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Krell KAV-400xi Integrated Amplifier

The Real Deal?

Eujin Hong

 July 2004

The Evil Empire?

Everyone loves a giant killer. It’s a simple story: the underdog versus the defending champ; the little guy takes on the big boys. It’s a classic tale of Good vs. Evil. What’s not to like? Well, if you’re a company like Krell, it’s not very amusing, because you get to play the part of the giant. You get to be the bad guy. In the topsy-turvy world of the audiophile, you can become too successful for your own good.

The Empire Strikes Back

Krell. The name alone sounds big and scary. Combine that with intimidating price tags and you’ve got the perfect candidate for the brand that everyone loves to hate. Well, you can stop the hating. Or at least call a timeout. You see, Krell is actually listening to the criticism—and responding. The proof lies in the subject of this review, the Krell KAV-400xi.

The 200Wpc KAV-400xi is Krell’s newest integrated amplifier, and is a replacement for the KAV-300iL. Like its predecessor, the 400xi is decidedly un-Krell-like in its appearance, measuring a mere 3.5” high—positively svelte by just about any standard where audio equipment is concerned. In fact, it’s easy to mistake the new 400xi for the old 300iL. If memory serves, the only indication that the 400xi is a different beast is the new volume knob on the faceplate. Also with the 400xi you still get the same power output but, with an MSRP of $2500, you get it for $750 less than the 300iL. Not a bad deal.

At first glance, you’d be fooled into mistaking the 400xi for one of these “lifestyle” audio components that seem to be flooding the marketplace. You know the type: slim-line, do-it-all-in-one-box “wonders” that are designed not to be seen, but all too often end up not being heard. Well, in a sense, you’d be right. The 400xi can just about do it all. How Krell has managed to squeeze 200 watts per side into this little thing is beyond me. But they’ve also managed to provide just about every feature I could want in an integrated amplifier. For starters, you get four inputs: three single-ended RCA and one XLR balanced input. According to Krell, the KAV-400xi is a fully balanced design, so if you have a balanced source or plan to get one in the future, the XLR input will come in very handy. Unfortunately, I didn’t have such a source on hand so my comments are restricted to the unit’s performance with its single-ended RCA inputs. You also get a pair of pre-amp outputs (RCA) should you desire to upgrade to different amplifiers in the future. The 400xi also allows any of its inputs (balanced and single-ended) to be configured as what they call a “Theater Throughput” (tm). It should be noted that Krell was one of the first manufacturers to incorporate this feature. I really think this is an essential feature for any modern integrated amplifier, given the explosive growth of home theater systems. The only feature I wish the Krell had was a headphone jack. Oh well, I guess you can’t have everything.

Stealth Fighter

Out of the box, the 400xi sounded pretty good, meaning that there was no particular trait, good or bad, that caught my attention during the first forty minutes or so of listening. After this initial test-drive, I let the Krell break-in before doing any kind of serious listening. After about three weeks of break-in, I began by simply listening to the music I normally listen to, plus a couple of new acquisitions, without my reviewer’s hat on. This means no note-taking, no listening to the same 23 seconds of a particular track on repeat, or any other silly audiophile geekery.

I can tell you right off the bat that this is not the amp for you if you're looking for "tube-like" solid-state. The resurgence of tubes these days has seen every other manufacturer coming out with new tubed or hybrid tube and solid-state amplifiers. At its price-point, I’d say that the 400xi exemplifies what solid-state is all about: powerful, controlled, and remarkably neutral in its presentation across the frequency spectrum. I didn’t notice any over-emphasis of any one region in the 400xi’s performance. What I did find is that the 400xi displays great resolving power across the board. The first time I noticed this was on Beck’s "Sea Change" SACD [Interscope 493537]. My speakers, Triangle Celius 202’s, are not a particularly warm speaker and they do have an odd tipped-up treble that has been remarked on by many reviewers. The combination of the Krell and my speakers gave high frequencies a remarkable sense of clarity, openness and sparkle. Sea Change is full of tracks with delicate little musical details that can be lost or obscured with lesser amplifiers. With the Krell, I noted that these details, particularly in the highs, took on a more realistic and palpable character. The effect can be positively addictive, and I found myself rooting around my music collection for stuff that contained high frequency information that would further feed this newfound need.


As it turns out, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The harmonica on Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” from the recently issued The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan SACD [Columbia/Legacy CSON 90321 SA] had me diving for the volume control. I’d always found the harmonica solo in that song a bit too energetic on my speakers; sadly, it was no different with the Krell. To be fair, this is one very specific example and it really only happened with this particular track.

At the other end of the audible spectrum, I found the bass performance on the 400xi to be very controlled, if a bit less extended. There is no exaggerated boominess going on here, and the 400xi retains this quality in the lower registers even when the going gets a bit tough, as it does on the first few tracks of the Master and Commander soundtrack [Decca B000157402]. There are some integrateds out there that will out-perform the Krell with regards to bass extension and heft, but I think when you listen closely, you’ll hear trade-offs in other areas. What do I mean by this? Well, I briefly owned a Perreaux Radiance R200i integrated amp and that unit displayed an amazing ability to dig deep and deliver prodigious, taut, rhythmic bass. But it resulted in a slightly recessed sounding midrange, as if all other areas of its sonic presentation was delivered relative to its bass output. With the 400xi, there is no such trade-off.

