Krell truly welcomed the twenty-first century with a radical range dubbed Evolution. The pre/power Evolution One and Two combination that heralded the line's arrival stunned everyone who saw them at CES in January 2005. New styling, zero-compromise build, spec and pricing - those of us old enough to remember the good old days when Dan D'Agostino was lean, mean and hungry figured, hey, maybe the magic is back? (He's actually a few pounds leaner now, but that's another story.)
In the intervening few years, I've heard Evolution all over the place, but the defining moment for me was an all-Evo demo in Tokyo. It was the overall coherence, the sit-up-straight-and-listen command of it that sent the tingles to all extremities. What was not anticipated was a trickle-down range that would possess so much of the big ticket, multi-chassis Evolution One and Two debut combination. When I heard the same in Italy at another show, I was convinced: Krell was back.
In the meantime, the line has delivered winner after winner, right up to a multi-channel controller and two disc spinners. One assumes that the Evolution 222 preamp will constitute the entry level, because at £8498, this unit narrows the gap between Evolution and the company's other two ranges, KAV and the multi-channel Showcase lines. But the 222 two-channel preamplifier isn't just entry level. It's almost a leap of faith.
Krell bills the 222 as bringing "the advanced technologies and inspired design of the Evolution 202 to single-chassis format," the 202 being the middle preamp between this and the Evolution Two. Aside from fitting everything into a 439 by 97 by 464 (WHD), with the obvious loss of the benefits of a separate power supply, it's pure Evolution all the way: 1.5MHz open-loop bandwidth in a zero feedback, balanced, Krell Current Mode design, terminating in Krell's CAST connection format. All signal gain paths feed through surface-mount topology, using Krell's "proprietary multiple-output current mirrors, with nearly 500 times the open loop linearity of other designs." Absolute zero negative feedback applies to the entire preamp, Krell adds, "nor is it necessary. Open-loop distortion is typically less than 50 parts per million."
Your main tactile contact, the volume control, features a 16-bit balanced resistor ladder, and its feel was clearly "tuned" by someone who's wound a fine watch or two in his day. The 222's bandwidth and transient response are "virtually unaffected by the volume setting." Despite the reduction in real estate, the unit is driven by a 150VA toroidal transformer, feeding four six-amp bridge rectifiers and 19,800 microfarads of filter capacitance. Additionally, a Krell-designed digital control circuit monitors and optimizes all operating parameters.
Don't let the slim-as-Dan casework (he works out like a demon, hence the constant, jealous references) fool you into expecting a lack of features. The accessories box within reveals a 34-button, machined-from-metal remote control that covers every function, including phase inversion, the worth of which this preamp demonstrates vividly. I'm not about to open up that can of worms, but anyone who bought into the need for correct polarity when it was topical will appreciate this immediately. The very instant this is demonstrated to you in the audio salon of your choice, you'll kick yourself for not having it before.
Across the front panel are the familiar Krell accoutrements, including tiny near-flush buttons with delightful click action and a massive volume rotary. At the left is a display that shows, with Krell blue illumination, various status messages, choice of source input, volume level, balance offset and menu selections. These include various methods of configuring the unit to your specific needs or preferences, such as naming the inputs, trimming levels, selecting theatre mode throughput, etc.
Below it are the power-on button, infrared emitters and sensors for communication to and from remotes, and menu and enter buttons for navigating the former. In the middle of the traditional machined Krell nameplate is an LED that glows red in standby mode and blue when operational. Clustered to the right of this are buttons to choose between three single-ended, two balanced or two CAST inputs, while the last three buttons operate tape monitoring, phase selection and mute.
So filled with apertures for ingress and egress is the back panel that you might mistake the 222 for a multi-channel controller. All of the aforementioned inputs are addressed with the necessary RCA, XLR or CAST connectors as required, while the additional sockets consist of phono inputs for tape in and tape out, plus primary outputs in phono (single-ended), XLR (balanced) and CAST modes. To the extreme right (as you look at the back panel) are the mains input and the necessary connections for powering a Krell phono stage, integrating the 222 into complex systems with RS-232 and RC-5 formats, and 12-volt triggers.
Read more about the Krell 222 preamp on Page 2.
