I'll admit it. I was one of the multitude of music lovers who bought an Adcom GFA-555 amplifier, the audio equivalent of the minivan (which I also own). In fact, I was one of the earliest buyers -- my GFA-555 had the rack handles and original bland faceplate. I read the review -- there was really only one of consequence, by Anthony Cordesman -- and decided there and then that the GFA-555 was the amp for me. It was big, it was imposing, it was powerful.
Unfortunately, it was also mediocre-sounding. Yes, it had pounding bass and could drive any speaker to deafening levels, but its brittle highs would be more likely to deafen than any SPLs the amp could produce. Still, I kept my GFA-555 for years, first through the no-money-to-upgrade graduate-school days, and then as I tried in frustration to find just the right speakers for it (they don't exist). I have to admit that the '555 kept its value -- I sold it for nearly what I paid for it -- but I doubt its second owner achieved any better results with it than I did.
With this experience as a subtext, I was both curious to hear the Odyssey Audio Khartago amplifier and worried that I would revisit my Adcom days but with higher expectations. We named the more powerful Odyssey Stratos a Reviewers' Choice in 2000, but the Khartago's $750 USD price is very near what the GFA-555 cost all those years ago. Gulp.
I have a connection of sorts to the Khartago and Odyssey Audio: A close friend of mine whose system I came to know very well owned a series of Symphonic Line amps. Symphonic Line is the German company that supplies designs for Odyssey Audio products, and the head of Odyssey Audio, Klaus Bunge, has long been the US Symphonic Line distributor. I talked to Klaus years before SoundStage! was a gleam in anyone's eye about a Symphonic Line amp I was considering buying, and here years later his business and my business have intersected. Small world indeed.
According to Klaus, the Khartago's circuit board is identical to that of the Odyssey Stratos, which currently sells for $1070. The differences between the two amps are the Khartago's internal heatsinks (which are bright blue on the review sample), its smaller power supply, and the chassis, which is, Klaus admits, where the bulk of the money is saved. That's all. "The Khartago is essentially a $3500 Symphonic Line design," says Klaus. The Khartago's four pairs of bipolar outputs transistors are measured and matched to within 1% tolerances -- Klaus does a good deal of this work himself -- and the amp uses Groneberg internal wiring. Odyssey Audio also sells Groneberg interconnects and speaker cables.
The Khartago is a class-A/AB design that's rated to deliver 110Wpc into 8 ohms. There are 160W Khartago monoblocks ($1500 per pair), and buyers of the stereo amp are able to return their amps at any time and have them converted to monoblocks. Also available is a generous trade-in allowance equal to the full cost of the Khartago should buyers be interested in the more powerful Stratos at some point. Odyssey is famous for offering a large variety of colors other than black for their products (silver, gold, burgundy, hunter green, purple, blue and copper), and these are available for the Khartago as well -- at extra cost. Buyers can also upgrade their amps with better transformers, different internal wiring and binding posts. Contact Klaus for details.
Physically, the Khartago is a small amp, about the size of the Bel Canto digital amps. It measures 18"W x 16"D x 4 1/4"H and weighs 32 pounds. It has a simple anodized-aluminum faceplate and outer case -- non-magnetic, don't you know. Connections are via single sets of RCA inputs and five-way binding posts, the latter from WBT. An IEC power-cord receptacle and on/off switch are also around back, while Audio Selection rubber-and-aluminum footers said to be "effective against mechanical vibrations within the unit as well as external vibrations/resonances" are underneath. Completing things is a nice touch: an ID plate with the owner's name handwritten on it. No confusion as to who owns the amp -- unless its original owner sells it.
Like all Odyssey Audio products, the Khartago is sold factory-direct (which helps account for its reasonable price) with a 30-day money-back guarantee. It comes with a whopping 20-year warranty that also covers the second owner of the amp (paperwork for later sale comes with the amp). In addition to an extensive owner's manual, the Khartago also comes with extra fuses and a test/setup CD-R.
