Krell KPE & KPE Reference phono preamplifiers Wes Phillips reviewed the KPE Reference

Wes Phillips reviewed the KPE Reference in June 1997 (Vol.20 No.6):

When I reviewed the Krell KRC-HR in October '96 (Vol.19 No.10, p.242), I reviewed it as a line-stage preamplifier. This was a trifle unfair, as the sample I had on hand contained Krell's Reference Phono Board—a product also available as the standalone KPE Reference. My long-time reference turntable, a Linn Sondek LP12 with a Naim Armageddon power supply, is outfitted with a Naim Prefix phono section, which brings the cartridge output up to line-level—so I had to wait until I had a standard turntable on hand to evaluate the Krell's RIAA functions.

I managed to bring the VPI TNT III home from the photography session that produced last November's cover, and with the help of a VPI JMW Memorial arm, a van den Hul Frog, and my long-term reference cartridge, the Immutable Sounds Transfiguration Temper, I put the board through its paces.

Something for our modern stage
The KPE Reference is available as a $1250 plug-in board for the KRC-HR and KRC-3 preamplifiers. Used in this way, all you need is the board itself—it takes its DC supply straight from the preamp. Some models of the KRC-2 preamp had a DC output, and for those units you can buy a KPE Reference in a standalone chassis for $1600. Everyone else will also need the standalone's external power supply ($600).

There is also a Standard version of the KPE ($1600), which will work with either moving-magnet or moving-coil cartridges—the Reference is designed for use with MCs only.

The unit, in no matter what form, is pure Krell: The hybrid composite amplifier is fully buffered from the RIAA network, in order to present a constant impedance to the network; the amplification section is internally shielded with mu-metal to cancel RF and 60Hz noise; biasing is class-A; all components are discrete; all circuitry is direct-coupled; and all circuitry is complementary as well.

Rocker switches mounted to the board control gain and cartridge loading. Voltage gain is adjustable in 6dB increments from 58dB to 76dB, and there are eight loading settings: 10, 25, 47, 100, 249, 475, 825, and 1000 ohms. These settings are clearly marked, and the switches can be easily engaged with a thumbnail or jeweler's screwdriver.

Dream is the theater
No matter the gain setting, the KPE Reference is preternaturally quiet. Excepting only the RIAA boards of the Ayre K-1, the Krell is the quietest MC phono stage I've ever (not) heard. While the newer models of the Transfiguration, such as my Temper, have a higher output than the older versions—often referred to "the greatest cartridge no one has heard"—the Transfiguration is still no one's idea of an easy load. You'd never know it from the Krell—the background was black, dead silence, and the music was rendered with (apologies to Gene Pope) dynamic fidelity.

Stereophile's recent LP release, Sonata (STPH008-1), with its huge dynamic swings, can present as great a challenge to a phono section as it does to a tracking stylus—and for the same reasons. For much of Liszt's B-Minor Sonata, the level is subdued; throughout those passages, the KPE Reference constructed a believably physical piano and placed it believably in the acoustic of Albuquerque's United Methodist Church. However, there are some powerful crescendos that pianist Silverman plays at 100dB and more—and this is where the Krell came into its own. It was flat-out unflappable, maintaining the believability of that Steinway D no matter how grandly Silverman played. Many phono stages run into dynamic limitations in situations like this. Not the Krell.

And detail? If it's there, the KPE will sort it out. Salterio (M•A Recordings M025-AVLP), by Begoña Olavide, contains oodles of detail: psalteries, viheulas, and various drums and cymbals are all employed—sometimes together (footnote 1). Add to that the richly reverberant acoustic, and you have one whompin' mess of discrete sounds to sort out. The KPE Reference kept the scale of each sound intact, while connecting them one to the other with crystalline purity—all while preserving the deliciously long decay of Santa Espina's stone chapel. The contrast between the delicate psalteries and the boom of the huge tar was physically thrilling.

Many people love the purity of the upper frequencies as rendered by MC cartridges, but feel that MCs often lack body at the lower extremes. The Krell has shown me that what those folks are hearing may not have that much to do with the cartridges—they're probably hearing the limitations of their RIAA sections. If you're a bass head, then the KPE Reference will satisfy your most physical cravings. This doesn't mean that the Krell is bass-heavy—just that it can put it out there like you've never heard it before.

This phono section might just convince you that you've never really heard accurate vocal reproduction before. Taken by this aspect of the KPE's performance, I pulled out James Taylor's Sweet Baby James (Warner Bros. 1843) one late night and felt as if, in the 25 years I've been hearing the title song, I'd never heard it sung by a living, breathing, present Taylor before that instant. I had to play it again before I could believe it. In fact, even now I find it hard to credit. Excuse me a minute....

No, just checked again—I was right the first time. Remarkable.

Sounds pretty near perfect, don't it? Well, maybe it is—damn close, anyway. If I had to cavil—and I guess that's in my job description—I'd say that the KPE Reference falls just on the dryish side of harmonic warmth. This could merely be the flip side of the full-bodied bass issue. The lack of warmth or sweetness could be a lack of coloration—a sign of the KPE's fidelity. Even if it's not, it's a very, very minor flaw—one I could live with contentedly, given the overall performance of the KPE Reference.

Stage directions
If you have a Krell KRC-HR or a KRC-3—and can thus get by with just the purchase of the board itself—then the KPE Reference is a steal. You get Class A performance for a bargain price: $1250 is cheap for a phono section this good. Heck, even at $2200 you'd have an awfully hard time finding the Krell's equal—and forget about finding anything better. It's easy to configure for practically any moving-coil cartridge available; it's also quiet as a tomb, and dynamic as a thunderclap. Add to that Krell's superlative build quality and bulletproof construction, and you have a contender for the State of the Art. And when was the last time that was a bargain?—Wes Phillips

Footnote 1: This record, like Sonata, is taken from a digital source (in this case, a 96kHz recording), and shows clearly that there is a lot of information on such recordings that our current 16-bit CD standard is incapable of exploiting. And to my analog-fancying brethren who are convinced that any digital source will inevitably corrupt the LPs made from them—well, all I can say is, don't listen to either of these two recordings. After all, why let an ugly fact slay your beautiful hypothesis?—Wes Phillips