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Exquisite-Midi loudspeakers - Scaling Mt. Everest
as reviewed by Marshall Nack
True confessions. I've seen guys sidle up to the Kharma Exquisite-Midi speakers and stroke their wood veneer tops. One in particular, the most sensitive and musically astute of the bunch, likes to offer up caresses while making odd cooing sounds, like a turtle dove. Seriously, I'm not making this up. Another fellow says he dreams about them—often. What could possibly be the object of such audio lust, you may ask?
I happened upon Dvorak's In Nature's Realm on the radio the other day. Remember that Water Lily Acoustics' release from early 1999, with Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting the Philadelphia orchestra (In Nature's Realm, WLA-WS-66-CD)? It was billed as the first all-tube, analog orchestral recording in 20 years. (This was after the 'eighties war cry "Perfect Sound Forever," which marked the advent of the first digital winter.) It sounded great, better than I ever recalled it sounding. Funny thing, though, I was listening to it on my 25-year-old NAD 4220 tuner acquired on Audiogon for $70 bucks; back in 1999, I was listening to a gold CD on a $5000 DAC/$2000 transport front end. So, what gives?
A lot of gear has come and gone since those days. My system bears little resemblance to its pre-Y2K incarnation. But the culmination of it all has to be the subject of this review and the object of that lust, because this best-ever impression is what's happening with everything I play since the Kharma Exquisite-Midi speakers arrived.
They had been laying stone cold and unused for the last 10 months—before that they were at another reviewer's house, and before that, holding court in one of the rooms at a HiFi show. Nevertheless, they made such an immediate impression that looking back, I got vertigo. The acreage traversed en route to the goal posts in the end zone was huge.
Listen to the beginning of track two on Viva Caruso, Joe Lovano's tribute to the legendary singer's most popular tunes (Blue Note 7243 5 35986). Playback tells me there's an array of two flutes and an oboe seated from center to far left as follows: flute - oboe - flute. Sure, each instrument is segregated in space on the soundstage—in this league that's no big deal. But with the first notes one perceives the volume of their textured mass, the fine detail of their body. The images are large and defined. At this point I would usually comment on whether their borders were diffuse or sharply drawn. Here the edge is defined more by the way the instrument excites the air, the texture of the air in the instrument's location. The Exquisite-Midi does a splendid job of giving these winds the air and breathing room they need to reveal themselves.
The two flutes are playing off each other and the engineer chose to mike them separately. (Or at least to present them this way: most likely the pairs were seated together, individually miked, and separated in post-production mixing.) Turns out, he made a good choice. Dissonance surfaces continuously in Lovano's arrangements, and you'd lose much if the timbres were allowed to intermingle and blend into a single chord. It's so much more interesting to hear each flute's contribution, and for that the system has to maintain discrete lines among like instrument pairs.
You expect this kind of clarity from the ceramic mid and diamond tweeter of the Kharma speaker, and they hit the mark. Ceramic drivers are speed demons both in the transient and the recovery. I'm less familiar with the diamond material, but many regard it as the fastest of all. The bigger challenge for a four-way ported design like the Exquisite-Midi is to get the dynamic-type low frequency drivers to move in tandem with the ceramic and diamond material. For that test, listen to track one. Here, there's a duo of double basses center left, noodling chromatically along with soft brushwork on the cymbals and murmurings on the kick drum or tom-tom, creating a dark carpet under Lovano's once again romantic tenor sax lead (there's an awful lot of romance on this CD). Usually this creates a thick, murky atmosphere, an ominous buzzing below and not much happening on top. I had no idea there were two basses at work until I read the liner notes, let alone what they were doing. The unbalanced sound left me uninvolved. With the Exquisite-Midi in place, however, I can relate those murmurings to the trap set and can separate the kick drum from the upright basses when the two are speaking in tandem. More than ever, multiple types of wave fronts are rendered simultaneously with independence and integrity. There's no overhang in the large drivers, no fat lingering about anywhere. And driver integration is stunning, even if it does fall short of the world-class, two-way Kharma CRM 3.2s. (This is the only area where the CRM 3.2s exceed them.) The speaker does an excellent job of disappearing into your room.
