Odyssey Audio Etesian Preamplifier, Khartago Stereo Amplifier and Epiphony Loudspeakers
by Marc Mickelson
The diversity of high-end audio products is staggering. On the one hand you have speaker systems that cost six figures and on the other are interconnects that cost less than $100. Both are considered high end and possess the sound quality to prove it. In between these extremes, though infinitely closer to the low end in terms of price, are the products from Odyssey Audio. Klaus Bunge, the Teutonic driving force behind Odyssey, sells direct, which allows him to price his wares, like his Khartago amplifier and Etesian preamp, lower than most of the mass-market competition. However, while the prices may be low, the quality isn't -- as I can attest having reviewed the Odyssey Audio Khartago, which is competitive with power amplifiers costing three and four times as much.
But what's potentially more exciting is that Klaus bundles some of his products at a savings over his already low prices. Pragmatically named "the $1500 system," Odyssey Audio's Khartago amp, Etesian preamp and Epiphony speakers, packaged along with Groneberg Series 3 interconnects and speaker cables, make up a nearly complete two-channel audio system -- just add the source and its attendant interconnects. Sold separately, these products cost $1870 USD -- $775 for the Khartago, $350 for the Etesian, $595 for the Epiphony speakers, and $75 for each pair of Groneberg interconnects or speaker cables. Even at full price, this collection of products costs less than most top-of-the-line high-end interconnects; at $1500, it looks like a screaming good buy on paper. Let's see if it is in use.
Piece by piece
While Klaus Bunge imports Symphonic Line electronics from Germany into the US, many of his Odyssey products are Symphonic Line designs in different chassis -- and at much lower cost. When I reviewed the Khartago last year, Klaus admitted to me that it is "a $3500 Symphonic Line design." The Khartago is a class-A/AB amp that's rated to deliver 110Wpc into 8 ohms. Its circuit board is identical to that of the Odyssey Stratos, which sells for almost $300 more. Klaus cuts corners by using internal heatsinks, a smaller power supply, and a less elaborate chassis. The Khartago is not a large amp (18"W x 16"D x 4 1/4"H), but it is heavy (32 pounds) for its size.
The Etesian preamp is a relatively new Odyssey product -- Klaus still hasn't posted information on it on his website. It's a bare-bones active solid-state preamp with four sets of inputs and one set of outputs, all single ended. The knobs on the front are enormous, and while their action is a little coarse, they do what they're supposed to -- switch between inputs and control the volume. Around back are the power switch and IEC power-cord inlet. The Etesian measures 18"W x 8 1/4"D x 4 1/4"H and weighs 10 pounds. It includes no remote control or phono stage.
The Epiphony is the smallest of four Odyssey stereo speakers -- it measures 12"H x 7"W x 12"D and weighs 18 pounds -- and as such it is also the least expensive. It mates a 1" soft-dome tweeter to a 5" woofer in a rear-ported cabinet. The crossover point is 2kHz. The Epiphony's rated sensitivity is 86dB/W/m, and it is said to be a nominal 8-ohm load. The cabinet looks to be made of MDF with a textured-paint coating everywhere except the baffle, which comes in a choice finishes: cherry, mahogany, oak or the dreaded black ash. The baffle slopes back from bottom to top to time align the drivers' output to some degree.
Each of these products seems to be made very well, especially the Epiphony speakers, which are dense, surprisingly heavy for their small size, and attractive. All Odyssey Audio products are sold with a 30-day money-back guarantee and an eye-catching 20-year warranty that also covers the second owner.
I used the Odyssey $1500 system all by itself and with other speakers and electronics. The goal was to understand as much about each piece as possible, and let you know if there are ways in which the system as a whole can be improved. Source components were an Audio Research CD3 Mk II, an expensive CD player that I used because I know its sound well; along with a Sony DVP-NS500V CD/DVD-V/SACD player, which I purchased a few years ago at Best Buy for $149. This is the sort of budget-priced source component with which the $1500 system will likely be used. At various points I swapped in Merlin TSM-MM minimonitors and a TEAC A-1D integrated amp. Cables were always the Groneberg interconnects and speaker cables that come with the system, but from source to preamp I used a pair of DH Labs Air Matrix interconnects because they are relatively inexpensive, sound very good and, most importantly, I had them on hand. Power came from a Shunyata Hydra Model-8; again, I know its contribution to the sound very well.
