Krell KAV-280cd player, KAV-300iL and LAT-2 speaker reviewed
Whatever else you may have heard about Krell’s Dan D’Agostino, he has a wicked sense of humour. This fearsome high-end has been known to succumb to a fit of the giggles which can last for hours. So it was probably with tongue-in-cheek and a dose of British irony that his ‘baby’ package of KAV-280cd player, KAV-300iL integrated amp and the wild new LAT-2 speaker was dubbed ‘The Executive System’. Then again, maybe not, if you abandon irony and admit that only executives can afford it.
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Such office-related nomenclature, however, is not in anticipation of the earnings of the target audience. Because it’s compact by Krell standards and fully remote-controllable, you can just picture the electronics nestling on a shelf to the side of some eye-watering oval desk of solid bird’s-eye maple, the speakers on their dedicated pedestals flanking either side of the door into the CEO’s private sanctum. Imagine: the doors open, in walks a secretary, or a client, or the firm’s lawyers, said executive framing them with a brace of Krell speakers. This is high-finance power tools taken to a new level. Or should that read ‘executive toys’?
Unlike, however, those irritating, clacking chrome balls or over-priced Montblanc pen sets, the Krell Executive System is actually a no-compromise high-end audio array which would thrill the hell out of any one of us in ANY environment. Its chic, office- (or kitchen-, or bedroom-) friendly size and styling belies some of the most surprising components I’ve used in ages. And it’s the size which deceives the most, because – even after years of compact KAV-series components – we still think of Krell gear as intrinsically over-endowed in the dimension stakes.
Both the KAV-280CD player and the KAV-300iL integrated amplifier share the same chassis for easy stacking. Measuring 17.25×3.5×16.5in (WHD), just the depth is slightly excessive. Gorgeous in natural aluminium with shiny chromed corners, the two pieces can only be described as ‘sleek’, and are, for my money, not merely the best-looking Krell hardware I’ve ever seen: they’re also the best-finished. However much some of us are in awe of Krell (not least because Dan scares the shit out of us), there have been rough edges, blood-letting heat sinks, poor fit and dust-grabbing finishes in the past. If you covered the badges on these products, you’d think that Hasselblad had suddenly turned to upscale audio, while turning its back on black.
Inside the KAV-280cd is a mechanically-isolated transport mechanism and tweaked-to-the-extreme analogue circuitry producing a sound like a baby sister to the £23,500 KPS25sc CD player. Naturally, it lacks that unit’s preamp and converter facilities and – because the ‘280 is a front-loader – that party-piece of a lid, but you know that it was voiced by the same team: loads of detail, eerie silences where they should be, transient speed up the kazoo. The output circuitry features four Burr-Brown PCM-1704 24-bit DACs to providing fully balanced operation from the DACs to the output; I ran the ‘280 into the KAV-300iL in fully balanced mode using the latter’s single set of XLR-equipped balanced line inputs. The DSP digital filter provides 8x oversampling, and the unit boasts Krell Class A direct-coupled circuitry.
Buyers of both units will find that they have two identical remotes, especially generous and useful because gone are the massive slabs of machined aluminium of yore. Krell has come up with an ultra-cool remote with the frontal area of a cigarette pack but a thickness of a mere 3/16ths of an inch. Talk about ‘ease of slipping between the cushions on your sofa’ – but no worries as you have one spare to put in a safe place. With a minimum of buttons, all protected behind a single-piece membrane, you can control both units and other Krell hardware. Moreover, with 12V triggers via 3.4mm mini plugs built into both pieces and working in both directions, you can switch on the entire system from either the CD player or the amp – it’s up to you.
Along with the 12V input and output, the back of the KAV-280cd also bears an RC-5 input for integration into a remote control system, an IEC mains input, a user-replaceable line fuse, coaxial and TOSlink optical digital outputs and a choice of RCA line-level single-ended outputs or the aforementioned balanced XLRs. Trust me: the balanced sounds better – cleaner, more dynamic, with bass so tight you’d think you wiped your butt with alum.
Krell kept front-panel clutter to a minimum: At the far left is the on-off button, which you’ll rarely use once you try the remote, sited below LEDs for ‘stand-by’ (red) and ‘on’ (blue); as this system’s on/off status works from remote, you’ll probably leave it powered at all times. Beneath a display informing you of all the requisite time and track information are the transport controls, while the tray is at the right. Aside from not touching anything while it goes through an ‘initialising’ period when it’s connected to the mains – which you will only experience again if you switch it off at the mains or unplug it – operating the ‘280 is absolutely straightforward.
So, too, the KAV-300iL, Krell’s interpretation of what the well-dressed senior administrator wants in an integrated amplifier. Although fundamentally an integrated, it can also act as a preamplifier because of a set of line outputs (alongside the tape outputs), and the ‘home theatre throughput’ allows easy incorporation into a multi-channel set-up for purist/two-channel audio duties. In addition to three single-ended line-level inputs plus tape-in, the KAV-300iL also has a single set of balanced inputs, via XLR, as mentioned above; dismiss, therefore, any notion that this is some form of compromise in the Krell hierarchy. For pure audiophilic demands, this has a fully-balanced signal path from input to output for at least one source, while the amp as a whole is a wide bandwidth design with low negative feedback; all circuits up to the driver stage are pure Class A.
