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A Factory Tour of

Karan Acoustics

Small is Beautiful

On Tuesday, March 20, my close associate and friend of old, Zoran Zeravcic and myself were invited to visit the facilities of Mr Milan Karan in Novi Sad. That is some 70 km north of Belgrade, where Zoran and I live. He was curious about some finer points of Mr Karan's designs, and I was just plain curious. A small explanation is in order here - Zoran Zeravcic has a degree in electronics and has spent thirty years working on professional RF systems. Notwithstanding his burly stature, he is my anchor to reality, and usually gets me back down to earth when I fly off with some wild idea. But about 99% of whatever I make is in cooperation with him. Our lab is also jointly owned.

Anyway, we got there about 10 AM, after a sedate morning coffee. Reaching the specified address, we discovered that we were in just one of three locations where work goes on. So to make things simple, I won't specify where is what in every loaction, because after all, it's all one big team.

We got our second sedate morning coffee. People from Novi Sad, and that definitely includes Mr Karan, are incomparably more sedate, even slow and sometimes maddenigly slow to us Belgraders, who in turn look to them like a bunch of raving neurotics. But progressing along with the coffee, we started to learn things. [Out with the Old, In with the New]

The best first. All those who ordered Mr Karan's integrated amplifier may now sing for joy, even if they were told they'd have to wait. The reason why they had to wait was because the unit they will receive (all of them) is in fact a Mark 2 unit. Look at the supplied photo - on the left, you see the old printed circuit board, and on the right is the new one. It has been redone and 100% at that. It uses still better components, it has a remote added (volume up-down only) and Mr Karan claims it sounds even better. Maybe, but I have to hear it myself to believe it, and I said so; nothing to do with trust, at 48 and 25 years in business, I trust my own ears only, no offence to anyone.

I asked why didn't they tell the customers about the reason for waiting. For two reasons, Mr Karan said; one, they decided to go anew after some of the orders were in and thought it unfair that some should get the older version and some the newer since all were paying the same, and two, because the very reason why they went Mk.2 was late in coming. In fact, the new board reflects 5 years of production experiences, new materials and new components, but most importantly, a lot of work on developing the new baby in the family. This is to be a small, really small, minute thing, just 100W into 8 Ohms (!!!), he said, made to be considerably cheaper than the standard KA-i1 integrated (as tested on TNT), but, and here's the big BUT ... They decided that no quality can be sacrificed.
This meant that all they could do is downsize, such as using a smaller power transformer, less volts means cheaper versions of the same capacitors (due to reduced voltage), and most important, simpler casework using just 5 mm aluminium plates, no 20 mm fronts, no 10 mm bottoms. Shocking, I said somewhat sacrastically, when the industry routinely uses 1 mm sheets, I wonder how it works at all? Then Mr Karan hits me between the eyes, not caring about my glasses - I will be interested to know, he says, that they now use SoundCare spikes as standard equipment across the range, he tought I'd like to know since my view of SoundCare products is well documented. But surely, they are heavy enough already? True, he says, but you can hear the difference, so we decided to use them. [Karan Digital Audio Converter]

Next, we were shown their DAC. This is a combination of a DAC and an upsampler, which, we were told, resamples the signal to true 24-bit format. It is based on Burr-Brown DACs and there are four of them inside. All this is powered by three separate transformers, each of which is encapsulated. It looks great, and it sounded great to me, but then, this is just a rough impression in a system strange to me, so I'll have to make up my mind after living with it for some time. [Karan PreAmp]

The preamp is just as it was. The main board looks much more impressive in real life than on any picture, with its relays, which form a 64 step discrete attenuator, based on 0.1% metal film resistors. This is in fact a sandwich board, as the copper traces are then 24k gold plated; Mr Karan believes this to be the ultimate solution as far as signal transfer goes. He uses only Burr-Brown op amps and German made Roederstein metal film resistors, saying that he has tried many types and makes and found these to simply sound the best in his circuits. He notes that other circuits could show better results with other products, a simple fact of life too many people forget too many times. [Karan Power Amp]

