Krell KID and Papa Dock Amplifier 
Home Theater Media Servers Music Servers
Written by Andrew Robinson   
Monday, 01 September 2008

Introduction
When I was told Krell was developing an iPod dock, I knew I had to have it, if for no other reason other than the fact that it was a Krell iPod dock and was sure to be ridiculous.  If there’s one thing I like about Krell, it’s the simple fact that every product they make goes to 11 in more ways than sheer volume.  After un-boxing the Krell KID (Krell iPod Dock) and matching Papa dock stereo amplifier, it’s safe to say this system takes iPod music to the ultra-extreme.  Until the KID’s arrival, my impression of an iPod dock was a cheap puck-style hunk of plastic helping to produce cheap hunk of plastic sound.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the Apple iPod, truly I do, and I consider it a viable music source when handled correctly, but nearly every iPod dock is nothing but consumer electronics crap.

The KID on the other hand is all Krell from top to bottom.  It’s large, solid and looks like it could hurt you if it wanted to.  Most iPod docks are no bigger than a computer mouse or small cell phone, whereas the KID measures 13 inches wide by three inches high and 11 inches deep.  It also weighs a fair amount, tipping the scales at a robust 10 pounds.  The front façade is minimal yet elegant, displaying a touch of industrial flair with its exposed bolts and semi-brushed steel faceplate.  The front features three small display screens, one each for treble, bass and volume.  The screens are easily readable from several feet away and glow a nice pale blue.  Below each screen are two arrow keys to increase or decrease the various functions represented in the screen.  The KID has a small power/standby switch in the lower left corner and an auxiliary mini-jack input on the front for you Zune users out there.  Atop the KID is the iPod cradle itself, which features a thick metal support or brace with a small pad that juts out from the top of the iPod-sized opening to give your beloved MP3 player a little something to lean on.  Around back you get more goodies.  For starters, there is a single composite video out, as well as an S-video out for onscreen navigation of the iPod’s menu, should you require it.  Next to the video outputs rest a pair of balanced and unbalanced audio outputs, which, like the composite video output, are gold-plated and extremely robust.  The KID also has an RS-232 input, as well as a detachable power cord and a 12-volt trigger.

Internally, the KID utilizes a fully differential output for the internal DAC.  It also features opto-isolated digital connections between your iPod and the KID itself, as well as balanced differential Class A circuitry.

Like the KID, the matching Papa dock is another example of Krell excess and ingenuity run amok.  Featuring a U-like shape and measuring 17 inches wide by roughly five-and-a-half inches tall and 16 inches deep, it tips the scales at an impressive 39 pounds.  For an iPod accessory, 39 pounds is a bit much, but for a 150-watt stereo amplifier, which is what the Papa dock essentially is, the weight makes a bit more sense.  However, while far from back-breaking, the Papa dock feels heavier and more solid than many traditional stereo amps I’ve encountered.  The front panel features the same silver finish as the KID, with a single power switch.  Toward the front half of the inner “U” is the serial port that connects the KID to the Papa dock.  Around back, you’ll find the Papa dock’s plastic-wrapped binding posts that can accept banana or spade connections.  The Papa dock has both composite and S-Video outputs on the back plate, since the KID’s outputs are not accessible when sitting in the Papa dock.  There is an RS-232 input, as well as a 12-volt trigger and detachable power cord.  While the KID can be used as a standalone piece, the Papa Dock must be used with the KID. 

Which brings me to the remote.  For all of Krell’s prowess in design and engineering, they still can’t crack the formula to make a remote that you want to use.  But they’re nothing if not consistent with the KID remote.  In true Krell fashion, it’s unbearably thin and cheap and is about as readable and usable as a third nipple.  Yes, all of the functions you could possibly want on an iPod remote are present, but my God, they’re not possible to find in anything but a fully-lit room.  Every button looks the same and is laid out in such a fashion that it feels like a leftover game of 52-card pickup.