Read more about the performance of the Krell products on Page 2.
It’s easy to figure out how Krell
fit a CD player into such a low-profile enclosure; portables have shown
how small CD players can be. ButKrell amps are, traditionally, massive
affairs. The KAV-300iL makes extensive use of Krell’s new surface mount
technology to create a truly compact amp which is still capable of
200W/ch into 8 ohms or 400W/ch into 4 ohms, and, yes, I drove the
Apogee Scintillas with it. (More about that later, though.) As the
company literature puts it, surface mount technology, “…allows
individual circuit elements to be placed very close together. This
shortens signal paths and allows circuit elements to operate at the
same temperature, resulting in more accurate signal transfer and
As with the CD player, the front is clean, a welcome break from A/V
controllers with up to 60 buttons on them. The extreme left section
duplicates the ‘280, with two LEDs and an on/off button in the same
array. Next is an IR sensor, followed by buttons to choose the four
inputs (B-1 for the balanced and S-1, S-2 and S-3 for the single-ended
line inputs), a tape monitor button and a mute button with their own
LEDs, a display which provides level read-out, balance status and other
information, and buttons for level up and down. The display is no
conceit: without a rotary for volume or balance, you need the numbers
for a visual indicator, in place of a knob’s pointer position. I’m
partial to rotary controls for volume, but these buttons are no
hardship as I used the remote control all the time.
Krell has used top-grade fittings at the back, with stout connectors
for all inputs and outputs, plus rugged multi-way binding posts
featuring the most intelligent solution yet to the irritating issue of
CE compliance. They arrive with the sockets filled, but, instead of
having to butcher the plastic inserts, they screw out easily. Also
fitted are separate user-replaceable fuses for the left and right
channels, and the same complement of remote control triggers as offered
by the CD player.
Now we come to the piece de resistance which has the industry in a
tizz [see sidebar]. The LAT-2 is the second (or third, if you count the
company’s subwoofer) Krell Lossless Acoustic Transducer loudspeaker, a
small two-way system designed ostensibly to be used as rear channels in
a multi-channel system with the LAT-1 floorstander at the front. But so
mighty is this two-way that it has enough of the Right Stuff to serve
not only as the speakers in this Krell ‘mini’ system, it’s probably
good enough to see of any speaker I can name which you would use in a
room under 15x30ft. Think of it as the top section of the LAT-1 (to be
reviewed later this year, when I can find a couple of masochists
willing to help me shift 250lbs) and you’re getting warm.
Nothing about the LAT-2 is familiar. Even the grille – the concept
borrowed with permission from Sonus Faber, who use it on the Homage
series – is made of rubber strings rather than the Italian’s
cloth-covered cords. There isn’t a splinter of wood in sight, the
entire cabinet made from solid aluminium extrusions, with wall
thicknesses of 0.75 to 1.0 inch. As DD puts it, “Aluminium is the best
material for the job, other than concrete and lead, which aren’t
practical choices. Aluminium possesses the ideal combination of
structural rigidity and resonance damping characteristics. Within the
audio pass-band, our cabinets are sonically inert – something you can’t
say about any wood or wood derivative.”
Designed for stand- or shelf-mounting (allowing space for the two
rear-firing ports), the LAT-2 is a two-way system roughly the size of a
Sonus Faber Guarneri, employing a slight rearward taper, the curvature
designed to minimize the effects of internal standing waves and
external high-frequency diffraction. And there, grilles
notwithstanding, the similarity ends. In common with the LAT-1, with
which it shares cabinet construction and a strange-looking 1in tweeter
with a lethal phase plug in its middle, the smaller model’s 7in woofer
is paper-coned, the textured diaphragm made of ‘multifaceted cone
construction’. Its proprietary suspension design is the same as the
midrange units in the LAT-1.
At the back are two bass ports, “precisely dimensioned, flared, and
positioned with respect to the woofer to eliminate turbulence while
providing the correct acoustic loading.” Beneath them are huge binding
posts which – absurdly – are too close together; later production will
space them further apart so the ‘wings’ don’t hit each other. But Krell
must have foreseen this because, packed with the speakers, there are
gold-plated, solid brass replacement ‘caps’ which you tighten with a
spanner rather than by hand. And they look more luxurious.
(I must mention the ‘genius’ packaging. Each LAT-2 weighs 75lb – not
‘unliftable’, but a strain nonetheless, especially as you don’t want to
mash a driver. While I would implore you to unpack these with a friend,
they can be handled alone because the box was designed so that the
sides ‘fall down; when the lid is removed. This minimises the area over
which you have to lift them. And if I can do it, anyone can…)
Only a single pair of terminals is fitted because Krell designed the
crossover to preclude bi-wiring. The crossover is made with
amplifier-grade circuitry for maximum power handling and low
distortion, the components mounted on a 1/8in thick glass epoxy circuit
board with 4oz copper traces, “to ensure low microphony, low
resistance, low inductance, and high current handling.” It’s a 2nd
order network, crossing over at 2.7kHz.
