KBL Sound - Reference Power Distributor + Red Eye
Polish audio industry has never in its history had such outstanding products as those from the Western and Japanese counterparts. Condemned for years to an economy of bang up jobs, it did what it could offering pretty decent products from the middle quality and price range. We wrote about Fonica some time ago but there were also interesting products from Unitra, Kasprzak and, primarily, Radmor (see HERE and HERE). They didn't have much in common with high-end, though. As far as I understand, there were single higher quality products but as they were of DIY persuasion, one cannot speak about "products" in the marketing sense of the word. They had very little to none impact on the image of audio industry in the country by the Vistula River.
It all changed with the reclaiming of full independence and the beginning of political transformation in 1989. Moving from the centrally planned economy to free-market was a revolution that worked. As with all revolutions this one had its collateral, people who were abandoned and excluded. Looking back at it from a 25-year perspective one has to admit that we accomplished a miracle. We are now in a place no one even dared to dream of. This is not only true about economy in general or our position in Europe but also about such trivial things like listening to music.
As I prepare every year a special "Polish" September edition of High Fidelity, I am supposed to pick domestic products that are most interesting both to me as well to a "virtual" reader. Five or six years ago, give or take, I had a bit of a dilemma here—there was not enough of them to choose from. Today, putting together a group of twenty superb, extraordinary and unique Polish components, speakers, cables and accessories takes me just two days. I am not talking about companies verging on DIY but about businesses in their own right, often admittedly one-person manufacturers, which offer a real thing. Something that is manufactured as identical, high quality units with proper packaging, and sold in a few of places in Poland. It also has proper website support. Many of the manufacturers sell globally, having distribution all over the world and providing information about their products not only in Polish but in English as well.
The real top high-end is rare, though. There are many high-end products around but few, like for instance Ancient Audio, can compete on equal terms with the world best. To have a say in that business it's not enough to have high quality manufacturing, packaging, web page or marketing network. They should be coupled with specialist knowledge and most importantly experience with expensive products from the competition as well as a special gift. The knowledge among Polish manufacturers is impressive. They are very often engineers with degrees or people whose interest in electronics is backed up with extensive experience. The other two "sine qua non conditions" are less common.
I spotted the products from KBL Sound at the Audio Show and they immediately caught my eye. My attention was drawn by tube amplifiers that were looking great and offered superb sound. They turned out to be not KBL original designs but were based on the legendary Leak TL12+ amplifier. They looked much better, though. But the connections in the system were provided by KBL own top Red Eye interconnects and matching speaker cables as well as power cords. The latter were plugged into a power strip called the Reference Power Distributor—a "meaningful" name (see HERE).
The phrase "own design" has a different semantic field in the context of cables than in the case of electronics or speakers. The easiest to develop in terms of own, in-house design are electronic components, especially amplifiers. The manufacturer prepares almost everything on its own—starting with enclosure design, through printed circuit boards and ending with transformers. It is also clear that almost all of the components such as resistors, capacitors and semiconductors will come from abroad, usually sourced from U.S. and Japanese companies (but mostly manufactured in China, Indonesia or Taiwan). However, the level of complexity of the product and the number of variables faced by the designer are so large that the product is assumed to be Polish, British or Japanese. In a word—"national". There is slightly less own input in the case of CD players, where the main component, a transport drive, comes from one of several companies from the Far East or the Netherlands (the Philips CD-Pro2).
There is even less original input with speakers. Although there are places in Poland that are capable of manufacturing very good drivers, most of the speaker designs and all the top ones use drivers from Denmark, USA or France. The speaker manufacturer has to design and build the cabinet and crossover that is mostly based on components sourced abroad. The exception are very few companies like Dynaudio, Focal-JM Lab, or Triangle, which make speakers on their own from start to finish, including the drivers. Even they, though, buy crossover components, connectors and cables from the second parties. But this is a perfect example of how not to jump into conclusions—with only a few components the differences between the speakers are the most evident both in measurements and in auditions. Even though their level of complexity seems not too high, in fact it is to the contrary—even slight design changes cause significant changes in the sound.
