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Karan Acoustics i180 Integrated Amplifier

This time, Schwartzenegger included!

[Italian version]

Product: KA i180 Integrated Amplifier
Manufacturer: Karan Acoustics - Yugoslavia
Serial No.: 0102-007
Price: ask the manufacturer
Reviewer: Dejan V. Veselinovic
Reviewed: May, 2001

[KA Mk1 and 2]
Karan Acoustics KA-i180 top and KA-i1 bottom

In audio, as in any production, probably the hardest thing around is making an improved, or Mark 2 version of anything. This is a nightmare for the manufacturer and reviewer, if the first version got a rave review, as this unit did in its original form.
I have called it near-perfect - so how do you improve the near-perfect? No easy task for the manufacturer, but harder still for the reviewer. Actually, I, and through me, you the readers, are in the really bad spot here for several reasons.

First, acoustic memory is reliable for merely 15 minutes - yes, that's right, minutes. After that, it progressively degenerates to a rational memory, a comment you remember, not the sound. So you now have to compare a comment with a real thing. Not nice.

Second, at this level, any improvements tend to be marginal, simply because the basic product was so good already. Are the changes worth anybody's while? Yet they were made, and because we showcased the original, we now have a moral obligation to the readers to look over the improved version.

Third, compounding the second reason, what we have here is not really a Mark 2 product - it has been so thoroughly worked over that a much more honest thing would be to say we have a new model here, which is loosely based on the old one.

Just look at the above photo - they don't even look the same from the outside, and that is the least of the differences. That said, here goes.

The Differences

[KA-i180 inside]
a look inside at the KA-i180

There are two sets of differences, outside and under the hood. Outside, it looks different, but the sexy dark window on the front, beside lighting up with the company logo when powered, will also show you which source has been selected.

On the back, it's WBT all the way, no exceptions, but this time round, of the prime WBT selection quality, Teflon insulation and all. It's still fully symmetrical for each channel.

But the greatest differences are on the inside. First, a remote volume up/down control has been added - that's the small second tier board between the two rows of caps. The sensor is behind the sexy front window, of course, and you tell it how loud using a round remote.
Mr Karan hates plastics, so the remote is 100% metal too. It looks good enough to withstand even my wife for some years, who is a true remote control killer (Philips is making good money off me, I buy them about once a year, so I'm thinking about a regular subscription, maybe it'll cost less that way).

New WBT speaker binding posts, as well as the completely new main board, have necessitated the removal of one line input; before, it was 4 RCA and 1 XLR, now it's 3 RCA and 1 XLR. And here we have a branching.

I'm not very happy with one less line input. I look at it from my own point of view - I want to connect my CD, tuner, tape and PC, and my TV set would be nice too. That makes 5 inputs in all, and one output, the tape feed. As things stand, the TV is out of the question, and since I do have a DVD, I'll have to alternate it with something.
In other words, dropping one line input was the wrong decision to make, and I do not accept the argument that space was the problem - so go two-tiered if you have to, but don't you cut my blue suede shoes, er, line inputs. That's a minus there.

[KA-i180 and KA-i1 rear panels]
a look at their "bums", KA-i180 top and KA-i1 bottom

The XLR, intended for CD players, I see as a good move. The reason is that the integrated is fully balanced in its operation anyway, so if you have a balanced output from the CD, you'd be wrong not to use it. If not, obtaining an XLR/RCA adapter will still enable you to use this as a normal line input. I would suggest that Karan Acoustics offer this adapter as an optional extra, for the sake of customer convenience.

The power transformer is also of new rating, 680 VA (was 600 VA), and is now custom made for Karan Acoustics in Germany. Now it is wound with full dielectric insulation between primary and secondaries, as well as between individual secondaries, of which there are four. It is then resin molded, which is good practice for even heat distribution and keeping the transformer in full thermal balance at all times, and is finally totally encased in non-magnetic shielding. While not strictly necessary with toroids, this is always a welcome sign, as it truly eliminates the last of possible interference (as this is in fact a Faraday cage).

