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Reviewer: Linnman
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S
Preamp: Wavac PR-T1
Amp: Goldmund Telos 600 monoblocks
Speakers: Kharma Midi Exquisite, Kharma Ceramique Subwoofer
Cables: Zanden Audio proprietary I²S cable, Argento Serenity Master Reference (SMR) Special Edition between DAC and the Pre, Argento, Serenity Master Reference Extreme edition between Pre and the Amp, SMR Extreme Edition speaker cable and Serenity SE between the output of the Wavac PR-T1 and the subwoofer; SMR-H power cord x 2 on the amps and all other power cords by ORB of Japan (model HC-150ACW)
Stands: Finite Elemente Master Reference Rack (stock platforms upgraded to custom-made wooden platforms from Acoustics International)
Power line conditioning: HT-4G AC passive strip for the source components via SMR power cord as the AC wall connection; power cords on preamp and amp connect directly to wall.
Sundry accessories: 2 x super-cyro technology wall sockets from Japan
Room size:11' w x 15' d x 10' h
Review Component Retail: $10,000

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.
My heart was moved after reading Steve Job's inspiring speech delivered at Stanford University on June 12th, 2005. Here's a short excerpt from the end of his speech: "Don't be trapped by dogma which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

I was told that it is a waste of money to add a subwoofer to my small room. Others suggested that I must have a pair of subwoofers because one can always detect the presence of a single one. I was also assured that there was no need to add a subwoofer to the Midi Exquisite at all because its specs say it can go as low as 22Hz on its own. In the absence of facts and actual experience, curiosity and derring-do prompted me to bite the bullet and purchase a subwoofer.

My main speakers have their frequency response published as 22Hz to 100kHz. As Jonathan Valin rightly points out in his Midi review for The Absolute Sound, the speakers' bass performance lacks the extreme openness of the ceramic midrange and diamond tweeter. My experience with the Midi over the past 15 months concurs with his observation. Even with the very powerful Vitus SM100, the Midi Exquisite could not reward me with the ultimate bass openness I was hoping for. I was disappointed. Something seemed very wrong. I had recently heard the SM100 driving a pair of Mosquito Neo speakers with thunderous bass dynamics in the grand ballroom of the Island Shangri-la Hotel in Hong Kong on July 23rd. Clearly the amp was more than capable in the bass department.

Due to physical constraints, the Kharma subwoofer was placed on the far right-hand corner of my room, behind the right speaker. However, the face of the woofer is not facing the same direction as the speakers and instead aims across the lateral soundstage at the left sidewall. There are no scientific reasons for this placement except demands imposed by available (or more accurately, lack of) real estate.

This 12" 200w-watt subwoofer is quite easy to set up. My initial parameters were as follows: input level control at 1.0V; high pass at 15Hz/12dB, low pass at 60Hz/12dB, phase at 0°. I was using a pair of Argento's entry-level Serenity SE interconnects with xhadow XLR connectors between the Wavac PR-T1's second pre-out and the Kharma's summed-to-mono input [above]. The sub derived power through an ORB cord. The following report was written after 1.5 months of 6 - 8hr/day with the Kharma burn-in CD. (Yes, 7 days a week.) During the course of getting acquainted with the sub, I discovered that the choice of interconnect and power cord could make a light and day difference to the Ceramique sub's performance.

The very first test was track 2 of the Japanese animation soundtrack The Adventure of Steamboy: Music by Steve Jablonsky [Victor Entertainment 2004] played back via the Zanden 2000P/5000S digital separates. (This soundtrack is scored for full orchestral and recorded at Fox Newman scoring stage.) My first impression was one of not more bass but more air. There was a strong sense of enhanced ambience. The entire soundstage benefited from notably more air at both frequency extremes. The massed string sections revealed more discreteness from individual players. The bassoons' harmonics ascended without compromising those ready-to-rumble double basses in the orchestra's right wing. The differentiation between celli and contra basses grew more articulated especially when playing together. Not only did air displacement increase in the entire bass register but the simultaneous rise in bass energy is what made the biggest difference with the subwoofer in the chain. At the final crescendo of Steamboy's second track, a surge of bass energy momentarily excited my floor to be felt rather than heard. The dearth of such energy prior the arrival of the sub prompted me to repeat the same track a few times to satisfy the long-stalled bass lust in my heart. I must stress that all of these merits did not arise from gratuitous shelving up of the mid and lower bass but rather from the elongation of harmonic decays and a balanced energy distribution of low frequencies.

