Janine Elliot takes a listen to the Krell Digital Vanguard, an integrated amplifier costing £5998 and boasting a whole host of features relevant to today’s modern home. 

Krell were one of the first manufacturers to bring out amplifiers “built like a tank”; heavy-weights full of masses of capacitors, toroidal power supplies and front panels as thick as, well, tank armoury. Indeed, makers from across the big pond, including those in Canada have always had a reputation of building big and thick and Krell’s latest integrated amplifier The Vanguard is no exception with the distinctive “I mean business” bonnet on the front and four large wheels to hold it down, though at only 10.5cm tall it is small by Krell standards.Krell_vanguard_fronts

For those who have studied Krell, this product is a typical no-expenses-spared offering with a fully discrete and balanced Class A circuit. Krell rightly believe that Class A designs are the most musically accurate circuit designs, and don’t suffer from the characteristic distortions that Class AB amplifiers create. The Vanguard is Class A through-and-through, both in the power and in the preamp section, as is employed in their top-of-the-line Illusion preamps. The amplifier also has Krell’s Current Mode technology to ensure significant signal bandwidth, vital for those PCM or DSD sources.

The word Vanguard means ‘a group of people leading the way in new developments or ideas’, and this product certainly isn’t short on facilities. There are 4 analogue inputs; three RCA and one balanced XLR. One RCA input can be set as “Theatre”, meaning the input goes straight through to the power amplifier stage and misses out the preamp for use as part of a surround sound theatre setup.  I used this setting for some of my review, using my MFA transformer passive preamp.  Connection to loudspeakers is provided by high-quality WBT terminals.  There is also a 3.5mm jack for IR input and 12-volt trigger input and output, as well as optional rack-mount ears, should you want to fit it onto a 19” rack. I’m not sure why you would want to do that; you really would want to show off this beautiful integrated rather than sticking it in a rack hidden away in a cupboard.

The latest version, the Digital Vanguard, has an all-encompassing digital module on board, which gives USB, 3 HDMI inputs and output, and more conventional coax and optical digital inputs. The coaxial and HDMI inputs support PCM up to 24-bit/192kHz, with optical input supporting up to 24-bit/96kHz. Moreover it also offers Ethernet music streaming controlled through dedicated iOS and Android apps; and Bluetooth wireless for convenient streaming from phones, tablets and computers. The USB and Network streaming works well with MP3, AAC, WMA, WAV (PCM), FLAC and ALAC up to 192kHz, and the Bluetooth streaming supports A2DP, AVRCP, HFP and HSP formats. The HDMI inputs support DSD and 4K video content. HDMI output supports Audio Return Channel (ARC). Quite some line-up then!  If you don’t choose the digital option that section on the back panel is blanked over.vanguard11

For this review I used my Krell KPS20i CD player and vinyl for analogue sources, and for digital inputs I used the mConnect Player app from Google to stream audio from my Xperia phone using Bluetooth, and my laptop and Fiio X5. For those who buy the basic Vanguard you can add the digital board at a later date, installed by Krell or the retailer, and you can you can update software when required.  The UK retail price for the Vanguard with digital board is £5,998, and the standard analogue Vanguard is £4,498, both highly competitive prices when you consider all you get.

Turn it to standby and above the KRELL logo in the centre of the panel it lights up a row of red. I like this. Then turn it on and the colour spread changes to blue, both of which means that at some point it matches the blue and red LEDs of my other equipment. All amplifiers in their present range have this distinctive bonnet, just as previous Krells have had a distinctive design in the centre. Also typical of Krell is the substantial power supply, in this case a 750 VA toroidal transformer and 80,000 microfarads of storage capacitance, meaning the Vanguard will have a very intimate relationship with your mains supply, whatever quality it is. All this adds weight, though at 17.7 kg, it is actually very light for a Krell.Vanguard_INTERIORs