The rectifiers, all four of them, have also been beefed up. They now use BY550 6A ultra fast diodes, all 16 of them, plus 8 more protecting the output stages from inductive kickback. A good move, this. The filter capacitors are by Roe (Roederstein) of Germany; I was told that after extensive testing, most of it in form of critical listening, these were found to provide the best sound. They are connected in parallel, thus giving 20,000uF per supply line, or 80,000uF in total. This works out to 72 Joules of stored energy per channel, enough to burn 99.9% of unsuspecting speakers on this planet. That of course is not the point, the point is zero current/energy starvation, and I'd say that under anything that could be termed normal use, you will never know what that is.

Preamp voltage regulation uses LM317/337 three point regulators, prudently mounted on finned heat sinks, again separate for each channel. These draw power from totally separate pairs (one for each channel) Roe caps rated at 3,300uF each.

The whole is still 100% direct coupled - not one capacitor anywhere in the signal path, any input to speaker output.

The power amp has been improved as well. Its speed is now "better than 300V/uS" input-to-output, and there are still no output inductors, something I just love to see and deeply agree with John Curl that they are makeshift things thrown in to cover up a basically flawed design (for more on this, visit Parasound, the whole interview is there in PDF format). It still uses its original zero overall feedback topology.

I am told the bias is now of the sliding type; this means it will enable the output stage to be in true class A from zero signal to about 75% or so of full drive. At zero drive, quiescent current is 80 mA on both channels, on all transistors, indicating outstanding matching and adjustment. But as the signal increases, so the does the bias, and ahead of the signal, so that when the signal reaches the output stage, it will already be open and ready to deliver - in full.

The overall topology, I'm told, is still the same - zero overall feedback, voltage gain stages and current gain stages each have their own local feedback. It's still a true fully balanced configuration, where both the signal "+" and "-" are driven, this being a preferred method over classic plus only drive (more logical too, but also more expensive). For powers above 100W, this becomes the choice topology. The output stage still consists of Sanken 2SC2922/2SA1216, or similar, but always by Sanken, power transistors, these being RETs (Ring Emitter Transistors - inside, they consist of several smaller transistors in general form of a ring).

The new board and transformer have also improved the already outstanding damping factor, which is now up from 1,800:1 to 2,500:1, figures everybody wants, but very select few actually achieve.

Last but not least, all Karan Acoustics electronic products are shipped with SoundCare spikes instead of classic equipment feet.

How it sounds

The best thing I ever heard at any price. Period. Low, medium, high or any level. Mission control over and out.

How it compares to KA-i1

Now, this is an interesting question. To answer it, I had to do some more back breaking carrying around, because to be able to really answer that question, the only way was to do A/B testing. So I picked up the last remaining Mk.1 from Vox Trade, the exclusive distributor of all Karan products. Don't let anyone tell you freight companies have it easy.

Anyway, I set up a list of musical material, connected the speakers to the old model, played two pieces, reconnected to the new model and played the two pieces once more. Both amps were switched on upon arrival and never switched off again. So it went for several days, morning to midnight, never turning the amps off at all. Quite frankly, that was no easy work, because you are after very fine nuances, since on this level, radical differences are simply not an issue, especially with the one and the same company.

But differences there are, and they turned out to be larger than I expected.

Instead of dividing the text, as I usually do, to Microdynamics, Macrodynamics and Overall, due to the specific nature of this test, just this once I'll roll it all together.

What I feared may happen, that improvements in some places were paid for in others, fortunately turned out to be all wrong. I could not spot any place where Mk2 did not match Mk1, but I noticed several things where KA-i180 beat Mk1.

I could not honestly say that KA-i180 feels more powerful than Mk1 - both have that wonderful feeling of apparently limitless power, which is of course quite subjective, because every amplifier will eventually run out of power. But for normal listening, they make you think there are no limits to what they can reproduce in true dynamic form.

All the detail of Mk1 is there, but in KA-i180 it is just that little bit clearer, better defined and outlined. The difference is small, yet still just large enough to make itself felt. This is especially easy to notice in highly ambient music material, as it's the sound stage that seems to benefit the most. It's deeper and better defined than in Mk1, and quite easily the best I have ever heard from anybody, at any price.

