Linn Kan Mk II: A classic that still sounds special

In the first of a regular series of reviews featuring pre-owned classic and vintage audio equipment, we take a close listen to the Linn Kan II bookshelf speaker – and are reminded what all the fuss was about 30 years-plus ago

 

The list of iconic British bookshelf speakers is a long one – too long to comprehensively  itemise here. But some of the best known designs include the legendary LS3/5a built by the likes of Rogers and Spendor, the Epos ES11, the ProAc Tablet – and, of course, the Linn Kan.

The Kan is a small, two-way bookshelf speaker that actually lives up to that description in that it is meant to be positioned on a shelf, or stands, close to a wall. That said, it’s arguably happiest (and sounds best) when located on a set of rigid, spiked stands: Linn actually offered bespoke stands for the Kan.

AT FACE VALUE

The Kan was first released in 1979, and underwent a number of running changes and improvements during its model cycle. These included upgraded crossover components, and up-specced drivers.

The Kans were finally replaced by the Kan II in 1991. While cosmetically very similar, the most noticeable difference was the provision for bi-wiring via two sets of recessed binding posts. These were linked to a completely reworked crossover designed to provide a more linear response, with less midrange emphasis.

The drivers remained the same as before, but were now sealed to the baffle using rubber gaskets rather than silicon, while a Kustone block was glued to the inside of the rear panel in order to improve bass definition.

The Linn Kan has always divided opinion. The voicing of the originals was considered too coloured by its detractors, and some believe they were optimised for use with Naim electronics. The Kan II was meant to be more tonally balanced, with improved bass response, and it too has its friends and foes.

Either way, these are speakers that are either vehemently detested or ardently adored, depending on who you speak to.

UNDER THE COVERS

The review pair are Linn Kan IIs, and retain their original enclosures and grilles, which show some scuff marks and mild scratches, but are generally in excellent condition. If anything, the signs of wear add to their vintage charm.

The speakers were thoroughly checked and electrically restored by the team at HFX Systems, but the specifications and drivers remain original.

The 19 mm soft dome tweeter is flush-mounted, and partnered by a 110 mm polypropylene-coned KEF B110 mid/bass driver. As mentioned, the drivers are sealed using rubber gaskets, ensuring an airtight infinite baffle enclosure.

The sealed, portless design ensures that the Kan II is suitable for locating close to walls while also benefiting low-frequency response.

At 86 dB, the Kans aren’t the most efficient speakers and ideally need a fair bit of amplifier wallop behind them to give their best. And because of their inherently revealing and even slightly critical nature, they also deserve a decent source signal.

SETTING UP

I installed the Linns on tallish spiked stands and hooked them up to our Electrocompaniet PI-2D integrated amp. A Lumin D1 network streamer and a Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite CD/SACD player took turns to deliver the musical fare.

The original plan was to place them close to the rear wall of the listening room as recommended, but trial and error showed that, for my ears, the best results were obtained in a more freestanding position, well away from corners and walls. More about this later.

As I wasn’t sure how long it had been since the speakers had been used, I allowed them to run for a good 24 hours before settling in for the first of several listening sessions.

SOUNDS LIKE

The last time I heard Linn Kans must have been a good 30 years ago, when Soundlab was still the appointed importers, and was operating from an always stylish shop in Braamfontein.

I remember them sounding unexpectedly generous for such a small speaker, and almost ethereally lucid, with a talent for transparency that permanently converted me into a fan of quality stand-mount speakers.

It turns out my memory served me well (at least this time): in our listening room, the Kans delivered a sound that was crisply and clearly defined, with a full harvest of detail. They created a wide and seamless soundstage that defied both the boundaries of the listening room and their own physical presence.

Indeed, as all classy bookshelf speakers should, they disappeared completely, displaying a real talent for transparency and remaining completely unobtrusive. That it was hard to equate what I was hearing to the ultra-compact boxes perched on their stands only added to the illusion of the music emanating from elsewhere.

I expected the Kans to be on the lean side tonally, especially since I defied the recommended close-to-the-wall placement, opting for a free-standing position instead. But while they won’t rattle doors, the little Linns certainly sounded more wholesome than expected.

The upper bass was taut and fast, adding useful punch and authority to the delivery, while the midrange was poised and finely rendered, allowing the speakers to capture and project the essence and the substance of the music to engrossing effect.

High frequencies were delivered with a sense of clarity and air that allowed even the subtlest sliver of musical information to shine through, while also ensuring full and unrestricted access to the music.

I enjoyed the space, the pace and the seamlessness of the Kans’ delivery, which made for thrilling and engaging listening. What they lacked in bass slam and low-end authority, they made up for with their wide-open, generously dimensioned sound, their energy, and their flawless transparency.

Those attributes were put to particular good use on Loreena McKennit’s recently released Lost Souls. On ‘Spanish Guitars And Night Plazas’ the singer’s vocals were allowed to freely soar above and across a richly hued tapestry of acoustic guitars, strings and mesmerising percussion.

The Kans easily captured the music’s vast sonic landscapes while paying close attention to its nuances and subtleties, allowing them to capture the full impact and emotive content of the finely recorded performance.

While the Linns struggled to replicate the sheer grandeur and impact of the London Symphony Orchestra backing pianist Maria Joao Pires’ reading of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.2 under the baton of Bernard Haitink, they managed to express the scale of the recording, while closely examining the timbre and tempo of the piano.

Again, it was the clarity and expanse of the sound picture that allowed an unencumbered view of the performance’s every facet, while the transparency of the speakers allowed absolute focus on the music itself.

When I moved the Kans close to the rear wall as recommended, there was certainly a boost in lower-end response. The music gained foundation and stature, too. But on the downside some of the presentation’s lucidity was lost in the process, while tonal progression seemed less linear, too.

Of course, speaker positioning remains a matter of personal preference, and is also influenced by the acoustic properties of the listening room, but I’d rather forsake the extra LF presence in favour of the transparency, clarity and honesty that makes the Linn Kans special.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Linn Kans were always at the more expensive side of the price spectrum in their class, and in the South African context, they are no longer often offered for sale. Also, because they’ve been out of production for so long (probably around 30 years now) finding a used pair in good condition isn’t becoming any easier.

As a result, you can expect to pay at least R5k and probably more for a decent pair with traceable provenance. System matching is also important: the Kans may well be considered too honest for some, and will tend to expose flaws with unerring truthfulness.

However, those looking for a well-built classic speaker that prioritises transparency, expansive staging, pin-point imaging and real pace over bottom-end authority, should put the Linn Kan – and especially the Kan II – on their shortlist.

Deon Schoeman

VITAL STATS

Enclosure type: Sealed, infinite baffle
Drive units:
– 19 mm soft-dome tweeter
– 110 mm polypropylene cone mid/bass
Bi-wiring: Yes
Impedance: 6,8 ohms (minimum)
Sensitivity: 86 dB (1 watt/1 metre)
Frequency response: 70 Hz – 20 kHz (±3 dB)
Crossover point: 2,7 kHz
Power handling: 50 watts RMS
Dimensions (HxWxD): 303 x 188 x 164 mm
Weight: 5 kg each
PRICE
TBA
SUPPLIED BY
HFX Systems

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
Lumin D1 network player
Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite CD/SACD player
Electrocompaniet PI-2D integrated amp
KEF LS50 speakers
Synology DS214se NAS

SOFTWARE
Loreena McKennit – Lost Souls (Universal 44/16 FLAC)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.2 – Maria Joao Pires – Haitink/LSO (LSO 96/24 FLAC)
Luke Winslow – Blue Mesa (Bloodshot 44/16 FLAC)