Karan Acoustic KA L Preamplifier (Hi-Fi+)

Solid-state preamplifiers
Karan Acoustics KA-L
Karan Acoustic KA L Preamplifier (Hi-Fi+)

Karan Acoustic’s range of high-end amplifiers from the former Yugoslavia is growing. The company still lacks a CD player, but there’s a DAC, a phono stage with a reputation to die for, several power amps (most opf which we’ve reviewed) and now a pair of pre-amps. The KA L Reference was first, a two-box masterwork; it’s recently been joined by the KA L, also a line-level design, but this time housed in a single box.

This single-box design saves a lot of money, but you’d never guess there was any cost saving by the look of the KA L. It retains the solid, almost monolithic look of all Karen products, with just a red glowing logo separating this pre-amp from utter blackness. Otherwise, it is just a reassuringly solid block of aluminium, complete with volume knob at one end, channel selector at the other. Balance – pah! Displays and indicators – you must be joking. You get a remote, what more do you need?

This is a fully balanced, fully dual mono circuit. Unlike many products that share balanced and single-ended pathways, the KA L takes the long route, translating the three single-ended inputs into a fully-balanced architecture rather than sticking balancing transformers (or worse) to drag balanced sources into a singleended world. The KA L also sports a single, balanced input as well as single-ended and balanced outputs. The nearest we get to a display is a red light indicating whether the preamplifier is running the balanced or line level inputs.

Open the casework and you’ll reveal a board layout that’s as logical and as thoroughly engineered as you will find anywhere in audio. There’s a no-quarter approach in there – with things like three separate power supply stages, for the frontend and for each channel (which is surprising when you think how little circuit each one of these supplies is driving; most preamplifiers would lump these power supplies together). Given that Karan build everything in-house (rather than sub-contracting to China) this uncompromising build is stunning. Then there’s the finish – it’s cinematically deep; think Spinal Tap (“none, none more black”) or 2001 – A Space Odyssey monolith black. Not that you’d want to scratch the thing, but you’d really have to go at it with a cold chisel to ding it. Given that this pre-amplifier weighs in at 20kg – healthily heavy for a small power amplifier – this build quality builds confidence. Right down to those three feedbackreducing feet.

In proper Karan tradition, the KA L eschews global feedback, uses bipolar output devices to drive the gain stages and is DC-coupled. It ships with a funky braided mains lead and an equally funky remote control. This is a volume controller alone, with a pair of buttons to raise or lower the gain. However, it makes up for the limited functionality, because it’s so cool – the thing looks like a hockey puck and fits the hand surprisingly well. There’s a fair chunk of running in to plough through before this amplifier comes to life. Meaning, you have to sit through hours on end where it gets better and better. Karan suggests a 100 hour run-in before the pre-amp comes on song. That said, it’s pretty good to begin with.

I used the KA L with one of the best power amps in the business – the Karan KA S 180 stereo amplifier (tested here in July 2006). Armed with a CD player with balanced outputs, this gives a completely front-to-back balanced option. But this highlights the one potential short-coming of the Karan system – it’s not a whole system yet. The company desperately needs a CD transport or player; if nothing else as a PR exercise. There’s a modern perception (seemingly among new audiophiles) that there’s some magic synergy in using a onebrand system and companies that lack one of those key components in the chain simply don’t sell as well. The Karan KA L should be better known, as should the KA S 180. It should be better known because it’s one of those amplifiers that signed the Hippocratic Oath. It has the words ‘First Do No Harm’ burned into the circuitry somewhere. It means whatever you play through the KA L doesn’t get radically altered by it. This sounds trivial, but too many pre-amplifiers are ‘dark’ sounding or ‘warm’ sounding, ‘woody’, ‘clean’ ‘steely’ or one of possibly dozens of different flavours of pre-amp sound. This is one of the few exceptions, one with a seeming absence of character. The power amplifier is slightly dark and the two together act as a perfect foil for musical replay.

This absence of pre-amp sound is addictive. It’s also very hard to describe, because you find yourself talking about the recordings and the music, not the properties of the preamplifier itself. Although this is a very good thing for music – let’s face it, a product that gets out of the way so sublimely that music becomes uppermost is extremely good for replaying music – it doesn’t make for good copy.

There’s a sense of focus here in spadeloads, but this is a two-way focus thing; it causes you to focus your attention on the music and in turn it pulls the music into tighter focus. Continuing with the optical analogy until it’s firmly dead from overuse, this is a wide-angle field of view, not a close-up (or macro) viewpoint. The KA L takes in the music qua music, not as a series of notes to be carefully analysed. Yes, the close-up detail is there if you want to, but this is not the sole purpose of the KA L. It’s more intent on delivering a musical performance in its entirety than forcing you to study the playing of the second viola.

Perhaps the best description is one of a Zen-like calm over the face of the KA L. Nothing perturbs the pre-amplifier and anything that approaches the product is reflected perfectly. So you can put just about everything you can think of through the pre-amp – whether it’s smooth sounding Wes Montgomery guitar solos from the early 1960s played softly, or Turandot at full wig-out levels. Everything is in its right place, nothing seems lost or altered and the sound is remarkably unsullied by the experience. This bestows on the sound a profound sense of ‘right’ that comes along but rarely. The late, lamented Pink Triangle PIP was one such pre-amplifier. This is like the PIP, but with more bass and no batteries to break down at a moment’s notice.

When you start reeling out classic old pre-amps that were indescribably good 20-years ago and still fondly remembered today, you know the KA L is on to something good. In fact, to some extent, it may even be ‘better’ than the bigger brother. I’ve only limited experience with the bigger Karan – the two-box KA L Reference – but there are strong similarities between the two. In many respects, the one-box KA L is the more approach-able of the two; the KA L Reference is ultraprecise, ultra-detailed, ultrafocused… all of the things the KA L does, but more so. So why ‘more approachable’? Because the KA L has a wider comfort zone. It will not tear a bad recording limb from limb. I suspect this might be a ‘PRaT’ thing: both KA Ls are very good at keeping time – even crazy modern jazz time signatures – but where the KA L Reference is so focused on delivering the absolute last stretches of detail in the bottom octaves, the KA L just seems happy to let nature and rhythm take its course. More research – and a lengthy direct comparison – is needed In fact, a lengthy demonstration is highly recommended here. Its honest approach is not an immediate hit and even the highest of high-enders can sometimes be swayed by more up-front ‘bling’ products. This is the antithesis of bling. It’s a calm, collected and smart pre-amp choice, which will give listeners decades of pleasure. Perhaps that’s why Karan is not better known – second-hand Karan products are almost unheard of because the owners are so reluctant to sell them on. On no account take this the wrong way, what follows is a wholly positive statement: it’s hard to be impressed by the Karan KA L. Which is just how it should be. This pre-amplifier never draws attention to itself, whether through its sonic actions or some mercurial fit of electrical pique. It simply plays music, letting you enjoy the sound all the more. That it’s softly spoken is a better statement of long-term quality than any sonic fireworks. There are precious few products so ‘intelligently’ designed.

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