I'll never forget my fourteenth birthday, as my Dad got me a killer present from Bryn Mawr Stereo which was a complete audio system including a pair of Polk speakers, a Nakamichi Music Bank CD changer and a remote controlled NAD receiver. This system would start not just my passion for audio, but would lead to a career in specialty audio that included an early gig selling gear at Bryn Mawr Stereo en route to even more high end locales in Southern California like Christopher Hansen Ltd. and Mark Levinson's Cello Music and Film Los Angeles.
Of the products in my system that I got for my birthday - the NAD integrated amp was one of the most notable components. It was basically a receiver with a nice remote and enough power to blast the artful music Yngwie J. Malmsteen loudly enough for me to try (and I mean really try) to keep up with while also poorly playing my guitar along with tracks like "Far Beyond The Sun" and other D&D fabulous, Nordic-inspired, shred guitar themes. That NAD integrated amp lasted me for years and served as a gateway drug to a lot more audiophila. It didn't take me too long to scrounge up enough money to add a B&K ST140 power amp and grew my system around it until later down the road when I got into more esoteric and expensive equipment. I never thought I would agree with Nancy Reagan on anything but that NAD receiver was the gateway drug to one hell of an addiction.
20 years later as a "recovering audiophile," but still with plenty of Yngwie records ripped from old Compact Discs to iTunes - I found myself considering the purchase of an integrated amp again. While my dedicated listening/theater room is where I invested in gear like Revel Ultima Salon2s, Mark Levinson N° 436 mono amps, Classé electronics, RPG room treatments and Transparent Reference cable - it is in my living room that I found myself listening to more and more music. The days of listening to DVD-Audio and SACD discs in a dark room by myself weren't as compelling as listening to music via a ReQuest F-Series server via in-wall Creston keypad control. Over the years and specifically as media servers got better and better, my Elan digital amp was cutting it to audiophile standards. I mean no disrespect to the Elan as it still powers my PSB in-wall subwoofers today, but overall it didn't ultimately have the audiophile chops to get me there, as I had moved to a fully uncompressed audio system using AppleTV with 1440 mbps files and on-screen menus via a Panasonic 50
Pro plasma calibrated by Kevin Miller. The fact was I needed some more beef in the living room system and that is exactly where Krell comes in.
Offered at an audiophile-reasonable retail price of $2,500, the Krell S300i integrated amp is the easiest way to get into high-end power this side of some of the exiting digital amps out there, from the likes of NuForce and others. The unit packs a real 150 Watts per channel of power (into eight Ohms) including a stereotypically Krell major toroidal transformer that gives this Krell - well, it's Krell sound. The unit is remote controlled and has fully balanced operation for reportedly lower noise. The Krell S-300i has one balanced input and three pairs of single ended (RCA) inputs as well as - get this - an iPod input. This is no stuck-in-the-1970s audiophile company, as they know that the people buying this unit would likely be using a music server at some level or another. Additionally, the Krell S-300i has RS232 connection, which would be key for my installation.
Installation of my Krell was a bit tricky as the unit sits in my gym's cabinet, which backs up to the wall where the speakers are installed. The wires come through the wall nicely but control of the Krell was somewhat of an issue. In the past I used an in-wall keypad from Crestron to control my ReQuest F-Series server in my theater, but the cost of upgrading my Crestron keypad (even with some help from my dealer) was cost prohibitive, so we decided to use AppleTV (also installed in the gym) and a Benchmark HD DAC into the Krell, which would be run via my recently repaired Panasonic 50 inch plasma using a handheld Crestron remote. This required RS232 connections, which the Krell smartly had and all custom installers demand. IR is sketchy and RF control is clearly better, but having all of your gear hard wired makes controlling a system installed in another room a lot easier and more reliable.
The weight of the Krell S-300i is something to consider for many rooms. We first installed it on the top shelf in the gym room but the 42 pounds of Krell plus a few other components made us rethink that move; thus the unit got relocated to the bottom shelf. Later during intense listening sessions with the unit - the Samsung Blu-ray player for the gym was removed from the top of the Krell, as I was able to get it to overheat and politely go into protection. Making sure you leave some breathing room for a Krell S-300i is a good idea when planning your installation.
