Krell KAV-300i Integrated Amp reviewed

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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.

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