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October 2006
Superior Audio Equipment Review

Kharma CE2.3c Loudspeaker
Follow Up: Retrofitting Ceramic Tweeters
Review By Rick Becker
Click here to e-mail reviewer.
 

Kharma CE2.3c Loudspeakers  Every once in a while the suggestion is made to put your faith in G-d or your local dealer and bite the bullet. Buy in big, jump off the merry-go-round and put an end to the equipment buying cycle. Then retire with your favorite LPs, CDs and 8-track tapes and happily enjoy the music you love forever after. It seems to make sense from an economic standpoint — not having to suffer depreciation with each upgrade. Two steps forward, one step back, ad infinitum. But in addition to the certainties of death and taxes, we also have change. However enticing it might be to turn off the technological spigot, progress, like time, has a way of marching on. The world is in a rapid state of change, even as consumers seem to be at an economic still point, clutching their wallets in 2006 in reaction to the higher price of petroleum and increased inflationary pressure. Hurricane Katrina was a geological after-shock to the political earthquake of 9/11. Nonetheless, technology is charging full speed ahead as Capitalism reigns relatively unchecked and we blindly trash the planet. Nor is our love of recorded music exempt from consequences and blame. Think toxic waste, energy consumption, obsolete software and repetitive consumption of technology. There have been many more great LPs thrown away than I could possibly rescue from garage sales, which brings me around to the Kharma 2.3c loudspeaker. Really.

Because in the midst of it all, some of us still like to enjoy a little music.

Three years ago, when I reviewed the original Kharma 2.2 (click here) I thought it was such a fine loudspeaker that I bought the review sample and it has been my reference ever since. I hoped it would serve as a good reference for five or more years, and even then retain significant resale value. But cracks in the dike began to appear as I reviewed the original Von Schweikert VR-4jr, the Escalante Designs Pinyon monitors and Uinta subwoofer, and more recently, the Aural Acoustics Model B. Each of these loudspeakers exceeded the performance of the 2.2 in at least one and often more parameters. And they all did it at a significantly lower price. Each time I was tempted to buy the review sample. (That's one of the dangers inherent with this line of work). But I had assembled my system carefully. Taking on a new reference loudspeaker would have required additional purchases to optimize the performance of the system.

New technologies often have an allure to people in a hobby that can overshadow the purpose of the equipment itself. Manufacturers are more than happy to pick up on this frailty and tout a new technology as a major improvement. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it is merely a little different. In recent years we have seen the introduction of diamond tweeters, beryllium tweeters, and ceramic tweeters, as well as some even more esoteric types. From my limited exposure to many of these at shows, sometimes they sound like progress and other times I came away wondering "Why all the fuss?" With some, I suppose the problem is a shortcoming in the design of the loudspeaker; other times it may be a problem in the pairing of components. One thing is for sure, though, rapid progress is being made in the design of loudspeakers. This is evidenced by excellence at or near the cutting edge, as well as the increasing excellence at the affordable edge. Points in between are doing very well, too, as evidenced by the loudspeakers above which I reviewed very favorably.

 

Montreal, 2006
By the time I headed to the Montreal show earlier this year, I was at the point of asking importer Bill Parish when Kharma was going to come out with a new, improved version of the 2.2. The answer was right in front of me when I walked into his room. Well, not quite. He had brought the new smaller two-way CE3.2c, but I recognized immediately that it sounded better than my three-way 2.2 model.

Something had changed. This revision of the less expensive model had tighter bass, a clearer midrange and a much smoother treble, while most everything else sounded pretty familiar.

The most obvious difference was the new ceramic tweeter. The aubergine finish was also very alluring and a welcome break from the more common piano black. While black may be more universal in application, the rich and subdued colors offered by Kharma have the air of exotic automobiles which should make them all the more appealing to the design conscious members of the household.

But this review is really about the new ceramic tweeters. After I repeatedly expressed my admiration of the obvious improvement they make to the Kharma, Bill Parish reached back into a duffle bag on the floor and pulled out a small cardboard box. "One pair of carefully selected ceramic drivers, Manufactured in Germany" by Thiel and Partner GmbH. It said so on the box. One of those mile-wide smiles came to my face. As he handed me the box, I said something blatantly obvious like "I presume you'd like me to write a follow-up review". I was dumbstruck.

Kharma Ceramic TweeterBack home, I called up my friend Bill Tomkiewicz who designs power substations for Rochester Gas & Electric, among other companies. His hobby is hot-rodding old Dynaco tube gear and he wields a mean thermostatically controlled soldering iron. Now, I can solder two wires together, but I also recognize that you don't really get good at something in life until you've done it say, a thousand times. Bill is in that league, and I am not. We masked off the face of the Kharmas with a piece of leather to protect the midrange driver and I did the holding while Bill connected the wires with silver solder. It was not a complex procedure, but it was not one to be left to novices. We simply unscrewed the old driver, de-soldered the old connections and installed the new drivers. No other crossover changes were necessary because they were already incorporated within the cover on the rear of the driver. Very clever!

