We Ask 10 Questions For High-End
During Enjoy the Music.com's very special 25th Anniversary we're asking various high-end audio manufacturers to answer the same ten questions. Their answers may surprise you! This month we're featuring Charles van Oosterum, Founder of Kharma. Kharma has an endless vision beyond imagination. A vision that has driven all of us from the moment Charles van Oosterum started with O.L.S. in 1982 and founded the brand Kharma in 1993. All the energy you put into this world will eventually make his return to you, is one of our beliefs, which is derived from karma. Our passionate vision is all about creating experiences beyond imagination. Resulting in a unique and excellent balance between new technologies and pure craftsmanship.
By striving to achieve the Holy Grail in high-end audio, beautiful things happen; masterpieces are created; dreams are fulfilled; senses are stimulated in every way and new innovations are born. With each product, each detail, Kharma stretches the boundaries of high-end audio design with every single product. We like to think of the results as a masterpiece, like a piece of art that can evoke a special feeling, which has to be experienced to be believed.
Q. What is your first memory of falling in love with music?
A. One of my first memories was actually a very beautiful one. On a Sunday morning, we visited a brother of my mother in another city. And he had made his own speakers and had his own music system. We listened to "Mrs. Robinson" from Simon and Garfunkel, and that sounded just like heaven to me. It was so incredible. Joy was expressed in this song. Probably together with the sunny Sunday morning, it was just miraculous.
This was my very first memory of hearing beautiful music. And the fact that my uncle had made these speakers himself, which were also beautiful pieces of craftsmanship in terms of the wood and veneer, was incredible. Everything was very beautiful and at that time I must have been 13 or 14 years old. So immediately I bought a book on how to build a pair myself. And of course with the most well-known Philips 9701 speaker, a full range 8-inch speaker that I think every DIY person knows. So that was my introduction to a long road of trial and error and making all the different loudspeakers you can imagine. So my first memory of falling in love with high-end audio started at 14 years old.
Q. How did you first get introduced to high-fidelity audio gear?
A. So my first introduction to audio gear: Well after making loudspeakers with these famous Phillips 9710M drivers I thought this was already quite perfect. But I met a friend at school and visited him at home and his father had Wharfedale loudspeakers and a famous small Sony TA-1010 amplifier and Philips turntable with tangential tonearm. And that sounded more refined than my audio set. Then my friend showed his system and he had a Sony amplifier and Sansui loudspeakers that were rated "Best Buy" on the Dutch market at that time. That was a totally different kind of quality than experienced with the 9710 drivers.
This really speeded up exploring high-end audio. It triggered a path of building endless prototypes of loudspeakers and at the same time, I started to buy and look for the best electronics and loudspeakers on the market that i could afford. That went to the ESS Amt-1a loudspeakers, which had the Heil-airmotion transformer. And that was at that time already expensive and it sounded so good. I had a lot of fun with that! It could already play very loud for a two-way system. Every penny, every hour went into the search for the holy grail of ultimate sound quality.
Q. What is your favorite piece of vintage hi-fi, and why?
A. Because I really got lost in the high end my favorite piece at that moment was my set of stacked quad electrostatics with a frame of very nice wood that I made myself. And in the middle was the Decca London ribbon super tweeter (the one without the horn) and it was a completed with the Janis subwoofer. This was all at an age of around 18 or 19. I really worked so hard to earn money and it all went in high end audio gear. Of course the quad electrostatics I didn't buy as new, but I knew the distributor, so they could refurbish to the level of perfectly new. The quality of the Janis subwoofer is still legendary and so smart how it's made with the amplifier. So after a while people were coming to me to have a listen and it was also really miraculous sound, of course a limited sound SPL, so you sometimes saw the sparks coming through the electrostatics, but nevertheless, it was a very very delicate sound and of course vintage.
Q. When did you decide to start a high-end audio company?
A. Well actually when I was 14 I actually started playing with loudspeakers and at the age of 16 I was selling loudspeakers to mostly the friends of my parents, but they already had to pay good money for it. So it started as a business at that time already because I also needed the money to work on my next prototype. So it was an endless journey that actually started at the age of 14, so you can calculate back to which year that was haha. Officially in 1982, the company was registered, but at that time I was already so busy the registration became necessary because I got more professional customers. So I actually never did anything else. It's a long history. Of course the exact data you can find in our history files or on the website.
Q. What, and when, was your company's first product?
A. This was actually the system for the professional company that wanted to give me an order but they needed an official invoice, so because of that, I registered the company. So Charelli in Breda was my first official customer. It was a system with two 15-inch subwoofers, and eight small two-way systems (high-end). For that time the quality was actually beyond the normal quality that was used in public places. the owner of the place, could not really pay for the equipment but he insisted to have loudspeakers from me, from OLS, our name in the early days: Oosterum Loudspeakers Systems. So that was the first professional start. The fun fact about this is that this customer is still our customer nowadays.
Q. What challenges did you face during those early years?
A. The challenges in the early days are by themselves worthy of a book. Because there are so many short stories and anecdotes that are really funny and also tear pulling for some of them. But imagine that very quickly after this first order came, many other orders came even from big companies such as Philips. That gave me orders that were too big to handle at the beginning for a starting company and that was all because I did things differently which was quickly noticed. Another real challenge was that we had to design a cabinet for the Swiss Physics, the famous Swiss electronics manufacturers, with beautiful cases around their amplifiers. They wanted to have a matching loudspeaker and wanted us to also produce to cabinets for those amplifiers.
This resulted in a huge order and many prototypes. And then Swiss physics went bankrupt, even before the down payment was done on my orders. Which pushed the company down in a very difficult financial state and almost bankrupted me. I had to minimize my workforce and it really took a number of years to get on top of that. So there are so many unique stories to be told about all the challenges.