The Odyssey or Merlin speakers were coupled to 24" sand-filled Osiris speaker stands with Blu-Tak. So I wouldn't change more than one variable at a time, I picked a spot in which the Odyssey Epiphony speakers sounded good, and then inserted the Merlin speakers without moving the stands. Neither of these speakers outputs prodigious bass, but the TSM-MMs produced bass notes with greater depth and detail than the Odyssey speakers.
As we audiophiles are keenly aware, each of us hears music differently and appreciates the defined aspects of musical reproduction in different ways. We all may believe in absolutes, but it's equally true that we don't admire those absolutes equally. I have articulated my personal musical values in many reviews, but I'll sum them up here by saying that if given the choice, I will choose the sound of tubes to solid-state devices, and I will gladly trade the ultimate sense of resolution for a sweeter and, to my ears, more pleasing sound -- a more musical sort of reproduction, as opposed to one that has sheer revealing of detail as its goal.
Well, the Odyssey Khartago and Etesian are both solid-state products, but coupled with the Epiphony speakers and Groneberg cables, they produce a most musical outcome -- one that's sweet, forgiving and easy on the ears; one that's thoroughly high end even with the decidedly low-end price of the entire system. Initially I played a few piano-laden recordings in order to get a sense of how the Odyssey system would handle a single complex instrument. I was coming from large speakers and very pricey electronics, so I expected a piano that would sound diminutive and lack the power I was used to hearing. Not so -- the Khartago amplifier leans slightly to the warm, full side of the sonic spectrum, which helped the Odyssey system reproduce piano with weightier-than-expected presence and a larger-than-expected image.
While I couldn't hear as deeply into a recording like Marcus Roberts's As Serenity Approaches [Novus 63130-2], I was hearing a very good facsimile of Roberts's solo piano in my listening room -- more of a "they are here" presentation than a "you are there" one. The piano's scale was somewhat reduced, but not nearly as much as I expected. Again, the $1500 system's fullness and weight fleshed out the playing and made for very satisfying listening. The old reviewer's adage "I stopped reviewing and began listening" applied, although it was impossible to forget that I was enjoying an entire system that cost under $2000.
One experiment I was eager to perform was whether the $1500 system had enough resolution to convey the difference between CD and SACD. Even with the little Sony player as a source, SACD's superior transparency was audible. The Odyssey system's fullness did obscure some inner detail on discs such as Duke Ellington's Blues in Orbit [Mobile Fidelity UDCD 757] -- the listening-to-the-master-tape sense was diminished. However, the SACD layer was still a little better than the CD, and when I played this hybrid disc in the Audio Research CD3 Mk II, the Odyssey system easily showed that the ARC player was in another league from the Sony. I suppose you want to know which sounded better -- SACD with the Sony player or CD with the ARC. To my ears, CD playback with CD3 Mk II was superior, and more like what I know SACD's sound to be -- a combination of high-frequency ease and the ability to hear deeply into each recording.
Another experiment I wanted to perform was using the Odyssey products individually to determine not only if one contributed more to the system's sound than the others but also if one was simply the best of the bunch. The outcome was pretty much what I would have guessed. If I had to pick one of these products to use in a much more expensive system it would be the Khartago amp. It has the power to drive even tough loads to loud levels, and it sounds better -- more warm and inviting -- than a score of amps above it in price. If I were buying, say, a pair of Thiel CS2.4 speakers, I would buy the Khartago to use with them and not fret for a second that I wasn't spending enough money on my amp. The Khartago is that good.
On the other hand, the Epiphony speakers are clearly the limiting factor of the $1500 system. Their sonic signature is similar to that of the Khartago, but they can't take advantage of the Khartago's bass power and drive, and they don't have enough clarity on top to let you hear all of the refinement of the amp -- or the components in front of it. The Groneberg cables are very cost-effective products, as is the Etesian, though I can't say that either shines in the way the Khartago does.
