Charles Van Oosterum, Founder/Designer of Kharma International

Charles Van Oosterum, Founder/Designer of Kharma International

Were you drawn to the high end from the music side or the electronics side?
I think from the electronics side. As a fourteen-year old boy I would go over to these garage sales, buy old radios, and take them apart—which was strange, of course. I would take out the speakers and make separate boxes around them, and discovered there was a huge difference in the sound. I liked the idea of having sound come out of a box.

Were your parents an influence?
No, my father was in the wholesale leather business, and my mother could play the piano but was non-technical. In a short time I started to build speakers and prototypes and my parents had to fund it, so they became my first customers. I was already selling speakers when I was 16.

I found my career path early. At mid-school I was taking care of music at parties. I would build speakers mostly for friends of my parents because they could afford them. There was also a lot of custom building. I literally built one prototype after the other. At the end of high school I wanted to continue studying, so for me everything was already very clear. The most amazing thing is that I never did anything else. I never worked for anybody else, which is strange even to me.

Was there a particular speaker that inspired you at the time?
Yes, I think I was one of the first users of the ESS with the Heil [Air-Motion Transformer] driver. I was very taken by the principle and was trying to get that same quality. 

What does the term high end mean to you?
It’s an approach. It means build and finish quality, sonic quality. It’s a way to use materials. It’s how deep you go towards pursuing your goal. It’s setting new limits for yourself, again and again.

Are there key pieces of music you use to evaluate your speakers? 
It’s a personal thing, I think. More important is something that you’ve heard over and over. Most times I only need a small amount of time to hear what’s going on. The things I listen for on a recording are the things you cannot normally hear—whether the space is palpable, detectable. An acoustical recording helps. Ultimately, I go for the maximum space and size that a certain speaker can evoke in the height, width, and depth of the perceived scenario. I always explain to people that the space is in the decay of the signals. Normally when the signal is decaying into a small signal, it gets absorbed by whatever friction is in a system, which could be coming from the cabinet, the drivers, anything that will mask this final layering of sound. If that doesn’t happen you’ll be able to listen more deeply into the space. When I listen to the best stereo systems they relate such an honest space; the experience is like being immersed in three dimensions. Of course the same can be true with multichannel, but then it’s really up to the recording, the engineer—it’s not up to the system anymore.

Do you have a preference for either analog or digital?
I must admit that with vinyl I still have this emotional connection that does not fully come across with digital. On the other hand, digital has reached a quality where airiness and space are really there. Fifteen years ago you could not have that kind of space reproduced by a CD. Digital gives a sense of immediateness and directness, but it still seems as if this space is still a little bit artificial. 

What is the biggest challenge for high end? 
The joy for me has always been to surprise people with what is possible in the reproduction of sound. I hope to find a way to get that message across. It very much has to do with the quality of the dealers and the way the high end presents itself to customers. It’s about the musical experience and not all the technical stuff and mumbo-jumbo. I think that many people who can afford an expensive system don’t feel they should be putting it together themselves.

Outside of audio what do you do for fun? 
I’ve always been into sports, martial arts, Aikido. I’m a shogun black belt. About three or four years ago I came into contact with Bikram yoga, which is a kind of a hot yoga. It’s something I try to do on a daily basis, so I have a lot of fun with that.

Why the name Kharma?
I put the H after the K because it looks nicer and it was more practical, since I could register it. I thought about the meaning. Action means reaction: Whatever you put into something you will get back; whatever you put into motion will be sent back.