I started by testing the Krell S-300i with my iPod attached, as I was compelled to see how this would work out despite the fact that I wasn't going to likely use this option because of control issues based around the gear being in the other room. I am sure the Crestron programmer could have come up with something to make the iPod work in the other room but I wanted to use AppleTV for a better interface, Internet radio and the ability to use an audiophile grade DAC. Things worked out nicely with my iPod test but sonically the limiting factor of the system was the iPod itself. I had to copy some lossless files including some tracks from Electric Ladyland and Pink Floyd's The Wall onto my iPod, as I didn't have a lot of uncompressed music on it since I have been using my iPad more and more lately for portable music. The tracks sounded suitable but the internal DAC in the iPod is much better designed for ear buds or even higher end headphones than for playback in an audiophile grade system like this. I give Krell major kudos for putting in an iPod input and I think a lot of people will use it, but a source like an AppleTV with an outboard DAC (remember the current AppleTV has the same DAC as the iPod) connected digitally and/or an audiophile grade source like an Oppo Digital BD83se or the Cambridge Audio Azur 650BD DVD-Audio/SACD/Blu-ray player are more suitable for a power amp integrated like the Krell S-300i.
Back in the living room with Crestron in hand, I got down to some serious music. While I will spare you from my Yngwie indulgences, as my axes have been in storage for years and I never really got those three octave, 64 note sweep-picked arpeggios to sound even close to the real thing. What I was able to play was "Long Hot Summer Night" from The Jimi Hendrix Experience's epic Electric Ladyland. Unlike some tracks on this groundbreaking and still highly relevant album, this track has a lot of space around the instruments yet has complexities with the background vocal overdubs. On the solo, I found myself jacking the volume higher and higher (thankfully my wife wasn't home as this type of audio insanity is generally reserved for the theater room and involves a fistful of Balvenie 21 portwood with a few drops of water).
Inspired by my Electric Ladyland Experience, I got up from my living room seating position and headed into my Mac Pro to find the UK (naked chick) cover art for the album and returned back to see the ladies of Polydoor Records in London in all of their glory. Jimi legendarily did really have a way with the women even in the late 1960s. As the story is told 40 years later, Hendrix returned to the English label's offices to promote the record along with a photographer and convinced all of the young women to undress for a photo for the UK album cover. (Warning - especially if you own your own company - do not try this at work today no matter how many Jimi Hendrix fans you have on your staff). On "Still Raining Still Dreaming" the bursts from the Crybaby wha-wha pedal on Hendrix's Strat were wonderfully dynamic and engaging without ever being too bold, too strong or overwhelming. They sounded powerfully controlled like you expect from bigger dollar Krell components. The organ farther back in the mix is warm, rich, yet still detailed. On lesser amps, you can lose the detail of the organ on this track. On "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" the first entry to the onslaught of the main musical theme held up with the grace that you expect from a true audiophile component with big inwall speakers singing at a level that I promise you most people wouldn't believe. My PSBs have never been happier then when powered with Krell.
Moving up a decade or two, I cued up a hidden demo that I really love in Van Halen's "Take Your Whisky Home" from Women and Children First. The acoustic intro speaks to the Van Halen tradition of always bringing some guitar acrobatics to all of the Diamond Dave era albums and this song delivers in spades. Like the earlier Hendrix track - you could hear space around Eddie Van Halen's acoustic guitar that had the presence that you might expect from a Dr. Chesky demo disc but then segues into the luscious "brown sound" and big Van Halen, highly produced sound - the kind of sound that has you reaching for the volume control to get more and more of. While somewhat dated today, the glossy sound of "Women In Love" with what I believe to be is an MXR Phase 90 analog pedal (another staple of "the brown sound") in full effect on Eddie's guitar - the track shows a little more finesse and space which the Krell's vast power reserve delivers in spades. In the first few notes you can almost hear the analog hiss of the effect pedal and the blur of the effect doesn't sound blurry when listening to the Krell in my system. It just sounds authentically Van Halen and my friends... that is a very good thing.
Like throwing Albert Pujols an 82 MPH fastball in the ninth inning with runners in scoring position and a playoff spot on the line - I dialed in the guilty pleasure demo track of "Hella Good" by No Doubt. Don't make fun of me here until you buy the track or better yet buy the CD and rip the sucker onto your server. This electro-pop jam opens with a tight snare and quickly adds some sick low bass as the first verse develops. Gwen Stefani's raspy, retro vocals quickly suck you in as the catchy chorus layers enough Gwen until you have one massively compelling mix. In the past, this isn't a track that I liked playing in the living room because the Elan amp couldn't produce the levels of resolution and/or deliver the bass control that the Krell can. With the Elan doing work on the two subwoofers and with the woofers dialed down a bit in the new configuration - I would play this track for anyone who wants to hear my system, including recently a former president of the Audio Engineering Society (AES) who noted that the system doesn't sound like any in-walls that he's ever heard. Thank you, Krell.
