Karen KA I-180 Integrated Amp Review by Sean Fowler

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by Sean Fowler on August 14 '08

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Karan Acoustics KA I-180        Integrated Amplifier

Sean Fowler, August 2008

From Serbia with love

Nestled alongside the beautiful Danube in western Serbia is the city of Novi Sad, the place Milan Karan and his company, Karan Acoustics, calls home. Even though Karan Accoustics is an unfamiliar name to those of us in the west, Milan is far from being a young upstart. He has been quietly crafting extremely high performance stereo electronics for over fifteen years.  Presently, Milan’s catalogue includes 1 set of loudspeakers, 1 DAC, 1 integrated amplifier, 1 phono pre amplifier, 2 active pre amplifiers and 5 power amplifiers. Every single component under the Karan badge is rooted around the notion of uncompromising design – bestowing all the principles Milan considers crucial to the reproduction of sound. To quote the man himself:


All units are made to be musical and to provide maximum attainable quality of sound reproduction with as little as possible change to tonal balance, dynamics, resolution, and general acoustic properties so characteristic of the natural sound of music”.


In other words, Milan is trying to have his cake and eat it to.  But instead of cake and ice cream, his appetite is to meld together a harmony between transparency and musicality. Some of you may point out that this intention is certainly nothing new. It’s arguably been done before by many engineers under many different manufacturer umbrellas. So what makes the above ambition so special? For starters, we are talking about endowing these heavy non compromising virtues into a compact integrated. How compact you ask? Try nearly half the height of a compact disc. To my knowledge, no one has been able to pull off such a thing, not without serious caveats at least.  To attain such lofty goals, Milan decided to venture a path most would – only out of politeness, call unorthodox.



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Enter the KA I-180


Compact, clean, and strikingly handsome, the KA I-180’s simple and confident appearance flows in direct parallel with how the amp functions and performs. The solid aluminum casework, which measures a whopping 1.5” thick along the front contoured faceplate, contributes to the Karan’s grunt inducing 36.7lb heft. That’s a lot of bulk for a compact integrated which measures just 3.6” high, 12.2” deep and 19.7” wide.


Inside the massive aluminum casework you will find a fully balanced DC coupled circuit. Anchoring the circuit is a large 680Va custom made toroidal transformer designed for low temperature and noise emission. Employed across the output stage are a set of Sanken RET (ring emitter transistors) bi-polar devices - well regarded for their speed, durability, and linearity. The entire amp is capable of outputting 180wpc into 8 ohms and 300wpc into 4 ohms. It also boasts a staggering high damping factor of 1:1800 that is consistent from 20Hz to 20KHz. This gives the KA I-180 the current and control necessary to properly drive a wide array of loudspeakers. All of hardware is mounted onto a dual layer board with 24K gold plated traces.


Good as all that stuff is, the real mojo behind the KA I-180 is the claimed capability of delivering roughly 70% of its rated output power en’ pure class-A all the while remaining nearly as efficient as a class D amp. Sound impossible? You’d be right to cast a serious doubt or two. After all, this claim slaps the face of everything we’ve been taught about conventional class-A design. The KA I-180 is not a large amplifier that requires small rainforests for energy, and it doesn’t even run hot enough to cook a meal on. Instead, it’s small, efficient, and only requires two small heat sinks for proper heat dissipation. There are also no ventilation holes found anywhere on the chassis. How does Milan get away with this?


Here is how it works. While most bi-polar circuits have fixed DC voltage rails, Milan sums the voltage rails on the KA I-180 near zero, allowing only minimal current to pass through. While this allows for very cool and efficient operation, the problem is that a certain level of voltage must be kept in order to maintain class-A bias, and you cannot put more voltage across the rails than what they are summed around. One of the only ways around this problem is to have a separate circuit send out a signal across the rails to yank up the voltage along the supply rails before the main signal hits them. At this point, Milan defers operation to a sliding bias which adjusts the voltage as needed. Melding together all of the above into a workable good sounding product is no easy task, but when done right, you will get great power efficiency, cool operation, and true class-A output – at least to a point.


Top off this unique circuit with its beautiful ergonomic design, industrial strength build, SoundCare isolation feet, high quality rotary controls, a heavy wooden crate container for safe shipment and a simple remote that is nearly the same size and shape of a hockey puck, and one has to ask, what more is there to love? Ah yes, that’s right – the sound.



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The Sound Part I - The Art of Balance


Even products that occupy the upper tiers of this industry are bound by the laws of yin and yang. These laws are writ that in order to gain a virtue, one must yield a vice. Although many engineers strive to achieve uncompromising performance in their designs, these noble ambitions are only realized by a small few. So when the rare anomaly comes along that successfully weaves together the delicate fabric of vice and virtue, it’s hard to ignore. Milan’s KA I-180 is one such beast, possessing the rare talent of encompassing vanishing low coloration, intoxicating musicality, with raw musical horsepower.


