Kharma is a brand I’ve admired for a very long time. I first read about their successful Ceramique line of loudspeakers back in the late 1990s, which—as you may have guessed from the name—featured their signature ceramic midrange driver. Way back in the mid-1980s, the pioneering Dutch firm was the first audio company to employ ceramic drivers. And in more recent years, I’ve seen and heard their offerings at trade shows, like Munich’s High End, and appreciated their distinctive designs and fastidious attention to detail.
Based in the city of Breda, the Netherlands, Kharma designs and manufactures three lines of premium loudspeakers (including subwoofers), as well as matching cables and amplifiers, and even an ultra-high-end power conditioner and an equipment rack. Their flagship Enigma Veyron loudspeaker line starts at $225,000 per pair (all prices in USD) for the Enigma Veyron EV-5 Diamond and stretches to a scarcely believable $940,000 per pair for the line-leading EV-1 Diamond. The midrange Exquisite line runs five models deep, and prices range from $115,000 to $475,000 per pair. Kharma’s most affordable series, Elegance, starts at a more terrestrial $25,000 per pair for the entry-level S7 two-way floorstander and tops out at $68,000 per pair for the big dB11-S tower, which sports a pair of massive 11″ woofers.
The subject of this review is the $40K-per-pair Elegance dB7-S, which sits just above the S7, and there are a few things you need to know about the name. The dB7 has been in production for more than a decade now, but the latest version (designated the 1.1 in some of Kharma’s literature) uses a more advanced stand material in its base than the original model released in 2010. The “S” indicates that my review sample is the Signature version of the dB7, which offers improvements over the standard $33,000-per-pair dB7, as I’ll explain later. The dB7-S, like all Kharma loudspeaker offerings, is available in two standard finishes: Piano Black and the company’s signature Aubergine. For an additional $2500, you can spring for one of several optional finishes: Diamond Black, Piano White, Sparkling Champagne, Pearl White, Burgundy Red, or the finish on my review samples, GunSmoke Grey. Finally, for a $3750 premium, you can provide Kharma with a paint sample or RAL code to finish your loudspeakers in a color of your choice.
The dB7-S arrived via freight in two big crates, cradled in Styrofoam and covered with white sheets. The floorstander isn’t terribly imposing, with dimensions of 39.8″H × 14.1″W × 23″D and a weight of 95 pounds. Still, I definitely needed my brother’s help to extract each loudspeaker from its crate, as they ship lying down instead of standing vertically like many palletized speakers. Also in the crate were leather-bound folders for the footers of both speakers and the accompanying manual, along with the magnetic grilles. After maneuvering the dB7-Ses down my switchback staircase and into place in my basement listening room, I pulled off their white cloth covers and drank in their appearance.
To begin with, however good this speaker looks in photos, it looks even better in person. The cabinet shape is unchanged from the line’s predecessor, the Ceramique series, which catapulted Kharma’s name into the upper echelon of loudspeaker manufacturers more than 20 years ago. Fashioned from 1.38″-thick MDF and angled to optimize phase behavior and minimize group-time delay, its raked appearance makes the dB7-S look as if it is perpetually in motion. And while I’m not ordinarily a fan of chromed metal accents, they really work on the dB7-S. The “Elegance” accent on each side of the loudspeaker is reminiscent of what you’d find on a high-end, luxury automobile. So is the front-facing Kharma logo, which features a stylized Volendam hat, and the chrome tops for the dB7-S’s spiked feet. The fine attention to detail continues with the Kharma logo etched into the contrasting black waveguide around Kharma’s own 1″ beryllium-dome tweeter, and the ringed accent surrounding the speaker’s pair of 7″ Omega-7 midrange-woofers. The back of the cabinet features a sizable metal panel with yet another chromed accent, this one with the loudspeaker’s serial number etched onto it, as well as a large-diameter bass-reflex port that also sports a healthy amount of chrome. Though this may sound slightly chintzy, it looks anything but. The more time I spent with Kharma’s Elegance dB7-S, the more I came to love its appearance.
As a two-and-a-half-way design, Kharma founder and lead designer Charles van Oosterum explained, the Elegance speaker was effectively designed to operate as a two-way monitor with an internal subwoofer. While he declined to offer either the crossover point between the tweeter and midrange-woofer or the phase-in point for the dedicated lower woofer, he did state that the slopes vary from 8 to 10dB/octave, “since crossovers are subtractive.” Beryllium tweeters are pricy, but they normally offer very high performance, with linear treble extension well beyond 20kHz before their first breakup point. And whereas the standard dB-7 uses 7″ woofers with carbon-composite diaphragms, the Signature treatment replaces these with upgraded Omega-7 variants that use “ultra-high modulus carbon fibers.” The Signature version of the dB7-S also has higher performance damping material inside the cabinet, higher quality wiring, and a “vibration-reducing compound” applied to the crossover and bass-reflex port to drive down resonances.