I switched the subwoofer on and off in order to confirm what I heard. Without the sub, the magic vanished and the soundstage collapsed as though the virtual foundation had been pulled out. I repeated the same exercise on the following big-scale recordings: (Britten's Noye's Fludde, Decca London; Leichte Kavallerie, with von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic on DGG 1993; The Merry Widow by Franz Lehar and the first track of the soundtrack to Akira on Victor Entertainment). The results were identical. What I had thought was a pretty decent soundstage portrayed by my Kharma mains for the past 15 months without the subwoofer in fact turned out to only approximate about 70% of the potential scope I experienced now (inclusive of X, Y and Z axes). I was bewildered.

During the first two weeks, I was so naïve still as to put my ears beside the woofer to verify it was working. There wasn't anything loud emanating from it despite having the output level set to 00dB or no attenuation. My curiosity further made me so dim-witted as to elevate the low-pass from 60 to 80Hz in order to squeeze more bass from the subwoofer, with the idea of proper subwoofer action conditioned in my mind from all those thunderous machine gunshots and bomb explosions that shake the floors of multi-channel demos. Naturally, the midrange thickened with the higher setting and the voice of a female soprano (French Arias by Magdalena Kozena, DGG) somewhat matured a few years ahead of her actual age at the time of recording. It was pleasant but the massed strings intermingled now to the point of blurring. I subsequently decreased the low pass frequency by 5Hz with each turn until I returned to my original setting of 60Hz, apparently the optimum value in my setup.

The next exercise
The Goldmund Telos 600 is a very fast amplifier. Its portrayal of bass belongs into the quick and tight class. That said and without the subwoofer, I find the bass to fall off too rapidly especially in orchestral recordings. My experiences at live concerts suggest that bass harmonics should linger a bit longer. It could also be my own subjective preference. As a result, I changed the slope of both the high and low pass settings to 6dB to broaden the window of overlap. The new settings were now 15Hz/6dB and 60Hz/6dB. This became completely convincing now. The strike of a bow to Janos Starker's cello [Mercury Living Presence: Bach Suites for Solo Cello, Philips Classic] sparkled with more harmonic overtones, making the cello fuller in size while also increasing woody resonances alongside with more air motion. The dimensionality of the performance venue also found itself enhanced in 3D. I could now sense the space behind Janos Starker as well as the distance between his body and instrument

The vivid bow movement displayed contrasting energy variations at each turn of bow against strings. The subtle increase in mid/lower midbass energy really made a big difference. The energy transmitted felt texturally articulated rather than uniform (with credit due also Wavac's PR-T1 above by rendering such wonderful and finely nuanced variations). I could sense the musically valiant zeal of Starker, a result of a highly individualized blend of intensity and musical intelligence.

My musical inquisitiveness led me to repeat the same work recorded by Pierre Fournier [Philips Classics: Bach Suites for Solo Cello] who approaches these work with aristocratic poise. To my ears, his execution is very coherent and eloquent in conveying the intended musical dialects. This isn't to say Starker is inferior to Fournier but the French cellist's supreme bow control presents a bigger challenge for the seamless integration between subwoofer and mains. Although his bow movement does not seem to swing as openly as Starker's, the subtle twists of musical energy he derives from his bow work seem more profound. The articulation of low notes was less authoritative but more delicate than Starker's. When I raised the low pass to 65Hz by a mere 5 cycles, this very lucidity of bow work and how it released varying degrees of acoustic energy transfer was instantly sacrificed. The same held true when I increased the network slope from 6 to 12dB. Harmonic decays were suddenly foreshortened. Applying the same setting to Starker's recording made the listening experience more stimulating because the bow movements became greater without any undue impact on tonal balance. I played two other favorite albums (Cello Favorites by Antonio Janigro on Vanguard Classics 2004 and Rossini 6 Sonatas a Quattro, duets for cello and contrabass on Philips Classics) just to reconfirm whether the same setting held true for other cello recordings. The setting seemed consistently the most appropriate indeed.

