KINKI STUDIO EX-M1+ integrated amplifier
+ A truly sumptuous performance for the price; authoritative well-balanced sound with excellent detail retrieval; superb build quality that is probably unmatched in this price sector.
– It’s an old-school line-only integrated amp, so bring your own phono stage and digital signal processing; no headphone output.
A guide to the ratings
COMING up with the brand name for a hi-fi (or any other) company may not be as easy as some may think. Whatever the explanation for the origins of such name in its home country, once a brand makes it to export, it may find itself inducing a suppressed chuckle or two from potential customers in an overseas market. I can imagine how the guys at German hi-fi company T&A may have been feeling over the years. But it can also bring a newer brand much needed attention which it may not otherwise have gotten, the merits of their product offerings aside.
So what might one make of a hi-fi brand to the effect of “Kinki Studio”? Whatever the initial reaction, once one ogles Kinki Studio’s EX-M1+ integrated amplifier, even before listening to it, I wager one will be quite impressed for what is on offer for the money. It weighs a ton (okay, I’m exaggerating) and its aluminium chassis looks and feels solid and superb, more in keeping with what one would expect from a strong western brand, perhaps a Swiss one, than from Kinki’s home country of China.
It has two fairly large knobs on the front, not quite as outlandishly sized and closely-spaced as those on the old Densen DM10, but I can’t see many people not liking them. They handle superbly, the left knob allowing for input selection and the right one controlling volume.
Also eye-catching is the heat management system – no sharpish fins, but two copper-coloured inset blocks toward the rear on each side of the chassis to which the internal active devices are bolted. Multiple circular holes in each such block act like chimneys to allow for airflow to cool the amp.
The EX-M1+ is a traditional Class AB line-level only integrated amplifier. Its lack of phono stage and any kind of onboard digital processing means those requiring a more modern comprehensive one-box solution will have to look elsewhere – it’s unabashedly old school.
There are four sets of inputs, three via the normal RCA single-ended jack pairs and one pair XLR. The EX-M1+ is not a true balanced design in spite of the latter hook-up option. Connector quality is excellent as are the speaker terminals, which allow for chunky spade connectors like those on Cardas speaker cables to be accommodated. Yes, banana plugs may be used, too.
There are RCA output jacks which enable the EX-M1+ to be used as a standalone preamplifier (the function may be selected via the power/standby button under the front fascia) as well as a HT bypass function (you’ll need the remote control unit for this) for use as a power amplifier or for integrating into a home theatre set-up. Effectively, the EX-M1+ may be used as a preamp only, an integrated amp where the preamp output may concurrently be connected at line level to a subwoofer or external power amplification, or as a standalone power amplifier. Headphone users are not catered for, though.
Being a big boy with dimensions of about 43 x 12.5 x 37cm (w/h/d) and a weight of about 25 kg, the EX-M1+ may be a little larger than some of the racks out there may cater for, but it always looked elegant and its silver finish was a great visual match for the similarly sized Sony HAP-Z1ES HDD player I used as one of the music sources. The EX-M1+ also comes in black, if that is your preference.
No mains lead is provided, which, according to Kinki Studio, is to compel the user to seek out a suitably substantial power cord instead of having an inadequate freebie bundled within price constraints. Your own beliefs or ears, whichever takes precedence, come into play here on whether getting an “audiophile grade” cord is worth it or if grabbing the cord from one of your kitchen appliances will work just as well. Surprisingly, no batteries are included for the remote control – it uses a CR2032 battery and not the usual double or triple A types, so pick one up on the way home when getting the amp.
One expects that with great size comes great power and the EX-M1+ doesn’t disappoint – output is rated at 215 watts RMS (8Ω) and 290W RMS (4Ω) with both channels driven. I neither had the room size nor sufficiently demanding loudpeakers to adequately challenge to let it go full throttle.
I really liked the clear bright large display, which can even be seen from some distance across a large room without spectacles in spite of my short-sightedness. For late-hour listening times, the display may be dimmed or turned off completely. Kinki Studio has also included switches to lift the power earth connection from the chassis and filtering if you experience noise from DC on the mains. I didn’t have any such problems from my power outlets in practice, and also did not hear any differences from switching these either way, but it’s great to have these options.
The performance level of the EX-M1+ is clearly well into “high-end big amp” territory and I felt it immediately when raising the volume from its initial soft warm-up period. For many, the next few moments may well be spent getting past the surprise that one is encountering this level of performance in this price bracket. Memories of the time spent with the Nagra Classic amp I had reviewed came back to mind, in my own case.