The companion power amplifiers come in two flavors. They look exactly the same on the outside. The first version is a 2x450W unit, built as a dual mono inside, and the other is a 1.2kW monoblock, which is in fact a bridged version of the stereo amp. I asked why so much power? I'm not advocating 2x2W SET setups, I hate them for their lack of dynamics, and he said that's precisely why. According to his experience, what we percieve as a transient which off hand and according to speaker manufacturer's data shouldn't use up more than say 10-20W in normal house living rooms in fact can use up power well above 100W for not immediately obvious reasons. As an example, he quoted his experience with two well known models from two well known speaker-only companies - where simple maths would indicate 10W in one case and about 20W in the other, real power bursts required to maintain the proper dynamic structure of a standard 16-bit CD used up 70 and 160W respectively. Because of this, his view is that his integrated, rated at 180W, is at about the margin of usability, and his producing a 100 WPC amp is a direct result of market pressures. Statistically, two odd things came up after the TNT review - of total enquiries, about 42% were from Italy alone. Of the total Italian enquiries, about 55% were related to a less powerful, but cheaper model. On the other hand, of the overall total, about 14% came from the Far East, and of that, all but one were related to his more powerful products, the odd one out simply ordering the integrated.

[Mr. Karan (standing) and Mr. Zeravcic]
Mr Milan Karan standing right, Mr Zoran Zeravcic
sitting down, my famous blue bag left lower
corner, me holding the camera

Still, he said he was planning on producing a 200-250W per channel dual mono power amplifier, again under market pressure. Notwithstanding that, he offered to take us to his listening room. So we went. Along the way, we spoke of his speakers, which are the least known side of his activities. Just three models, he said, one a damn big monster, a medium size floorstander and his dearest one, a small speaker. What's small, I asked, since your perceptions of small and big is somewhat out of synch with the rest of us? Oh small, he said, about 25 liters. What moved you to make it, I asked? Life, what else, he said. Actually, that's a project he developed for a well known German manufacturer as an outside consultant, but the project spun off several very interesting alternatives. After the customer picked his model out of three offered, we developed one of them according to our own views. Its targets are really simple - it must cost no more than $1,000 ex-works, but must compete - and beat! - most speakers costing two or three times as much. A tall order, both Zoran and I said, but he just smiled and said all it takes is working at it long and hard enough and listening, all the time, listening. He did not mention the considerable knowledge involved, he never does, he takes that for granted.

[Listening Room]

Well, we got to the listening room. What you can't see on the photo are the walls full of absorbent material, aligned in some strange forms. What you do see are the working models of his big speaker, which is eaxctly like that, but finished to Dynaudio standards (my Best of the Best cabinet making standard). It uses a side firing 18" woofer, and front firing 12" woofer, midrange horn and tweeter horn, all by JBL's Professional Division.

I've had my liver tickled by gut-shaking bass lines before, even had it kicked around by a JBL professional monitor once, and this was the second time in my life I got bass which is capable of quite literally shaking the sofa you sit on. "Blast" is a gentle word. But those speakers have an effciency of 95 dB/1W/1m, and guess how they are powered? Yep, two 1.2 kW monoblocks doing the honors in an all-Karan system, with only Boothroyd-Stuart's Meridian transport feeding Karan's DAC. Even the cables, interconnect and speaker, are made by Mr Karan himself. He says he has no immediate plans to sell them as separates, but intends to offer them as an option to those who buy his products; he feels far too many madly priced cables are nowhere near being worth the asking price, though there are some exceptions. He refused, as he always does, to name any names, he maintains he speaks only his own mind and it's up to people to make up their own minds.

Back to the speakers. Their true quality, in my view, is not a matter of how loud they can play, and these babies can play very loud, like 118 dB loud at 1 metre with no clipping or overload (bear in mind that this is roughly equivalent to the 111 dB SPL produced by an airline jet engine at 3 m, and this is taken to be the threshold of pain, when we instinctively cover our ears to protect our eardrums), but how they play the quiet, delicate passages as well. In my view, they don't quite make it there, they are a little too rough for my taste. I know we are talking very fine differences here, highly subjective, but to me, these speakers are impressive in their dynamic range, their absolute capabilities to deliver lifelike sound pressure levels, but in quiet passages, they don't cut it for me. I never liked loud rock concerts anyway.

But the small speaker prototype is another story - and quite a story at that. Since it was demonstrated in rough form only, I was cordially asked not to photograph it, and besides, if I did all you'd see is a two way speaker box, much like so many you have seen so far. Now, that speaker did bowl me over. The vast majority of speakers in my life have been more or less similarly shaped, since rooms in Yugoslavia have always been modestly sized, 14-18 sq. m (app. 126-162 sq.ft) being typical. Thus, large speakers are a waste of money and space, since most will be band limited by the room at around 55 Hz or so. Anyway, I've heard a lot of them, from cheap to really expensive, from well known to completely unknown companies, but I don't recall ever hearing one like this.