Clarity in the mid-bass is remarkable. Some people will hear this as dryness, or over-damping—Kharma opted for taut clarity over some degree of looseness and fat, just as they did with the CRM 3.2s. Keep this in mind in your choice of ancillaries and avoid exacerbating this potential for dryness.
The Exquisite-Midi goes way down deep to a healthy (and clean) 22Hz. If you feel the need to augment its bottom, there's no better way than to situate it on the Throne of TAOC (the PTS-F spike bases on top of the SCB platform) for added weight and low-end force. However, should you under power them or pair them with a bright-sounding amp, thoughts may turn towards a powered sub—not a good idea. This occurred to me when I was using either the ART Audio HC Jota amp, with its 24 watts of SET tube power, or the Kharma MP-150s (100 watts into 8 ohms; 150 into 4), even though the speaker is rated at 90dB sensitivity. That's when I threw the 200 watts of my Kharma Ce-Sb powered sub into the mix to help out on those occasions when the main amp couldn't move the Exquisite-Midi to crescendo. And yes, it did that, but there were big tradeoffs. On all but its lowest setting, the sub compromised clarity, coherence, dynamics—you name it. As good as the Ce-Sb is with the CRM 3.2s, I found it doesn't work well with the Exquisite-Midi. (There is a new Kharma Exquisite Sub designed for the purpose. Can it rise to the occasion?)
I didn't care to pursue the matter of subs, because I received another pair of MP-150s. Now things got really out of hand. "You ain't seen nothing yet," is what the Exquisite-Midi was telling me. A new panorama unveiled, revealing a previously unseen strong-willed controlling personality. The huge brute biceps of this sound had me agog for the first day. (Of course, the additional pair of MP-150s needed to burn-in, along with all the extra cables.) The decisiveness, combined with what seemed like near-real dynamics, is something I hadn't experienced in my house… ever. (The closest I can recall was the YBA Passion 1000 monoblocks). Nothing was left vague or indistinct. Bi-amping took the speaker to a new level, well beyond anything subs could do.
Dynamics got interesting, to put it mildly. For the most part, music cruises steadily along with relatively small dynamic swings (after all, dynamic markings create contrasts—nobody composes a score of continual fortés). Then suddenly, Whack!! Jack DeJohnette slam-dunks the tom-toms. Or, you're listening to Nuages, from Debussy's Nocturnes where it's so still, everybody seems to be watching the clouds passing by—then Fêtes comes on, a brilliantly colored festival scene with a LOUD marching band passing through, loud enough to clearly hear the tape saturation of the old 1962 LP (Monteux Conducts the London Symphony Orchestra, London CS 6248). Or, again, in the middle of an orchestral fortissimo with the double basses sawing away, all of a sudden there's a Boom!! heard under them at a much lower frequency coming from the bass drum. These were genuinely startling, as they should be.
Lateral placement was so extreme, to the point where out-of-body—I mean out-of-speaker—experiences were occurring with most CDs. Separation sometimes approached the ping-pong effects of early stereo. I have said before the Exquisite-Midi biamped with two pair of the MP-150s established a new solid-state benchmark for me. It goes well beyond the cancellation of inter-channel crosstalk. From an electrical standpoint, my understanding is the power doesn't double up, but the impedance gets halved. With one amp per channel, the amp sees a 4-ohm load. With two per channel, each amp sees 8-ohms, a much easier load to drive, plus they only have half of the crossover to deal with.
But wait, I wasn't done yet. Towards the end of the Exquisite-Midi audition, the mbl 9007 mono-amps paid a visit ($26,600 / pair, or roughly twice the price of two pair of MP-150s). Take that difference between a single and bi-amped MP-150 and do it again: then you'll have an inkling of what happens moving to the mbl 9007 (440 watts into 8 ohms, with 1900 peak power). I was in awe and sleepless for two days. Then I started to think about acquisition. Two big impediments loomed: first was sticker shock, second was the amps' ungainly footprint.
To allow it to breathe fully, feed the Exquisite-Midi a healthy diet of at least 200 quality watts (and more if you can afford it). They sounded glorious with less, but once I experienced an enriched diet, I understood that less power made them soft, soggy and under-damped in comparison.
