World Premiere Review!
Something very exciting happens in life when you step out of your league and move up to the next level. And so it was when Bill Parrish of GTT Audio delivered a pair of Kharma Ceramique 2.2 loudspeakers to my home, along other associated goodies. I wish I had been home to watch when he carried each of these 100 lb. piano black beauties into my listening room. Linda was there to greet him, and I came home from work shortly thereafter. The price of my system just doubled.
The feeling was not unlike Christmas morning. It was obvious that Santa had arrived with some very expensive gifts, which was the exciting part, but what if I had to tell Mr. Claus that I did not like his toys? To belay my anxiety we started out playing with my familiar toys: the super-achieving Manley Mahi monoblocks driving the wonderful Coincident Partial Eclipse Mk II loudspeakers. This put me at ease, and gave Bill a feel for the best system I have been able to put together to this point.
To give you an idea of positioning in the room, I did the measuring after Bill returned home. The bottom fronts of the loudspeakers were 65 inches out from the front wall, and they were 84\ inches apart, center-to-center. The distance from the face of the loudspeaker to the same side ear was about 90 inches, nearly forming an equilateral triangle. The left wall was 9.5 feet from the outside of the left loudspeaker, and the right wall was 14 feet from the outside of the right loudspeaker, both largely out of contention for generating side reflections. The rear wall is about 3 feet behind the listening chair, and the vaulted ceiling is about 7 feet from the floor at the front wall, and 12 feet high behind the listening chair. With clipped front corners, a sunken living room floor, bookcases full of LPs, and large paintings, there are few large reflective surfaces. My personal efforts to improve upon the positioning proved futile. Moving the loudspeakers closer to the front wall strengthened the bass, but compressed the soundstage. The Kharmas rested almost exactly where I kept my reference Coincidents.
Nonetheless, these Kharmas were still a far cry from my initial exposure to their four-times-the-price siblings, the GrCe 1.0, in a state of the art system at the Montreal show earlier this year. Initially, we were using the Manley Mahis (20 watts, triode mode) with the reasonably priced Coincident CST-1 speaker cables. For a few musical selections this seemed reasonably adequate, but demanding passages from Mahler’s First Symphony urged us to switch to my Plinius SA-100 Mk III with its 100 "Class A" watts per channel. It was this amplifier that Bill thought would be best suited to the Kharmas, and he expressed hope of a good review of them with a solid state amplifier, as other positive reviews had come with tube amplifiers and he didn’t want the loudspeaker to become typecast. Thinking the sound was a little dry, Bill asked to remove the Symposium Acoustics Isis Platform and the Stillpoints from beneath the Plinius, and leave the amp on just the spiked solid oak platform. This softened the precise sound a bit, and gave the music back its soul.
At this point, Bill pulled out the Kharma Supreme Reference speaker cables he had brought along, and I was stunned just to look at them. About 1.4-inches in diameter, they almost felt like something alive in my hand, but they were limp and extremely flexible. The conductors are an alloy of silver and gold in an air dielectric, the tubing that houses the conductors is surrounded by a gel that absorbs floor and air-born vibrations. All this is housed in a woven black jacket with heavy metal end caps. And at some point in manufacture, the cables are cryogenically treated. At $3750 for the 2 meter pair, these proved to be serious speaker cables. Initially, they seemed to provide considerable improvement in focus, transparency, smoothness and a very quiet background from which the music magically appeared.
After a brief comparison of some excellent inexpensive power cords which Bill also imports, we decided they were pretty much indistinguishable from the Balanced Power Technologies cords I was already using. The heavy gauge of the BPT cords should deliver more current in ultra demanding situations, however. Our attention turned next to the 24 gauge mil-spec interconnects I recently had made up to accommodate the Mahi monoblocks. While the 24-gauge interconnects were a significant improvement over the 18 gauge versions they replaced, I could see Bill was a little uneasy with a review of the expensive Kharmas hinging on a pair of unshielded boondoggle-weave interconnects that cost maybe $40/pr.—locking rca connectors not withstanding. Two days later I had two pair of Matrix Neo interconnects Bill made up with Kharma’s new wire that employed the same silver and gold alloy that is used in the speaker cables and in the loudspeakers themselves. Let’s call it "Bugati Blue" with locking WBT rca connectors. While the new interconnects were burning in, I installed a NASCAR approved seatbelt harness on my Flexsteel listening chair.
