Linn has never been a company to follow the herd.
The slightly austere-looking preamp you see before you is a rare example of a component that aims to satisfy both serious audiophiles and cinephiles.
Of course, it's not the first product to attempt this goal, but the new Exotik does things differently. Like it's predecessor of the same name, this latest Exotik is at heart an eight-channel analogue preamp, designed to make the most of any analogue source.
That includes stereo components like CD players and turntables, as well as multichannel analogue audio from, say, DVD-Audio and SACD players. However, the new version also includes digital processing, adding digital inputs and a raft of processing modes to satisfy even the most fanatical home cinema buff.
The distinction between this and other multichannel preamp/processors is contained within the product's architecture and ethos: the Exotik is first and foremost intended to perform as a high-quality analogue preamp with added digital processing, and not the other way around.
The result, says Linn, is a "fantastic stereo preamplifier... (that) also brings the added value of delivering audiophile performance from non-audiophile digital sources like satellite receivers, DVD players and games consoles".
One tell-tale sign that the new Exotik is unlike most other processor-based units is that it sports a phono stage that can be configured for both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges (with Linn's reputation for vinyl, perhaps this isn't so surprising).
Those who purchase the new, improved Exotik get both the digital processing and the phono stage included in the £3,245 price, while owners of existing analogue-only Exotiks can add the processing for £1,200 and the phono stage for £295.
As with all Linn electronics these days, you won't find a big mains transformer in this preamp; power is derived from a switch-mode supply that's rather more efficient than traditional power supplies. What you do see inside the casing is a sea of surface-mount devices (SMDs) and more than a couple of IC chips - it's a pretty hi-tech piece of kit.
This means that despite the straightforward-looking fascia, there are myriad ways you can configure the Exotik for your listening pleasure. You can give the various inputs names of your choice, change the volume offset in order to balance the levels of different sources and adjust things such as the volume and mute rate (how quickly the volume is changed or the preamp goes in and out of mute).
This might sound a little excessive, but some electronic volume controls are irritatingly crude in this regard. Luckily, the options are fairly intuitive to work your way around and you don't have to touch them if you don't fancy it - though it's great being able to rename a source to something more helpful than 'analogue6'.
Those are just some of the analogue variables; the digital processor side of things goes the whole nine yards, something that home cinema enthusiasts will be familiar with, but can be a little daunting to the analogue lover. But it's pretty straightforward stuff, with the option of setting up either 5.1 or 7.1 channels and the usual calibration facility for speaker levels.
One way that two-channel enthusiasts can investigate the potential of surround is to try the Dolby Pro-Logic II Music (DPLII) feature, which translates stereo signals into five channels. Unlike the cinematically-oriented alternatives, DPLII is designed for music and offers controls for changing the width of the soundstage. It can also be used to manipulate the surround sound in the room, which turns out to be quite a laugh and literally adds another dimension to the experience.
The Exotik's arrival proved quite fortuitous for reasons other than the expected. We'd been assessing SME's big 20/12 turntable and having difficulty on the phono stage front - it induced noise in our reference Trichord unit. So a preamp with an MM/MC stage on board proved doubly useful, especially as both preamp and phono stage are above par.
Linn seems to be rather good at phono stages - it also makes the acclaimed Linto standalone unit - and once set for MC, the Exotik delivered pretty much all of the vibrancy and power of our treasured vinyl collection. John Coltrane's Africa/Brass yielded a rasping, high-energy sound that rose up from an extremely quiet background - few MC phono stages get this inky in the black department, if you catch our drift.
Putting on a more up-to-date slab of vinyl revealed how standards have progressed in the studio, with Keith Jarrett's trio sounding significantly more real and in the room - albeit with the room conveniently expanding acoustically to encompass them.
Moving over to CD via an analogue input, the same musician's latest creation (The Carnegie Hall Concert) delivered its characteristic solidity and weight, with a little bit more bite to leading edges than usual. The sound isn't aggressive, but there is a little 'crispening' going on to sharpen up the attack of notes somewhat.
This places an emphasis on the treble, which has the effect of increasing the perceived speed and definition - something that Linn's engineers, among others, like, because it gives the music snap and pace. It certainly brings a tightness and precision to the bass, which struts along in an appealing and articulate fashion.
Where the effect is less attractive is with acoustic instruments that produce treble sounds (such as cymbals), where there is a loss of depth and shape. This is an area where some analogue preamps deliver a more natural and fully figured tonal character.
Whether this is an issue depends to an extent on what you are looking for in music; if it's thrill power, then qualities such as tonal colour are less important than the immediacy that components such as the Exotik impart. It's rare to find a product that gives you both, even at this price.
Using the S/PDIF input with a high-end CD player (a Gamut CD3) didn't prove beneficial, the digital connection delivering a sharper and less detailed sound. With a less lofty source, however, almost the opposite occurred - an old Sony '555ES SACD player sounded more relaxed and refined in the Exotik's embrace, the preamp's D/A conversion delivering a more enjoyable long-term listening experience.
To test the multichannel performance, we rounded up a cluster of ATC speakers and built a 5.0 system to see how the Linn fared in what, after all, is a primary function. This proved a highly entertaining experience once all the lugging was done.
As ever, the presence of three more main drivers meant two-and-a-half times the air-shifting power, and with the aid of a Linn AV5125 five-channel power amp, we were able to nigh on 'shake da house'.
What the set-up demonstrated most tellingly was the difference in approach between producers and engineers with multichannel. Unsurprisingly, Linn's own SACDs fared rather well - the Lazaridis/Liszt SACD it released in late 2006 provided a stunning example of the realism that can be achieved, with terrific dynamic range and excellent imaging.
Using the system to turn regular CDs into surround shows how effective this can be if the engineering is properly applied. The traditionalist will always prefer the integrity of two-channel stereo, but options such as DPLII Music can add a sense of space that is effective with certain types of music. Some might scream 'sacrilege', but the results are often interesting.
This, then, is a high-quality preamp that's fully equipped for a multi-tasking roll in a modern home entertainment system. With video sources like TV, movies and games it proves highly effective, with top-notch digital processing that's fit for the most exotic of surround systems.
What's more, when it comes to straightforward stereo, it sounds better than just about any other preamp/processor we've heard. Okay, so it can't match the refinement of the best dedicated stereo preamps at the price, but given its functionality it comes impressively close. Jason Kennedy