Linn Series 3 review: Sonic superiority
For a company that's always seemed adept at reading the writing on the wall, Scottish audio authority Linn has taken its sweet time to deliver its debut wireless speaker. After all, Linn has been at the forefront of digital audio streaming for well over a dozen years.
Before 2009 was over it had discontinued its (very well regarded) range of CD players - remember those things? - in order to concentrate its efforts where it knew the real digital audio action would be; it wasn't long after this the company started using its Exakt digital audio processing engine to transform its loudspeakers into digital audio systems.
'Forward-thinking' and 'intrepid' aren't the same as 'reckless', though. Linn has held off from joining the high-end wireless speaker fracas until its Exakt technology can be integrated into a product that fits that most intangible of marketing requirements - yes, we're talking 'lifestyle' - as well as sounding good enough to justify wearing a Linn badge.
And so, finally, there's the Linn Series 3. It's certainly among the most expensive wireless speakers around, but Linn reckons, with its usual directness, that it is "the best-sounding wireless speaker in the world". And you know what? We're finding it hard to disagree...
- Dimensions: 30 x 25 x 21cm
- Laser-cut grille
There's certainly no confusing the Series 3's design vocabulary for that of any other wireless speaker. At 30cm high it's an assertive size, and the organically shaped cabinet is reminiscent of... what? A wine-glass, as Linn itself suggests? Um, a bulb of fennel, maybe?
No matter what it reminds you of, there's no denying Series 3 is a striking looker. And it's almost as tactile a pleasure as it is visual - the cabinet is cast from a mineral compound more commonly deployed in high-end kitchen ceramics, and is then hand-finished until it's flawlessly smooth. Like stone, it's cool to the touch and, like stone, it's stiff and dense and inert enough to make an ideal acoustic material.
Part of its visual allure comes from its mild irregularity of shape. Width of 25cm and depth of 21cm help its proportions, and the front of the cabinet is flattened off a little to allow the thin, stiff and uncomfortably reflective grille to sit flat. The top of the cabinet isn't level, either - it slopes forward gently, all the better to display its impeccably integrated glass top-plate.
- 200 watts of power: 100W 19mm tweeter; 100W 160mm driver)
- Roon Ready, AirPlay 2, Bluetooth 4.2, TuneIn internet radio
- Exakt digital engine
Many wireless speakers can be deployed as a stereo pair simply by buying two of them. That's not quite how it works with Series 3.
£2950 buys you a '301' speaker, which is absolutely stacked with functionality. On the inside it's packing a couple of Class D power amplifiers of 100 watts each - that's one to drive the 19mm silk dome tweeter and another to power the 160mm doped paper mid/bass driver beneath it.
Towards the bottom of the rear of the cabinet are the speaker's physical inputs. There's mains power (of course), an Ethernet socket (for ultimate wireless stability), an HDMI ARC socket (in case you want to give your video sources the Series 3 treatment) and an Exakt Link. This last looks a lot like an Ethernet socket, and is used for connection in a stereo pair.
But naturally, the Linn is mostly about its wireless prowess. The Series 3 is Roon Ready, so any networked audio (up to a chunky 24bit/192kHz standard) is accessible; Apple AirPlay 2 and Bluetooth 4.2 are available for straightforward streaming. Streaming services - including Spotify, Tidal and Qobuz - are integrated into the Linn/Kazoo control app, as is TuneIn internet radio (although Linn's ongoing antipathy towards MQA means Tidal Masters files are available only as 16bit/44.1kHz facsimiles).
No matter how you get your digital audio information on board your 301 Series 3 speaker, though, once it's there it is pored over by the Exact digital engine. Basically, Linn is seeking to keep all this complex information in the digital domain for as long as possible. So any sub-192kHz stuff is upsampled to this resolution, as it's at this standard the Exakt engine performs its digital crossover filtering. The file is then upsampled again, to a heady 768kHz, in order to bypass all digital-to-analogue stages. Only then is it fed to the power amps, having been held as digital information until nanoseconds beforehand.
This is how Linn's Exakt engine operates in the company's other digital audio systems, plenty of which cost plenty more than the Series 3. It's a painstaking, complicated and expensive process, and it's one in which Linn has absolute faith.