Set-up
I unboxed the KID and Papa dock like a kid on Christmas morning. The KID isn’t quite plug and play.  Once it’s out of the box, you have to assemble the iPod cradle by placing the metal iPod rest along the back edge of the cradle, which is a very easy procedure.  Next, I had to unscrew the plate that covered the serial input on the bottom of the KID to “dock” it with the Papa dock.  Once this was completed, the two fit together snugly and securely.

I went ahead and connected the Papa dock to my reference Paradigm Signature S8 v.2 loudspeakers via runs of Transparent Reference speaker cable and was ready to go.  Because I chose to run the KID and Papa dock as a complete system, no additional cables were required.  I plugged the Papa dock (which also powers the KID when connected) to my Transparent Power Wave 8 power conditioner and was ready to rock and roll.

I recently bought a new iPod, which has an 80GB internal hard drive.  I loaded it up with a barrage of self-ripped music, as well as countless iTunes-purchased tracks, complete with their less than stellar sound quality.  After about a 20-minute transfer session, I went ahead and docked the iPod inside the KID and the entire system automatically powered up and brought up the iPod’s small menu.  I set everything to shuffle and prepared to let things play for a bit before getting critical.  “A bit” lasted about 30 seconds, for what I heard was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced from an iPod before.  It was music.

Music
I kicked things off with Coldplay’s latest album, Viva la Vida (EMI), which I purchased from iTunes in their plus format, meaning all the songs were DRM-free with 256kbps AAC encoding. This still isn’t much, but it’s better than what most iTunes are used to, which is 128kbps.  Starting with the track “Lost,” the bass was extremely taut and the level of detail was startling.  The texture and extension throughout the lower registers, a Krell strength, was incredible, as it changed my perceptions of what is possible from the tiny iPod.  Vocals were clear, firmly placed and natural.  I couldn’t hear any compression to frontman Chris Martin’s voice at all.  Scale, weight, even his subtle movements behind the microphone could be heard.  The snap of the handclaps was immediate and, again, compression-free with natural pop and decay.  Truthfully, I had never before thought that what I heard from the KID and Papa dock combo was possible.  The cymbal bits near the end of the track shimmered beautifully and, while not quite analog-sounding, were far more in league with the best CD playback then the sound of a 99-cent download.  More impressive still was the scale, front to back and side to side, of the soundstage.  The soundstage definition was quite shocking, given that most downloads are flat and lifeless, rather than enveloping and full of air.  Dynamically, the KID/Papa combo didn’t disappoint, as the pair proved explosive yet delicate, regardless of the volume.  Crank the duo and all of what I described only gets louder, without losing an ounce of composure or musicality.  Truly incredible.

Next, I cued up A Perfect Circle and their hit “Judith” (Virgin), which was captured at lossless quality by yours truly.  I kept my thumb on the volume button and approached critical mass.  From my listening chair, I can say this: the KID/Papa dock combo is not a novelty piece.  This is serious audio hardware with performance worthy of the Krell name it brandishes so boldly on its faceplate.  The bass control is epic.  For 150 watts per channel, the weight, depth and texture the amps rip from my Paradigm’s woofers is staggering.  However, this does not surprise me, for I had a similar experience when listening to Krell’s Evolution series amps at Jerry Del Colliano’s house through his Watt Puppies.  We both sat in amazement as the mighty Wilson speakers were given a workout the likes of which we had never heard before.  Krell has always been about amplifiers.  As far as amps go, they make some of the best there is, if not the single absolute best, and the Papa dock is no exception.  Vocals were again very well-placed and full-bodied.  The duo captured Maynard’s rawness, as well as pulling him a bit forward from the rest of the music and allowing him to travel a bit from side to side, which I had never experienced nor heard before.  Very cool.  The cymbal crashes and guitars were a welcome break and addition to the driving bass of “Judith” and held up nicely in the face of extreme volumes.  Seriously, after listening to the track four times back to back, I can’t recall a time when I’ve heard it better than what the KID/Papa dock combo dished out, which is saying a lot, for there was a whole rack of reference-grade two-channel gear sitting idle nearby and at no time did I miss any of it.

