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Kora Explorer 90SI Integrated

11-01-2020 | By Editors at Positive Feedback | Issue 112

This article, as reviewed by Larry Cox, Carol Clark, and Victor Chavira originally ran in Issue 3, October/November 2002, so while we call this section "New Old Stock - Articles from Our Days in Print" you are also going to see some articles from our early days of going online.

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Of the three integrated amps I've reviewed—the Naim Nait 5, the Antique Sound Labs AQ1001DT, and the Kora Explorer—the Kora was the one I felt happiest with, and consequently purchased to replace my reference Anthem Amp 1. In order to understand my decision, you must first understand my listening priorities.

Of all the contributing editors, I am the least preoccupied with gear. In particular, I don't place a high value on soundstaging. Like most Magneplanar users, a wide and deep soundstage is not an issue for me, though I can get it if I want it. Many of the values that serious listeners desire in a product are already built into the Magneplanar experience. By contrast, the characteristics that I value in an amplifier are tone, warmth, character, air, and beauty. The Kora Explorer embodies all of these values and more.

One of the first recordings I played was a CD by Canadian children's artist Raffi. I often play this disc as background music for my boys while I make breakfast on Saturday mornings. All of the sudden I noticed how lively Raffi strummed his guitar and sang in his trademark vibratoless tone. With the Kora giving more than twice as many watts as my Amp 1, it's no wonder that the panels sounded more energetic. Raffi's guitar sounded so good that I set up some fancy fretwork from Adrian Legg. Legg plays a highly modified Ovation instrument. Plastic-bodied Ovations produce a very different tone than traditional wooden steel string guitars. They are very prominent in the midrange and higher registers. The Explorer rendered Legg's guitar with a natural brilliance noticeably lacking in the sterile sound imparted by many transistor products in this price range.

The Best of Miles Davis and Gil Evans is another disc that highlighted the Kora's strengths. Miles' horn sounded as full and sweet through the Kora as with my Anthem, but unlike the Amp 1, the little Kora kicks in plenty of power to back up the orchestra's crescendos. Bass performance was also far superior with the Kora. Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, the bass player for the Buena Vista Social Club, recently released his own CD. This disc is the most experimental of the Buena Vista outings. One track called "Tumbanga" has some subterranean reggae style bass playing. The Explorer handled this passage with effortlessness and solid control. The Kora had me exploring the foundations of many discs in my collection.

The Explorer achieves its sonic excellence through a relatively uncomplicated hybrid circuit. A pair of 12AT7s drives a Mosfet power output stage. Other features include a toroidal power transformer, Alps volume control and input selector, detachable power cord, and solid metal binding posts. Though the Explorer made a synergistic match with my 1.6s, it was not without its flaws. In truth, the Explorer is not the most revealing amp. Other products in the under-1k price category will provide the listener with more detail. Even with its glass tube window, the Explorers plain black box look is rather uninspiring. Nevertheless, the way in which the Explorer unfolds the music before the listener is its main attraction for me.

I've had the Explorer for several months now and I have enjoyed every moment with it. It retains the life-like qualities of my Anthem amp while providing my Maggies with a more generous power base. The Explorer was too good to pass up. Look for a follow-up article in the next issue as I experiment with power cords, isolation devices, and tubes in effort to squeeze even more performance out of it.


Magneplanar 1.6 and B&W DM 302.

Kora Explorer integrated and the Anthem Amp 1 amplifier.

NAD T541 CD/DVD player.

Nordost Quattro-Fil interconnects, Blue Heaven speaker cables, and El Dorado power cords.

Monster Cables HTS 1000 AC center. Vibrapods, Lovan Trisolator, and Echo Busters.

A few years ago, we had the pleasure of being the first U.S. magazine to write about the products of Kora Electric Concept, a French company from Toulouse. Their statement products, the Titan monoblocks retailing at $7500 a pair and the Eclipse preamp at $5495, gave great pleasure-no surprise given the price-but what if Kora took on the task of delivering an inexpensive product?

