Kroma Audio Carmen – part 2
No Way Back!
Review samples supplied by Chattelin Audio Systems
Retail price in the Netherlands: 57.950 euro
Listening – Zanden 8120
I was already prepped for the Zanden experience after having heard the Zanden/Kroma combination at the last Xfi audio show but in the context of my own listening environment, it can always be a little different. Although the Carmens have a nominal 8-ohm impedance and it would seem obvious to use the 8-ohm taps on the Zanden 8120 (as Ben also recommended), I felt compelled to experiment with this nonetheless. While the 4-ohm taps may work well for people who prefer a more relaxed and more romantic touch, I feel that those 8-ohm taps provide a more powerful, more transparent and more articulate delivery while still being superbly emotionally involving. The 8-ohm tap was clearly the technically correct option and also the one that I preferred.
So far, having listened with the CH Precision A1, I was already in awe with the Carmens’ performance but with the Zanden 8120, the Carmens stepped up the game even further. The CH Precision is extremely neutral (hey, it’s Swiss!) and also extremely fast and while it worked beautifully, technically perfect and with all the above-mentioned disbelief-suspending abilities, the Zanden 8120 managed to retain nearly all of the A1’s the technical excellence, while adding an even more emotionally engaging aspect, more so than probably any transistor amp can provide. It does this not with coloration or added thickness but by better fleshing out the sounds and projecting them more freely in a soundstage that is not only more room-filling but also better layered and more 3D and therefore, more involving. While it made the Carmens sound a little fuller and sweeter, and a tiny bit darker, the delivery was just as speedy, dynamic, and lively as the A1, and very articulate.
The Carmens are very efficient and as with many efficient speakers, there is less of a filter effect, less energy loss and so the quality of the recordings does become more critical. With the Carmens, dry recordings will also sound dry. You simply hear everything that is in the recording – unfiltered. Good recordings sound amazing and lesser recordings sound, well, less amazing, but never unlistenable. That’s a very important point: although these speakers are very revealing, they always make music in a coherent, upbeat and entertaining fashion, even with mediocre recordings. The spirit of the music always shines through. Naturally one can add some sweetness by adding a smooth-sounding analog preamp (as I used to prefer for the longest time) but this is not the route that I wanted to take with this system. I no longer use an analog preamp because the super-refined C1 doesn’t need this and because I want to hear precisely what the components and speakers are doing. I did carry out extensive experiments using Zanden 3100 and Audio Research Ref5 preamps and a detailed report of this can be read in the Zanden review. Suffice to say that the Carmens perform absolutely splendidly either with or without a preamp in the chain. With one, they sound even more organic, with even more richly saturated textures while still being more dynamic than any other speakers I used, without a preamp, they sound most articulate and direct, most vibrant and so utterly lifelike dynamic that I was hooked from the very first seconds of listening.
With these speakers, it proved very difficult to keep my critical mind switched on. All I wanted was to listen to more music and the same happened with anyone who came to visit. Reluctantly shaking off the urge to simply revel in the music, I re-enabled the critical reviewer mode and tried some more amplifiers.
Audio Research Ref75 SE
The Ref75 SE is a long-standing favorite of mine. This amp sounds remarkably transparent and refined and very finely detailed and it can challenge my CH Precision A1 on these aspects. This amp’s Achilles heel is its bass, which can lack power, propulsion, and body depending on the speakers. With the Carmens, it actually has the best bass I heard from it so far and its free-flowing, yet pure, intimate and direct-coupled presentation works really well with the Carmens. In terms of timbre, resolution, and refinement the ARC performs similarly well as the Zanden and depending on the music played, the preference could be swung either way. The Zanden is considerably more sonorous and solid in the bass and it has more power, too. Perhaps partly because of this, rhythm, percussion instruments, and piano sounded best with this amp, while certain soulful arrangements could sound purer, more informative and more emotional, with the ARC.
PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium
The PrimaLuna has a very modest power rating (only 20 watts in triode mode) but has a very solid power supply and beefy output transformers which in practice means that it never had any issues driving large speakers and the Carmens are no exception. With this amp, they sound bold and powerful, well-timed and with bass solidity and fullness approaching the Zanden in that aspect (not in others!), with strong dynamics and natural, convincing timbre. Sonority and power remain this amp’s strongest assets and it drives the Carmens with authority indeed but in this exalted company, the PrimaLuna lags behind in all other aspects, mainly resolution, refinement, and soundstage layering. It is just a bit too rough, painting with very broad strokes. Probably no-one will ever pair these speakers with a 3000 euro, 20-watt amp, but at least we now know that you could.
