On the tonal temperature scale, though clearly sporting tubes behind its grated tower? Antares is a cool-sounding amplifier. Sampled from behind a closed curtain like symphony musicians evaluate contenders during trials, it wouldn't telegraph valves to any but the most experienced of listeners. With a clear disdain for 2nd-order thickening agents, the only attributes connectable to tubes -- though not exclusively so -- are immaculately honed leading edges and explosive micro-dynamics. If you think solid-state will do that any day of the week, think again. Jules Coleman of UltraAudio just reviewed the $7,800/pr Inner Sound 800-watt mono amps capable of 135 amperes of peak current into an electrostatic load. Thrilled enough with their performance to purchase them, he also noted that his EL-34 based tube monos bested the arc-welding transistors in the domain of microdynamic shadings and leading edge fidelity.

He's right. It's an area where truly superior tube amps enjoy a literal edge over transistors that's quite different from popular tube notions. Note 'truly superior'. We're talking serious modern designs, not any old rickety over-priced, under-powered single-ended on endless "The Lush Life" repeats. The Art Audio Jota is one such counter-intuitive energetic dynamo. So is the KR Audio Antares VA320. Imagine an ice cream scooper digging into a pint of slightly soft Dreyers. You're grabbing not only a scoop of creamy vanilla with walnut pieces. No, the outside of your fancy steel tool has sweet stuff sticking to it, too. Engaging the crescent-shaped revolving release wire does deposit the delectable ball but leaves additional residue of ice cream inside the hollow. Now rinse the scooper under scalding water. Try again. You get the idea. This time, nothing sticks to it either inside or outside. The device slices into the ice cream cleanly and carves out negative spaces with precision and sharp edges. No fuzziness. That's what the Antares removes from transients - a kind of sweet stickiness to make music more incisive and precise while skillfully avoiding unnaturally chiseled edginess.

Take "Goodjinns" [Oriental Bass, enja 9334-2], where monster 5-string upright bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons demonstrates the ferocious art of spiccato, a rapidly rebounding bow technique that in this track's opening simulates the famous rasgueado strumming of Flamenco guitarists. Horse hairs are cracking, strings attacked in an insanely close-up ping pong duel with the dancing bow crashing down from above while simultaneously being drawn, with turbocharged staccato notes escaping this melée nearly with streaks of fire in their wake. With the Antares, this was rendered like the charged atmosphere of a string of Chinese firecrackers going off. Liberated transients? You bet!

But there's a second part to this very live-sounding recipe of excitement: Microdynamic finesse. Think of this as the original wood block of Munch's famous Scream. If you didn't cover the block with ink to generate the visible art work, you'd be left with a relief wood carving. Leading edge fidelity requires that each line carved out of the wood meet the surface in a crisp rather than rounded-over edge. Microdynamic finesse means that even the thinnest of lines sliced into rather than excavated from the wood go deep enough to create a powerful relief. After all, it's the amount of depth or difference, between the surface and the engraving proper, that creates lots of subliminal gradations. Think of those as micro-dynamics - differences between quiet, a skoch more quiet, a touch more quiet, a fraction more quiet even. Deeper gauges and lines in the wood block assist the onlooker in making out the art work's details nearly more clearly than the actual wood cut print where the absorptive action of ink-on-paper incurs minor blurring and softening. The sharper and deeper relief work, in the musical substance of transients and micro-dynamics, makes for a more contrasty, intelligible and exciting musical presentation.

For lovers of virtuoso contemporary Sinti Jazz, the album Élégance by Romane and Stochelo Rosenberg [Iris/Harmonia Mundi 3001 836/87] is one of the crown jewels and an excellent demonstrator for the peculiar Dupont timbre favored by Django Reinhardt-style swing guitarists. More importantly for this discussion, transient incisiveness of arpeggios capped off with monster vibratos are a dime a dozen here, subtle nuances of inflection -- via finger pressure, plucking force or as simple irregularities of speed playing -- making all the difference between rhythmic sophistication -- a tiny swing jauntily swinging inside the bigger overall swing -- and the sewing-machine precision demanded of a Bach harpsichordist. And the Antares swung about as hard as a zoot suit neo swinger putting on the cool moves on the dance floor.

