by Henry Wilkenson
Kora is a French manufacturer of high end audio components that made quite a splash a few years ago with their tube mono-block power amplifiers. While their power amps and their matching top-of-the line Eclipse preamp grabbed the lion’s share of the attention from the audiophile press, less attention was focused upon their other products. The Eclipse has since been discontinued and the Crescendo has replaced it as Kora’s top preamp.
The Crescendo is a one box affair whose cosmetics will appeal to some and not to others. The faceplate is high gloss black with the volume indicator back lighted by an electric blue light. The light is rather bright and there doesn’t seem to be any way to dim it. Across the front panel from left to right are the all too rare headphone jack and standby indicator. Next is the mute switch which is called the output cut in the owner’s manual. The fixed gain insertion is what is also known as the audio/video output. The gain indicator, monitor selector and source selectors finish the front panel. The rear panel is filled with high quality balanced and RCA inputs and outputs. There is also a gain selector in addition to a master on/off switch, fuse holder and IEC connector. While the unit that I have for review is a line stage, the manufacturer says that a phono card is available for $300.00 and is easily installed. There is also a DAC card available but there is no word as to its cost. A growing number of manufactures are choosing to include DACs in their line stages. This is really good news for many audiophiles on a budget or are short of shelf space.
The Kora sits on two brass cones in the front and what appear to be vibrapods in the rear. This is an odd assortment of support devices, but they seem to work. When I received the Crescendo, it had already been burned in, but I still gave it a few hours of additional burn in time before doing any serious listening.
Since I did not have Kora’s phono card or another phono amp on hand, I did all of my listening with CDs. From the outset, I found the sound of the Crescendo to be very dynamic and able to reveal a good amount of detail. Etta James’ Life, Love & the Blues [Private Music 01005-82162-2], is a recording that matches up with these attributes of the Kora particularly well. All of the cuts on this album are very punchy with strong bass lines. A number of songs have a good number of instrumental lines going on at the same time. All of the musical lines remained intact and were easy to follow. Another recording that can be quite taxing for a system is Solid Ether by Niles Petter Molvar [ECM 1772 314543365-2]. The music is largely electronic in the Euro-Techno style and has numerous musical lines all being performed at the same time. This music can easily become cacophonous if a system does not have sufficient resolving power. With the Kora, nothing was obscured or buried in the mix. All of the musical lines remained distinct and easy to follow. The resolving power of this line stage is quite good. The full slam of the instruments came across with all of the weight and authority you could wish for.
Shirley Horn’s I thought about you [Verve Digital 833 235-2] is an intimate recording of Shirley with a small combo. The Kora maintained a good balance between the texture and breathiness of her voice. While the perspective is close, it is not the ‘mouth in your ear’ kind that I encounter all too often. The low level vocal detail presented here is the kind of musically relevant detail that I can appreciate.
Treble extension is very good with the Kora. Jack DeJonette’s Oneness [ECM 1637 537343-2] is a good test in this regard. With this line stage, you are easily able to distinguish between the various cymbals by their timbre. The size, shimmer and decay were very well done.
The soundstage image was well defined between the speakers with good placement of the performers. There wasn’t any sense of the hyper image that one runs across so often. Rather, there was a realistic center-fill with instruments placed in varying degrees left and right of center. With the aforementioned Etta James recording, she was placed dead center between the speakers.
Where there was the sense of depth on the recording, the Kora didn’t hold back. The Alex Blake Quintet featuring Pharaoh Saunders, Now is the Time, Live at the Knitting Factory [Bubble Core Records, bc-030] is an example of the type of recording that I am referring to. While this recording is very dynamic and captured a good deal of ambient detail, the Kora was never tripped up by it. You can clearly hear how the musicians are spread out and you get a good sense of the size of the room.
Overall, I would describe the tone quality of the Kora as more toward the cooler and accurate side of spectrum. While it is a tube unit, I would say that it is in no way romantic. It leans more toward the ‘just the facts’ side of the spectrum, if you will. I’m not saying that the Kora is hard or etched, either. The only time that the sound tended to harden is when the unit was overdriven. I’m talking about levels that most would consider painful. If the volume is kept within sane levels, you won’t encounter any problems.
The Kora Crescendo is a solid performer that sonically performs out of its price class. Dynamic, detailed and quite transparent, you would have to spend a good deal more to beat it. I would warn that if your system is bright or hard sounding, then this preamp would not be a good match for you. On the other hand, if your system is too plumy or soft, then this could be a perfect mate. If you are looking for a line stage that can easily be upgraded to a full featured preamp, then the Kora Crescendo should be high up on your list of components to audition.
The Kora Crescendo Tube Line Stage Preamplifier
Manufactured by Kora Electronic Concept 8 bis rue Claude Perrault, 31000 Toulouse, France
Phone No: Tel: (+33) 126.96.36.199.69 Fax: Tel: (+33) 188.8.131.52.69
Analog Source: VPI HW-19 turntable Grado Signature Tone Arm and Clearaudio Virtuso Wood phono cartridge
Digital Sources: Sonic Frontiers SFT-1 Transport ART DIO DAC (Modified) Lehman DAC+
Amplification: VAC LE Pre Amp Bel Canto EVo 200.2 power amps in a bridged mono configuration
Loudspeakers: Dynaudio 3.3
Cabling: Acoustic Zen and Von Gaylord Audio Chinchillia Interconnects And Speaker Wires Clearaudio Quint Phono Cable
Accessories P.S. Audio Power Plant P-300 Mapleshade Triple point Coupling Devices DH Labs Isolation devices Golden Sound Red and Blue Power Cords