The Higher End
In many ways, the Exquisite-Midi is the fulfillment of the promise of the High End. In terms of fetching up events and the subtle cues to properly comprehend them, they are nonpareil. The speaker is a pass-through. It was not dropping the ball at any point—there's nothing in the way of the wealth of information that the microphone witnessed. Heaps of important, new info was coming across. And even more exciting to a tone-guy like me was the Exquisite-Midis' ability to render timbral hue and color. No problem at all distinguishing clarinet from oboe from English horn. I had to caution myself to go slow and be vigilant, to not push it past the comfort zone: it is such fantastic ear candy. (Also note that this level of timbral portrayal wholly escapes laboratory measurement.)
At this level of price and performance, designers usually follow one of two voicings: they either shoot for a product capable of SOTA instrument action (or resolution) or go for tone. Most statement speakers opt for action. The Exquisite-Midi is a statement speaker (although there are three models above it) that somehow manages a happy balance between the two. Its world-class resolution comes cushioned with an infusion of body, a modicum of warmth, and a sweetness of tone due to the absence of irritating artifacts. All of this is built-in: you don't have to do a thing, no dressing up is required. One is left simply admiring the achievement. How can there be so much resolution and all that body when the two are almost always polar opposites?
I felt this way listening to Marcus Roberts's solo piano (The Joy Of Joplin, SONY SK 60554). Left / right hand action was deliriously inventive. Entirely separate musical statements were coming out of the two ends of the piano. Sometimes it seemed even more than two melodies were going on at the same time. One can imagine Roberts clocking endless hours perfecting this technique. This is one of those CDs that the more you listen to it, the more it tickles your fancy. A pianist friend who happened to be over one night was in seventh heaven. Now, I've known this fellow going on twenty years. He's seen my rig evolve from the early days. There has not been a single occasion in all that time that he lacked for critical commentary. (And darned if he wasn't always right. Not an audiophile, just a good set of ears.) This time, he said the piano sounded closer to live than ever. He meant it presented a convincing facsimile, in a tonal and timbral sense, and in the shape before him. He also said you were able to hear so deeply into the action that what was happening in my living room was actually better than live.
A Philosophical Question
What! That set my antennae aquiver and triggered my radar. The next day, I listened to The Joy Of Joplin. Again I was bothered. The Joplin suffered from—get ready for this—excessive resolution. Aw, come on! Seriously, I've trained myself to be ever vigilant in regards to anything that smacks of "better than live." It usually signifies the entrance into Hifi-land, right?
It's understood that the aim of the High-end is to replicate the sound of acoustic instruments in the real world. That is not in question: it is the first priority, and never forget that. All of us will spend our audio lives in the attempt, making do as best we can with the products in our range. Then along comes a speaker like the Exquisite-Midi, with the potential to bring you closer to the end zone than ever. Suddenly, you are swept up. Your current concerns vanish. Entirely new, unforeseen ones surface like, do you cultivate byproducts of the medium, things that our ears wouldn't catch in person, but are available through the reproduction process? What happens when it's more real than real?
That's what's so discombobulating about the High-end. The aural cues usually place you somewhere with an audience perspective. The stage hovers in front of you around the plane of the speakers and recedes from there. All should be familiar so far. But the level of detail you're privy to puts you right up there in the performers lap, so to speak. In a real world analogy, re-visit your last concert experience. You're seated in the orchestra, or balcony, at a distance from the stage. The first time you put theatre glasses in front of your orbs it's quite a shock, no? Suddenly you're up close, walking among the performers, in an unnatural, compressed space you've never experienced before. Isn't that what it's like at the best of times in your living room?
Ultimately, you must compare the composite aural memory you've formed of the instrument from repeated exposure under good acoustic conditions to what you hear in your sound room. In the end, I wound up backing off some of the resolution enhancing tweaks I had been using for ages.
