Linn’s studio-quality downloads – meet the company plotting the death of mp3s


By Sarah McMullan

Linn may be familiar to you as a Scottish brand internationally renowned for its high-end audio systems but, more intriguingly, the company have ventured into the commercial sale of studio-quality recordings, boldly predicting they will eventually replace mp3s as the consumer format of choice.

Studio masters make up 85% of all downloads from the website of Linn Records, the in-house label of Linn. But just how superior do these songs sound compared to a CD or mp3? Not only would a visit to Linn’s base in East Renfrewshire hold the answer, it offered the perfect excuse to arrange the first Team Pop Cop day out.

It got off to a positive start. I managed to decode my blogging companion’s scrawled directions – written in hieroglyphics – and he steered us to Eaglesham without death or injury. Unfortunately he didn’t sport the silk scorpion number Ryan Gosling did in Drive. There is always room for improvement.

What followed was a day of labcoat-wearing fun (I might even have introduced Russian hats as a uniform requirement) at the sprawling HQ which serves as showroom, factory, office, research facility and workspace for more than 150 Linn staff.

Sarah and Graeme

Sarah and Linn territory development manager Graeme Urquhart

Technology has always embraced that most primitive of human characteristics: evolution. This explains why I find myself with no use for my childhood VHS cassettes and a diminishing inclination to play the DVDs that replaced them. Similarly, you can trace the decline in sales of cassettes, vinyl and then CDs as the heightened practicality of newer, better formats superseded them.

Digital now dominates the modern landscape but, with businesses such as Spotify and Netflix thriving, owning a personal copy of what it is you want to play is becoming less important for consumers due to the ability to stream media through fast broadband connections.

With impressive foresight, Linn launched its first network music player – the Klimax DS – back in 2007, taking as its input a digital stream over a home network. This was Linn’s first product to support the playback of 24-bit/192kHz studio master recordings, significantly exceeding the specifications of audio CDs (16-bit/44.1kHz). In 2009, Linn stopped making CD players to focus on these cutting-edge DS systems. The strategy has paid off. Linn’s latest financial figures showed a 21% increase in pre-tax profit to £2.2million.

Although the reason for our excursion wasn’t (just) to play with their cool gadgets, a visit to Linn’s demonstration room for “the real fun” – as the employees we met kept calling it – was a must. Being a complete girl and a massive technophobe, when asked to guess how much the system I was prodding buttons on cost, I ventured “about £5,000”. I was being kind, very kind. This was in fact Linn’s showstopper. £100,000. My prodding stopped.

Sarah and £100,000 Linn stereo

Our chaperone Graeme Urquhart, a territory development manager for Linn, played a recording by Australian singer Emily Barker, firstly in mp3 quality, then CD, and finally in studio master. Sure enough, the latter tied the various instruments together more elegantly, especially with regards to tuning and timing. To be honest, though, I could hardly pretend any of these formats sounded offensive to the ear. I think I’d demand a refund on my £100,000 stereo if that was the case.

Music was operated via an iPad or iPod with a hard drive hidden away in the ceiling, a recurring feature of the various rooms in the open-plan Linn showhome. At first I must confess I paid little attention to the sound because I wanted that house. From the Banksy coasters to the alluring books on the shelf, it catered for the pop culture enthusiast and borderline geek.

Graeme played the studio master version of Admiral Fallow* song Squealing Pigs. A flick of the iPod and the opening bars of brisk, finger-picked acoustic guitar surged immaculately from the kitchen’s overhead speakers. Another tap and the music came rushing into the adjoining lounge. And then to both rooms simultaneously before a resonant silence. Graeme was playing God; the God of Sound who could appear anywhere at any frequency to suit any mood. If I didn’t earn £6.70 an hour I probably would have bought that home, speakers and all. And Graeme, too, if God came with a price tag.

Linn factory

Linn Records isn’t a standalone enterprise. They have linked up with various partner labels which adds credibility to their expanding back catalogue of studio masters. One is Universal, so Linn can offer the latest albums by Mumford & Sons and Ben Howard in this advanced format. Another is Chemikal Underground, which means that music by the likes of Aidan Moffat & Bill Wells, The Phantom Band, FOUND, The Unwinding Hours, Conquering Animal Sound, Rick Redbeard, Miaoux Miaoux, RM Hubbert, Human Don’t Be Angry and Holy Mountain can all be downloaded from Linn in studio master.

