As a hifi dealer I get to play with some impressive toys. Over the past six years almost twenty percent of the "A" recommended components listed in a well-known hard-copy magazine have passed through my hands. I have fond memories of several complete systems, the most notable consisting of Jadis Defy 7 amplifier, Mark Levinson No. 38S pre-amp, 30.5 processor, EAD T-8000 transport and Energy Veritas v2.8 loudspeakers, all wired by Transparent Audio. That was two years ago. Since then Ive heard components that rival the ones named, but as a group nothing has surpassed the musicality of the Jadis, Levinson, Veritas system. Until now.
At this moment I am enjoying the sound of a system that puts home stereo on another plane. It surpasses the aforesaid system, the way a Stealth replaces an F-14 (to pun with the preceding sentence) It costs $37,000, and is the blue light special of 1996. Are we curious, but impoverished? Well, I could recommend a DECENT system for $22,000, but believe me, youll like this one at least $15,000 more.
If it is any consolation, I know a gentleman with an elderly Wilson WHAM system who would die if he heard the sound now achievable for an investment of 120 grand less. Well so much for relative value.
At this point, in keeping with the time-honored journalistic tradition, I will let the shoulder strap slip: We are talking Krell here, fans. We are breathing the air of a planet forbidden to all but those who are both rich and maniacally committed to music reproduction in the home. We are sharing the vision of two superior hifi seers, Dan DAgostino, and his banker. It is GOOD.
Now, tugging at the gloves, I will mention the speakers. They are from a three-year old company which makes only one model , a three-way which sports five drivers per channel and is partially covered in granite. Here in Costa Rica, where Im stationed, we refer to them respectfully as Los Granitos, which trips more easily off the Latin tongue than the speakers trade name.
Getting closer to the critical zones of interest, I would like to caution that the system under discussion here is not the one I auditioned and went bonkers over during WCES in January. That system was a very fine Mark Levinson-amplified system which may , in fact, rival this one. Ill let you know at a future date. But be prepared, its even more costly.
Getting down to pertinent apparel here, we will now disclothes, oops, disclose that my demo room is quite long at 32 feet, but not quite wide enough at 149" to allow the system to do its most impressive thing--which is to E X P A N D the soundstage beyond all previous limits. The speakers are 9.5 feet apart, center to center, but could still be displaced further without losing center fill. On chamber music and light jazz, the spread of instruments resembles live spacing. But on classical music and big band jazz, soundstage width is truncated by the room, not by the loudspeakers, which can disperse a wider image than anything in my previous experience. In fact, on certain multi-miked symphonies, the sound of the orchestra extends beyond the wall and into the powder room. I love to watch visitors scurry out when that happens. When Y first heard the loudspeakers in January at Peter McGraths suite at the MGM Grand, they were set about 14 feet apart. Auditioning Peters master tapes of a large orchestra digging in provided a threatening form of virtual reality.
At Casa Saxon, we make do with a soundstage that distends about 60% of what might be heard at a live symphony orchestra performance, twelve rows back. But the illusion of an orchestra firing at full-bore is convincingly well-dimensioned within the width, and depth, of the soundstage thrown up by the loudspeakers and electronics working together.
Okay, lets undo the g-string: The system I am about to describe consists of two components, two sets of cables and the loudspeakers. Thats all you get and all you need for a pedigree CD-based system, which is fine with me, since I have an inexhaustible supply of compact discs, and nary a casette or record. Radio is for the car.
And now, just the feather boa: The front end of the Dream Team consists of the Krell Playback System 20i/l, which is a transport, digital-to -analog decoder, and preamplifier in one extra-large container. The amplifier is the new Krell Full Power Balanced 300, a diminutively-dimensioned monster of a class A amplifier that weighs 120 lbs, and runs scaldingly hot. Cabling is by Transparent Audio, and loudspeakers are the Egglestonworks Andras, which sport the highest specific gravity of any speaker I ve ever tried to budge. This system sounds even better than the sum of its parts, but before we dance to the music, I'd like to sum up the salient features of the parts.
