Classroom doodling, playing the Lottery - whatever forms of dreaming take your fancy, there are some fantasies you're too realistic to entertain. And not just because Ferrari has already signed this year's drivers. I mean: who'd've thought that Dan D'Agostino would even consider releasing an integrated amplifier? Just uttering the phrase 'Krell Integrated Amp' is almost heretical, and you expect lightning bolts from Connecticut to shoot right up your arse. But here it is in front of me, representing the new 'entry level' for one of the most prestigious makes in all of hi-fi-dom. And it more than hints at new directions for the doyen of powerhouse amp builders.
We should have seen it coming. Were there not clues in the move toward a comprehensive home theatre system, the modular five-channel amplifier, the forthcoming pre-amp with on-board surround facilities, the ever-increasingly-sophisticated remote control facilties? It's all addressed in - to give it its full title - the KAV-300i Remote Control Integrated Amplifier. It wears the new look, with rounded fascia edges and chamfered accents, press buttons replacing rotaries, a balanced input, operation via a remote control that works other Krell components. And the 'KAV' stands for 'Krell Audio Video'. What it doesn't share with its siblings are dimensions requiring a housing change, or a price tag approachable only coke dealers and rock stars.
No, it's not exactly cheap at £2490, but you do get a lot for the money...and a product wearing the hallowed 'K' in a circle. Now that I think of it, the new logo looks like the brand on a steer's hindquarter. Head 'em up, move 'em out, and all that. The baby KAV measures 475x387x92mm (WDH), compact yet impressive enough because of the Krell house style. Think sinister, think domineering, think whatever you like: the KAV-300i looks serious. Then you lift it: 11.4kg...an awful lot for an integrated amplifier. Even one which delivers 150W/ch into 8 ohms or 300W (yes, three big ones) into 4 ohms.
No, this is not a finger-singeing Krell but a partial Class A design. The KAV-300i is based on traditional Krell designs, made from no-compromise parts selection, bomb-proof construction and wide-bandwidth, fully discrete, complementary circuitry. And it is pure Class A up to the driver stage. The switching is purely digital and isolated from the 100 percent dual-mono signal path. Volume is accomplished via a precision two-channel electronic gain control, and the unit accepts three single-ended and one balanced input, plus tape. (Note: the review sample arrived two weeks before the CE regulations came into effect. It sported gold-plated phono and pro-grade XLR socketry, an IEC mains input and speaker binding posts which accept banana plugs. Units in the shops after publication may differ from the review sample.)
Styled and sized like current Krell pre-amps, the KAV-300i wears a row of short-throw press-buttons across its front panel, and you'll rarely use them once you've gotten past the nasty feel of the all-plastic remote controller. (As was pointed out to me by a rather defensive distributor, the all-metal remote controls familiar to past Krell owners cost around 10 percent of an entire KAV-300i and are therefore believed to be too costly to supply with a sub-£2500 unit.) At the extreme left is the power standby button, the unit remaining in warmed-up stand-by mode when switched off by the remote or the on-off button rather than at the wall. The two lights above it provide red for standby and blue for operational. The blue light also flashes when the unit is receiving commands from the hand controller.
Next in line is the receptor for the remote signals, followed by press buttons for the source inputs and tape, volume 'up' and volume 'down' buttons and a row of red LEDs to give a visual indication of level status. Note that, although the volume change is constant and in very fine steps, there are only 11 LEDs; the number suggests a familiarity with the work of that great band, Spinal Tap. Accessible only from the remote is balance adjustment, in 1dB increments; an extra LED indicates when that same row of 11 red LEDs indicates balance or level, the system reverting to the latter after five seconds of control inactivity. Mute is available from the remote and, neatly, by pressing on the active source's button, a pretty clever touch for minimising the number of buttons to avoid technofear. An LED indicates mute-on status. The remote also operates other Krell products and, hurrah!, various Philips-based CD players, like the Marantz CD12.
A cleverly disguised mute facility, a remote control which might happen to operate your non-Krell CD player and a delightful dearth of buttons aren't the only novelties on offer; Krell has added another neat feature which reconfirms the company's commitment to home theatre, even in their least expensive amplification device. Supplied with the KAV-300i is a special T-10 Torx wrench to allow you to access a switch inside the unit. It converts the third single-ended input (labelled S-3) into a unity gain stage for 'Theatre Throughput'. When S-3 is selected in this mode, the KAV-300i's volume and balance controls are disabled, the control over levels being transferred to the A/V surround sound processor connected to input S-3. The KAV-300i also sports a pair of extra outputs to allow it to be used solely as a pre-amplifier.
