Like surprises? Then how about the emergence of Krell as a purveyor of components recommendable for (dare I say it…) value for money? Not that the company ever short-changed anybody. It’s just that Krell – like Jeff Rowland, Mark Levinson, Cello, and anyone else you care to name of a primarily high-end persuasion – doesn’t quite figure prominently in the ‘entry-level’ arena. I mean, NAD and Adcom execs do not lose sleep wondering what Krell’s cooking up for the coming season. And while a brand’s least expensive products qualify, by definition, as that brand’s entry-level, one man’s bargain is another man’s mortgage.*
This renaissance, this unveiling of Krell For The Common Man, started with the KAV- 300i integrated amp, a product which has caused as much of a buzz for Krell world-wide as did the original KSA-50 power amp. For those who could afford a couple of thou for amplification but not much more, it meant the chance to acquire a true Krell power source, and in a single chassis, to boot.
Doubters might have pointed to the rest of the catalogue, citing a range not exactly aimed at middle income groups, while possibly regarding Krell’s integrated largesse as a one-off, a fluke, but Krell has followed the ‘300i with a pre-amp fifty bucks shy of the $3000 mark. And it’s an absolute marvel. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that it betters the previous range’s flagship pre-amp, the pre-‘HR’ KRC. And I swore by that baby for years.
It’s as if Krell has moved its own goal-posts. To a list of priorities which previously included (to these ears, anyway) near-microscopic detail retrieval, jaw-dropping dynamic capabilities, unrivaled speed, and blinding transparency, are now to be added an even more convincing sense of scale, better three-dimensionality, and genuine warmth – and at a lower price point. It’s as if, all of a sudden, Dan D’Agostino has become a born-again Italian, tempering science with passion in a way that only the designers from that nation can.**
Naturally, the thing has to look and feel like a genuine Krell product if it’s supposed to convince the customer that it’s real rather than a surrogate. So, on aesthetics alone, the KRC-3 could be mistaken for a Krell control unit costing three or four times as much, its sectioned front panel – three charcoal strips separated by two in dove grey containing the buttonry – matching the company’s current amps and CD players. The left-hand section contains short-throw press buttons activating precision relays to switch between any of the five line level sources; B-1 is fully balanced and while S-1 through S-4 are single-ended. The buttons also double as the muting controls when the button for whatever source is in play is pressed a second time. Above each is a red LED to indicate on-status.
With system potential in mind, the inputs marked S-3 and S-4 can be ‘customised’ for other purposes beyond the norm. S-4/Tape, for example, comes configured from the factory as a normal tape monitor; press the button a second time and you can toggle between listening to the source you’re recording from (B-1 or the three single-ended inputs), or off the tape head in a three-head system. If your system doesn’t need provision for a tape monitor, an internal switch allows you to convert S-4 into a line input identical to the other three, also with self-muting capability.
Input S-3’s hidden potential is to act as a unity gain stage, perfect for explaining its complete label of ‘S-3/Proc’. ‘Proc’, of course, is short for ‘processor’, meaning surround-sound. If configured for the latter through the internal switch (the standard setting is as a conventional line input), the KRC-3’s volume control and balance are disabled when the S-3/Proc input is chosen. In this mode, the overall system level is accessed through the surround sound processor. Naturally, this leaves two-channel operation through the other inputs absolutely untainted by force-feeding through the surround-sound unit – a true by-pass for purist stereo listening.
In the middle of the unit, below the model designation, is the familiar blue Krell power-on indicator. The right-hand section of the front panel contains the I/R receptor for the hand-held remote controller’s signal, the rotary volume control, tell-tales to indicate muting and polarity inversion, and two scales of five LEDs each to indicate shifts in balance. And the KRC-3’s volume control is a doozie.
This relatively affordable pre-amp uses the same volume control system as that of the flagship KRC-HR’s, an attenuator switching between fixed value, military-grade resistors through a digitally controlled network of relays. So although the visual indication for level is, ostensibly, a circular array of 15 LEDs surrounding the knob, they cover a span of 300 discrete steps of attenuation.