The Andra Loudspeaker
The speaker is a one-piece design with a backward slanting baffle that contains two Morel midrange drivers in a torso which narrows to a head containing the famous Dynaudio Esotar tweeter. The bottom two-fifths of the speaker expands an inch on each side of the torso to fit the two Dynaudio woofers that are installed one behind the other in a "compound" configuration. Only one woofer is visible so we'll have to take Bill Eggleston's word that the other woofer is in there. I'm not about to open this baby up to find out. (But see below.)
As set up, the Andras stand 43 inches high on their optional bases, and weigh two hundred thirtyfive pounds apiece. When you unbox them bring friends, lots of em. Unlike their immediate competition, the Wilson Watt/Puppy V, the Egglestonworks, (hereinafter "Egglestons") look big, the way Robert Blake of the old "Baretta" series looked big. In fact, they resemble a sculpture in black marble, which isnt too far off, since they are partially encased in slabs of priestly grey granite. The granite is not there for the weight, dear. It serves to further dampen resonances in the chamber which houses the speakers dual midrange drivers. The rock, while cosmetically impressive, is just one example of the fanantical efforts to minimize box coloration in the sound of the speakers. Other means of eliminating resonances include porting the compound woofers and venting the midrange backwave through a transmission line, which seems a clever solution to a significant problem with cone speakers.
Another novel design feature of the Andras is the absence of a crossover between woofer and midrange. The midrange cones respond down to 42Hz--the Dynaudio woofers, up to 120Hz. The natural roll-off of both driver pairs per channel blends so well, that lower range instruments such as the 'cello, have the roundest, most natural tone I have ever heard on a pair of loudspeakers driven by solid state amplification. The Andras do have a simple crossover between the midranges and tweeter but, according to Bill Eggleston, EMF is a non-issue in this region. Consequently, he sees no need to biwire the Andras and supplies only a single pair of five-way binding posts per speaker. The money one saves on bicables by using the Egglestons may be a non-issue to some audiophiles, but not to me. I like selling bicables! In fact, I prefer selling two separate runs of cables at double the price. The next time I see Mr. Bill, I may ask him to consider my car repair needs the next time he designs a pair of loudspeakers.
After listening to the Egglestonworks Andras for two months I have been struck by the lack of driver coloration: no stridency, no "credit card" sound, no carboard bass. Although many famous loudspeaker makers opine that design parameters are more important than driver choices, I will hereafter give much greater weight to the quality of the drivers in determining a speaker's intrinsic worth. Prior to the Andras, I had never heard a speaker with the Dynaudio Esotar tweeter. Man, this a driver for all seasons--inner detail, wide dispersion, a forgiving "sweetness" that seems incompatible with the quantity of information and quality of imaging. The speed and lack of distortion subsume you into the music instead of keeping you at bay like so many speakers with "hot" sounding tweeters do. I had previously considered the Energy Veritas v2.8 as having the most listenable tweeter of any loudspeaker in my experience. But the best, at a super high cost, is the Esotar. So pricey are they at about a grand a pair, that I've been told the cost of the Andra's tweeters alone is greater than the cost of all the drivers used in the old Wilson Watt3-Puppy2. Adding in the four Morel drivers, the four Dynaudio woofers and the costly, time-consuming cabinet construction, one wonders why these speakers do not sell for much more than their retail price of $13,000.
More than a dozen people who have auditioned the speakers have commented that Los Granitos produce the most natural sound they have ever heard in our main listening room. When the music plays, the Andras disappear physically, as if they were minimonitors, and timbrally as if they were one large full-range panel speaker. I think driver capability and matching, resonance control and the minimal crossover create a seemless neutrality that spans over nine octaves. If the Andra had a bit more bass extension (it's good to about 35 Hz, I would think they would attain the coveted "A" rating from Stereophile. As it is, a handful of hertz keep the speaker from joining that select group. (BUT, see below.).
For those who are interested in learning more about the imaginative design work that went into the Andras, please see the excellent review by Wayne Donnelly in Fi magazine, Vol.1, No. 6. My purpose here is to set the stage (mmmm) for a description of the sonic performance of Krell components with Bill Eggleston's revealing and musical speakers.
