Krell Cipher SACD Player (Hi-Fi+)

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Krell Cipher
Krell Cipher SACD Player (Hi-Fi+)

Krell has been a steadfast supporter of the SACD format longer than anyone, first with the Standard, then the Evolution and now the Cipher player, which will probably see out the SACD era. New models have been effectively forced by the unplanned obsolescence of player mechanisms. In the nature of the technology, it is not usually possible to slot in new generation mechs without compromise to other elements of the design or a complete redesign. As their watchers will know, Krell has never had much truck with compromise.

The Cipher is a standalone player, with tips the scales at an impressive 13.2kg, and which plays single layer (SACD only), hybrid dual layer SACD and CD-DA audio discs and CD or DVD based data discs. Remember that in most cases it doesn’t play DVD audio discs, but if this is important
 to you there is still a handful of so
 called universal players around, of
 which probably the best known
 and most affordable are from 
the Oppo stable.

The new generation Krell SACD player has barely changed physically externally from its predecessors though there are a number of internal modifications and updates. Key features include a similar heavy duty, well damped aluminium carcass of exquisite build and finish. The unit is physically imposing at 15cm tall and is available in black or silvered finishes. It looks all but identical to previous players in the range such as the SACD Standard and the EV505, and uses a barely altered matrix of 33 miniature front panel control buttons, of which the most unusual are a set of four digital filters for SACD and two dedicated to the CD standard. These have some influence near and also just above the upper frequency extreme, though the first filter settings appears to give the best overall balance in most cases for both CD and SACD recordings alike. The Cipher is supplied with a heavy duty aluminium-clad remote control handset that if well aimed looks ‘man’ enough to ward off intruders single-handed if called upon to do so. The control buttons and associated labels are tiny, and you may find as I did that it takes some time to acclimatise yourself to their layout.


The back panel of the player is equipped much like its predecessors and includes single ended phono outputs for five channels, though it wasn’t tested in multichannel form. Other socketry includes XLR based stereo balanced outputs, and various triggers and IR sockets, even a pair of RJ45s which talk to other similarly equipped Krell components. A pair of stereo only CAST outputs completes the roster. CAST is a proprietary current mode interface which when linked to similarly equipped Krell components allows the internal signal path to operate as a single gain stage, which had a very significant impact by reducing susceptibility to cable differences and also by simplifying the signal path. There are no real downsides to CAST, but I am not aware of any other manufacturer adopting the technology, though I believe there was some talk of this happening when CAST was first introduced.

The Cipher is recognisably of the same parentage as its predecessors, a chip off the old block if you will. It is primarily a purist state of the art audio player (there is no video support), which is dedicated to delivering the best possible sound quality from 12cm audio discs, primarily Red Book CDs and SACD’s in two channel and multichannel form. It has no external digital inputs (unfortunately) although it will play the stereo audio tracks of some (eg dts) DVD audio discs. Compact disc covers all musical genres of course, but this isn’t so for SACD, whose catalogue is primarily classical (mostly from smaller specialist labels) and to a lesser extent jazz. Rock and other popular genres are barely represented in the SACD catalogue.

Particular attention has been paid in the Cipher to the mechanical isolation and damping of the disc mechanism from the chassis, which runs quietly (not always a given with older generation of SACD players). An anti-jitter module is fitted to complement the separate CD and SACD read lasers and a great deal of effort has gone into the power supplies, which is nothing less than you’d expect of Krell.

