Seemingly intent on demonstrating that Korea can do high-end as well as providing a superior standard of offshore, low-cost manufacturing, Emillé landed on these shores in the not insubstantial shape of their statement product, the KI-120 integrated amp. And quite a statement it is too. Not just dual mono, this is a dual chassis design; arguably the worlds first mono-bloc integrated – if that’s not an oxymoron – with each half taking up the kind of real estate and material resources that most companies would devote to a stereo design. If Emillé wanted to create a splash, they certainly succeeded.
Of course, esoteric hi-fi from Korea is actually no stranger to these shores; just think Kochel, or more recently, Usher. There have also been various ranges of solid-state electronics, but none that have really captured the public’s imagination. Well, that might just change, now that Emillé’s more affordable and (somewhat) more manageable KI-40L has arrived. Much as I love the extravagant presentation and bold musical authority of the KI- 120s, they’re hardly real world. But take most of the pluses and build them into a stereo chassis with around a third of the power for around a third of the price and now you’re talking… So, picture the 120’s corner columns and aluminium plate construction, but broader in the beam with a central “saddle” separating the left and right valve decks. In fact, it’s a look that works better in the wider footprint, making the KI-40L a strikingly attractive fusion of the traditional and modern. The tubes themselves are protected below a Perspex top-plate (although prying fingers might gain access through the large side apertures). There are individual stepped attenuators for the left and right channels, positioned on the front-plate before their respective tubes, while the central front-panel contains the source selector and biasing arrangement a valve selector, trim screws and an illuminated meter which doubles up as a power indicator and style icon.
At the other end you’ll find widely separated left and right channel connections (further underlining the dual mono construction of this amp) for five line inputs and 4 and 8 Ohm speaker outputs. Apart from an earth post and the IEC input, that’s all you get, so no pre-out, record output or unity gain input. No remote control either – a fact I find rather welcome, although others will disagree. Also absent is any description of the circuit topology, although the 40 Watt output from a pair of KT77s per channel suggests a push-pull output stage, while a pair of 12AU7s and one 12AT7 a side likewise suggests an additional gain stage and a proper buffer, making this a pucka integrated with a genuine internal line-stage, rather than just a power amp with the gain wicked up. The chassis is constructed to the same exemplary standards as the one on the KI-120, the massive panels, tubes and Perspex work contributing to the unit’s substantial 38kg mass. It’s an awkward cuss too, so much of the weight being located in the rear transformer housing. Fortunately, the quality extends inside, with heavy duty, gold-plated circuit boards littered with precision resistors and Mundorf coupling capacitors. Each corner column is tipped with an adjustable cone foot for leveling, whilst a rather attractive aluminium leg and sheet Perspex isolation stand was also supplied. I kind of assumed that this was of largely cosmetic rather than sonic value; it adds considerably to the amp’s visual appeal and is well worth considering for that purpose alone. But in practice it also proved to add considerably to the sonic potential of the amp. Placed between the KI-40L and the shelf of a finite-elemente HD-03 rack, it added focus, dynamic range, transparency, depth and a more even sense of energy to proceedings. Playing Dolly Varden’s ‘Some Sequined Angel’, the stand made for a much more natural sense of perspective and space, more emotive vocals, better phrasing and separation of harmonies and longer, more complex tails to notes. Not trivial then!
I used the KI-40L to drive a variety of speakers, but mainly the excellent little Spendor SA1, the Living Voice OBX-R2 and the MartinLogan CLX full-range electrostatic. As if to further underline the danger of jumping to conclusions, this latter and least likely pairing also proved to be spectacularly successful, playing to the amp’s greatest strength, its sense of space and intimate dimensionality. That Dolly Varden track again, and Diane Christiansen’s voice is beautifully fragile and intimate, but also dimensional, a physical presence solidly locked in space. There’s no question over its height, or the spatial separation with Steve Dawson’s harmonies. This sense of natural scale and perspective is brought home by great live recordings like Nanci Griffiths’ One Fair Summer Evening, with the easy, unforced rhythm of the spoken interludes breathing life into the performance. This ability to be stable yet unhurried, engaging yet relaxed is a quality that graces the better units in Audio Research’s latest range; it’s unusual enough at that elevated price point – it’s not something I’m used to finding considerably further down the pay scale. Of course, it’s easy to make an amp seem relaxed if it’s also lazy, but the Emillé never even flirts with that line. Not only does it kick up its heels with gusto when required (‘Spin On A Red Brick Floor’) but it holds your attention even through the slowest of tempi; notes are placed, they never lag. Drop a bit of Basie in the CD drawer and the Count’s insistent left-hand prods, the underlying urgency of ‘Way Out Basie’ propel the track along. The wonderfully undulating bass line is pitch perfect, the brass tuttis big, bold and colourful. Even the strummed rhythm guitar chords are there, even if they do get a little lost in the mayhem…