One of the first things you’ll notice with the KI-120s is their sensitivity: no shortage of gain here. They’ll play loud and with all that power on board they’ll do it proudly too. Indeed, trying the Emillé amps with a variety of different speakers demonstrated their willingness to bend to the task, awkward and inefficient load or not. If big and bold sums up their styling, it sums up their sound too – exactly what you’d expect from a well-driven octet of 6550s in fact. Listen to the sheer power and dynamic impact that you get from the SACD re-mastering of Reiner’s Scheherezade and you’ll see what I mean.
The opening passage simply explodes from the speakers, full of energy, colour and presence. But there’s more than just wallop here. All that orchestral fury is contained in a vast yet wonderfully coherent acoustic space, as the piece progresses the solo violin’s entry is perfectly poised in space and scale, a contrast in delicacy against the seething maelstrom of those opening bars. Yet despite the little and large nature of the music’s demands, the amps never lose grip or momentum, never become flustered or clumsy. Instead they have a surefooted sense of flow and musical momentum, a stability that betrays that rarest and most valuable of commodities, real authority. It’s this that enables the amps to hold that fragile solo violin so stable and separate from the rest of the orchestra. It’s this that keeps the acoustic space constant, the dimensionality and sense of enclosed air, irrespective of the number of instruments playing, the density of the score.
Whilst the KI-120s have that relaxed, easy grip on proceedings that lets the music breathe, there’s no lack of drive. The straight ahead roots rock of Bill Mallonee and The Vigilantes Of Love (the brilliant ‘Goes Without Saying’ from Audible Sigh) simply stampedes along, the power chords of the middle eight pouring forth, slabs of purpose and attitude, provoking reckless runs along the air guitar’s extended fret-board. At the same time, the sense of flow that lets the music move forward so effortlessly brings a smoothness and continuity to proceedings. Those who prefer their rhythms more explicit, micro-dynamic textures more obvious will point to a lack of resolution, and compared to the very best amps, a lack of focus and transparency, and it’s a fair cop – but one that rather misses the point. The KI-120s deliver a musical presence and power, a range of tonal colours and impressive scale that conjures life and the emotive content from recordings.
Faced with the thankless task of sharing house-space with the c-j LP275Ms and with the sound of the Marten Coltrane Supremes still ringing in my ears, the Emillé amps had a tough act to follow. With that in mind I downsized dramatically to the charming little Soundsmith Monarch stand-mounts. The KI-120s didn’t bat an eyelid, grasping the signal by the scruff of its neck, the speakers by the seat of their pants, delivering a performance of such winning gusto as to quite bowl me over. Along the way they demonstrated one of those hidden talents that you chance upon now and then; if you want to make small speakers sound big then this is the amp for you! It didn’t matter what I threw at the Monarchs, the scale or complexity of the performance, they took it in their stride, delivering a soundstage and dynamic range out of all proportion with their size. It was like witnessing the electronic equivalent of a Charles Atlas course for Nigel Nicely-Nice.
Of course, the KI-120s really deserve more ambitious partners, and speakers as varied as the Avalon Indra, KEF 207/2 and Nola Viper Reference were handled with aplomb. Each delivered the greater scale, detail, transparency and finesse you’d expect. Indeed, it wasn’t until the Indras made their entrance that I finally thought I’d outrun the amp’s capabilities. In contrast, the easy enthusiasm of the KEF 207/2 proved a near perfect match, delivering the Emillés’ dynamic clout and huge soundstage with engaging energy and serious intent. In this mode the integrated monos were hauntingly reminiscent of one of my fondest musical memories, the DNM/Beard P100 combo that marked my graduation to serious amplification nearly 25 years ago. Paired with Maggie MG1bs there was a presence, drive, energy, scale and volume to images that made listening an almost physical experience. Teamed with the KEFs, the KI-120s were able to transport me in just the same way. Talk about fired with enthusiasm, fired from a cannon is nearer the mark!
You need to handle such a heady mix with care. In particular you’ll need to watch the output level of your source components. The steps at the lower end of the KI-120s stepped attenuator are necessarily fairly course, meaning that the excessive output of many CD players is best attenuated before it reaches the amplifiers’ inputs. Likewise, crude or splashy front-ends are going to be cruelly exposed. Instead look for players with plenty of detail, separation and dynamic range; Goldmund’s Eidos 18 CD/SACD player proved ideal, once I’d tamed its output with a set of inline resistors. Unsurprisingly, the Emillé phono-stage was perfectly adapted, with its front panel controls allowing careful balancing of load and overall gain. Ultimately however, I wanted slightly more depth and resolution than the KPE-2AS was delivering, turning instead to the Groove Plus. But don’t write the Emillé stage off just yet. It’s an interesting and extremely engaging device, sharing if anything, too many of the amps’ qualities to sit comfortably beside it. In another context it could be just what you are looking for, a prospect we’ll report on separately.
In the meantime, if you feel like you’ve lost the enthusiasm you once had for listening, or that your system is getting a shade too polite for its own good, the KI-120s make a loud, proud case for your attention. And you needn’t be put off by the unusual format. Something smaller and more manageable, sir? Emillé have a number of other, more conventional offerings that deliver slightly less power while also demanding less of your hardearned cash. Me, I’d stretch to the KI-120s: because I love the way they look, because of the way they sound, but mainly because they never, ever forget that this is supposed to be about involvement. If this Emillé, monobloc, integrated, contradiction of an amp doesn’t get you up and dancing… or conducting… or thrashing air-guitar, then I’m sorry, it’s probably already too late.