A word on the paint job. My GunSmoke Grey-finished review samples looked phenomenal in my room—the metallic finish exhibited a lot of depth and looked almost liquid under close inspection. I won’t lie, though. A profile like the dB7-S deserves a more adventurous color—perhaps a blue from Porsche’s back catalog? Indeed, van Oosterum noted that many Elegance buyers do tend to choose automotive colors for their loudspeakers. The paint process takes hours: first a base coating is applied, followed by several layers of colored paint. Then each speaker is finished with several layers of clear lacquer to provide “enough thickness to offer the deep, shiny quality that we want to see after sanding and polishing,” van Oosterum explained. He went on to note that, “in principle, we can offer finishes in any color, [from] solid 24-karat gold in museum-quality high-gloss epoxy to exclusive bespoke leathers.” It seems that Kharma’s clientele is as interested in high-fidelity sound as it is in unique, high-quality aesthetics. The leather-bound accompanying materials are evidence of this. They’re fashioned from soft, supple, high-quality leather that would not look out of place on a Coach handbag.
Finally, the dB7-S is specified to handle up to 150W RMS (300W program power) and to have a nominal impedance of 4 ohms, a sensitivity rating of 88dB (2.83V/1m), and a frequency range of 29Hz–30kHz. It carries a five-year warranty.
Setup and listening
As long as you have a second set of hands, unboxing and setting up a pair of Kharma dB7-Ses should be straightforward. I will say, however, that while their custom unified binding posts look great, they only work with spade-terminated speaker cables. I mentioned this to van Oosterum, who suggested forcing a banana plug under the binding post, but this was hardly an elegant or effective solution. So I fished out some inexpensive DH Labs Q-10 Signature cables that are terminated with spades to replace my more price-appropriate Siltech Classic Legend 680L cables terminated with banana plugs. That done, I positioned them where I usually place my KEF Reference 3 loudspeakers, roughly 18″ from the front wall and two feet from the side walls of my 16.5′W × 14′L × 9′H semi-cordoned-off room. I then tilted them in so I could just see the inside baffle of each loudspeaker from my listening position. This left the speakers roughly 10.5′ apart and 11′ from the prime seat on my couch. During the first listen, I heard some excess upper-bass energy that seemed to excite a bass mode in my room. I also heard some elevated treble output. I wound up pulling the Kharmas another 6″ into my room and toed them out so I could see more of their inner baffles; the result was a bit more balanced than on the first encounter.
I used the Kharma towers primarily with my Hegel Music Systems H590 integrated amplifier-DAC, but the Dutch loudspeakers also saw time with Luxman’s L-507Z integrated amplifier, which I paired with Hegel’s HD30 digital-to-analog converter. I run Roon off an old Intel NUC wired directly into the Hegel via USB. Power cords and all analog and digital interconnects were from Siltech’s Classic Legend series.
I hit play on London Grammar’s “Hey Now,” from their album If You Wait (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Columbia Records / Tidal), and reveled in a masterful performance from the Kharma dB7-Ses. They threw out a massive soundstage, one that stretched from one side wall to the other in my room and extended well beyond the front wall. Lead singer Hannah Reid’s vocals were at once larger than life and expertly defined in acoustic space. Her lyrics were smooth and full-bodied, yet laced with copious low-level detail. And then the bass line hit. For a modestly sized two-and-a-half-way design, the dB7-S has serious low-end punch, and the pair of them pressurized my largish room really effectively. I was shocked at how well the diminutive towers filled my listening room with London Grammar’s popular single, and I think this would be an ideal loudspeaker for a condominium or apartment system where square footage is at a premium. Reid’s whirling dervish of a voice pirouettes in the upper registers of her range as the song progresses, and I loved that the speakers’ beryllium tweeters had the pace and delicacy to keep up—and sound effortless while doing so. A promising start.
