Kharma Ceramique 2.0: Instant Kharma
by Todd Warnke
I know, youve read it a thousand times: shows are horrible places to make any kind of judgment about equipment. And its true, they really are the worst possible place to listen to music. Still, audio dweebs (yes, Im including myself in that group) keep doing it. Why? Because every once in a while you come across a demo that stuns you, and in spite of your rational side, you find yourself saying, "Self, that was one fine piece of equipment. Ive got to try it." And thats exactly what happened to me at Hi-Fi 97. Wandering the halls, I stumbled into a room of a distributor I wasnt familiar with, showing a speaker line that was brand new to the U.S., with electronics that I barely knew, where both the designer and distributor spoke English as a second language. In spite of all those logical barriers, what I heard led to--no, forced--this review.
The entry room of the TreMa/Kharma/OLS suite had a static display of about $125,000 worth of speakers. Let me help make that clear. They had two pairs of speakers on display, with a combined price tag of $125,000! While impressive in its own way, the inner room, which held the $9,799 Kharma Ceramique 2.0, was impressive in a far better manner. Invited into the sanctus sanctorum, I sat front-row center while Charles van Oosterum, the speaker designer, placed Jane Siberrys When I Was A Boy in the CD player. If all the equipment was going to be foreign, I was damn sure going to play music I knew well. After the lights dimmed, sweet, rich, detailed and effortless sound caressed me. Since I dont speak Dutch I couldnt ask Charles if the Lennon tune played a role in naming the speaker, but I can say that at that moment "Instant Kharma" hit me right between the eyes. (Actually, Charles speaks quite nice English, but this reminds me of a small joke. What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. Someone who speaks two? Bilingual. And someone who speaks one? American!)
Anyway, twenty minutes later I asked if they had a pair of speakers, any speakers, available for review. Their brochure showed two separate lines, comprising 28 different models, ranging in price from $1,299 to $61,999. After what I had just heard I wanted-- needed--any one of them at home. Trevor DeMaat, the importer, kindly offered me either of the speakers in the entry room. Aghast--having either of those speakers in my condo would just about double its value--I instead asked to sample the Ceramiques I was listening to. Arrangements soon made, I left San Francisco eager to see whether a show demo would trip me up or if my initial infatuation would stand the light of day.
The Fickle Finger of Fate
As luck would have it, the Kharmas took until the end of the summer to show up. Right after the show Trevor called and asked if I would like the show samples or if I would prefer to try the Ceramique 3.0, the $6,499 little brother to the show model. I asked for the smaller speaker. Why? Because while still very expensive, the 3.0 is reachable for many more people than a $10k speaker. And while $10-grand component reviews are fun, they are also a bit removed from the real world. Everything arranged again, at the last minute fate intervened. A dealer in California needed the 3.0, so I got the 2.0. This I had to take as a sign of good Kharma.
When the speakers arrived, it was with style. While only 40" by 12" by 18", each speaker weighs 105 pounds. So, instead of the customary cardboard shipping boxes, the Ceramiques arrived in real wooden crates. After opening the crates up I had to stop and admire the speakers for a while. The tasteful, dark-green finish is stunning. From both the front and the side the profile of the Ceramique is remarkably similar to that of Avalon speakers. And just like Avalons, the Ceramiques look far more graceful in person than they do in pictures. The finish covers all sides but the bottom plate. So, unlike with many other speakers, removing the grills results in little or no aesthetic loss. In fact, both my wife and I preferred the look of the speakers without the grills. The speaker enclosure, which is composed of 1.4-inch-thick HDF (high-density fiberboard) and is further damped with lead and other materials.
One advantage of taking the grills off is the view of the drivers. The 2.0 is a three-way design. The highs are handled by a modified Scan-Speak Revelator 1-inch fabric-dome tweeter. Mids are courtesy of a 5-inch proprietary ceramic driver from Thiel=Ceratec, manufactured in Germany (and not affiliated with the American company, Thiel). An 8-inch Eton Nomex/Kevlar-sandwich woofer is ported on the rear. The 3-inch port has flared ends, and combines with the bass driver to give a stated 3dB response of 35Hz. In my room I measured a 3dB level of 28Hz.
As for the internals, the wiring is silver, made from a proprietary formula and insulated with a proprietary damping compound. The crossover is built from custom parts, using resistors developed by Kharma and special inductors. According to TreMa, "the crossovers in the Ceramique series are subtractive networks with ultra-high-end components amongst specially developed resistors with no graininess like normal bulk-foil type resistors and no hiss or noise like carbon resistors." The review sample came with a single pair of WBT banana input jacks, but Trevor says that newer models ship with dual pairs of WBTs to fill the American need to biwire.
Finally, for setup, when I first moved the 2.0s into the main room I dropped them exactly where the Dunlavy SC-IIIs had been. This quickly proved to be a bad idea. Over the next two weeks, as I became more conversant with their abilities and characteristics, I learned that they need little or no toe-in. In addition, more than any other speaker Ive had in my room, they are sensitive to setup. No exaggeration--movements as little as ¼ inch were easily noticed. Even Ella (our Nipper look-alike) responded to small movements. Small (incorrect) changes in the speaker position would cause her to ignore the sound from the speakers until I repositioned the Kharmas in the optimal location. Once there, she became obsessed with finding the location of each sound in every recording I played. Personally, I love this extreme in sensitivity. When small changes are easy to hear, you get feedback each time you make an adjustment. This feedback forces you to keep playing with speaker positioning until its right. And when it is, the Ceramiques let you know. When everything is right the soundstage snaps into place with well an audible snap. In my room the right spot was with the speakers 48 inches from the front wall, separated by 80 inches (center to center) and toed in very slightly.
