Integrated amplifiers have come a long way from what they were. As long ago as 2000, many manufacturers seemed to be making integrateds. Electrocompaniet had one, as did Krell and several other brands that are household names among audiophiles. Not that I wasn’t a fan of these companies, but some of those early integrateds weren’t very good. One, however, stood out: the ASR Emitter I and II, the former reviewed on SoundStage! in August 2010. For me, the Emitter rewrote the book on what was possible from an integrated. Today, more manufacturers offer integrated amplifiers that can be looked at as being "desired" by the audiophile. One of these would be the KA I 180 ($10,500 USD), from Karan Acoustics, in Serbia.
I have long been a fan of Milan Karan’s electronics and the sound they produce in real-world environments from real-world speakers. I remember a moment at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, where Franck Tchang, of Acoustic Systems International, demonstrated for me his highly regarded Tango Platinum loudspeakers. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more dynamic audio demo. Of course, Tchang also had to show off his speaker’s power-handling capability and excellent bass performance. All of this was presented without stress or strain, the sound remaining natural and musical. I was surprised he wasn’t asked to turn the volume down. The speakers were being driven by the well-regarded Karan Acoustics KA M 1200 mono amps.
Karan makes some of the best-built audio equipment I’ve seen -- when you look at their separate amps and preamps, you can’t help but come away impressed. All of the Karan gear I’ve seen and/or spent time listening to has had topnotch build quality inside and out, has been very powerful (the performance seems to back up the specifications), and has had a commanding presence, with large, black-anodized aluminum cases and the Karan logo glowing red on the front panel. Reviewing something from Karan was a task that I looked forward to. The question was, would the KA I 180 carry on the Karan family heritage in a smaller package and at a smaller power output, or would it prove to be an attempt to sell an inferior product on the strength of the family name?
The KA I 180 arrived at my house in a wooden crate that felt particularly heavy and solid, and weighed more than I would have expected for something containing a 37-pound integrated amplifier. Even the FedEx driver was impressed, and said that this was one package he wished he could open to peek inside.
Inside, the KA I 180 was neatly and securely packed. Once I’d uncrated it, I could see why Karan has a reputation for creating well-made equipment. The look and feel of the KA I 180 are first-rate, and the metalwork is exceptional. The black finish is smooth to the touch, with no rough areas. The KA I 180 measures 19 .7"W x 3.6"H x 13.4"D.
The layout of the front panel is simple. On the left is a selector knob that lets you choose between one XLR and three single-ended RCA inputs; on the right is the volume-control knob, on which is a small white dot to let you know where you’ve set it, but no other indicators. Between these is the Karan logo, which lights up when the power is turned on.
The rear panel is divided in half, for the left- and right-channel connectors. For each channel there are: a balanced input connector, three single-ended input connectors, a pair of speaker output connectors, and single-ended tape-out connectors -- all high-quality types from WBT. Between the left and right banks of connectors is the main power switch.
The KA I 180 comes with a remote control about the size and shape of a hockey puck; other than the fact that it’s made of metal, not plastic, it’s nothing fancy. It has just two buttons, for increasing and decreasing the volume.
As with all other Karan models I’ve seen, the KA I 180’s innards constitute a work of art. Everything is laid out with precision, and all parts are of first-rate quality. Most noticeable is the custom-made 680W toroidal power transformer, built for Karan in Germany and rather large for an integrated amplifier. The KA I 180 is fully balanced, and therefore able to make good use of your source’s balanced outputs. During the time I used the Karan, there were no turn-on pops, thumps, surprises, or light shows.
I have just two minor complaints. First, the heatsinks that run along the sides of the case are too sharp; it would be nice if there were some way to blunt their edges. Still, they did their job well; the KA I 180 never ran more than slightly warm, even after prolonged periods of playing music loud. The other minor irritant was the volume control. It’s solid black on a solid black faceplate, and its little white dot was barely visible from my listening position; I had no idea what the volume setting was. That didn’t bother me much, but it might matter more to someone else.
The sound of the KA I 180 was robust and powerful -- a pleasant surprise for an integrated amplifier. My previous experiences with integrateds were that they sounded pleasant, but lacked the drive and dynamics to totally immerse me in the music, leaving me feeling I was "just listening to an integrated amplifier."
The KA I 180 was clearly extended at the frequency extremes. It had an open, airy top end, with good differentiation between cymbals and other percussion instruments, such as bells and triangles, that exhibit what I like to describe as "shimmer." The sound was natural up top, never strident or brittle. At the other extreme, the bass was very well controlled, delivering impact that was weighty and tight, with good detail and focus. The KA I 180’s midrange performance was basically neutral -- uncolored and convincingly real. Singers were portrayed with a sense of "thereness" that, if not quite up to the standard of the more expensive tube gear I’ve heard, was yet good enough to help me feel that my favorite vocalists were in the room with me. The size of the soundstage was good but not exceptional. Still, at no point in my listening did I feel that the KA I 180 was cheating me of stage width, depth, or height. Performers had a degree of dimensionality that was good but, again, about average.
The overall character of the KA I 180 was close to neutral, if perhaps just a bit on the warm side. The Karan definitely did not sound "tubey," but was further from what some might call lean or bright. Its transient performance was very convincing and very fast, as it should be; handclaps and finger snaps had good pop. The KA I 180 also excelled at replicating the complex harmonic structure of acoustic pianos. It was very easy to tell whether the pianist was playing a Steinway, a Yamaha, or a Bösendorfer, as long as that degree of information was in the recording in the first place. As far as dynamic range was concerned, the KA I 180 played classical music with no hint of confusion or congestion. I could follow individual instrumental parts easily, and clearly hear the separate sections of the orchestra even when things got loud.