Leonard Cohen’s “You Want it Darker,” the lead track on his same-titled 2016 album (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia Records / Tidal), was a different proposition. Cohen was miked very closely, and this yielded a much more intimate performance. His voice was laser cut through the Kharmas, a function mostly of the borderline-hot recording, though I think it’s fair to say that Kharma has voiced this speaker to add some treble emphasis that makes vocals jump from the soundstage with greater alacrity than strict neutrality would dictate. I found this tastefully done. Even on a livelier cut like Cohen’s, where you can hear every nook and cranny of his vocal cords—ones fighting a losing battle with leukemia—the Kharmas never became shouty or bright. But boy, was Cohen exciting to listen to through the dB7-Ses, even as he muttered with guttural resignation, “I’m ready, my Lord,” flanked in the background by the tonally warmer Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir. It’s a high-contrast performance that the Kharmas positively nailed.
Hans Zimmer’s “Air” is an atmospheric cut from his original soundtrack for The Thin Red Line (16/44.1 ALAC, RCA). It’s a spare recording featuring Japanese taiko drums, whose massive impacts generate significant midbass energy to open the track. The Kharmas did an admirable job, with each salvo clearly articulated and well controlled. But there’s a concussive quality to the track that went missing through the dB7-Ses—no doubt the larger Elegance models are better suited to such a task. Despite playing with their positioning in my room, I still heard extra output in the 60–100Hz range, which meant I found myself focusing more on the drums resounding in the recording space than I did on each mallet strike. Thirty seconds into the recording, a wooden flute emerges in the center of the soundstage, which the Kharmas played to perfection. Its wispy, reedy character was reproduced in vivid detail in front of me; I heard each exhalation from the flautist as it excited the instrument’s wooden fibers. The soft flute work as the track progresses was clear and delicate, while the backing bells resonated with fantastic decay. There’s an unusual combination of detail retrieval and absolute effortlessness about a well-executed beryllium dome tweeter that I’ve found other diaphragms can’t match, and the dB7-S’s was one of the finest I’ve heard.
The dB7-Ses do a lot of things well, but they recreate space better than just about any loudspeakers I’ve reviewed in the past decade. On “Without Help,” from Jerry Goldsmith’s original soundtrack for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (16/44.1 ALAC, Epic), they cast an enormous soundstage in my room and allowed me to hear the orchestra with exacting precision. The track explodes into action with the string section ringing through the left channel and the brass through the right. The orchestration vacillates from frenetic to methodical from one passage to the next, and the Kharmas demonstrated terrific dexterity in keeping up with the dynamic track. I adored their ability to create an exceptionally transparent window into an unremarkable, late-1980s recording without the brass section’s urgency throughout the track turning harsh, something I’ve heard through many high-end speakers, including speakers I’ve owned and loved. A pair of dB7-Ses are super revealing while not unduly fatiguing. Quite the tightrope to tread.
I recently discovered Amber Rubarth’s “Hold On,” from her album Sessions from the 17th Ward (16/44.1 FLAC, Chesky Records / Tidal), and I enjoy its beautiful simplicity. The brief call and response from Dave Eggar’s cello through the left channel and Tim Snider’s violin through the right channel was delicious through the Kharmas: the cello for the intoxicating combination of clear attack and decay on Eggar’s strings married to a golden ripeness that captured the weight of each bow stroke and the violin for its airiness. Rubarth’s voice was stunning in its unprocessed glory. I was struck by how natural she sounded in her first few softly sung bars: immaculately clean, superbly defined in space, and utterly natural. As she starts to turn up her vocal power, my focus shifted to the way her voice seemed to resonate into eternity, the dB7-S’s beryllium tweeter no doubt performing a masterclass in the process. At her full-throated best, I could hear some upper-midrange emphasis that projected Rubarth into my room with real vigor, but her delivery was so buttery it never turned offensive. At lower volumes this is a boon—the uncommon clarity and definition mean you don’t have to crank your volume dial to hear the good stuff. Nicely done.
I rounded out the proceedings with “Heroes,” as sung by Peter Gabriel on his 2010 album, Scratch My Back (16/44.1 FLAC, Real World Productions / Tidal). It’s a gorgeous rendition of the David Bowie classic, one that’s more intimate and personal than the original. The Kharmas did a lovely job of capturing Gabriel’s aching opening verses, which he sings with a nervous earnestness. The wavering in his voice, the cracks, the subtle inflections—all were accounted for with superb clarity. Gabriel’s vocal confidence and power grow around the 1:40 mark, before he fully launches at the 2:40 mark. He projects with such conviction that it kind of blows the track open as the London Scratch Orchestra’s string section swells behind him in glorious crescendo. It’s girded for good measure by the Orchestra’s emphatic double basses, which the Kharmas introduced with gusto to the center-right of the soundstage. The track is a 4:09 emotional joyride, and if the dB7-Ses were voiced any differently, it wouldn’t land with the same impact.
