For better or for worse, appearances can make a profound first impression. Think of the bold, muscular curves of an Audi TT coupe, the planes and facets of a Lamborghini Murcielago, the sleek lines of a Gulfstream jet. In these vehicles, function and art are combined with smooth facility and perfect aesthetic balance.
I remember having a conversation with an audiophile some time ago about the thorny subject of choosing an amplifier. He was convinced, on the basis of an article he had read in Stereo Review, that all amplifiers of a given power rating sound pretty much the same. Although he was sufficiently well off to buy just about anything on the market, he didn't want to waste his money. He chose the amplifier for his system by going through the Audio Annual Directory Issue, calculating the price:watt ratio for each amplifier that was listed, and then bought the amplifier with the lowest price/watt figure that had enough power to drive his speakers. He didn't do any comparative listening and didn't consider buying anything that cost more for the same power, because he knew already that it wouldn't sound any different.
Kinergetics Research was a name to be reckoned with in the early days of CD, when they produced some of the earliest well-received, audiophile-grade CD players. They've branched out since then, producing amplifiers, preamps, subwoofers, and surround-sound processors. In fact, they're so busy with such products that they no longer build CD players! The last Stereophile review of a Kinergetics CD player appeared way back in 1993.
Talk about going from the ridiculous to the sublime. One day I'm reviewing the $139 Sonic Impact Super T power amplifier, and the next day Krell Industries delivers their $10,000 Evolution 505 SACD/CD player, $15,000 Evolution 202 preamplifier, and their $30,000/pair Evolution 600 monoblocks.
With its latest series of FPB (Full Power Balanced) amplifiers, Krell is taking careful aim at the seam between classic high-power two-channel systems and quality multi-channel installations where sound is yet paramount. Nevertheless, Krell founder Dan D'Agostino was adamant: Krell's Class A components were designed for music playback. "I'm a purist, like you, Jonathan!" he told me.
Latest and largest in Krell's current range of power amplifiers, the 600Wpc, $12,500 Full Power Balanced 600 joins the 300Wpc FPB 300 ($9000) and the 200Wpc (originally 150Wpc) FPB 200 ($5900). All are single-box stereo chassis and are specified as "Full Power Balanced"—I think to distinguish the essence of these designs from ordinary stereo amplifiers operated in balanced-bridged mode, usually with impaired performance. The FPB 600's speaker output is balanced; ie, neither "positive" or negative" terminals are connected to ground or the amplifier chassis. (Note that no speaker switches or headphone adaptors, which often have joined channel grounds, may be used, as they will short the outputs.) The output terminals are electrically at 0V, but float above the chassis ground.
About a decade ago, I read in Stereophile about the SRC, an add-on remote-control unit manufactured by Acoustic Research. I bought one the next day ('swhat happens when you work across the street from a hi-fi shop). Suddenly I was able to make incremental changes in volume and balance from my listening position—and let me tell you that that's the way to do it. What a phenomenal difference in realistic dynamics and soundstaging.
There's always a certain amount of jockeying for position at the very top of the High End. Every few months, a new star burns brightly, getting all the attention. While the constant turnover at the cutting edge helps to define the state of the art, audiophiles should keep their eyes on the longer term. It's a company's track record—examined over a period of years—which defines its position in the market and the credibility of its products.
I still have fond memories of my first Krell amplifier, a KSA-50. Back in those days (date purposely omitted), my principal source of audio equipment reviews, aside from Stereophile and The Absolute Sound, was Hi-Fi News & Record Review, which I read voraciously from cover to cover every month. One fateful day while sitting by our community swimming pool, I happened upon an enlightening review of the KSA-50 written by none other than our own John Atkinson, editor of HFN/RRat the time. His words describing "the steamroller-like inevitability of the bass with this amplifier" haunted me for weeks, until I got up the nerve to audition, and ultimately purchase, my first Krell product.
It was a dark and stormy night. A biting, cold wind cut through Sam's skimpy jacket; ice crystals clung tenaciously to his bushy moustache. As he approached his front door, visions of a toasty-warm, Krell-heated listening room softened the chill. He could feel the glow already; his Krell amp had been on all day, awaiting his return.
Some readers may feel that it is pushing poetic license beyond reasonable limits to call the Krell KSA-50 a "new-wave" amplifier. It has, after all, been around for several years. The Krell KSA-50 is new-wave enough, however, to be an incredibly stiff class-A design, rather than a pseudo–class-A circuit, and its 50 watts per channel are supported by enough of a power supply to drive an arc welder. You get about 70 watts of RMS power with 8 ohms, 150 watts with 4 ohms, and sufficient watts into 2 ohms to threaten my load resistors. There is almost enough power to drive a pair of Apogee Scintillas at their ohm setting—though I'd prefer at least the Krell KSA-100.
In the fall of 1982, I had just become the Editor of the English magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review. Hi-fi was in a state of flux. The Compact Disc had just made its debut in Japan, but the British and American launches were six months and a year away, respectively. The Linn orthodoxy prevailed about the role of the source in system performance, but there was no agreement about what was and was not important when it came to enhancing the musical experience. "Objectivists" insisted that amplifiers and even loudspeakers had pretty much reached a design plateau where no further improvement was necessary or even desirable, while "subjectivists" were fragmented. All I was aware of was that my system, based on Celestion SL6 loudspeakers, needed more of an undefinable something.
What is it about a component that makes the blasé High Ender sit up and say, "Hey, this is special!"? What elements of its reproduction reach out to you and won't let go? How does the intrepid audio reviewer find a way to describe these hopefully recurring moments of musical discovery which define the high-end experience? How many times, after all, can you say, "Ooooo, ahhhhh, that's the best [insert some part of the frequency range here]," ad nauseam? How much difference is there, anyway? Therein lies the tale...
The "Reference" designation is thrown around a lot in the world of perfectionist audio. It's most often used to elevate the top of the line to a higher perceived status. Occasionally, as in the case of the VTL TL-7.5 line stage that I reviewed in October 2003, it genuinely denominates a component that is clearly superior to its competition in most aspects of performance.