The driving force behind the KA I-180 is a well polished and engaging sound that is free from obvious sonic fireworks (color), leaving with you something that’s pure and easy to listen to. Much of this talent can be attributed to the amps delicate mixture of class-A spice sprinkled strategically over an otherwise linear and transparent circuit. The first thing you should know is that this is not the kind of piece you use as a coloring agent. Instead, its neutral presentation is designed to give you a solid and reliable foundation to build your system around, allowing you to color it in different ways, be it by source, cables, speakers or what have you. This type of honesty allows you accurately assess the native performance of nearly any component. For example – provided that your source is up to par – if you run a set of speakers off of the KA I-180 and encounter thin sound, odds are, those speakers sound thin. If they sound warm, then they are likely warm sounding speakers. This is a piece that removes a lot of the guesswork from the system building equation.


Impressively, this neutral demeanor is accomplished without the expense of making good music. Preventing the KA I-180 from falling into analytical sterility is an expressive posture courtesy of its class-A topology. This ever so slight character preserves all the things critical to an engaging presentation, things such as tonality, texture, musical density, and the ability to allow notes to develop around the music naturally without undermining transparency. While there is a hint of warmth to the Karan’s sound, it does not highlight any particular part of the presentation. This additional spice aids the KA I-180 in breathing life into any and all forms of music and recordings, giving you the chance to enjoy everything in your music collection.


In a nutshell, the entire presentation of the KA I-180 is rooted around cohesiveness. This amp never strives to over achieve in any one particular aspect of sound reproduction, nor does it make an attempt to mimic different topologies. In other words, it’s not a transistor amp trying to be a tube amp. Instead, it just is. It’s not overly aggressive in its presentation, nor is it too laid back. The highs are never too forward or too subdued. The bass is not over damped and quick, nor is it too weighted and slow. This fine balance is, in my opinion, the mark of an exceptional amplifier. If you want to hear exactly what other components add or moreover, do not add, live with the KAI I-180 for a good month and then switch over to the former gear. Viva la truth!


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The Sound Part II – A Detailed Look


As mentioned earlier, the KA I-180’s simple, rugged and no nonsense looks flow right in line with its incredibly fluid operation. The amp never once produced a switch-on/off thump, nor did it ever emit audible transformer buzz. The robust and weighty volume control glided smoothly along without resistance or noise. This easy going operational function and lack of noise are virtues that go hand in hand with the KA I-180’s sound.


One of the problems engineers face when making wide bandwidth, high power amplifiers (especially those of the class-A variety) is noise. Typically, the more powerful the amplifier is, the more gunk and noise it’ll make. While many engineers have found ways to drastically reduce this unwanted byproduct, Milan has somehow taken things to the next level by nearly removing all back-round noise - period. This is the first non battery powered component I’ve encountered that can pull off such an eerie level of silence. Simply put, this lack of back-round noise allows the music float through the air completely undisturbed, granting it even greater dynamic expression and leaving quiet passages completely intact, as the artists intend.


Building atop this silent back round is an impressive display of great power and dynamic reach. For such a slim integrated, the KA I-180 has a lot balls. At first, I was worried that the little integrated wouldn’t be able to drive a set of Totem Acoustic Mani-2 I have in for review. After all, these notoriously power hungry speakers are usually spotted being driven by monster amps from the likes of Plinius, Krell, Mark Levinson, McIntosh, Halcro, etc… not a 3 and a half inch tall integrated. Impressively enough, the KA I-180 drove the Mani-2s with absolute confidence and control. 

What’s even more impressive is that the KA I-180’s character does not alter with applied volume. In other words, the sound itself never changes, it just gets louder. From the soft melodies of Ella Fitzgerald at whisper volumes, to rattling the room with Tool’s 10,000 Days, the Karan remained perfectly linear without once drawing attention to itself and away from the music. While there’s no denying the KA I-180’s serious current delivery chops, it would be a mistake to write it off as just another muscle amp. Indeed, the Karan also aces the all too important aspect of preserving musical flow at low output, capturing all the subtle nuances off a disc without exciting character altering frequency aberrations.


Keeping in tune with the KA I-180’s performance is a well proportioned and very natural sounding soundstage. Its fine sense of organization locks instruments and vocalists firmly into place. Even when tasked to separate complex and comprehensive symphony passages, the KA I-180 never sounds disorganized, cluttered, or confused. However, like most class-A amplifiers I’ve encountered, the soundstage hovers closer to the proximity of the loudspeaker. While the KA I-180 projects well out into the room, especially when you consider its lineage, it will never deliver a wall to wall soundstage unless the recording calls for it. Instead, what you do get is a very deep and natural presentation that has all the air, height, and width necessary to make for an enjoyable experience.


