Linn Kisto Preamp / Processor / System Controller
Like the names IKEA uses for their products, Linn's are either clever plays on words or mere whimsy. However, Kisto was chosen as a tribute to one of Linn's longtime American employees, Steve D'Acquisto, who passed away a few years ago way too young. Steve once brought Linn's $20,000 CD12 CD player over for me to hear, but I can't say I knew him well. Still, there's something eerie about reviewing a product named in honor of someone you've met who's since passed on. You hope the product is worthy.
The Kisto ($12,995) is an audacious device that Linn insists on calling not merely a preamplifier-processor but a "system controller." In their attempt to present a complicated operating system with sophisticated options in a simple manner, the Linn designers were inspired by the software-driven AV-5103 (which I reviewed in the February 1999 Stereophile Guide to Home Theater). So advanced is the Kisto, it might as well have arrived from outer space for what five or six years of AV evolution demand of such a product. So much is required of a contemporary pre-pro that keeping it simple, if only on the surface, seems almost impossible.
The Linn engineers developed the software, which is easily upgraded. They also designed all of the internal circuitry, which is compactly laid out on 11 circuit boards in a modular, three-tier design and features more than 6000 individual components. Compared to the scale and weight of most state-of-the-art pre-pros, the Kisto is miraculously small and lightweight. But don't let its size, its 16.5 pounds, or its external simplicity fool you: the Kisto is packed with features, while aiming for both top-shelf AV performance and the utmost in custom-installation flexibility.
Though it's not much bigger than Linn's AV-5103, which had but two S-video inputs, the Kisto obliterates any notion you might have had of Linn being stingy with inputs and outputs: there are 12 composite (which can be configured as 4 component), six S-video, and one BNC-equipped RGBHV inputs as well as two SCART connectors for European use. (SCART, a combined audio/video connection standard left over Europe's distant past, is reviled by engineers and consumers alike. Unfortunately, the standard must be addressed in the European market, and it takes up a lot of valuable rear-panel real estate. Be thankful we're not stuck with it in the US.) Linn saves rear-panel space by allowing the 12 composite-video inputs to be reconfigured as up to four component-video ones, and the 10 pairs of analog audio inputs can be configured as stereo pairs or groups of 5.1 channels.
In addition, there are six optical and six coaxial digital audio inputs, for a total of 12 configurable digital inputs, and 10 pairs of configurable analog RCA inputs as well as a balanced XLR pair. There's also a Knekt interface. Behind the front panel are an additional TosLink digital input, an analog RCA stereo pair, and S-video and composite video inputs.
Analog video outputs include three composite, one component, one BNC-equipped component with H/V sync breakout, one S-video for monitoring, and a duplicate set of all for recording. Rear-panel digital outs include two TosLink and two coaxial. The front panel includes an additional TosLink output and a headphone jack. Both XLR balanced and RCA unbalanced 7.1-channel outputs are provided, along with two pairs of stereo Record Out jacks, one pair of which can be configured as subwoofer outs for use in systems with multiple subwoofers.
To meet the needs of custom installations, there are also a host of rear-panel interfaces, including an Ethernet port, RS-232 port, etc., as well as a front-panel computer-keyboard jack. The Kisto is compatible with Crestron control systems, can be used in multizone applications, and has four independent 12V triggers.
Despite the considerable connectivity, the rear panel's layout is exceptionally clean, spacious, and particularly well laid out. The front panel is surprisingly spare: there's a large, easy-to-read rectangular display, and behind the lift-up door are the aforementioned front-panel inputs and outputs, along with a large circular navigation multibutton and 10 peripheral buttons that repeat the remote control's functionality. This minimalist array is capable of performing all of the functions many other products require ranks of buttons and knobs to accomplish.
The Kisto decodes Dolby Digital, Dolby Surround EX, Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS, DTS ES, DTS 96/24, MPEG-2, AAC (MPEG-4), and PCM, and includes Dolby Headphone as well as Linn's Limbik Party mode, the last designed to send sound to all speakers from a 2-channel source. The Kisto is not THX-certified, so it doesn't include THX processing and the accompanying bells and whistles.
Compared to some other pre-pros, its flexibility is limited—but not in areas of concern to most end users. For instance, the Kisto won't upconvert video, and it doesn't include any kind of sophisticated graphic equalization or microphone-driven auto-calibration, but it does offer lip-sync delay and 5.1-channel analog passthrough, as well as up to 24-bit/96kHz record-out capabilities.
Setup and Use
The Kisto's instruction manual is minimalist, which is fine—when you buy a Kisto, you'll never walk alone. Linn's dealers are all factory-trained, and will set up and install your unit as part of the price. I watched Linn's public relations manager, Brian Morris, set up mine using Linn's woefully inadequate, unbacklit remote control, which features row after row of tiny buttons that are difficult to read even in a moderately lit room. But most users will likely end up with a touchscreen controller from likes of Crestron. If you're thinking of using the Kisto as a standalone unit, you can make peace with Linn's universal remote or replace it with the universal remote of your choice.
There are two setup menus: one for installers, and a simpler one with options more likely to be used by consumers to add new sources or reconfigure old ones. Within the installer menu system are the options of setting up to four user profiles, which can be used to customize inputs and source configurations for different members of the family, or in the unlikely case that the Kisto will be used in more than one location. The installer menu is also where you set speaker configuration, distance, and bass-management functions. These are straightforward and basic, with few of the mind-numbing options offered on some enthusiast pre-pros, such as separate graphic equalization for each channel. In fact, true to its high-end audio heritage, the Kisto offers no tone controls whatsoever.
The setup menu is reasonably straightforward, using the usual scroll, highlight, and select functions that let you assign digital and video inputs to particular sources, which you can give custom labels. The menu is available onscreen (even from the component output) and on the Kisto's display panel. One handy feature lets you temporarily split a source if you want to, say, watch a football game while listening to a CD.
The remote control offers four input buttons—CD, Aux, Tuner, and DVD—but of course the Kisto includes many more input choices, and it doesn't have a built-in tuner. If you use other sources, you select which ones to associate with each of the four source-select buttons; when you push one of the buttons, a scroll menu lets you easily select one of the associated sources.
Once the system is configured, it's easier to use than most; it left me wondering why so many other pre-pros are so damn complex. If you add one of Linn's Unidisk universal players, a short length of supplied flat cable allows the player to be slaved to the Kisto, which increases the ease of use.
The surround mode is preconfigured for each source during setup. You can change from Dolby Digital to DTS by pushing the Audio Adj remote button and scrolling through the options, and from 7.1 to mono by pushing Surr.