Linn 5103 Surround Processor/Preamp

      Date posted: October 17, 1997

Linn 5103 Surround Processor

Sugg. Retail: $12,000 (CAN)
Distributor: Aldburn Electronics Ltd.
1455A Crown Street,
North Vancouver, B.C. V7J 1G4
(604) 986-5357 FAX 986-5335

(Reprinted from the Fall 1997 Audio Ideas Guide)

      Suffering from sticker shock at the price above? As the Eagles would say, get over it. In a FAX memo, the Linn distributor took pains to call the AV 5103 a “Controller” rather than a processor because it does so much more than your normal surround box. The starting point is an audiophile preamplifier with very short signal paths, relay switching, and great flexibility in terms of inputs and outputs.

      Of course, it’s also a multi-channel preamp, with multi-channel digital conversion based on the company’s experience with both the Numerik professional analog-to-digital converter and the subsequent consumer digital-to-analog converter of the same name. The AV 5103 will decode all current digital sources except DTS, and includes an RF demodulator for direct connection of laserdisc players. It is also easily configurable (well, maybe not so easily; more on this below) for any current and future digital recording systems, audio or video, with 4 separate record-out paths, and incorporates “fully professional studio switching systems whose quality becomes more apparent as the quality of the source improves. The resolution is greater than any current consumer storage system and is especially useful and appreciated with projection television systems. The on-screen graphics are not in the normal video chain, a practice normally found in many AV processors. Instead the OSG is routed to the video only when required.” “The signals from input to output never travel more than two inches.”

      “The objective was to build an audio video controller that would provide a quality of video and audio switching and processing not currently available…On the audio side the number of analogue inputs were [sic] expanded up to ten and care was taken to ensure a performance level at least to Kairn standard. We found this was achieved, and surpassed!”

      The key to the operational sophistication and flexibility of the simple-looking AV 5103 lies in the accompanying remote control, the AV 5101. Designated as a separate component, it truly lives up to its label, able to run a whole Linn system (including one fully multi-room), and to learn the commands for any other components, including laserdisc and DVD players, VCRs, TVs and so on. With selector buttons for the AV 5103’s 12 A/V inputs, the remote also controls record outs, and has numeric buttons that can also be custom programmed. There are in addition 4 colour-coded (red, green, yellow, and blue) mystery buttons that can also be custom configured.

      Both Dolby AC-3 Digital and Pro Logic are provided, with full setup of all channels outlined in the extensive manual. There’s also a separate manual for the remote, this indicating the complexity of it all. Inputs must be configured, named and routed, so initial setup is best left to a professional installer; at the price of these components, this is a part of the package, whether you go for the complete Linn home theatre or not. Both Aaron and I found some aspects of setup, in particular the configuring of inputs, baffling mysteries not solved by reading the manual.

      But what the AV 5103 does not have is all the superflous DSP nonsense found on most Japanese surround units, and it also lacks the kind of useful music surround modes found on such processors as the Meridian 565 (Wtr 97). In the light of what I will have to say about its other sonic characteristics, this is a pity, but everything is here to provide very accurate musical reproduction as well as precise decoding of matrix and discrete surround soundtracks. 5103 Remote

      And this essential purpose is eminently fulfilled, the AV 5103 as transparent an audio preamplifier as I have heard, with a level of detail and a security of directionality surpassed by no surround component I have heard. Its Dolby Digital sound is simply amazing with such soundtracks as Space Jam, all kinds of stuff happening all around the listener in this DVD; Species, with its weird sound effects and wraparound ambient field almost makes you want to close your eyes to appreciate these, though in the pool scene Canadian Natasha Henstridge’s ultimately deadly charms tend more to rivet one’s eyes.

      And the video performance equals the audio. When assessing menus you can easily see how the temporary on-screen graphics degrade the picture, but once these are gone, things are as good as a direct S-video connection to our Pioneer SD-5193 51″ TV (Wtr 97). As a rule I prefer not to go through a video switcher for DVD and laserdisc, using the TV’s dedicated inputs, but in this case I could literally see no reason not to.

      The audio and video superiority were amply underlined by watching Mars Attacks, one of the best DVD transfers yet; it’s a very funny movie about alien invaders that spoofs the genre. Given the talent in the cast, most of the stars must have done this film for scale (perhaps because of affection or respect for director Tim Burton): Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Glenn Close, and Pierce Brosnan are a few of these. The movie makes more sense than Independence Day, and is also a lot more fun. And it was funnest of all with the Linn controller, the surround raygun frying of things and people so realistic you could almost smell it.

      Both Aaron and I spent quite a bit of time with the AV 5103 and the 5101 remote, and found the operational characteristics predictable and quite logical. He noted the lack of component video outs, though all ins and outs have paired composite and S connectors. He also liked the “very good D/As, and AC-/RF performance with laserdiscs: Twister and True Lies”, to which I would also add Goldeneye, which, like Mars Attacks has an astonishing attention to detail in complex scenes, with sound pans following moving objects on all 4 sides and across and through them. As well, in these films the offstage sounds are beautifully natural, coming from various parts of the room with exact correspondence. One that comes to mind is the “Stand By Your Man” scene in which you hear the hilariously awful country singing with a Russian accent (”Stend by yorr men…”).

      Coming back to the price question, a final perspective is perhaps in order. Krell makes a more expensive processor that does not have all the 5103’s features and flexibility, and the Theta Casablanca, similarly priced when similarly attired (it’s very modular) was fairly difficult to get working properly when reviewed by Stereophile Guide To Home Theatre. The Linn may have a few quirks that call for a professional setup, but it works flawlessly thereafter, without the operational eccentricities that seem to go with most U.S. high end gear (frankly, I wonder how these companies continue to get away with this; apparently Counterpoint didn’t, and is now in Chapter 11 reorganization).

      An alternative to the Linn is the Meridian 565, which requires their $695 615 for use with laserdiscs, but has excellent music modes. Though less expensive, I also think it doesn’t sound as good, lacking some finesse, and quite a bit of dynamics by comparison with the 5103. Though most of us would love to own the Linn 5103, and perhaps put the rest of this company’s HT components around it, most of us are more likely to end up with something demanding a more modest outlay.

Andrew Marshall

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