SOUND

Whenever I think of Krell I think first of music like Beethoven and words like ‘gutsy, big, menace’ and ‘force’.  Their amplifiers have always had that reputation and in some respects it has perhaps put people off. I have followed Krell since Dan and Rondi D’Agostino formed the company in 1980, having both a KAV250a power amp and KPS20i CD player, and KAV150 and KRC before that. I like my music to leave an impact, and Krell certainly turns that prospect into a reality. I wanted to see just how good this entry-level product compared with other Krells I know well, and of course everything else around this price point. Putting on Beethoven to start with was therefore the obvious choice, and all playing through my Wilson Benesch speakers.  The Dresden Philharmonic under Herbert Kegel is an excellent performance full of energy that some amplifiers just cannot deal with. This one left nothing untouched. My speakers came alive such that even my cat sat up and listened. Symphony number 7, complete with hitting mic stand at one minute in (never heard that on my KAV) had the dynamic range of Mahler or Bruckner. I was worried when I initially unpacked this unit that the two fans at the rear, which cool down the heatsink, would make this quite loud in operation, but ironically this 400W/4Ω beauty was as quiet as, well, silence, even with the two thermostatically controlled fans at the back. It still gets hot inside, though that was as expected, so good ventilation above is still a necessity.

The front panel is minimalist in comparison with the accompanying remote, but has all the functions you needed to operate should you lose the latter. The remote itself was typical of Krell products, putting many, many other companies to shame with the solidity of build and weight; being a slab of aluminium, machined to insert the electronics, mirroring the controls on the amplifier and with many extra buttons, and offering access to other Krell products such as my aged CD player. With its ribbed back-and-sides black finish with silver buttons, this remote was quite simply gorgeous. The Vanguard itself has a two line LCD display, below the USB socket which is only operable if you have the digital card attached. The LCD display stops illuminating after around 15 seconds of inaction, though the blue line above the KRELL wording stays lit, I’m pleased to say.

Using MP3 from my Xperia, Track 2 of Heathen, David Bowie, had powerful top and an amazing definition making compressed audio sound almost acceptable. Eagles ‘Long Road out of Eden’ Title track on disc 2 of this great double album had a depth and width that made for an exceptionally invigorating listen. If you wanted warmth and easy listening then you needed valve, however the bass from this behemoth was definitely valve inspired. This bass was so good, and the tops were pin-sharp and quick. This was like having just had my ears syringed, and my listening soon became all about power, detail and fun! Moving swiftly to CD the energetic Naim “The Ark” album playing “Mambo Jumbo” (John van der Veer), had detail and energy that really took me aback with jumbo stereo spread of the two guitars. This was good.Vanguard 3-4 views

Turning to vinyl I went via my Manley and MFA pre, turning the Vanguard into “Theatre” mode so I missed out the on-board class-A pre. Mozart Piano Concerto No 21 in C major, something I played when I was a young piano student, sounded as musical and gentle as I would expect from the young female pianist Geza Anda (Camerata Academica of the Salzburg Mozarteum) showing this bulldog could also be tamed when needed. This music had pizazz, sweetness and space that let every nuance of the music through. The famous slow movement was not hurried, but performed in my living room like I was there at the recording. The Krell pre-amp stage, though, is still excellent and worked well when I removed the MFA from the chain.

Turning to the Queen Studio Collection, this was now getting seriously good. The brilliantly remixed set of albums had extensive depth and detail as Freddie and the team whizzed between, as well as in front and behind my speakers with energy. ‘A Night at the Opera’ is one of the best albums from Queen, not only in its content, but also in the sound engineering. With tracks like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘You’re my Best Friend’ and ‘Love of My Life’ it is no wonder this album hit the number one spot in 1975. The fading in and out of the musical stabs in ‘Death on Two Legs’ showed just how good the original sources – and this, the remixed version – were. But equally it showed how well the Krell performed. Queen albums are not the easiest to play well, and many amps cannot cope with such a wide degree of sounds and dynamics with such ease as the Krell.  Turning to Mike Valentine’s ‘Big Band Spectacular’ suddenly the soundstage grew by metres, with forceful sounding brass at one extreme and precise and gentle ride cymbal at the other, beautifully married together. The Krell showed off with both vivacity and gentleness in equal amounts. The 200W/8Ω integrated might be the baby of the Krell range, but this was no slouch. Everything was there, from the detail that is missing from so many amplifiers to the grunt when it needed to have it. Class-A rules A-O.K, and I really started enjoying this. The clarity was better than on my KAV250a, though the grunt wasn’t quite as big; the sound was much more in control and the stereo width and speed was one of the best I have heard, resolving imagery faster and more accurately. All it lacked was a headphone socket. It could do everything else, well, perhaps except vinyl, but I guess fitting a vinyl card in as well would be a tight squeeze in this already anorexic Krell.  And, to top it all, it was made in The USA, rather than China!