Here's where this review, due to time constraints, reveals its primary limitation: I did not audition the unit in CAST mode, only in balanced and single-ended forms. Why? I didn't have a Krell power amp on hand, nor the time to acquire one. Besides, the brief was to assess this solely as a preamp, and that meant using it in place of the three or four I use as references: McIntosh C2200, Quad 99 CDP II, Melody 1688 and the rest. If this invalidates what follows, my apologies. What it should do, however, is attest to the unit's value outside the context of a full Evolution set-up.
Because the unit arrived burned in, I was spared the process; I'm guessing the usual regime of a few days at full-tilt will fulfill the requirements. But even from ice-cold, after a few hours in transit in early December, it sounded great after one hour, magnificent after three, downright salacious after 24. Yes, salacious. And that's coming from a known vacuum tube devotee.
Sometimes, I guess, you need to sample the other side to appreciate what you have, know or tend to prefer. (I draw the line at drinking white wine, or anything French.) Every time some gear-head mentions paddle shifts, the automotive equivalent of audiophile flat-Earthers start whining about the superiority of a manual gearbox and a pedal clutch. Well, try driving a Lamborghini Gallardo in rush-hour Italian traffic with the three-pedal version. You'll PRAY for the paddles. So there's room for both, just as valves and transistors can live side-by-side. While those who crave the warmth and bloom of valves will not find either in the vast majority of solid-state designs, tube crazies know that, on occasion, you have to live with the arch clarity, the dazzling speed, the inaudible noise floor and the shattering dynamics of transistors.
Slotted into my long-standing review system, the 222 was immediately at home, with no mismatches and no reasons to miss CAST's benefits. After the usual dancing around with various options, I settled on the Marantz CD-12/DA-12 CD player, McIntosh C2200 and Sonus faber Guarneris. And you - or most of you with narrow tastes and scant regard for American culture - are gonna hate the first of the tracks that made me fall in love with the 222.
Dwight Yoakam may look like a redneck dickhead with his 10-gallon cowboy hat and pointy boots, but the boy can sing and twang with the gloriously oily, nasal finesse of no less than the great Buck Owens. He clearly isn't a redneck dickhead because he's covered Queen, the Beatles and other rock acts. (Dwight, please lose the hat so that you're never mistaken for Garth Brooks.) The anniversary reissue of his stunning debut, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., contains a live bonus CD with so much air and atmosphere that the set deserved stand-alone release two decades ago. It was the tacky, cheesy snare and dry kick drum, the fluid guitar work and the edgy fiddle underscoring his Bakersfield-by-way-of-Kentucky vocals that convinced me of the 222's merit.
This preamp slid from plucking to raunch without a hitch, a textbook lesson in the versatility of the electric guitar. All the while, that country screech from the fiddle stood stage right with Yoakam dead center and the guitars having a field day on the left. When he reaches "Ring of Fire," you can only imagine that Johnny Cash is up there right now, murmuring, "Well done, D.Y." Suddenly, I had a hankering for ribs, beans and beer, a '59 Eldorado and the trashiest, big-busted blonde ever to pole dance in Vegas.
My current standby, Mr. Big's "To Be With You," transported the performances to the studio. That huge acoustic guitar sound retained the same presence as the stage-bound fingerings of the Yoakam disc. So, too, did the assorted stringed instruments on Keb' Mo's masterpiece, Peace ... Back by Popular Demand. Both Mr. Big and Keb' Mo' confirmed that this preamp leaves voices untainted, every detail and tic present and accounted for with such total retention of the emotional content that you start doubting your allegiance to tubes, if only for a moment.
Even with the heavily-engineered sounds of studio creations like Art Garfunkel's Breakaway, the Krell was able to balance the artifice with the actual. Unlike some preamps, whose designers seemed to think that their role is to dissect rather than coordinate, the music never loses its sense of the whole. Imaging, always a Krell strength, is truly multi-dimensional, while the dynamic swings, transient attack and bass extension are exactly as you'd expect: above and beyond reproach.
Krell made only one mistake with this series: calling it Evolution. They should have called it Devolution, because the company is back where it should be, making what are probably the best-sounding solid-state components money can buy. After a few years existing as merely another upper-level brand, Krell has returned to the glory days of the KMAs and KSAs and KRCs. And the 222? I think we have a modern classic on our hands.