Since Martin Collums has already written the definitive review of the $11,000 Krell KPS 20i/l (Stereophile, Vol. 18, No.10), I would merely add that in my system, the KPS 20i/l and FPB300 sound so musically compelling together, I think Mr. Collums will be in for a shock if he reviews the new Krell amplifier series with the KPS 20i/l. The FPB300 sounds impressive with other digital front ends, of course, but the all-Krell set up is inter-planetary in its transparency and musicality, nay, intergalatic. Instead of buying the new home gym, which you'll never use, plunk down $8500 for the FPB300. Then, with the rest of your inheritance, buy the Krell Playback System. You'll thank me for it. The KPS 20i/l easily trumped my previous reference digital processor and transport which together cost over twenty grand. When you consider that front end also required a $6500 preamp, the Krell combo actually seems like a $ensible purchase. I have yet to convince any human being to part with $11,000 for a KPS 20i/l, mind you, but am without self-loathing. Oure KPS 20i/l is a pleasure to use, and it makes all the amplifiers I hook it to sound their best (a $2,000 amp practically grinned at me in gratitude).
Full Power Balanced 300
In Krell's sixteen year history, the company has only changed amplifier topology four times. This means that if you immediately run out and buy an FPB, you should have about four years to gloat before obsolescence sets in. This is actually a fairly long shelf-life for amplifier design, given the fiscal needs of manufacturers and the buying urges of audiophiles. From what Y can remember prior changes in the Krell line were not always universally admired and some of you may still have the original KSA50. Although it would be a lo-o-o-o-ng financial stretch from a first-generation Krell to the FPB300, at least the improvements are worth it, in my humble opinion. None of the prior iterations on the KSA design rendered such dramatic improvements as does the Full Power Balanced 300, which is actually a thousand dollars cheaper than the KSA300S that preceded it.
With the Full Power Balanced series, Krell has brought the technology of its mega-buck Audio Standard amplifiers to non-oil producing nations. Since I'm no Martin Collums, analyzing Full Power Balanced circuitry is beyond my ken, but I can paraphrase factory literature with the rest of 'em. According to Krell Industries, the new amplifiers provide a host of new features, including current mode gain, fully regulated outputs, true balanced configuration, bias plateau improvements, class A operation to full power, direct coupled and fully complementary circuitry, and auto-calibration of operating parameters. Let's examine these virtues without necessarily explaining them.
Current Mode Gain
In designing the recently introduced KRC-3 preamp, which some people think sounds better than the top-of-the-line KRC-HR, Krell's engineers proved to themselves that current mode gain is faster and more linear than voltage gain. This discovery "opened the door to performance possibilities" in amplifiers and when applied to the FPB300 is said to produce a "musical, fast and incredibly strong" amplifier. Seems plausible.
This feature is taken directly from the mega-buck Audio Standard and may be represented by the word "Full" in the amp's appellation. As with all mnemonic devices, however, Y can't remember for sure. Regulation is intended to prevent "sags" in the musical signal that cause your loudspeakers to sound out of breath on long, loud, steady state passages. If your favorite fat lady sings w-a-a-a-a-h instead of waaaah, you are probably hearing your amplifier output sag (nowadays, opera singers are pretty sleek--must be the economy). This condition is cured for all time with full regulation. which means no current or voltage drop will occur as it might with non-regulated designs. It also means when you pop the top on a FPB300 you won't see all those unsightly capacitors bulging out.
Although many amplifiers provide XLR terminals on the back panel, not many are truly balanced from input to output. In Krell's case the FPB series is the second amplifier line to be fully balanced, the first being the MDA-300 and MDA-500 monaural amps which had a brief season in the sun in 1992-3. Cone loudspeakers match well with balanced amplifiers, which push and pull with an iron grip. If your moving coil loudspeakers sound a bit ill-defined or reticent in the lower frequencies, you'll love the Krell. This amplifier plays bass. With the Krell in your system, you may decide to keep your monkey coffins a while longer. You can sell the subwoofer.
