Superseded during the 1990s owing to the increasing popularity of vintage low-powered tube amps and very sensitive loudspeakers, is the Flat Earth ideology a vital part of audiophile history?
By: Ringo Bones
Back in the middle of the 1980s, a prominent audiophile sect staunchly believes that the only boxes – i.e. loudspeakers – to have at the end of a righteous audio system should have the word "Linn" written at the back. This somewhat “extremist” hi-fi ideology was aided by enthusiastic hi-fi dealers of the period who are also audiophiles. Not to mention a certain since-defunct periodical / hi-fi magazine called The Flat Response. Thus allowing the hi-fi maker Linn to harbor the ideology that the first priority of a loudspeaker should be the way it played rhythms and the current long-standing global audiophile community’s perception of what is the British Sound was born. Though a Thomas Dolby song from the period titled “Flat Earth” is often played through these systems, reinforcing the need of spot-on rhythm and timing when playing eighties-era synthesizer-based music, but countless others probably use theirs to unravel the rhythmic complexity of Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast album.
The most uncompromising embodiment of this hi-fi ideology was the Kan, a tiny box manufactured by Linn. Equipped with treble and mid drivers similar to that used in Linn’s flagship brand the behemoth-sized Isobarik loudspeakers. Back around the middle of the 1980s, the Linn Kans was capable very captivating performance. These loudspeakers sounded extremely fast and extremely tight, with an “uncanny” ability to disappear into their own soundstage. Linn’s bigger – and more efficient – loudspeaker models never convincingly displayed the ability of the smaller Kan’s hi-fi slight-of-hand.
The Kan also has a profoundly fussy approach to matching ancillary components, ironically the little speaker’s “soul-mate” is an equally fussy solid-state power amplifier made by Naim called the NAIT that produced only 30 watts into an eight-ohm load. But during that era in the 1980s, the little Kan – if you wanted more than a squeak from these relatively inefficient speakers - was often paired up to a large muscular solid-state full complementary direct coupled amplifier with a power output of around 80 to 100 watts into an eight-ohm load. The hi-fi community’s renewed obsession with flea-powered tube / valve amps and Maytag washing machine-sized horn loudspeakers were still a decade away.
On the front-end side of things, Flat Earth systems didn’t like inferior source components. CD players circa 1983 was excruciatingly painful-sounding when played through the Kans, plus the early CD’s still suboptimally designed output filters produced so much rhythmic and timing anomalies that it negates the idea of having a Flat Earth system in the first place. Meaning in those days, it was Linn’s pre-braced plinth Valhalla LP12 with LVX+ and Basik cartridge, a Roksan Xerxes, or nothing.
The “dark side” of the Flat Earth ideology is that it made every audiophile – especially in merry old England – harbor the belief that tube / valve amps (especially low-powered ones) from the Golden Age of Stereo were deemed obsolete during the go-go eighties. The Flat Response hi-fi magazine didn’t helped matters either because reviewers of the Flat Earth disposition showed scant knowledge and interest when it comes to the science – and art – of loudspeaker matching. Using quintessentially 1980s era hard to drive loudspeakers with which most tube amplifiers played through them had to struggle. Maybe it was the sound of Leak Stereo 20s wheezing and groaning under the load of a pair of Linn Saras that many Flat Earth-leaning audiophiles conclude that tube amplifiers are now – in the mid 1980s – obsolete. Thus benefiting hordes of East Asian vintage audio enthusiasts.