The Explorer 90 SI integrated amp is Kora's response to that inquiry. The Explorer is an integrated amplifier with a ECC81 tube in the input stage, sporting very substantial brass speaker connectors that will really allow you to tie down those hefty speaker hoses. These are better connectors than you see on many $2000 amplifiers, but how about seeing them on a $700 integrated? The Explorer is a best buy just based on its accoutrements. The casework is also nice-though simple, one could also say it is elegant. I frankly was a little concerned, for the manufacturer's sake, that this amp might be too inexpensive. I know you want stuff at a great price, but let's not have it at the price of a whole company! Okay, on to what readers want to hear about. Did it sound good?

At a mere 60 watts, I didn't think the Explorer would power my ATC20s, so I used a pair of Soliloquy 5.0s in for review. These are also speakers that the Explorer would be more likely to be matched with. The Soliloquys sound a little lean in the midrange while being full, but not bloated, in the bottom end. The lean midrange implies detail and the lower-bass fullness implies warmth. Matched to the Explorer, the Soliloquys provided a KILLER system. Shoot, for $2000 with a cheap DVD player, you're in Fat City. (Well, you'll also want stands, but if you want to stretch a budget, think about using milk crates for a while.) Frankly, if you are primarily interested in music and only barely interested in audio gear, consider this system as a strategy for getting the kill and going home. Who says an audio safari has to be long, expensive, and full of suffering? Just the typical audiophile, that's who.

The Kora has a bottom end that is a little slower than the twice-the-price Naim Nait 5.0, losing a bit of the Naim's "pace" or drive. There is a slight smearing of the sound in comparison with the Nait, but the Kora gave up nothing on the top end. So is the Explorer a loser in comparison to the Nait? No. Both are great, though different. The Explorer reminds me of my first experience of tube gear in the late 1980s-sweet, dimensional, emotional, and full, giving a palpable experience of MUSIC. Let me be clear that the Kora doesn't have a "soft" presentation. Brass still bites, albeit at louder volumes, while retaining a precision and ease to the sound. This is one seductive freaking amplifier. I could easily live with it and just have a ton of fun. The tube in the preamp gives images a palpability that the Nait doesn't have, and a sweetness that seduces you into looking through your entire CD catalog. This is hog heaven. Just to satisfy a perverse sense of cruelty, I hooked up the Kora to my very inefficient ATCs and still had a rousing time. Perhaps the only thing "wrong" about the Kora was that there weren't enough audio boxes in my rack. Dang, I can't possibly have great sound like this with only an inexpensive integrated in my rack? Can I? The bottom end was a little soft, as it was with the Soliloquys, and I needed a lot of volume to get a full bottom end. Dynamics were also a little softer than I like. However, the midrange was just wonderful, with a palpability on faves like Pink Martini and Ella Fitzgerald that was just lovely. This was the sort of thing that I figured would have to cost lots and lots of money. True, higher resolution electronics provide more, but what I was getting with the Kora was very satisfying.

This is one of those products that makes me wish I were richer so that I could afford a great bedroom system. This is a wonderful integrated. It isn't the be all, end all of audio. For more money, you'll get more, but for $700 you'll get a mailbox for the delivery of music to your home. Forget email or snail mail, get a Kora Explorer 90SI. 


ATC 20.

E.A.R 802 preamplifier. Classe CA100 amplifier.

CAL Icon MkII CD player. Oracle Delphi MkII turntable, AudioQuest PT7 tone arm, Koetsu Rosewood cartridge.

Silver Audio Silver Bullet 4.0s interconnect and Beldon 1219A speaker cables.

API Power Pack and ACPEAM line conditioners.

Listening to music is an all-encompassing experience for me. I am not usually able to put on a "test" recording, one that will emphasize bass response or the masterful reproduction of vocals. For me to connect with music, it has to be music I enjoy, and that’s where my problem as a reviewer comes in. The music I connect with is typically poorly-recorded "pop" music. Try listening to The Cure on an audiophile-approved system and you’ll be sadly disappointed. The richly textured layers that undulate out of my car stereo speakers flatten, and sound like they are coming from behind an enormous sheet of Plexiglas.

