Kharma Mini Exquisite Loudspeaker

Equipment report
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Kharma Mini Exquisite 1A
Kharma Mini Exquisite Loudspeaker

Kharma ’s Mini Exquisite is a perfectl y named loudspeaker . More than any other (super) model I know of, it offers a staggeringly seductive blend of fine detail and, yes, exquisite beauty. It will immediately signal the slightest change to any other component in your system—say, whether or not the front-panel displays of my reference MBL electronics are turned on or off (they sound much better off), or a hair’s degree of shift to the overhang setting of a movingcoil cartridge. And yet, as transparent and high in resolution as it is, the Kharma Mini never sounds cold or analytical. If anything, the opposite is true. This speaker has drop-deadgorgeous tone colors and an overall silken presentation.

A two-way floorstander, the Mini Exquisite is the smallest model in this Dutch manufacturer’s flagship Exquisite series. At $45,000 the pair, it is also a very expensive purchase. I can already hear the yowls of indignant protest that a “mere” two-way should cost so much money, as if a speaker’s cost should hinge on the number of drivers stuffed into its box or, like steak, be sold by the pound. I’ll get to price, perceptions of value, and what goes into the Mini Exquisite shortly, but before I do let me tell you that everything I treasure in a speaker can be found in Kharma’s superb little package.

As someone who listens to a wide variety of music, including some fairly demanding rock, I want a speaker with the kind of top-to-bottom coherence, midrange beauty, and disappearing act of a Quad electrostatic, but one that can also play loudly, with excellent dynamics, visceral impact, and reasonable bottom-end extension. I do not and never have cared if a speaker reaches below 30Hz—there’s very little music down there, anyway—and have never cottoned to large, multi-tower arrays because to me they frequently sound just like they look—like big speakers, not live music. Now, while there are a few speakers out there that deliver some of the Kharma Mini’s attributes—and maybe equal or better the Kharma’s sound in some areas—none I know of combine the detail, beauty, and single-driver-like coherence I’ve already mentioned, with the Mini’s exceptional transparency, a wide bandwidth (rated from 30Hz–100kHz) that starts with an impressive bottom end reach and impact and finishes with glorious, diamond-tweeter-born highs, and the ability to disappear as well as any speaker I’ve heard. (Another great Mini, from MAGICO, offers much of what the Kharma does, but it is, at least to the degree I’m familiar with it, not as breathtakingly beautiful as the Kharma is. Both are highly detailed, the MAGICO may be even more dynamic, but the bass of these two speakers couldn’t be more dissimilar. Beyond driver differences, the MAGICO’s enclosure is sealed and the Kharma’s is ported. As listeners who have heard both can attest, these different ways of loading the bass contribute mightily to each sonic signature.) Let me also add that to me the term “transparency” does not simply mean that a speaker is especially clear, though that’s part of it, and it’s not just about resolution, though that, surely, is part of it, too; what it means to me is a component is a transparent window to the source. In the case of a speaker—and this speaker to the max—this means starting at the binding posts through to the speaker cables and on to the power amp and so on, all the way back to the information encoded in a CD or cut into the surface of a vinyl platter.

Consider Libra, from the great sounding Decca LP of English composer Roberto Gerhard’s Astrological Series: Libra-Gemini-Leo. As heard through the Kharma (along with the components listed below), the players in the London Sinfonietta—flute, piccolo, clarinet, violin, guitar, a variety of percussion, and piano—are laid out in my listening room with a highly convincing recreation of scale (both in size and relationship to one another) and a tactile physical presence. And because my room is small and I listen in the near-field, the Mini’s slightly forward projection makes for a thrillingly lifelike experience. There are essentially no speaker boundaries, and the air of the soundstage has enormous width, height, and depth. And as the musicians interact with one another, the air in my room becomes vibrantly charged with their instruments’ energy. Whether from a fat sforzando piano chord that leaps forth before slowly lingering back into nothingness, the quick barrooming bulge of a tympani thwack, the angry sounding pizzicatos of the violin, the classical guitar’s flamenco-like chords and arpeggios, or the in and out pulse of the player’s breath as it flows though the flute’s body. This recording also demonstrates the Mini’s wonderful way with “bloom” or “action.” As the flute, or really any of the other instruments, increase or decrease their output volume, you hear just that, their volume—as in size—blossom and wilt, while moving forward and then receding back into the soundstage.