If you’re of the school that believes one can hear fraction-of-a-decibel level changes, then this is the pre-amp for you. And whether you use the free-spinning, non-mechanical rotary control or prefer to use the two buttons on the remote control, level setting is as precise as you could possibly desire. A 16-bit system, it uses Krell’s own control software to create, and I quote, ‘a custom logarithmic level taper perfectly suited for audio’, and – if it’s possible to discuss fine level adjustment as a subjective function – I have to say that I never once felt the settings to be ‘stepped’ in such a way that the level was a hair too high or too low, with no way of setting it inbetween.
It’s worth pointing out here that you will probably never have to touch the KRC-3 once you’ve installed it, except for adding or removing sources or changing cables. It’s a high-end couch potato’s ticket to bliss. There’s no on-off switch, so you can leave it on and warmed-up for action at all times, and the remote performs every single function accessible from the front panel, plus a couple like balance (shifted in 1dB increments) and phase inversion only available via remote.
If you own a Krell CD player or any of a number of Philips-based units (e.g. certain audiophile bargains like the Marantz CD63 SE and CD63SE K.I.), the remote control will handle play, stop, pause, previous track and next track. The remote will also switch on Krell Audio Standard or S-Series amplifiers and access their meter modes. Alas, for bone fide sofa slugs, one still has to change CDs….
Around the back are hefty gold-plated RCA sockets for all of the single-ended inputs and for tape out and main out. One pair of XLR inputs allows balanced operation of one source, while a pair of XLR outputs enables the KRC-3 to drive a balanced-input power amplifier. The fittings are studio-grade, and the RCA sockets are among those rare types able to handle the grip of a WBT phono plug without sagging southward.
Krell supplies a T-10 Torx wrench to allow you to remove the lid to access the switches for altering the two inputs mentioned above. I recommend that you take a look inside even if you have no plans to veer from the factory settings, just to see what your $2950 gets you: the real McCoy. It’s as if D’Agostino took a hint from the manufacturers of one of his other passions, fine timepieces, and then went a stage further.
It’s like this: Most people never get to look inside their Breguets or Patek Philippes unless they bought the versions with the skeleton (see-through) backs; Dan believes that such watches have better-finished internals – for obvious reasons – than their solid-metal-backed equivalents. So Dan has insisted on aesthetically-pleasing innards, just on the off-chance that the customer does look inside, as invited to do so in the case of re-configuring the inputs. In other words, all the looking in the world won’t reveal any cost-cutting.
As with all Krell pre-amps, the operation is pure Class-A throughout for maximum linearity. The gain stages are complementary, providing mirror-image circuitry for both halves of the signal to ensure the absence of non-linear degradation. The power supply is over-specified – another Krell trademark – to ensure that the KRC-3 will always be able to, er, rise to the occasion. Despite the high component count, minimalism not being regarded by Krell as a virtue for its own sake, the KRC-3 provides a short, clean, unobstructed, capacitor-free, direct-coupled signal path.
Set-up required only care in siting: this baby runs warm. While it seems immune to the proximity of other components, I positioned it on its own shelf, ‘unstacked’ as it were. Warm-up time was tube-like, and I ended up leaving it on, even though switched mains outlets are the norm in the UK so unplugging it wouldn’t have been necessary. And, sure enough, I never touched the thing once I re-trained myself to use the Krell’s remote with its tiny buttons, after a year with a no-brainer remote with over-sized, multi-shaped buttons from All-In-One. And I grew to love the circle of red LEDs around the volume control, instead of looking for the movement of a motorised pot and its concomitant whirr.
What amused me no end, given D’Agostino’s near-pathological loathing for tubes, was the valve-like nature of the sound and the affinity the KRC-3 has for – in particular – the all-tube GRAAFs, in both single-ended and balanced modes. I’ve never found the words ‘luxuriant’ or ‘lush’ tripping off my keyboard when describing the Krell ‘sound’; neither does Krell come to mind all that swiftly when thinking of systems with limitless soundstages.
