No single consumer electronics product category has been hurt more by poorly planned and executed HDMI upgrades over the past decade than AV preamps. While large Asian receiver companies can hope to keep up with HDMI version-"God-knows-what's-next" updates because of large engineering budgets and high sales volume, smaller audiophile companies that cautiously dipped their toes in AV preamp waters in most cases got a smack-down for their efforts. It's hard, if not impossible, to keep up with the feature sets of a modern HDMI receiver while trying to provide audiophile-grade sound.
Krell survived the rough times, mainly because the company moved up-market. The cost to do AV preamps right was quite high: the Evolution 707 AV preamp is over $30,000 and the Krell S-1200u is over $10,000. Krell isn't the only trusted high-end company to go up-market, either. Classé and Meridian products are priced up there, while players like Mark Levinson are simply out of the market, at least for now. But now, under new leadership and armed with some private equity money, Krell has made a bold statement in the AV preamp market with its latest offering. At $6,500, the Krell Foundation preamp represents the first true high-end HDMI AV preamp designed to meet the needs of the audiophile while staying well under the $10,000 price point since, say, the Sunfire Theater Grand products or Meridian G-Series AV preamps of the recent past.
Krell first showed the Foundation preamp at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show to much fanfare and excitement. HomeTheaterReview.com wasn't the only publication to gush over the unit, but we were first to get our greedy hands on a review sample. The Foundation was shown with a matching high-end media server called the Connect, which is currently shipping. It's roughly described as a Roku on steroids with an audiophile bent, which is meaningful to the Foundation, as the Connect afforded Krell the ability to keep things more simple in the preamp - which is a refreshing design philosophy in this category.
The Foundation boasts...get this...10 HDMI 1.4a inputs. People, that's a lot. How many sources do you have that use HDMI? Perhaps more than four, but 10 covers you for pretty much every conceivable source component that you could possibly own today. Let's say you are rocking a complex, modern system that includes a Blu-ray player, an Xbox and a PS3, a cable or satellite DVR, an Apple TV, and a Roku, but you also want room to add, for example, a RedRay player, the new Kalidescape server, and one of Sony's new Ultra HD servers. With 10 HDMI inputs, the Foundation has you covered. How about HDMI outputs? Krell thankfully packs two of them, which both include ARC (audio return channel) to give you full access to the source-like features of your HDTV, such as Netflix, CinemaNow, and so on. The Foundation also includes other legacy inputs, such as composite video (3) and component video (2). Analog audio outputs include a full array of both balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) outputs; thus, no matter what amps you plan to connect the Foundation preamp to, you are set.
The look and feel of the Foundation follow a simpler path than more expensive products from Krell's past. The aesthetic is unquestionably Krell, but the unit now comes in one finish - not a choice of silver or black facades. This is one of the key ways that the new Krell can keep costs down; it doesn't have to stock both colors. The company also "pulled a Vizio" by skipping me-too features like an internal video processor. Your HDTV or projector likely has a killer video processor. I know every top HDMI receiver has one built in that can "scale to 4K" but, respectfully, you don't need to be doing such up-conversion in your AV preamp. Instead, the Foundation passes the signal through bit for bit without any processing. Krell focused on what was important: lots of inputs and outputs. expensive power supplies, top-notch internal parts and so on.
The remote control is sadly an audiophile throwback. Its brick-like industrial design is pretty lacking. While you could defend your home with the chunk of metal, it doesn't feel very good in your hand. Amazingly at this price, the remote control is not backlit. I think Krell may have gone to the parts bin on this one, assuming that you, the enthusiast, would use something aftermarket - be it an entry-level Harmony or a high-end Crestron system. Either of these options is better than what ships with the Krell so, if you are considering taking the plunge, make sure you have some money reserved for system control. Personally, I am a Crestron man, but that rock-solid solution is about as expensive as it gets. The Foundation does have various control options, including RS-232.
Keeping in tune with the higher-end custom installation side of the market, the Krell rack-mount kit ($150) is refreshingly well-designed and perfect for those of us who have a fetish for a nicely designed Middle Atlantic-type rack. The Krell kit fits fantastically into a 19-inch-wide space and looks quite at home, just like my former reference AV preamp, the Classé SSP-800, did in a nicely designed rack. Installing the Foundation's rack kit requires that you remove the wraparound cover plate, which slides off the back, and replace it with one that has four screw holes to easily attach the preamp to your rack rails. The design goal was to keep the number of screws that you see to an absolute minimum of two. A small note in terms of rack-mounting the Foundation: you obviously want to give the preamp some space to breathe above and below. Also, if you want to remove the preamp, you need to take the empty rack blank panels out in order to remove the Foundation from the rack, as there is a bolt protruding a little from the bottom of the unit. For those of you not rack-mounting your Foundation, this is a non-issue.