We sat back and listened to the newly installed drivers and agreed that they sounded somewhat smoother and more focused at the top end. But this was just the beginning. There was a lot of other product in for review so it took some time to put hundreds of hours on the new drivers.  What began to emerge was something quite unexpected. When you replace the tweeter, you expect to get an improved treble. Within a few days it became apparent that the qualitative improvement of the treble extended through the midrange and finally to the bass region. As you can imagine, this was not a jaw-dropping experience since the overall improvement was quite gradual as the tweeters were breaking in. Also, listening to LPs I hadn't heard before was not as revealing as going back to listen to old favorites that I had played many times with the Kharmas.

To say the new ceramic tweeters transformed the Kharmas would be a conservative statement. They still sounded like Kharmas, but the sound quality took a noticeable and significant step upward in quality. Since it is rather difficult to listen to various models of this brand in the USA, I can't compare the quality with other, more expensive Kharma models, but reason suggests that price differences among the models still reflect relative qualitative differences. Bear in mind that the final few incremental gains are usually achieved at a very high cost. Most Kharma models are rated to 25kHz. The basic Ceramique Series now has the new ceramic tweeter as well as the new Kharma binding post. The Ceramique CRM Reference Monitors and the Ceramique Grand Series are a step up with the Kharma/Focal titanium tweeter with the little bridge and tiny phase plug. This is the tweeter shown in the photos of the Ceramique on their website. The Exquisite Series comes standard with the diamond tweeter that soars to 100kHz. In general, as you move up to more expensive models in the Kharma line, you have deeper extension in the bass and greater efficiency in addition to other qualitative improvements. Virtually all Kharma loudspeakers for stereo use have a tube-friendly impedance curve and present an easy load to amplifiers. And the well-damped cabinets mate well with the low damping factors typical of tube amplifiers. What the new ceramic tweeter seems to have done for the Ceramique Series is raise the quality level of their "entry level" models to keep them competitive with the ongoing advances in the industry. Bill Parish tells me that the new Kharma binding posts are "vastly superior to the WBT's and clearly audible". But just adding the ceramic tweeters to the 2.2 model brings it to a level "very near production CE2.3c." Swapping the new Kharma binding post for the WBT's is apparently not do-able.

The Ceramique 2.2 was a $12,000 loudspeaker when it was introduced, with another hefty chunk of change for the SDSS stands, which are a godsend for anyone who has to move the heavy beast, even occasionally. Coming from nowhere, it would be easy for a reviewer to rave wildly about the CE2.3c, and I have been tempted to do so myself. But the 2.2 was my reference and as such it revealed both major and minor nuances of the equipment I've reviewed over the past three years, mostly for the better. With the upgrade to near 2.3c level I have greater focus and seemingly smoother response from top to bottom. I don't think the actual frequency response has widened any, but the increased clarity at the extremes and throughout the range has significantly improved. In the critical listening mode, I've become more aware of the highs and lows because they are more identifiable. Whereas before, where the extremes were tinged, or even at times saturated with distortion, I would tend to psychologically tune out that portion of the music and concentrate on the larger, more palpable range of music. Primarily, it was the focus of the bass and the treble seemed to roll off on the 2.2. With the ceramic tweeter installed, the focus became more linear from top to bottom and the line drawn was noticeably higher in quality, revealing greater inner detail, better macro and micro dynamics and somewhat improved tonal coloration, which was pretty outstanding to begin with. Tonal balance, the energy level across the audible spectrum, remained essentially the same. It was simply conveyed with greater focus.

Another characteristic that didn't change was the seamlessness of the presentation. It remained as near perfect as before. This makes sense because the previous shortcomings were at the extremes of the bass and treble, not in the crossover regions, wherever they might be hiding. Likewise, the 2.3c performed the same successful disappearing act as the 2.2, which is very commendable given the significant size of these loudspeakers. Close your eyes and they are gone. The tight deep bass reaching down to the low 30Hz range and the lifelike scale of the musical presentation tell you this is no mini monitor. Soundstaging, too, remained excellent, becoming as precise as the upstream electronics would allow. Transparency remained the same, probably being more affected by the damping characteristics of the cabinet than by the change in the tweeter. It was excellent with the 2.2 and became even more excellent with the 2.3c when I was reviewing the conrad-johnson CT6 preamplifier and when a Berning ZH270 Special Edition amplifier visited for a couple of weeks. Pace, rhythm and timing were also pretty much the same, except when dominated by prominent drumbeats where the increased focus in the deep bass quickened the tempo accordingly. Off center listening with these wide-dispersion loudspeakers was more enjoyable with the increases focus. And finally, there is solidity to the musical image that remains unchanged from the original. Musical notes do not waver unless that is the way the performer created them.