Rather, I’m conditioned to think of the Krell magic in terms of seemingly limitless power, unrestricted dynamics, jet-black background silences, and overall precision. And while such traits linger, they’re almost overwhelmed by a new – I dunno – humanism. Sounds like bullshit, perhaps, but it’s like knowing a Green Beret who all of a sudden turned into a hippie.
It’s that big a transition.
Armed with Lou Rawls and Dianne Reeves singing ‘At Last’ on Blue Note, the whine of Stipe (why do people actually like R.E.M.?), some honking King Curtis, a load of assorted Unpluggeds, Lori Lieberman on Pope, the wonderfully re-mastered My Generation: The Very Best of the Who, and four discs’ worth of Gary Glitter, I set about discovering the magic of the KRC-3. What was so disarming about the wee Krell was the way it crept up on me, improving with age and use like so many fresh components, but also working its way into my affections through familiarity.
As is my favourite method of approaching a new component, I used it in the background for a day or two before settling down to do the concentrated listening. Considering that it was dropped into familiar systems, and that pre-amps rarely alter the sound of an established system in the way that changing speakers or power amps might, I was taken aback not by the differences but by the similarities to the all-tube Unison Research pre-amp I’d been using prior to the KRC-3’s arrival. OK, so it’s a case of chalk and cheese, the only thing that the two have in common is being line-level control units. But there was no jarring transition from tube to tranny, no sudden swapping of heart for mind.
The KRC-3 is much sneakier than that.
Let’s get real here: Dan and the folks at Krell, unlike certain British manufacturers I could name, are not about to chuck a decade-plus’ worth of ‘attitude’, a well-established philosophy for a sudden change of faith. We are, in other words, unlikely ever to see a Krell single-ended triode power amplifier, and the legend ‘300B’ on the fascia of a Krell will only ever stand for ‘300-watter in balanced mode’. 180 degree conversions in hi-fi? They’re strictly for the wishy-washy or the hypocritical, and neither of those terms apply to Krell.
So how does one account for Krell’s move from the cool and clinical to something much more emotional? Maybe the deep involvement with home cinema has something to do with it, along with revised attitudes toward digital. Krell, after all, competes with the very best for a slice of the digital action, and it deserves as much credit as Wadia, Theta, or Mark Levinson for rendering CD ‘palatable’. And it just might be the lessons learned with digital which are impacting on the fine-tuning (what some people call the ‘voicing’) of the company’s latest pre-amp. On a more cynical level, too, there’s a reason for making the KRC-3 so ear-friendly: at under three grand, it’s likely to be used with amplifiers more flawed than a KAS or a KAS-2.
What remains vividly and unmistakably Krell is the presentation: commanding without being so much in your face that you want to move the listening seat back a few rows. Krell products have never been shy, never been less that wholly assertive. Only now they’re diplomatic, too: user-friendly, less critical of the partnering equipment, more ‘universal’, so to speak.
While I rarely if ever fed the original KRC into tubed amplifiers, or enjoyed them with converters which didn’t say ‘Krell Digital’ on the front, the stuff was so transparent and so coherent that you could still use a Krell-plus-whatever for analytical purposes. Now you can mix’n’match without the Krell taking over the proceedings. As far as presentation goes, the insertion of the KRC-3 will nudge a piece of reticent equipment to the fore, as opposed to shoving it centre-stage and into the lights.
The best indicator of this evolution, for me at least, is the way the KRC-3 handles solo voice, particularly female fragile, and accompanied by musicians not in prima donna mode. Early studio Baez and current Lieberman do the trick. With the Mk I KRC, for example, every nuance came through with crystal clarity, but almost polished to too bright a sheen. Anyone who’s ever heard a single note of Baez knows that her voice is a stellar example of the unblemished, and extra hygiene can leave it cold. Not so the KRC-3. A small amount of texture is made evident, the result of her breathing, her proximity to the microphone. It’s subtle, it’s probably minor, too, but it’s also more lifelike. And that’s what this listener wants from vocals.