But let's keep things in perspective. Over the course of my listening, the Odyssey system showed itself to be always enjoyable, the sort of system that seems incapable of sounding offensive. Its sound lacks certain things -- ultimate detail and clarity, bass depth and weight -- instead of adding others. It begins with a very reasonable sonic goal -- listening pleasure -- and then doesn't stray so far away from that to begin sounding harsh or analytical. I don't know if the Odyssey Audio $1500 system represents the way Klaus Bunge thinks reproduced music should sound, but it does explain why his show demos always make me wonder how he can sell his products at such low prices.
The $1500 system vs. itself -- sort of
Comparing the Odyssey $1500 system to my reference system is simply not reasonable given the great difference in cost. However, I am convinced that buying the $1500 system will set in motion for some owners the desire to wring more out of it, which will involve upgrading some of its components. It's part of the audiophile mentality to believe that well-chosen upgrades can improve sound that's already good.
In this spirit, I replaced the Epiphony speakers with Merlin TSM-MMs ($2800 per pair) and the Etesian/Khartago combo with a TEAC A-1D integrated amp ($350). The results were very interesting. In a bit of serendipity, the Odyssey electronics proved to be a terrific match with the TSM-MMs. The Merlins are very revealing speakers, but also surprisingly full-bodied from the lower midrange and into the bass. Their highs sparkle and convey the sort of attack and air that the treble of much more expensive speakers does. The TSM-MMs were better than the Epiphony speakers in every way. They not only let more of the sound of the electronics through, they let more of the music through as well. The electronics of the $1500 system displayed previously unheard detail and vibrancy with the TSM-MMs.
The TEAC integrated was a different matter. Here, the Odyssey electronics were clearly superior, especially in ways that I personally value. They were sweet and full, while the TEAC integrated sounded somewhat veiled and lacking in the ability to propel the music along via its low-frequency rhythmic qualities. The midrange of both was rather similar -- a little warm, but not soupy. Still, the Odyssey electronics sounded better with vocals. I listened to a number of tracks from Diana Krall's well-known All for You [Impulse-IMPD-182], and the results with the Odyssey electronics were very satisfying. Krall's voice had juicy presence, and the air around it that make this recording an audiophile favorite was well rendered. I didn't think a $350 integrated amp would give the Odyssey electronics, especially the Khartago, a run for their money, but I was thinking that maybe such a unit could be the cornerstone of a similarly priced high-end system. This still may be the case, but it was obvious that the Odyssey electronics were superior.
What this exercise proves is that there are certainly ways to improve the Odyssey Audio $1500 system, and the most effective of these involves using the electronics with better speakers. When I consider the $595 list price of the Epiphony speakers, I immediately think of similarly priced models from Paradigm, Axiom, PSB and Energy, including a few floorstanders. However, when you purchase the $1500 system, you are not paying $595 for the speakers -- more like $225 given the price break for buying the entire system. Now the competition thins out greatly, with the Axiom M3Ti looking particularly enticing, albeit at a slightly higher price. However, I am sure that Klaus would sell one of his upscale speakers at a discount with the Khartago, Etesian and Groneberg cables, and this might be the most cost-effective way to upgrade this system.
Among the things that the combination of Odyssey Audio's Epiphony speakers, Etesian preamp, Khartago power amp, and Groneberg cables proves is that true high-end sound is not defined by price. I knew this from my exposure to these products through show demos and my own review of the Khartago, but I didn't expect to be faced with a system that was so musically agreeable. This system's warmth and palpability were surprising from the very beginning, and while there certainly was a reduction of sheer resolving power, bass depth and drive, and top-end sparkle, the basic agreeable nature of the music reproduced made up for these omissions to my ears.
This system can be improved, mostly at both ends, the source and speakers. The Khartago amp has enough power to drive most speakers with which it might be paired, and the electronics certainly respond to being fed a better source. The core of the $1500 system could be the core of a $5000 system, the kind whose next steps -- even better speakers and a pricey universal A/V player -- will cost more than $1500 by themselves.
My beat for SoundStage! often requires that I write about expensive digital gear and tubed electronics -- products that not only interest but often delight me. Even so, I derived great satisfaction from listening to and writing about the Odyssey Audio $1500 system. Upgrading it is easy, but you may discover that you don't want to.
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