For music reliant on temporal flexibility -- i.e. the opposite of German oompah marching band fare -- this twin feature of unfettered, sharpened transients and low-level output fluctuations is the giver of life or, when absent, the element that siphons off the rhythmic magic. The Antares was begging to be fed complex rhythmic stuff. Out came Bulgarian wedding music by BalkanMessengers, Trîstenik, Bisery and Ivo Papasov whom Frank Zappa recommended as an attitude adjustment for busy executives. And since this no-holds-barred high-speed stuff drives my wife up the friggin' monkey tree, I saved it for solo outings with the added benefit of rip roaring levels, something the bad-boy image of the Antares both encourages and deftly delivers on. Attitude adjustment? Damn right. You shoulda seen the sit-eating grin that greeted my wife when she returned in the aftermath of this intoxicating session. While she was gone, Take 6's harmonizing R&B power funk -- another genre she abhors -- took spins as well, showcasing what peak current prowess does to bass control and impact, an area where Antares clearly bested my AUDIOPAX Model 88s.

On 'vocal sex' recordings like Kari Bremnes' Norwegian Moods [Kirkelig FXCD 221], Antares showed itself to be Scorpion King, not some dressed-to-the-hilt city slicker. It didn't exude the come-hither harmonic density and heightened three-dimensional palpability that low-power SET admirers crave for this type of material. Mind you, the VA320 isn't harmonically stripped; it's simply not enhanced. In that and the frequency extremes regard, call it solid-state all the way. Where it's clearly thermionic is in the areas already described. Recognition and appreciation of those tends to elude music lovers unfamiliar with this newer breed of single-ended zero feedback amplifiers. Newbies to the SET genre, for fiscal get-your-feet-wet reasons, tend to first make acquaintances with the harmonically padded segment. If they chose wrongly for the music they favor, they'll eventually crave more hard-cracking pep, more rhythmic adroitness, often mistakenly identifying the power rating or tubes per se as the justifiers of their complaints.

The fact remains, the right tubes are perfectly suited for extreme micro-duration overload behavior which, when backed with optimized power supplies, makes them more dynamic than nearly all transistors. And remember, unless you listened to plenty of truly large-scale orchestral music on inefficient speakers, most music doesn't sport such enormous chasms between its quietest and loudest passages, making micro-dynamics far more relevant than the max dB level attained. And micro-dynamics is where tubes rule, especially single-ended designs without the recombinant complexity of sewing together phase-split signals or the timing errors from feedback loops. Now add KR Audio's uncontested know-how of designing and handcrafting unusually dynamic tubes to begin with -- the 6wpc Art Audio PX-25 is one of my all-time favorite amps -- and consider that the 842 was specifically endowed with VHD. You get exactly what you pay for. This means that 'Cary Sound' devotees will have to look elsewhere. Antares beheads the warm'n'fuzzy types, not by being rude, strident or a primitive brute but by being more honest. Like Meg Ryan in Kate & Leopold, it don't do pretty. It prefers to look at the world not through rose-tinted glasses but strategically exorcises half-shadows to look at the truth as-is in the clear light of day.

Let's face it, as I described in my recent review of the Eastern Electric and Sonic Euphoria preamps, there's a fine line between truth and beauty, one which each listener draws differently. Personally, the Antares walks right atop my line, being, like my current AUDIOPAX amps and the previous Art Audio PX-25 and Jota, relatively un-tubey in the traditional sense. This distinguishes it and them from designs by Sophia Electric and Viva Audio I've heard that were from the romantic school of tube designs. Compared to my monaural references, the Antares revealed more underlying steel when things went into overdrive as they do on Zawose & Brook's Assembly [RealWorld 72438 1 11284 28], a truly unhinged AfroTech hybrid with Cuban brass, low low bass and shockingly potent rip-yer-head-off vocal growls.