CONCLUSION

Those not convinced of just how good Krell can be, should give this one a go, and particularly the digital version. This one just does everything except make coffee, and allows user adjustment of settings from the comfort of your armchair, and does it all with both authority and tenderness. If you want a large-scale performance in your living room, especially in the speed of sound and stereo spread, you will like this one, but if you want easy listening, then go elsewhere; this Vanguard will keep your attention for as long as it’s switched on.

Sound Quality – 8.90/10

Value for Money – 8.6/10

Build Quality – 8.8/10

Overall – 8.77/10 

Price at time of review £5,998 

Pros:

Digital features pleases everyone
Muscle where you need it
Well behaved bass
fast and accurate imagery
Petite size of amplifier will please more folk
Quiet fans keep the heat down
Love the red and blue lights

Cons:

Pretty expensive but a lot of features for the money
You might not like the bonnet

Janine Elliot

SPECIFICATIONS

Inputs 
1 pr. balanced via XLR connectors
3 pr. single-ended via RCA connectors
1 HDMI
1 USB

 

Outputs 
1 pr. speaker outputs via WBT gold-plated binding posts

 

Control inputs 
1 remote IR detector input via 3-conductor 3.5 mm connector
1 12 VDC trigger input via 2-conductor 3.5 mm connector

 

Control output 
1 programmable 12 VDC trigger output (300 mA maximum current) via 2-conductor 3.5 mm connector

 

Input impedance 
Balanced: 95 kΩ
Single-ended: 47.5 kΩ

 

Frequency response 
20 Hz to 20 kHz +0, –0.01 dB
<2 Hz to 150 kHz +0, –3 dB

 

Signal-to-noise ratio 
>90 dB, wideband, unweighted, at maximum gain, referred to full power output
>97 dB, “A”-weighted

 

Gain 
48 dB

 

Input sensitivity 
Single-ended or balanced: 160 mV RMS

 

Total harmonic distortion 
<0.015% at 1 kHz, at 200 W, 8 Ω load
<0.13% at 20 kHz, at 200 W, 8 Ω load

 

Output power 
200 W RMS per channel at 8 Ω
400 W RMS per channel at 4 Ω

 

  Output voltage 
113 V peak to peak
40 V RMS

 

Output current 
16 A peak

 

Slew rate 
50 V/μs

 

Output impedance 
<0.066 Ω at 20 Hz
<0.075 Ω, 20 Hz to 20 kHz

 

Damping factor 
>121 at 20 Hz, referred to 8 Ω
>106, 20 Hz to 20 kHz, referred to 8 Ω

 

Power consumption
Standby: 12 W
Idle: 70 W
Maximum: 1300 W

 

Heat output 
Standby: 41 BTU/hr
Idle: 239 BTU/hr
Maximum: 4436 BTU/hr

 

Dimensions 
17.1 in W x 4.15 in H x 17.5 in D
434 mm W x 105 mm H x 445 mm D

 

Weight 
Unit only: 39 lb [17.7 kg]
As shipped: 47 lb [21.3 kg]

 

Digital Module Specs 
Coaxial and HDMI inputs support PCM up to 24-bit/192kHz. Optical input up to 24-bit/96kHz

 

HDMI inputs support DSD and 4K video content. HDMI output supports Audio Return Channel (ARC)

 

USB and Network streaming support MP3, AAC, WMA, WAV(PCM), FLAC, ALAC up to 192kHz

 

Bluetooth streaming supports A2DP, AVRCP, HFP, HSP

 

1 Comment

  1. Why doesn’t this have any line outputs!?! This is a total deal breaker and in fact this is the first and only integrated amp Krell has ever sold without them! Sub woofers are so prevalent these days I just don’t understand how or why they left them out! OK hopefully the next version will have them. Until then I will still use my S-300i.

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