At the turn of the decade, when the first SACD players made their debuts at the hi-fi shows, I remember wondering what the fuss was about. The specs looked great, but the discs sounded weirdly antiseptic. As recently as a couple years ago, a manufacturer whose expensive amp I was reviewing loaned me the same company’s five-figure SACD player. I thought: Better, but the high frequencies are still odd. They were smooth but flat, uninflected; cymbals, for instance, all sounded the same. Around this time, TAS published a forum, in which some critics wondered if this was an inherent flaw in the format, which offers vast bandwidth and ultra-fast sampling speed but single- bit signals.
I wondered so, too, until I heard the Krell SACD Standard. Is it flawless? No, but its sonic shortcomings are extremely slight. At the very least, it redeems the format’s technical promise. It makes recorded music a pleasurable experience, to a degree that few digital machines in this price-range approach.
About those oft-problematic high frequencies, listen to the piercing purity of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s excursions on Handel arias [Avie] or the shimmer of Philly Joe Jones’ cymbals on the Miles Davis quintet’s Relaxin’ [Acoustic Sounds SACD]; they’re airy, even ethereal; you hear their distinct tones and resonances, and the ambience around them. The highs don’t stick out—neither as too bright nor too veiled—as digital highs often do. The midrange is also sweet and natural, if a bit on the warm side (which I don’t mind). The bass goes staggeringly deep and stays tuneful. If your speakers are fairly seamless from top to bottom, this digital machine won’t spoil the illusion.
The main appeal of most SACD players (even the cheap ones, for instance Sony’s first-generation model, which I bought for $200 a few years ago) is that they project the sound into your room; you sense the music breathing forth from the speakers, three-dimensionally, in a way that PCM digital just can’t manage (and in a way that good analog does routinely). The Krell Standard pulls off this feat…I was about to write “sensationally,” but that’s not right; it does so naturally, seamlessly, without calling attention to itself.
On the Academy of Ancient Music’s SACD of Bach solo and double violin concertos, Andrew Manze and Rachel Podger’s violins waft into your room on a wave and their overtones float up to the ceiling. The level of detail is extraordinary, including the “inner detail” of specific instruments. You can distinguish the thickness of the six guitar strings that Gene Bertoncini picks and strums on Quiet Now [Ambient Music]. I hadn’t realized the cellist was bowing every beat on “Ruby Tuesday,” until I listened through the Krell to the Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks SACD.
The Krell Standard also tosses up a soundstage as wide and as deep as the recording and the rest of your equipment allow. Listening to Michael Tilson Thomas’ series of Mahler symphonies, especially the Ninth, on the San Francisco Symphony’s own label, you can “see” precisely the position of the various instruments and sections.
It’s fair to ask why you should buy an SACD player at all. Only a small number of labels are still producing in the format. The rush of jazz and pop SACDs, which so excited audiophiles a few years ago (the multi-disc series of the Stones, Dylan, and so forth), has slowed to a near-halt. I have two replies. First, the labels still putting them out—Harmonia Mundi, SFSA, Telarc, Deutsche Grammophon, Songlines, Acoustic Sounds, among others— put out quite a lot of great recordings. Second, and more to the point here, the Krell Standard also does a superb job of playing standard Red Book CDs.
Everything I’ve said about it as an SACD player also holds for its performance as a CD player (allowing, of course, for the differences between the two formats).
How does the Krell hold up to vinyl? Not at all badly, but, hey, it’s not a miracle worker. Listen to Acoustic Sounds’ reissues of Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby. On the title tune, Paul Motian’s hard-brushed snare-slaps sound a bit less dynamic, a bit more softly slapped, on the SACD than on the 180-gram LP. In general, transients are softened, dynamic contrasts are shaded—noticeably, but not dramatically, not much more than the effect you’d hear by lowering a phono cartridge’s VTA by a few hairs. When TAS editor Jonathan Valin reviewed an earlier version of the Standard a couple years ago, in Issue 145 (more later on what’s different about this revised version), he praised, in particular, its “exceptionally rich and powerful bass” as well as its “midband bloom and sweetness.” At the same time, he compared it unfavorably with two much costlier models (EMM Labs’ DAC6e and EMM’s modified Philips 1000), finding the Krell “less extended and incisive in the treble” and for softening transients “more than a tad, as if it were…a tube unit.”