Think back to before you became interested in the equipment. If you’re like me, perhaps you listened to music on the radio, through a ‘record player’ or even one of the new little integrated amps and stereo speakers from Olson’s or Lafayette.
If you wished for better sound at all it was probably that it got better, not worse as the volume went up, or that you could feel the bass and distortion from a live rock concert. Even that the tape-hiss, clicks and pops would go away.
Now that we’re audiophiles, our wishes are more lofty. We’ve even created a new vocabulary to describe them: low level detail, micro-dynamics, soundstaging, palpable-presence, etc. We debate the relative merits of tubes vs. transistors, Class A vs. Class A/B, push-pull vs. single-ended. Then there are the arguments over how much or how little power sounds best and that debate spills over into the low and high efficiency speaker camps. While the KRAudio VA-340 won’t end the debating, it has, on several occasions, quieted it down enough so that devotees of whatever stripe have been able to just sit and listen, obviously enthralled.
My time with the VA-340 began and ended with a road trip. I was talking to my good friend Bill Martinelli, who builds the wonderful Martinelli Woodhorns, about various audio subjects when he mentioned that he had brought a 300B amplifier down from Canada to be reviewed by another Rochester, N.Y. local. Bill suggested that I contact the owner and distributor, Alfred Kayser, to see if he would be interested in having a review appear in Dagogo. My query was met with enthusiasm and Bill and I arranged to meet, halfway between Rochester and 70 Miles From Nowhere, in Erie, Pa. Why didn’t he just ship it? Well, the amp in its crate weighs about 100lbs., and the two of us are always looking for ways to get together. It was also agreed that I would return the amplifier to Canada when I made my annual pilgrimage to Toronto to visit my daughter and son-in-law who spent their summers there.
The VA-340 is a modern, somewhat industrial-looking design with it’s output tube cooling towers and mostly black textured surfaces relieved only by a brushed stainless steel top plate. Push button controls select one of four inputs, a smooth operating volume knob can be used to control the gain from the amp and a power, stand-by switch completes the front panel controls. The input selectors are micro-processor controlled and can be operated from the remote along with volume. Inside those towers are very special 300B tubes KR calls 300BXLS. They operate at a higher plate voltage than standard 300B’s and have the ability to output almost 20 watts into an 8-ohm speaker load. As we will see, the 300BXLS also have a remarkably different sonic signature than the traditional design. This is also a true integrated amplifier with an active pre-amp stage.
The amplifier’s designer, Marek Gencev, who carries on the work of the late Ricardo Kron, decided on a solid-state driver section for the practical reason that no tube-driven stage yielded the sound he desired without prohibitive cost. Tube purists will be put off but that’s a pragmatic approach I can agree with. There’s really no reason for $50,000+ amplifiers when results like these can be achieved at the VA-340’s price point.
My initial listening sessions were done with my 2-way bass reflex/horn speakers. These are comprised of a 15” JBL 2226J mid-woofer in a 6 ft³. box tuned to 35 Hz, crossed at 1600Hz to an Altec-Lansing 902A compression driver mated to an Altec 811B sectoral horn. The box-tuning of this design pushes the 2226 deeper than it’s designed to go and increases the low bass output. The trade-off is more distortion below 40Hz and a propensity to sound “boomy” without a well-damped amplifier.
My first impression was that no tube amplifier I had heard exhibited such tight control over the lower bass as did the VA-340. At the other extreme, I noticed that the upper treble, a problematic area for the 902A, exhibited much less of the stridency and grain that characterizes compression drivers when driven hard in less-than concert hall sized rooms. This amplifier has all of the gorgeous, liquid mid-range of my Audio Note Kit One 300B but with more inner detail and the 300BXLS extends its frequency response further into the bass and treble. Standard 300Bs roll off at the frequency extremes and single-ended 300B amplifier designers are constantly pushing for more output in these areas.
Shortly after the arrival of the VA-340, I received the XLH 1812 speakers reviewed in a previous column.
This complex 4-way system demands an amplifier with firm control and an abundance of energy. The VA-340 took control of it and never let go. Other 300B amplifiers, the Audio Note and one designed by my friend Steve Brown, as good as they are, couldn’t match the dynamics and total absence of coloration of music produced by the VA-340. As I mentioned in the 1812 review, the distributor, who had heard them at C.E.S. with Lamm amplification as well as XLH’ own 600 watt units, had never before heard music reproduced so beautifully.
Few classical works test the ability of a source, amplifier and speaker to convey dynamics like the Telarc Berlioz Requiem. There is thunder and there is serenity. The “Hostias” features fortissimo percussion and the one-note trombone choir ending on a difficult-to-reproduce low ‘G’. I know how difficult it is to produce that note with the necessary volume, and the KR captures it perfectly. But as I often say to visitors who opine that the large speaker systems I always have on hand must ‘really go loud’, “it isn’t about loud”.
High efficiency is about dynamics and dynamics are about transients; the ability to reproduce sudden shifts from pianissimo to fortissimo and back again without distorting the sound. The “Agnus Dei” where the choir takes over from the orchestra exemplifies these contrasts between the very soft, celestial passages and the loud tuttis where the choir produces high decibel music. This is all done with an effortlessness that allows the distinct, four-part harmonies to reveal themselves without congestion.
You know what really annoys amplifiers, though? Piano! You read a lot of commentary about how no stereo system adequately reproduces realistic piano sounds. That’s mostly true and I forgive it. But what really distinguishes great amplification from good is the ability to reproduce both the percussiveness and liquidity of fingers on keys. The Beethoven Fifth Piano Concerto played by Emil Gilels with the Cleveland Orchestra is my hallmark for this. Being Beethoven, there are plenty of thunderous chords and complex rhythms to pound out but there is also the unmatched liquidity of those wonderful sixteenth-note runs from the top octaves to the middle that Gilels masters like no other. The VA-340 is much like Emil Gilels: it easily does loud and soft, pfortzando and rubato.
Now for you Philistines we have my latest favorite ‘pop’ group: Dire Straits. I didn’t have time for music in the ‘70’s, having gone from long-haired dissident to husband, father and businessman at about the same time Kissinger threw in the towel and I was re-classified 2-H. What I missed! Oh sure, I was familiar with “I want my MTV” but I had no idea, until recently, what great music this group put out. I believe my classical background helps me appreciate it.
Mark and David Knopfler weave melody and rhythm into whole cloth and their complex arrangements exhibit a musical sense on a par with the orchestrations of Rimsky-Korsakov. Brothers In Arms is a pure joy to listen to through the VA-340 and 1812 combination. All the bass, all the tube guitar amp distortion, all the kick drum and all the words are there to hear. It isn’t enough just to have mega-watts and 18” woofers in big boxes to listen to rock music. Quality rock music requires quality reproduction equally with string quartets, female vocalists or symphony orchestras.
My regret at having to load the VA-340 into my Ranger pick-up and drive it back to Mississauga was profound. Being poor comes at a price. Fortunately, making the acquaintance of Alfred Kayser and his family cheered me up. Alfred is a wonderful extrovert, full of enthusiasm for his trade. We shared a great deal of audio talk over the lunch he prepared and I came away with the feeling that if he appeared at a Consumer Electronics Show, his name would be one that you would hear about.
More tibo Hugo?
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