Linn Klimax DSM Organik Listening and Review

  • 7 min read

The experience of superb high-fidelity sound is peculiar in that it defies imagination until experienced. One can read innumerable descriptions of the performance of a stereo system or component but really understanding what is so significant is a necessarily empirical exercise. Perhaps this point is best illustrated by the shared experience among most audio enthusiasts of hearing a truly good system for the first time. It's a flashbulb moment. An instant expansion of the conceptual possible: how can this sound so good? How can this be so close to live? How can this be so exciting and eminently enjoyable?

While the first experience most often leaves the strongest impression, hearing a great new speaker or component can further redefine one's understanding of what is sonically possible. While it's hard to complain about getting to listen to phenomenal systems on a regular basis working in hifi it does make these experiences exceptionally few and far between. While it might be going too far to say that I've become jaded after enough years in the industry, suffice to say that after having listened to hundreds or thousands of very fine components and systems a wholesale reimagining of the possible seems to be an experience firmly residing in the past.

The Linn Klimax DSM with Katalyst has been a reference digital streamer and DAC at Pearl Audio since its introduction in 2016. Katalyst introduced us to a new frontier in digital performance not so much in what it added, but what it didn't. The astonishing lack of any grain, glare, or digital artifact leaves the impression of listening to an incredibly quiet, resolute turntable. Katalyst marries the traditionally mutually exclusive combination of exceptional resolution and remarkable forgivingness. After getting our first Klimax DSM with Katalyst we were awed by how we found ourselves unconsciously listening to whatever musicwe wanted, completely ignoring recording quality. Everything just sounded better even as we heard details that we'd never before experienced. We kept diving into our collections to listen to that album that had amazing music but a previously unsatisfying recording quality.

Even as Linn tricked down the Katalyst DAC architecture to their Akurate and Selekt DSMs, the Klimax maintained its sonic supremacy. After an extended comparison between the Akurate and Klimax DSMs, both with Katalyst, a client described the difference to me as that the Akurate allows you to easily follow each section in a symphony, precisely rendered in space and with beautiful tone. The Klimax allowed you to place and follow each individual performer in those sections.

When the all-new Klimax DSM with Organik was announced I wondered how much Linn could really improve the sound given the Klimax DSM with Katalyst's already superb performance. Given my trust in Linn's engineers I had no doubt that there would be lower noise and greater resolution, but what did that really mean? The Klimax DSM with Katalyst had been my reference for so long that I couldn't quite imagine how something significantly better would actually sound. I decided that I wanted the fairest impression possible and declined to listen to any descriptions or reviews of the new Klimax DSM with Organik's sonics before its arrival at our store. 

When the long-awaited day arrived we unboxed the Klimax DSM with Organik and hooked it up in our big sound room with Luxman's reference C-900u and M-900 preamplifier and power amplifier and Magico M2 loudspeakers.

Too excited to wait for any warm-up or burn-in we simply started listening as soon as it powered up. A dumbstruck "wow" passed my lips within the first five seconds of the track. I was transported back to the time in my early teens that I'd first heard a good stereo. For the first time in many years my understanding of what is sonically possible expanded in a flashbulb reckoning. Many hours of delightful listening followed as we enjoyed the new level of musical reproduction and digested just what could lead to such an immediate and powerful impression.

The Klimax DSM with Organik's resolution is substantially greater than the previous Klimax. Fine details are more evident and resolved throughout the entire frequency spectrum. While detail is often perceived most acutely in the treble and midrange, the Organik DAC achieves a degree of bass texture and definition previously unparalleled in my experience. The musical effect of this is to render the bass wholly a sonic constitution of the instrument producing it in the soundstage, rather than a identifiable, separate entity of bass sticking around the speakers.

The next immediate impression is of better soundstaging. The sonic image is larger with more precise placement of performers, especially in terms of depth. Rather than depth primarily being present in the middle of the soundstage between the speakers, depth can now be perceived accurately even towards the outer edges of the soundstage. Notably the localizability of the speakers is greatly reduced. In fact, I’d been rather bothered by being able to localize some of the sound coming from our Magico M2s and not having been able to solve the problem through speaker positioning. The new Klimax solved this issue entirely in our room and now there is now no perception of sound coming from the speakers.

However, even though the impression of these changes in resolution and soundstaging is immediate and obvious, it seems they are almost more incidental to the new Klimax's strengths rather than its primary benefits.

