The front panel has a big blue LCD readout that tows that fine line between the tiny-wee letters of some amps and the unnecessarily huge graphics of Audio Research and Classé products. And then comes what I think is the one weak spot; the big knob in the middle. I know this is machined out of aluminium, and sits in front of a digital rotary control instead of a potentiometer or a stepped resistor ladder for good reason (it’s more accurate). However, it just feels light to the touch, with no weight or resistance to it.
No such comment could be made about the remote, though. If the Army decided it would be a good idea to equip the Parachute Regiment with remote handsets, they would look and feel like this one. In the hands of one who’s trained in such things, this could kill a man with a single blow. It’s a solid chunk of remote, all black and capable of controlling other Krell products and even a passing iPod hooked to the S300i. You need a Torx driver to gain access to the batteries, but this is a lot better than a sliver of plastic falling apart in a year or two. However, the beefy remote means Apple’s remarkable user-interface gets replaced with Krell’s own interpretation. This takes some getting used to and is nowhere near as intuitive as the iPod it handshakes with. Nevertheless, it does offer control of your iPod from an armchair, which is a not inconsiderable bonus.
Turn the S300i on and the first thing you get is ordered control. Seconds later, you reach for your killer bass track, because you can bet it sounds great. It will live up to expectations, too; my Spacemonkeyz remix of the first Gorillaz album has enough bottom end to give a trawlerman seasickness, but this often comes across as (double entendre fans please look away now) ‘all flap and no muscle’. The Krell reverses this beautifully – all muscle and no flap.
There’s also a sense of grip and authority to the sound that becomes immediately apparent when listening to something with an expansive soundstage. Often, large stereo presentations become ‘blowsy’ and incorporeal at the extremes, as if the phase effects used to widen that soundstage began to encroach on the music itself. This Krell neither foreshortens the soundstage nor exaggerates that wispyness at the edges; it makes the sound seem more rock solid. This makes the crowd noise at the start of ‘Numbers’ from Kraftwerk’s Minimum-Maximum album appear less like slightly phasey white noise and more like an audience of middle-aged blokes wanting to recapture their youth.
‘Numbers’ also demonstrates just how taut the overall performance of the Krell really is. The precise, insistent sequenced rhythms and complex layering of sounds and altered voices within that rhythmic structure are a perfect test of an amplifier’s control over an instrument’s ‘envelope’; how individual sounds attack, decay, sustain and release. These are the sort of tone shaping descriptors used in synth programming, too.
The S300i controls the envelope in a manner that would make Postman Pat hang his plastic little head in shame. Much of ‘Numbers’ is all about attack and release; half the sounds in the mix are transients of some kind or another. It handles this with ease. Other sounds are more legato – like the vocoder-coated voice intoning Russian numbers or the deliberately slowed German voice. This too it handles with ease. Then, there are the two side by side in the same mix; the regular rhythmic transients and the legato elements, arriving simultaneously; with such hard transients and blunted beats in the same mix, something usually gives. Again… ‘handle’, ‘ease’ come to mind.
So far, so potentially clinical; if all the S300i had in its arsenal was authority and a lot of control, it could easily be bested by any number of equally good integrated amps. Yes, so it can start and stop impressively despite having plenty of power behind it, but that’s not putting it in the exceptional stakes. What sets it apart from the most integrated amplifiers is that it seems to pull in all the properties of all good integrated amplifiers, and then do a Spinal Tap, by going up to 11. No, the analogy doesn’t extend to going louder than its rivals (although it can go very loud, very clean). Instead, it has a lot of the ‘bounce’ of a good UK design, a lot of the detail and large-scale soundstaging of its American counterparts, some of the warmth of a valve amp at the bottom end but with the cool neutrality of a well-engineered solid-state design at the top.