Naturally, a company that works out performance differences in circuit traces takes the same almost obsessive care throughout every aspect of design. Attention is paid to the topology and isolation properties of each circuit board. Where components are not exacting enough to meet Karan’s demanding standards, the manufacturers have been tasked with building to the company’s proprietary specifications. In terms of the circuitry itself, the LINEa is driven in pure Class A with no global feedback in order to reduce or even eliminate intermodulation distortion.
Moreover, the LINEa is fully balanced from front to back. Although many domestic audio components claim a symmetrical circuit, often this is little more than lip service. This Karan amp, by way of contrast, is fully differential and DC coupled, with any potential DC offset resolved in custom DC servo circuits instead of putting capacitors in the signal path. There are two RCA inputs alongside the four XLRs and one of the two XLR outputs (shown in the photographic sample) is now also a single-ended RCA pair. The topology remains as complementary as it gets and this means noise, distortion and other interference are kept even and therefore low, cancelling out signal by-products. Of course, this degree of circuit symmetry is for nothing if there’s a pinch-point in the volume control, but even here, the output level of the signal (volume control) has been designed as a 4x fully balanced and symmetrical attenuator with ultra-fast relays and custom made, non-magnetic resistors of 0.1% tolerance. The result is a preamplifier that is linear to within +0/-3dB from 1.5Hz to 3mHz, while the LINEa’s extremely fast and DC coupled circuits guarantee no phase shift of the audio signal or any time aberration within the full audio bandwidth. Even by the obsessive levels often found in audio, this raises the bar.
The stepped front fascia is replaced by a curved panel, which is both easier on the eye and less likely to be a source of resonance. The top plate has a gradated series of holes for heat dissipation and the Karan logo inset, which also looks more elegant than existing Karan products. The front display layout and graphics are subtly changed; simply removing the second smaller ‘acoustics’ line in the logo gives the Karan name cleaner lines. The remote handset pebble is more substantial. Even the feet get their own place in Karan history. Most companies would just think ‘feet’, but Milan Karan researched, listened and ultimately selected the excellent (and Hi-Fi+ Award Winning) CS21.0 CenterStage2 feet by Critical Mass Systems.
I try not to be swayed by the first impressions, especially when dealing with the sort of top end equipment that often unveils its story over time. But here, it was impossible not to be won over by the LINEa from the get-go. The first track I played – Andreas Schiff playing the Apassionata from his Beethoven piano sonata cycle on ECM – it was clear I was in the presence of something special. The piano – a notoriously difficult instrument to get right, both at the recording and replay ends – has the percussive impact and the decay and sustain of a piano in the room, but with the fluidity and ‘legato’ coherence needed to realise that piano sound. What you get in most cases is the sound of fingers tapping keys and hammers hitting strings; what you hear through the Karan is a resonant, breathing, percussive instrument, played by a master.
Detail is, of course, paramount here. But it’s only one of the benefits to the Karan sound. There’s something akin to making thematic sense of the music that’s really hard to describe, but it’s as if the performance is better honed and more nailed down. It’s as if one of the already finest pianists of his generation just got a little more practice in before the recording. Everything is a little more polished and precise. The piano too snaps into focus. It’s a very dynamic, extremely natural presentation, but one that portrays the ‘spaces around the notes’ brilliantly.
This track gets a lot of play time, but I noticed something close to a velvet effortlessness and smoothness to the sound that is not commonly heard. At first, I thought the LINEa was being a little too smooth, but the more I listened to other tracks, it was just that it was getting so far past the surface sonic performance and getting to the heart of the recording itself.
Oddly, this resolved itself by an abrupt shift to ‘Afterglow’ from Lydia Ainsworth’s Darling of the Afterglow [Bella Union]. This slow, almost chanting trip-hoppy electronica couldn’t be more different to solo piano, but the way the LINEa unveiled the processing on her voice and the synth sounds filling the room showed both how ‘angular’ the processing, but also how refined her voice was underpinning all that synth modelling.