I used the Khartago with my usual lineup of components: Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7 speakers, Lamm L2 Reference preamp, Esoteric DV-50 universal A/V player, Zanden Model 5000 Mk III DAC, and Mark Levinson No.37 transport. Interconnects and speaker cables were from DH Labs (Revelation and Q-10) or Nordost (Valhalla and Valkyrja). Power cords were all from Shunyata Research, including Anaconda Alpha, Anaconda Vx, and Taipan, as was power conditioning, via the Hydra Model-8. Also around my listening room and used with the Khartago were Thiel CS2.4, ProAc D38 and Energy Veritas 2.4i speakers, and an Esoteric UX-1 universal A/V player. I previously reviewed the Thiel speakers, and you'll see reviews on the rest of these products soon.
I used a Mark Levinson No.383 integrated amp for comparison to the Khartago. To do this, I not only ran the Lamm preamp into the No.383 (with the integrated's volume control all the way up) but also used the Zanden DAC, which has a very low 1V output, directly into the Khartago. Not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, but it worked to my satisfaction.
Think the Khartago has no business hanging with the likes of the gear I list above? Think it will be obviously outclassed? Read on.
Before I say anything about the Khartago's sonic performance (yes, I'm making you wait on purpose), I need to mention that it needs and deserves ample break-in time. In the Khartago's manual, Odyssey Audio outlines a four-part break-in process that culminates in the owner leaving the amp on continuously for four to six weeks, after which time the amp is broken in. I cheated and left the amp on for 12-hour stints over the period of a month (it produces very little heat), and over that time the amp's bass firmed up some and its retrieval of detail improved. The Khartago's general sonic character didn't change during this period, but its sound did improve. The Khartago is sort of like a flower whose bloom is obvious even as a bud. Just put time on the amp and you'll get there.
Where is there? The Khartago's sound is very slightly on the warm, dark side of the spectrum -- a good thing to ears that have lived with an Adcom GFA-555. It doesn't sound forward or recessed -- it offers a medium perspective -- and although its bass is not crushing, it certainly upholds the solid-state tradition. It's reasonable but not notable.
During the time I was listening most intently to the Khartago I was also creating my demo CD-R for the Montreal Son & Image show. On my CD-R are two cuts each from Buddy Guy's Blues Singer [Silvertone 01241-41843-2] and Geoff Muldaur's Futuristic Ensemble's A Vision of Bix Beiderbecke [edge Music B0000907-02], both of which are incredibly well recorded. The Khartago struts with these CDs. The sense of space heard on the Buddy Guy disc tests any component's ability to reproduce it, and on the opening track, "Hard Time Killing Floor," the Khartago seemingly expands the listening room's boundaries. And on the more quaint "In a Mist" from A Vision of Bix Beiderbecke, the Khartago has no problem digging the fine details out of the blackness of the recording, its middle-of-the-road perspective never wavering or veiling the music.
I enjoyed what the Khartago did with voices, its very slight warmth (and I do mean very slight) being noticeable but not problematic, even with Greg Brown's chesty voice. Another cut that made it onto my demo CD-R is "Guitar Town" from Emmylou Harris's At the Ryman [Reprise 26664]. Harris's voice is not easy to reproduce -- it can sound hard and shrill. But the Khartago had no problems with it, but the applause that open the track does show that soundstage depth is a little foreshortened compared to the very best amps in this regard (I'm talking Atma-Sphere OTLs), and there isn't the perception of layering either. Still, the Khartago casts a very credible soundstage that's anything but flat and uninvolving.
In terms of dynamics, the Khartago is able portray soft and loud with no overt issues. Once again, there are more costly designs that better it -- retrieve in more obvious fashion the smallest of details from the fuzz of the noise floor and roar like thunder when called up to do so -- but the differences are not a concern unless you seek (and are willing to pay for) edge-of-the-art performance. Good recordings of large-scale orchestral music will give you a very good idea of how well a component can go from soft to loud, and with many of the recent JVC XRCD reissues and Telarc SACDs of classical works, the Khartago was convincing up to its power limit, which was nothing short of extremely loud with any of the speakers I had on hand.
