Hi-end devices have a clearly depicted “personality”, apparent in either a specific cabinet design, functionality or a special kind of sound. It’s not good to generalize, but there is some truth in that statement. When we say “Accuphase” we think: precise, thorough, but also a bit sweet sound. We say “Bowers” and hear strong, heavy bass, very clear midrange and expressive treble. And we can continue like that on and on. Also when the name “Krell” is dropped, then among many of the readers it will bring associations like: “cold”, “clinical”, “impersonal”, “strong”, “dynamic”, “precise”. The terms can be put in any order. And although in many cases a “company sound” can be easily described, and remembered, it is different with Krell (Krell Industries, Inc.). I was never a fan of the cheapest integrated amplifier proposed by that company, mostly because those demanded high class, expensive loudspeakers and sound sources to sound right. Surrounded with cheap components and cables they sounded exactly as described. But the case is completely different with more expensive components. I remember well time spent with the EVO 222+402 set, and the amazement of my friends, who could not believe, how smooth and intense it sounded, and that the last thing that could have annoyed the listener would be brightening, as there was no trace of it anywhere. Of course the Harpa Dobermann and the cabling were a part of that success story, but still Krell delivered a show of behavior. I was similarly impressed by the presentation of during the IFA 2007, based on the mighty Evolution One power amplifiers. That was really something!
The reason I reminded myself all of this was during the listening session of the newest integrated amplifier proposed by the company, the S-300i. This one will sound good with cheaper and more expensive loudspeakers and electronics, unlike its predecessors. You just need to remember about good cables. Listening to it, I had the impression, that such devices cost about 17000-18000 zl, and I was about to confirm, that it would be well spent money. But it turned out, that the price is about 13000 zl – much lower than I expected. But there is a catch – the S300i in manufactured in China. Nothing points to that in its looks, sound or built quality but for many people making a hi-end device behind the Great Wall will be a Great Betrayal. I am not here to solve such dilemmas, everybody will have to do that on their own. I am here to listen.
Discs used for the test:
Listening to the Krell, I quickly came up with a system, which could be built around it, and which would be very satisfying for everyone, even a very picky music lover and audiophile. It would be composed of:
Of course this is not the only possible combination, we can exchange the loudspeakers for more expensive ones, or the sound source. But in this proposed system all the assets were beautifully exposed, and the flaws, or better said: weaker points, masked. Because, like any other device, the American integrated is a combination of compromises and their effects, a result of choices made by its designers. After all is the cheapest amplifier made by this manufacturer, and as such it must subdue to all conditions related to this status, small budget being one of the most important ones. Maybe talking about budget is wrong in context of Krell’s price, actually it is an expensive unit, but in reality almost all devices fall to the cost dictate, maybe with the exclusion of the ultra-expensive ones.
But to the point. The S-300i is in my opinion the best basic, integrated amp, this manufacturer ever produced. All the previous ones, from the ‘400’ series and earlier, were not bad, even quite OK, but this one finally puts all the sound elements in one, coherent whole, not favoring any of them. Unexpectedly, also for me, it resulted in an amplifier, for which is mostly concentrated on the midrange. No, I am not wrong – the Krell S-300i sounds with a strong, fairly saturated midrange. Switching from the reference system, the voices of Dave Gahan from the disc Sounds Of The Universe Depeche Mode and Kate Bush from Aerial instantly came to the front, before the rest of the instruments, and were tuned a little lower. They were not nasal, what was confirmed by the beautiful recordings of Carol Sloane from Hush-A-Bye, but the lower midrange was stronger in them. This is really a surprising information, as to date the integrated amplifiers from Krell were associated with a fairly thin sound, directed towards detail. Maybe this was not completely fair, maybe the flaws of other elements of the sound chain were blamed on them (most of the time), but that was how they were perceived. One could notice that this opinion was harming them, when the company’s more expensive components are given a listen. Like a mentioned, for me the listening session of the Evolution One monoblocks during the IFA 2007 in Berlin was a special experience, as well as later, at home, when I listened to the system Evolution EVO 222+402. Their sound was very competent and full, without holes and problems with timbre. Anyway, S-300i is a device, where many elements of the sound, found in expensive units, are present, and the rest is just to complete them.
The biggest asset of the new integrated, a thing better than all of that, what I heard for the given money (regardless of technology used) is the sound stage. In my system it is on a very good level, and changing to the Krell did not change is as much as with other devices I heard. Everything between the loudspeakers was full of a “fluid”, with very well depicted positions of the musicians, nice acoustics and good planes – even those in the back of the stage. But this is not all – listening to Depeche Mode, later to Kate Bush and finally to the brilliant album from Lars Daniellsson Mélange Bleu I could not believe, how well this device handled the depth, not behind the loudspeakers, but before them and behind the listener. Those devices were recorded out of phase and the sounds are located around the listener. Krell showed all of them, without exaggeration, maybe without the a final statement regarding resolution, but still better than anything below 50000zl. This allowed for such a comfort of listening, that does not happen often. There was no talking about a flat presentation, or even a presentation within the boundaries of the loudspeakers. This was a space, that came out from the recordings and was implanted in our room.