Seriously, no matter what I threw at the KID and Papa Dock, be it Diana Krall or Insane Clown Posse, the results were always the same.  Regardless of the bit rate or compression, the combo was always musical, always engaging and managed to clean things up a bit.  Sure, the bigger the file, the better the rip and the better the overall sound, but I’m telling you, for the first time, 128kbps iTunes-bought music didn’t sound horrid.  In fact, more often than not, it sounded damn good.  For instance, Tori Amos’ album Scarlet’s Walk (Sony), which is available for download at 128kbps only and through other systems in my home, is largely unlistenable.  The bass is soggy, the treble is rather etched and overly digital-sounding and the vocals go from in your face to inside an aluminum can at will.  With the entire disc loaded up and at the ready, I hit play.  The bass was still a bit fat at times, but the bloat was gone, replaced with detail that revealed subtle chord changes and decay within the drum kit itself.  The bass was further assisted by its placement in the soundstage, which was further back and slightly to the side of Amos’ piano.  Amos’ vocals were clearer and more consistent and the effects on her voice were easily heard and not as confusing or jarring as before.  The piano was large, rich and more lifelike in its presentation.  It sounded more like a real piano than a facsimile of one, which is usually what you get when you listen to iTunes-purchased music.  Did the Krell combo magically fix this otherwise worthless iTunes purchase?  No, not completely, but it did save it from the trash bin, took taken it off life support and placed it back in my late-night ambient shuffle.  At lower volumes, the album Scarlet’s Walk is quite nice.

The Downside
While I think the Krell KID and Papa Dock combo is sheer magic, there are a few design flaws that I have to point out.  For starters, while the KID can be used in a variety of systems, it sounds best when mated to its daddy.  However, the Papa dock cannot be used with any other product, Krell or otherwise, which is something of a shame.  Again, the dynamic duo is superb together, but I would love to know how the Papa Dock sounds with other gear, for it’s a phenomenal amplifier.

Second, I love the combo of the KID and Papa Dock so much that I don’t want to break them up, but that doesn’t leave much room for other components like a CD player.  I can only imagine how untouchable the combo would be if it offered a few audio inputs as well, for the KID seems to have the chops to be a decent enough preamp.

Lastly, there’s the remote.  I always seem to harp on remotes, but let’s face it, most of them are truly awful.  That said, Krell could’ve used the KID as an opportunity to design and implement a remote that played more to the iPod’s design and interface then a leftover from their KAV-integrated amp.

Conclusion
For $4,000 ($1,500 for the KID and $2,500 for the Papa Dock) retail, the KID and Papa Dock combo from Krell will change the way you look at and listen to your iPod forever.  In fact, it may change how you look at digital downloads on the whole.  While 128kbps downloads are wildly unacceptable and should be upped to a more robust bit rate immediately, I applaud Krell for attacking the problem head-on, not only attacking crappy downloads but making lemonade from their face-puckering sound.

What I found most amazing about the KID and Papa dock combo wasn’t its sound, but just how much I loved coming home and listening to it, for it was so simple.  It auto-powers on when an iPod is present and you’re one button away from musical nirvana.  Seriously, it’s a good minute to five (depending on the system in my house) before music starts to flow out of the speakers. Not only did I have a good portion of my music always at my fingertips, but the simplicity of my two-channel system was unparalleled with the Krell combo.  I’ve become so smitten that I have not yet brought myself to reconnect my reference two-channel rig and I’m not entirely convinced that I ever will. I really, truly love the Krell KID and Papa Dock.
Manufacturer Krell
Model KID and Papa Dock Amplifier
Reviewer Andrew Robinson





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