Design and Cosmetics
The Exquisite-Midi fits comfortably in average size rooms. Putting the Exquisite label, Kharma's highest, into a compact package is the Exquisite-Midis' raison d'etre. While certainly more visually imposing than the Kharma CRM 3.2s, they still qualify as mid-size—their actual dimensions are only marginally larger. They went into the same spot the 3.2s had occupied. (This was one-third into the room, 24" from the sidewall to the center of the woofers, firing straight ahead with no toe-in. I sit another third away, and the remaining third is open space behind me. This was figured out empirically through trial and error, and later confirmed using the calculation engines at Cardas Audio and Rives Audio.)
There they were, comfortably ensconced, doing their thing and sounding glorious. They like lots of space: by removing my reference CRM 3.2s and the Ce-Sb sub to free up additional floor space, they blossomed further. That little bit of tightness I (and others) noticed disappeared. No change in components, just more room to breathe—exactly as I found with the CRM 3.2s.
WAF (wife acceptance factor) is no problem—the Exquisite-Midis are gracefully proportioned, luxuriously finished. From the side, the pair I'm looking at is black lacquer on the lower portion with fine wooden veneers, almost like a parquet pattern, covering the upper third of the sides and the top. The rear view has matching black lacquer and wood veneer like the sides, except the lacquer is ribbed to reduce box colorations and breakup resonances in the cabinet. The front follows suit. The cabinet itself is a high-pressure laminate with irregular internal surfaces that function as diffusors to break up standing waves. The sloping front baffle and all corners are rounded like the CRM 3.2s, except it's more curvaceous. There are no right angles. The look matches that of Kharma's other Exquisite-level products.
The conventionally arrayed, point source driver complement consists of a 9" Nomex Kevlar woofer handling the very low bass such as a sub would, an identical looking 9" woofer above it (but internally wholly different from the low bass driver), then a 7" concave ceramic midrange. The odd looking, laser-trimmed pair of drilled holes in the midrange cone take care of the problem of ceramic ringing (ceramic cones always ring). Sitting on top is the extremely expensive, thin as paper, 25 mm inverted dome diamond tweeter. (The real diamond cone of this tweeter is "grown" the same way Mother Nature does it. It expands bandwidth to100kHz). The midrange and tweeter are housed in their own internal chamber, apart from the woofers: the Exquisite-Midi is really two stacked speakers. The whole sits on the overbuilt, rugged SDSS (Spike-Disc-Suspension-System) support with its cross brace and heavy-duty spike feet, all made from aircraft-quality aluminum.
All Kharma enclosures from the CRM 3.2 model on up are internally treated with a coating of AVT (a Kharma developed anti-vibration technology "paint"), which dissipates vibrations into heat. Enigma wiring is used throughout. When the raw drivers arrive at the Kharma factory, it is only the beginning: they also get AVT treatment, and undergo many fine-tuning adjustments.
Materials, finish and the curves give the speaker a ruggedly glamorous, 1920s Art Deco appearance, but there is nothing superfluous, nothing that looks like it shouldn't be there. So, in a way, it's a pared down design, but the fluted front, the rich wood, the sloping lines certainly don't look anything like a bare minimalist enclosure-plus-drivers design.
Icing on the Cake: The Exquisite-Midi Mk II
New this year is a different model ceramic mid-range, sourced from the same manufacturer. The Exquisite-Midi I have on premises is an original that went through the upgrade process in my living room, as I watched. (Unscrew and unsolder the old driver; solder and screw-in the new—it takes about a half hour each.) I'm not gonna say much more than the driver upgrade makes the Exquisite-Midi slightly darker and cooler sounding and gives it an enhanced sense of power. For the first few days it seemed to be too weighty and powerful. (Hah! How quickly I got used to that.) The ceramic mid of the original was a little tipped up just below the presence area: it avoided being forward, but it did create some of the Exquisite-Midis' exceptional clarity. The newer one is "out of the box" more.
Also new are replacement binding posts of Kharma's own design. The new binding posts and enclosure make the decision to biamp or not a lot easier: there are no jumper cables to fiddle with; all you have to do is flip the switch (the pure silver jumpers are now inside). Toggle to the left to activate the left set of binding posts and the speaker is ready for mono-amping. Flip to the right and the left binding post pair drives the top end, the right drives the bottom. (The posts are set in an impressively overbuilt recessed box which keeps them from protruding beyond the speaker cabinet—a nice protective feature. However, the setback is shallow and access to the posts is not easy, especially for speaker cables with long, stiff termination shafts. And longer posts would be nice.)
