Krell Factory Tour: A Behind the Scenes Look at What Makes Krell One of the Truly Great Brands in High End Audio

For more than 30 years, Krell has been virtually synonymous with the pinnacle of high end audio. In a way, it’s fitting. The company’s name stems from the “Krell,” the extinct race of advanced beings of the planet Altair IV from the 1956 science fiction film, Forbidden Planet. In the movie, the Krell’s scientific prowess and technology has advanced to the point that they were able to build a massive underground machine with virtually unlimited power. Talk about life imitating art.

The Krell race of science fiction certainly foreshadowed the eponymous audio company. For much of the its storied history, Krell has been best known for its titanic amplifiers, boasting incredible dynamics and capable of driving any loudspeaker. However, unknown to many, Krell’s audio legacy has spanned far more than just amplifiers. Throughout its history, Krell has also won audio industry awards and rave reviews for just about any product it’s made, including SACD & CD players, loudspeakers, and subwoofers.
Rear panel of the Chorus 7200 multichannel amplifier held by Bill McKiegan, Krell President.

In more recent years, Krell has turned its attention to the ever-expanding home theater and digital audio market. Like their amplifiers, Krell’s Evolution and Foundation series processors have received accolade after accolade for their top-notch performance. What’s been lost amidst all the buzz, however, has been the company behind the products.

Unlike almost every high end, high performance audiophile company, Krell has somehow been able to keep up with the rapidly changing pace of technology—including the latest HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 and UHD standards. That’s not a easy feat with many rivals still stuck with HDMI 1.4 at best.  In fact, according to a recent DTS announcement, Krell will also be early implementers of their DTS:X immersive audio format.

Krell has kept pace technologically without losing sight of their customers. In fact, Krell has done an outstanding job of standing behind their customers. While other manufacturers have left their customers with long in the tooth products, Krell has developed a solid, upgradeable platform.

Krell’s unique approach caught my attention. It was Krell’s customer focus led me to reach out and request an exclusive, behind the scenes look at the company behind the products.

On the surface, it may seem a bit odd for the “Poor Audiophile” to reach out to one of the premiere brands in high end audio. It may seem odder still for the folks at Krell to even consider such a request. However, as readers of our site know, we’re a community of serious audiophiles who put the science of audio to the forefront, value raw performance, and celebrate the manufacturers and products who offer it —regardless of price point. It was from this perspective that Krell’s president, Bill McKiegan, granted my request for an exclusive, behind the scenes look.

Various Faceplates of Krell products with the Foundation 4k UHD processor faceplate highlighted.

Most audiophiles aren’t aware that Krell’s global headquarters lie just off Interstate 95, about 75 miles north of New York City in a small Connecticut town called Orange. Also unbeknown to most, Connecticut has been the home of many staple names in high end audio history such as Mark Levinson, Madrigal, Harman International (parent company of Revel, JBL, Lexicon), and Cello to name just a few. Mark Levinson’s and Krell’s headquarters used to be just miles from each other.

Even with such a long history, Krell hasn’t moved offices that far or that often. Krell’s Orange, CT office is just the third in the company’s history. When the company was founded in 1981 it’s offices were located in Bridgeport, CT. In 1984, Krell moved to Milford, CT. Since 1994, they have been at the current location in Orange.  The three towns are very close to each other.

I arrived at Krell’s unassuming headquarters a few days before Thanksgiving. Bill McKiegan, Krell’s President, was kind enough to welcome me personally. Entering Krell’s offices is a bit like a walk through audio history. The main hallway we walked down is lined with posters and plaques of past Krell models; magazine covers featuring Krell products; and industry awards from just about every major trade publication.

At the end of the main hallway and off to the left, we entered a large, temporary listening room that centered around a massive Krell amplifier, some acoustic treatments, and a handful of listening seats. Even with large, full-range speakers flanking the amp, it was obvious what was taking center stage here. There was probably no greater statement that let you know in no uncertain terms that this was Krell. Bill’s office was just off to the left of this listening area.