Which brings me around to the drivers. Three of them, to be exact: a 1.5-inch cloth dome tweeter, a 4.5-inch concave ceramic midrange just below, and a 9-inch Nomex Kevlar woofer, just below the midrange. On the stand, the 2.2 is about 41.5 inches tall, and the center of the woofer is 24 inches from the floor, just above the midline. The ceramic driver has a perforated metal shield over it. A knuckle rapping survey of the surfaces seemed to indicate that the bottom of the loudspeaker is mass loaded, or perhaps houses a separate chamber for the crossover. Bill described the crossover as "subtractive," which is why Kharma only permits single wiring. This is a good thing, given the cost of their speaker cable. That knuckle rapping exercise, by the way, revealed a very solid structure with only minimal evidence of an interior cavity.
The styling, as I suggested above, is purposeful. It is clearly "form follows function" with no compromise on the quality of the finish. Designer colors are offered to appeal to those for whom this is important. The Ceramique line is distinctly modern, almost in a Bauhaus way, except for the curved front edges. It should fit in with contemporary styling of the past couple decades, as well as the retro-50’s modern style that is currently emerging. Art Deco would be another nice match. The good news is that, after you have lived with it for a while, you pretty much ignore it while walking about the house. It does not call attention to itself, except perhaps in the optional orange finish.
Race cars are built for winning races, as I noted earlier, but a driver will be more successful if he or she is comfortable over the distance. Recalling the first few cuts I listened to during the set-up procedure, I switched back over to the Manley Mahi monoblocks, an amplifier with a precise sound coming from their EL-84 tubes. The Mahis also have variable feedback and are switchable from ultra-linear to triode operation. After playing around a bit, I settled in with minimal feedback in the triode mode, a setting that yields about 20 watts per channel. The Kharmas, at 89dB/W/m are reasonably efficient, but in my 6000 cu. ft. room, this combination should not really work. And it simply does not for heavy, demanding orchestral passages. But for everything else I threw at the Kharmas, this amplifier proved to be a super-achiever. The surprisingly strong bass response of this amplifier proved to be particularly synergistic with the Kharmas, and belied the 20 watt rating.
I do not mean to imply that the Kharmas do not work with solid state amplification. But the Kharmas are so revealing that they unmask shortcomings in the upstream components — which is virtually everything else in the system. There is very little room for an inferior component or cable to hide. If you intend to use solid state amplification, make sure that it is very smooth sounding with virtually no transistor grain In most cases, this is going to mean spending big bucks for an upper echelon solid state amplifier. The Mahis, on the other hand, with tubes, were quite satisfactory, in spite of their much lower cost. Hmmm.
So what changed when I switched to the Mahis? How about more transparency, better focus, more inner detail, no rough edges to the notes, more relaxed listening, no fatigue, stronger, more palpable bass, sweeter strings and cymbals, seeing deeper into the soundstage. How about the incredible feeling not that the musicians are in my room, but that I’m in their room, their studio, their concert hall. Not even smoke obscuring my vision. Like with the Plinius, this is a riveting experience that arrests your attention and discourages multi-tasking. But with the Mahis it is a more inviting, relaxing experience — you really want to be there. It is also a very rare experience that few loudspeakers have given me. And certainly, there are other tube amplifiers that will outperform the Mahis, good as they may be.
With the feeling of being there, issues of pace and rhythm simply do not come to mind. If the piano player slows down, you simply experience the piano player slowing down. You don’t think, "Oh, my G-d, my system can not keep up with the music!" It is not that the loudspeakers seem to disappear, my whole system disappears! The Kharmas allow me to directly enjoy the music without paying any attention to the system. It is kind of like, if you were in the studio (or audience) with B.B. King, or Yo Yo Ma, or Andrea Bocelli performing, would you be thinking about microphones, cables, amplifiers and loudspeakers? If you answer “yes,” buy a lesser loudspeaker, save yourself a great deal of money, and renew your subscriptions to all the equipment journals.
