Krell KRC-HR preamplifier & Audio Standard power amplifier Page 2

Are the changes revelatory? For the most part, no. It has become an audio truism that we can have profound experiences with poorly reproduced performances precisely because we don't require ultimate resolution in order to emotionally connect. But all things being equal, the closer you get to actually being there, the less you have to work at experiencing the musical gestalt. Listening to the Krell gets you mighty close indeed.

Speaking of getting close, couldn't I get even closer if I eliminated all of the KRC-HR's circuitry and went direct from a high-quality variable output source like the KPS 20i/l? I had performed this experiment with some other, highly regarded preamps and found the sound straight out of the CD player more transparent and immediate.

To my surprise, this was not the case with the KRC-HR. With the preamp, music sounded just as fast and uncolored, but vastly more coherent and full-bodied. Listening to Emmylou Harris sing "Hard Times" (on At the Ryman, Reprise 26664, CD) through the KPS-20i/l direct, I was conscious of the small size of the theater and its rapid decay—factors that don't add a lot of body to an essentially acappella number such as this one. In comparison, the sound when the KRC was in the circuit was fuller, even better detailed, and more imbued with body. It could be argued, I suppose, that I'm reacting to a euphonic coloration, but I've never heard a euphonic coloration that made things sound more like themselves—which Emmylou and the Ryman did, through the KRC-HR.

Furthermore, the integration of the bass to the rest of the frequencies was more holistic. The song begins with an augmented chord harmonized by the Nash Ramblers as Emmylou sings the verse. With the KRC, the tonal spacing was tighter; the bass tonic sounded more of a piece with the intervals above it. Ditto the acoustic bass, which came through the '20i/l hot-rod (as it does with most systems) as an undifferentiated thump. With the KRC in the path, that thump was still pretty non-pitch-specific, but it had gained in detail: I could hear how Roy Huskey, Jr.'s string bass was coupled to the stage floor, its tone separate from the vocals above it. I could even hear the stage creak as the four singers leaned in closer to Emmylou for the chorus's tight harmonies. It goes against so much that I've learned over the years, but I'll be sheep-dipped if I weren't hearing more with the preamp in the circuit.

My heart Krells
I haven't heard many electronic devices as tonally transparent as the KRC-HR. When a component disappears totally, what's not to like?

As I write this, JA and I have just finished recording the 1996 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival for an upcoming Stereophile CD. JA made some CDR dubs for me, primarily of a superb piano performance that will, sad to say, probably not get released. John hasn't done any mixdown yet—using the Sonic Solutions hard-disk editing system, he will align the four tracks in time then mix the two pairs together, as he did for our Sonata and Festival CDs—so the CDR contains two versions of the same night's performance: one through the crossed pair of B&K cardioids hanging in the center of the hall above the first row of the audience, the other taken from B&K omnis hanging a little farther back (less than a foot, really) on either side of the auditorium. Same musicians, same hall, same performance—the only differences are the microphones and their placement. It's a subtle test—after all, not much is different—yet sonically the takes are as different as day and night. The omnis have a fat, juicy, totally engaging sound—albeit with a hole in the middle you could drive a truck through—while the coincident pair have a hyper-detailed, up-close-and-very-personal sound that maps out the soundstage to the millimeter. BUT—and this is a big but—everything else about this performance should sound exactly the same, because the two takes did, after all, record the same event. Duh.

But the nature of distortion is to be inconsistent; I've heard a lot of systems though which the differences between the two takes would be exaggerated by nonlinearities in reproduction—exaggerated to the point where all you could hear would be those differences. The KRC-HR made the two takes sound identical other than the most obvious, indeed essential, differences. Dynamically, rhythmically, interpretively—they matched.

If you've never done a comparison of this nature, you might be tempted to sell it short. Most people never get to hear different perspectives on the same performance. They might listen to different interpretations of the same piece, some of them even incorporating the same artists or halls, but the same event? No. So we become used to hearing—used to listening for—the differences between events. We become experts on such differences. But listening to similar, very closely related versions of the same event requires a different sort of listening, and, I'm beginning to discover, a rare, fine analytic tool. The KRC-HR revealed itself to be a tool capable of such refined differentiation.

Creatures from the id?
However, as neutral and revealing as I think the Krell was, there was one thing it just didn't do: It didn't really present a well-differentiated stereo spread into a three-dimensional soundstage that included substantial depth information. This surprised me, for the KRC-HR had as much low-level resolution as I've ever heard. Even sounds way down in the mix were clearly audible and placed within an acoustic space. The preamp had no trouble illustrating the difference between a jazz club and a small theater, for instance. No, I was quite aware of the space within which the music had taken place.

But when it came to arranging the players in ranks, in orchestral recordings such as Corigliano's First Symphony (Erato 61132-2), or Bernstein/NYP's Mahler Third (DG 445 835-2), the KRC just put 'em up there in a relatively nonspecific clump. Well, maybe that's a bit hard on it—the musicians had quite detailed lateral spread, just not much depth. They weren't spread out in a single file, but they lacked that sense of existing in specific locations from front to back. This remained constant whether I played LPs or CDs, dynamic speakers or electrostats, tubed amps or solid-state.

How major a flaw is this? Well, I really value that sense of depth, but the KRC-HR ranks among the very finest audio products I've ever used—and, much to my surprise, I didn't really feel that I was all that deprived. Mostly, I just reveled in the music. There are audiophiles who claim that the whole soundstage depth thing is an overrated obsession—a point I have a lot more sympathy for now that I've lived with the Krell. This preamp could be the answer to their prayers. There is, however, something awfully seductive about having it all, and as much as I like the KRC-HR, I suspect I'd end up deeply yearning for an extra bit of real estate: the rear of the soundstage.

Whither thou Krellest
The Krell KRC-HR must certainly qualify as one of the truly great preamplifiers out there. It's well-built, well-thought-out, and a joy to use: it's convenient and reliable. In terms of tonal accuracy and low-level retrieval, it stands among the exalted few. I have some misgivings about its ability to portray the soundstage in the manner I desire, but this is a personal call—and a preference that not everyone shares. If you're looking for a preamp that can lay claim to being state-of-the-art, the KRC-HR demands a serious and extended audition.

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