Karan Acoustics Kal Mk3/kas 180 Mk2 (£4995/£4995)

Though outwardly unchanged, a serious internal makeover has brought Karan's cool-looking pre/power duo up-to-date. But how do these revised models sound?

here must be many audiophiles who are torn between valve and solid-state amplification. If you are attracted to the sound of valves, but hesitate to take the plunge for practical reasons, you’ll be interested in solid-state products which try to offer the best of both worlds. And that’s part of the promise held out by the Karan amplifier line, which is built in the Republic of Serbia and has been gathering a following in several other countries since around 2000. In early days, with its emphasis on muscle power amps and its ‘KA-S’ model designations, Karan might have seemed just another newcomer snapping at the heels of Krell. But Krell has moved on, so that Karan’s purposeful styling no longer seems derivative, but conveys an air of genuine pedigree.

Credit for Karan’s international profile today has to go to Audiofreaks, not only the UK’s but also worldwide distributor. More than that, over the last ten years, Audiofreaks has worked with designer Milan Karan on the development of the products. Taking responsibility for all Karan’s communications with the outside world, Audiofreaks lists the essential principles said to characterise all its products, past and present. Some of these are: true differential (balanced) topology of all circuitry; Sanken Ring Emitter transistors for output stages; dual-mono configuration for stereo products. The list continues with ‘a proprietary wide bandwidth (patent pending) true Class A configuration with ultra-fast reaction times’, while all products are DC coupled. They use ‘the very best passive and active audio components, connectors and internal wire available today.’ Finally, all products are housed in solid, resonance-free chassis and casework.
    Karan’s first ‘small’ preamp, the original KAL, was derived from the much more expensive Reference model. Both have now reached Mk3 status. An elaborate two-box system in which the power supplies are mounted on a separate chassis, the Reference has remote control of source switching as well as volume, and can accommodate an optional internal phono stage. Although the KAL is based on the same circuit principles, it comes with simpler power supply arrangements built into a single box.
   Remote control volume is provided, but not source switching, on the grounds that the necessary switching circuits would involve a sonic compromise unless very special arrangements were made (as they have been in the Reference preamp). And the KAL Mk3 is purely a line-level device, with no provision for an internal phono stage board. Vinyl users will need a separate amp, Karan’s own current offering being the matching KA Phono 2 Mk3.
   While the first-series KAL progressed to Mk2 status through modular upgrades which could be retrofitted to existing units, the Mk3, introduced last September, is described as a full redesign. But it retains its traditional control layout, the left-hand knob selecting between the three unbalanced inputs and one balanced input pair, the selected source indicated in the central display. There is no tape monitor or loop facility.
   To the right is the smooth-acting, large volume control, based on an Alps potentiometer, motorised to give remote control. The handset itself is a plain and simple doughnut-shaped device with up-and-down keys.
   Like the preamp, the uniform KAS 180 Mk2 power amp has a solid, quietly imposing look, thanks to its hefty, shaped front panel sections. Businesslike heatsinks replace the preamp’s radiused side panels while, this time, the display, with its red-lit Karan logo, serves just to indicate that the unit is on. On the back panel are balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (phono) inputs and one stereo set of speaker binding posts.
   Describing the changes to the range for 2010, Karan mentions improvements to both power supplies and audio circuits, along with the use of Vishay resistors in every part of the audio signal path, proprietary polypropylene and polystyrene capacitors and Cardas pure copper internal wiring. Cardas rhodium-plated line and speaker connectors are used. So these models are claimed to offer a ‘substantial sonic performance improvement’ as well as higher power output.
   Karan’s ‘true Class A’ description for its power amp output stages refers to a sliding-bias scheme in which the input signal demand is said to be sampled at intervals of less than half a millisecond.

