Connecting these amps to the ultra quick, uncompressed and tactile Eben Ayra C1s demonstrated both the fact that they take a good ten days to run in from new (sounding compressed, grey and grainy in the meantime) and that once they find their feet they sound neither like big amps nor small ones. Instead, there’s a consistency and substance to their sound, irrespective of musical scale or system volume. Instrumental colours and textures are beautifully captured, musical tension is present without being forced, there’s a relaxed alertness to the sound that allows the music unimpeded expression, a natural sense of space and acoustic that is present without being laboured or overly explicit. The soundstage is expansive and threedimensional without ever becoming etched or overly “carved”. Interestingly, this is the direction the KA L Reference leans in, meaning that if you want a shade more definition, more sculpted edges to images, then it presents a readily available solution. But for me, the greater transparency and energy of the Connoisseur, the colour palette and dimensionality of the ACT 2 Series 2 or Audio Research Ref 3 are the natural foils for the big Karan amps, offering as they do a performance that deserves the very best in partnering equipment. So coupled, the life, presence and unrestricted dynamic range on offer is impressive and exhilarating, the poise and delicacy will literally have you holding your breath.
So, just how do the 650s stack up against their bigger brothers. The pragmatic answer is that without some seriously wide bandwidth speakers and prior knowledge of the 1200s you’ll probably never know. It wasn’t until I reinstalled the massive Nola Pegasus (now in updated Signature guise) that I started to become aware of if not the limits of the 650s performance, then at least the boundaries of their envelope. Compared to the bigger amps, they lose little if anything in terms of spatial definition, scale or stability. They float bowed bass notes with an impressive lightness of touch whilst reproducing low-frequencies with pitch authority and power when demanded. But there is an undeniable something about the bigger amps, a range of texture, an absolute quality to their reproduction that leaves you never questioning what they deliver, never looking for more, trusting that what they deliver is what’s there. Playing the Gorecki 3rd Symphony with its repetitive bass phrases and measured tempo, the 650s offer an achingly beautiful performance, but in absolute terms they don’t deliver quite the same intimacy of texture or separation of individual instruments. It’s not even a question of information, more of feel and given the speakers to do it the 1200s do feel more real – albeit at a price hike of £10K.
But don’t be overly concerned. If you can afford a pair of Avalon Isis you can afford (and will want) a pair of 1200s to go with them. For mere mortals with less demanding speakers the 1200s won’t be worthwhile over the 650s. I never thought I’d describe a £15K mono-block as the real world choice but in so many ways that’s exactly what it represents. Its near perfect balance between the conflicting demands of musical freedom and dynamic control make music convincing through its stability, natural colours and perspectives, compelling for both its perfect tempi, fragile delicacy and awesome power. The Karan 650s pass effortlessly from micro to macro, without a ripple to the acoustic environment, an Audi RS4 to the 1200s Bugatti Veyron. They represent almost affordable excellence if you are prepared to stretch, performance that’s useable and seriously rewarding.
Two’s Company… Along with the KA M 650s, I also received the matching Karan line-stage, the £7450 fully balanced, two-box KA L Reference. Built into two slim but reassuringly heavy and solid cases, the units share the same terraced front panel and central display area that graces the power amps. Along with the illuminated logo, the control unit gives visual indication of the selected input, while the remote volume control relies on a simple red LED recessed into the face of the large, motorised knob. The remote itself is a circular “hockeypuck” style piece that offers two buttons – one for volume up and the other for volume down. The rear of the unit displays a similar austere functionality. There are four single-ended inputs, all fitted with WBT NextGen sockets (including provision for an internal phono-stage, a £500 option that includes variable gain, loading and capacitance). There are also two balanced inputs. Main outputs consist of a single balanced pair only, although there is a pair of single-ended record outputs too. Apart from the XLR socket to accept the power-supply umbilical and an earth socket, that’s your lot. Although I used the KA M 650s with a range of different ancillaries, including the Connoisseur 4-2 LSE and the Ayre K1-xe, the KA L Reference proved a worthy partner, even in such exalted company. The levels of sheer definition, dynamic range and impact coupled to the absolute stability of the picture it presents put it right at the forefront of classic, solid-state design. The width and rock solid stability of its soundstage it shares with the company’s power amps, along with their effortless dynamics and its imperturbable nature under the most demanding musical excess. If I were to point to weaknesses they’d revolve around the areas of stage depth, dimensionality and instrumental texture – in other words the realm of absolute low-level resolution and intimacy. But those have never been solid-state strengths and are rare indeed, so it’s a bit like complaining that your horse walks on four legs. What the KA L Reference did was deliver musical and dynamic authority, poise and purpose that belied its price. Yes you can have more colour, a greater sense of flow and immediacy. What you can’t have is all that and what the Karan delivers as well, not without spending well over the £10K mark and even then there are no guarantees. All of which makes the KA L Reference something of a well-kept secret, one that performs the neat trick of delivering real detail and separation, access to the recording without dismantling the music or the performance. It is not over-endowed with facilities or operational niceties, remote control or user-configurable displays, all of which probably contribute to its excellent sonic performance. If you want scale and the ability to hear both what’s happening and how, this straightline, fully-differential, two-channel design is a compelling performer. Matching the best of its price peers it (like them) offers its own particular view of events. If you value control and freedom from strain, real dynamic range and a black, black background it’s a view you could travel a long way to better, while the optional phono-stage represents an absolute bargain.