Listening to the Kharmas was, at times, a confusing experience. Play Led Zep, and these Dutch babies boogied with bass that reached to the center of the earth. Switch to Ralph Towners newest disc of solo guitar, Ana, and the Kharmas spoke with a delicacy and purity that would make Madonna (the original) proud. Ambient soundscapes took on the depth and dimension of a Gainsborough painting. Everything I threw at the Kharmas came back enhanced, enlivened and distinctly different from anything else I threw at them. The experience was so invigorating that I found myself programming truly schizoid listening sessions. Yes, Von Bingens 11,000 Virgins can easily follow Howling Wolf, and in turn can be followed by Everything But The Girl with a Willie Nelson chaser. The Ceramiques' ability to paint each album on a unique canvas made perfect sense of every musician in every setting.
Much of the credit for this chameleon-like performance must go to the skill with which the drivers are integrated. I love the Eton woofer used in the 2.0, and consider it among the best, if not the very best, bass drivers Ive ever heard. However, in other (lesser) speakers, Ive heard the driver stand out more than it does here. In those speakers, the quality of the Eton driver has outclassed the other drivers. Not here. Charles van Oosterum has chosen and designed well. Instruments such as the French Horn and Trombone, which sit right in the middle of the bass/mid crossover, sound natural at both the top and the bottom of their registers. The transition point was seamless. The mid/tweeter hand-off was the equal of the woofer/mid exchange, with the upper range of the piano, violin and piccolo exhibiting an ease that Ive only heard in two other circumstances, the concert hall and while listening to John Dunlavy's designs. Both Dunlavy and van Oosterum use fabric-dome tweeters, and I dont think that what I hear listening to these tweeters is happenstance.
But I havent gotten to the best part. As good as the driver integration is, youve got to hear, see and walk in the soundstage these babies throw. At Hi-Fi this was the ability that struck me most. If you dont know "Calling All Angels," the Jane Siberry/k. d. lang track
from Janes When I was a Boy, you need to get yourself down to the local polycarb hut and pick up the disc. Besides the torture test of separating their two voices (mixed to the center rather than right and left), the stage is enormous. In San Francisco I heard more depth than I ever had, at least until I heard the 2.0s at home: 25-30 feet of depth, and with images at the rear as solid as Larry Walker's batting stroke. An effect yes, but a kiss is just an effect too. Then again (dont tell my wife), Ive seldom enjoyed a kiss as much as I enjoy the stage these speakers create. Hyperbole? First listen to these speakers, then get back to me.
Any Bad Kharma In There?
At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, the 2.0s are just shy of perfection. The bass, while extended and musical, is ever-so-slightly loose, which falls in line with my experience with ported speakers. I know that some of you will say, "Youve grown accustomed to the overdamped bass of the Dunlavys." To you I say, "Not so." Yes, I prefer the Dunlavy SC-IIIs' bass in quality; it sounds more lifelike to me, more like what I hear when I attend live jazz (Vartan Jazz just re-opened here in Denver. Life is good.), or the Symphony. And yes, the Kharmas' bass is far more extended. But, if I could have everything in a speaker it would include the bass quality of the SC-III and the extension of the Kharma. However, dont take this too far. Lacking the Dunlavy speakers as a reference, I would place the Kharmas' bass at the top of the list of speakers I know. Let me reiterate: I never heard a chestiness or congestion in the bass. And the Eton woofer is superb; in fact, it's the best. I would imagine that the larger Kharma, with its 11" bass driver, completely resolves this as an issue. It really is that small of a point.
The final nit, though small as well, hurts to say. The stage presented by the Kharmas, while thrilling, is a slight embellishment on the truth. Like a Technicolor movie, it presents life as we would like it to be, rather than as it is. Would I prefer that it had a more conventional stage? No. But it still diverges from the path of rectitude a bit in this area. (All saints must sin just a little, else they are just self-righteous boors.)
Other than those two very small issues, Im about ready to pronounce the Kharmas exalted. Tonally, with the above caveats in mind, they are as accurate as my ears. Dynamically, at 92-dB efficiency, they jump. And when they jump you will too. The highs are grainless and natural, while the lows are extended and powerful. And the mids are as natural as a naked newborn babe.... Hmmm, it seems Ive forgotten to talk about the ceramic driver! Perhaps this is the perfect irony, as the driver from whence the speaker line takes it name is so good that it goes unnoticed.
If, as the Hindus believe, we must work out our Kharma, learning from our mistakes and repairing the holes they create in our soul, then the Ceramiques are but a small step or two removed from Nirvana. Or perhaps, they are Bodhisattva and have stayed on earth to show us the way. They inspire a mystical devotion. And, like most religious principles, they can be contradictory. Musical to the extreme, they also reveal every single squiggle, bit and solder joint in the audio chain. This they do with the grace of the pure and beautiful. Where they err, it is on the side of emotion and joy. And even these errors are so small that rather than smudge the Kharma of the speakers, they serve to extol its virtues. Simply, they are beautiful souls that have graced my room with their presence. In some future incarnation I hope to bestow as much joy as these speakers have given me. They are indeed special.
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