As far as original input is concerned, connecting cables occupy the lowest level. There are just a handful of companies that make cables on their own. As far as I know, this group includes Supra, Chord, Siltech and Acrolink. Even such a renowned brand as Oyaide orders its cables from Furukawa, and Wireworld subcontract production in Taiwan. Most of other cables come from China, Taiwan and some from USA and Japan. Same things happens with connectors that are a very important component of cables. Almost all of them are made in China or Taiwan with few American or Japanese exceptions. Interestingly enough a few Polish companies buy cables manufactured by Polish companies, like Kabel from Krakow. High quality connectors are not manufactured in Poland, though.
The cable maker, provided it doesn't have a direct access to a manufacturer, has to pick a suitable cable or order a custom made version, then choose the connectors and use them to properly terminate the cable. Seems easy enough, doesn't it? The results should be similar. The reality is different again, though. Each change, each modification and correction result in a different sound. One can laugh it off, after all we live in a free country and everybody can be a moron if they like. Auditions show, however, that there is something to specific connections and configurations. Even the quality of terminating the cable with connectors seems to affect the end result.
Hence, seeing the cable connectors used by KBL Sound, which I know from many other products, I did not assume them to be just another copy nor did I laugh the product off just because it reminded me something similar else. I am almost sure that the connectors are the same as those I saw in the V R Workshop MILSTEIN cables I once reviewed so they were probably purchased in China from Sonarquest or from one of its dealers. Furutech connectors that look almost identical undergo the Alpha cryogenic process. Acrolink connectors looks a bit different, although I would not be surprised if they came from the same place. Both the Acrolink and Oyaide connectors are polished many times prior to rhodium or gold plating, which is supposed to reduce distortion. These extra procedures are the most expensive due to their being time and energy consuming.
The conductors used for the KBL Sound Red Eye come from North America, although there is no information as to their manufacturer. It is supposed to be a stranded copper wire made up of many thin isolated copper strands. They are wrapped in a sturdy red PVC mesh with a black thread. They kind of remind the top power cords from Acrolink. I use their latest Mexcel 7N-PC9500 version in my own system.
A few simple words about…
In preparation for this review I inquired people from KBL Sound about everything I needed. Those e-mails and my observations contributed to the following text.
The top series Red Eye power cords have high purity copper conductors (no exact information here). Each of the three conductors is a stranded wire made up of many strands twisted together and enamel plated to isolate them from each other. Most of cable manufacturers strive for the highest conductor purity and use stranded wire. Very seldom, however, the strands are insulated from each other. The only exception is Acrolink, Audio Note, Fadel, Cardas and Kondo, where each strand is insulated with a thin layer of proprietary lacquer. The Red Eye uses three 12 awg wires, each with 3.31 square millimeter cross section area, which gives the total cross section area of 10 square millimeter. The company says that the lack of any technical information like resistance, capacitance etc. is deliberate as they believe that this kind of information is of more interest to other manufacturers than to a potential customer. This is a common trait among many cable manufacturers so no surprise here. The connectors are CNC made of single blocks of stainless steel. The contacts are made of rhodium plated tellurium copper. Such a solid design combined with carbon fiber jacket provides a perfect vibration damping as well as RFI and RMI shielding. Electromagnetic noise is an increasingly common problem in our surroundings—hence the increased need for protection against it.
For more information about the power strip, I was referred to a web page (see HERE). It uses similar solutions to those employed in my earlier reference Acoustic Revive RTP-4eu Ultimate power strip. In both cases the enclosure is made of aluminum alloy block. The process of machining the main body is labor-consuming and takes about 8 hours on a CNC machine. According to KBL Sound, the Oyaide mains power sockets used in the AR are superb, although not as uncompromising as the Furutech SDS used in the KBL Sound Reference Power Distributor. Why is that? As it turns out, it has something to do with the way they are mounted to the chassis. The Furutech SDS are not only mounted to the bottom of the chassis but to the top as well, which in turns provides even better mechanical integration with the chassis in comparison with Oyaide sockets that are only mounted to the bottom. Better mechanical integration translates into more effective vibration damping inside the chassis. It is worth mentioning here other differences between those two power strips. They mostly concern internal wiring. The AR has the power sockets connected in series so virtually the same wire (in separate lengths running from one socket to another, then the third, etc.) connects the live pins, the other couples the neutral ones and the third the ground. In the KBL power strip there are 5 not 4 sockets, which is good news for many a user, and they are connected in parallel, with 3 separate wires for each socket connected in star wired configuration. That means that each socket is directly connected to the IEC input power socket, connected the main power cord. It gives a better separation for the components connected to the power strip so the ones connected "further" from the input do not "steal" the current from the others. The wires used in KBL are also a tad thicker: solid core UPOCC long crystal copper with the cross section of 3.31 mm2 each against 2.51 mm2 in the AR. Given that each of 5 sockets needs a triple set of wires from the input, the total wire cross section is 50 mm2 compared to 7.53 mm2 in the AR. This is supposed to provide more operational freedom for the connected components. With that level of assembly finish and best quality components, the price of 7,990 zlotys for the Power Reference strip seems more than reasonable compared with the price of the RTP-4eu Ultimate. As I read in an e-mail sent by the manufacturer, it is possible due to the fact that the cost of labor in Poland is fortunately still lower that in Japan but also results from the company pricing strategy to offer it at a special introductory price.
