Krell Evolution 402e Stereo Amplifier Reviewed

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Krell-Evolution-402e-reviewed.gifWhen you think of Krell electronics you're probably a lot like me, you envision large, silver or black clad hunks of steel that house enough power to jumpstart a small planet. Krell has always been about taking it to eleven and to hell with the status quo - more is always better. One only has to glance upon the Krell family tree of products to see what I'm on about, for everything Krell has made since their inception has been bigger, louder, more expensive and just down right nuts. That's why I love 'em and have been a fan since I first laid eyes on the KAV-300iintegrated amp way back in high school.


But times they are a changing. The wanton excesses of just a few years ago have caught up with us and we've begun to shift our collective consciousness from buy, buy, buy to save, save, save. Where we once would've looked at a $2,500 HDTV and said, "Can I get 12 months same as cash with that," we now wait 12 months until we actually have the cash. It's a different world.

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The high-end audio/video space hasn't been spared, as many manufacturers have shuttered their doors or have been forced to scale back in an attempt to weather the storm. Dealers, the life's blood of the specialty high-end marketplace, are going out of business at such a rate that it's hard to keep up with all of them. Krell has had its share of bumps in the road too, with the unceremonious departure of its founder Dan D'Agostino in the fall of 2009 that left many of us in the home theater and audiophile community wondering if Krell was going to be the next giant to fall prey to an ailing economy.

It turns out that Krell is just fine and if the Evolution 402e reviewed here is any indication I'd say they're just getting warmed up.

The Evolution 402 retails for $18,500, which is a lot of cheese given the economy that I've just described; however compared to the competition the 402e is quite possibly a high-end bargain. So what does your eighteen-five get you? For starters the 402e is stunning to behold, though there is little that has changed visually from the previous 402. Hey, if it isn't broke don't fix it. The 402e's casework is phenomenal and one hundred percent Krell, measuring in at a staggering 17 inches wide by nearly 10 inches tall and 22 inches deep and tipping the scales at a back breaking 135 pounds. The front fascia features a vertical "stripe" of aluminum that bares Krell's name as well as the amp's model number, all resting above the 402e's large, circular standby/on button. The button glows blue when the amp is on and running and can glow green or red depending on how you have the 402e configured to run in standby mode.

One of the new features of the 402e over its predecessor is the addition of an eco friendly mode, which drops the 402e's standby power consumption from 370 watts to two. You read that correctly, the old 402e, in standby, drew 370 watts of total power whereas the new 402e can be configured to suck only two watts of power in standby. I say configured because you can still set up the 402e to be "percolating" all the time by holding in the front power button and powering off the main breaker then back on before releasing the button. This will cause the 402e's on/standby button to now glow red and raise the standby power draw back to 370 watts as well as require less time for the 402e to "warm up" for a critical listening session. Personally, I tried this procedure once but never left it engaged, for I'd rather wait 15 to 30 minutes for the amp to be ready to rock and roll and then have Southern California Edison watch my meter like a slot machine dial when I'm not home.

Around back the 402e is pretty straightforward with zero changes over the original 402. Looking at the back panel starting on the left side and moving down you'll find the 402e's inputs, which consist of Krell's CAST system as well as a pair of balanced and unbalanced audio inputs. Below the 402e's inputs rest two pairs of large, wing nut style binding posts that are nicely spaced, easy to tighten and can accept bare and spade terminated speaker cable. Along the right side of the back panel are the 402e's 12-volt triggers and backlight controls. In the lower right hand corner you'll find a simple, plastic switch, which is the 402e's main power breaker and a detachable power cord receptacle.

Inside is where most of the changes to the 402 have been made in order to transform it into the 402e. Power output remains the same at 400 watts per channel into eight Ohms, 800 watts per channel into four Ohms and 1,600 watts per channel into two Ohms, which is more than enough power to drive even the thirstiest of loudspeakers regardless of their size or the venue. The 402e now has an upgraded power supply, which includes a new toroidal transformer for the digital control circuitry as well as a substantial increase in capacitive power supply reserves which now rests at 170,000uF up from 132,000 as with the original 402. Krell has further refined their Active Cascode Topology with the 402e by being able to balance, more precisely, the current sharing among the seven sets of Active Cascode Quartets that are found in the 402e's output stage. For those of you unfamiliar with Krell's Active Cascode Topology, it basically takes the positive and negative rail voltages and spreads them out across rows of individual transistors designed to handle only certain portions of the incoming voltage, thus allowing the transistors to perform more efficiently as well as cut down on the amplifier's generation of negative feedback, which degrades sound quality.

Yes, but how does it sound?