In the absence of a subwoofer, the size of the cello was notably deflated with all these recordings. Lower mid-bass harmonics vanished. I was very impressed by the seamless integration of the subwoofer with my main speakers especially during Fournier's Bach suites. Maybe my listening skills are still in the beginner's stage where subwoofers are concerned but my conscious mind failed to locate its physical presence time and again.

The subwoofer also served an indispensable role in the reproduction of piano (Mozart by Richard Goode, Sonata in A Minor. K310; Nonesuch.) It clearly revealed much more of the pianist's emotional variations. His skills to sustain the tensile strength of a musical line now became very lucid, especially in those passages of dense chords in the left hand. Unbroken outpouring of fiery energy with rapid finger movements towards the end of K310's "Andante Cantabile" was another showcase for the sub's virtues. The physical presence of the piano was substantially enhanced by the additional harmonic development in the bass range. Last but not least was the enhanced rendition of the recording venue sound. The Hall of the American of Arts and Letters in New York City sounds warm in conjunction with the piano under Richard Goode's musical command. Those musical pieces with a Parisian touch or transitory melancholy theme thus fused especially well with the woody acoustics. On many live recordings, my subjective listening experiences always found the acoustical interaction between the performing instruments and the hall neatly and naturally presented by adding the subwoofer.

In Teresa Tang's Last Concert Dec 15th 1985 [Universal Music 1999, Japanese version], I could now perceive the distance between the microphone in her hand and her mouth. As such, the loudness of her voice varied with the motions of her hand holding the mic. It seemed as though Teresa was resurrected as a real human being moving subtly about my room. Again, I was bewildered. Teresa's voice occurs mostly in the midrange and above. Why did the addition of a subwoofer change her dimensionality in such dramatic way? I have no clues regarding scientific explanations. All I can do is report on what I heard.

Experts sharing insights
Is the integration of the sub to the main speakers really that easy? What parameters should I consider beyond this setup to get even more from the sub? Out of curiosity, I called up Yamada-San of Zanden Audio. He told me that for some unknown reasons, he finds odd numbers in digital volume controls to always sound better than even numbers. (He also finds odd-number channels in airlines to sound clearer than even number channel.) He believes the remote control of the Kharma subwoofer is a digital volume hence I should try to compare 1V and 3V input level values while experimenting with the amplitude level at -1, -3, -5, -7 etc. Were there in fact any audible differences between odd and even number? Yes but in a very subtle way. Energy release with odd-number settings seemed to flow more naturally. I finally ended up with a setting of 3V for the input level, -5dB for loudness, and high and low pass respectively at 15 and 60Hz, both at 6dB slopes. Then in August, I had an opportunity in Taipei to meet digital guru Thierry Heeb of Anagram Technology. We had a long chat on this interesting observation by Yamada-San. Thierry believes such subtle changes are real because the digital coding of even and odd numbers is different. But I don't want to further expound on my ignorance in these matters for which there are many technically sophisticated explanation beyond my ken.

Last but not least let me record my enormous gratitude to room acoustics magician Franck Tchang of Acoustics International from France. He helped me tackle the acoustic problems of my small room via his magical resonators of different metals ranging from copper, silver and gold to platinum [above]. They seem to reduce reflections rather effectively. Without them, I could not extract the full essence of the Midi Exquisite in my space. I had to voluntarily surrendered to resonances and reflections obscuring precious musical details - prior to making Franck Tchang's acquaintance that is. Never mind
the additional of a huge subwoofer. Not only do I now hardly find any booming in my room, the bass energy propagates freely despite the obvious boundaries of close-by walls.

Although the sub elates my musical satisfaction, it also intensifies my thirst to learn the underlying logic and variables of proper subwoofer integration in general since I can't believe that it works out this easily in general (particularly in small rooms like mine). Mind you, I have not heard subwoofers from other manufacturers in my space yet. The Kharma Ceramique Subwoofer is my first foray into this genre. Am I a happy man now? You bet. But I am even more delighted to learn new insights from Yamada-San and Franck Tchang. Knowledge is always empowering and inspires new confidence. Still, retaining a humble attitude is as important if not more so. To conclude and borrow from Steve Job's words again, I believe an attitude of "stay foolish, stay hungry" applied to my audio life should reward me immensely in the years ahead
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