So much about the products. As for the information about the company, I used whatever I could find in the Idea tab on the KBL Sound website. In spite of the fact that the company operates in Poland and uses its own design ideas, almost all the materials used for production are imported, mainly from North America and Japan. The company attempts to closely monitor technological advancements in the world and to follow the latest developments as well as to use uncompromising design solutions regardless of the price. The aim is to popularize the most neutral components that minimize signal transmission losses in high-end audio systems. For every kind of transmission is inevitably susceptible to signal loss.
Albums auditioned during this review
• Abraxas, 99, Art Muza JK2011CD07, gold-CD (1999/2011).
• Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, A Night in Tunisia, Blue Note/Audio Wave AWMXR-0021, XRCD24 (1961/2013).
• Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, A Night in Tunisia, Vik/BMG 63896-2, CD (1957/2002).
• Bing Crosby, The Radio Years, GNP Records/King Records 240E 6848, "Very Best Jazz", CD (1988).
• Can, Tago Mago. 40th Anniversary Edition, Spoon Records/Hostess K.K. (Japan) 40SPOON6/7J, 2 x Blu-Spec CD (1971/2011).
• Chuck Mangione, Children of Sanchez, A&M Records 396 700-2, 2 x CD (1978/1998).
• Deep Purple, Now What?!/ Now What?! Live Tapes, EAR Music 0209064ERE, 2 x CD (2013).
• John Coltrane Quartet, Ballads, Impulse!/Universal Music (Japan) UCCU-40001, Platinum SHM-CD (1963/2013).
• Martyna Jakubowicz, Burzliwy błękit Joanny, Universal Music Polska 376 131 8, CD (2013).
• Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells, Mercury Records/Universal Music LLC (Japan) UICY-40016, Platinum SHM-CD (1973/2013).
• OMD, English Electric, 100% Records/Sony Music Japan SICP-3810, CD (2013); reviewed HERE.
• Perfect, Live, Savitor/Polskie Radio PRCD 1656, CD (1983/2013).
• Roger Waters, Amused To Death, Columbia/Sony Music Direct (Japan) MHCP-693, CD (1992/2005).
• Tangerine Dream, Phaedra, Virgin Records/EMI Music JapanVJCP-68667, CD (1974/2004).
• Anita Lipnicka, Vena Amoris, Mystic Production MYSTCD 244, CD (2013).
Japanese editions of CDs and SACDs are available from CD Japan
Without much hesitation, I could say straight away that the Polish power cords and power strip are as good as the Japanese system. Or that I cannot hear any difference between them. I could perhaps even say that in extreme circumstances the Red Eye and the Reference Power Distributor are better than my reference system. That would not be much of an exaggeration and only very few could verify such opinion. It would be most difficult to reliably differentiate between those two systems without a top, high resolution audio system. That's not the end, though—some of very expensive systems will greet the sonic modifications introduced by the Polish products with a sigh relief, repaying them with extraordinary coherence, vividness and slight forwardness of detail that usually disappears in the background noise.
As I said, I could do that and everything would be OK. It might encourage many an enthusiast of music played back on true audio equipment (any other situation is just cheating) to get hold of a flawlessly made, sonically superb power supply system. It would not be fair, however, to the manufacturer and, as a consequence, to consumers. Without a real feedback there is no chance for advancement and no impetus for further improvements. And that would be a real shame because, having said all of the above, KBL Sound has come up with an outstanding system all round, with a real potential for more.
I was primarily interested in how it performs as a system. For a comparison, I had two reference systems: one consisting of the already mentioned top power cords from Acrolink and the Acoustic Revive power strip, and the other being a complete system from Oyaide (see HERE). Swapping the Acrolink and AR for the KBL Sound brought distinct changes. The sound became warmer and the foreground came forward. This helped the somewhat distant recordings with the foreground behind the speaker line, like Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers A Night in Tunisia (1957 version) and Perfect Live, to become more attractive. Listened to on the headphones, they had decent weight and body. Up to a certain point, naturally, as they lacked the tangibility of other recordings. Still, listening to them on the speakers resulted in a recessed foreground and forced the system to fight for dynamics and meatiness.
The KBL Sound clearly increased the foreground and brought it forward. It also added some vividness that was missing on the recordings themselves rather than in their presentation. The sound was nice, tangible and interesting. Background aspects or those heard as being in the background, like the cymbals, sounded thicker and closer. Subtle changes and sways were better heard, making for the credibility of presentation. The result was similar to replacing solid state components with tube gear. The kind of vividness it brings, even though paid for with something else, is each and every time surprising. That is, provided that the starting point, in this case the solid state component, lacks the saturation of lower midrange. More and more solid state products sound better than tube-based gear, but many of them still don't. Such a swap will immediately re-orient the listener. Thick and powerful sound without sharpness or brightness will always be more pleasing. The reason is simple—the distortion characteristic for the latter presentation is less irritating than that associated with (stereotypical) solid state components.
The system from KBL Sound brings about something exactly like this. It thickens the sound, rounding the background and bringing it forward. The whole sound gets thick and there is "a lot" of it. A large part of audio systems, including those from top high-end, suffer from anorexia. For them, the injection of fullness offered by the Polish power cords and strip will come as a kind of resuscitation. I think that even people who are satisfied with their systems will be able to appreciate the merits of such presentation.
It would be wrong, however, to think about the Polish system as a kind of sonic "corrector". That's not the case here. Even on ultra-transparent systems, with a slight tendency to warm bass, such as the reference system, the sound will be modified in a manner that many music lovers dream of.
"Live" recordings will have a greater volume—but I have already mentioned that. Slightly boosted tracks, where compression and other production tricks result in bringing the foreground forward, will also sound interesting. On the one hand, this forwardness conveys the character of recording studio where the microphone is right in front of performer's nose but, on the other, it is an artifact caused by compression. The latter brings the vocals and instruments forward, blurring their attack and also reducing their resolution.
The KBL flawlessly shows this distinction between an effect and artifact. I would even go as far as to say that it does it clearer and more directly than the Japanese system. It is helped by everything I've already written. However, there is no exaggeration. We are talking here about a real, rather than would-be, top high-end. We can simply better hear the context of music. Phantom images are therefore larger. If the vocals and instruments have a sort of "puff" or some kind of "air cushion" behind them that gives them softness and depth, as on Martyna Jakubowicz and Anita Lipnicka albums, the KBL would add even more air in this "cushion". It will be similar with similarly produced electronica, like OMD English Electronic, except that here we will be talking about deeper and magnified synthetic sounds.
The resolution of the Polish power system is truly unique. A comparison with the Oyaide, a fantastic, internally coherent system with a clear agenda, showed that similar characteristics can be pushed much further. I mostly mean a better definition and differentiation of the system under review. Plugged-in after the KBL, the Oyaide sounded more "rough". While further planes were deeper in both systems from the country that creates some of the best and a few absolutely the best audio products in the world (that's my opinion), the Polish system brought together a similar amount of musical material on a smaller soundstage, which resulted in a slightly better lit up presentation. It was free of any brightening, as the system is rather warm, and was caused by a kind of "compressing" the soundstage.
This character does not translate into overemphasizing the similar aspects of recordings and audio system. While there may be more of something, or something may sound denser, as it happened on the albums from the two Polish vocalists I mentioned earlier, these are not some major errors. They are simply certain sonic aspects that have been brought even further and refined better, as if someone poured them into a bottle, like wine, and left them there to mature. In this perspective, the Oyaide system would be a young, but already good wine, and the KBL would be a ten year old, mature, vintage wine.
But you have to pay for it, which is also true in this case. The Polish system does not have such refined bass control as the Acrolink and AR. If we are talking about the range of double bass recorded in the 1950s or 1960s, in other words lacking the lowest bottom end, as on the 1961 release of Art Blakey's & The Jazz Messengers A Night in Tunisia, there is no special problem involved. The recordings recorded by Rudy Van Gelder feature double bass that is located in the center, mostly on its own as other instruments are placed in one or the other channel. It is very well audible. On the Polish system it sounded somewhat extended, especially at the bottom end. As I heard greater differences after moving the speakers nearer the wall, I don't think there is anything to worry about. The difference was more pronounced on electronica, such as OMD. There the softer "underbelly" that is characteristic of the KBL was clearer. There were no problems with bass control, but its differentiation was not as good as on the reference system.
The second thing results straight from the advantages I described earlier. The higher density of sound in less space also reduced the soundstage depth. Compared with most other power systems, the Polish system sounds simply incredible, because we cannot forget about its vividness and three-dimensionality. The Japanese cable system, however, does it even better, at the same time better differentiating musical planes.
Last but not least, a few words about how the two components sound separated from each other. I auditioned the power cords with the AR power strip, where they replaced the Acrolink cords, and the Reference Power Distributor with the Acrolink cords. The KBL cords sound warm, with recessed treble. The fact that it is not audible in the system must be credited to the power strip. The latter is more transparent and dynamic. Its top end has a slightly emphasized range that is responsible for a "lit up" presentation, which makes it a great match for the cords. To be honest, the system sounds much better than its two components separately. Each of them is much better than the Oyaide counterpart, but only paired together can they stand on an equal footing with the Acrolink cords plugged in the Acoustic Revive strip.
The cords and strip from KBL come in well-designed but ultimately quite simple cardboard boxes. This is not at all surprising, since from Tara Labs, Siltech, Acrolink, Oyaide, and most other manufacturers arrive in exactly the same type of packaging. Just two years ago, Acrolink added to this a wooden box with metal information plate. In order to avoid increasing the price, the manufacturer resigned from this luxurious addition. In a country where wood is quite scarce, it is simply luxury.
However, I would gladly see a KBL system with a special edition of the power strip and six cords (one to power up the strip + five for audio components), sold in specially prepared foam-padded metal case and coming with a certificate. 10 such special sets might be enough, for example prepared for the 10th anniversary of "High Fidelity". I'd be happy sign the certificate. I think it would be worth it as the system is a remarkable achievement, both in terms of finish and sound quality. It sells for less than half the price of the reference system, and the difference in quality is not really significant. Actually, it is largely a difference of character. The Japanese system is objectively better. However, given the small scale of that difference and knowing that something so special has been created in Poland, I'm all out for it and give it the RED Fingerprint award.
I included most details concerning the design in the earlier paragraphs summarizing my e-mail correspondence with KBL Sound. Let me now describe the product "from nature." The Reference Power Distributor is made of two aluminum components—the chassis, milled out from a single block of aluminum alloy, and the top that is mounted to it. Furutech power sockets are mounted to the bottom. They consist of two main parts - the bottom one that includes the contacts and a kind of front "grille" that is visible on the outside. Both are held together with a screw. And it is the top grille that additionally fastens the socket to the top of the power strip. It must be said, however, that this is not a very secure joint as the screw cannot be tightened too much—it is easy to break the plastic screw jack.
The sockets are star-wired with thick stranded wire. The IEC socket also comes from Furutech. It is rhodium plated while the other sockets are gold plated. Inside the unit, there is a small circuit board between the IEC and other sockets with wires soldered to its both sides. My dedicated wall sockets at home are almost identical (I have three of them), except that all their contacts are rhodium plated. During the review the Oyaide system was plugged into the first of these wall sockets, the Acrolink + Acoustic Revive system to the second one, and the KBL Sound system was connected to third one. The Reference Power Distributor rests on four feet, similar to those used by the AR. The Japanese used chromium-plated brass feet in their power strip while the feet on the Polish unit are made of phosphor bronze plated with matte nickel. The top panel sports a laser-etched product name and company logo. The whole looks extremely professional, even better than the Acoustic Revive product.
The power cords resemble the rival Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9500, mostly due to the type of connectors used and jacket color. The former have a similar carbon braided jacket. KBL's metal components are made of chromium plated stainless steel while the Acrolink uses aluminum. The former look almost identical to Furutech connectors. The Acrolink uses custom produced connectors. The cable jacket is made of braided PVC in burgundy and black finish. The cable is flexible and can be easily arranged in the system. However, it is quite heavy, so it can only be used for components that rest firmly and are not too light.
Price: 7,990 PLN + 6,900 PLN/1.7 m
Made in Poland