B&K ST-140 power amplifier Sam Tellig and Lars part 2
"You've got that Krell on order. You paid for it. What are you going to do now that you like the B&K better?"
I was gleeful. This was exquisite, all the more so because Lars's discomfiture was completely unplanned.
"Well, the Krell should be even better."
Lars did not sound too sure, so I went in for the kill.
"How could it sound better than this? You're right, Lars, this little B&K amp is phenomenal. I think I've been guilty of understating its excellence. It kills the Krell. Licks the Levinson. Rolls over the Rowlands. Overthrows Threshold..."
I taper off. Could I really trick Lars into believing that a B&K ST-140 is a better amp than a Krell KSA-80?
A week later, the Krell arrived. Cold out of the box, and not broken in, the KSA-80 sounded promising—very dynamic, excellent bass control. But the thoroughly broken-in B&K sounded sweeter, less fatiguing. The B&K had more "bloom"—space around the instruments. And the B&K's soundstage depth was terrific—extending wide beyond the speakers. Straight out of the box, the Krell sounded somewhat rough. Lars looked like a little boy who's dropped his ice cream cone.
The next day, Lars reports that the B&K still sounds "better" than the Krell. "Not as dynamic, of course. Nowhere near the bass control. But overall, better—the dimensionality of the B&K is unbelievable. I must let the Krell cook and hear what happens."
Cook it does. Class-A. Drawing full power all the time. This is January—albeit a very warm January—in Connecticut. But Lars has to open a window a crack, at times, to ventilate his new Krell.
"What are you going to do in summertime?"
"I'll just let it cook. I'll sit in my underwear and listen if I have to," said the indomitable Lars.
Then a lightbulb went off inside his head. His eyes lit up.
"The garage is right under the listening room. I'll put the Krell in the garage and run interconnects up through the floor. That'll solve it!"
"Wendy will love having a heated garage." (Wendy's his wife.)
I retrieved the B&K and left Lars to cook with his Krell.
Days of silence followed, and then Lars called raving, this time about the Krell. "It's burning in. It's beginning to sound smooth, sweet, fantastic. The bloom around the instruments is starting to develop—the dimensionality. The soundstage is unbelievably wide and deep. The bass control is unbelievable." His favorite adjective.
I went over to Lars's well-heated listening room and verified that everything he said was true. The now well-warmed Krell was a terrific amplifier in every respect. Smooth, sweet, dynamic—unflappable.
The B&K ST-140 was not a Krell killer, after all. And no amount of insidious suggestion could convince Lars that it was. The game was up. I admitted to Lars that the Krell was indeed a wise purchase.
"Now you'll have to think about your speakers," I said.
"You never stop, do you?"
It's still winter as I write this column, and Lars is leaving the Krell on all the time—at a cost of about $25 additional on his monthly electric bill. Presumably, though, he is saving at least part of that on heating oil.
Come summer, it may not be necessary for Lars to let the Krell cook. By then the Krell will have thoroughly broken in, and only a short warm-up period may be needed to get the amp up to optimum sound. Mind you, I'm not picking on the Krell. Many other, if not most other, solid-state amps take a while to burn in and sound their best. And as far as running hot, look at tube amps! It remains to be seen whether Lars will be listening in his underwear.
This episode has taught me a lot about the B&K.
In some ways, I respect this amp more than ever. And I am certain Lars does. The B&K is smooth, sweet, and dimensional—like a classic tube amp. In other respects, however, the $498 B&K ST-140 cannot compete with the big boys.
What the ST-140 lacks is the ability to take charge of a speaker with real authority—especially in the bass. The Martin-Logan Sequels (the now discontinued version) are a case in point. The bass wasn't tight enough with the B&K, and so the bass did not integrate well with the electrostatic panel. Changing over to an Electrocompaniet AW100 just about solved this.
I'm afraid the B&K ST-140 doesn't quite make it, for me, with my new Thiel CS1.2s, either. (The Thiels are a steal for the money.) The bass on the Thiels is mushy with the B&K—loose, the antithesis of tight. Changing over to the AW100 results in a dramatic change—the bass tightens up and the rest of the frequency range sounds clearer, cleaner, crisper, too. The Electro is an excellent solid-state amp. Olsher's positive review in last month's issue is right on.
Of course, B&K makes other amplifiers, which may be better suited for the Thiel's 4 ohm impedance. And the Electro costs more than four times as much as an ST-140. A Krell costs more than seven times as much. The B&K ST-140 has nothing to be ashamed of—it just won't kick ass. But if you have the money, there are better amps. And I've just found two of them.
Incidentally, Lars and I convinced Rudi Kothe, of Definitive Hi-Fi, Mamaroneck, NY, to put the ST-140 on the Wilson WAMM—but not on the bass drivers.
"What are you afraid of, Rudi?"
"Yeah, go on," chorused three other assembled 'philes.
Guess what. The $16,000/pair KRS-200 Krell Reference Monoblocks sound better. Much better. Things more or less fell apart when the $498 B&K was asked to drive the $80,000 WAMM, which costs 160 times the money. The sound was dark, lifeless, lacking in coherence.
But not terrible. The amp still sounded sweet and somewhat dimensional (though nowhere near as much as the Krell Reference amps).
The other 'philes were amazed. "For $498, the B&K ST-140 is astonishing."
Yes, it is.