Linn Chakra C2200 and C3200 Amplifiers
Founded in early 1972 by Ivor Tiefenbrun, Scottish manufacturer Linn Products has consistently been on the cutting edge of audio development and delivered products that have enamored many audiophiles. Just think of the Linn Sondek LP12 turntable, the Sondek CD12 compact-disc player, or even the Komponent speaker system that Michael Trei reviewed in these pages (in the March 2006 issue). Linn has routinely pushed the boundaries and treaded ahead of the manufacturing pack. Case in point: the Chakra range of amplifiers, which rely on switch-mode power supplies, plus other proprietary developments on the audio-circuit side.
The Chakra range comprises eight amplifiers in all, running the gamut from two- to three-, four-, five-, and six-channel versions. In addition to 100- and 200-watt configurations, the range also provides the option of choosing either balanced or unbalanced input modes.
I got to test-drive the uptown balanced configurations in the 200-watt category, which Linn provided in the form of the two-channel C2200 and three-channel C3200 Chakras. (With apologies to Linn, I have had the amplifiers in my possession for much too long, but how could I resist?) As a side note before I move on, Linn's stated rating of 200 watts for these amplifiers is the amount they deliver into a 4-ohm load. For the usually specified 8-ohm load, it is 111 watts. A potential consumer should understand that this is an unconventional method of stating the numbers—with the 4-ohm load first—and you must take that into consideration when you match amps and speakers for maximum effect, as well as when you compare these to other amplifiers.
The old-school rubric of initially gauging an amplifier's quality by its weight (the heavier, the better) proves, in 2007, to be less true than it once was when it comes to the shockingly lightweight Chakra amplifiers. The C2200 tips the scales at a meager 12.7 pounds, and the C3200 is 14.5 pounds. Still, these amps are packed with such state-of-the-art technology that you can relegate weight as a sign of quality to the annals of the past.
Musings aside, what really matters is what lies hidden within each amplifier's aluminum casing. According to Linn, the modern technology of the Chakra power-amplifier range is a trickle-down descendent of the well-regarded Klimax Chakra 500 Twin, a stereo amplifier that used to retail for approximately $9,000.
The heart of the Chakra circuit combines switch-mode power supplies and a monolithic amplifier module that work in tandem with bipolar transistors. According to Linn, this topology has taken five years of serious R&D time. While Linn readily notes that such a combination is not necessarily new, their method for transitioning from monolithic to bipolar stages is unique, and they've submitted a patent application for the design.
Essentially, a monolithic circuit is a single-chip circuit. (Linn parallels the monolithic devices in some of their amplifiers to increase power into lower-impedance loads.) While this is a tiny, compact chip, it houses nearly all of the essential audio circuitry, which, in more traditional designs, would eat up gobs of chassis room. Thus, the signal paths on these tiny chips are among the shortest in all of amplifier technology, which allows them to operate at breathtaking speeds with fewer RFI and EMI parasitics entering the circuit. Here's a simpler explanation: There's potentially less noise, and the circuitry is physically smaller.
While all this may sound like an audiophile's dream, the monolithic approach isn't all heaven. The downside of the compact-chip technology is limited output current. Beyond a certain range, the chips simply don't have the power to generate high listening levels into low-impedance loads without attendant distortion. One common solution to the dilemma has been to add discreet bipolar transistors to boost the current, but limitations can occur during the transition between the monolithic chip and the discreet transistor. Linn's research into this limiting factor has resulted in their unique development. Of course, they're keeping the details of the technology hush-hush until the patent comes through.
Basically, under a few amperes of current, the monolithic module supplies the output power. But, when a dynamic film like The Day After Tomorrow sends its demands to the chip, the bipolar transistors come into play to handle the majority of the output current. Separate circuits are on hand to provide protection to the bipolar transistors should the amplifier ever encounter an extreme overload condition, such as a short circuit. As Linn effervescently states of their design, "With current output virtually unlimited, Chakra offers robust power and powerful low-frequency response down to near DC."