These descriptions bring to mind something Kharma’s Charles van Oosterum told me about his design goals—that he wants his speakers to retrieve as much information as possible without, as he put it in his Dutch-accented English, “added colorations, interpretations, and without magnifying the soundstage.” As he sees it, this is a major challenge for all speaker designers, “considering that every part used in a speaker introduces its own sonic footprint into the sound, and this on more levels than one considers at first.”

To control structural resonance, Kharma starts with carefully selected enclosure materials. For the beautifully finished and striking-looking 36" tall, 95-pound Mini Exquisite, this is a proprietary, 30mm-thick high-pressure laminate that debuted in Kharma’s $250,000 Grand Exquisite (where it is actually 40mm thick). Said to be twenty times as costly as MDF, this material offers just what van Oosterum seeks in his enclosures—an ideal combination of rigidity and internal damping. The diamond tweeter is housed in its own chamber, and substantial internal bracing and internal diffusers are built into the Mini’s entire structure. A cast and round-lipped aluminum vent is fitted into the rear-firing port found just above Kharma’s custom binding-post station, and a heavyduty base structure bolts to the enclosure’s bottom panel, into which large and pointy feet are threaded. These in turn sit on protective and non-resonant discs, whether the speaker rests on carpet or hardwood.

Speaking of diamonds, while several top speaker makers are using diamond tweeters for their extreme rigidity and lightness, Kharma is among the few to use a 25mm (one-inch) dome rather than the much more common 19mm (.75-inch) variety. Van Oosterum tells me that the diamond is made in a microwave plasma reactor in accordance with the poly-diamond-deposition method, in which the reactor is loaded with gas and the diamond is deposited on a mold to create the desired shape. The thickness of the diamond is directly related to its time in the plasma reactor, and it takes an enormous amount of energy for the diamond to reach its ideal thickness, which in this case is 60 microns—or thinner than a sheet of paper. Kharma’s U.S. importer Bill Parish of GTT Audio added that, in addition to its 25mm inverted diamond-dome, each of the Exquisite tweeter’s remaining parts—from wires to magnets to voice coil—are made exclusively for Kharma and final assembly is done inhouse. As you might imagine, such tweeters are both extremely delicate (a protective removable screen is part of the kit) and costly items— roughly the same price as a case of first-growth Bordeaux.

Similarly pricey (if not nearly as) and just as fragile is the 7" ceramic bass/midrange driver. Protected by a mesh grille to keep it, too, from ending up like Humpty-Dumpty’s shell, the ceramic mid/bass driver in the Exquisite series differs from most others, including those in other Kharma models, such as the terrific little Ceramique 3.2 that had been my reference until the Mini came along. As Bill Parish explained it, “All drivers have a resonance frequency, and ceramic cones are no different. They actually ring (you can here this in non-Kharma products that use ceramic cones).” In the Ceramique series, Kharma addresses this ringing by placing a notch filter in the crossover, outside the audible frequency range. In the Exquisite series, Kharma uses a somewhat different method, hit upon by pure chance. It seems that one day while eating lunch at an outdoor café, van Oosterum happened to glance up as a car was driving by. The vehicle’s driver had outfitted his buggy with a set of fancy rims, and van Oosterum further noticed how the car’s wheels were balanced by the use of weights. Eager to try a similar balancing act on his ceramic drivers, van Oosterum returned to his facility and soon discovered that the approach worked. Photos of the Mini’s cone reveal two black dots. This is where, after measuring each driver’s response, Kharma laser trims two holes in each cone before applying the weights that eliminate ringing. This also helps simplify the crossover design and reduces the number of component parts in the signal path.