In one respect, this was a difficult reviewing situation. After installing the new ceramic tweeters, it took a long time for them to break in so the progress was gradual. And once I had them aged to perfection I could not abuse the generosity of my friend Bill Tomkiewicz by asking him to re-install the Scan-Speak Revelators. So there was no opportunity for A-B comparison with the original 2.2. It was a one shot deal. But I can tell you this: I'm extremely grateful for the opportunity and I have zero desire to return the loudspeaker to its original configuration. While the $1750 retrofit upgrade for the pair of ceramic tweeters may seem expensive, it is far less than suffering the depreciation by selling the originals and going out to buy new loudspeakers again. The new CE 2.3c, for example, lists for $15,400.

The new tweeters bring my 2.2 back into the hunt of contemporary loudspeakers circa 2006. But we harbor a loudspeaker in our system not on the performance of its tweeter, but on the overall presentation, both acoustic and visual. The new ceramic tweeter strengthens the entire presentation of the 2.2, bringing it very close to the level of the CE2.3c and makes it an admirable and worthy upgrade that will not upset the careful balance of components and cables that you have already worked so hard to achieve. From a visual standpoint, the pearl colored ceramic tweeter calls attention to itself, certainly, but it makes a perfect accent point to the extremely high quality optional colored finishes as well as the basic black. The visual complexity of the drivers on the face of the cabinet in some of my photographs is not nearly as prominent in real life. Although the Kharmas look great without their grill on, you may wish to use it when small hands and the socially curious are around.

When I first welcomed the Kharmas into my home they seemed somewhat out of place — too contemporary. Maybe it was the gloss piano black. But having lived with them for several years now, they have migrated into the realm of transitional décor — that refined, tasteful blend of contemporary and traditional. Linda, who loved the sound from day one, has even become accustomed to their "modern" look. And our temperamental ficus tree has even stopped shedding its leaves on the left channel loudspeaker.

 

Summary
A quote from my original review of the CE2.2 is featured on the Kharma website:

The Ceramique 2 can be positioned between the Ceramiques 1 and 3. They have received some very positive reviews. For instance an Enjoy the Music reviewer claims to "climb right into the venue of the music and watch the musicians perform. No other loudspeaker has done this for me. It is an extraordinary experience, way beyond the loudspeakers merely disappearing."

 

I have always felt a little embarrassed when I stumbled across that quote, as if the experience had been over-stated. When the sensation is new, you want to shout about it, but over time, you sink into the new acoustic like it was your comfortable listening chair. The installation of the new ceramic tweeter, in effect upgrading my loudspeaker almost to the CE2.3c level, rekindled that excitement of being there. I can close my eyes and easily pretend I'm there at the concert or in the recording studio. And so it was again when I added the conrad-johnson pre-amp and the Berning power amp. The road goes on forever. And we travel it as best our resources allow. For those who already own a 2.2 the addition of the ceramic tweeter should be an easy decision. It will transform your loudspeaker and bring it up to current $15,000 loudspeaker standards. I cannot think of a better way to spend the extra money unless you have grossly neglected some other aspect of your playback system or room treatment.

And for those who might move up to the CE2.3c from a lesser loudspeaker, prepare yourself for a wonderful musical experience. The Kharma presents highly focused musical images in a wide, deep and delineated soundscape. It is capable of presenting the best from your upstream components, as well as showing you what still needs work. With its well-damped construction it sings with solidity, yet can present the air, bloom and musical subtlety of fine tube amplification. Let the decorator in your family select the color. No matter what the choice, the Kharma will disappear when the performance begins. Turn the lights down low. As I said before, it is an extraordinary experience, way beyond the loudspeakers merely disappearing. Enjoy the concert.

 

Specifications
Type: three-way loudspeaker

Tweeter: 1 inch Ceramic dome

Midrange: 4.5 inch concave ceramic

Woofer: 9 inch Nomex Kevlar

Power Handling: 120 Watts, 240 Watts peak

Frequency Response: 35Hz to 25kHz

Crossover Points: 200Hz and 2kHz

Sensitivity: 89dB/W/m

Impedance: 8 ohms

Binding Posts: OFC - gold plated / WBT

Other Features: Silver coils in crossover, special internal cabinet treatment with advanced polymer. Double silver/gold wiring for all units.

Dimensions: 40 x 14 x 18 (HxWxD in inches)

Weight: 103 lbs.

 

Company Information
O.L.S. Audiotechnology
4825 AL Breda
The Netherlands

Voice: (+31) (0) 76 - 5715010
E-mail: info@kharma.com
Website: www.kharma.com

 

United States Distributor:
GTT Audio & Video
356 Naughright Road
Long Valley, NJ 07853

Voice: (908) 850-3092
Fax: (908) 850-5955
Email: av@gttgroup.com
Website: www.gttgroup.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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