It was there that we sat down and had an opportunity to talk for a good hour. We discussed a variety of topics including the state and direction of high end audio, audio engineering, and of course, Krell. I had not realized prior to our meeting that Bill’s background was in engineering. In a passionate hobby that’s sometimes mired by some snake oil claims, Bill’s straightforward approach to audio, his attention to detail, pursuit of perfection, and intent emphasis on the customer experience were all refreshing. It became quickly apparent that Bill’s core vision and values were intimately expressed in everything Krell does including it’s lineup, approach, and technology.

I took the opportunity to ask Bill the larger question of what makes a “Krell” a “Krell.”

“It really is a holistic approach,” Bill said, “but the core of Krell is that everything we produce is all Krell.”  Bill further went on to say:

We do all of our engineering in-house including analog, digital, mechanical, and software design. The transformers are all custom made for their specific requirements. Every transformer is measured for noise and excessive magnetic fields with the out of spec models being discarded via recycling. Every audio circuit is a Krell design using individual circuit elements. We do not use generic op amps or integrated circuits for our audio signal paths.

For Bill and his team, a “Krell” is not simply a product, but the entire holistic approach to everything the company does.  I felt this summed up the Krell philosophy:

Make your hair stand on end: A visual of Krell’s philosophy on what the Krell experience should do.
I was also curious to understand what it was about Massachusetts and Connecticut that made them such a cradle for high end audio. Bill’s answer was not quite what I had anticipated.

He said that much of it had to do with the companies and manufacturers around the area.  Near Krell, for example, is defense contractor Sikorsky. The ability to source premium materials; to hire the expertise and machinery to work with those materials; and leverage the technology expertise have all played a key role over the years.

Bill and I also discussed Krell’s foray into the streaming music and multichannel processor market. As an audiophile and home theater aficionado, I’ve personally been impressed with Krell’s approach. Bill and I discussed this at length.  Let me summarize four key points that came out in our discussion:

First, Krell has opted to design an upgradeable platform upon which it builds its processors and its integrated. Thus, when a new technology or feature comes out, Krell can design a module that just plugs into the upgradeable platform. To add the new module, customers have typically paid only the real-cost difference with the new product. Therefore, Krell customers haven’t had to play the waiting game or worry about their products becoming outdated in a matter of months or a few years.

Rear panel of the Vanguard Integrated Amplifier.  The removable upgrade panel where the optional digital module gets installed is covered with a blank plate.
I cannot emphasize enough how important this move has been. It’s been a tremendous way for Krell to support its existing customers; and this move directly goes back to Bill’s philosophy that the Krell experience emphasizes the customer relationship. When you get a Krell, you also get the company behind the product.

Interior shot of the Krell Vanguard Integrated Amplifier
Second, Bill said that Krell’s focus on the customer has driven them to be proactive with their customer service. Talking even a few minutes with Bill, you’ll understand how important the customer experience is to him and the Krell philosophy.

For example, New Krell models are now equipped with embedded microprocessors that can sense the status of a unit in real-time. If a unit experiences any trouble, that unit can be configured to optionally communicate back to Krell engineers, the customer’s dealer, or both. They can then be proactive in communicating with customers even before the customer knows that there’s a problem.  Focus on the customer is a way of life at Krell; and it’s not uncommon for Bill to visit Krell customers personally.

Third, it’s highly unusual for the high-end, boutique brands to keep pace with the ever-changing pace of technology. For example, Krell has continued to keep pace with HDMI and codec standards. As I mentioned earlier, DTS also named Krell as one of the early adopters of it’s new DTS:X immersive sound format, which will be formally launched in March 2015. Not many high end brands stay relevant with what matters in the audio realm.

