What it’s really like to experience $165,000 speakers

April 14, 2024
5 mins read

GARY STEEL gets to lounge around and listen to his crappy selections on Linn’s best-ever loudspeakers, the 50th-anniversary 360s.

The Real Music Company is situated in a lovely old villa in Takapuna, providing a markedly different environment and acoustic challenge from that of the modern, site-specific scene at the Hi-Fi Store, where my ears first got an audio glimpse of Linn’s shiny new premium 360 loudspeakers.

Happily (for me), it was thin on customers on the Saturday I visited, so I was able to get comfy on the sofa and blast the 360s at fairly voluminous levels (thanks to John and Palmer for putting up with my weird selections). Although the premises benefit from a high stud, there was no hint of acoustic room treatment, but that proved no barrier to the sonic wonderment of the loudspeakers. There’s virtually no toe-in, but that seems to have no effect on the exceptionally wide sweet spot.

Listening exclusively to Qobuz via the Real Music Company’s iPad, I started with Brendan Perry’s ‘The Bogus Man’, the second track from Ark (2010). Perry sings in a resonant, dolesome baritone while electronic bugs bleep across the stereo field. My Martin Logan Summit electrostatic speakers have a more pronounced effect on the stereo-panning but that’s to be expected. On the other hand, the music feels completely integrated on the 360s, with a big, warm bass and a very deep soundstage. This very digital track is made to sound less sharp, more analogue by the speakers, a characteristic I’ve found repeatedly with Linn gear. It’s not exactly mellow, but it’s certainly easy on the ear, less taxing, and to some listeners, maybe a little less exciting. One of the constant surprises in auditioning different gear is the revelation of hearing things in the mix that you hadn’t noticed on your own system, and in this case, it’s the realistic goat-skin pitter-patter of the tabla.

Next, I fired up Frank Zappa’s ‘The Grand Wazoo’ (from The Grand Wazoo, 1972), 13 minutes and 20 seconds of big band bliss (in 192 kHz on Qobuz) in which the composer’s powerful composition pits a horny big jazz band against the rock firepower of electric guitar and Aynsley Dunbar’s terrific drums. I’m hugely impressed by the way the 360s resolve the many complex layers and rhythms of this piece, capturing the energy of the octopus-like drum antics and the immense wall of brass instruments. Authoritative, and an overall satisfying presentation, I can’t find fault with the speakers on this track.

I’m not quite so thrilled with the way the 360s render Mr Oizo’s ‘Pourriture 2’ (from Lambs Anger (2008). This is an album on which Oizo gets down and dirty with some really gnarly electronics, and there’s a fizzing, kinetic energy to the techno hybrid that I just love. On the 360s, the nasty edge loses some of the excitement. It’s as if the technological smarts of the speakers have decreed that the sonic madness is not musical enough and want to tone it down.

‘Chocolate Chip Trip’ by Tool (from Fear Inoculum, 2019), has become a regular tester for hi-fi systems as it gives speakers a real workout. A slightly demonic synthesizer repetition leads to what amounts to a tour de force of drumming that I’m sure has blown a few speakers in its time. It really captures the full force of the drums and if you close your eyes you can picture a real kit in front of you. After the slight let-down of the Mr Oizo track, I’m surprised that the 360s capture Tool flawlessly, and along with the pounding drums sounding like they could blow out a window with their bass power, there’s a depth of soundstage that I hadn’t detected previously.

Eberhard Weber’s ‘More Colours’ (from The Colours Of Chloe, 1974) is a complete change of pace. This languid chamber jazz piece featuring cellos alongside synthesizers and Weber’s utterly distinctive double bass ruminations is a beautiful and contemplative six minutes and 44 seconds. Once again, the 360s do a superb job, effortlessly capturing the grain of his finger-work and the resin-scraping of bowing of cellos.

Lastly, I played an old standby, Emiliana Torrini’s ‘Birds’ (from Me And Armini, 2008). There’s lots to listen for on this track and inevitably, some speakers highlight certain aspects of the sonic presentation while underplaying others. There’s Torrini’s very close-mic’d voice (and wow, what a sweet voice) and the soft chitter-chatter of birds and the acoustic guitar-picking, but as the song develops there’s a change as her ensemble gets into a strange ambient groove, which for a time alters the focus. In effect, it’s a test for a speaker’s ability to convey both the best of a mostly acoustic recording that evolves into something else. As it happens, and unsurprisingly, the 360s effortlessly transition, bringing out the best of the voice and acoustic guitar section and then astonishing with the intoxicating depth and sonic picture in the middle section, along with superbly deep drums and bass.

So, what’s the verdict? Well, I’d have to spend weeks (maybe months) to write a definitive review of the Linn 360 loudspeakers, but I’m hugely impressed with both of my brief encounters.

For anyone with the cash to burn who doesn’t want to faff around with outboard amps and DACs and things, the 360s provide an obvious solution. Most of the hi-fi nuts I know like to endlessly experiment with different components, and it’s all part of the fun – and the quest for audio nirvana – but personally, I’d be happy to settle on the ultimate solution and put my energy into finding and listening to fantastic music instead.

The elephant in the audiophile room has always been the room itself, and it’s become the norm to spend a lot on room treatments so that the hi-fi can perform at its ear-pleasing best. The 360 deals with that issue to a large degree with clever internal technology. It’s a solution to a bunch of problems, a superb ‘integrated’ (or active) speaker for those who just want to sit back and enjoy the best audio reproduction that money can buy.

Is the 360 the best loudspeaker on the market? Who knows. It’s all so highly subjective when you get past the engineering and the tech specs. I know audio enthusiasts who reckon they get a better result out of a $20K pair of speakers than a $150K pair of Wilson Audio speakers. I love my elderly Martin Logan Summits specifically because they give me a sonic signature that I enjoy, but I know they don’t perform as flawlessly as the 360s.

When I think of the times I’ve auditioned Linn speakers over the years and the resultant sonic signature, I think of chocolatey aged whisky, sultry female jazz singers recorded really close-up so that you can practically feel their breath, and in general, a kind of mellow sophistication. I don’t imagine that many owners of Linn gear would listen to Motorhead, The Ramones or death metal. Having said that, the 360s (and Linn gear in general) are versatile instruments capable of performing well across many genres. They seem tuned to eliminate (or downplay) intentional dissonance, a quality I love in music but admittedly, the majority of music listeners seek to avoid.

Gilad’s story about meeting and collaborating with former Apple design legend Jony Ive leads one to suspect that the whole Apple universe – where you end up with everything Apple because you can’t easily mix and match with other brands – was inspired by Linn’s approach. Happily, unlike Apple, Linn’s gear has always aspired towards upgradeability. But Linn owners tend to exist within the Linn universe, and fair enough: there’s certainty in a belief system that doesn’t exist for those of us less financially well-endowed who find ourselves on an endless search.

+ See Part 1 of my piece on the Linn 360 loudspeaker here.




+ The Wellington branch of the Real Music Company currently has a pair of Linn 360 loudspeakers. If you would like to audition them make contact through www.hifi.co.nz or 0800 438 443.

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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