While my system isn't a 5.1 or 7.1 configuration - I don't really mind as my wife and I often play movies and TV soundtracks through this system. I think the uncompressed analog stereo outputs of most of today's best Blu-ray titles are vastly underrated in terms of audio quality. Trust me, with a little volume and well tuned subwoofers in your rig - you can get better sounding audio than you can on anything but the most cutting edge audiophile tracks from you movies. Hot Tub Time Machine (MGM) was a recent spin from a Netflix Blu-ray rental. While the movie had some issues for me including Chevy Chase basically repeating his repairman role from Fletch - the movie was laugh-out-loud funny at times. The in and out of the time machine swirling audio effects, while clearly studio manufactured, were believable, dynamic and resolute. While watching NHL hockey games like the rebroadcast of the tremendous comeback by my Philadelphia Flyers in Game 7 in this year's Boston Bruin's series (NHL Network) - the fan noise had detail and the crunches into the boards (which were well miced) had impact and power. The down three-goal comeback when down three games to zero in the series helped in my enjoyment too.
Comparison and Competition
In today's market there are a lot of choices for an integrated amp including competition from pretty fantastic AV receivers that can also pull off every trick in the book, from 7.1 DTS Master Audio to 3D HDMI 1.4 pass-through and much more. Some of the best receivers out there that compete in the same space as the Krell are the recently reviewed but far less expensive Onkyo TX-SR608 and the Sherwood Newcastle R-972 receiver at $1,799. Hitting a little closer to home you have to look at products like the NAD C725BEE receiver at $799, the Outlaw Audio RR2120 receiver and looking towards separate components you could look at components like the NuForce Reference 9 v3 power amps and or the Benchmark DAC1 HDR D/A preamp like I used with the AppleTV. On the high end and for way more money - there is always the beefy $18,500 Krell FBI integrated amp, which is truly a beast that can literally drive any speaker that I can think of. At the reference level, it would be wrong not to mention the lust-worthy Krell Evolution 402e amp, which is getting rave reviews everywhere.
The volume knob looks like the one on the Krell Evolution 707 $30,000 AV preamp, but it doesn't feel like it. It feels a bit light and plasticky. I guess compromises have to be made somewhere but if you use the unit without the remote - the volume control is a bit chintzy. The rest of the unit looks fantastic and the build quality is very solid.
Speaking of the remote, it's a total audiophile brick. It's big. It's not backlit. It's hard to use and it weighs a ton. Literally, a $299 Harmony Remote would be better and I could see many using just that for a Krell S-300i based system. In my case, the entry level Crestron worked great via RS232, especially considering the fact that the amp was installed in another room.
The integrated amp is a balanced design but it doesn't offer balanced outputs, which limits you using the Krell S-300i as a preamp as your system grows. The unit does have unbalanced outputs; thus you can use it as a preamp but it's not a balanced preamp per se. Nitpicking, I know.
Heat is somewhat of an issue but it's easily solved by installing the unit with enough room to breathe. Like a fool, I didn't do this at the start and ran into issues. I should have known better. As mentioned earlier and with most all Krell products - weight is a consideration. The S-300i doesn't weigh in like a 402e or the Krell FBI but it's also not an Onkyo receiver. This is a heavyweight fighter so prepare to give it some room.
With Andrew Robinson's review of the stunning Krell 402e stereo power amp, we got some reader feedback complaining on how we could call an $18,000 amp a value. Compared to $30,000 and $50,000 amps - the Krell sounds better, looks better and uses less power, but we also hear what the readers are saying as it's a Recession and not everyone has a cool $20,000 to plunk down on an amp to meet their audiophile needs. That includes me. That's why I popped for $2,500 for the Krell S-300i amp. You get the most audiophile bang for your buck without going the digital amp route (which I seriously considered) while delivering audiophile power with Krell style.
Sonically, the highs on Krell amps have improved vastly over the years. In terms of bass - it's hard to do better than Krell even with their entry level integrated amp. As with the music examples above and when using a media server like the AppleTV/Benchmark combo - the Krell S-300i reeks of audio relevance while dripping in audiophile credibility. In a world where I can get gear for free or on loan - I wrote a check for the Krell S-300i. It's that good. It's an integrated amp that has changed the way I enjoy music by getting me out of the dedicated theater room and into the main part of my house. Additionally, like the NAD receiver of my youth - the Krell S-300i has inspired me to buy more audiophile gear, including the Benchmark DAC and a pending investment in a 65-inch plasma to replace my 50 inch model. I couldn't ask more from a $2,500 integrated amp or be happier with my investment.