However, the realities of working with a format that eats up massive amounts of hard drive space are challenging. A three-minute song takes up a hefty 65MB in file space, which is why few are likely to store music of this type on portable audio devices. Linn, therefore, are banking on a demand for streaming through a computer/stereo system set-up.

Studio master is not patented technology. As mentioned earlier, the entertainment industry has always made money by convincing people to buy enhanced versions of things they already own. So it seems strange, perhaps, that Linn doesn’t face direct competition from the major download stores.

“I don’t think iTunes or Amazon will get involved in the near future,” says Linn Records label manager Kim Campbell. “Firstly, neither company has been very concerned about the quality of music. iTunes recently launched a new format called Mastered for iTunes which is their first attempt to improve the quality of music they are offering. However, what they are offering is still compressed, low-quality music compared to a studio master. I think hardware holds both of these companies back. If and when Apple launches an iPad and iPhone that can support studio master, then we will see them take an interest in it.”

If you want to experience the difference for yourself, Linn Records have made Amy Duncan’s debut single Navigating available to download for free using the promo code POPCOP. Offer valid until April 30, 2013. iTunes users should download the ALAC studio master file, otherwise download FLAC. A codec file may need to be installed to enable playback depending on your media player.

*Vinyl copies of Admiral Fallow’s second album Tree Bursts In Snow will be released on Record Store Day (April 20) accompanied by a free download of the studio master version courtesy of Linn Records.

2 Responses to “Linn’s studio-quality downloads – meet the company plotting the death of mp3s”

  1. john Says:

    April 17th, 2013 at 03:23

    192kHz is a gimmick. Next to no studios record at this resolution.

  2. unman Says:

    April 17th, 2013 at 11:08

    Hmmmm. Interesting, but erroneously I think, the piece refers to low quality music on a number of occasions, when what is really meant is low quality audio. Both are subjective points of view, but one thing I would argue is that good music will, to a massive extent, transcend any limitations of the reproduction equipment it’s being heard through.

    Meanwhile, I agree with john’s comment that 192K is a barely used recording format, as, in fact, bit depth is more important in the studio.

    While I partly decry the onward march of the downloadable tune, MY gripe has more to do with the impact, via mp3 players, of Amazon and Apple’s reorientation of a generation of listeners away from the album towards the individual track through the impact of the database model on people’s libraries of music. The economics of recording have been shattered by the changes to the product, less by the audio format than by the context and format of the content itself. The mammoth and expensive recording studio, is thankfully for many musicians, a thing of the past, but for the artist, the creation of the album as a statement remains important.

    As far as Linn’s remit to supply data heavy music formats is concerned, there have always been audiophiles around, and they will want to buy this stuff, but, without VERY expensive equipment, a correctly designed room and total attention to the music and nothing else [no cooking, ironing, typing on a keyboard, driving etc] most of the audio format differences are a matter of minuscule proportions to most music lovers, especially compared to the more salient matter of whether or not the content is any good.

    For most people, vinyl does not sound as good as CD, or even 320k MP3, because of the need for an expensive and esoteric turntable and cartridge assembly to hear what’s the vinyl, if cut well enough, can deliver. I would suggest that the future for recorded music AS WE HAVE KNOWN IT, may be very bleak, as a new paradigm is upon us. However, for lovers of records, the prospects for the medium are crucially allied to retaining the value of the album as an artistic platform and the delivery of a package that is going to encourage people to buy the it [rather than cherry pick single tracks]. While I support the idea of maintaining audio standards, I would argue that there are many vested interests, and, dare I say, a degree of materialist snobbery that lie behind the high end audiophile arguments.

    Meanwhile, trends come and go. Let’s not forget that many musicians, producers and engineers are now actively seeking ways to degrade the sound that their clinical digital equipment has captured; via distortion, heavy audio compression and the use of valve/vacuum tubes in the signal path.

    I can’t see Linn’s technology changing very much in terms of the mass market, and that’s where the effects need to be felt in order to improve the economics of recording the music in the first place.

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