Krell KBL preamplifier Page 4

Andrew Litton, Music Director of the Bournemouth Symphony and a member of our musicians' listening group, immediately noticed this during an extended A/B comparison of the two preamps a few months ago. While he enjoyed the larger soundstage and harmonically warmer presentation of the No.26, he felt that the musical honesty of the KBL unquestionably reproduced his own recordings of Tchaikovsky Symphonies 1 and 2 (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Virgin VC 7 91119-2) more accurately. He described the Levinson No.26 as "heavy and dark sounding," "covered," and "slightly compressed," while the Krell KBL was "transparent, immediate, dynamic, and just more honest." He also mentioned that the KBL uncovered more flaws in the performance than he would have liked to have heard, such as minor intonation problems in the woodwinds (bassoons in particular) that were glossed over by the other preamp. On the plus side, he marveled at the way the complex harmonics of massed strings were reproduced with the KBL, singling out the realistic timbres of the celli and double basses in the recording (footnote 4).

Andrew also commented that the soundstage dimensionality was more natural, although less hyped, with the KBL. Size, placement, and sonic brilliance of the woodwind, brass, and percussion sections were more as he remembered, and the overall perspective of the orchestra was "incredibly realistic." Although Andrew didn't particularly like everything he heard, he made it very clear that this was closer to the real thing than he had ever thought possible.

Reproduction of piano was superb with the KBL, as evidenced by our own National Symphony recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerti 1 and 2 (Vladimir Feltsman, Mstislav Rostropovich, Sony Classical SK 45756). Feltsman's very distinctive style extracts both power and delicacy from the piano. His instrument for these sessions had a darker sound and more even scale than the typical American Steinway, something missed by the No.26 but clearly revealed by the KBL. The KBL does a remarkable job of reproducing Feltsman's subtle nuances, as well as the sheer dynamic weight we produce in the National Symphony under Rostropovich's direction.

Nevertheless, soundstage depth with the KBL was shallower than with the No.26, and there was a disturbing upper-midrange glare. Unfortunately, I feel the Krell to be telling the honest truth, because the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall is not very deep, and there is indeed a very bad upper-midrange peak in the live sound that produces a raspy "honk" at any dynamic above a full orchestral forte.

The complex harmonic structures and dynamic contrasts indigenous to large pipe organs are rarely, if ever, reproduced faithfully. As an organ enthusiast, I go out of my way to find recordings of interesting organists and instruments. Of all the recent recordings of organ works, Jean Guillou's performance of his own transcription of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (Dorian DOR-90117) stands out as the most colorful and idiosyncratic interpretation currently available. Whether or not you agree with Guillou's liberal use of sonic spectacle to bring this piece to life, this is one impressive-sounding recording. I've heard it played on some pretty dismal systems, but it always manages to impress with dynamic impact and deep bass.

I've played in the hall where this recording was produced (Zürich Tonhalle) several times with the National Symphony, and find the spatial perspective and tonal balance with the KBL to be more realistic than with the No.26. This is not a large hall (quite small, in fact; our orchestra barely fits onto the stage), with a very present, bright, clear sound that can become overly aggressive when pushed too far. The organ played in this recording is very large, and can sonically overload the hall's small internal dimensions (as evidenced in the loudest passages of "The Great Gate of Kiev"). In spite of this, the excellent transient response on the stage and heavy walls allows this very dynamic instrument to be played at high levels without losing clarity. And this was where the KBL told the honest truth. Every voice within the complex textures of Guillou's colorful registration came through with clarity and focus: real deep bass that tickled my toes; visceral impact that rattled windows and made the cat scurry for cover.

But this realism came with a downside. M. Guillou's rhythmic unsteadiness was mercilessly revealed with the addition of the KBL to my system. Many of the obscure inner voices (particularly in "Bydlo," "The Hut of Baba Yaga," and "The Great Gate") previously unheard were now clearly out of sync with the overall rhythmic flow, downgrading to the mundane a previously exciting performance. A similar scenario was uncovered in the very beginning of the first-movement "Mars, the Bringer of War" in Charles Dutoit's performance of Holst's The Planets (Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, London/Decca 417 553-2, CD). I'd always thought that the opening rhythmic figure wasn't quite together during the first few bars, but couldn't put my finger on the problem. Sure enough, the KBL solved the mystery. Starting at measure three, the col legno (footnote 5) massed strings are not at all together, detracting from an otherwise excellent performance. And if the KBL's ruthless transparency, in this case, didn't uncover enough flaws, it did let me know from which string sections (violins and violas) the problem originated.

Footnote 4: The sounds of the two lowest members of the orchestral string family (cello and double bass) are rarely reproduced with proper weight and tonal character. While the double bass produces a bigger low-frequency wave front than the cello, its sound is more nasal, often with less focus and core to the pitch. The KBL is the first preamp I've heard that really captures this important difference.

Footnote 5: The term col legno refers to a technique in which the musician strikes the strings with the wooden part of the bow, producing a tuned percussive effect. The musical flow during the first 24 bars of "Mars" is dictated by the entire string section (helped by the tympani, using wooden sticks) tapping out the 5/4 rhythmic figure that gives this opening section of The Planets its enormous driving energy.

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