There is a sense of effortlessness and unfazed composure which makes many a rival amplifier sound weedier, or malnourished even, all this without the EX-M1+ itself exhibiting any deviation from neutrality. This is not just when higher volume is in issue – even at moderate listening levels, the smoothness is similar in feel to being in a large-bodied airliner hitting its take-off speed just before rotation, compared to a smaller Boeing 737/Airbus A320 class plane (I miss going out into the world – be overcome, damned virus!).
Okay, coming back to the amp. Within the large acoustic picture the EX-M1+ exhibited, instruments and voices sounded faithful tonally. There is plenty of detail but presented without etch or emphasis. While not being able to do direct comparisons, and with the fallibility of sonic memory fully acknowledged, other highly detailed amps like the Class D Lyngdorf TDA1120 and the Crayon Audio CIA-1, while still sounding smooth, had more sharply-chiselled image outlines of voices and instruments to my recollection. Which presentation one would like better is a matter of preference, one man’s “clearer outlines” is another’s “unnaturally edgier”.
The earthier, more organic feel of the EX-M1+’s sound was still highly engaging with strong sense of rhythmic acuity. This is not an amp where you’ll readily find yourself feeling that it does certain genres of music better than others. If you want impactful rock tracks to sound impactful, it does it well. Bass motors along and you’ll find yourself rocking to the beat.
Drum kit impact is strong and solid, the old Robert Palmer Addicted to Love and other tracks on his Riptide album being one to play to savour the EX-M1+’s abilities, while with classical music, basses, percussion and tympani really gave a satisfying foundation to big orchestral pieces.
The all-important midrange showed that solo and small group voices had good sense of intimacy, again with good presence but here, I felt that a fine tube amplifier like the in-house 300B SET did have the edge, being that bit more true to life. Nonetheless, heard on its own without making comparisons, I would not raise any complaints. Treble was silky smooth without compromising airiness and cymbal shimmer and decay was highly satisfying.
Reading that back, the sound is pretty much like what Kinki Studio describes as its gear’s sonic signature in the website. Ultimately, as with any component, personal taste and system matching is still the all-important deciding factor but I can’t see anyone taking a dislike to the sound of the EX-M1+. I would prefer it to the dryer, leaner sounds of units like the Lyngdorf and Crayon models earlier cited, but those can conversely give the impression of having faster transient response, so there are no all-things-to-all-men components; EX-M1+ certainly gets closer than most.
I have to put in a word about its performance as a standalone pre-amplifier. Amp chassis temperature still runs hot even when this mode is selected, but fronting my regular Odyssey Khartago monoblocks, I felt that a lot of the sonic signature comes from the preamp section, which is excellent, as this gave me some of the best sounds I have heard from my own amps, just as low in noise but much preferable to the regular passive controller I use in terms of getting scale, presence and dynamics.
THE LAST WORD
This is one highly impressive integrated amplifier for the money, both in terms of its build quality and sonic performance. It is very well balanced and is likely to sit well with most systems’ other components (I can’t think of any loudpeakers that it cannot firmly grab and take control of) and satisfy a wide range of sonic tastes and musical palettes.
It comes in, price-wise, a little under the likes of more established competition like the Naim Supernait 3, BMC PureAmp and Musical Fidelity M6si, and newer entrants like the Marantz Model 30 which recently impressed a fellow audioFi reviewer, but I reckon it has the chops to compete for your attention and persuade you that it’s the one for you. The icing on the cake, at least in the Malaysian context, is Kinki Studio’s products are being sold and supported via local dealers, so an audition and getting accessible post-sales backup, if needed, is part of the equation. Go hear it – you may just find yourself getting Kinki.
Sources: Linn LP12-Ittok-K18ii, Garrard 401-Rega RB1000-Benz ACE Red, Micromega Stage 3, Sony HAP-Z1ES HDD player, Nakamichi Cassette Deck 2 / Amplification: Parasound JC-3 and Audio Image AIME phono stages, Naim 122X line preamp with Teddycap power supply or ER ATT-600 passive controller into Euphonic Research Amp80, Odyssey Khartago monoblock pair and custom single-ended 300B tube based power amps / Loudspeakers: Apogee Centaurus Minor, Spatial M3 Turbo S, Mission 731, James EMB1000 / Assorted cables including Tara Labs Prism and Western Electric interconnects, Cable Talk Talk Three, Cardas Hexlink Five, Symo LS5-SX, Supra Classic 4.0, Gotham 50025 speaker cables, various diy wires