The single most notable difference is the dynamics. The macrodynamics are notably extended with more powerful crescendos and tighter, deeper bass with speed and definition improved to a degree I could not have imagined. But the microdynamics are the biggest difference - and by microdynamics I not only mean the fine graduations between the intensity of notes but also the palpable energy of each individual note. The latter is where the new Klimax eclipses the prior so dramatically and completely. Each note is far more tangible, energetic, and physical than before. Each pluck of an acoustic guitar or piano key simply explodes onto the soundstage with exhilarating energy. It completely draws you into the music and performance.
There is also an even greater sense of analog naturalness and lack of any digital artifice and this is why Linn named their new DAC architecture Organik. This was already a great strength of the previous Klimax and unless you’ve had the experience of listening to superbly set-up $100k+ turntables as a source this characteristic defies easy explanation but it is substantial and leads to a much greater sense of a real performance instead of listening to a stereo system.
How did Linn so vastly improve upon the old Klimax DSM with Katalyst with the new Klimax DSM with Organik?
Linn's engineers started with a clean sheet and created a new, larger chassis needed to comfortable house the necessary electronics. The intricately machined aluminum housing requires over 8 hours of CNC time per unit and not only looks and feels beautiful but provides a well-shielded, non-resonant platform for what's within. Fine, curving grooves on the top plate evoking a vinyl record and a stunning control knob create a powerful aesthetic. A new power supply and analog output circuitry ensure the best support possible for the new Klimax's revolution: the Organik DAC architecture. 
Previous Linn DACs, like almost all other hifi equipment, used commercially available DAC chips in carefully implemented designs. Linn achieved superb levels of performance with this strategy but after the development of Katalyst it became clear that a wholesale reimagining would be required to push the envelope substantially forward. Linn decided that Organik would be built entirely in-house with all discreet components, no off-the-shelf DAC chips whatsoever.
A bit of a technical deep dive is required to really understand what makes Organik so special compared with commercially available DAC chips.
There are two kinds of digital audio: PCM and DSD. PCM accounts for nearly all the digital audio in current use while DSD is found on SACDs and some speciality downloads. PCM works rather intuitively at the DAC level. A DAC microchip constantly varies its output level a certain number of times per second to make an analog waveform. The number of times it changes the output per second is called the sampling rate while the number of different output levels it can output is called the bit depth. Modern 24-bit DACs offer great dynamic range but the design is inherently limited in their ability to render large and sudden output level changes, also known as transients, with sufficient speed and definition. Put simply, these chips don't have fast enough rise-times and therefore can't change their output levels quickly and cleanly enough to truly keep up with the music.
DSD takes a stab at solving this issue and its principle of operating is rather less intuitive. DSD has a bit depth of 1, meaning that the output device responsible for generating the audio signal can only be on or off, nothing in between. This necessitates a very fast sampling rate and the analog waveform is built by varying the period of time during which the output device is on, known as modulation. For example during a quiet passage it will be off more than during a crescendo. The binary switching of the output device allows for the construction of very fast DACs but leads to mathematically defined issues with dynamic range and noise floor, especially in the treble, since the output device can only switch on and off so quickly.
Organik takes the best of both of these architectures while solving both of their greatest weaknesses. All incoming audio signals, whether PCM or DSD, are processed by field programmable gate arrays (FPGA) which convert the signal to a 5-bit depth and very high sampling rate allowing for modulation, the latter similar to DSD. The 5-bit depth means that there are 32 (25) possible levels in the signal. Linn assigns each level to a binary output device which can switch on and off instantly leading to phenomenally fast rise-times. The rapidly varied sum of all the devices creates the audio signal with 32 times as much possible dynamic range as a single device yet all of the speed advantage of DSD. And since all 32 output devices are discreet, Linn can engineer and match them to the highest levels instead of relying on any outside DAC chip manufacturer's processes and quality control.
Once you understand the Organik DAC architecture's design, the sonic benefits are immediately better understood. The unprecedented microdynamic alacrity where each note explodes onto the soundstage derives from Organik's extraordinary rise-time. The even lower noise floor and greater resolution come from the 32 discreet output devices as compared to any DAC chip or single device. 

Linn also added more connectivity to the new Klimax DSM with an additional set of RCA inputs, USB audio input, optical ethernet, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. It can serve as a preamplifier in addition to being a digital streamer and DAC.

Don't hesitate to reach out to us with questions about the new Klimax DSM with Organik or to schedule an audition!