Amusingly, the KRC-3 can also ‘humanise’ studio creations as overwrought as XTC’s Dub Experiments or anything from Todd Rundgren since he fell for his first Apple Mac. But, please, don’t for a moment think I’m talking about additive colorations. It’s not down to adding or removing sonic characteristics. It’s all about emphasis. And part of that is a new balancing act between images, space, textures, and coherence.
Instead of these studio ‘craftings’ sounding like disparate collections of multi-mono sounds, the KRC-3 blends them into a whole – without blurring anything. What’s new and what helps so much is how much bigger and wide open it all sounds, the KRC-3 performing one of the best ‘disappearing acts’ Krell has yet to accomplish. It’s bold, it’s engulfing and – best of all – it’s room-filling, eking more out of mini-monitors than you’d expect of a pre-amp.
Downsides? I can’t think of anything about the KRC-3 that’s so debilitating that it could deprive the product of some sort of award for its bargain nature. Coming from an all-tube pre-amp, especially the GRAAF, an older Audio Research, or even a small budget tube design like a Trilogy 900 still leaves the listener with an awareness that you can get even richer, fatter, warmer sound. But you’ll probably pay for that with a loss of transparency or some artificial sweetening.
To put it into perspective, the KRC-3 is a Krell pre-amp for those who found its predecessors too demanding, too forceful, too disciplinarian. The older Krells told you what to hear; the KRC-3 lets you relax. The older Krells were almost Teutonic; the KRC-3 speaks in a Latin tongue. Traditional Krells were hyper-analytical; this one just wants to party. In a nutshell? It’s a Krell for music lovers who don’t want to be bossed around. The relatively affordable price is merely a welcomed, unexpected extra. Now how about a matching Krell stereo 50-watter for the same price?
*(Insincere) apologies to any politically correct readers, but that’s a paraphrase of an old cliché which doesn’t work if transformed into ‘one person’s…’. It’s like this, gang: even though the English-speaking world outside of the USA is metric, we’ll always say ‘give’em an inch…’, ‘missed it by a mile’, and ‘an ounce of prevention…’.
**More political incorrectness, in case you were counting.
Street Address: 45 Connair Road
City, State, Zip: Orange, CT 06477
Designer: Dan D’Agostino
Serial Number: 6196040541
Warranty: five years, limited and transferable
Gain: 6.5dB single-ended; 12.36dB balanced
Frequency Response: 0.3Hz-300kHz, +0, -3dB; 20Hz-20kHz, +/-0.05dB
Input Impedance: 47.5kohms
Output Impedance: 15ohms
Output Voltage: 9V/18V RMS (single-ended/balanced)
THD: <0.009%, 20Hz-20kHz
S/N Ratio: >101dB, “A” weighted
Inputs: 1 balanced XLR, 4 single-ended/RCA
Outputs: single-ended tape and main/RCA; balanced main XLR
Dimensions (inches): 3.5x19x15.5 (HxWxD)
Weight: 22lb unpacked
Analog Front End: Not applicable
Digital Front End: Marantz CD-12 transport; Marantz CD63-SE CD player; Theta Chroma 396 DAC; Marantz DA-12 DAC
Electronics: (power-amps) McIntosh MC275 Reissue; GRAAF GM200 and 5050, Sutherland 2000, Acurus 250
Cables and Interconnects: A.R.T. interconnects; Nirvana digital cable; Mandrake balanced interconnects; Harmonix HS101 speaker cable
Accessories: Kontak cleaning fluid; Q-Tips
Speakers: Stax SR-Omega headphones and SRM-T1W energizer; Sonus Faber Extremas; Wilson WATT/Puppy System V.1; Rogers LS3/5As; Apogee Ribbon Monitors
For further information, please visit: www.krellonline.com
(Fi, November 1996)