Intro: After the Basics, Why does HiFi Still Costs So Much?
This is the first part of a multi-part series about Kharma International. This idea grew out of what was originally part 2 of my report on my visit to their factory in Breda, in the Netherlands, last year. Being a year ago already, a visit report seems a bit outdated. It was also becoming too unwieldy of an article with each section developing a new direction. So in lieu of that, I’m going to use my visit as a basis for a more important topic that I believe is more pertinent today: why does Hi Fi cost so much?
It is a sentiment that’s been growing since my attendance at THE Show Newport this month. I know I’ve written about cost before, and I can understand that products that are responsibly produced have to cost more. I also realize that smaller manufacturers can’t rely on economies of scale and so have to charge a bit more for products. What I haven’t fleshed out, though, is the cost of the research, engineering, manufacturing, and marketing that also go into the product. Large manufacturers have huge budgets for this, but how do the smaller low-production-run manufacturers do this?
I had a unique opportunity to visit Kharma International last year. As it turns out, Kharma speakers and amps were the first time that I had an opportunity to hear what truly world-class sound is. I was astounded to hear for the first time many of those things that I’d been reading about in Stereophile, The Absolute Sound, What HiFi, and other magazines. I’m sure I’ll have that opportunity with other manufacturers in the future, but to be honest not everyone can produce such a well integrated set of products. What I have heard at Hi Fi shows and sales floors so far, despite a few noted exceptions, has often not been of the same caliber.
Kharma is also at the stratosphere in price – their clientele is primarily royalty, business leaders and oil tycoons. This puts them in a unique position to produce the very best sound, the very best designs, and the very best quality there is in Hi Fi. It also gives them the opportunity to use the best very materials that I am hoping are also environmentally-friendly, to employ the very best engineers under ideal conditions, and to buy components from faraway places while still maintaining a high level of quality for them. It’s a high bar, I know, but this is also what sets the best manufacturers apart.
From what I’ve seen, read, and heard, Kharma is quite possibly at the top of a short list of the very best manufacturers.
The Kharma Elegance Line – How Green Is It Really?
When I arrived at the Kharma factory last summer, I was surprised to find that it was located in a rather in descript corporate park; no big signs, no elaborate corporate entrances, and no fancy cars parked out front (well, I did see one large Audi, but we were only an hour from Germany). Inside, it was pretty much the same: aside from rows of beautiful speakers being burned in, the whole entry-way seemed very down-to-earth. Granted, this was the factory, not a sales rep’s showroom, but when I asked why this was so, I was told that this is where they had been for years. Their regular customers from way back then still come by for service and to upgrade. It’s home.
This down-to-earth sensibility is also where the Elegance line comes into the picture. It’s not the grand-piano of the product line, but the still very capable baby-grand, that is going to fit into the customer’s living room much easier than the bigger brothers. It looks quite different, as well, with a more standard back-leaning shape not unlike competing products from Von Schweikert, Wilson, Thiel, and Usher. Gone are the inlaid wood and jeweled accoutrements. This is a good thing, I believe. It allows for less distractions and a greater focus on technology, design, and craftsmanship.
One of my original questions was whether these were injection-moulded speakers. The surface is immaculately even across the product line, as are the seams and the small details like the inlaid logo, so logic would suggest some type of automated assembly-line moulding, but that is not the case. The speakers are constructed of very precisely cut HDF, the same as the Exquisite line. Injection moulding is of concern to me because it is a plastic composite, which produces toxic gases during production, but more importantly, because it is a plastic, is a landfill clogging material. Whereas a plastic bottle might take 400+ years to biodegrade (see: How Long Does it Take?), a high-density plastic such as an injection-moulded loudspeaker, could take millennia. This is not to say that HDF, which is a composite of wood by-products and plastics, and does include some fairly destructive bonding agents and gasses (toxic urea-formaldehyde comes to mind) in the manufacturing process, is ideal either. But being at least partially wood-based, typically re-claimed wood, I’d like to think it is also somewhat better.
