Luminance Audio KST-150 Power Amp
|Luminance Audio KST-150 Power Amp
|A Beautiful Black Box
So you’re going to let it go out looking like that?
I remember meeting Rick Schultz, the head honcho at Virtual Dynamics (whose cables, at one point or another, seem to have made their way into the systems of nearly every Stereo Times staffer) at the 2004 CES in Las Vegas. I had just finished reviewing his Nite II series cables and was excited to meet the man in person and check out his hottest new cable offerings. But the very thing that Rick was eager to show me was not his latest cables but a new amp he had designed under the company named the Broken Lamp Amp Company. The gorgeous looking prototype he was showing was not being played but it gave a good sign of what was to come … well sort of. You see, Broken Lamp never fully materialized as a product and eventually, Rick went back to the drawing board.
Well a year later at the 2005 CES, Rick was indeed back with more of his cables and with a new amplifier company called Luminance Audio, and this time there was a fully functioning prototype as well. And not only was it functioning but it was functioning at a shockingly high level. Paired with the wonderful Ascendo System E loudspeakers, this was one of my favorite sounding rooms at that show. The amp is as musically satisfying as you’d have any right to expect and pay less than five grand. It was housed in a plain looking black box as at the time it was still a near-production ready prototype. But during conversations with Rick over the next few months he indicated that they had been working on several chassis designs for the amp. He eventually sent me several artistic CAD renderings (many of which you can see on the Luminance website) and asked for my opinion on some of them. The styles of these renderings ranged from high-tech industrial to sci-fi fantasy. All looked like it would take a marvel of engineering just to build them. Either way I just knew that this new Luminance amp was going to be something exciting for the eyes and ears.
Well, that’s what I thought anyway. Instead, a month or so before this past CES Rick sent me a unit for review. Much to my surprise it was still just a plain looking black box, save for a cobalt blue power indicator and the Luminance logo engraved on the faceplate. On the back are the heatsinks, speaker posts, a set of RCA inputs, and an AC power cord receptacle. That was it! No sci-fi, no sex appeal, just plain old black. Now I have to admit to being somewhat of a fan of aesthetics and fully appreciate audio gear that is attractively styled. So when I first saw this amp I was a bit disappointed. But I don’t want to come off as someone who cares more about the looks of a component than the sound, so I just shut my yap and installed it into my system. Besides, I used to own some of that early Pass gear and it doesn’t get much uglier than that.
Just when I thought I’d sized her up, she began to talk
Remember back in high school or college when there was this rather nerdy looking girl in your accounting class who you ignored because you were too busy waiting for somebody cuter to come along? Then finally, you decide to go ahead and date that girl and lo and behold, once she opened her mouth all of a sudden wonderful things started coming out. Intelligence, wit, and sincerity were pouring out of her and suddenly you were enjoying a relationship that made her rather plain looks totally irrelevant. That’s what my experience with the Luminance amp was like.
Though Schultz’s name has been closely associated with the company, it’s actually co-founded by Schultz, Mike Tseng (the main man-and ears-behind the scenes), and Steve Keiser. Keiser is Luminance’s chief designer and the person responsible for the design and circuitry of the KST-150. If Keiser’s name is familiar, it may be because he was the “K” in B&K the people who brought us the legendary B&K ST-140 amplifier (still felt by many to be one of the biggest bargains high-end audio has ever produced). Here Keiser’s touch has resulted in an amplifier with a musical presentation that is quick, airy, and highly resolved without tending to be bright or analytical. It just sounds natural. The midrange is detailed, portrayed with lifelike scale, and possesses a soundstage presentation that is three-dimensional. The bass, while not the deepest I’ve heard, is certainly true. It doesn’t over blow or add any bloom to create the perception of deep bass like some lesser designs do, instead the bass sounds more like it’s generated from an acoustic device. As an example, on bassist Rob Wasserman’s Duets [MCA], Wasserman teams with Bobby McFerrin on track three, “Brothers.” This track showcases McFerrin’s brilliant vocal styling but doesn’t bury Wasserman’s presence because his performance is rendered just so true to life. The vibration of a strummed string and the quickness of fingers dancing up and down the bass’ neck can be felt as portrayed through this amplifier.
The treble/midrange performance is exceptional. I picked up the dazzling Mobile Fidelity re-mastering of one of my all-time favorite 70’s R&B bands, Earth, Wind & Fire’s That’s The Way Of The World [UDSACD 2016].The sixth track, “Reasons”, features Philip Bailey’s stunning four octave falsetto voice. The Luminance presents it like I’ve never heard it before. It had texture and dimensionality and was simply thrilling to listen to. But the best part about the KST-150’s performance was the speed with which all of the music is relayed. When Imention speed I don’t mean that the amp makes 33 1/3rpm LPs sound like they’re being played at 45rpm speed on a turntable … actually, that’s not entirely true. You see, another great pick up I made at the MoFi booth at this year’s CES was their 45rpm GAIN 2™ version of Patricia Barber’s Café Blue [MFSL 45002] and OH BABY! The level of detail, image separation, dynamics, snap, crackle and pop that the Luminance pulled off of this disc was astonishing. Especially on track eleven, “Nardis.” This song begins with Barber’s splendid piano work and then segues to a startlingly dynamic drum solo. Man, is this fun to listen to! This would be an amazing level of performance from an amp costing $10K but at $3K it’s just silly!
The sad thing is that had they put a few more bucks into some serious cosmetics for this piece he could easily have sold it for twice as much. And when I talk about cosmetics I don’t necessarily mean anything resembling those sci-fi looking renderings he produced. Companies like Ayre, Goldmund, and even Electrocomaniet have come up with understatedly elegant amp chassis designs that don’t appear to have been too expensive to make. Don’t get me wrong, this is NOT an offensive looking amp. There are people who will appreciate its unobtrusive size, soft lines, and “won’t clash with your décor” design. But those who like to prominently feature their amps on stands out in the middle of their listening rooms between their speakers may find it lacking in visual appeal.
But enough of that silliness. Do yourself a favor. Regardless of what your audio budget may be, find a dealer who’s carrying this amp and give it a listen. You will be floored by the level of performance you can get for the money. A pair of monoblock Luminance amps debuted at this past CES and will cost significantly more money. Judging from the value that the KST-150 offers I’d say that it has one heck of a tough act to follow. Highly recommended!
Power Output: 150W RMS
Slew Rate: 250 V/ms
Signal to Noise Ratio: 95 dB
Damping Factor: 100 from 20 Hz – 20 kHz
Frequency Response: 5 Hz – 630 kHz +0 dB, -3 dB
Channel Separation: 80 dB from 20 Hz to 20 kHz
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