Kharma International, of the Netherlands, was launched in 1993. However, the audio career of company founder Charles van Oosterum actually began in 1982, with Oosterum Loudspeaker Systems (O.L.S.). It is an understatement to say that van Oosterum has deep experience in high-end audio -- he has many speaker designs to his credit, many of which I’ve heard at Munich’s High End over the last 15 years.
Kharma had an extremely successful run with their Ceramique line of speakers, introduced in 1998 and named for their ceramic-diaphragm drivers -- many audiophiles I knew owned various Ceramique models. And long before that, van Oosterum had had experience with using ceramics: O.L.S. was the first company to use ceramics in the membrane of a loudspeaker drive unit, way back in 1984.
But time marches on. Considered the bread’n’butter Kharma models since their introduction, the Ceramiques were replaced in 2010 by the Elegance line, which can now be thought of as the entry to the Kharma universe. Although the shape of the Elegances’ cabinets is largely unchanged from the Ceramiques’, plenty of other details have been updated.
I chose to review the model one step down from the top: the Elegance dB9-S ($37,500 USD per pair). The S, for Signature, differentiates the dB9-S from the standard S7 ($18,000/pair), dB7 ($25,000/pair), and dB-9 ($33,750/pr.). There are also the S7-S ($21,750/pair), dB7-S ($31,250/pair), and the top Elegance model, the dB11-S ($54,000/pair). Above the Elegances in price and claimed performance are the Exquisites, and above them are the far more expensive Enigma Veyron models. Kharma also makes lines of electronics and cables, as well as surround and center-channel speakers.
Unlike the Ceramiques, Kharma’s Elegance speakers do not have ceramic drivers. Instead, the Elegances have 1” beryllium-dome tweeters and midranges that are either exclusive to or designed by Kharma. With the dB9-S you get an upgraded 7” midrange that Kharma calls its Omega 7 driver, made from a high-modulus carbon fiber. (The midrange drivers in the standard, non-S Elegances are made of a less costly composite.) Kharma states that finite-element analysis was used to determine the shape of the Omega 7’s cone, to produce what they say is ideal pistonic behavior for a 7” driver within its operating bandwidth. The Signature models also include improved internal wiring of solid silver. Two 9” aluminum-cone Scan-Speak woofers provide low-frequency support.
The three-way dB9-S is clean in appearance, with magnetically attached trim rings around the drivers that hide their fasteners. A grille that conceals all four drivers also attaches via embedded magnets, but to me the speakers look great without these. There are cosmetic flourishes: a chromed Kharma logo on the bottom of the front baffle, and chromed Elegance badges set into each side. On the aluminum rear plate is a flared reflex port (peering inside, I could see that the port is curved and internally flared) and, directly below it, Kharma-designed, single-wire-only binding posts. These have a single knob that tightens down both posts, in much the way that Cardas’s popular CPBP posts do. The dB9-S speakers don’t accept banana plugs -- spades only.
The dB9-S’s sensitivity is specified as 89dB/2.83V/m, with continuous power handling of 250W (500W peak). The Soulution 711 power amplifier I used had zero problems driving them. A maximum SPL of 113dB is claimed (no measurement distance stated). The frequency range is specified as 26Hz-30kHz, the nominal impedance as 4 ohms.
The cabinet of the dB9-S is made from 35mm-thick MDF, lined inside with acoustic damping material. Four outrigger feet give the raked-back dB9-S a firm footing. The speaker’s dimensions, with its feet installed, are 40.98”H x 16.14”W x 23.86”D, and though each weighs a stout 130 pounds, I found them fairly easy to maneuver into position. The standard finishes are Piano Black and Aubergine (aka eggplant: a dark purple) -- my review samples were the latter, and they looked great in my dimly lit room. Twelve other colors are available. I found the build quality impressive, with no evidence of poor workmanship anywhere on the Elegance dB9-S; Kharma clearly knows how to build a speaker that does not visually disappoint.
Setup and sound
I rolled my Magico Q7 Mk.II speakers out of the way and plopped the Kharmas down in precisely the spots those mammoths had just vacated. I then dialed in the Kharmas using a combination of in-room measurements and listening, until I had the best balance of smooth bass response and precise imaging. The Kharmas ended up a touch farther out into the room -- 7’ from the front wall -- than I’d anticipated, due to the fulsomeness of their bass response and ample boundary reinforcement from my room. The dB9-Ses ultimately came to rest 12’ apart, 13’ from my listening seat, and 5’ 5” from the sidewalls. I toed the speakers in so that their tweeter axes crossed several feet behind my head, then listened to them casually for a few weeks before beginning serious reviewer behavior.