My listening started, perhaps inevitably, with Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat [RTHCD 5052]. Here the Karan combination gave a slightly softened quality, a creamy smoothness that was easy on the ear. On ‘First We Take Manhattan’ the bass seemed under-emphasised compared with my usual workhorse amp, the Classé CAP 2100. But the bass guitar’s contribution was nonetheless free and rhythmic, so the track rocked along quite well. It could make some other amplifiers sound quite pedestrian on this number.
   On the title track, the saxophone was pleasingly mellow, but above all the amp seemed not to get in the way of this singer, who just seems to unfold with more artistry and subtlety with every system improvement. Moving on to heavier stuff with Kings Of Leon and ‘The End’, which (paradoxically) opens Come Around Sundown [Sony 88697782412], it seemed that the bass, though not exaggerated, sounded somehow more present and ‘electric’ compared with lesser amplifiers, and the vocals had some real juice.
   Backtracking in time to Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks [Columbia 51230 6], though, I felt there really was enough bottom end weight on the long bass notes of ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’, those which make the chord sequence work. Here the vocal had fullness without becoming raucous. With The Kooks’ Inside Out from 2006 [Virgin 0094635072426] the Karan combination was immediately inviting, making the voice and acoustic guitar sound real and intimate on ‘Seaside.’ Then it did a great job projecting the endless variety of electric guitar sounds that appear through the rest of the album, and was always rhythmically convincing too.
   Next I put on Adele’s 21 [XLCD 520] and found that the Karan unflinchingly conveyed the singer’s sheer vocal power, as she let rip on the anthemic ‘I Set Fire To The Rain’. On tracks like ‘Turning Tables’ it coped well enough with the big-sounding but often airless production which gives some tracks a too relentless quality, and once again managed to be rhythmically convincing if not exactly agile.
   By this time I’d done quite a lot of experimenting with the pre- and power amp separately in different combinations. It was very hard to fault the preamp, which was just very neutral and also extremely quiet. So I set out to investigate the sound of the power amp further, using different speakers.

I suppose it’s unlikely that any purchaser would pair the Karan pre- and power with original Quad electrostatics (and even more unlikely that they’d listen to Kings Of Leon on them!) but I tried the experiment – and on less improbable material. However, this wasn’t a magical combination. Although the Karan’s pleasingly sweet midrange was apparent, the bottom end became just too muddy. This was more of a drawback on rock than with classical or other acoustic music, and listening to Haitink’s Beethoven Symphony 5 recording [LSO Live, LSO0590] the overall softening effect of the Karan was not unwelcome.
   I brought out my lovely old Rogers LS7 stand-mounts, specially for the occasion. On the Beethoven, the Karan couldn’t quite dispel the residual boxiness of these biggish, ported cabinets, but it gave a smooth treble sound and could summon up a fairly good feeling of space and dynamic contrasts, at least in the upper registers. However, with these speakers the Karan seemed unable to give a good sense of clarity and air to the LSO’s double-basses. The feeling of a real acoustic was compromised, and with it the possibility of enjoying this sometimes problematic recording.
   With rock music too, the trade-off again seemed to be towards a smoothness or creamy sound in the mid, and away from precision and control in the bottom end. Returning to Dylan’s ‘Simple Twist Of Fate,’ the mid and top were delightful, but the bass now seemed a little lightweight and lacking punch.
   On Mitsuko Uchida’s Debussy Etudes [Philips 464 698-2], the Karan could give a sound that was bright enough without being too hard and glittering, as it became with other solid-state amps I used for comparison. It produced an image of the piano that at times was striking in its immediacy and delicacy, although I would not go so far as to say it was valve-like.
   It was good on some tiny details, such as the way you could occasionally hear a twangy sound at the end of a note when the damper went on to the strings quite slowly, as the pianist’s foot allowed the pedal to come up less than instantaneously. Yet at the same time, I felt that the Karan power amp did not offer quite the best sense of space and depth I’ve heard from this recording, though it did provide an easy, pleasing and open midrange quality.

Together, this Karan pair can give a notably unstressed sound. While the preamp is faultlessly neutral, the power amp seems to have been tailored for inviting results, perhaps with classical music in mind. Though nearly always rhythmically pleasing, its bass quality seemed inconsistent on different speakers and music genres. An appealing combination, but one that needs careful speaker matching.

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Originally published in the August 2011 edition