The Karan’s stellar cohesiveness makes discussing the highs, mids, and lows as separate entities rather superfluous. Still, there are a few key points worth delving into. For starters, the KA I-180 does not suffer from treble that focuses the bulk of its attention around leading edge notes – a trait that is common within most transistor amps. This lack of bite, or what some may refer to as ‘hyper detail’, may at first cause an initial impression that this is a dark sounding piece. However, it doesn’t take much time to realize that you’re not missing anything at all – it’s all there – just more balanced and not as highlighted.


I am also pleased to report that lovers of triodes will likely encounter no sudden steps down in regards to midrange tonal purity and harmonic complexity. While it would be imprudent to expect the same walk-in 3D midrange from the Karan, as you would a good valve amp, what you can expect is a presentation that’s very open, clean, and pure. Much like the midrange, the bass behaves exceptionally well balanced, controlled, and quick. The KA I-180 finds a great relationship between delivering just the right amount of power and tonal weight without blurring over subtle detail and responsiveness. In short, you get everything you need and nothing that you don’t.



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The Sound Part III – The Tradeoffs –


However, no matter how good a component is, there will always be mentionable shortcomings.


For starters, it should come as no surprise that there are some things in audio reproduction that you cannot expect from an integrated as you would a set of good separate components. Compared to my Lamm LL2 Deluxe and H2O Signature 100 combo, the Karan falls short on matching their instrument/vocal spatial separation and flat out cannot touch the dynamic duo’s ability to draw from a seemingly limitless power reserve. Despite what the power ratings suggest, the Karan is not a drive-anything amp. It was not built to be matched with speakers that have an impedance load of or below 3 ohms, whereas the H2O Signature 100 can drive nearly any loudspeaker on the planet. The Lamm /H2O combo’s sense of distinctness, visceral impact, and raw acoustic energy can, on the right recordings, give the sensation of the artist(s) being physically present in your listening space. The KA I-180, by contrast, although more balanced, performs just below the threshold of believability. Still, what this integrated is capable of is pretty damned impressive considering its tiny stature.


Like anything else, the KA I-180 is not an infallible piece of hi-fi. There are plenty of other components that will do this or that better. Take the Boulder 865 for instance. This integrated amplifier will give you a bigger and arguably more impressive look, a greater variety of features, along with a cleaner – more refined sound. Casting our eyes towards upper end tube components… although the KA I-180 has the goods the tube crowd tends to covet, it will still fall slightly short of capturing the same harmonic density of a good triode.


So what does this mean? It means that the KA I-180 is not for everyone. Some people will prefer a piece with more distinct sonic flare. There will also be those that would rather sink their money into a big name piece for the sake of bragging rights. For others, the downside to the KA I-180 will be monetary. Entering the world of Karan Acoustic components requires a serious investment - $10,500 in the case of the KA I-180. Should you desire to gain the benefits of larger separate components while preserving all the virtues of the KA I-180, Milan offers them – for a price. Still, those able to try the amp are likely to find love in this Serbian integrated.



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The Finale


The Karan KA I-180’s sterling performance makes a strong argument for how good an integrated amplifier can be. This capable little piece easily holds its mettle against larger and more expensive separates, once again showcasing why a good all in one piece should never be written off as sub par. The KA I-180 is serious stuff – a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a masterpiece that weaves together nearly all the benefits enjoyed by expensive separates into one simple understated chassis.


Imagine - simplicity without the common tradeoff of raw performance. That’s exactly what the KA I-180 is – a thrilling one of a kind integrated that offers true high end sound from a compact chassis that requires little rack space or additional power cords, is simple to use, is engineered to last for decades, is energy efficient, is quiet, and virtually maintenance free – with no tubes or batteries to replace. Wrap it all up with first class sound, and you’ve got a complete package that’s tough to beat.


So with a tip of the hat in respect to Milan’s wonderful achievement, this is Sean – over and out.


                                                                                                Sean Fowler




It is important to note that the above analysis of the KA I-180 was done entirely via: single ended RCA connection. During my evaluation, I did not have an opportunity to get my hands on a CD player with true balanced output’s – leaving me unable to take full advantage of the Karan’s performance under its native topology.


Extra Credit


Special thanks goes out to Darren Censullo of Avatar Acoustics for giving me the opportunity to rub noses with the KA I-180. A special thanks also goes out to Henry Ho of H2O Audio for his contribution to this article






Darren Censullo


Tel: 305 608 6079






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