A tendency to assess like with like almost cost me the experience of one of the nicest pairings - however unnatural - I've heard in hi-fi since I hooked up the Unison Research Smart 845 to the Wilson WATT/Puppy System V. Because the Krell isn't exactly a budget item, I contemplated using it only with speakers in the £1000 per-pair-and-upward category, with a slight dalliance with the Wilsons for a laugh. It was immediately apparent that this integrated amplifier suffered no lack of power, even a quick bout with the wattage-hungry Extremas failing to fluster the KAV-300i. And the amp just adored Sonus Fabers. But how could I resist having a little fun by trying the Krell with the Sonus Faber Concertinos (or should that be Concertini?), which cost just under a quarter of the price?
Read more about the KAV-300i on Page 2.
As a rule, I don't have a problem with such unholy mismatches; I mentioned the 'like with like' scenario only because it is forced upon reviewers. You lot seem to think it's unforgivable if not exactly perverse for a reviewer to try, say, 7000-worth of Audio Research power with a pair of LS3/5As, or running a sub- 500 Trilogy pre-amp with a power amp costing ten times that price. Why? Because we've been conditioned to allocate portions of our budgets in relatively 'sensible' percentages, enough people having been burned 15 years ago when some twat said that a 1000 system should consist of a Linn Sondek and a ghetto blaster. Anyway, I couldn't resist hooking up the Concertini and the result was bliss...even though I know that this smallest of Krells could probably do a decent job with SLAMMs.
But that's just an aside, one designed to reassure those of you with a hankering for Krell that you don't have to match its 2500-ish ticket with the same amount again for speakers. Indeed, I even swapped the Marantz CD12 for a CD63SE, to create the most (financially) unbalanced system imaginable: 2500 for the amplification, less than a grand for the CD player AND the speakers. But the results were, yet again, pleasantly surprising. But enough pandering to poverty. Here's what Krell's first integrated amplifier, wondrous ergonomics aside, can do for you:
However much your upbringing tells you that a product this dimensionally challenged cannot possibly pump out power like its big brothers, the KAV-300i never betrays its single-chassis, highly condensed status. If this is Krell Lite, then think of it as all the sweetness and none of the calories. It can, if so desired, perform like an animal, and it did not clip into the Wilsons nor the Extremas before my ears did. Do not, I repeat, do not insult either your local high-end retailer nor Krell nor yourselves by regarding the purchase of a KAV-300i as any sort of compromise. The only thing it won't do is impress people who think that a huge chassis is a sign of amplifier excellence.
Once you get past the shock of so much grunt for so little a sacrifice in shelf-space, you learn that the Krell sings even more sweetly than its Class A brethren. Was it deliberately 'voiced' to behave more politely than its separates siblings? Maybe the conditioning of matching like with like affects designers, too, who might assume that an integrated amp, even an expensive one, will never be asked to drive cost-no-object thoroughbreds. So you make it less demanding, less brutally revealing. But that's not the case, because the Krell rose to the high-end occasion. And I don't mean only with its penchant for bombast.
Mannered enough to cut the mustard with the acoustic set, the KAV-300i showed a delicate side that had me and certain friends nodding with admiration through Bobby McFerran, Keb' Mo', Big Daddy and all manner of uncluttered recordings, unplugged and otherwise. Low level detail, ambience, soundstage proportions, image positioning - all were reproduced with the kind of precision which identifies the larger Krell offerings, making the KAV-300i sound 'grown up'. Weird choice of words, I know, but integrated amps are like children relative to the adult posturings of separates (and their owners), so the sheer competence and lack of compromise make this a stand-out among single-chassis amplifiers. The midband clarity, the transparency and transient speed (both high and low frequency) were nothing short of remarkable, with dynamic swings that suggested something even bigger at work.
Character? The Krell so smooth and, well, nice that it improves the balance of the potentially wayward Concertino, enough so the combination seems as perfect as gin and tonic or Nick and Nora. Which is why I'm so enamoured of the two together. Even so, excess lushness has been kept at bay, thus avoiding accusations of inaccuracy or the aforementioned desire to compensate for lesser ancillaries. And the only trait which needs attention in terms of selecting the rest of a system with this Krell as its heart is a slight tendency for the amp to sound thin at the bottom, even with small-ish speakers acting like high-pass filters.
But don't let that deter you for even a millisecond. Not only is the KAV-300i the perfect realisation of a fantasy many of us never expected to materialise - a Krell that's nearly affordable! - it's also a Krell that's easy to house, easy to install and easy to use. Oh, and even easier to enjoy. It is, without any question, one of those rare examples of High-End for Everyman, exotic amplification without the tears and a dream come true for those with budget constraints. Or, to put it another way, it truly is a Krell in miniature.