Some recent pop artists pay attention to good sound. Massive Attack is an example. I find their Mezzanine CD to be extremely well-recorded. I have played it at CES, and find that equipment manufacturers tend to agree with me. I have been hesitant to overplay the CD, though, because I want to preserve my love for it. Nine Inch Nails also comes to mind. I realize that Trent Reznor is not for everyone, but his love of recorded sound is evident in all NIN recordings. Sadly, most of the other music that really moves me sounds flat and lifeless, or even worse, on a good system. I have mentioned this in reviews many times, and lo and behold, someone listened.

Music is important to Francois Philibert, designer, and Jeff Starrs, export director of Kora Electronic Concept. Both are musicians, and understand that connecting with music emotionally is necessary to a good listening experience. When I reviewed the Kora Titan amplifiers, I remarked that they made well-recorded discs sound superior, but I also said that they made poorly-recorded discs sound awful. When I spoke to Francois at CES in 1999, he said he wished he could invent a switch to include on his components, something you could set if your CD is poorly recorded. We laughed, but I think we both thought it was a good idea. Apparently he kept it in mind. When I met with Jeff and Francois again at this year’s CES, Francois excitedly told me that he had made the Explorer for me, and Jeff assured me it was "so you can listen to the Cure again." Well, if that doesn’t beat all! I wanted to drop everything, get in the car and high tail it home and start listening right away!

While the Explorer integrated amp is not equipped with a "bad recording" switch, it is designed with the music lover in mind. When it arrived, I was tempted to throw every "bad" recording I could find at it. At the time, I had been listening repeatedly to a CD by Gravity Kills in my car. Knowing it was a poorly-recorded disc, I brought it into the house, and It sounded pretty good. My toes were tapping, and I found myself every bit as involved in the songs as I was in my car. I feel a strong emotional connection with "Here," a Gravity Kills song that routinely brings tears to my eyes. With the Explorer, the tears that gathered in my eyes spilled down my cheeks. Much the same thing occurred when I listened to The Fragile by Nine Inch Nails. "The Wretched" made me cold inside, as it usually does. "The Fragile" made me swoon. "No You Don’t" made me grit my teeth at life’s unfairness. Sadly, I must report that the Explorer did not give me back the Cure, but nothing can salvage the hopeless mess of most Cure recordings, so it isn’t Francois" fault. I listened to several Cure recordings. Bloodflowers, sounded very flat. I tried the song "The Thirteenth" from their previous recording, Wild Mood Swings. Also flat, and unbearably bright. The only piece of Cure music that I found even remotely decent-sounding was "More Than This" from The X-Files: The Album.

I was promised that the Kora Explorer would give me back my enjoyment of my favorite music. Did it? Most assuredly. If I had unlimited wealth, I would purchase this unit. If you are looking for an integrated amplifier that will reproduce music on an emotional level, this may be the one for you. 


Reimer Speaker Systems Tetons.

Clayton Audio M100 monoblock amplifiers. E.A.R. 834P phono stage. Blue Circle BC3000 preamp w/Tunsgram tubes, and BCG3.1 power supply.

EAD T1000 transport and EVS Millenium II DAC with Audient Technologies’ Tactic and Audit, and Taddeo Digital Antidote Two. Linn Axiss turntable with K9 cartridge and Basik Plus arm.

JPS Superconductor+ interconnects, digital, and NC speaker cables. Sahuaro Slipstream, Blue Circle BC63, Clayton Audio, and JPS Kaptovator AC cables.

PS Audio P300 Power Plant. Dedicated 20 and 15 amp ac circuits. Shakti Stones and On-Lines. EchoBuster room treatments. BDR cones and board, DH cones, Vibrapods, Mondo racks and stands, Townshend Audio 2D and 3D Seismic Sinks, various hard woods, etc.

90 SI integrated

Retail $795

Kora Electronics


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