Recordings of female singers are always useful in the evaluation of audio components, and one of my favorites is Holly Cole. I am particularly impressed with her delivery and her tone. Most of her arrangements are easygoing and steady, but beneath the smooth surface, passion and intensity lie waiting to be unleashed. One CD that serves as a good example of this is Cole’s Don’t Smoke in Bed (CD, Manhattan/Blue Note 81198). She begins "I Can See Clearly Now" slowly, almost as if she’s talking to the listener, her voice growing in intensity and power with each verse, until by the final verse it seems as if someone has turned up the volume. The KA I 180 did an excellent job of picking up the dynamic swings in Cole’s delivery, and of letting the music reach its natural tilt.
Another of my favorite singers is Jane Monheit. I love everything about her voice, but especially her tone and phrasing, especially when she sings standards. When I listened to her cover of Corrine Bailey Rae’s "Like a Star," from The Lovers, the Dreamers and Me (CD, Concord CRE-31197-02), the KA I 180 did such an excellent job of portraying her with high degrees of realism and physical presence that I felt I could close my eyes and she would appear there before me.
I really love listening to pianist Bob James, especially when he’s performing acoustic music in a trio or quartet setting and when playing more traditional jazz. I have nothing against his Fourplay offerings, but to me, that’s like asking Pablo Picasso paint by the numbers. But in the Bob James Trio’s Take It from the Top (CD, Koch 9519), the performances are fantastic. In this type of arrangement you get to hear more of James’s virtuosity, and gain an appreciation for his mastery of his instrument. Whether it was his jazzy version of "Straighten Up and Fly Right" or the reflective "Tenderly" or the familiar "Poinciana," James’ piano came through the KA I 180 richly, fully, and powerfully when that was called for, and sweetly when he coaxed more dulcet tones from the strings.
I have long marveled at the technical expertise of jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and a disc I’ve spent some time listening to recently is his Live at the House of Tribes (CD, Blue Note 77132), a special CD for the quality of its sound. In particular, the audience sounds on this disc enhance my enjoyment of the performance. This is quite noticeable on "You Don’t Know What Love Is," a slower tune that lets you hear more of the audience and the room ambience. The KA I 180 did a good job of replicating the "room sound," and helped give me a clear view of what was going on that evening of December 15, 2002, in the House of Tribes in New York City.
My orchestral entry for this review is Mahler’s Symphony No.9, performed by Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CD, London 410 012-2). This may not be Solti’s best Mahler, but it’s still good, and the engineering gives me a good feel for the scope and scale of the work and of the physical size of the orchestra itself -- and the power and dynamic range for which the CSO is known, particularly under Solti, are clearly evident on this disc. The Karan handled the dynamic swings between the softer, slower-moving passages of the first movement to the blaring brass and pounding timpani (my wife told me to turn it down) in the fourth movement. The KA I 180 never seemed to be stressed out, never sounded hard, and never ran into any difficulty playing this recording.
Power considerations and comparisons
Karan lists the KA I 180’s continuous power output as being 180Wpc into 8 ohms or 300Wpc into 4 ohms, with a damping factor of better than 1800. I don’t know how accurate those numbers are, but keep in mind that this is an integrated amplifier. My Meadowlark Heron i speakers don’t present that tough a load for amplifiers, so I recommend you listen to the KA I 180 at home before buying one to drive speakers that do present a difficult load. I’m not saying the KA I 180 won’t drive most anything, just that specs will tell you only so much.
I spent some time comparing the KA I 180 with a Mactone MH-300B ($12,000). The Karan outperformed the Mactone at the frequency extremes, and had an overall sense of being musical that the Mactone lacked. The Karan’s ability to easily drive the Meadowlarks overcame the slight advantage the Mactone had in the midrange.
A more telling comparison was the KA I 180 vs. the Klyne 7LX3.5B preamplifier driving Audio Valve Baldur 70 tube monoblocks ($8000/pair). The sound of the Karan was close to that of the Klyne-AV combo in terms of detail retrieval, and was better in the bass. The Klyne-AV got the better of the Karan in its dimensionality, an airy top end, and presence, all no doubt helped by the tubed Baldurs. That the $10,500 Karan was able to perform nearly as well as the Klyne-Audio Valve combo was, I felt, impressive.
It’s hard for me to admit that an integrated amplifier could be worth $10,500, but in this instance I must. Is the KA I 180 as good as Karan Acoustics’ separates? No. But it does provide a portion of what’s possible at that next level of performance without the buyer having to pay the prohibitive prices of Karan separates. That alone should make the Karan KA I 180 something worth serious consideration.
. . . Michael Wright
- Speakers -- Meadowlark Heron i
- Source -- Esoteric DV-50S universal disc player
- Preamplifiers -- Klyne Model 7LX3.5B with built-in phono stage, Herron VTSP-3, XLH SL-11XS
- Amplifiers -- XLH M2000 monoblocks, Audio Valve Baldur 70 monoblocks
- Interconnects -- Dynamic Design Lotus Mk.2, Dynamic Design THB
- Speaker cables -- Dynamic Design Lotus
- Power conditioners -- IsoClean 60A3, Dynamic Design prototype
- Rack -- Epiphany Stand Systems Celeste Reference
Karan Acoustics KA I 180 Integrated Amplifier
Price: $10,500 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
15 Link Way, Ham
Richmond, Surrey, TW10 7QT
Phone: (+44) 208-948-4153
Fax: (+44) 208-948-4250
North American distributor:
Westside Music and Cinema
119-5065 13th Street SE
Calgary, Alberta T2G 5M8
Phone: (403) 538-2312