Linn Kisto Preamp / Processor / System Controller Page 2

But, like most high-end audio products, the Kisto is more about high-quality sonic (and visual) performance than giving you godlike control over 101 operating parameters. Once the system was configured, Brian Morris and I found it wouldn't pass a high-definition video signal, which was surprising and disappointing. A call to the factory led us to an obscure menu setting (called Hidef pass through) that allowed it. Linn reports that since this occurred some high definition has become available in the UK.

Stop! Look! Listen!
Using the Kisto-Unidisk combo couldn't have been easier, though at first, being accustomed to façades full of lights and buttons, I couldn't imagine how I would retain control of my home theater with so few. But I did, thanks to Linn's software design, which keeps the system flexible yet simple and direct. If you do run into operational problems, you push the remote's Help button to call up a comprehensive onscreen tutorial similar to those that accompany computer programs such as Microsoft Word.

I ran into a few serious problems shortly into the review. Occasionally, the Kisto locked up like a computer crash; only shutting it down, then unplugging and restarting it got the system operating normally again. Worse, on occasion the left, right, or center channel would drop out; only a reboot would return it to normal. A number of software updates had been released since the delivery of my review sample, so it was decided that sending the unit back would be the best course of action; in the field, a dealer would upgrade the Kisto using a CD-ROM or PC.

The returned unit never froze or malfunctioned in any way but one: While I watched satellite and surfed channels, Dolby Digital often lost sync and the sound dropped out until the Kisto was shut down and rebooted. This is not acceptable performance.

Because broadcast and satellite DD sound is not common in the UK, the developers never had an opportunity to run the Kisto fed by a constantly changing Dolby Digital signal, as a US end user would be likely to do. Linn was able to duplicate the problem in their R&D facilities and claims that a software revision has solved the problem, but I wasn't able to confirm this personally. But the Kisto is a software-driven product; upgrades are relatively easy to implement.

After spending a few months with the Kisto, I sheepishly admit to finally learning why people are willing to spend big bucks on a preamp-processor. I really learned it when the Kisto went back for upgrading and I used my reference Integra DTR 9.1 receiver as a pre-pro. The Integra is a nice receiver, and I thought its video switching was sufficiently transparent that it wouldn't degrade DVD or HD signals—but compared to the Kisto, it did. When the Kisto was first installed, I immediately noticed an increase in picture clarity, focus, transparency, and apparent brightness. It was as if a thin scrim had been removed from the screen. Edges were rendered more cleanly and naturally than I was used to seeing through the Integra's video-switching facilities. The picture seemed "faster"—the video equivalent of a speaker with quicker transient response. Whether this was due to less noise or to something else, the picture seemed more solid and stable.

When the Kisto was originally installed, along with it came a complete Linn Akurate 5.1-channel speaker system (to be reviewed soon) and two Linn 5125 power amplifiers. While this system had a particular sound, it was difficult to determine the Kisto's contribution—until I removed it and sent it back for the update.

The Integra DTR 9.1's preamp and decoding circuitry revealed just how fast, clean, and tight the Kisto's sonic performance was, and how much it contributed to my home theater system's overall sound. I ran through a series of surround-sound music discs with the Kisto in place, including DTS's superb-sounding Toy Matinee and the demo-quality AIX DVD-Audio of Cheryl Bentyne's Among Friends. The musical presentation had a remarkable effervescence and rhythmic integrity, everything just "popping" with an addictive top-to-bottom coherence and buoyancy. It was a "tight" sound, but it wasn't mechanical on bottom or etched on top.

When I then played the same selections through the Integra, it was easy to hear how accomplished the Kisto had been as a passthrough preamp. Transparency diminished, leading edges of transients were softened, bass notes seemed to slow down and move somewhat against, not with, the rest of the music, and a subtle thickness enveloped everything. Dynamics seemed limited. The rhythmic thrust of the music literally lost its purpose.

Whether because of the Kisto's preamp section or the quality of its decoding (Linn doesn't specify the chipsets used), the same differences were easily noted when comparing specific movie scenes, most noticeably with dialog, where the fullness and coherence of voices gave them far greater 3-dimensionality and believability and less of a mechanical, reproduced quality.

James Horner's orchestral score for Glory, recorded by Shawn Murphy, is among the finest-sounding contemporary soundtracks. (Murphy also recorded John Barry's music for Dances With Wolves.) Through the Kisto, "A Call to Arms" sounded better than I've ever heard it from DVD. This track is a complex mix of deep bass, snares, a boy's choir, strings, tubular bells, and brass. To my ears it's always sounded best on vinyl, but the Kisto managed to deliver a coherent, explosive musical picture from the DVD, layering the various elements cleanly, especially during the complex crescendo, where all hell breaks loose and overloads the analog recording tape. If you could hear that piece of music through the Kisto and then through a lesser pre-pro, you'd immediately understand the Kisto's musical strengths.

As for the Kisto's 5.1-channel Dolby Digital and DTS decoding performance, I can't say the aural bubble it produced was noticeably more 3-dimensional than what I'm used to, but it was definitely a better-sounding bubble!

Though designed to be ultraflexible and compatible with the needs of custom installers, Linn's Kisto is more an audiophile product than a typical home theater component. For the videophile with a dedicated home theater room, the Kisto is a simple, elegant, easy-to-use product that does away with all of the unnecessary clutter of knobs, switches, buttons, and lights typical of so much HT hardware. It's the kind of product an audiophile wishing to get into home theater or surround sound will be comfortable with, while offering to the experienced home-theater enthusiast first-class performance and the most important features in a surprisingly compact, simple package.

The Kisto is more about maximizing overall picture and sound quality, less about obsessing over the less critical minutiae of cinema and surround sound. If you need graphic equalization of every channel, video upconversion, THX processing, and other features at the periphery of what makes home theater and surround sound exciting and compelling experiences, there are many products that will do that—loading you up with an array of adjustments you could spend a lifetime playing with, as, no doubt, many people do.

But Linn's goal was to provide the best picture and sound quality by simplifying signal paths as much as possible while providing enough functionality, flexibility, and adjustability to satisfy, without compromising the requirements of any conceivable system. The Kisto may come as a shock when you see and touch it, especially if you're used to button-packed heavyweights, but don't be fooled. Just below the surface of what appears to be a simple, lightweight box is a sophisticated system controller-processor that sets a high standard for sonic and visual excellence. It also costs $12,995, which is more than I can afford—but now I know what to shoot for.