Evaluating loudspeakers at trade shows is difficult. Not only are the hotel rooms sonically challenging, but the associated system elements are often unfamiliar. However, some setups are able to overcome these obstacles and really shine. Such was the case at the 2014 CES. Along with my colleague, Jonathan Valin, I was really impressed by a system featuring Kharma’s electronics, cables, and new Elegance dB11-S loudspeakers, and gave it my “best-of-show” accolade. I was particularly taken by its superlative performance on demanding piano recordings. I wondered how the Elegances would compare with the sound I heard at CES across a wider variety of music. Fortunately, these beautiful speakers, finished in a sumptuous chocolate-brown, have been ensconced in my listening room for several months. And I can tell you that they fare very, very well.
Kharma’s innovative Elegance dB11-S loudspeaker is not only easy on the eyes—and a 2014 winner of the CES Innovations Award for outstanding design and engineering—it’s also a delight to the ears. The largest model in the company’s Elegance line, it features a highly advanced magnet system to reduce driver distortion. The dB11-S utilizes a beryllium tweeter designed by Kharma in association with Danish driver manufacturer Scan-Speak. What I first noticed about this beryllium marvel was that, unlike many tweets made of that material, it did not sound bright. While it could sound slightly dry on occasion, it did not produce any nasal overtones, stridency, or ringing. Indeed, when the dB11-S was driven by Constellation Audio electronics, the highs were extended and incredibly pure. This helped the dB11-S achieve a level of harmonic truthfulness that was first-rate. The rich timbre of woodwinds, massed strings, voices, guitars, and percussion approached what one would hear at a live performance in a great concert hall; indeed, lifelike timbre was one of the major strengths of this formidable speaker.
Kharma’s remarkable Omega 7 driver is the heart (and soul) of the speaker. It is the brainchild of Charles van Oosterum, designer and Kharma CEO who has long been known for his pioneering work with ceramic drivers (he was the first to employ them in reference-quality loudspeakers). With the Omega 7, Charles said he was looking for higher reliability than ceramic cones provide, so he initiated a long-term development project to create a better cone, starting from a proverbial blank slate. He wanted a driver of optimized shape with great stiffness, transient quickness, and no audible resonances. Instead of utilizing a carbon-fiber sandwich for the diaphragm, Charles eventually decided upon a midrange cone made of strands of the highest-quality, strongest carbon fiber available. According to van Oosterum, this approach was “much more costly but led to less smearing.” The shape of the Omega 7 was optimized using finite element analysis, resulting in a driver with “near-perfect behavior.”
What distinguishes the Kharma S Series is the quality of the ultra-high-grade carbon fiber—a rare material only found in some of the more exotic Formula One race cars that is reportedly stronger, less resonant, and lighter in weight than any comparable fiber on the market. It is “the closest you can get to a pure diamond [driver],” according to Charles. The S Series also uses ultra-pure silver wiring throughout, and my local Kharma dealer, Michael Woods of Elite Audio Systems, told me that Charles evaluated more than 200 different samples of silver cable before selecting the one he liked best for the dB11-S. (Kharma also offers its own pure silver cables and interconnects, using the same silver conductors.)
This extremely natural midrange driver, fully engineered by Kharma, may be the best I’ve heard in any loudspeaker. It combines terrific quickness and fine detail retrieval, along with a richness that the marque’s previous ceramic midranges lacked. The harmonics are more natural, with higher resolution and better-defined layering. What is surprising is the midrange driver’s impact on bass performance; it seemingly helps the bottom octaves to sound cleaner and less colored.
The dB11-S’s remarkable tweeter/midrange combination will really appeal to lovers of female vocals. For example, Kiri Te Kanawa’s soprano was breathtaking in its sonic purity and naturalness in “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” (“You now have sorrow”) from Brahms’ A German Requiem with Solti and the Chicago Symphony [London]. Massed strings and voices were also so beautifully portrayed I found myself transfixed by the music, similar to the way I feel at a great live performance.
The Elegance dB11-S uses two ten-inch aluminum woofers made especially for Kharma by Scan-Speak that produce thunderous, extended, and articulate bass. During one of my first listening sessions, I actually got up from my seat to check to make sure that my REL G-1 subwoofer was turned off—a real-world testament to the dB11-S’s stunning bottom-octave performance and clout. Here’s one reference-quality speaker that delivers full-range sonics entirely on its own, without the need for a subwoofer (or two). Moreover, it avoids the coherency problems that plague many systems using subs or separate bass towers; the transition between the Kharma’s four drivers is virtually seamless.
The deep bass of the dB11-S extends into the low-20Hz range, which not only gives music a solid foundation, but also aids in the reproduction of spatial cues. I have never heard the Rutter Requiem [Reference Recordings], for instance, sound more realistic on any reference system. Voices and instruments were rich and natural, and floated within space in layers like those you would hear on a concert stage. The deep pedal tones of the organ were also beautifully rendered. The overall gestalt was mesmerizing!
Listening to Ravel’s orchestration of “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition [Mobile Fidelity/EMI] was equally thrilling. On dynamic peaks, there was seemingly no compression. The Kharma’s ability to negotiate huge dynamic swings was amazing. On Reference Recordings’ excellent new SACD of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, I sprang from my seat to turn the volume down—not because the Kharma couldn’t handle the fortissimo, but because I thought the neighbors might complain.
The dB11-S has a relatively modest footprint for a system that produces such a big, dramatic sound with such powerful, articulate, and extended bass. Its polygonal cabinet shape is similar to some of Kharma’s previous Ceramic Series designs. With its softly rounded curves and internal damping, this beautifully sculpted enclosure is highly effective in minimizing resonances. The front and rear baffles are made of highly compressed layers of bulletwood, a very stiff material. (Clearaudio uses “Panzerholz” very effectively in several of its turntables, including the Innovation Wood that I reviewed quite favorably a few years ago. This material is so dense that it is employed in the floors of some tanks to stop projectiles. It has natural damping which not only aids bass definition, but also helps make the box disappear.)