The front faceplate is very well thought-out, especially when you consider that it is only two rack spaces tall. An LED readout sits to the right, and navigation for the menus and inputs sits to the left, as does one very welcome HDMI input on the front. The back layout is busy but not too crazy, considering its 11 HDMI ports (nine in and two out), component video, composite video, balanced and unbalanced outs, and more. The overall two-rack-space height of the Foundation is slim in comparison to today's top AV preamps and higher-end HDMI-based receivers. The unit runs pretty cool, and the pairing of the Foundation with a Krell S-1500 amplifier looks really nice.
Setup of the Foundation can be done directly via the device or via an online interface. What's odd is that you can't see the menu system on your display device, at least through the HDMI connection I used. This complicates the setup process if you'd prefer to handle things directly via the device, and it also means that you can't see volume going up and down, inputs changing, etc., during everyday use. To set up the online interface, you can get the Foundation's IP address via the menus on the front LED window or you can assign a specific IP to the unit as you see fit. Once you're connected, you can perform all the necessary setup tasks, like configuring inputs. It can be a little clunky to get your inputs assigned correctly, as you've got upwards of 16 total inputs. One nice part about buying a Foundation from a top Krell dealer is that the setup task becomes the dealer's problem, and any learning curve for the Krell online interface is also the dealer's concern. If you want to be more hands-on or DIY, you will need to take a little time to learn your way around. This is no different than, say, Meridian's setup software or that of other top receivers and AV preamps.
The Krell Foundation, in its early life, has already had a number of firmware updates that have improved functionality and reliability of this $6,500 AV preamp quite nicely. Much like setting up a new Mac or PC, you will need to check to see that you've got the latest updates. The Foundation lacks wireless connectivity, but there is a highly important hard-wired Ethernet connection that you will need for such updates. Doing the update via the network option is pretty simple; you can also update the Foundation via USB, which requires a standard micro-USB connector that is not included with the Foundation. A network connection is really the best way to keep you up to date.
Krell ARES room correction is built into the unit, and the Foundation comes with a measurement microphone, like most AV preamps of its type. Setup options include automatic speaker setup and room EQ. You can run the speaker setup and not the EQ if you like, and advanced users have the option to manually adjust the crossover and delays in the Edit section. The auto-EQ can be full-range or targeted at lower frequencies, which is an increasingly popular way to go these days for people who just want to fine-tune the setup of their LFE. You can create multiple presets for full-range EQ and lower-frequency EQ, and then toggle back and forth from the memory options to see which one you like best. When I used the opening scenes of The Dark Knight on Blu-ray to test the different auto-EQ options, it became pretty evident to me that I preferred to keep the EQ turned off. The auto-EQ seemingly limits some of the ambient detail that you can clearly hear without the EQ. The sound was more open and spacious, and the musical soundtracks were more lush and three-dimensional with the EQ off. Don't make this a major ding on the Krell; many auto-EQ products are well-intentioned, but in reality, the unit just sounds better on its own.
Read about the performance of the Krell Foundation AV preamp on Page 2.
In "Walk of Life" from Dire Straits' all-time classic audiophile demo CD, via PCM stereo ripped to my Kalidescape server, I could instantly hear pretty solid imaging and accurate micro-details. The bass was Krell-tight, yet it was pleasingly hard to specifically locate the sub in "Full Range + Sub" mode, which is the mode I generally found most enjoyable for stereo music. If you have truly full-range front speakers, perhaps you might not need a subwoofer, but I am a pretty big fan of using at least one sub, if not more. In a run-through of some of the surround modes, the results were mixed. "Party Mode" blasted stereo through all of the speakers, which isn't bad if you want to have music playing loudly for a get-together. The DTS Neo:6 music mode was good, but Dolby PL2X sounded a little more detailed.
With "Waiting for the Sun" from The Doors' Morrison Hotel album, the detail was quite good. The lower frequencies sounded taut and solid, with powerful dynamics. Robbie Krieger's noodling guitar rifts had good height to them, as well as three-dimensional space. In "Peace Frog," Jim Morrison's voice had a good heft to it, but not so much that it was heavy. The bass was solid, and the overall layering was damn good.
Moving forward a few decades to "All My Life" from The Foo Fighters' One By One, the "Full Range + Sub" mode lacked the depth and space that I heard with The Doors and Dire Straits, which are both older recordings. I actually preferred the way Dolby PLX2 brought the imaging together and brought more energy to the bass.
Moving to DVD music, I cued up Sessions on West 54th for Keb' Mo's "That's Not Love", and it was easy to hear where the Krell shone. The layering was excellent and very warm-sounding. The guitar rang sweetly and beamed across the room. On "Libertango," which features an eclectic cast of musicians built around world-renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma, the depth was equally as good, but the three-dimensionality wasn't there. The accordion sounded pretty rich. Call me crazy, but I like the Grace Jones cover better.