It has that wonderful feeling of unlimited capabilities, as if it will never run out of steam, which seems to be a hallmark of Karan Acoustics, since I keep bumping into it with their products. It is supremely linear, very desirable, but others, even if only a few of them, have that too. What this speaker has and others don't (of those I've heard, of course) is its bass range; close your eyes and you'll swear that's at least a 10" woofer over there, pumping air at you. It's clean, it's clear and it's unbelievably deep, deeper than I would ever have though possible from any driver smaller than 10 inches packed into at least 40 litres of effective volume.

Mr Karan just smiled and said he was happy to hear that, because that was his feeling too, but he felt obliged to say something - that sound had its price. The price was that the speaker was an evil load to drive, and he assumed most amplifiers in the commercial class would simply be unable to drive it properly on anything resembling sound levels just above normal home listening. They tested it with as many commercial products as they could lay their hands on and had varied experiences. Most made the speaker sound flat and lifeless, and most had their protection trigger when pushed even a little bit harder. The mid priced group, say $600-1,200, fared much better, but by and large was still unable to extract all there was in the speaker, with some notable exceptions of very load tolerant amplifiers. All in all, he thought the speaker required truly good amplification, naturally suggesting his own, but also mentioning some other companies' products as viable alternatives. And it is this small speaker which made him develop the upcoming new integrated amp - he wanted to enable more people to buy a system from him, rather than components alone. This reminded me of Mr Richard Fryer and his company Spectral, which has a very similar philosophy - to really hear it as it can play, you have to use the same philosophy input to output, and at the very least, amp/cable/speaker.

Also, its sensitivity is on the low side, about 86 dB/1W/1m, while its power handling is just over 150W.

We stayed until 4 PM, six hours in pleasant company of our hosts. We parted with a promise from Mr Karan that TNT readers would be the first to know. I was particularly interested in three products - his new upcoming small integrated, the small speaker and the DAC/upsampler. For the first two, I have to wait, but the DAC I can have right now. Unfortunately, I could not accept due to my obligations, but said I would take him up on his word in the near future, just as I would like to have the new version of KA-i1 for an update. For that I will also have to wait, he told me, since his first obligation is to the customers on the waiting list - fair enough, but as soon as that is updated.

Post scriptum

Karan Acoustics is in fact a very small company. They like it that way. They like to exercise total control over each and every product they make and feel that by going serial they would not be able to do so. Machinery is all good and nice, a technician told me, but no machine will ever make a solder joint as I can by hand. Boasting - or not? I don't know, but I do know this - some machine made solder joints gave up on me after 6-7 years of use, while my own solder joints made 30 years ago this year still hold true. No doubt machines have improved over the years, but today I also use much better equipment and especially solder than 30 years ago.

So one man makes one integrated amp, using subcontracted parts (cases, for example, are made outside to order, transformers too, etc). The overall atmosphere is very relaxed, music playing, people drinking megatons of coffee, but not much chatting is going on, as most are very concentrated on what they are currently doing. Office hours are very loose too. Right now, due to a large backlog of orders (large to their mind and production capability), they work 12 hours on average and they think it quite normal. They say they did get the money, so they have to deliver - simple. It takes one man two days to put together an integrated amp, then two more days go for testing it out (see review on TNT for their fascist test description).

The only thing they are not happy with is the quality of parts. They say even very expensive parts are starting to become risky, so their input rejection rate is on the rise. I purposely omit naming names here, they had some strong words about some very famous names. Their general view is that most German made products still show the greatest consistency.

What I freely admit fascinates me about Karan Acoustics is their total lack of big money drive. It's a question of balance, I think, they like money, but they LIKE it, not love it, and their products they LOVE. They are obviously very proud of what they make, they truly believe in it - that's passion for you. Just how much became obvious at one point when I stated that in my applications I preferred other op amps to Burr- Brown's, which I generally don't like much! Then we had some flares going up, followed by a very heated discussion which left off exactly where we started from - I will still not use BB's op amps, even if I do love their DACs. I didn't say that to test their passion, you could say I blundered, I should have known better, but I admit I was pleased with the reaction. I respect passion.

So long as they stay that way, they will be as good as they are - once big money sets in, sound quality goes down, I've been saying that and I will go on saying that. Passion should fuel profits, not profits passion.

In case you haven't noticed, this large a product portfolio is all but impossible for a start-up company. Think - one integrated, two speakers, one DAC, one preamp and two power amps, a line filter and a speaker filter, with another integrated, another power amp and another speaker on the market within the next three months. But in fact, all of this did not come out of the blue, they have been in business for seven years now, this is their eighth. So far, so good.

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

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