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REVIEW: Krell KRC-3 Preamplifier (SS)

The past four weeks have been interesting. Thanks to a most generous friend, I have had the opportunity to have a different preamp in my system, a Balanced Audio Technology VK-50SE. Since I've owned the Krell KRC-3 for about a year, this has been a great experience, and a real eye opener. I've had a chance to listen to what, in my opinion, are two top-notch preamps side by side in a controlled environment. I also don't have a ton of experience comparing preamps, so this review will of necessity compare and contrast a bit.

The KRC-3 is a visually striking piece of equipment. Those folks from Altair bring with them a great sense of industrial design and ergonomics. The unit is fairly slim, has a large machined aluminum rotary volume control that is loosely tracked by a circle of red LED's, and has push-button input selectors.

Circuitry is purported to be Class A, fully balanced---and if detail retrieval and noise level is any indication, this is not just marketing propaganda. There is one balanced input, 4 single-ended inputs, one balanced output and one single-ended output; the RCA jacks are all TIFF style, solidly mounted. One of the single-ended inputs is configurable via a jumper for unity gain, which makes integration with a home theater system a bit easier. Popping the cover to flip this jumper reveals an extremely cleanly layed out circuit board, and a nicely sized toroidal transformer.

The SRT's in my reference system are bi-amped, so I made use of both outputs. The RCA outs drove the electronic x-over, while the balanced outs drove the Krell FPB-200c which powers the satellites.

The remote. Yeah, the remote is a solid chunk of aluminum. It's not backlit, it's not learning, it's massive, all markings are etched, and it just screams quality. This is the best remote I've used to date.

Most of my listening, contra what a pair of SRT's driven by a big Krell amp in a small room might leave you thinking, is done at a fairly low level, no louder than 85 dB. This is a great test of a preamp: does it's sound hold up at low level?

In the case of the KRC-3, the answer is definitely yes, and this is a definite strength. There is absolutely no change in soundstage size, stability or delineation at low levels. Timbre remains unchanged. In short, turning the volume down to my typical everyday listening levels takes nothing out of the signal that I can detect. Krell claims that this is due to the design of the volume control, which is a digitally controlled analog device that places a resistor in the circuit; there are 200 steps.

The volume control might be great sounding, but I think the ergonomics are a bit lacking. Since the LED's only loosely track the discrete steps of resistor insertion, it is difficult to find the same level multiple times. Additionally, the volume control steps seem a bit too spread out at lower levels: turning the volume up to an indicated halfway point is definitely playing the system quite loudly.

Higher volumes are a bit less of a good thing with the KRC-3. As I approached the 95-100 dB listening level--about halfway up--a bit of congestion sets in on the high frequencies. They lose some air, and sound a bit glary.

Dynamic range is also compromised at these higher levels: the attack of a sudden keyboard run loses it's edge in comparison the BAT driven to a similar volume. This doesn't strike me as a big deal: every product has to make some compromise, and since I rarely listen at this kind of level, this compromise went largely unnoticed.

At all levels, the soundstage is large, deep, and reasonably well lit. Individual instruments have their own space, and never waver. About the only thing missing, in comparison to the BAT, is a sense that there is a
homogoneous space that all instruments cohabit.

There's a bit of high-pitched hiss that might obscure some detail. I wonder if this is responsible for the lack of shared space mentioned above? In any case, detail retrieval, while top-notch, is not in the same league with the BAT. With the BAT, realistic detail jumps out that I've never heard before: switching back to the KRC-3, I can oftentimes pick up that detail, but it never announced itself.

Detail retrieval: on Nick Cave's "Let Love In", Cave bangs the keyboards like only a man who is well and truly depressed can---the KRC-3 clearly resolves the sound of the hammer from the sound of the string, and even allows me to hear the sound of Cave's fingernails on either the keys or the backboard. That ain't too shabby. On Johnny Cash's "Unchained", there's one track (The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea) in which Tom Petty lends some background vocals: the KRC-3 clearly places Petty behind and to the side of Cash.

FWIW, I swapped out some interconnects, and feel that the Krell reacted well to Tara Lab's Air Ref 2. I did try some MIT's for the balanced connections, but heard significantly less detail.

I think the KRC-3 is fairly faithful to the source; I would characterize the KRC-3 as laid-back, not dark, but definitely not forward in my system. If you have a great source, that will come through; a crappy source will not be varnished, it will be revealed as crappy.

The KRC-3 is faithful to timbre. Ani DiFranco's live effort "Living in Clip" includes some spoken word. Heard from another room, on more than one occasion, I've been convinced that my friend Chris had walked into the house!

In general, I can't find any fault with the KRC-3's tonality.

So what does the KRC-3 do wrong? Well, in comparison to the VK-50SE (and keep in mind that I'm comparing a preamp that is twice the price of the KRC-3), it just doesn't quite make music as nicely. I'm not sure if the VK-50SE does better at microdynamics, but I find myself pulled into the music much more than with the KRC-3. There's a sense of liquidity, of organic completeness, of rightness that is missing from the KRC-3 by comparison.

I don't have the benefit of comparing other tube preamps, so I can't say if this sense of rightness is a function of tubes, or if---as I suspect---there's a bit of micro-dynamic compression occuring with the KRC-3. Overall, however, I've been quite surprised at just how well the KRC-3 acquits itself against the VK-50SE.

There is one glaring omission from the KRC-3: there is no Mono switch! When I first purchased the preamp, I thought, ahh, who cares. Since hanging out on the Lane, my tastes have matured (?) to include some quite a few mono recordings.

I believe that this preamp was Stereophile Class "B" recommended for a number of years, until Krell increased the suggested list price to USD 4,800.00 last summer. At that time, Stereophile dropped it's recommendation. I think that this price range is a tough range for manufacturers to design a product for. Let's face it: we're talking
some serious scratch for a 2 channel only, non-upgradeable preamp. There's a natural tendency for the consumer in all of us to expect perfection at this price level. However, every price level either entails compromise in design, or it is itself compromising. Overall, I think that Krell has done a good job, and I'm not unhappy that it was at home in my system for the past year.

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Topic - REVIEW: Krell KRC-3 Preamplifier (SS) Review by Bob W at Audio Asylum - Bob W 19:08:19 10/30/00 (27)

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