Although Kharma is pretty secretive about the origin and values of its crossover components, I did glean that the Exquisite series crossovers use silver coils and Kharma’s own Enigma wiring, and are cryogenically treated after assembly. When I asked van Oosterum the secret to his speaker’s unusually coherent sound, he replied that “the seamlessness is created by the synergy of the crossover, shape of the cabinet, and all other parameters involved in the design” and that, “special attention has been paid to off-axis phase response, as that influences greatly the ‘source-ability’ of the speaker. Meaning that off-axis sound gets reflected by the surroundings, and the more natural the reflections are the more they will blend in with the directly perceived sound.”

Moving beyond the Gerhard piece described above, the thought, care, expertise, and cost that go into every aspect of the Mini Exquisite pays off with all types of music (though hip-hop, metal, and even Mahler fans might prefer something harder-hitting and deeper-reaching, like the similarly-priced MBL 101 E). A recent New York Times article on Ornette Coleman prompted me to revisit Beauty is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings [Rhino], and oh how this music comes alive on the Mini. From Billy Higgins’ opening snare rolls to the flurry unleashed by Coleman’s alto sax and Don Cherry’s trumpet to Charlie Haden’s brief acoustic bass solo, the hairs on my arms were electrified by the excitement of their music making. The disc also highlighted the Mini’s extraordinary speed and lack of coloration. As in the Gerhard, each instrument sounded distinct and whole and yet connected to the others in my room’s acoustic space. Cherry’s trumpet had the piercing bite of the real thing yet was never shrill, brittle, or bright, and Coleman’s alto sounded much like my friend’s instrument does whenever he and I play music together—with a sweet yet slightly funky tonality that is entirely different from the bigger, throatier, and richer sound of a tenor sax. From bottom to top the Mini simply seemed to step aside in order to let the music speak for itself.

Those who perhaps raised an eyebrow over my above remark about harder-driving stuff should take a few moments to hear the Mini Exquisite with their favorite challenging music to see if the speaker has enough weight and wallop for them. Even at this level, all speakers involve some tradeoff. When you do audition the Minis, also listen to the rewards that powerful amplification bring to their performance. A nominal 8-ohm load, the Mini sounds perfectly lovely with the Kharma MP150 Class D monoblocks I reviewed as part of last issue’s Class D feature. These amps are rated at 100Wpc into the Mini’s load. But a recent spin with MBL’s 440 watt-per-side 9007 monoblock provided an entirely different experience (not to mention a four-times-as-costly one: $6800 the pair v. $26,600). The point is, if you want to hear Nine Inch Nails with the torso-slamming impact of the live event, or the classic Klemperer performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 [EMI] in all its heaven-shaking glory, then you’ll want to drive the Mini with plenty of gas. Even in my 11' x 13' x 9' room, the difference in the speaker’s performance with each amplifier was substantial. And though the Mini delivers a thrilling experience—check out that Mahler, with its beyond-wall-to-wall soundscape of seemingly limitless depth, remarkably easy and lifelike dynamic capability (talk about “bloom!”), and meltingly gorgeous delivery of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf ’s ethereal soprano—if you feast regularly on the big stuff, the Mini’s lack of the deepest bass for the organ that rides the symphony’s huge climax or ever-so-slightly smaller than life soundstage may leave you wanting a larger, if less elegant, model.

For me, though, it’s pretty simple. Kharma’s Mini Exquisite floats my boat like no other. But I must emphasize that the only reason to consider owning a pair of Mini Exquisites—assuming you’re privileged enough to have this kind of money to spend on a stereo system (’cause the rest of the rig is going to be just as expensive)—is not the costly materials and techniques that go into making each pair, or van Oosterum’s smart and Zen-like approach to speaker design, but if—and only if—the Mini floats your boat like no other. And the only way to know is by listening to a pair for yourself TAS

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