The Ayon Scorpio is also on a visit for review, really only supplied, because the higher model up, the Spirit III, was not available on short notice. The Scorpio’s retail price is 3.895 euro, still small change relatively speaking. Not suspecting much I connected it and… I was amazed! This amp sounds just as solid, sonorous, upbeat and dynamic as the PrimaLuna but much more transparent and much more refined. Also, it is faster and more articulate and has a natural, lifelike timbre to die for. It does all this and adds to it a purity and directness that reminded me of the Ayon Crossfire III SET-amp that I had on loan a while ago.
The Ayon’s presentation is not too far removed from the Audio Research Ref75 SE and although that amp is more refined, more fluid and airier, it lags behind the Ayon in terms of bass control and overall dynamics and slam, which, for me is very important. Some people may well find the Ayon a little bit too direct and they may prefer a warmer, gentler or smoother presentation but for me, it provided a very lifelike experience.
This made for a highly communicative presentation that I find quite attractive, even if the Zanden is more organic, smoother, more richly textured and overall more luxurious and liquid. It would be interesting to see what the models higher up in the Ayon range can accomplish but what the Scorpio achieves at its modest cost is truly commendable. The Carmens, in turn, have impressed me even more deeply.
In a direct comparison right after installing the Carmens, the Carmens sound slightly darker than the Wilsons but so very great in all other aspects that this was soon forgotten. The extra air that the Wilsons have was very welcome for me at the time because it made for a perfect transition from the Magnepans and Apogees (in terms of openness) that I had used for so many years. But after having listened to the Carmens for two weeks, I was to face a new transition period. Upon returning to the Wilsons, fortunately, I was not completely disappointed. They still are great speakers. But I would not have guessed that I would now find them to sound a little bit too bright. Where the Carmens are supremely linear from the lowest lows to the highest highs with no discernible driver takeover points, I could now hear the different characters of the three drivers in the Wilsons. There was now some coloration in the midrange and some spot-lighting in the treble, and the bass was nice and deep and not colored but less articulate and not as dynamically propulsive. Dynamically, the Wilsons have always been great but also on this aspect, too, I had to admit that the Carmens performed even better. What can I say? One can always do better, right? Well, at this very moment I cannot think of any speakers that have impressed me more than these Carmens, except for perhaps, you guessed it: the Kroma Audio Elektra.
The Kroma Audio Carmens are truly universal speakers: they excel with acoustical instruments, percussion, and vocals but they sound equally impressive with Christina Aguilera and Lady GaGa. Azymuth’s samba doido (jazz-samba-fusion) sounds absolutely infectious and even gritty Dub-techno is delivered precisely as it should. They always turn in a dynamic, vibrant and lifelike performance and they never get confused, no matter the complexity or the amount of subterranean bass present in the recording. Their bass is not only fast, well-timed and utterly coherent, it is also supremely linear from the lowest to the highest notes, plumbing to subwoofer-like depths and remaining ruler-like linear right up into their upper treble.
While I found the Carmens to match particularly well with the Zanden 8210 power amp, they always have superb communication powers, they simply always sound timbrally wholly convincing and never fail to make your foot tap. They are truly great all around but they excel in linearity, purity, coherence, organic textures and natural timbre. These aspects stand out with the slightly smooth Zanden but also with the very neutral CH Precision A1, the open and airy Audio Research Ref75 SE, the pure and direct-coupled Ayon Scorpio and even the very affordable PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium. All of these amps drive the Carmens perfectly, while ticking more or fewer audiophile boxes but always producing pure, vibrant and involving music. It seems that they work with pretty much any amplifier.
Don’t take only my word for it – each and every person who visited to hear these speakers commented on how utterly realistic and totally engaging they sound. Several of my audio friends vowed that this is the absolute best sound they heard, period – either in my room or elsewhere, adding that they would gladly trade their systems for this, myself included. Even audio buddy JW, a die-hard ribbon-fanatic, agrees that the Kroma Audio Carmens are exemplary. They are technically superb and highly revealing. They tick each and every one of the audiophile boxes but more importantly, they never fail to make soul-stirring music in its purest form. Yes, they cost an arm and a leg. But if you can afford them, these may be the last speakers you need.