The low end is a solid-state amp's bread and butter, and the Khartago doesn't disappoint, although those used to the best bass that money can buy won't be bowled over. I remember the Symphonic Line amps I heard all those years ago as having particularly powerful bass that displayed ample slam -- the sense of not only bass weight and power but also speed, like the quick sound of a drum that pops you in the chest. The Khartago falls short of these standards, perhaps due to its smaller power supply, but it still competes with many amps that are multiples of its price. Bass favorites like Suzanne Vega's Nine Objects of Desire [A&M 31454] had low-end depth and displayed ample atmosphere, the sense of low frequencies spreading out into the room like water, over the Khartago, with only the last bit of weight and fullness MIA. Still, the Khartago's bass was expressive; when low-end energy was called for, the Khartago delivered up to its limits, which every amp has.
I think in the end what I enjoyed most about the Khartago is how pleasing its sound is. I never sat down to listen and said to myself, "This is a budget amp." Its performance never gave it away. My notes call the Khartago "musically satisfying," and so it is, especially with the Energy Veritas 2.4i speakers that you'll be reading about soon. If you have $5250 to spend on speakers and an amp, you have to hear this combination.
Under $1000 isn't a high-profit price range for audio manufacturers -- build costs are just as high for amps selling for two and three times the Khartago's price, so why bother when there's more money to be made? Therefore there's not much competition price-wise for the Khartago -- only the Odyssey Stratos comes quickly to mind. In my listening room, however, I often use a Mark Levinson No.383 to drive difficult speakers, and it was an interesting sonic contrast to the Khartago. The No.383 is the best integrated amp I've used, and its $6500 price reflects its microprocessor-controlled design complexity.
The sound of the No.383 has greater solidity than that of the Khartago. Plucked strings, for instance, leap -- project -- with greater speed and sound more chunky and real. I've been on a Michael Hedges kick -- we lost much when he died young. Hedges' solo picking on his debut album, Breakfast in the Field [Windham Hill WD-1017], had more of a steely sheen though the No.383. The Khartago, in contrast, sounded more quaint and slightly softer. With the Khartago, Hedges' guitar has less transient snap -- snap is an earmark of Hedges' athletic playing. The Khartago's sound is certainly more laid-back, but it's not that way intrinsically. The No.383 sounds subjectively more powerful, even though it's rated at 100Wpc. I enjoyed the No.383 with Breakfast in the Field, but with other recordings, especially ones that are more complex or of lesser quality, I preferred the Khartago.
So the big question is which presentation is more enjoyable, and all I can offer is that the answer will be based on priorities -- incisiveness versus a more gentle and easeful presentation (not to mention far lower cost). At $6500, you can have your pick of many amps and integrated amps, and you'll likely look past the Khartago. At, say, $2500, the Khartago has stiff competition from the likes of Bryston, Belles, Threshold, McCormack, Parasound and others. At $750, I don't know of any power amp that touches it.
The Odyssey Audio Khartago certainly exorcised the memories of my long-departed Adcom GFA-555, whose bass reproduction and greater output power are the only aspects of its performance not bettered by the Khartago. I enjoy what the Khartago was able to do with speakers that were greatly in excess of its price, especially its easy-to-listen-to mid-hall perspective and warmish sound. Its only obvious transgressions are a soundstage that's less deep and layered than that of amplifiers among the best in this regard and a small reduction of the music's incisiveness, which may be a good thing depending on other parts of the system in which it is used. The Khartago is an amp you can mate with a pair of inexpensive minimonitors or costly floorstanding speakers and achieve impressive sound, and its 110Wpc will ensure that it can drive essentially any speaker with which it will be used.
Don't think of the Khartago as a budget-priced amp. It's an amp that you can legitimately use with speakers five or more times its price -- it shines with really good speakers and other components of commensurate quality. You should consider the Khartago if you're willing to spend $2000 or more, but at slightly under $7 a watt, it can't help but make just about every other amplifier seem overpriced.
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