It's a rare (for me, at least) combination of extremely high quality Swiss watchmaking engineering and American electrical muscle - the finest of baroque details are there, clean and clear, and they feel almost physically tangible. Now, when we speak of say the trumpet, or the oboe, that's not all that rare, but when we have four drum sections at different width and depth, all four blasting away "tutta forza", keeping that together is what every amp designer dreams about, but very few manage to actually do.
Karan does it like I have heard only one amp in my life do it almost as well, and that was an old Sumo Nine+, one of Mr James Bongiorno's venerable designs (which alone is enough to secure him a place in the audio hall of fame, and the magazines never liked it because it didn't cost enough). Actually, Karan does it better, but please remember the time lag between the two; I'm not sure a modern Ampzilla2000 would lag behind.

The control the amplifier exercises over speakers is almost incredible. I played some very deep bass notes from the Blue Man Group "Audio" CD and watched the bass driver cones on both AR94 and JBL Ti600 - I never saw them move as I usually see them, but boy oh boy, was there serious bass, and then some! This is an easy test anyone can do, and it is very illustrative of how much control the amp has over the speakers - in short, how good is its damping factor. Note I didn't say how "big", but how "good".

Of course a good number is always desirable, but it is not at all the same thing how that factor was achieved. To mention only the two extremes - it could be achieved by using inordinate amounts of negative feedback, or it could be achieved by local feedback only. It should be obvious local feedback is the better solution, but unfortunately, that also implies extreme - people, EXTREME! - matching of output devices (not by gain only, but by other electrical characteristics as well, such as Ton, Toff, Ft, etc) to really work well.
That of course can be done, but it is an expensive process, since you have to have somebody with elaborate and expensive equipment matching the devices, even if from the same series and batch. This has been done here - I can attest to that by virtue of very simple measurements I did. For example, I have 80 mV reading across all 8 power transistors, the deviation being less than 0.1% - which is the limit of my multi meter! I've never seen such close matching before, my own designs not counted, since I'm not commercial, I do it because I'm a freak. The nearest best result I ever measured was a Kensonic power amp, which came in at 0.7% difference worst case (typically 0.3%).

This goes some way in explaining the extreme damping factor, which is no doubt responsible for most of the speaker control this amp has - it just grabs the speaker and doesn't let go under any circumstances.

The bottom line here is this - Karan Acoustics KA-i180 is now a mature product. In its sixth year of production, it was time they polished it up a bit, and they did the job admirably, losing nothing, and gaining - what? I don't really know how to put this, but I suppose the best word here is finesse, sophistication. To use my favorite car analogy, it's like having your Rolls-Royce painted not classic British Racing Green, but a lovely metallic color, like substituting its precision made wheels for ultimate Italian light alloy wheels, and then sticking the best Michelin tires you can find at any price on them.
Inside, you take out the standard, already oversized air conditioner and put in a Carrier conditioner, good enough for a fridge truck. Then you get brother Giorgio (Armani) to design the interior, so you know you have the best on the planet, period. For the Italian readers, it's like getting a long legged blonde with your Ferrari red Ferrari, and having Il Commendatore hand sign your own car, but not the blonde (not that the rest of us would mind, either).

In short, you move from the best to the ultimate, and I leave to you to work out the difference.

Before I go ...

Some doubts were raised on mailing lists as to whether I was being objective about Karan Acoustics, since they are my countrymen. I will bypass the usual arguments like asking are the British not subjective about their own audio, or Italians about their own, or Americans, etc, etc. I will instead flatly say this for the record, and by all means, one and all do quote me on this - I do my best to be as objective about Karan as I try to be objective with much more humble products. Every one of them has their good and bad sides, but also their prices. Pay more and you will have more.
Gryphon is Danish, and I'm not keen on Scandinavian audio, but for Gryphon, I'll kill a few people if I have to. And I'd shoot half of London for a pair of Meridian digital speakers. Am I being objective there? Am I being objective about SoundCare spikes, and they are Norwegian? As much as Electrocompaniet and Karan Acoustics - they seem to think SoundCare is good, so they use it as standard equipment, just as I do. Are they being objective?

