[This review originally appeared in issue 65 of Hi-Fi Plus magazine, which is published in the U.K.]
A new amp by Krell always piques the interest of audiophiles. But this one is perhaps the most significant Krell in a very long time. You see, the S300i integrated amplifier is the first Krell product to be made in China.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with building in the Far East, but the high-end community has been a notable hold-out on Chinese manufacture. However, a few that are doing what Krell is intent on doing; making the entry level products in the Far East and the more up-market equipment in its original factory.
This is a bold move on Krell’s part. We audio types fear change. Chinese Krell cannot be as good as Connecticut Krell… Can it? In fact, the odds look good. The words on the back of the S300i mention ISO 9001 – a very clear message to the nay-sayers. ISO 9001 is a formal statement of quality control that is common to all good engineering practice. It means constant monitoring, measurement, analysis and a heck of a lot of paperwork accompanying each product. ISO 9001 is one of the mislaid and hard to achieve standards that everyone was struggling to achieve in the 1990s and swiftly forgotten when it came down to building cheap abroad. It means the place of manufacture is completely immaterial, because the standards set by ISO 9001 remain a benchmark wherever that product is built. It means Krell is Krell, no matter where it comes from.
If the S300i could be made anywhere under ISO 9001 conditions, why move production of any product to China. Why not keep it made in America? Put simply, it would be hard to produce a product of the S300i’s calibre in the US without either compromising on performance or raising its price to thoroughly unrealistic levels. The S300i is a bit of a technological tour de force under the skin and Krell would either have to sacrifice some of its advanced features, or bring the sound quality down a few notches. Or, it would sell for about £5,000. None of these concepts sit comfortably, so the company decided that for this level of component, Chinese manufacturer was the only possible option. This is not the thin end of the wedge though; Krell is keen to limit the number of products made in China, as the economies of scale that apply to the S300i (or some AV equipment) don’t apply to Evo-type products and these are best hand-built by American expertise.
So, what do you get for your £2,640? Basically it’s a pre/power in a single box; there’s a stripped-down version of an Evolution preamp, and a Current Mode technology power amplifier stage that’s like a Evo 302 writ small. Not that small, as the thing packs a whopping great 750VA transformer and 38,000µF’s worth of reservoir capacitance into that 20kg chassis. There’s a single balanced (XLR) input – highly recommended – three single-ended line inputs and a power amp direct input. This can also be routed to act as a front channel power amp for a home cinema system. Next to these are a set of CI-chummy connectors (for AMX and Crestron remote handsets and multiroom triggers) and in between is a thin little connector designed to accommodate an Apple iPod.
The amp delivers a claimed 150 watts per channel into eight ohms and doubles that into four. This is the sign of a very ‘stiff’ power supply, so a relatively low impedance loudspeaker will prove no trouble at all. Such a power supply is common in Krell designs, but comparatively rare at the cheaper end of the market (Harman/Kardon being the notable exception). In musical terms, this means sustained deep bass is not a problem, even on ‘difficult’ loudspeaker loads. In fairness, if you were to engage in some cruel and unusual loudspeaker punishment – like partnering this amp with something like an old Apogee Scintilla from 20-plus years ago – the S300i might struggle. But, with any of the loudspeakers you would normally expect to partner with a sub-£3,000 amp, the Krell will breeze through the test.
One of the more smart features (part of that ‘technological tour de force’ mentioned above) is its ability to delve into menu systems and adjust a series of parameters to best suit the system context it ends up living in. Not only can you name individual inputs (let’s face it S-1, S-2 and S-3 are not exactly roll-off-the-tongue describers of inputs), but you can adjust the input trim (making sure the different sources are close to level match), balance adjustment (independent of main balance – good for those rare sources that might be slightly ‘out’ in one channel) and muting level. Such adjustment is becoming commonplace at the lower-middle end of the market – and at the very top – but is surprisingly rare among the up-scale integrateds this amp goes up against.