Linn AV 51 System Page 4

The proof is in the listening
When the system was finally ready for listening, music came first. I don't remember what I played, but my first reaction was that it sounded rich and rhythmically lithe but dark. Given that most soundtracks are bright, voicing the system to be dark makes sense, but I had been assured the measurements would confirm "flat," not "dark." In any case, due to either break-in or adaptation, I stopped thinking of the sound as being dark almost immediately.

The first DVD I tried was Terminator 2. Thirty seconds into Linda Hamilton's opening narration, I knew I was hearing the finest dialog reproduction I'd ever heard at home—by a wide margin. Superbly coherent, detailed, focused, and articulated, Hamilton's voice was front and center, with an unforced natural clarity and ease that was thrilling in its compacted reality—though, of course, it still sounded processed.

As for the machine world's explosions and sound effects, I heard elements and subtle movements I'd never noticed before. But not because anything jumped out of the mix; the whole presentation was richer and more coherent than I'd ever heard it. There was far greater inner detail, as if layers of grunge and sonic confusion had been wiped away from the sonic picture.

I still can't explain it: the Linn system sounds rich, detailed, and coherent, but never bright, even on soundtracks known for drawing blood from the ears. Yet it never sounds muffled or rolled-off. And it certainly never sounds polite. In fact, it renders large-scale dynamic peaks with greater ease and relaxed authority than any system I've heard in my home or elsewhere—and I've heard some good systems.

Male voices, which are even more difficult to get right, also come through on the center channel more coherently than I've ever heard in a home-theater system. The center-channel speakers that try for bottom-end extension tend to get chesty and thick; the ones that give up the low end usually sound thin. Most of them, regardless of extension, aren't totally successful at integrating the two midbass drivers with the tweeter. However, the 5120 is spot on. The only other center channel that even comes close is the Ruark Dialogue, which I reviewed in the March/April '98 issue.

As a two-channel music system, the triamped 5140s produce a rich, detailed, coherent, transparent, and extremely well-focused three-dimensional soundstage. Bass dynamics are first-rate by any standard, as is the system's ability to swing rhythmically and hold together from top to bottom. The sound is on the rich and slightly warm side, but transients are sharply reproduced, and there is plenty of sparkle and a generous amount of air on top.

Given the speakers' high efficiency, it's not surprising that the amplifiers, pumping a total of 600W into each channel, sound as if they're loafing, regardless of how loud or dynamic the program material is. My room is small, but the performance I got indicates that the AV 51 will not be intimidated by much larger rooms.

As a home-theater system, the AV 51 jumps to another performance level, creating a big, smooth-sounding acoustic envelope in which imaging seems pinpointed in three dimensions. I was initially concerned that the minuscule 5110 surround speakers might be overwhelmed, but I was surprised by their strong showing in both Pro Logic and Dolby Digital modes. Front-to-rear and rear-to-front pans are accomplished with a seamless precision that I could follow and "see" to a greater degree than with any other home-theater system I've auditioned.

In addition, the small 5110s are surprisingly dynamic and punchy, producing an image far bigger than their size would seem to allow, thus creating the all-important acoustic bubble that places the listener in the film's sonic environment. Pans across the front of the stage are equally seamless; the timbre of the 5120 has clearly been optimally matched to that of its bigger cousins. But more important, when the three front speakers are called upon to create a single large picture across the entire width of the stage, they jell perfectly, leaving no conspicuous holes in the panorama.

My two-channel audio system lacks both balance and tone controls, and I never miss them because the system sounds fundamentally correct to me with any source material. I found the same to be true of the AV 51, even with the vilest of soundtracks. It can't turn a bad track into a good one, but it seems to have a magical ability to make the most of what it is reproducing. Don't ask me for a scientific explanation for this; I don't have one.

With the 5140's bottom-end extension down to 20Hz, the 5150 subwoofer is barely on the playing field with normal musical program material. However, its absence was easily felt and heard when I turned it off while playing well-recorded material: The soundstage shrank, and the venue in which the music was played collapsed. When I challenged the sub with organ music, it produced deep, window-rattling fundamentals—always musical, never mechanical. When called upon to reproduce violent explosions, dinosaur footsteps, or giant spacecraft hovering over innocent linemen in Muncie, Indiana, it was capable of moving large amounts of air in a decidedly violent and dramatic fashion.

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