The Hookup
How I came to get my hands on the first ever production model of the 402e began at CES this past January: I went to a Krell press event where they were demonstrating an early production model of the 402e along with their new Blu-ray player. There were a few audiophile and home theater journalists in attendance and needless to say we were all very impressed. I was so impressed that I immediately went to Krell's Director of Global Sales and Marketing, Bill McKiegan, and requested a review sample on the spot. A few weeks later the 402e arrived on my doorstep, much to the chagrin of the delivery guy.

Unpacking the 402e is a job for two people or your custom installer; however it can be done solo, though I don't recommend it. I installed the 402e in my reference system, naturally, positioning it on the floor between my Revel Studio2 loudspeakers and connecting the two via a pair of eight-foot Transparent Reference speaker cables. I went ahead and connected my Mark Levinson 326S preamp to the 402e via a pair of balanced Transparent Reference interconnects. For sources I utilized my Mark Levinson 512 CD/SACD player and trusty AppleTV, both connected to the 326S using Transparent Reference cables.

I should point out that I had an ulterior motive for wanting the 402e in my home besides just being able to review it. During its brief stint in my reference system I was hard at work finishing postproduction on my latest film "In The Darkness." After hearing the 402e at CES I wanted to have it for our final mixing sessions on the film, since we were mastering the film in high-resolution stereo. So, we bypassed all of my Mark Levinson equipment and ran the 402e straight from my sound designer's Pro Tools rig for the better part of a week while we finalized the film's sound design and score.

I let the 402e break in for the better part of a week before beginning any critical evaluation and/or using it to master any of the film's soundtracks.

At Krell's 2010 CES press event which I spoke about earlier, they played one of my all time favorite Diana Krall tracks, "A Case of You" from her Live in Paris album. I know this song inside and out and have never heard it reproduced as well as it was during the Krell demo at CES. As impressed as I was, I had to take it with a grain of salt, for hotel or trade show demos are often marred by bad room acoustics and poor setup, though I'd argue if it sounds good a trade show it's bound to sound better at home.

That being said, I tested my theory and loaded up Diana Krall's Live in Paris and skipped ahead to the song "A Case of You." While my home system is based around a pair of Revel Studio2 loudspeakers, versus the Krell Modulari Duos used at CES, the sound was remarkably similar and really showcased the 402e's ability to maintain its supreme performance despite changes in ones system. The opening notes were round, lush and hung beautifully in space between my speakers. However it was the reverberation and concussion of the piano's hammers against the strings that gave me goose bumps. The air being moved around inside Krall's concert grand bordered on tactile and added an even greater sense of air, space and dimension to the performance even after the notes themselves faded into oblivion to make way for the next. Krall's vocals had an in-room presence unlike anything I'd ever heard in my system. Despite "A Case of You" being from a live recording my seat was right next to Krall with the Paris audience extending for miles behind my front wall. The 402e's ability to recreate - scratch that - transform ones listening environment into the venue or recording space is uncanny and begs belief.

Since "A Case of You" featured Krall by herself with her piano I went ahead and left Paris in search of something a little heavier and uncovered one of my favorite 90's bands, Barenaked Ladies, and their album Born on a Pirate Ship (Reprise). Starting with the track "The Old Apartment" the 402e stunned me with its sheer precision and effortless detail. The opening drumbeat had such presence and weight that it actually caught me off guard for a moment, it was as if Krell had snuck a drum kit into my listening room in the few seconds I looked away to get my paper and pen ready to take notes. I was stunned, for nothing, not even the mighty Mark Levinson No 53s, were able to get me to suspend my belief in thinking there was a real drum kit in my house. The sound coming out of my Revel Studio2s courtesy of the 402e was so palpable, natural and effortless it felt as if I wasn't listening to any electronic equipment at all, replaced instead with live music, which is quite a feat considering Born on a Pirate Ship is a studio recorded album, unlike Diana Krall's Live in Paris I demoed earlier. I won't say that the 402e managed to fully fool me into thinking I was listening to a live event, but no amp has come closer to achieving this feat, in my system, than this. Everything that passed through the 402e was brought into supreme but appropriate focus. The background was dead silent, which only made the 402e's dynamic prowess all the more visceral and real. High frequencies were reproduced with such grace, texture and air that the trailing edges of notes, especially the cymbal crashes, seemed to go on and on and on, hanging delicately in space. Past Krell amplifiers have been criticized for being a bit to sharp and clinical in the treble region, an old observation that has since plagued Krell to some degree. Well, we can put that to rest, for the 402e is one of the purest, dare I say, most analog sounding amplifiers I've heard when it comes to high frequency reproduction.

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