Sustained Plateau Bias(TM) II
This vowel-heavy term means the FPB300 operates in true Class A without blowing up! If you ever owned an ML2 or Amp 1, which were biased Class A, you may recall the long silences that accompanied many listening sessions. Bipolar transistors have a thermal runaway problem and should get a chance to cool down once in a while. With plateau biasing, the Krell amp senses musical peaks ahead of time, provides more class A watts as needed, sustains the wattage until no longer required by the signal, and then subsides to sane operating levels. This is said to reduce power consumption and heat build-up. Despite this neat trick, the Krell runs reassuringly HOT. Those who gush over the thought of Class A operation can pet it, briefly. Canadians might huddle around it at night.
The discontinued KSA Series also used Sustained Plateau Bias (TM) but did not change plateaus as smoothly or as often as signal fluctuations required. The FPB, working faster with more plateau "selections", omits the KSA's Christmas tree lights on the front faceplate. All the plateau shifting takes place, as it should, out of sight. In addition, the FPB300 will read your AC line and adjust bias to compensate. You can also hook it directly to your electric meter and it will run it backwards for several hours (Not!).
Class A to Rated Output and Direct Coupled and Fully Complementary Circuitry
As I intrepret the literature, Krell's new amp will deliver 300 watts into 8 ohms, 600 watts into 4 ohms, and a Kw or so into 2 ohms, all in class A if your quivering heart can take it. This brute also avoids capacitors in the signal path, uses complementary discrete active devices to amplify each half of the musical waveform and kicks sand in the face of amps that do otherwise.
Full Autocalibration of Internal Operating Parameters
When the FPB300 is fired-up at the factory for the first time, it goes through a series of checks that will determine the "internal state of the amplifier throughout its life." The FPB 300 will always "operate at its peak performance, regardless of . . .age." This is the Dorian Grey of amplifiers. You will get older but your Krell will always be young and vivacious. Do you want that? Yes. If it keeps on tickin'for twenty years, the entry fee won't seem so steep.
Actually, full autocalibration, said to be an industry first, is devoutly to be wished in all components. Krell deserves congratulations for bringing analog amplifier design into the computer age. I predict that the next Krell amplifier series will be all-digital.
Methodology or, We're Almost There
Although a number of magazines are about to publish reviews of Krell's new Full Power Balanced amps, Soundstage! may be the first to capture in print the sonic glory of the FPB. If this report is timely, it is not for want of painstaking. Snap sonic judgments are very tempting, especially for us addicts, and extremely costly. A decade ago, on the strength of a twenty minute audition, I traded a conrad-johnson Premier One for a pair of rave-reviewed Adcom Great Freaking Amps. I have hated myself ever since.
Now, when ripping apart a packing case, I admonish myself, "Hook this baby up, make sure it's working in both channels and go about your business." Since running a hifi shop offers a number of disconcerting pasttimes, going about oné's business is easy. I slip into a Casual Listener mode, concentrating on other things, changing the music, as necessary. Musical selections tend to vary over the course of a long day. In the morning, we play what the cleaning lady likes--Latin music, female chartbusters, oldies. In the afternoon, we use chamber music or rock, depending on whose visiting. During happy hour, observed every day, we listen to jazz or vocals. In the evening, it's heavy classical. If I install a new component on a weekday, I often avoid critical listening until Sunday, giving the component a long grace period. Meanwhile, I suspend all judgment, feeling very saintly and kind, indeed.
With the FPB300, I lost it. Minutes after jacking the amp out of the box, I was in the center seat, owner's manual in hand, listening to Holly Cole with beads of pre-happy hour sweat on my brow. What the hay, wouldn't you? This is the new KRELL, man. I'm only human.
So How Does It Sound?
It's so good, when you switch it on your head falls off your shoulders.
So How Does It Sound, Part II?
Width of soundstage grabs you right off--as wide as monoblocks purvey. Focus is precise. Vocal clarity is extraordinary. Bass is tuneful beyond recognition. Back of the stage is well-lit. Tone is full, and timbre seems realistic. The images are firm and fully-packed.
