank, enthralling to look at, enticing to interact with, and beguiling to listen to. Put simply, this is the best sounding DAC-streamer I have ever heard.
. . . Aron Garrecht
- Speakers: Paradigm Persona 7F.
- Subwoofers: JL Audio Fathom f112 (2).
- Amplifiers: Classé Audio Delta Mono monoblocks (2).
- Preamplifiers: Audio Research Reference 6SE, Musical Fidelity M6x Vinyl phono stage.
- DAC-preamp: EMM Labs DV2.
- Sources: Intel NUC computer running Windows 10, Roon; Pro-Ject RPM 10 Carbon turntable with Sumiko Starling cartridge.
- Interconnects: Analysis Plus (digital), Kimber Kable Select KS-1116 (analog).
- Speaker cables: Kimber Kable KS-6063.
- Power cords: Clarus Crimson.
- Power conditioner: Torus AVR 20.
Linn Klimax DSM AV DAC-Preamplifier
Warranty: Five years, parts and labor.
Linn Products Limited
Glasgow G76 0EQ