The Grand Enigma story is also one of them, the Grand Enigma System is still the largest high-end loudspeaker system ever build, as far as I know. But in itself to do that was a big challenge certainly because at that time, all those other challenges mentioned above were also playing. But nevertheless, the passion and the eagerness to get this project done was so big, that the idea of making improvements to the loudspeakers and have nicer and more beautiful pieces was endless and still is.
Q. How have your products evolved over the years?
A. Well, that is very interesting. We have different lines of speakers, some lines have restrictions on the design either to keep the price under control or keeping a certain way of thinking under control which has proven to be a good way of thinking. If you take the loudspeaker of the Exquisite line, which includes the Classique, I think at this moment it is one of the very few or maybe even the only loudspeaker that is in the price range between 70-100K, that has been on the cover of The Absolute Sound in 1992 and is still in production and still selling well. This means it is a loudspeaker which is having nearly the same visual image and is already produced around 30 years. The model is nearly changed, but the technical changes, of course, have been numerous.
The very first design included the very famous focal titanium audio tweeter, and the ceramic mid-low driver and an Eton 12-inch bass loudspeaker and the best filter components. This speaker also caries my first patent which is a patent on the internal reflections of the cabinet optimizing the decay of the reflected sound in the cabinet to as quickly as possible die. This is a technique that we used many years to make speakers more neutral and more fast responding. The Classique is a good example that the technologies have been refined over the years. Because now we have a diamond tweeter that makes it significantly better, they have our own developed nano-carbon cone technology and we have developed our new magnet motor system for the Enigma Veyron line. Which is an incredible improvement in the mid-range and the low-mid range. We are still working with the Eton 12-inch, but the internal crossover and wiring have come to such a level that it is still not possible to make the speaker better if you would like to do that with an electronic crossover. So that is already quite special.
But of course we also have other lines starting with the Ceramique which after 15 years graduated into the Elegance line. Also here the essence of those models have not really changed. The evolved with the new technologies and production methods. But they still have a distinct shape that is optimized by polygone curves that are proven to have minimal interaction with the sound from the drivers, so there was no reason to change that. So if you look at the very first Ceramique's and to the current Elegance line you can see the same shape, even though the Elegance is more modern. Also, in this case, the technology of the drivers and the crossovers, those have been significantly improved compared to the first Ceramiques. But also the stand, grill, and other trimming features are improved severely.
And of course, finally, we developed the Enigma Veyron series, which is hard to believe but is even better than the Exquisite line. For the first time there is a diamond midrange introduced, and all the Enigma Veyron models have our latest own magnet motor technology, which is very special, but that is a story by itself. I think at the moment we are the only one who produces these very special drivers, we call them the F driver, after Henry Foucault, who discovered the eddy current effect. The drivers are optimized to a minimum effect of Eddy Currents. This is something you really need to hear for yourself to even believe. So this driver development was another joy to develop for this Enigma Veyron line.
Because it's a loudspeaker that we said we don't mind the cost, but we want to do a perfect job. So here the cabinet materials are extreme, the shape is completely free as to optimize the sound. So there is no single square centimeter that is straight on these loudspeakers, which also makes it crazy expensive. Because the whole loudspeaker needs to be CNC'ed by a five-axis CNC machine, and because of the fact that the cabinet material is so dense, it also takes time. They have to use diamond cutters to cut this material, to be able to do that to a level of being possible to coat the bodies with paintings and lacquer.
The CNC needs to do a proper job and these machines are also very expensive by the hour. This is also one of the reasons why they Enigma Veyron models are expensive. Also, the use of the 50mm diamond tweeter makes them expensive because 50mm costs significantly more than a double 25mm, because a 50mm needs to be thicker to be functional. Nevertheless, I think we have created a very unique series with the Enigma Veyron.
Same goes for our cable lines, these are doing extremely well and also amazing how these differences evolved over the years, just by the passion of listening and trying to understand what works and what doesn't work. I simply love doing that!
Q. What is your company's most popular product(s)?
A. Well, simple, everything we make is popular for us. So we have the Elegance line, Exquisite line and Enigma Veyron line with matching cable lines. Those are definitely the most popular products, but we have also done quite a number of significant custom projects. Meaning complete cinema's on a distinct quality level. So it can either be Elegance, Exquisite, or even Veyron level cinema, completely designed and manufactured at the size of your room. We love doing these projects as well, but our core is definitely the loudspeakers and cables. The success of the Kharma cables has surpassed our expectations for many years now.
Q. What is your next planned product offering and its' features?
A. Right now we are in the luxury position that we are very busy and have limited capacity for more products, but nevertheless, we are working on many new products. Because I am always looking for new technologies, improvements in the existing products. I have a passion for the whole "high-end audio" chain, so about new products, I hope to surprise people in the near future!
Q. What advancements do you speculate high-end audio will offer ten years from now?
A. Well, I think the level of manufacturing precision detail will come to such a high level to those who understand what makes the sound come to life, that we will be able to really create, even more than now, acoustic holograms. I think it will even be possible with controlled recordings and special recording media. Which will be my goal, to have an analog high-end reproduction medium. So not digital but analog that is able to capture more fine details and even vibrations and energies that will support that holographic reproduction of audio and energy. So let's say the capacity of correctly reproducing the smallest parts of musical information and vibration. I think that is certainly something that we will pursue to the highest level. Because that is I think the one that will surprise and enjoy people the most. So for me, it is not speculation, it just takes time to get there. So that is for sure something we will do!
Thank you very much for these wonderful questions!