Sound quality is exceptional, and not just with SACD. Exceptional CDs such as the Christian Thielemann/Vienna Philharmonic version of the Richard Strauss Alpine Symphony that I acquired on disc the day after seeing a Promenade concert performance of the same work at The Royal Albert Hall with the same orchestra, but conducted by Bernard Haitink, was stunning in the flesh and barely less so on CD. In this case, the SACD recording of the work played by the LSO in a live Barbican recording under the baton of Berrnard Haitink is not of the stature of the work by played by the Vienna Philharmonic under Christian Thieleman. Despite the superior recording technology it sounds warmer and looser and for that reason less thrilling in the Barbican disc. In the end, the Vienna Phil recording is clearly more compelling and has greater stature. The richly varied orchestration includes such delights as a wind machine, an organ and off stage brass instumentalists which frames the music better with a more physical, almost Mahlerian presence. If this proves anything it is that the nature of the enabling technology that it doesn’t trump the recording and interpretation, which should come as no surprise. For what it’s worth, the Vienna recording is apparently available on SACD though I have been unable to find a copy.

Despite exceptional results like this, it was almost invariably SACD that gave better results, with clearly superior resolution and soundstaging, and the Cipher lives up to its billing with a wide range of the several hundred SACD recording on my shelves, from Mozart to Mahler and Schoenberg via Beethoven and Wagner, and also some of my fairly sparse collection of non classical SACD discs – including titles from Jennifer Warnes, Eric Bibb and others. In each case SACD gave a perceptibly rounder and sweeter view of the music. There was also a clear benefit in the use of balanced interconnects – Nordost Valhalla was used for test in single ended and balanced varieties.

Low frequency quality, and in particular the sense of weight and scale, are transformed in the best cases from SACD, with none of the rather airless dryness that is sometimes associated with compact disc, but it is the other end of the spectrum that shows the greatest musical benefits over CD. Imagery is very expressive and three dimensional, even in plain vanilla two channel stereo – no appropriate multichannel system was available for this test so the listening here was exclusively two channel based. Treble quality can be delicate, subtle and ethereal and is generally a clear step up from that you’d normally expect from compact disc. Because most of the test discs were CD/SACD hybrids, it was easy to change between layers to confirm the audible differences between the two formats, CD and SACD, and although there are some pratfalls when making this kind of comparison due to the way different layers are mastered, over time a picture was built up of a clearly more sophisticated sound from the higher resolution format. With lesser players it is not always immediately obvious which is CD and which is SACD, but this is not the case here. SACD was clearly the better musical deal in almost every instance.

Each of the main types of compatible disc handled extremely well by the Krell flagship disc player. It took a quite badly pockmarked or scratched disc to fail to load or to play cleanly through this player and there were almost no signs of dropout or muting. Although the ergonomics of the players are slightly ill conceived – it surely wouldn’t have been too 
difficult to contrive an easier control
 layout, it is difficult to 
think of any other 
negative points with 
this player, though 
it does run quite hot 
when under power for 
an extended period.
 Other than this there is
 of course the elevated
 price tag. Nobody could
 reasonably suggest that 
price is not an issue. You will 
need to be seriously well heeled 
to afford this player, but if I had the
 means I would not hesitate to invest 
in the Cipher, not least because I have
 quite a lot of SACDs in my collection,
and I would welcome the opportunity to
 make the most of them on a daily basis.
 

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

Type: SACD/CD player compatible with CDR, 44.1 WAV, DVD-R/RW/+R.
Class-A balanced, zero-feedback,
Krell Current Mode topology from input to output (using CAST).
D/A conversion: 2 DSD1794 DACs (1 per channel, 2 per pair of surround channels)

Digital outputs: 1 S/PDIF via RCA, 1 S/ PDIF via Toslink
Analogue outputs: 1 pair CAST via 4-pin bayonet connectors, 1 pair balanced via XLR, 6 single-ended via RCA
Control inputs: 1 RS-232 port via 9-pin D-subminiature connector, 1 12VDC trigger input, 1 Krell CAN Link (2 x RJ45). IR remote control included
Dimensions: 438mm, 153mm, 438mm.
Weight: 13.2kg nett

Price: £12,000

Manufacturer: Krell Industries
URL: www.krellonline.com

Distributed by: Absolute Sounds
URL: www.absolutesounds.com
Tel: +44(0)208 971 3909

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