So, is the Ce-2.2 the perfect loudspeaker? It better not be! The Ce-2.2 is only one model up from the bottom of the Kharma lineup, so it has some limitations and shortcomings, in essence leaving some glory for its more expensive brethren in a line-up that extends to six-figure price tags and features diamond tweeters at the top.
The issue of bass response brings me to my theory that loudspeakers are like chocolate chip cookies. The crumbly part is the mid-range and treble, and most people know a good cookie when they hear one. But the bass is like the chocolate chips. And opinions of what constitutes a good chocolate chip cookie vary widely. First, is the issue of quantity. More chips are better in the minds of many. Second, is the quality of the chocolate. A lot of people have never experienced good chocolate; a few are connoisseurs. And third, how deep and dark to you like your chocolate? Perhaps 20Hz high quality, dark chocolate can be terribly expensive. And requiring massive amounts of it can drive you to bankruptcy.
The Kharma CE-2.2 gives you high quality bass down to 30 Hz, and then falls away. This is about the same as my reference Coincident Partial Eclipse Mk. II, except the quality of the bass is higher with the Kharmas. The bass is tighter with either the Plinius or the Manleys, and more palpable, particularly when driven by the Mahis. When it comes to quantity, the Coincidents seem to give you more, particularly around 40Hz, where my in-room measurement peaked. The Kharmas, when mounted on the SDSS stands, seemed to slightly diminish the bass in relation to the mid-range, where most of the music lies. Perhaps this contributes to the Kharma’s ability to command your attention. Make no mistake; the bass is there, and it seemed exceptionally smooth down to its lower limit. Kharma has just chosen to give us quality rather than quantity, and taken it down to a reasonably satisfying depth. If you want more depth, they can give it to you, but it will cost as you move up the lineup.
What about slam, you might ask. What?! You want slam with a 20 watt amplifier? When I first returned to listening with the Mahis, I kept the volume cautiously low—not wanting to burn out a tweeter. But the music sounded so good, that I gradually kept bumping the volume higher and higher until finally I said, "Whoa! We better get out the SPL meter!" Sure enough, I was listening at a level 5dB to 8dB higher than with my reference system—with no signs of complaint from the Kharmas. In fact, the louder I listened, the better the bass became. The final proof came when my young computer guru visited with his rap music and we put on my favorite cut by Nas, his classic song “One Mic” from his album Stillmatic. We cranked it up — way up, like over 100dB, and damn if three things didn’t happen. One, for the first time, I was able to understand all the lyrics. Two, the bass was slammin'. And three, I had a visceral reaction that took me back to the first time I heard Allen Ginsberg read in the mid-60’s. My young friend said it was the best bass he had ever heard. I have been around a bit more, and while it might not be the very best I’ve heard, it certainly is in the same league. When I took the liberty to remove the SDSS stands and place the Kharmas on the Symposium Isis platforms on architectural slate, the bass seemed a bit stronger, but the bass lost a bit of focus in the exchange. While the Isis was quite beneficial with the Coincidents, this goes to show that not every solution is universal.
Several things on the graph jump out at me. First, with the exception of spikes at 40Hz and 80Hz, the bass is exceptionally flat at 82dB. Perhaps these are a room resonance and a bounce effect of the rather high-mounted woofer? (The Coincidents also had a peak at 40Hz in approximately the same position in the room). Secondly, the bass also falls off at roughly 30Hz, about the same as the Coincidents, as I noted in my listening.
And thirdly, the bass (at about 82dB) is shelved down about 3dB from most of the midrange (at roughly 85dB), confirming my impression that Kharma is giving us quality at a slight expense of quantity. If you have exposed hardwood floors rather than wall to wall carpeting, as I do, you might not experience the same results. (Area rugs, rather than broadloom, are much more popular in Europe).
The midrange and treble, in spite of what seem to be some rather large swings, sound reasonably smooth. The treble gradually falls off only after it passes the fundamental tones of classical instruments. So, it looks like the tonal balance isn’t quite as perfect as I thought it might be. I certainly did not notice any anomalies that gave away the 200Hz and 2500Hz crossover points. It seems that the elevated midrange is a major contributor to the somewhat forward nature of the 2.2.