But let me hang some meat on these bare bones I have never had more fun discovering what an amp can do. To tell the truth the Holly Cole Trio passed in a pressure-filled haze. The amp sounded repressed right of the box, which had a crushing effect on my windpipe. The Train was never going to take Holly anywhere, as far as I could tell. The Andras were still breaking in but they had proven to be quite dynamic with an assortment of amps. The KPS20i/l was a proven performer. Had to be the amp, but wait. The interconnect in use was the single-ended JPSLabs Superconductors which had sounded so clean with a different amp. Could it be the Full Power Balanced needed to be run with Balanced Cables? Jim, you turkey, of course. I immediately opened a box of velvety Transparent Audio Ultra, which I had hoped to sell, rather than use, but I had to know. Out came the amplifier's shorting plugs, in went the Ultras and ooh, yes, The Train was back on track. I then stepped outdoors to enjoy the first of a several icy cervezas, giving the amp a chance to warm up and my nerves a chance to jangle down.
About twenty minutes later, the amp was simmering with promise. The second disc I played, Cassandra Wilson's New Moon Daughter (Blue Note CDP 7243 8 3261 2 6), proved memorable. I seldom play track 1, Strange Fruit, out of deference to Billie Holliday who owned it, so I was unprepared for the strike of the match, which occurred on my spine. Gadzooks! Good sign. The Krell was still warming up and had already scared me.
Advancing to track two, Love is Blindness, not your best Casual Listener song, I was struck by a way the room became charged with anticipation a moment before the notes started, a most analog-like sensation. One beer had never done that before. This new system was getting interesting.
As the music began, my eyes started moving. The guitars were right there in the room, with a size and solidity that was intensely pleasing. The plucking of the strings moved air, and that was just the midrange. When Cassandra began to sing, her voice was out in front of the guitars, crossing the plane of the speakers in a way that I had heard only with tube amps. The Krell did not have a trace of the annoying fake depth that so many solid state amps possess. There was Miss W., propped up in her mermaid suit, singing into one of those cordless stage microphones, just for me.
As Cassandra's husky voice caressed me, I noticed the clarity of her enunciation, which used to drop below the threshold of hearing. Since I never read lyrics, hoping the system will divulge them, I had had a tough time understanding the song (with different speakers, that is--not the Andras). In fact, l had thought the title of the song was Love is Blind--so much for the Golden Ear. One phrase in particular had bothered me: "Bread is ripping" which couldn't be right. Now that I could HEAR beneath the previous noise floor, the words were clear. Suddenty, I saw myself twenty years before in a New York restaurant waiting for a girlfriend, drinking white wine, ripping bread apart. Yegads, this Krell is revealing. So that's what she was doing. I played the song again and again and feasted on musical detail, not just lyrics, but riffs, chords, bass notes. At one point, Cassandra sang "A little death with no mourning" and out of the background mist for the first time, the coronet played a dirge. Chilling. The Krell components and Eggleston loudspeakers were making music like I had never heard before and I was suffering because of it.
Needing a happier test record, I switched to Blue Rodeo's Five Days in July (Discovery Records 77013) only to realize another favorite "casual" song was also about betrayal. Five Days in May never made great sense to me, but I liked the beat. Now with the resolution knob cranked up to 11, I understood the singer's perspective . The last words "You are the one" were sung with a close-up sweetness that had eluded previous amps and speakers. Greg Keelor, or whoever, actually nuzzled up to me. Down, boy. I was now entering an emotional twilight zone. The second beer soon followed and I thought about calling an old flame in California. Music will do that to you.
The first day's audition ended hours later with an impressed and emotionally drenched Krellman.
During the next several weeks, this snappiest of judgments was verified. I explored the Krell's reaction to different speaker cables, components, and musical selections. I did not change loudspeakers. The Andras were improving along with the Krell amp and it was like watching frisky pups grow. The system handled all types of music with a rhythmic drive that made even weak recordings sound vibrant. Dense, mushy orchestra recorrdings became listenable, thanks in part to the FPB300's extraordinarily tuneful low frequency performance. 'Cellos and contrabasses never sounded better than when played back by the Krell combo through Egglestonworks loudspeakers. Well-recorded CDs, such as DMP and Dorian Recordings, which are captured in 20 bits, were so lifelike, that I wonder whether DVD is really necessary. (As an aside, after developing total respect for the KPS20i/l, and with the showing as well of the superb Sonic Frontier SFCD-1, I am now convinced that one-box CD players are the way to go at present.)