Time and again, I was surprised by the 400xi’s performance on music that I didn’t expect it to handle well. Part of this is because it looks so petite. Yes, it’s very shallow of me, but I just couldn’t help it. My review unit came in black (the 400xi is also available clad in silver), lending it a stealth-like visual esthetic. On large-scale orchestral music, the Krell never lost its composure, never gave in to the demanding passages and never failed to deliver the drive that I’ve looked for in many integrateds with little satisfaction.


I’ve already mentioned that the Krell did well on the more demanding tracks off the Master and Commander soundtrack , but even better examples can be found in the Gladiator soundtrack [Decca 289467094]. On Track 3, “The Battle”, and Track 13, “Barbarian Horde”, the little Krell managed to keep everything in check, from the majestic horns, to the driving kettle drums, and just about everything in between. To give you some perspective, the other little amplifier I have around is my Audio Refinement Complete integrated. With the Complete, those two tracks have always come out slightly congested, smeary and a little muddy. The Krell simply allowed the music to project itself into my room, without any sense of confinement—the proverbial big sound from a little box.

Comparisons

In the 400xi’s price class, I used my Coda-Continuum Unison 3.3 integrated for comparison (full review to follow). Actually, as configured, my Unison 3.3 is quite a bit more expensive and delivers 300Wpc. Although it is also all solid-state, the Unison is a different beast altogether. Like the 400xi, the Unison is also very controlled across the frequency band. But it is not as neutral. In my system, this amp has a bit of a tube-like effect: it is warmer, and imparts a bit more bloom on voices and instruments. The bass is a love/hate thing, and I think a lot will depend on both speakers and recording. With well-recorded stuff, the Unison imparts a nice, fat, fuller-sounding bass on my speakers. As a result, the lower midrange also benefits, and vocalists like Greg Brown with his gravelly baritone, come across in a very rich and intimate way. Where the Unison really impressed me versus the Krell, was in its ability to create a very three-dimensional sonic landscape. Don’t get me wrong, the Krell isn’t flat—it just lacks the dimensionality that the Unison imparts. As for soundstaging, the Krell performed admirably in this department as well, casting a sonic landscape both deep and wide. Although my Unison 3.3 could throw a wider stage, I felt that the imaging ability of the Krell was just a tad bit more pin-pointy and solid.

At a much lower price point, I also had the aforementioned Audio Refinement Complete integrated amplifier. This is a great little amp that currently retails for $995 and has often been hailed as a “giant killer” in the past. Well, not this time. The Krell outguns the Complete in just about every category: better resolution, more extended bass and drive, with a cleaner, lower noise floor. Where the Complete competes is in more subjective areas like bloom and tonality. The Complete, though solid-state, possesses a remarkably tube-like quality when it comes to warmth and glow. In that sense, it reminds me of the Unison, albeit on a much smaller scale. On pure music making ability alone, the Complete would provide a very compelling argument for less than half the price of the 400xi. But for the gulf in price, the 400xi really offers a lot more: more power, more options (XLR, pre-amp outs, home theater bypass, etc.) In short, the 400xi has more staying power and will likely be something that one could live with for a longer time and build a system around.

Conclusions

I think the Krell KAV-400xi is a really solid, all-around amp. It does just about everything you'd want it to and it isn’t pre-disposed toward any particular type of music. To sum it up, I'd say that this is an amp for someone looking for neutrality and control. If you're looking for bloom, romance and any of the other qualities associated with tubes, look elsewhere. The caveat--and this may be a big caveat--is that your speakers are ultimately going to have a lot of influence over the end-result. With my Triangles, I found a very nice, tight synergy. Both amp and speaker were very fast and highly resolved, creating a spacious sound with superb imaging. If I had to choose one word to describe the Krell KAV-400xi, it would be this: controlled. Nothing seemed to faze this amplifier. If it was a car, it would be a world-class sport sedan, zipping you through the twists and turns of the musical equivalent of a canyon road.

I must admit that I’ve never paid Krell products any particular attention. I remember hearing the Krell LAT-1 loudspeakers and thinking, “They sound great, but I’m just not sure that they sound $30,000 better than the speakers I currently have.” It’s easy to dismiss Krell as a brand—what’s safer than putting down a company when you KNOW there’s no way on earth you’d ever afford, let alone bring yourself, to shell out the big bucks for their products? Well, here’s a final thought to send you on your way: the Krell KAV-400xi is a sensibly priced, supremely capable integrated that’s well worth an audition or three. Could you get more performance out of an integrated? Yes. But you’d have to shell out more green. Now when was the last time anyone said that about a Krell?


Specifications:
Power Output Per Channel: 200 watts @ 8 Ohms, 400 watts @4 Ohms
Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20kHz
S/N Ratio: 99dB (A weighted)
THD: 1kHz <0.04%, 20kHz <0.25%
Gain: 35.8 dB
Input Sensitivity: 0.644Vrms
Input impedance: 47k Ohms
Output Impedance: 0.17 Ohms
Power Consumption: 20 W (Idle), 1,800 W (Max.)
Transformer: 750 VA

Inputs (All with Theater Throughput)
1 pair balanced (XLR)
3 pairs single-ended RCA
Outputs
2 Loudspeaker via 5-standard binding posts
1 single-ended preamplifier via RCA connectors
Tape Input and Output
1 single-ended via RCA connectors
Dimensions: 17.3 (w) x 3.5 (h) x 17.0 (d) in.
Weight: 36.0 lb/16.4 kg

Price: $2,500

Contact:
Krell Industries Inc
45 Connair Road
Orange, CT 06477

Voice: (203) 799-9954
Fax: (203) 891-2028
E-mail: krell@krellonline.com
Website: www.krellonline.com
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Krell KAV-400xi integrated amplifier