Placed side-by-side, the cabinet on the KEF Reference 3 is roughly as wide and as deep as that of the dB7-S, but it is several inches taller, providing for appropriate volume for the two 6.5″ woofers. Technology-wise, KEF is no slouch, and the Reference 3 leverages the company’s proprietary Uni-Q coaxial driver setup. And while the KEF’s cabinet is a traditional rectilinear design, it is, at a bare minimum, very well damped. When new, the Reference 3 retailed for $14,000 per pair, so KEF is clearly operating in a different price bracket and appealing to a different type of audiophile than Kharma. And boy, does it show. The KEF looks positively blue collar next to the upscale, luxurious-looking Kharma with its more aerodynamic profile and tasteful accents. The Ref 3’s design is circa-2014 and looks every bit the part. The Kharma costs almost three times as much as the KEF, but it looks special and reeks of quality at even a passing glance.
Having sat idly by for months with the Kharmas in-house, it was fascinating to hear the differences once my Reference 3s were reinstalled in my system. Hannah Reid’s vocal on London Grammar’s “Hey Now” was suddenly pushed back in the mix, sounding mellower by comparison, and the soundstage suddenly felt smaller and less spotlit. The KEF, for better or worse, is a model of linearity. It’s not terribly exciting to listen to, but it is instructive, and it highlights the dB7-S’s emphasized upper midrange and treble. But subjectively, I preferred the Kharmas’ sound. It was vibrant; it was exciting. It just drew me into the performance in a way that my KEFs, for all their talents, did not.
The experience was similar on the Star Trek V: The Final Frontier cut “Without Help.” The KEFs sounded flatter by comparison, more on their heels than the more urgent, forward-sounding Kharmas, which tended to project further into my listening room. Beyond that, the dB7-Ses were subtly more transparent from, say, 500Hz on up. Strings on the track sounded sweeter, and the brass section took on more of a metallic sheen. The only area that came up short against the KEFs was in the bass. Here, the Reference 3s played deeper and tighter than the two-and-a-half-way Kharmas, with the Kharmas’ upper bass bump nowhere to be seen. But then again, that’s why the larger dB9-S and dB11-S exist. In a smaller space, the dB7-S’s punchier demeanor reaps dividends, especially at moderate volume.
Finally, on Amber Rubarth’s “Hold On,” my Reference 3s produced a more relaxed rendition of the California-born singer-songwriter’s vocal performance. Both the opening cello and violin lacked the alluring sheen and brilliance that the Kharmas were able to conjure, though the KEFs did do a similarly nice job of recreating the instruments in space. I felt as if I were peering through each Reference 3 and could see the respective instruments in my mind’s eye. But at what cost? They just didn’t sound as dynamic. And while my KEFs’ stereo image of Rubarth’s vocal was the full equal of the Kharmas’, I missed the latter’s zest and greater sense of dimensionality.
My KEF Reference 3s are great for the money. But above 500Hz, the Kharmas just sound better. And perhaps more importantly for some, they also look a hell of a lot better.
Kharma’s Elegance dB7-S loudspeakers snuck up on me. I appreciated the exciting and dynamic tonal profile from the first moments I heard them in my system. But it took a bit longer to appreciate how transparent they sounded and how attractive they are. I grew fonder of them with each successive listening session.
The dB7-S is a luxury product with a luxury price to match, but it sounds as good as it looks, and I’ll be sad to see them go. Highly recommended for the discerning listener with a taste for the finest in material possessions.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers: KEF LS50 and Reference 3.
- Integrated amplifier: Hegel Music Systems H590, Luxman L-507Z.
- Digital-to-analog converter: Hegel Music Systems HD30.
- Sources: Intel NUC computer running Roon, Tidal.
- Speaker cables: DH Labs Q-10 Signature, Siltech Classic Legend 680L.
- Analog interconnect cables: Dynamique Audio Shadow (RCA), Siltech Classic Legend 680i (XLR).
- Power cords: Siltech Classic Legend 680P.
- Digital interconnect: Siltech Classic Legend 380 USB.
Kharma Elegance dB7-S Loudspeaker
Price: $40,000 per pair.
Warranty: Five years, parts and labor.
4825 AL Breda, the Netherlands
Phone: +31 76-57-150-10