Krell KAV-400xi integrated amplifier Page 2

The 400xi's top end, however, was the real revelation, exhibiting the sort of air and unhyped detail that I've heard from only a few other solid-state designs (most notably, some Krells with breathtaking price tags). What was apparent from the get-go, however, was that the Krell was uncommonly uncolored. Spanish Legends, guitarist David Russell's new CD of works by Llobet, Segovia, Pujol, and de la Maza (Telarc CD-80633), was impressive in its combination of delicacy and authority. Recorded in the somewhat dry acoustic of the Peggy and Yale Gordon Center for the Performing Arts at Owings Mills, Maryland, the disc places Russell's instrument some distance away within a large space, as opposed to the current trend in recording the guitar of crawling into the instrument's sound hole. This perspective emphasizes the intellectual rigor with which Russell approaches these delightful works, allowing us to luxuriate in the extended architecture of his phrasing, the delicacy of a note's decay, the velocity with which the sound of a plucked string flowers into full bloom . . .

That's the long way around the barn. What it really means is that the Krell got me lost in the whole music thing rather than in the whole audiophile emphasis on what music sounds like.

I assumed this would be less true with Buddy Miller's Universal United House of Prayer (CD, New West 6063 CD), because his albums usually don't exemplify an undue emphasis on audiophile purity (translation: he do like his compression). To a certain extent, I was right: I was able to approve of the righteous reedy wheeze of Phil Madeira's accordion and the churchy burble of the Hammond B3—and, as always, I was agog at Miller's guitar virtuosity and his signature tone, dripping with scads of compression, deep tremolo, and chiming Vox AC30 overdrive.

Yes, it was easy to get all critical and right-brainy about that stuff, but the minute Miller began singing with his wife, Julie, the gospel duo of Regina and Ann McCrary (daughters of Rev. Sam McCrary, who refounded the Fairfield Four in 1942), or bandmate Emmylou Harris, I'd lose perspective, getting swept along by the sheer emotion, which completely pegged my meters. "Emotional overload" is not a charge many reviewers have ever leveled at Krell products.

And don't get me started on the interplay between drummers Brady Blade and Bryan Owens. Pace and rhythm are not areas where anybody's "affordable" products are expected to excel, but the 400xi broke the mold here. It aced the toe-tap, hip-wag, tripe-faced-boogie test.

I don't mean to give the impression that the doughty integrated made UUHoP sound any better than it was. The album was recorded in a home studio, and it doesn't have much breath to it—the proceedings have that homogenized digital workstation gloss, and your front wall is in no danger of "disappearing." On the other hand, the Krell didn't emphasize sonic flaws until I couldn't hear the music that lay beneath them.

An exaggeration is a truth that has lost its temper
Taken on its own, almost any high-fidelity component of a certain quality sounds better and better the longer you listen to it. Eventually, its sound becomes the "real thing"—or, even worse, becomes preferable to the real thing. This is why so many hi-fi buffs complain about the "rolled-off top end" when they hear a live orchestra in a big hall for the first time. It's why Stereophile reviews compare new products to components that have already been reviewed in its pages.

Fortunately, my office system is built around the direct-marketed, 100Wpc Portal Audio Panache integrated amplifier ($1795) Sam Tellig praised so highly back in February 2003. Like Sam, I rate the Panache quite highly—it does rule the system I listen to more than eight hours most days.

The Panache lacks a remote control—or a preamp section, really. Sam described it succinctly as "a power amp with a volume potentiometer (ALPS), a volume control, a balance control, and a selector switch." This isn't a problem in my office system, because it sits beneath my computer monitor, which puts it within reach for volume adjustment and source selection. In my listening room, however, I found myself remarkably surly about having to get up to make those changes. (Why, back in my day, none of us audiophiles had remote controls, and we liked it that way. . . . But I digress.)