When I did, the first notes that entered my ears were the percussion intro of “North Dakota,” from Lyle Lovett’s Live in Texas (16-bit/44.1kHz AIFF, MCA). Not knowing exactly what to expect, I was immediately impressed by a particular aspect of the Kharmas’ sound: note decays were audible for longer than I’m used to hearing from most speakers. Specifically, after each drum stroke, I could hear the reverberation for a full 1.5 seconds, and high enough in level that I didn’t have to strain to hear it. At 15 seconds into the track the acoustic piano enters, and though it competes equally with the percussion for the listener’s attention, I could still hear the resonance without strain. At 45 seconds in, the acoustic guitar enters and the percussion fades more into the back of the mix. Still, the mood of this live recording was set. This ease in hearing and feeling the natural resonance of instruments and music venues would come to demarcate much of my time with these speakers.
Wanting to further explore the nature of the Kharmas’ excellent reproduction of percussion, I played the title track of Donald Fagen’s Morph the Cat (24/96 AIFF, Reprise/HDtracks), which for many years has been one of my reference tracks. Although the drums at the beginning of this recording lack the natural decay of the percussion in Lovett’s “North Dakota,” the notes were delivered with a full-bodied prominence that let the song more easily loose itself into my listening room. The Kharmas breathed easy in the low end -- the antithesis of restrained, stuffy-sounding bass. In terms of bass quantity, their 9” woofers could easily energize my listening room (23’ 6”L x 20’ 1”W). When I raised the volume to about 90dB I could tell that, at the frequency in the Fagen track that was being most excited, my room was at its limit. With any more output, the sound became indistinct as the bass overloaded my room. I can easily recommend these speakers to anyone who values the full reproduction of the sound of bass instruments. As always, precision in speaker positioning will be the key to proper bass balance.
To lighten the tonal balance a bit, I next cued up the title track of Carla Lother’s 100 Lovers (24/96 FLAC, Chesky/HDtracks). The first thing I noted was the delicacy and easygoing nature of the sound of the guitar -- but 15 seconds into the track, when the percussion enters, my room took on the sound of the recording venue: a common trait among Chesky recordings. This music demonstrated to me that, tonally, the Kharmas were not inherently dark and brooding, which had been my perception at several audio shows over the years. I was able to enjoy the lighter, more free-spirited sound of “100 Lovers” because the speakers took on the character of the music.
To delve deeper into the Kharma’s reproduction of high frequencies, I listened to an old standby: Jerry Junkin conducting the Dallas Wind Symphony, with organist Mary Preston, in Sir William Walton’s Crown Imperial (24/176.4 WAV, Reference). My Soulution electronics allow this high-resolution recording to burst to life in my room, and I was happy to hear that the dB9-S speakers were able to faithfully reproduce the bells that enter about 45 seconds in. This track has long been my ultimate test for clarity of high-frequency reproduction; it’s super-packed with low-level detail. With the Kharmas helming the system I was able to easily hear the varying strokes of the bells, which have a slightly different character each time they’re struck. For instance, listen to the ten or so notes from 2:20 to 2:30, and you’ll hear a different pitch and decay with each stroke. I’ve found that every link in the audio chain -- source, amplification, speakers, cables -- must be equally strong for this level of resolution to make it through to my ears. The Kharmas’ beryllium tweeters, though not the absolute airiest I’ve ever heard, were airy and lively enough to warrant the best source material I could find. In this instance, the bells were reproduced with . . . well, with bell-like clarity. I must also mention the slam and impact of “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral,” from Wagner’s Lohengrin, from the same release. At 6:32 in, I was startled by the transient crispness the Kharmas could reproduce, and how easily they tracked this recording’s wide dynamic range.
