Linn Linto Phono Preamplifier

      Date posted: February 15, 1998

Linn Linto Phono Preamplifier
Sugg. Retail: $2195 (CAN)
Distributor: Aldburn Electronics Ltd.
1455A Crown Street,
North Vancouver, B.C. V7J 1G4
(604) 986-5357 FAX 986-5335

(Reprinted from the Winter 1998 Audio Ideas Guide)

      Outboard phono preamplifiers are becoming a necessity for vinyl lovers trading up their systems because few current preamplifiers contain phono stages. Virtually all of these take the signal from its beginning right to line level, unlike many moving coil stepup devices, and the Linto is no exception, with 64 dB of gain. Cutting an internal wire reduces this to 54 dB in cases where the MC output is unusually high, and lights the Linto’s red front panel LED on peaks.

      A simple box that looks like other Linn components, the Linto has a power switch and the aforementioned LED on the front panel at right, and at rear a single pair of gold-plated input RCAs, and a similar pair of outputs. The extra pair are for direct feed to a multi-room system.

      Linn owner’s manuals are generally informative, and frequently entertaining, and this one wins on both counts: “The scale of of the signals involved in a moving coil preamplifier make the design an interesting challenge. Linn MC cartridges generate about 100uV (100 millionths of a Volt) from a reference `cut velocity’ on a record. This represents a fairly loud signal. A modest background noise level from a phono preamplifier would be about 100nV (100 thousand-millionths of a Volt). A low noise level would be closer to 10nV.”

      “One of the delights of a good audio system is that it allows you to hear signals which are below the `noise floor’. This understanding, and how to achieve it, has transformed the performance of digital audio systems since the very first (very rough) digital recordings.”

      “Unlike other MC preamps the Linto does not have an adjustable loading network. A moving coil cartridge has a very low output impedance (a few Ohms) and is relatively unaffected by any reasonable loading impedance. A loading network does two things: it wastes valuable signal power, and it generates more signal and noise than the cartridge.”

      “A cartridge loading network is usually altered by switching in resistors and capacitors. The switch contacts alone can generate more voltage than the cartridge!”

      “A cartridge loading network also increases the size of the circuitry on the input of the amplifier. We have gone to extreme lengths to keep the connection from the input sockets to the amplifier transistors as short as possible and enclosing the minimum possible area. Our precision surface mount technology makes this possible. A square centimetre of circuit area can pick up more interference signal than the cartridge generates as music signal.”

      The Linto uses the modestly named Brilliant power supply, a switching design here represented in its “slimline” version for the modest power requirements of the preamp. It apparently took the Linn engineers two years to perfect this power supply system, which “converts the incoming mains into a very high voltage DC then chops it up at a high frequency before applying it to a transformer measuring about 30mm square. The output of this transformer is then converted back to a very smooth DC voltage.” Both power supply and amplifier circuits are well shielded, the latter also inherently resistant to RF pickup.

      With all due respect to Linn’s own excellent range of MC cartridges, I doubt one could find a better test of the Linto’s claimed low noise, high gain, and resolution than with our reference cartridge, the Ortofon MC-3000 Mk II. With a nominal output that is less than a third that of, say, an Archive, this cartridge in its various versions has shown the shortcomings of many phono stages over the years. With a nominal output of about 30 mV, we’re into FM signal values (speaking of RF as we were), with true nanovolt output levels down at and below the noise floor.

      Our reference phono preamplifier for the last decade has been a two-stage affair, the McIntosh MCP-1 moving coil pre-preamp (surely one of the unheralded jewels among analog playback gear) with its extremely high gain and low noise, and the Bryston BP-1 professional phono preamplifier, a hangover from my broadcast days when I ran a pair of turntables; it is still the best phono stage I know of, though I’ haven’t tried several, including the Vendetta.

      Would the all-in-one Linto surpass these? Well, it came within a stylus cantilever, if not a hair, sonically, with equally low noise, and complete freedom from the high frequency distortion that mars many phono stages. Linn’s eastern Canada presence Gilles Gagnon and I compared the Linto with the phono section of their Kairn preamplifier in one of the excellent listening rooms at Audio One. It’s an understatement to say that the comparison was not kind to the Kairn, which sounded thin, etched and edgy relative to the Linto.

      This newest Linn had a sweetness and suavity that made analog even more refined in my system, perhaps even a little too much so, some of the detail and depth of the McIntosh/Bryston combo disappearing along with most surface noise. I began to suspect that perhaps some frequency contouring was being applied after the gain stages to tame the typical MC high frequency rise. Or, it may just be that the lack of input loading has an effect of smoothing the top octave.

      But, then, I wouldn’t have expected them to sound the same, and I could certainly get used to this level of refinement quickly. I found the brighter records in my collection sounded more relaxed and open, this including a recently acquired Columbia treasure from 1958, Jazz At The Plaza, Volume II (C 32471) with its electrifying Billie Holiday performances with the band. A great early stereo recording, this one has me ready to search the world for a copy of Volume I.

      On Joni Mitchell’s Blonde In The Bleachers, (For The Roses, Asylum SD 5057) the vocal presence was just a little bit less palpable than with the reference system, but again, this was subtle, as was the slight smoothing of textures in the Telarc Slatkin/Saint Louis recording of the Mahler 1st (DG-10066).

      But the separation of individual orchestral lines was superb, as were dynamics and freedom from noise. In my experience, phono stages with poor RIAA EQ and inadequate headroom have sounded edgy and tended to emphasize surface noise. There’s none of that here, to be sure. The Linto makes the most of the qualities of the Ringmat, the result almost nonexistent record noise and exceptional transparency.

      This is a phono preamp I could certainly live with, though I’m not about to decommission my current system, venerable as it is. That said, the Linn Linto, simple and fuss-free as it is, will work with any moving coil cartridge, and is in my view a simply superb choice for any serious LP playback system. I recommend it highly to all analog lovers, especially at such a reasonable price for a true high end component.

Andrew Marshall

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