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Krell’s KID and Papa combo comprise the best iPod audio system we’ve ever heard—but it’s not the best iPod audio system possible.
If you’re not an audiophile with a fetish for the absolute highest fidelity in audio reproduction, nothing we can say will ever persuade you to drop 4 Gs on an iPod dock-and-amp combo. That would be 10 times the price of the costliest iPod you could mate with it, for those of you keeping up with the math at home.
To be honest, we struggled with the notion ourselves—and not just because of the price tag: The KID (Krell Interface Dock) sells for $1,500 and the Papa Dock amplifier goes for $2,500—bring your own iPod and speakers. Aside from the steep cover charge, Krell makes some interesting hardware choices that are worth consideration, especially given the company’s target audience.
The KID/Papa combo certainly looks and feels impressive. Its bulky retro-style, back-to-the-future chassis is crafted of heavy gauge aluminum and features an array of ports—including a 12-volt trigger out and an RS-232 control input—to accommodate any custom installer’s vision. The Papa Dock amp puts out 150 watts per channel RMS to 8-ohm loads and a whopping 300 watts per channel RMS to 4-ohm loads. The absence of component video outputs, on the other hand, is a curious omission, given the iPod’s shift to being a video device as well. Krell provides only composite and S-video jacks.
The review unit arrived in our lab with a significant, although technically irrelevant, cosmetic flaw. Our KID’s “self-locating” iPod cradle—which is supposed to automatically adjust to accommodate any model iPod—was flopping around loose inside the chassis. It didn’t affect the sound quality of the unit, although we were quite surprised that such high-end gear could ship with so obvious a flaw. To Krell’s credit, our tech support request was swiftly answered by none other than the COO of the company.
The KID is a high-end preamp that takes the iPod’s analog audio output and routes it to your choice of balanced outputs via XLR jacks (which are immune to induced noise) or single-ended outputs via RCA jacks. And therein lies the KID and Papa Dock combo’s greatest weakness: The audio stream flowing through them is compromised because it originates with the output from the iPod’s digital analog convertor (DAC). Piping the output of a component that accounts for roughly $3 of an iPod’s bill of materials through a preamp that costs $1,500 just doesn’t make a lot of sense to us.
Having said that, we must confess that we’ve never heard an iPod sound as fabulous is it did when docked to this system (the combo makes B&W’s excellent Zeppelin—$599.95, 4 out of 5 stars, Apr/08, p72—sound like an antique gramophone). Listening to music encoded in Apple Lossless, we were struck not only by how alive and well defined the vocals and instruments sounded in the mix, but how distinctly each note came across. This was particularly true of the drums—the snares resonated just a little differently with each hit.
So, together, the KID and Papa Dock are an incredible analog sound solution—the best iPod audio system we’ve ever heard. Measuring price/performance ratios with this level of enthusiast gear is pointless. However, it would be tough to argue that you couldn’t achieve even better sound quality by bypassing the iPod’s DAC and routing its digital output to a high-end outboard DAC, using something like Wadia’s iTransport ($349, www.wadia.com/) and an outboard DAC. Admittedly this is something of an apples-to-oranges comparison, but it’s a point that audiophiles should consider in any quest for the ultimate iPod audio system.As marvelous as the Krell KID and Papa Dock sound is, an even better solution would bypass the iPod’s internal DAC hardware altogether