Interesting enough, this does not happen by emphasis of the treble. This is usually the easiest way of simulating a big stage, but is tiring on the long run. The S-300i concentrates on the midrange. And this means, that the sound spectrum edges are a bit less audible. And this is true. The treble is a bit withdrawn, only slightly, but to an extent, which made the noise present on the Carol Sloane disc weaker, not as present as with the reference system, or from amplifiers positioned at a comparable price level, like the Belles IA-01 or even the Luxman L-550A II. The sound was not “closed” or warm – it is not about that here. Actually it had not much in common with that, what was shown by the tube amplifiers P40 and P70 from the Italian Unison Research, I tested in parallel for “Audio”. There it was very pleasing, but occasionally it turned out to be a bit “syrupy”, what toned down the liveliness and breath of the recordings. Krell toned down the pace a bit, not by killing the sound with timbre, but rather by a slight rounding off the attack.
Also the second extreme of the sound spectrum is slightly back. The bass is very nice, vivid, fairy well defined, with a very nice timbre. But its lower part is not as strong as with more expensive Krell systems, or my reference system. Interesting is, that the Accuphase E-450, which seems to be a stronger device, did not go lower. Its lower bass was fatter, slightly underlined, and that resulted in the impression, that it goes lower, that it has a stronger base. Accu is a very good device, with a splendid timbre, but Krell sounds cleaner, smoother, when it comes to bass, and the transition to midrange is more even. But this bass is not as massive as I know from my Luxman M-800A and we have to choose the right loudspeakers to circumvent that. This is why a very good choice were the Harbeth Super HL5, at least for me, with their splendid timbre and strong mid-bass.
The only problem you have to face, at least when talking about this price range, is a slightly hard upper midrange. It is not brightened from itself, but its attack is a bit hard. We perceive it as a slight nervousness of the sound, additional energy in the attack of the voices, and similar. This can be heard best in commercial recordings. When listening to better recorded material, like Isao Suzuki Blow Up 2 and Count Basie Plays… Joe Williams Sings Satnards it is in no way annoying, although it can be heard even there, by a slight underlining of the lower sounds of the cymbals. The Harbeth handled this better than my Dobermann, although the latter are objectively much better. I think, that this is just the result of better matching of the characters. HL5 are not especially resolving, this is why things heard with more expensive constructions do not matter with them. It is also important, that the Krell which is also not an ultra-resolving device (finally people from Krell do not emphasize on this single aspect of the sound), does not deepen their shortcomings, as if it would be developed especially to match them. And I will add only that the S-300i sounded fantastically with the Kuzma Stogi S with the Stabi tonearm and Dynavector Karat D17MkII cartridge (preamp RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC).
The Krell amplifier has a form close to that, what were accustomed to with earlier amplifiers – KAV-300i and KAV-400xi. This is a flat, very deep and really heavy device, with a very high output power (not only for an integrated, but in general) - 150W at 8Ω and 300W at 4Ω. As you can see, it is not just powerful, but has also high current capabilities, as lowering the impedance twice results in doubling the output power – the unit behaves like an ideal current source, at least until 4Ω.
The inside is typical for high class, modern integrated amplifiers. The signal from the inputs runs to a big PCB with the preamplifiers, placed near the back plate. Almost all of the elements are mounted in SMD. The inputs are switched in ICs. The signal from the RCAs is lead with short, shielded cables, and the XLRs are soldered directly to the PCB. The volume level is regulated in a bank of chips, in an analog form. The preamplifier is built around four IC per channel – using the OP177 from Analog Devices in the main role. This is one of the newest and best ICs of that kind, with low distortion and noise. It is also characterized with very good linearity. And although on the input two capacitors from Wima are visible, those are employed only for voltage filtering – in the whole amplifier, in the whole sound path, there are no capacitors at all. Between sections the signal is led in Current Mode protocol, which allows for incredibly high frequency response. In the device menu we can set the input names, gain, balance and set a given input in a ‘unity gain’ mode, and thus integrate it the unit in a home cinema system.
The power amplifiers are bolted directly to the heat sinks, and those were placed on both sides. Each is based on four transistors in push-pull setting. Those are multi-emitter LAPT units from Sanken. The preamplifier and the power amplifier work in class A, although the power section uses a “floating” mode, what means, that the bias is changing dynamically, depending on the input signal. Centrally a very big, shielded, toroidal transformer with 750W capacity is visible. It has separate secondary windings for the power amplifiers, preamplifier and control units. The filtering capacity is significant, 38000μF. The power supplies for the respective sections are placed on the PCBs they are meant for.
Let’s add, that the remote controller is big, metal and solid – besides the S-300i it can also handle a CD and DVD player and the iPod, the display can also display the messages from the iPod. And because this is a very competent, small form amplifier, it can be used in studio setups. So there are “wings” supplied as an accessory, which can be used to mount in a studio rack.
CDs FROM JAPAN
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