In a previous review, I declared the Kora TB-400 to be the best amplifier I have ever listened to. Now I find myself musing, if TB-400 was better than the rest, is TA-480 better than the best? Kora has, for some time now, advertised its upcoming range of power amplifiers, which were finally introduced in Munich this May. I was so eager to hear the new TA-480 that I sold off my integrated TB-400 in anticipation. As it happens, this particular unit is the first one off the factory line, so this might very well be the first look at the “480” online.
NEW DEVICE, FAMILIAR DESIGN LANGUAGE
In terms of technical specifications and overall dimensions, the TA-480 is near-identical with the integrated TB-400, but somehow the device feels heftier. On the outside the two appear fairly identical, although the front panel “control wheel” now sports a round indentation.
It is interesting how similar the new power amplifier is to the integrated one. The four tubes behind the front panel, the backplate, the menu settings etc. The most significant difference is that the back panel only has RCA and XLR inputs. The latter meaning that despite appearances, there are notable differences “under the hood”.
Kora’s look is one to divide opinion. Kora’s mineral grey powder-coat finish is something that is seldom seen in devices of this calibre. The acrylic front panel almost has echoes of classic Harman Kardon receivers, although there’s no green light or a tuning interface, only a sleek yellow display.
The natural faint glow of the filament tubes can be seen from the front, especially in the dark, but there is no silly, superfluous LED backlighting, which is absolutely the correct way to go. Two large heat sinks have been discreetly integrated to the case and there is a generous amount of air ventilation too, which is warranted as, somewhat surprisingly, the TA-480 runs a lot hotter than the TB-400.
The same patented Square Tube technology that was introduced with Kora’s integrated amps is employed here as well. You can read more about this technology on Kora’s website, but essentially the idea is to avoid the use of an output transformer and have transistors provide the current without interfering with the amplification signal. It should be noted that the TA-480 offers limited preamp functionality, too. You can adjust input sensitivity via the control wheel and, if need be, you can use the menu to adjust channel levels. The menu is also used to select between RCA or XLR input.
THE REVIEW SETUP
When the TA-480 arrived, my listening room was in a somewhat awkward state. I had just parted with a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 802 D3s and had replaced them with significantly cheaper Magneplanar 0.7s – although I had beefed them up with a pair of subwoofers. The rest of my setup has remained the same, more or less, though I had replaced my Nordost Valhalla 2s with Furutech’s Speaker-Flux high performance speaker cables.
Overall, my setup is on the higher end, but I had to make some compromises with the preamp as I am currently waiting for Kora’s preamp, which will be released later in the year. I tested the TA-480 with three different preamps (more on these below) and settled upon my trusty Linn Klimax Katalyst, even though I had to connect my record player to a digital input. And speaking of the record player, I will be upgrading that too in the not-too-distant future, but all things considered, my current setup is certainly competent enough to put the TA-480 through its paces.
And herein lies the point, you can’t really talk about the TA-480 without referencing the rest of the system. Any change, however small, is instantly revealed. I tested two power cords, Furutech’s NanoFlux NCF and brand-new Furutech Project V1 cable and chose the latter, even though NanoFlex and the TA-480 made an excellent pairing as well. In terms of the preamp and cables I tested several different combinations, but the above-mentioned is what I used for the overall review.
Now comes the difficult part, how to describe a sound that is simultaneously the best I’ve ever heard, yet so transparent that you can hear every link in the audio chain. Yet again, I took Shelby Lynne and Just a Little Lovin’ for a spin.
Every setup change defined what kind of version I heard. Preamped with Mark Levinson 38S the TA-480 delivered a full-bodied, “old-fashioned” version. In contrast, preamped with Lynn Katalyst Klimax the TA-480 delivered a version that was more accurate, a touch colder and more precise timing-wise. Preamped with LAB12’s pre1 the TA-480 delivered a “modern” version, but with a slightly warm tilt. Pre1’s sound image was slightly wider than Katalyst’s, but overall, I found Katalyst delivering the best version. I look forward to Kora releasing their own preamp, but I have to say that Katalyst is a great fit in the meantime.
