Linn Products Urika II phono stage

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Linn Ulrika II

Frankly, I think this is a good compromise. While there are many Linn users who are welded to their Troika MC cartridges, many of those cartridges are 30+ years old. More importantly, many of those Troikas sit in ‘preserved in aspic’ systems that are also 30+ years old. These listeners are often extraordinarily passionate music lovers who have their deck serviced religiously every few years, but they jumped off the upgrade path decades ago and a digital phono stage that connects to a network streamer is never going to figure in their world.

If you look to the technology in the Urika II, it’s possibly best to look at what went before first. Typically a phono stage applies an amplifier to the cartridge load, then introduces an RIAA filter network and often some form of analogue-domain rumble filter to that amplified signal before passing the line-level output to the preamplifier. The original Urika deconstructed this phono stage design into four distinct phases: gain plus the first RIAA pole, the second RIAA pole plus a zeroed RIAA reference, followed by a two stage rumble filter. This helped preserve the integrity of the original signal, but it was still compensating for the LP in the inherently noisy analogue domain, which is a problem when you have a low-output source like a moving coil cartridge.

Urika II moves most of the process (second RIAA pole, rumble filtering) out into the digital domain. The gain+1st RIAA pole is still performed in the analogue domain, but essentially that first pole is all about the low-frequency boost, so it’s the least likely aspect of the equalisation process to add noise. In addition, from listening tests A/D-converting phono stages that introduce all of the RIAA curve in the digital domain seem more noise-laden than the Urika II, because there is less gain applied in the analogue domain. 

Installation is easy. A dealer who has been trained in the dark art of Linn setter-uppery will do it for you. And any Linn dealer who could install an Urika will be able to install an Urika II. It’s effectively a swap.

The big question is ‘does it work’? It has big shoes to fill because many Linn owners consider the Urika to be the pinnacle of phono stage development, and that model already produces an extremely low-noise performance. Naturally, at this Lofty Linn Level, it’s best auditioned in a ‘komplete’ Klimax system, with a Klimax DSM allowing you to switch between Urika and Urika II. This poses some logistics problems, in that you either need two decks (in which case, is the difference in the cartridge, or the set-up) or a deck with two baseboards and either a custom arm plug with two sets of outputs or hot-swapping arm plugs. We went for the one-deck/two-baseboards approach. You’ll probably do the same, which means roadshows and special events at dealers. Attend them!

This is an easy demonstration. Three immediate things hit you when comparing Urika with Urika II; greater accuracy, more detail, and an almost complete absence of noise. As those are the big bonuses when trading up to the Urika, it’s clear the Urika II steps up the game substantially. All the main aspects of the Urika performance are retained, and most of them are improved. But those big three hit home and hit home fast. You aren’t drawn to one of those three aspects of performance, and the others unveil themselves over time; all three hit you at once and then the rest of the more subtle improvements join in. As with the Lingo 4 tested in the last issue, ‘It’s All Right With Me’ by Marty Paich Big Band [The New York Scene,Discovery LP]was a key indicator of this performance boost. There are a lot of short rests in the music, interleaving with the dynamic percussion and brass section stabs. Those rests were better defined, more in tune and time with the music, and whisper quiet.

The ‘tl:dr’ (“too long: didn’t read”) headline here is ‘if you like the Urika, you’ll want the Urika II.’ But, not everyone likes the Linn sound. If you look for something more ‘lush’ or ‘full’ in the midrange, or more ‘rich’ in the bass, other phono stages are available. On the other hand, those who go after accuracy don’t tend to use terms like ‘lush’ and ‘rich’ and Linn – and its followers – would contend that the Urika II’s detailed and clean presentation goes for accuracy over sonic fireworks. I think the Linn sound is extremely detailed and accurate, and as a complete system it excels at temporal and timbral accuracy. Spatial and dynamic accuracy are not secondary concerns, but because of its centres of excellence in a system that actively (pun intended) tries not to impose its own character on the sound, I can see how this comes across as ‘dry’ sounding.

I’m of two minds here. Intellectually I agree with Linn, and the detail and accuracy of the Urika II (and, for that matter, the Urika) are beguiling and make you want to listen to more records. The temporal accuracy also puts the LP12 on a new level, improving it in all the ways it improved over other decks all those years ago. It kept a good beat, and keeps an even better one now. But in some respects, I also want that rich sound with a big soundstage, too; it might not be right, but it sounds so seductive that ‘right’ can take a back seat. On balance, however, the detail, the timing, and the atomic-clock like precision win.  

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