As mentioned, the high-gloss surface of the speakers is beautiful. It is available in a range of colors, and while I didn’t want to delve into it, I imagine that the painting of these layers is probably not too good for the environment, either. That said, the absence of exotic wood inlays and jewels seen in their more exotic speakers at least give the speaker a more down-to-earth look. The solid anchoring feet of the speaker are made of the same durable air-craft-grade aluminum as used in the Exquisite speakers I listened to, albeit of lower mass since the Elegance speakers weigh quite a bit less. While aluminum is certainly not an ideal metal for the environment and can be harmful (see: Aluminum Toxicity), it has advantages over other metals because it is lighter while still remaining quite strong. This reduces the overall weight of the loudspeaker.
All that being said, it is still a large, heavy, and expensive speaker and as those go, it is not much greener than other competing speakers in their price range. I don’t want to beat a dead horse about price, though: building a speaker correctly, outside of the mass-production processes of the big-name manufacturers, still costs a lot of money. However, being large and heavy, they also cost a fair amount to ship. They typically ship in wooden crates, and while Kharma makes every effort to minimize unnecessary packaging, one can’t deny the additional impact on the environment of shipping such a speaker. I was told that the primary concern is making sure the speaker arrives at the customer’s home in the same condition as it left the factory. This obviously requires adequate packaging and I can’t fault Kharma for doing this.
What I do find appealing as well is the overall design. It is elegant (hence the name), stately, and yet, still humble. It is beautiful without calling too much attention to itself. It fits a young, upwardly mobile, millennial esthetic. It’s for those who would choose PSB headphones over Beats, not only because they sound better, but also because they actually do look better. The simplicity of the speaker’s design is its beauty. Simplicity is also a green attribute in that there is nothing superfluous or excessive in the design. It is utilitarian without being boring; it is a model of elegance.
Conclusion: Still Greener Than The Competition?
I haven’t done a Green HiFi rating in quite some time. This is mostly because I haven’t done many reviews (sorry, but I haven’t had the time). Perhaps this is a good time to do a rating, then. The Elegance line sits in the middle of Kharma’s product lines and is also somewhere in the middle on their product’s prices, so it’s a good mid-point to use. If you recall, our Green HiFi criteria were: Energy-Efficiency and Heat-Dissipation, Product Quality and Simplicity, Adequate Packaging, Toxicity of Components, Labor Relations, Product Recycling, Fair Pricing. Without going into too much detail, then:
Energy-Efficiency and Heat-Dissipation (-1)
Looking at the specs on the website, the speakers require considerable amplification and this is not really good for the environment. They probably don’t produce much heat themselves, but since they do require a lot of power, this is not an energy-efficient design.
Product Quality and Simplicity (+1)
This was easy to determine. It’s a beautifully simple design (one the outside). The quality is also world-class. While the size may be a bit excessive, this is a minor quibble as the size is necessary to produce adequate sound.
Adequate Packaging (0)
These are extremely well packed, but the crates are large and being made of wood, this is a problem. That said, it’s hard to fault as it is necessary to protect the speakers.
Toxicity of Components (0)
While I did ask Kharma about this, I was told that sound quality was the most important factor here. If it sounds better, they’ll use it. On the other hand, being manufactured in the Netherlands, one of the greenest countries in the world, does put some restrictions on the use of overly toxic materials.
Labor Relations (+1)
This was something I noticed from the moment I walked in the factory and reflected when I asked about it. The employees, engineers, and staff are well paid and happy.
Product Recycling (+1)
Based on the fact that this is a product that is going to last, I was already inclined to give a positive mark here. However, another important fact was mentioned to me when I interview them: the materials in use in the equipment are extremely rare and expensive, so waste is minimized as a matter of practice.
Fair Pricing (-1)
unfortunately, this is an extremely expensive product. While I can understand the reasoning for the high cost, I can’t ignore that it is still at the top of comparably priced competitors, even those from smaller manufacturers.
The overall score is +1.
This is still a green product. Perhaps not the greenest product I’ve reviewed, but despite its short comings, I still think it merits a good look from potential customers. For those who appreciate the Kharma sound and who have the means to purchase these speakers, this is still an incredibly good value when considering the whole product, the company, and the name. One day, perhaps I will be one of the lucky few to purchase one of these excellent speakers. Until then, I’ll remain satisfied with my own mid-fi gear.
- Michael GJK