The Krell- Eggleston combo excelled in revealing differences between performances. Mahlers Symphony No. 5 by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra led by Andrew Litton (Dorian DOR 90193) was recorded live and has a preciseness that combines well with Dorian's pristine recording methods. Still, the impression derived from the reference system is one a small orchestra being very careful. Leonard Bernstein's version on Deutsche Grammophon (DG 423 608-2), is also a live recording but here we have the superbly confident Vienna Philharmonic which employs about 1800 musicians who let 'er rip without worrying about gliches. The effect is a giddy one, as the horn resounds above the orchestra, the strings cut loose, and the kettle drum tries to turn your bones to jelly. This system makes it so easy to compare orchestral performances on compact disc, that all record shops should be required by law to have one.
The FPB300 vs. the KSA200S
The only amplifier to which I would dare to compare the Full Power Balanced 300 is the discontinued Krell KSA200S. This is good politics--no use alienating other amp manufacturers. The older Krell sounded mellow and a little veiled, which meant it mated well with the overly bright speakers many of our best loudspeaker designers insist on turning out. It did not throw a tall or wide soundstage. Bass was deep but of the sound reinforcement variety. The KSA200S had to be worked really hard to sound lively.
The FPB 300 is extended on top and much more revealing of inner detail. I would not be eager to use it with a so-called "flat" speaker of the brittle tweeter variety. On the Egglestonworks Andras, the new amplifier sounded tonally neutral and timbrally balanced. It gave an enticing height to singers and an impressive width to orchestras. You'd think you were listening to monoblocks. Bass is extraordinarily tuneful. When you hear what this amplifier does to the low frequency parts of your favorite discs, you'll laugh in amazement. Finally, a most appealing feature of the FPB 300 is its ability to "sing" at moderate volume levels. At about a tenth of a watt, this amp sounds warm and rich. If you like to listen to music as you read, be sure to have a bookmark handy. The new Krell makes even background music exciting.
The Krell FPB300 is the best high-powered amplifier I have ever heard. The FPB300 has greater resolving capability, less noise, more harmonic detail, a wider, more three dimensional soundstage, and much better-defined bass than any previous stereo Krell amplifier. Less "sweeter" sounding than the KSA series, the Full Power Balanced is much more neutral top-to-bottom. The FPB will not mate with some of the bright sounding speakers that the KSA200S was able to tame. A few famous speakers may sound strident with the new Krell, but not the Egglestonworks Andras with their excellent tweeters and classy midrange drivers. As good as Peter McGrath's Egglestonworks demo in Las Vegas was using master tapes and Nagra digital recorder, the all-Krell and Andra combination tops it. It is one of the best systems money can buy.
For those who'd like to own a new FPB amp for free, Krell Industries has come up with the next best thing--the Full Power Balanced 200, a 200-watt per channel version of the FPB300, selling for a mere $5900. I've got one on order. Stay posted.
I will soon find out whether there really is a second woofer in the box. Egglestonworks has just announced the "bass extension kit" which is said to produce another half-octave of bass from the same driver line-up. The upgrade is labor-intensive and adds $800 to the retail price, which is now $13,800. The Andra already does bass, but I think the kit is Bill Eggleston's effort to attain the coveted full-range speaker "A" rating in Stereophile's List of Recommended Components. Such a rating requires true 20Hz extension. We've got dibs on the first available upgrade kit. Mr. Bill likes ink.
Loudspeaker cable was the Transparent Audio Super Bicable which I used with Wireworld banana plugs in a uni-wire configuration. Speaker cable and interconnects were going to be the new Reference XL from Transparent, but they cost more than my delivery truck. Being a diehard, I will probably report someday on those cables, but NOT NOW.