Finally, the cabinet has been structurally and cosmetically changed. The wood veneer that covers the upper third of the sides no longer wraps over the top—the top is lacquer. These three, the new midrange driver, the Kharma binding posts and the cosmetic/structural changes are now standard, and are worthy of a new designation: the speaker is henceforth known as the Exquisite-Midi Mk II. Owners of older pairs can get the upgraded drivers and binding posts for $2000.
The Exquisite-Midi remained largely untweaked. All those little harmonic enhancers I've acquired over time tended to make for an exaggerated presentation. Application of the Harmonix RF-57 Tuning Bases, which I found so positive on the CRM 3.2s, was a mixed bag, leaning towards the negative. With the smaller speaker they reduced treble prominence, beefed up the lower-mids, and added flesh. Placed around the Exquisite-Midis diamond tweeter, the sound became more focused and too pointed—not a step forward. (Leave the tweeter alone—there's little you can do that will make it better. It is as near to perfection as I've found.) RF-57 on the ceramic mid driver was a similar story—they tightened things up and made it sound more "solid-state." They're not supposed to do that. But three or so placed on the binding post casing brought the expected effects, bringing the tonal balance down and doing the Harmonix thing. Same for a few placed inside the rear port. But by far, the best thing you can do for them is enshrinement on the Throne of TAOC—the Kharma SDSS cones set into the PTS-F spike bases, sitting on the SCB platform—consider this mandatory, if you own this speaker. Speaker cables alternated between the Kubala-Sosna Emotion and the TARA Labs 0.8, depending on what else was in place and what the sound needed.
If you think the Kharma CRM 3.2 speaker is the culmination of the two-way floor-standing monitor design, as much of the audio world does, then you should hear what Kharma can do with a cost-no-object four-way design. I wouldn't say they are twice, or thrice, as good as the 3.2s, because the 3.2s plus Kharma Sb-Ce sub, paired with the right ancillaries, does the trick on just about every level. You don't get twice as much. What you get for two-and-one-half times the price is the same thing you get when you trade in your Lexus for a Porsche. Sure, both will get you from point A to point B, but what a luxurious difference in the feel of the ride.
It's difficult to put this speaker in perspective—I've not experienced any other statement speakers in my home. And I probably never will. One of the Exquisite-Midis' explicit design considerations is to bring this level of performance into medium-sized rooms. If sound was the only concern, the question is: what else could you buy that would give you this level of reproduction and still fit into an average sized room? The question must remain unanswered.
I was never able to fully test the limits of the Exquisite-Midi. While the associated gear on hand was very fine, among the best at its level, I'm sure no one would argue they were in the same class as the Exquisite-Midi. The mighty mbl 9007 monoblocks were in for awhile and left listeners agog, but then I was told even they were nothing to what the bigger mbl 9008s could do with this speaker. Feed the Exquisite-Midi at least 200 quality watts, more if you can swing it. They will sound good with less, but you won't be getting what you paid for.
As I found with my Kharma CRM 3.2s, you will probably be removing lots of tried and true tweaks—you won't need to enhance what is already provided. Where I had been on a naked pursuit for products that bring color, something neutral and unaffected is now in order. Choose your wires and ancillaries with this in mind.
The speaker is a pass-through for whatever is coming down from upstream. The Exquisite-Midis' transparency will expose any shortcomings in your source. But unlike other high-resolvers, the Exquisite-Midis' control of the tweeter, warmth, tonal sweetness, and fulsome body will make a less than perfect source easier to listen to. Clarity reigns supreme: detail runs amuck. Beauty of tone: resolution to die for—the Exquisite-Midi is an Exit Speaker.
And unfortunately beyond the reach of most mortals. Towards the end of a session, I asked the guys, "So, what else does it need to do?" and got the reply, "Nothing. It just needs to pay for itself." Marshall Nack