But back to Shelby Lynne and Just a Little Lovin’, right away the bass hits and puts the system to the test. The small Magneplanars need to be supported with a subwoofer, but the “mid bass” and “upper bass” are still driven through the speakers and thus require some heavy lifting from the amplifier, and Kora TA-480 delivers, no doubt about that. I’ve tested the Magneplanars with several different amplifiers, for example Kora’s 70 Watt TB-140, and it works just fine, but for a natural and full-bodied bass to come to its own, you need loads of power.
Regular readers know that I like to gush over the song’s rimshots, and this review is no exception, on Just a Little Lovin’ the drummer’s rimshots clack from a fairly isolated location, but the echo spreads evenly to the left and to the right, whereas with some setups the echo moves only to the right. But what really caught my attention were the cymbals on the left side of the soundstage. In terms of balance, they were medium bright, but I could discern the hit, the resonance and the echo. To my taste, the timing was spot on. As with the TB-400, keen ears can pick up each and every pre-echo from the analog master tape, but they and other recording artifacts do not distract from the musical content, they’re just there as a by-product of the highest-resolution version that I’ve ever heard of this song.
Pink Floyd is known for not leaving any sonic artifacts on their recordings, other than intentional ones that is. The beginning of Wish You Were Here is a fun one to listen to. You can hear every detail of Gilmour clearing his throat and sharply inhaling before the guitar really kicks in. It’s a nice part for enjoying the superbly high resolution and looking for old and new details, but when the whole band is playing the imaging is extremely precise, coherent and frankly mind blowing. Another sweet part to listen for comes at the midpoint of the track when Gilmour is vocally doubling the high-pitched guitar melody. What’s harder to hear is that in the background the main chords are doubled vocally, too. Here the Kora/Katalyst combo offers the best articulation I’ve ever heard.
GENERAL IMPRESSIONS OF THE SOUND
Lest I start repeating myself too much, here are three more general observations. Firstly, preamped with the Katalyst the TA-480 produces an accurate and impactful, but not overbearing, bass. Even samples with a lot of bass stayed nicely in balance. Sure, a lot of this has to do with subwoofer settings – here the cross-over point was somewhere around 50 Hz – but what I’m talking about here is the bass that the amp delivers to the speakers and not bottom range performance, which is more subwoofer-dependent.
Secondly, the sound imaging is impressively accurate. Depending on the preamp and the rest of the audio chain, the size of the soundstage changes, but the TA-480 is not the bottleneck. Preamped with Klimax Katalyst the soundstage is a bit ‘mono-ish’, or slightly on the narrower side and the instruments have almost pinpoint separation, but the depth is frankly impressive. This is not the first time that I find that the width and the depth of the soundstage seem to be almost inversely correlated. Listening to orchestral music, it is thrilling how three-dimensionally the symphony orchestra is reproduced in the soundstage. You can find the vocal soloists and the choir in their proper place depth-wise. The same is true of piano concertos, the instrument placement is a facsimile of the original recordings. Thirdly, when listening to more intimate, or acoustic music, the echoes are phenomenally natural and accurate. I suppose this is due to Kora’s impeccable timing. I have a certain disdain for the term ‘musicality’, but I may have to make an exception here. When musicians create music their musical phrasing, subtle changes in micro and macro dynamics, pitch manipulation, articulation and inflection etc. is what creating music and ‘musicality’ is about. And it is this ‘musicality’ that Kora conveys spectacularly, naturally within the limits of the rest of the setup and the recording itself.
CONCLUDING REMARKS AND A STRONG RECOMMENDATION
It is crystal clear that TB-400 has met its match in TA-480. For me it is also clear that a power amplifier simply can’t get much better than this. I have listened to several more expensive amplifiers but haven’t tested them in a controlled setting or in my own listening setup. So, I can’t tell for sure if I’ve reached the top or I’m just getting there. Granted, 15 000 euros is a hefty sum of money for a power amplifier, but personally I feel it’s a manageable investment for almost anyone, especially if you think about your setup in the long term.
Kora has no diamonds in the front panel or copper heatpipes. Kora is all about performance over presentation. The device works perfectly, is silent and has more than enough features. Oh, and the sound is better than the best, too! I must give this amplifier my highest recommendation and urge the reader to experience this amplifier first-hand.