What was it, then, that gave me the clear window into the music and commanded my attention?
What I really wish I could have measured was the cumulative spectral decay — that beautiful waterfall graph that Stereophile gives us. Basically, it reveals how quickly the drivers let go of the notes, but it also hints at how quickly the drivers give us the notes.
It is our old friends, “Attack” and “Decay” that give us the sense of speed and we have the ceramic midrange and Nomex Kevlar woofer to thank. The notes begin instantaneously and end quickly. They do not hang around for a few milliseconds to muddy the next note that comes along. This fast attack and decay also let you hear different instruments that are playing simultaneously, and the individual voices in duets, and back-up singers. The Kharma CE-2.2 gives huge amounts of this inner detail, and the entire, vast soundstage is well lit, with particular emphasis on front and center stage.
Have I heard better? Well, if memory serves me, I liked the Kharmas I heard at Montreal better. But they were $47.5K, and were driven by a pair of Tenor 300 Hp hybrid monoblocks that cost about $30K. If you are reading these kinds of reviews you already know about the cost of diminishing returns, and probably don’t care too much.
Hopefully, you are also savvy enough to examine my system and see that it is somewhat tricked out. Do not expect to drop this $12K loudspeaker into a $6K system and achieve the results I have described (although it would be an interesting challenge). Also consider that the package included $1,800 for interconnects and $3750 for speaker cables, not to forget the $1,600 SDSS stands that add considerable physical stability to the loudspeakers. Suddenly, we are over 19 large.
Check, Double Check
The 2.2 sounded great with a $600 pair of Coincident Speaker Technologies CST-1 graciously loaned to me by Israel Blume, and was better still with a $1,000 pair of JPS Superconductor+ cables loaned by Joe Skubinski, but the Kharma Supreme Reference speaker cable brought me closer to "being there" and instilled the music with a magical quality that commanded my attention. Please note that both Coincident and JPS offer more expensive cables that might compare more favorably with the Kharma cable. I offer the comparison as an illustration that you can get more if you spend more. Certainly, you don’t have to have the Kharma cables to have a great sounding loudspeaker.
In fact, I deconstructed my review system to the original cables, the Manley Mahi amplifiers, and the Kharma 2.2 loudspeakers without the SDSS stands. It was still a huge improvement for my system, with increased clarity at micro and macro-dynamic levels, a brighter soundstage that extended further forward than the Coincidents, the ability to play much louder than I care to without loudspeaker strain or listener fatigue. Dynamically, the two loudspeakers were about the same (which is to say very, very good). The limiting factory here may have been the modest power of the Manley Mahis.
Leonard Cohen, in a song called "Love Calls You by Your Name," wrote the lines:
"You stumble into this movie house,
That is exactly what the Kharma 2.2 does for my listening experience. I climb right into the venue of the music and watch the musicians perform. No other loudspeaker has done this for me. It is an extraordinary experience, way beyond the loudspeakers merely disappearing.
Further up the Kharma line the experience, no doubt, gets even more real, the bass gets deeper and tighter and a diamond tweeter takes frequency response out to 100kHz for those who revel in the songs of hummingbirds. The price goes up, also. But even the Ceramique 2.2, one up from the bottom of the Kharma line, will put you solidly in the upper echelon of high-end systems, provided your supporting cast can deliver the music. We must admit that $12,000 was an impossible amount of money when I first discovered how really wonderful recorded music could sound with good equipment. Today I say, if you can find a better time machine, buy it. Highly recommended, if you can handle the price of admission.
The Boys In The Band
Midrange: 4.5 inch concave ceramic
Woofer: 9 inch Nomex Kevlar
Power Handling: 120 Watts, 240 Watts peak
Frequency Response: 35Hz to 25kHz
Crossover Points: 200Hz and 2kHz
Impedance: 8 ohms
Binding Posts: OFC - gold plated / WBT
Other Features: Silver coils in crossover, special internal cabinet treatment with advanced polymer. Double silver/gold wiring for all units.
Dimensions: 40 x 14 x 18 (HxWxD in inches)
Weight: 103 lbs.
United States Distributor: