Karan Acoustic’s range of high-end amplifiers from the former Yugoslavia is growing. The company still lacks a CD player, but there’s a DAC, a phono stage with a reputation to die for, several power amps (most opf which we’ve reviewed) and now a pair of pre-amps. The KA L Reference was first, a two-box masterwork; it’s recently been joined by the KA L, also a line-level design, but this time housed in a single box.
This single-box design saves a lot of money, but you’d never guess there was any cost saving by the look of the KA L. It retains the solid, almost monolithic look of all Karen products, with just a red glowing logo separating this pre-amp from utter blackness. Otherwise, it is just a reassuringly solid block of aluminium, complete with volume knob at one end, channel selector at the other. Balance – pah! Displays and indicators – you must be joking. You get a remote, what more do you need?
This is a fully balanced, fully dual mono circuit. Unlike many products that share balanced and single-ended pathways, the KA L takes the long route, translating the three singleended inputs into a fully-balanced architecture rather than sticking balancing transformers (or worse) to drag balanced sources into a singleended world. The KA L also sports a single, balanced input as well as single-ended and balanced outputs. The nearest we get to a display is a red light indicating whether the preamplifier is running the balanced or line level inputs.
Open the casework and you’ll reveal a board layout that’s as logical and as thoroughly engineered as you will find anywhere in audio. There’s a no-quarter approach in there – with things like three separate power supply stages, for the frontend and for each channel (which is surprising when you think how little circuit each one of these supplies is driving; most preamplifiers would lump these power supplies together). Given that Karan build everything in-house (rather than sub-contracting to China) this uncompromising build is stunning. Then there’s the finish – it’s cinematically deep; think Spinal Tap (“none, none more black”) or 2001 – A Space Odyssey monolith black. Not that you’d want to scratch the thing, but you’d really have to go at it with a cold chisel to ding it. Given that this pre-amplifier weighs in at 20kg – healthily heavy for a small power amplifier – this build quality builds confidence. Right down to those three feedbackreducing feet.
In proper Karan tradition, the KA L eschews global feedback, uses bipolar output devices to drive the gain stages and is DC-coupled. It ships with a funky braided mains lead and an equally funky remote control. This is a volume controller alone, with a pair of buttons to raise or lower the gain. However, it makes up for the limited functionality, because it’s so cool – the thing looks like a hockey puck and fits the hand surprisingly well. There’s a fair chunk of running in to plough through before this amplifier comes to life. Meaning, you have to sit through hours on end where it gets better and better. Karan suggests a 100 hour run-in before the pre-amp comes on song. That said, it’s pretty good to begin with.
I used the KA L with one of the best power amps in the business – the Karan KA S 180 stereo amplifier (tested here in July 2006). Armed with a CD player with balanced outputs, this gives a completely front-to-back balanced option. But this highlights the one potential short-coming of the Karan system – it’s not a whole system yet. The company desperately needs a CD transport or player; if nothing else as a PR exercise. There’s a modern perception (seemingly among new audiophiles) that there’s some magic synergy in using a onebrand system and companies that lack one of those key components in the chain simply don’t sell as well. The Karan KA L should be better known, as should the KA S 180. It should be better known because it’s one of those amplifiers that signed the Hippocratic Oath. It has the words ‘First Do No Harm’ burned into the circuitry somewhere. It means whatever you play through the KA L doesn’t get radically altered by it. This sounds trivial, but too many pre-amplifiers are ‘dark’ sounding or ‘warm’ sounding, ‘woody’, ‘clean’ ‘steely’ or one of possibly dozens of different flavours of pre-amp sound. This is one of the few exceptions, one with a seeming absence of character. The power amplifier is slightly dark and the two together act as a perfect foil for musical replay.
This absence of pre-amp sound is addictive. It’s also very hard to describe, because you find yourself talking about the recordings and the music, not the properties of the preamplifier itself. Although this is a very good thing for music – let’s face it, a product that gets out of the way so sublimely that music becomes uppermost is extremely good for replaying music – it doesn’t make for good copy.