To get the same results from a true stereo Series 3 setup, you'll need a '302' speaker to go along with your 301. In terms of driver specification and on-board amplification, the 302 is identical to the 301 - but it is in effect slaved to the 301. The 302 has just a mains power socket and an Exakt Link input, from which it connects to 301 in order to receive all its audio information. That's why a Series 3 'system' is a little less than double the price of a stand-alone 301.
- Linn/Kazoo control app (iOS & Android)
- Voice control via Amazon or Google
- Physical touch controls
The Series 3 isn't a smart speaker - as in voice assistants aren't directly built-in - but it's possible to control its broad functionality if it's on the same network as an Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant mic-equipped speaker. Integrating the Linn into the Alexa or Google Home app happens via Bluetooth, and very straightforward it is too.
There's also the Linn/Kazoo app, which gives access to each and every function the Series 3 can perform, and is quite logical and sensibly arranged. It's also about as stable as these things ever get when they weren't developed by a company with a) no time pressures and b) limitless funds. Here's where you setup your extensive Series 3 multi-room system (if you, too, have limitless funds).
Series 3 has a physical interface too - and it's so very pleasantly tactile that you may be tempted to make it your main source of interaction. On top of the 301 is, as discussed, a glass plate - this has a number of touch-sensitive controls for use when pairing, for storing presets and favourites, and for controlling volume. There are 100 slender LEDs forming a softly glowing circle in the middle of the glass plate, and they indicate volume level. (Of course, the 302 has no need of any of this - and so just has a pleasantly shining 'Linn' logo beaming from its glass top-plate.)
- Brilliant time-alignment
- Articulate, organised sound
- Extraordinary detail retrieval
As mentioned earlier, Linn considers Series 3 to be "the best-sounding wireless speaker in the world". And while it's possible to make a strong argument against that on a pound-for-pound basis, in absolute terms the company may well be right.
Everything the Series 3 does, in terms of sound reproduction, it does with complete skill and confidence. It's obvious from the first few bars of a 24bit/192kHz file of Beck's Nobody's Fault But My Own that the Linn has absolute authority over the material - and serves it up in the most persuasive manner.
A big part of what the Exakt engine (and, by extension, the majority of Linn's digital products) ensures is that the time alignment of the music is as convincing as possible. Music, certainly as far as Linn is concerned, sounds its most natural and believable when all the frequency information reaches the listener at the same time, regardless of where in the frequency range it is (and thus how long or short a wave it is). So the relatively few elements to the Beck recording sound unarguably like a performance - there's a sense of unity and interaction between the different elements of the song that make it sound like a single piece.
In principle it sounds not only obvious but straightforward. But you don't need to listen to many wireless speakers (at any price) to realise knitting individual strands of a recording, with their many different textures and frequency information, into a coherent whole is far from easy.
The Series 3 makes it sound like child's play, mind you. It's a direct and implacable performer - a less information-rich 16bit/44.1Khz CD-standard file of Solange's Losing You is nevertheless lavishly detailed and potent. Low-end hits hard and deep, but with straight-edged control to the attack and decay of individual notes; at the opposite end of the frequency range, treble sounds are shiny and crisp, but never suggest they'll spill over into hardness or brittleness - even if you're listening at significant volume levels. And in-between all that, the vocal is so packed with information that the subtleties of the singer's technique are laid completely bare.
And unlike a lot of products from self-consciously 'hi-fi' brands, the Series 3 isn't afraid to slum it. No matter if you play the slapdash 30 Seconds Over Tokyo by Pere Ubu or the chaotic Theme de Yo-Yo by Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Linn organises the information into an eloquent whole, doesn't scrimp on the details, and has the sort of dynamic potency to deliver the soft/loud attacks of either recording vibrantly.
The Series 3 sound has momentum, precision and articulacy - but, most of all, it is enjoyable and engaging to listen to. Just because the Linn retrieves all the fine details, all the barely-there transients, all the low-level harmonic nuances, that doesn't mean it's analytical or dispassionate. No, it's a thrilling and periodically breath-taking listen.