The Karan integrated amp has a cult following. Milan Karan doesn’t change his products on a regular basis, so Karan doesn’t get the brand coverage a more profligate revamper might and the company is up against some of the bigger names in the industry with marketing powers to match. And yet, the Karan integrated has become the doyen of those ‘in the know’, any mention of the product on even the most vituperative forum is met with praise instead of hostility. There are many folk who traded in well-respected Big Brand amps for the Karan… and never looked back. Only Lavardin receives similarly universal reverence and owning one (a Karan or a Lavardin) bestows upon the listener a kind of classy anti-hero chic, akin to ordering an Armagnac when it’s brandy time. So a new version of the 180W Karan integrated amp is a must-hear, if only to stay one of hi-fi’s underground fashionistas.
Karan has adopted an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach to the KA I-180, and much of what was good about the original amp is retained. The amplifier is built along differential lines, but drops comfortably down to single-ended operation. It delivers 180watts into eight ohms and 300watts into four, and has a frequency response from DC to light (well, from DC to 300kHz). The rest of the specs are identical, as is much of the amplifier board layout and even the internal geography of the amp. It also has that unique – as in ‘how does he do it?’ – Class A sound without Class A inefficiency. The secret, apparently, is sliding bias, low current and treating the whole voltage rail like the base of a transistor.
The one specification that has changed begins to give the game away. The new KA I-180 is 10kg heavier than its predecessor. What’s changed? A bigger, potted toroidal transformer for starters. This necessitated a re-laying out of the centre power supply board… and that gave Milan Karan the perfect opportunity to revisit almost everything about the 180, changing and improving where necessary. It’s a tribute to how good the initial design was that not a great deal ended up changing.
Where the last few years have changed the face of the audio world is there’s now even greater acceptance of the importance of audiophile-grade electronic components in products. In some places, this manifests itself as a burgeoning hot-rod community, whether home-grown or ‘bodger built’. In others, it’s the dealer or distributor making the changes for consumers. Here, the amp is upgraded at source. Look closely and you’ll see Audiophile-approved names like Vishay and WBT in place of the standard fare. This not only adds to the cost of the product, bur seriously ups the performance, as we’ll see.
The former Karan tone was dark. Not ‘bleak’ or ‘depressing’. Not even ‘moody’. Just dark-toned. Not dark enough to be an emphasis on the midrange and upper bass, but enough to draw your attention to this region. The temptation to call this ‘velvety’, ‘chocolaty’ or ‘rich’ is almost irresistible. Of course, the ‘it all sounds the same’ brigade would point to the none-more-black livery of the original Karan and claim that’s where the dark epithet springs from. And they will be delighted to know that the new less dark-sounding Karan integrated now comes in a less-dark silver finish. The fact that the brushed black amp finish is retained and that one doesn’t sound as dark now either is irrelevant.
It’s still dark-toned, retaining enough of the original sound to still entice people looking at life after Naim and those making the transition from mere hi-fi to proper high quality audio sounds. But the mild lack of sparkle at the top end has gone away and instead it’s got that high-end ‘shimmer’ to the treble that draws audiophiles like a moth to a flame. That almost makes it the perfect combination.
What I find particularly impressive about the Karan is its temporal precision, and it is not hard to see why it gets praise from Naim users for that reason. It’s neither up-beat or down-beat, just correctly with the beat, no matter how convoluted that beat (or this sentence) might be. So, play something with some groove (like Maggot Brain by Funkadelic) and it makes you want to drive a tripped-out 70s Lincoln Continental and call people ‘blood’, but swap that for Josquin and you’ll want to don doublet and hose. It’s very true to the rhythm when all there is, is rhythm. Otherwise, it’s very true to the original source material. However, I can’t help feeling the Naim folk seeking a new beat would prefer the older, slightly darker and less free sounding Karan integrated; it’s almost that there is too much happening in this new amp for someone just after some simple foot-tapping.
There’s a sure-footedness about the Karan sound that is so very appealing. A bit like a mountain goat, but less bleaty. It tracks the music beautifully, with a dynamic insight and instrument separation that is usually found in bigger pre/power designs. That, coupled with the power needed to drive practically everything in UK homes these days, makes you wonder just how much more a pre/power can deliver. The reality is, of course, “a lot” if well chosen, but I’d hesitate to find a well-chosen combination at the Karan’s price that gets as close to the integrated’s overall presentation (the MF A6 series tested last issue gets close, but where the power amp has got the moves to take on the Karan, the pre isn’t ‘there’).
That sure-footed power has an obvious advantage in the way the Karan presents a solid image. Instruments in the soundstage are rock-solid, and seemingly very physical presences in the room. This doesn’t favour any specific musical genre, but is especially noticeable with smaller-scale jazz or folk, in particular music with a singer up front. It really feels like there’s someone in the room.
It’s dynamic too. One of the acid tests of a really good component is how it takes you unawares. The sound of a system outside of the listening room – where the dynamic range and the timbral ‘rightness’ of a system is more important than it soundstaging properties – can sometimes make or break a system. Usually, it must be said, break it. Not here; the sounds out of the room are more like the real thing than usual. Once again, this works better with solo instruments, because the impression of someone playing sax or acoustic guitar in a room is more likely than someone having a whole orchestra in there. Sometimes that sax sounds like a sax, and it does it well here with Eric Dolphy.
This is one of those hard ones to write. There’s always a downside, but this one is very well hidden; hidden well enough that I really can’t find it. It’s got that satisfying directness that Class A brings and the energy you get from Class AB heft, and an absolute lack of background noise. It has a distinct ideal level for each recording, but turning the dial up or down from there is still good. Perhaps the huge Oreo remote control could change channels as well as volume, but really that’s it.
Let’s be strictly honest here. This is no radical shift in performance, in part because no such shift was needed. It was a good amp. It’s now an even better amplifier. No hype and no hyperbolic adjectives required. Yes there will be factions that prefer the slightly meatier sound of the older design, who will doubtless ignore the Karan’s strengths in every other sector to make a point that it isn’t a Naim amp from the 1980's. Those who retain a sense of balance in their audio and audio systems will see that the changes are universally better. Yes, it’s a notch or two better rather than a Damascene conversion, but it is better.
The usual audiophile response to “I’ve got a Karan amp” is, apparently, “niiiice!” Judging by the revamped KA I-180, that response is set to continue. The tone may have brightened and the front panel option widens its décor options, but the fundamental reason why Karan is king remains undimmed. It’s still going to be one of the cult faves; the forum darling and the cognoscenti’s choice. In an audio world where so many products live or die by their brand name and not much else, it’s good to have exceptions like Karan.
SPECS & PRICING
True differential (balanced) circuit
Inputs: three line inputs (RCA) one balanced line input
Outputs: one RCA line output, speaker terminals
Frequency response: DC - 300kHz +0, -3 dB
S/N ratio: better than -112dB
Damping Factor: better than 1800 at 8 Ohms, 20Hz - 20kHz
RMS Power: 180/300W into 8/4 Ohms
Remote Volume Control
Dimensions (WxHxD): 50 x 9 x 34cm
Net weight: 28kg
Manufactured by Karan Acoustics
Distributed by Audiofreaks UK Ltd
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