As a self-professed audiophile, I find composing audio equipment reviews an interesting and sometimes awkward dance between intent and outcome. Audio design objectives, expressed in carefully crafted hyperbole, usually encounter a plethora of honest, varying listening reactions born of pre-conditioned aesthetics and physical circumstances. Hopefully, they're congruent. Sometimes, they're not. Expressing the variables in words can be tricky. I'm certain it's a well-oiled dance for seasoned players. However, as a career musician and university music professor, I find myself in uncharted waters, relying not so much on acoustical science or even academic musical intellect and technique, but rather on a lifetime of performance instincts.
For most professional musicians out there, success is gauged not as much by how well we're hearing what we're doing, but how well we're feeling it. Communicating the intrinsic artistic qualities of each performer as a uniquely synthesized moment in time – Only then can we hope to make "the connection" – the reason we do what we do. For steel pan players in Trinidad and Tobago, it is referred to as a form of spirit possession – the "Pan Jumbie." In the Shona culture of Zimbabwe, it is referred to as "Bira." The term "spirit possession" definitely works for me when describing successful musical connections.
When assessing the relationship I potentially have with an audio piece, I default largely to these performance instincts – my gut – searching for that connection/possession, as if I were on stage. Granted, the complete audiophile experience is one that expresses the entire venue – Performer, stage, hall/studio, and all parameters therein. Keep in mind that musicians develop both a point and distance awareness – assessing both acoustical elements simultaneously while performing. Naturally, it begins with the ears, but quickly morphs into a corporeal experience. Usually, if an audio piece is going to bring me to the gig, it will do so fairly quickly and definitively. Such was the experience for me with the Karan Acoustics KA S 400/ KA L Mk3 combo.
At 420 Watts per channel/dual mono single chassis design, the KA S 400 stands between Karan Acoustic's two other stereo amplifier models: KA S 180 and KA S 600, while the KA L Mk3 represents their single chassis line-level preamp. The Reference version of the KA L is a two-chassis. Vinyl playback can be met via the KA PH1 single chassis or KA PH Reference two-chassis phono preamp. An integrated and two mono block designs are also available.
Trademark Karan Acoustics features include:
• Hand made, selected, high quality components
• Cutting edge, solid-state technology, utilizing rapid, bipolar, state-of-the-art Sanken RET (Ring Emitter Transistors)
• No overall feedback
• Direct DC coupled in pure Class A. All stages are pure dual mono designs, fully differential (balanced).
• Voiced to provide the highest degree of musicality and the utmost reproduction quality while maintaining neutral tonal balance, dynamic ability, resolving power, and transparency of the natural sound in music.
• Specially designed feet offering zero feedback.
Both the KA S 400 amp and KA L Mk3 pre come in either a brushed all-black or all-silver finish. With the Karan signature beautifully chiseled into the top plate of the chassis, there is otherwise no identifying label/emblem on the faceplate. It's not until you power the units up that a tasteful insignia reveals itself behind the smoke acrylic centerpiece. Pretty cool, esp. during late night listening. Though the build quality for both are top-shelf, the chassis designs are a bit dated for my tastes – Sort of an old skool Krell or Gryphon thing going on, but still attractive. Worth noting and caution noted: At 114 lbs., the KA S 400 is a real beast to move – Best to have two strong backs with this. Finally, the KA L Mk3 is provided with a no-frills hockey puck remote. Volume only. Make no mistake, however. This remote upholds similar top-self design characteristics, having a very solid, ergonomic feel.
Friend, fellow musician, and speaker design artisan, Lou Hinkley, has aptly stated, "My final reference is the source, real musical instruments." When seeking this sometimes-elusive spiritual connection within the audio universe, I tend to follow Lou's advice. Our familiarity and kinesthetic relationship with musical instruments provides a deep imprint of not only their timbral organicity, but the energy generated between performer and source.
When I strapped in for some serious listening sessions, the metamorphosis had taken place, and I was pleasantly met with some impressive audio experiences. In a word, smooth and complete (ok, maybe two words). No electronic artifacts. The KA S 400 and KA L Mk3 presentation was completely confident in all aspects of the frequency and dynamic spectrums, offering a wonderfully smooth and otherwise organic sound to every source. It was subtly warm without blur, giving every image body and three-dimensionality. A nice extension in both directions of the frequency spectrum was immediately apparent. Detailed top end and, of particular note, excellent lower frequency control, providing a touch of warmth, yet tight, accurate transient character to these instrumental sources. Ended up dialing out my Velodyne DD10+ early on, as the KA S 400 provided an ample, tight gut-punch to sub frequencies (The above-average damping factor specs on the KA S 400 surely contributes to such impressive control over the entire frequency spectrum).
