Note: this review was originally written back in January, but was not published until now
These days it seems more and more people are turning to integrated amplifiers rather than separate components for their audio needs. But can an integrated amplifier provide the same performance as separate power amplifiers (monoblocks or stereo) and preamps? Not all are created equal, obviously. But one company managed to achieve this lofty goal and create an integrated amplifier with amazing sound characteristics and beautiful design that is striking and unique.
The company is Karan Acoustics from Novi Sad, Serbia. The amplifier is the KA I 180 Mk2, which is in its second iteration as the name suggest, with the original being released all the way back in 2000. The current design has not changed in many years. The idea is if it’s not broken, why fix it? Milan Karan, the company’s owner and chief designer, has over 25 years of experience in designing audio equipment.
Right from the start, the company has followed a strict manufacturing process and design philosophy. All their products are handmade with very high-quality electronic components manufactured to their exact specifications. All Karan amplifiers are dual mono with fully balanced circuits. They all have extremely fast DC coupled pure Class A driven topologies. They use high-quality power supplies with very low internal impedances. Karan uses their own design for all their cases made of high-quality high gauge aluminum.
Until recently, Karan Acoustics was better known in Europe, than in North America, but that is changing thanks to Wynn Audio, who provided me with the KA I 180 Mk2 review unit. After spending over a month with it, here are my thoughts.
Design and looks
Karan Acoustics KA I 180 Mk2 integrated amplifier follows the same design philosophy as all other Karan amplification products. The case is made of very high-quality aluminum and comes in either black or silver finish (my review unit was silver).
The case is fairly deep and wide, but not tall, which gives it a very distinct look with two large knobs on the front panel (one for source switching and the other for volume adjustment) and black vertical display in the middle showing the logo, words Karan Acoustics as well as selected source in deep red colour. A very striking and yet elegant design with black heat sinks on each side of the amplifier
The back panel is divided in two for left and right channel connections. There are three RCA and one XLR connectors, a pair of speaker output connectors as well as RCA rec out connectors for each channel. All of them are of very high quality made by WBT.
The KA I 180 Mk2 comes with a very heavy and sturdy remote volume control in shape and size of a hockey puck. Again, the build quality speaks of meticulous attention to detail.
Class A amplifiers are frequently prone to overheat, but the Karan never got more than slightly warm even when driven hard for extended periods of time. The secret of this design is sliding bias and low current. As the name suggest, the amplifier provides 180 watts per channel into 8 Ohms and 300 watts per channel into 4 Ohms.
Sound and performance
One thing I immediately noticed when listening to the amplifier is how uncolored it sounds in the midrange. It does not get in the way of faithful music reproduction. The top end was extended with lots of details and nuances, while bass was powerful, well controlled and textured.
I auditioned the amplifier with two very different sets of speakers. The first was my old pair of PSB Stratus Bronze (4 Ohms, 89 dB sensitivity). Even though they go down only to 40 Hz, I was very surprised by the amount and quality of low frequencies they produced when I played the 4 LP live boxset “Pulse” by Pink Floyd. The floor in my living room was starting to shake on some tracks.
The other speakers I used were Larsen Model 6.2 (8 Ohms, 88 dB sensitivity), which are very unique speakers out of Sweden that do not require the usual fussing around with speaker placement, toe-in, etc. They are placed right up against a wall and use it as a bass reflection. These speakers go down to an impressive 26 Hz! And again the Karan had the complete control of the low frequencies no matter what music I played. You can read my review of these speakers in Novo High End magazine.
Even though I love vinyl, I still enjoy playing CD's from my 800+ CD collection. I hooked up my recently acquired Oppo BDP-95 Universal Player, which has XLR output, to the Karan integrated amplifier using XLR interconnects and played various CDs. I started with Chris Botti’s 2008 live album “Chris Botti in Boston”. Being very familiar with this excellent album, I felt like I was rediscovering it again thanks to the presentation powered by the Karan. The sense of realism and feeling of being right there in the audience were undeniable. The clarity of each instrument, the ambience of the venue, the imaging and sound stage were excellent. Chris’ trumpet sounded very natural, never too bright or piercing. Same with Yo-Yo Ma’s cello on “Cinema Paradiso”. Karan expertly handled the quiet and more intimate passages as well as more complex ones without missing a beat. There were plenty of dynamics that captivated me. And on tracks with vocals, especially those with Josh Groban (“Broken Vow”) and Katharine McPhee (“I’ve Got You Under My Skin”), I felt the singers presence like never before.
Switching gears, I played one of my favourite hard rock albums of all time - Coverdale / Page. Recorded over 25 years ago, it still sounds great today. David Coverdale was still in top shape vocally and his songwriting collaboration with Jimmy Page was second to none on this album. A common problem with many rock and metal albums produced since the early 90s is severe compression and lack of dynamics. Thankfully, this isn’t the case with this album. Every instrument was clearly distinguished and David’s soaring vocals standing out above it all. The absolute highlight of this album is a track called “Take Me For A Little While”. It starts with just an acoustic guitar and vocals and gradually swells to a full power ballad with multiple acoustic and electric guitars, bass and drums. The emotional solo by Jimmy Page in the middle adds to the overall somber feeling of this song.
Following this, I decided to subject Karan to an ultimate system test. More specifically, play Dmitri Shostakovich Symphony No.10 in E Minor, "Under Stalin's Shadow", Op. 93, second movement, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Andris Nelsons. This was streamed from TIDAL with CD quality FLAC. This is a very challenging piece of music which not many systems can handle properly let alone reproduce faithfully. Explosively huge dynamics, Earth-shattering bass, multiple strings and a big horn section all contribute to the complexity of this piece. I have experienced some equipment fall flat when playing it, but that is not the case with Karan. Not only it performed this track beautifully, it managed to reproduce some minor details, especially in the lower frequencies, I have not noticed before with other very capable amplifiers.
Conclusion and final thoughts
Over the course of a few months auditioning the Karan KA I 180 Mk2, I played all kinds of music from different sources - vinyl, CD, TIDAL streaming as well as streaming Hi-Res FLAC files from my NAS. The amplifier was up to the task and then some. It is an extremely capable integrated amplifier that faithfully reproduces pretty much any kind of music thrown at it. It does it with ease and an undeniable finesse. It may not have all the bells and whistles of other integrated amplifiers on the market (no built-in DAC or phono stage options offered), but that is not its function. For that, it’s always better to use standalone separate components, like one of Karan’s own phono stages. It does one thing and does it extremely well - excellent signal amplification without any coloration or distortion. It’s no wonder this integrated amplifier is one of the best sellers at Wynn Audio, where they literally cannot keep it in stock long enough before someone buys it. And in some cases, it replaced pre-power combos from other more recognized high-end audio brands. At $10,000 USD ($13,000 CAD) retail it is a great value for the money.
Special thank you to Wynn Wong of Wynn Audio for providing me with the review unit.
* Completely balanced topology with no overall feedback
* Channel separated power supplies from a custom-moulded 680 VA toroidal power transformer, 80.000 µF filter bank and four stages of stabilization;
* Frequency response DC-300kHz +0, -3dB
* S/N ratio better than -112 dB;
* Intermodulation distortion less than 0.03% at rated power into 8 Ohms;
* Damping factor better than 1,800:1 into 8 Ohms, 20Hz…20kHz;