Krell has created a genuinely striking speaker in the LAT-2 (and,
for that matter, the LAT-1), the all-aluminium construction and the
fluting and ribbing and heavy-duty bolts – hell, this is the Hummer of
speakers oozing muscularity from every groove; I can only imagine how
sinister it must look in black. Shielded for use in home theatre
applications, suggesting life beyond huge Krell amps, it’s easier to
drive than it looks. I heard utterly beautiful noises from it driven by
an 8W Loth-X single-ended triode amp…which I quickly switched off
when the earth shook, DD smacking the planet in Thor-like fashion to
indicate his disgust with my insouciance. Whatever, it works with
real-world amps, but it swings, sings and shakes its booty when driven
by three-figure wattages.
While the CD player was superb, and easily up to the task with its
precision, fine detail, speed and exceptional three-dimensionality, the
amp and the speakers are the joint stars. Again, DD will snort like a
bull, the steam indicating his displeasure, when I state that I derived
greater joy from the KAV-300iL than any Krell amp I can recall. Sweet,
fast, solid, coherent: one burst of a capella from the Persuasions
followed by the bombast of Kodo drumming showed that this amplifier can
operate in both ‘sport’ and ‘dress’ modes, nothing upsetting it nor
even stretching it.
To put it through ‘period’ paces, I hooked it up to the
evil-to-drive 1 ohm Apogee Scintilla of mid-1980s vintage and the
bastard of a speaker which gave Krell its initial unique selling point.
It produced the very BEST sound I have EVER heard from the Scintillas,
and power was never an issue. Make of that what you will, but I would
take the KAV-300iL over any other solid-state amp I can name south of
the Theta Dreadnaught. And over most above that. That rumble was DD,
kicking the UK distributor for letting me near the ‘300 and revealing
it to be the sleeper in the range.
But then we come to the speakers. ‘Magic’ is an over-used word in
audio reviewing, resorted to when we run out of superlatives. Too bad:
the LAT-2 simply has it all, and that makes it about as supernatural as
it gets. Bass which defies its dimensions. No compression nor clipping
at levels in excess of 100dB at 6ft, the threshold of pain setting in
before the LAT-2 craps out. Speed? As fast as any ribbon or ESL. Bass
so extended that visitors asked where I hid the sub. A soundstage so
wide and deep as to beggar belief. Above all? In complete contrast with
its menacing mien, its sheer all-metal presence, the LAT-2 demonstrates
finesse and delicacy which are bettered only by the original Quad ESL
and certain LS3/5As – neither of which can produce anything like the
playback levels nor soundstage of the LAT-2. In short, and I know that
there are speaker designers who will dread what I’m about to say, it’s
a bona fide masterpiece.
Now, the bottom line. The LAT-2 costs 11,500, the 280cd sells for
3899 and the 300iL is 3498. Bargains? No. As a system, there’s a bit
of change from 19,000, which puts it well into what most of you will
call the insanity category. But let me tell you something. If you
arrange a demo, and the dealer has set it up as per the manuals, you
will hear the most deliciously paradoxical system in high-end history:
three relatively minuscule components undermining the inescapable audio
belief that size matters. What makes it even sweeter is that this
lethal audio hand-grenade comes from the man who popularised megaton
Absolute Sounds, 58 Durham Road, London SW20 0DE. Tel 0181 971 3909, FAX 0181 879 7962
SIDEBAR: THE BIGGER PICTURE
Aside from reminding know-it-all pundits that Dan D’Agostino is no
amongst speaker designers, the LAT series of loudspeakers has far
greater implications than merely allowing Krell to sell whole systems.
High-end audio – like high-end watch manufacture, Formula 1 racing and
other cutting-edge disciplines – is a world of both unspoken alliances
and direct collaboration between what are, externally, deadly rivals.
For 20 years, Krell threatened only its direct competitors, those who
made electronics. As was the practice, it was able to exhibit with
speakers from a variety of manufacturers, through the years including
Wilson, B&W, Martin-Logan and others. Many independent brands
operated in this manner, and older heads will recall the days when
Audio Research was linked to Magnepan; most notably, Krell itself
enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the late, lamented Apogee during
its early years.
With the arrival of Krell-made speakers, this détente has now ended,
and we’re about to see a schism of even greater global impact than the
split which occurred when Linn introduced electronics to Naim’s dismay.
Caught in the crossfire are both distributors and retailers who
complemented the Krell line with suitable speakers; now, they will have
to accommodate both. But we all know how most consumers respond to
same-brand speakers and electronics: they assume, rightly, that the
synergy will be automatic. Trouble is, as far as Krell’s former allies
will soon learn: the LAT speakers are nothing short of awe-inspiring.
• Read more source component reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• See more floorstanding speaker reviews on HomeTheaterReview.com.