I love my Daedalus Athena speakers for a host of reasons, but one of them being that, at 96dB efficiency, you can basically run them with a flea watt SET and they still sing like birds. Put some serious juice behind them like the KA S 400, and they will respond like a chorus of nightingales! The Karan combo was able to bring an accurate clarity of timbral color and put a nice sparkle on transients throughout the frequency spectrum. Their combined control created a pitch black curtain, helping generate plenty of distinct space around instruments and voices. Imagery and placement were spot-on.
A Few Reference Examples
2. Andy McKee – Art In Motion [CandyRat]: "Song For My Father" & "Shanghai" Two beautiful examples through which to enjoy the sonority of a well-loved acoustic guitar. The Karan combo effortlessly pulls out not only the tactile sensation of fingers on steel, but the varying pressures along the fret board. This was an experience that, with eyes closed, brought Andy into the room. I could feel him huddling over his guitar, his stool creaking slightly as he shifted, and his breathes as he phrased each line.
3. Alison Krauss/Union Station – Paper Airplane [Rounder]: This is a pristine recording, both in talent and acoustic reproduction. I remember experiencing Alison play years ago at Nature's Table, across from the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on the Univ. of Illinois campus. It was a fitting convergence of the cutting edge of contemporary art music with seeds of great, corn fed talent in the local folk music scene. "Lie Awake" provides an effective opportunity to assess imagery, separation, and timbral distinctions among vocalists, as well as string instruments. The Karan handle this with aplomb, remaining consistent within the dynamic subtleties. In particular, the combo really enhances an appreciation for the vocal fusion between Alison and Don Tyminski. A presentation of pure synthesis, creating an instrument from two sets of vocal chords.
4. Bill Evans Trio – Explorations [Riverside / Japanese Import SHM/SACD]: "Israel" - Sharp syncronicity of Evans' parallel comping techniques. In spite of the drums being famously forward on this recording (and tuned like Chinese toms!), separation and staging are beautifully maintained through the Karan's ample control. "Haunted Heart" – Quite simply, a beautiful tune, beautifully played. Clear space and placement of instruments, nice organic presentation of dbl bass without low frequency bloom, and no strident character of upper frequency transients. In "Sweet and Lovely," the Karan effortlessly present the rich harmonic landscape and architecture of form. Paul Motian is placed precisely in the group, allowed to stretch out on kit without losing form. Equally, the Karan help give Evans' piano pinpoint transient clarity as he explores the full range of the instrument.
5. Jeff Hamilton Trio – The Best Things Happen [Azica]: "Moonbird" & "C Jam Blues" are two great reference pieces for Jeff's brushwork artistry and effective drum kit mic'ing techniques. If you really want to know what your audio system can do at low amplitude listening, check these tracks out. The Karan retains body and dimensionality at these lower listening levels. Above all, Jeff knows how to swing a band. The Karan let you feel every tactile element of the swing, from the feathered bass, to the placement of the stick on the ride, to that just right laid back walking line in the double bass. I also love this recording overall for its spot-on stage placement and imagery.
6. Michel Camilo – Live at the Blue Note [Telarc]: This is a challenging reference, as it's a classic capture of Camilo's complex rhythmic & harmonic language. To boot, both El Negro and Flores are right in step, pushing boundaries through the entire concert. The setting is intimate, but the energy is over the top. The Karan Acoustics gear keep you in the moment the entire time, maintaining the soundstage with a particular clarity to the front and back perspectives, while keeping the listener three tables back, center. The KA S 400 and KA L Mk3 provide plenty of speed and PRAT to the experience.
Having enjoyed the company of these new found audio acquaintances, am I ready to write my "Dear John" letter to my current VAC Signature MKII SE pre/Merrill Veritas monos? Not quite. Though the Karan Acoustics combo lit up the room and beyond with so many wonderful sonic attributes, my heart belongs to the wonderful synergy I've discovered with Class D digital amplification, coupled with that glorious midrange harnessed within my VAC tube preamp. Could the Karan Acoustics find a home in an imagined second home system? You bet! Alas, if only a musician's/professor's salary could make dreams come true....
I sense the end-game for most of us is a more revealing experience of the recorded moment, not just the recorded venue. For me, the Karan Acoustics KA S 400 and KA L Mk3 offered a real-time corporeal awareness into the musical experience. I found myself feeling the moment, as it were. In most every reference, it was easy to lose myself in the totality of music. More significantly, the spiritual connectivity of the recorded moment was visceral, alive, and clear. For those searching for their own musical connections, I can recommend without reservation auditioning the Karan Acoustics KA S 400 and KA L Mk3 as an excellent pathway.
KA L Mk3 Preamplifier
USA & Canada Distributor