Listening to Oscar Hammel's Tell Mambo on the Tinder Records label [42859592], I admired the cool Latin groove's bass beats at background levels while typing this review, recognizing that peculiar "this shit's tight" sensation you get when things hang together properly. At such reduced output voltages, this isn't terribly common and was testament to the VA320's already noted qualities, but asserting themselves no matter what even at background levels.

In toto, the KR Audio Antares is not only aptly named but cosmetically honest about its virtues and ideals. Outside its binding posts, it's a first-class performer without flaws or even a distinct sound, pointing at that no-man's land between tubes and transistors which many modern designers are aiming for these days. The lines between them camps are blurring, soldiers from either side nocturnally defecting to the other while meeting furtive cross traffic, occasionally hankering down for some note sharing before checking in with the new commander. If the absence of tube glow, literally and harmonically, led you to question why one should even bother with an 80+ lbs design that could accomplish its objective without $570/pr hot-running glass bottles, I'd counter that certain vital components of said objective and concomitant performance do seem to require these very vacuum devices. I stand by said conviction based on experience and at least until KR Audio delivers one of their solid-state amps to my door that equaled the Antares in the dynamic and transient fields. Until then? Asking me?

You do need tubes. What the VA320 proves is that this doesn't have to equate polite, laid-back, lush, slow, make-everything-sound-the-same. Just don't visit the Scorpion King if your ideas of truth included idealizing alterations - you wouldn't fancy its stinger for an answer then. Otherwise, highly recommended and, at the present US special of $4,800 Aydn-direct, one formidable value that merely requires a strong back -- or four hands -- to park facing your sweet spot. In the wake of that Stereophile review which completely humiliated whatever KR Enterprise amp model was on the test bench at the time, to likely skew not only my personal notions about the firm's wisdom and ability to enter the electronics market? Color me deeply impressed. The Antares VA320 is a physically rock-like component, dead quiet, with a 2-year warranty that covers the tubes for half that period, and an exhilaratingly live-sounding presentation. Baby Kronzilla? Only when compared to the 1610-outfitted monster posing to the right during the recent Frankfurt 2003 HiFi show...

Eunice Kron replies: Dear Srajan, I thought you might like to have the following notes as further information. You asked about the 52BX in your e-mail of Sept. 30th. The 52B and then the 52BX were both developed here by our technical staff when the company was first formed by Vaic and then continued under the KR Enterprise name. Later our market research indicated that although the 52 (KR 52BX replacing the KR 52B tube and finalized as the KR 52BX on Jan. 1,1996) was a very good tube, people wanted a smaller, more compact version of this tube with greater power. (The 52B and 52BX are older designs, have 'longer systems' and consequently a heavier construction.) Given this input, my husband then set about creating something better.

The result is the KR 842VHD (realized Oct. 30, 2001) which has as a feature a special surface using a graphite plate technology. The 842 gives very good results as you have heard; it has more power than the 52B or the 52BX, but can be substituted by the 52BX (I will check if it can be replaced by the old 52B). You also raised a point about lighting or "glow" in the KR tubes. This has always created confusion on the part of the consumer/the reviewer who first comes across the KR technology.

The difference is basically and fundamentally that KR tubes cannot really be compared to other tubes because those use either an extruded tungsten filament or an extuded thiorated tungsten filament. This old or "normal" technological process used for mass produced tubes make them very similiar to light bulbs; they light up and emit heat. The KR tubes have as their basic structure a ribbon filament with an oxide coating. This enables the tube to dissipate correctly and marshall its 'dynamics' in a more focused way. Dr. Kron was constantly chagrined when this question was brought up. In simple physics, the more light wasted as light and heat, the shorter the life of the tube. The heating and light stress the tube and lower its duration and reliability.

It is right and based on a good engineering point of view, to have this sliver of light you see. The KR tube is functioning properly. As Riccardo used to say "a tube is not a fireplace".

Many thanks again,

Yours truly,

Eunice Kron

Manufacturer's website
US distributor's website