Am I being subjective? Try as hard as I may, ultimately I am, if for no other reason, then because I hear the way I do. Just the same as Lucio, and Geoff, and Werner, and Nels, and the rest of us on TNT - but elsewhere too. In fact, since we have no ads, and therefore no commercial background, we are much more likely to be objective. Think about it.

But I will take that point on. As with all reviews I do, I like to sort of follow it up, see what other people I have never met all across the globe think of it, and how does their experience measure up to mine, or vice versa.

Several people who subsequently ordered the integrated (and all got it in KA- i180 form, by the way) were in touch with me. They wanted more info after the initial text on TNT, and I thought it normal to accommodate them - they are, after all, our readers, and the only reason why their names are not mentioned is because they sent me private mails, not via the list. If you want to check this out, subscribe to the TNT list and ask who has it.

A gentleman from Austria was initially surprised when I told him his speakers would be shown for what they are, nasty plasticky jobs, and never mind their famous name and substantial price tag. After he got his KA-i180 and played it for a few days, he wrote back and told me he was selling his speakers and choosing new ones, and what would I suggest? Because, he said, I was right, even if he doubted me at first.

Another gentleman from Italy wanted it, but was unsure - after all, he was expected to pay a princely sum for something he couldn't even see first hand, let alone hear. He also had a specific request, which worried him. I told him to get in touch with the company and state what he wanted - after a time, he did, and did get his special request catered for, and after receiving it, wrote back stating that he now saw some faults in his system he never knew were there. Just as I told him. But that man is a happy man indeed, and I take my hat off to him because he didn't suffer, swear, whine or bitch, he just smiled and said he'd now change his system to REALLY good. He also said it would be easier now that he had one item he could trust and base his further judgement on. Now, THAT is a sane and rational attitude.

This is the problem - my objectivity is not the issue, the objectivity of the amp is the issue.

It's hard in these days of fast money and quickly disappearing companies to believe that one can still buy a lot of truth at a sum which is still within one's grasp. And truth is, by its very nature, merciless - it shows up what's wrong without any mercy whatsoever. Being people, we have difficulty understanding that what we handsomely paid for may not be nearly as good as: 1) we paid for, 2) magazines tell us, and 3) popular acceptance (folk lore) has it. This is called hype, and it's easy to meet, it's everywhere. And why? Well, for the money of course, why else?

So, what I propose to do is to ask people who bought the Karan to share their views with us, either via the list, or in private mail to me, remaining anonymous if they wish. I then propose to make a compilation of those views and upload it to our files area, for all to see. I cannot think of a better way to put an end to the endless stream of doubt about anyone's objectivity, especially TNT's objectivity (and I get very nasty when somebody doubts TNT), or for that matter, regarding Karan amps tested here. If anyone has a better and/or different idea, I cordially invite him to let me know in whatever manner pleases him or her.

And the symbolically numbered "007" unit described above is actually my own sample - I had to wait in line for it, just like everybody else. Yes, I bought it, because a good preacher does what he preaches. Fortunately, my wife liked the design and now has the Harman/Kardon HK 680 (which she was after for a good year now), so there was no hassle. Whew!

Main System Used

  • Karan Acoustics i180 integrated amplifier
  • Harman/Kardon HK 680 integrated amplifier
  • Harman/Kardon 6550 integrated amplifier
  • Yamaha AX592 integrated amplifier
  • AR94 speakers, substantially rebuilt
  • JBL Ti600 floorstanding speakers
  • JBL CM62 Control Monitors with JBL Sub10 active subwoofer
  • Jamo OFC speaker cables (5.5 mm)
  • Van den Hul CS122 speaker cables (3.5 mm)
  • Van den Hul 352 Hybrid speaker cable (5.5 mm)
  • Philips CD721 CD player (tweaked)
  • Harman/Kardon HD730 CD player
  • Yamaha CDX-993 CD player (tweaked)
  • Sony TC-K 808 ES cassette player
  • Philips N4520 open reel tape deck
  • Marantz 4100 DVD player
  • SoundCare equipment/speaker spikes
  • Various LPs, CDs and DVDs

© Copyright 2001 Dejan Veselinovic - http://www.tnt-audio.com

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