Upgrading to concert videos on Blu-ray, I began with "Out in the Street" from Springsteen Live in Hyde Park. The Foundation was a massive improvement over the far-less-expensive Marantz AV8801 AV preamp. With the Marantz, the soundstage was more disjointed. With the Foundation, you actually felt like you could hear the entire width of the stage ... and it was massively wide. In "Born to Run," I could not only hear the depth of the band's texture, but also sense the grandeur of 500,000 fans jamming out to one of their favorite songs. The piano "pick slides" (to use a guitar term) were vibrant and detailed, qualities that could easily get lost in the mix on other, lesser preamps. On this track, I would look to products like the $15,000 DataSat AV preamp for a comparison to the Krell's performance, and that is some very high praise, considering the nearly threefold increase in price for such a pro-grade AV preamp.
Moving to movies, I watched Chapter 11 of the Argo Blu-ray disc, where the "cast" is escaping Tehran on the Swiss Air flight, and I enjoyed a real audio treat. The whirling engines of the vintage 747-200 sounded real and engaging. The director's cuts from inside the plane, where the Americans are quietly sweating their clandestine escape, to the mania of the Iranians trying to catch them before they take off, made for an exciting home theater event. As the chase vehicles catch up to the 747, the excellent surround effects moved clearly from side to side and back and forth. The slam of the Iranians busting down the door of the air traffic control center had both pop and authority. Once the flight is outside of Iranian air space, the Hollywood soundtrack was lush and musical.
The train chase scene from Skyfall, in DTS-HD Master Audio, offered great sonic contrasts between the events at the train and at headquarters. The whipping of chains while James Bond fights atop the train had good zest. The blend between the orchestration and the action effects was nicely represented. The final kill shot at the end of the scene exploded with power, and the ensuing splash was rich.
The Foundation's ability to resolve dialog was well highlighted in the scene from Silver Linings Playbook where Jennifer Lawrence calmly takes a frantic and hysterical Robert De Niro to school on why the Eagles lost. The scene is funny, and the dialog is dead on, not just because I can't figure out why my Eagles always lose (look, I'm from Philly, and this stuff is important to me), but because the Foundation's handling of the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack made for a first-rate home theater experience. Male voices had weight and great accuracy, while Lawrence's voice was forceful but well-mixed and believably presented.
The Foundation's room correction, much like that of other AV preamps above and below the $6,500 price point, leaves something to be desired. I am sure Audyssey costs a fortune to license for a smaller company like Krell and, respectfully, the only time that I've really liked Audyssey was with a highly modified Wisdom Audio speaker system.
Krell's surround sound modes range from okay to pretty weak. I'd like to see something like Meridian's Trifield (a three-channel-plus-sub audiophile effect), where you simply get more of your high-end speakers in on the party for stereo music.
The online interface is very 1986-looking. Modern high-end products need to deliver a better look and feel than this, and the cost wouldn't be much to get a professional graphic designer to make this key interface to look more "Apple-like." (Though, Krell assures me a new design is coming this week and will be available to download.) Speaking of Apple, I know it costs a stone-cold fortune to add Airplay, but try telling a Millennial who someday might consider popping for a $6,500 AV preamp why his or her iPad or iPhone doesn't connect perfectly, as it can with a $450 Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin; he or she won't understand. Maybe the Connect box will employ such a feature when it comes out.
Comparison and Competition
The Krell Foundation's price point is likely one of its best attributes, in that most high-end, audiophile-grade AV preamps come in priced at $10,000 and higher. Meridian's G-Series comes in closer to the Foundation's price, but the features on the Krell are far more modern and forward-looking, especially when you consider how Meridian deals with HDMI compared with Krell. At the higher level, you have Krell's own 1200u AV preamp, but more relevant would be the Anthem D2V preamp and the Classé SSP-800 AV preamp. The Anthem is a killer AV preamp with great, homemade room correction at a $9,000 price point. The Classé is more of an audiophile comparison with a far better industrial design, great internal processors, and very high-end DACs under the hood. At $9,500, the Classé SSP-800 is a force, but it's also a lot more cash than the new Krell Foundation, which will exclude some buyers. Looking to the lower end, there are offerings from Integra and Marantz, as well as Cary Audio. For more AV preamp reviews from nearly every top AV manufacturer on the planet, check out our resource page.
How did Sunfire and Meridian blow this price point from the mid-2000s? Home theater enthusiasts who wanted premium sound without shelling out five figures bought thousands of preamps in this range. Hell, back then Krell was a major player in the pre-HDMI AV preamp market, before national chains like Ultimate Electronics and Tweeter went Chapter 7. Today is a different story, and the Krell Foundation AV preamp represents a forward-thinking product at a price point that is expensive but not crazy. Let's call it "aspirational" for many AV enthusiasts, and that's a breath of fresh air, as too many top products cost well above $10,000.
The performance of the Krell Foundation is there. The platform is seemingly pretty solid, and the setup flexibility is first-rate. Sonically, audiophiles will be satisfied, and for movies, it's hard to do better than the Krell Foundation AV preamp in terms of performance. There should be no question as to why the Foundation AV preamp is one of the hottest, hardest-to-get products in specialty audio-video right now. If you can get your hands on one, do it. You won't be disappointed.