But we audiophiles can too easily get caught up in dissecting a speaker’s sound into all the little bits and pieces. I played Enya’s Dark Sky Island (16/44.1, Warner Bros./Tidal), specifically “The Forge of the Angels.” Any competent speaker will serve up an expansive soundstage and an overall big sound with this music, but the better ones will simultaneously reproduce its individual elements with authenticity. The Kharmas were among the latter. Enya’s voice sounded forthright -- clear yet dense -- and the weight of her synthesizers substantial. The dB9-Ses cast a large soundstage that extended past the outer boundaries of the speakers in both width and depth. Still, what ultimately defines an audio product is how all the sonic minutiae combine to make a whole. In this case, the tapestry of the song remained unrent -- the Kharmas sealed the deal with their cohesiveness.
What are the Elegances really all about?
Caution: Sweeping generalizations ahead. Kharma’s Elegance dB9-S loudspeakers should appeal to the audiophile who values the reproduction of the aural cues that make live music sound live when played back at home. Specifically, the decays of the sounds of percussion instruments and resonant bass came through with uncanny fidelity. This is not to say that the Kharmas sounded super warm or lush. Nor did they sound woolly or loose. But their bass was prominent. Although I could easily envision rooms for which their bass output might be too much, the plus side is that their smallish cabinets will fit many decors without sacrificing musical gravitas. The Kharmas’ midrange was clear, if not as prominent as their bass, and they revealed plenty of detail in my high-resolution recordings.
The dB9-Ses didn’t scream transparent, and they didn’t have the intense precision of speakers like Magico’s. At the same time, their sound was far more robust and definitive than their size might indicate. They revealed more in the highs than I’ve heard from the excellent soft-dome-tweetered speakers from such makers as Dynaudio, though at a far higher price; I make this comparison merely to highlight the increased resolution that today’s best hard domes are capable of. What the Kharmas could also do was fill a large room with tonally dense sound, and produce a quantity of bass that was impressive for their size. In that sense, they weren’t unlike the speakers from Wilson Audio. The dB9-Ses were good down to about 30Hz in my room, and could reproduce that frequency with authority. In fact, when I played “Norbu,” from Bruno Coulais’s music for the film Himalaya (16/44.1 AIFF, Virgin), I was instantly reminded of how Kaiser Loudspeakers’ Kawero! Classics ($56,000/pair) reproduced the same track: there was the same commanding initial strike, the same rolling nature of the bass wave as it moved from the front of the room to the rear, and the same extended decay. In terms of tonal voicing, there were clear similarities between the Elegances and the Rockport Technologies speakers. The Kharmas had what I call a left-to-right-tilted tonal balance: there was a slight rise in the bass compared with the treble. (In other words: If you were to see this tonal balance plotted on a frequency-response chart, the trace would be higher on the left than on the right.)
The industrial design of the Kharma Elegance dB9-S will appeal to the buyer who wants to be reminded of the luxury nature of high-end audio. The speaker’s tasteful appearance and reasonable size are augmented by numerous design flourishes, such as the chrome ring that separates the bottom panel of the speaker from the vertical panels that form the cabinet proper -- unostentatious reminders that these speakers cost $37,500/pair. Of course, you’ll get an even better idea of what you’ve paid for when you fire them up and start listening to your favorite music.
Because the sound’s the thing -- and the Kharmas’ sound is dynamic, meaty, and detailed, and of a size that belies their compactness. You’ll love playing them for friends when you want to crank up large-scale music, but they’ll also fare just fine with low-level music after the kids have gone to bed. And your wife may just let you keep them in the living room, particularly if you let her pick her favorite optional finish.
I can’t claim that the Kharma is a tremendous value for the performance offered -- you can get great sound for less money elsewhere. In short, the Elegance dB9-S is not cheap. But its special qualities, sonic and otherwise, appeal to me. The dB9-S ticks off a lot of boxes -- enough that a pair of them might be your ideal ticket to the dance.
. . . Jeff Fritz
- Speakers -- Magico Q7 Mk.II
- Amplifier -- Soulution 711
- Sources -- Apple MacBook Air running OS 10.10.5, iTunes, JRiver Media Center 21, Roon; Soulution 560 DAC; Oppo BDP-103 universal BD player with Tidal streaming service and 1TB hard drive accessed via Oppo’s Media Control app
- Cables -- Nordost Valhalla interconnects, speaker cables, power cords
Kharma Elegance dB9-S Loudspeakers
Price: $37,500 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
4825 AL Breda, the Netherlands
Phone: +31 76-57-150-10
Fax: +31 76-57-147-73