Krell Foundation Processor.  Krell has managed to position the Foundation Processor as an upgradeable platform that protects a consumer’s investment.
Krell has not only been keenly positioned to keep pace with emerging technology but also provide elements of real, smart innovation. For example, Krell was among the first companies to cache EDID data in its HDMI inputs. (We previously covered the problem EDID issues can cause with your HDMI devices). EDID stands for Extended Display Identification Data and is the data that tells your HDMI signal chain what the capabilities of your video source are, the number of audio channels supported, etc. Typically, it takes about 2 seconds per hop in an HDMI chain for all this handshaking to occur. Add a few devices in the mix, and switching from one input to another can be a bore or worse, cause audio and video drops.  By caching the EDID data at each input and keeping it active, Krell’s processors make near-instantaneous HDMI switching possible and eliminates many HDMI signal problems—a truly great innovation.
Detail view of the rear panel of a completed Foundation Processor.  Unlike many high end brands, Krell has managed to stay current with the latest technologies, fostering innovation, and delivering exceptional audio quality.
Fourth, in order to foster innovation, Bill and his team have had to make strategic decisions on what features to include and which features to omit. Making a conscious decision what not to pursue is possibly even more important that choosing what you’re going to focus on.

For example, Bill noted that the Krell’s processors don’t do any video processing. This isn’t an accident. Instead, Krell has deliberately chosen to focus its energies on its core competency—audio. Krell redirects aspects such as video processing to the source or display. The evolution of the industry over the past several years has shown that Krell’s decision was an incredibly savvy one. By meticulously focusing on core product features instead of a Swiss Army Knife approach, Bill firmly believes that Krell products deliver the absolute best performance.

Bill took me over to meet Krell’s in-house design and engineering team to see their work first-hand. All Krell’s design work is done in-house, aided by sophisticated computer design software. There is continual interaction between the design engineers and Bill throughout the development process. This goes from the schematics of the respective units all the way to the enclosure and external cosmetics.

Once a design has been tentatively finalized, the team begins producing prototypes. Bill took the opportunity to show me some of the different designs and faceplate options they had considered for their Foundation series. Even at the prototype level, the precise craftsmanship is something beautiful to behold. Bill showed me some of the aluminum faceplate prototypes for the Foundation series. Each prototype was cast from solid aluminum and weighed several pounds. Such meticulous focus and attention at prototype level shows the exacting precision Krell demands from itself.

Together, Bill and I headed over to Krell’s manufacturing and assembly area. It’s just a few steps from both Bill’s office and where the engineering takes place. The assembly area is a huge open space that’s sectionally divided into raw product inventory, assembly, testing, shipping, and support. There are three distinct aisles in the space where Krell’s skilled personnel do most of the assembly and testing.

Bill brought me over to a multi-tiered cart holding Krell Vanguard components. We were talking about Krell’s meticulous selection of materials and parts. “The product speaks for itself,” Bill said and he invited me to pick up one of Krell’s power transformers. Foolishly, I attempted to do so with just one hand. It was like trying to lift Thor’s hammer. The sheer weight of just the transformer was astounding. “That’s just one of the things that makes a Krell a Krell,” he said.

Vanguard power supplies awaiting further assembly.  Bill invited me to pick one up.  I was shocked at how heavy it was!  The weight and build quality were amazing.  

The assembly area is an intimate part of Krell’s central offices and engineering team. In fact, having all of groups located on the the same floor of the same physical structure greatly facilitates communication among Krell’s different arms. I think it’s also fair to say that this makes the entire Krell facility as more of an extended family. It therefore ensures that there is an exacting emphasis on quality and pride with every product made.

As we were walking through the aisles seeing Krell components hand-assembled with exacting precision, I happened to notice an electric guitar standing near a column. I asked Bill about it.  Bill said, “Many Krell employees here are musicians. It’s not uncommon to see them bring their instruments and even breaking out into playing some tunes.” His point resonated. These weren’t just people hired to perform a task. These were individuals investing in their passion—music.

Many of Krell’s employees have also been with the company for the better part of its entire history. It was common for Bill to introduce me to people who had been with Krell for 10, 20, 25, or 27 years. That sort of legacy and expertise carries throughout the brand’s philosophy.

26-year Krell veteran, Bob Smith, assembling a Chorus 7200 power amplifier.

Detail view of a completed Krell Foundation Processor and Chorus 7200 multichannel amplifier
It goes without saying that all Krell units are all hand-assembled in the United States in their Orange, CT location to exacting metrics. There’s no outsourcing and no automated assembly. When someone gets a Krell, Bill was intent to point out, they are getting everything that the Krell name means: from design to materials to assembly, highly qualified technicians at Krell—including Bill himself—pay meticulous attention to build quality at every step. At any time, Bill can personally walk over to the assembly facility and ensure that every unit produced is up to Krell standards.
The Vanguard amplifier section with capacitors and heat sink on display.
Bill told me that there are currently 15 people in the production facility. Each Krell unit made typically requires three assemblers and one test technician. Therefore, every Krell unit made is an intimately involved process by a small team.

I asked Bill how long it takes, on average, to assemble a Krell unit. He told me that the time varies greatly from unit to unit—especially since some of the more exotic boards are built out of the facility. However, as an example, Bill told me that a Krell Foundation 4K UHD processor requires about 6 hours of assembly plus test time at Krell. After that, that each unit is then burned in overnight. It’s amazing to contrast the time and detail attended to with a Krell unit vs. the mass assembled products overseas.

The incredibly massive power supply and amplifier section of the Vanguard integrated amplifier.

When a Krell unit is put together, sub assemblies are build first. These, Bill said, include power supplies, chassis preparation, faceplates, and rear panels. Each element is individually tested and then combined into the final assembly. Operating firmware is then loaded onto the DSPs and final testing on the unit is performed.

Krell Technician, Matt Aubin, working on a Foundation 4K UHD Processor.
The emphasis on build quality and testing is something many companies will give lip service to.  I saw it first-hand at the support bench.  I saw several classic Krell amps from the company’s early days.  In fact, some of the amplifiers sent in were branded from the early days in the Bridgeport office.

Think about this for a moment: what company today will have products sent in that have been in continual service for perhaps 20 or 25 years? Moreover, what customers would want to service components from 20 or 25 years ago if they didn’t believe in their performance?

One of the early Krell amplifiers in for service from the early 1980s built in the first Krell facility in Bridgeport, CT.

That point prompted me to ask Bill about Krell’s current products. He remarked, “Just as good as our legacy products have been, Krell’s new products are even better.”  Pointing to some of the legacy products at the service bench, he contrasted the mammoth size and heat sinks of those older products vs. today’s Krell amplifiers with iBias technology. Krell’s iBias technology still allows the new amps to be Class A topology amplifiers without all the heat dissipation of the older units.

He also remarked about the technological advancements that have been made with the current crop of amplifiers compared with those from a generation ago. “Ironically, one of the toughest things,” he said, “is having one of our decades-long, loyal customers experience the benefit of our newer models and the advances we’ve made.”  I asked Bill, “If you could speak to those customers directly, what would you say?”  Bill’s simple response was, “Just take a listen to the new stuff. It speaks for itself.”

Before a fully assembled unit is passed to shipping, it is put through a series of tests during the overnight burn-in. With amplifiers, for example, this includes driving speaker loads. As we passed the end of the testing area, I noticed this massive marble slab on the corner of one of the benches. “What’s that for?” I asked Bill. “That’s the final step in the assembly process,” he said. Every Krell unit sits on that marble block to ensure that it’s perfectly level. Only when it passes that final step is a unit boxed up for shipment.”

Bill took me over to the shipping area and we saw Krell products destined for both domestic and international locations around the globe. That simple fact—seeing the products and where they were destined—punctuated the fact that love of audio transcends borders, languages, and nationalities. Moreover, it was obvious that demand for Krell-quality is likewise coveted around the globe.

Shipment getting packed for India

All in all, I spent about three hours at Krell’s headquarters. I want to thank Bill McKiegan and the entire Krell family for giving me such an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at Krell the company and the Krell way of doing things. It was a real pleasure to see the audiophile passion alive at Krell. It was also quite impressive to see first-hand what makes a Krell a Krell. Bill was emphatic throughout our tour that if someone wants the most life-like audio they can experience, then they want a Krell. After the tour, I understood why.

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