1987 was a good year for tonearm fans. Just like London buses, after you’d waited seemingly ages, not one but two – then three – came along at he same time. First was the SME Series V, about which much has been written; many think it ‘the best’ arm in some respects, but not in others. It sounds wonderfully dynamic, tight, taut and all-of-a-piece, but rhythmically doesn’t quite do the job. Then came the Naim ARO, which was pretty much the exact opposite – to this day many folk swear by it and won’t countenance another arm. And then, practically within months of this, Linn released its Ekos.
Linn fans were surprised and delighted. The original Ittok started trickling into circulation around a decade earlier, and at last here was its replacement. Actually, it wasn’t radically different to Linn’s original ‘direct coupled transcription tonearm’, but subtle design and manufacturing process changes made enough of a difference to warrant renaming the arm.
What’s in the name? Well, early Ittoks were made by the Denon Parts Company of Japan. Indeed, the arm itself reputedly got its name from its designer, one Mr Ito. Several years into the Ittok production run – around 1980 – rumours abounded of the so-called ‘Scottish Ittok’, a version of the arm which was finished in black and made to even higher tolerances in the Linn factory. They were said to sound better, and soon became covetable, cult items. Not long after, the production began to move to Scotland. When the Ekos was made, its name alluded to this, sounding like the French word of Scotland, Ecosse. which some Scottish nationalists like to put on their cars when driving abroad, instead of having a GB sticker. So the Ekos is in effect the first pure Scottish Ittok.
The arm comprises a large bore alloy arm tube which is glued to a perforated aluminium alloy headshell and a robust bearing assembly, housing standard ballraces plus a stainless tool steel central shaft. Very finely aligned, these bearings offer a single rigid coupling right through to the arm pillar with its three point fixing. The sliding brass counterweight is decoupled to the rear end stub by hard rubber bushes, and thumbwheels set the spring-applied tracking force and bias. Cabling is low capacitance and inductance copper, terminated by gold plated Linn phono plugs. With an effective mass of 12g, it’s in the medium-to-high mass category, meaning it works well with most MCs and MMs alike.
The Ekos is not the most tonally neutral of performers. Most obvious is the midband, which has a tonal homogeneity or ‘sameyness’ to it that some rivals do not. This is best heard on acoustic instruments, such as the brass section on Dexy’s Midnight Runner’s ‘Geno’. Where some rivals carry these instruments in all their full glory, with their rich harmonics and lush texturality, the Ekos sounds thin by comparison. You get the impression that whatever the Ekos plays, it’s subtly veiled, as if the contrast has been turned down on the music.
In other respects though, the Ekos excels. Its tunefulness is a delight. Chic’s ‘Le Freak’ is a tightly syncopated workout for bass and rhythm guitars, drums and Fender Rhodes electric piano, and rarely have I heard it hang together quite so well. While the SME V delights in conveying the track’s seismic bass and subtle detailing but misses the musical plot altogether, the Ekos does the opposite. It jumps into the song head first and boogies, letting the bass guitar propel things along at tremendous pace. The reason for this lies in the Ekos’s skill at catching the leading and trailing edges of notes in a song. By accurately describing the attack, detail, sustain and release of a plucked guitar string or a hammered piano cadence, it manages to slot the tune together better.
By comparison its rivals are left wanting to a greater of lesser extent. The SME V manages attack transients well too, but fails to knit them into a cohesive, musical whole. Unipivots like Naim’s ARO or Graham’s 1.5 are worst of all at leading edges – giving the impression of a slightly soft sound – but best of all at weaving the body of the notes together. Unlike the SME V, the Linn’s abilities at starting and stopping on a sixpence don’t make it sound mechanical. Compared to the supple music making of the unipivots, the Ekos sounds a tad regimented, but this says more about the exceptionally fluid nature of the Naim and Graham. Put it against the SME though, and you realise how gifted the Ekos is at hang on and off the beat. It showed up the wonderfully loose insouciance of Chic’s keyboard player like no other arm I’ve heard.
Dynamics are a treat, if not quite the best of the bunch – the SME doesn’t sit on musical peaks and crescendos quite as much as the Linn. However, the Ekos makes up for this with its microdynamic ability – those tiny inflections of phrasing and accents are better imparted by the Linn. Low level detailing is great too, the Ekos throwing up detailing at the back of the mix which you struggle to hear with other tonearms.
Imaging and soundstaging is a mixed bag. The Ekos doesn’t sound shut in but instead chooses to throw everything out to the extremes of the soundstage, as if you’d pressed the ‘stereo wide’ button on your ghetto blaster. Listening in ‘widescreen’ is a pleasing effect, but the image location between the two speakers is rather vaguer than the SME. Likewise the stage depth, which isn’t the deepest you’ll hear from vinyl. Frequency extremes aren’t particularly special either, the SME V trouncing every other arm in the bass, but at least its low frequencies are delightfully tight and supple.
Overall, Linn’s latest Ekos is a flawed gem. A charismatic and engaging performer, it beats the competition hands down when it comes to conveying music’s rhythm, groove and swing. While not the most neutral or transparent pick-up arm ever made, in practice it proves to be a great half-way house between the fluidity of the Naim and Graham unipivots and the analysis, depth and detail of the SME V. It’s very expensive now, but ignore this beautifully built piece of precision engineering at your peril.