On the power-supply side, Linn says their proprietary switch-mode power-supply technology provides stable, low-noise power to the audio circuits. They also say that the switch-mode circuit generally provides better noise isolation from your power lines than more traditional designs. Between the monolithic circuits and switch-mode designs, the Chakra range is much, much lighter and cooler running than most discreet Class A/B, and certainly Class A, designs.
I wired the two-channel Chakra C2200 to drive my L/R System Audio SA1750 tower loudspeakers, while the three-channel C3200 handled the System Audio SA720AV speakers that served center- and surround-speaker duties. Lexicon's RT-10 disc player fed the source signal to Parasound's Halo C1 processor. I alternately connected the processor and Linn amps via Canare Star Quad balanced interconnects and Linn's own balanced interconnects, which Linn supplied with the amplifiers. For speaker wire to the left, right, and center channels, I used Nordost's Valkyrja, and I used Nordost Red Dawn to the surround channels. I fed bass signals directly from the Halo to System Audio's SE2000 subwoofer via a Valkyrja interconnect.
What Was There, Was There
My initial impression was that the Chakra amps resolved sound with crystalline clarity and finesse, whether it was the dense and widely arrayed electronic music on the dZihan & Kamien Orchestra's Live in Vienna compact disc or the simplicity of Bob Dylan's most recent effort, Modern Times. The Chakras unraveled the lines of music, the individual notes, and the placement of instruments readily and cleanly, without sounding brittle, harsh, or sterile. Through the Chakras, Diana Krall's SACD All for You revealed her pace, timing, rhythm, and, at times, her voice's slightly nasal quality. The processed ambience on the compact disc sounded as natural and real as possible coming through the surround speakers. This was all for the good, and it was highly enjoyable.
The revelations seemed even more apparent when it came to movie sound. Early in The Day After Tomorrow, there's a brief but terrifying flight through a powerful storm. I could easily discern the difference between the passengers' dialogue and the whine of the jet engines—not simply the sounds, but rather the separation of the two. The engine turbines clearly sounded as if they existed on the outside of the plane and the voices within it. This is no easy feat for a sound designer to create, and it's even more difficult to re-create in the home theater environment. Still, the Chakras delineated the distinctions quite well. Then, when the airliner plummeted unexpectedly, the change in the tenor of the turbines' whine kept pace, presenting a palpable strain. Yet the tumbling of luggage from the overhead bins and Jake Gyllenhaal's labored breathing were separate and discrete events; each held its own space yet melded into a dramatic ensemble that conveyed danger, fear, and an all-hell's-breaking-loose reality.
The Chakras revealed that same transparency and resolution over and over again, and, the more complex the material—as in the launch sequence in Contact—the more the Chakras stepped up to meet the challenge. Yes, the amplifiers can be this good under the right circumstances. And therein lies the conundrum for me. When I listened at moderate or slightly above-moderate levels, the Chakra amps sounded simply phenomenal. Yet, in order to keep up with a film's dynamic demands and contrasts, the speakers probably needed to be a bit more sensitive for the Chakras to behave as intended. Under the conditions of my setup, when the demands became too, well, demanding, the Chakras lost a bit of their ability to discern textures and generate the kind of dynamic impact this film requires. Still, they never lost the film's sense of excitement, and the drama remained nevertheless. But the ultimate sense of finesse and authority that the Chakras exhibited under less stressful conditions diminished just a bit when I pushed them hard.
As an off-the-wall test, I tried a two-channel setup using Cain & Cain 8-ohm Abby speakers, rated at an unusually high sensitivity of 95 decibels. Bang—the power, dynamics, nuance, and resolution were there in spades. So, as with any amplifier, you'll need to match them well with the speakers you choose. If I owned a more sensitive speaker array, I know I would seriously consider purchasing the Linn Chakras. They're lightweight, they run cool, and, under the right circumstances, they can handle music and film sound with convincing aplomb.
• Light as feathers (well, almost)
• Resolute sound and imaging
• Switch-mode power supply and monolithic technology