I don't need to preach about the convenience of remote control, the logic of adjusting volume and balance from your listening chair, or the exquisite luxury of putting Eminem on hold to catch the latest scores on the sports channel. You know how you feel about that. Of course, the extra 100Wpc the Krell offers is perhaps, to many audiophiles, a more [ahem] powerful argument—and so it proved with Krell's own Resolution 2s, which darkened considerably when driven by the Portal.

On "Ladies in Mercedes," from the Steve Swallow/Ohad Talmor Sextet's L'histoire du Clochard (The Bum's Tale) (CD, Palmetto PM 2103), everything sounded tuned down—Meg Okura's violin was more like a viola with the Portal, Greg Tardy's clarinet sounded thicker, and Swallow's taut bass sound was plummier.

Switching over to the PSB Platinum T6s, the Panache sounded a lot happier. Okura's strings gained a lot more of their zing, and Swallow's bass had a lot more bloom and body, sounding meaty and richly resonant.

That was a problem, actually. Swallow isn't a bass player who plumbs the depths. He has a unique ability to walk bass lines really high up on the neck (which a lot of bass players can do) while retaining perfect intonation (which makes him pretty much unique). An integral part of Swallow's identity therefore lies in the tension of his uniquely lean bass sound—and the Portal put extra meat on its bones. It was big-chested and brawny.

I confess that I liked it that way. It's a prettier sound than Swallow has had when I've heard him live, and I wouldn't be surprised if many audiophiles also preferred it to the Krell's more accurate portrayal of Swallow's slightly nasal drawl. They might even call it "better"—but that's confusing preference with reality. That's not what high fidelity is supposed to be about.

Interesting, isn't it? Everyone knows that Krells have "good" bass: deep, rich, and plenty of it. Yet one of the KAV-400xi's biggest appeals for me was its absence of audiophile bass and its true-to-life delivery of real bass power and depth. Go figure. Yes, there are amplifiers—many of them made by Krell—that can offer a level of shake-the-earth solidity that the 400xi doesn't have, but at least it tells the truth as it sees it, within its capacity to do so. If you want to storm the gates of hell, you have to give the devil his due—and I think ol' Patch comes a lot dearer than $2500.

Neither the Krell KAV-400xi nor the Portal Audio Panache is going to challenge the reigning soundstage champions for depth or sonic holography. That's something that most tube amps (and Krell's Reference Series) still do better.

Sviatoslav Richter's recording of Beethoven's Piano Concerto 1 (CD, JVC XRCD JM-24018) offered a good example of this. While I've heard it sound more three-dimensional, the 400xi didn't exactly reduce it to wallpaper. Not by a long shot. The Krell presented a stage as wide as the spread between the speakers and stretching back beyond them about 3'—all the way to my room's front wall, in other words. The Portal delivered similar stage width but didn't go as deep—still performance that, as ST put it, "could give solid-state a good name."

I'll continue to use the Panache in my office system, but I suspect I'll often wonder, "How much better would this sound on the Krell?"

Memories are made of this.

Dearer still is the truth
Eight years after introducing its crowd-pleasing KAV-300i, Krell has followed it up with an integrated amplifier that is more elegant, more powerful, and just plain sounds better. And for a scant $150 more, it's an even greater bargain.

When JA picked up the 400xi for measurement, I called it "my favorite Krell ever." That surprised me, because I've reviewed a whole passel of Krell components in my career: the KPS-28c CD player; DVD Standard DVD player; KRC-HR, KCT, and Krell KAV-280p preamplifiers; and the Audio Standard, FPB-300, FPB-300c, and KAV-2250 power amplifiers. None was less than superb, and some were sublime—I still wake up some nights from dreams of the KRC-HR-Audio Standard system.

But what I blurted out to John unedited was the truth: Even though Krell has most assuredly built better products, the KAV-400xi is special. Not because it's "affordable," not because it's exquisite audio jewelry, not because it meets some watts-to-dollar ratio of goodness, but simply because it's as faithful to the music as I am.

Well, to tell the truth, more so.

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