ODYSSEY AUDIO SYSTEM
Khartago Monoblocks, Candela Preamp, Lorilei Speakers
& Groneberg Quattro Reference Cables
System Price: $5,500
Have you ever been to an audio show? They are usually held in hotels where the furniture has been removed from the guest rooms and replaced with systems, components and accessories from hundreds of different manufacturers set up in hundreds of different rooms. Of course, in each room is also a person or persons whose sole job it is to tell you how unique their products are and why there is simply no other choice for the ardent audiophile. The problem is, after attending dozens and dozens of such shows and traversing thousands of hotel rooms, it all becomes somewhat of a giant blur with a very few exhibitions that really stand out in your mind.
But there is one room that, to this day, stands out markedly amongst all the others. The first thing that struck me was the color of not only the speakers but the components as well. The vast majority of the rooms are filled with black or silver boxes in one configuration or another attached to speakers that are also usually black or some type of wood. But in that room, everything was finished in a rather stunning electric blue! Everything matched; even the cables! Shocker! There were 2 good-sized floorstanding speakers and what appeared to be 2 mono block amps displayed between them. On a rack nearby, there were 2 other blue components, a turntable and something in a black box that wasn't immediately identifiable. Interesting.
Other than the color, there wasn't anything else really remarkable except for a large black and white banner prominently displayed on the wall which read, “Complete System Cost With Groneberg Quattro Cables - $5,500". Wait now. Let me read this again: speakers, preamplifier, a pair of monos AND cables for $5,500? C'mon now, most of the rooms I've seen feature cables alone that cost well north of $5,500! Emblazoned across the top of the banner was the brand name - Odyssey!
“Okay”, I thought to myself, “this has to be pretty low-end stuff from Taiwan or something…” But then I also noticed this sign.
I was confused. But then my thoughts were interrupted by a rather scraggly, bohemian looking gentleman approaching. He stuck out his big hand and introduced himself as Klaus Bungee. Klaus had an Eastern European accent and a very warm smile. Somehow I instantly liked him and the more we talked, I liked what he said even more. We talked about his products that, it turns out, are made right outside Indianapolis, Indiana. U-S of-fricken'-A. Even bigger shocker!
We had a rather long and intriguing conversation. He told me about Odyssey, I told him about Stereomojo. We talked about his past experiences, I told him about mine. We had some very strong-shared values and ethics. Here’s a quote: “The market has gone nuts, catering mostly to the same 2 % - 5 % base of wealthy customers. Ego aside, the maximum net profit is not worth the trouble for quite a few companies that in theory could deliver good products at this price point. On the other hand, not everybody can design outstanding products in this price range either. There are true listening, tuning, - and tweaking talents and experiences needed for designers to do so with a limited spending budget per design. It is much easier to design a great $ 10,000. Amplifier than a great $ 1,000 unit.”
Damn! Sounds like Klaus is a genuine Stereomojo Cheap Bastard!
I asked him if he'd like me to review one of his products. He said that one of his amplifiers, the Khartego, had been mentioned in one of the magazines and that he had since had many requests for reviews, but that he hadn't decided on any of them yet. We talked and joked a bit more about the nature of the audio industry and the review process, after which he asked me if I would like to review the whole system - just as I saw it there. I told him it would be an honor.
As is often the case, there were numerous delays, but finally a mountain of boxes were delivered.
Let’s take the different parts of this system separately and then put them together, starting with the speakers which were tested with three different amplifiers, including those in the package.
The speakers are named the “Lorelei”, a two-way ported design consisting of a 1” Scanspeak tweeter in a non-resonant chamber and a 6.8” “midwoofer” by the same manufacturer made from a carbon fiber/graphite composite. They stand 45” high and weigh 95 pounds. They came with no spikes or feet of any kind. Klaus asked me not to comment on the finish of this particular pair since, made in haste for the show, they were not nearly the quality finish of his normal models. Dave, the guy who does the cabinets, has his own business making custom furniture and also teaches woodworking in College. I will say that, like the other members of this system, they are available in a wide range of paint colors or very handsome woods such as walnut and cherry for the more conventional.
Rated sensitivity is 89db at a nominal 6 Ohms. High quality parts by Mundorf, Alpha Core and WBT connectors are used. Internal wiring is the same as the cabling included in the deal – Groneberg. This is also true of the preamp and amps – all Groneberg inside.
One spec in particular stands out – the frequency response is stated as being 22,000 Hz on the top end and a surprisingly low 32 Hz on the bottom. That is definitely in full-range territory – a territory not often visited by a speaker in this price range.
There are two characteristics of the speakers that stand out – dynamics and the bottom end. Real music is very dynamic. It can be very soft and then suddenly be very loud. Most speakers diminish the full dynamics of music, not fully responding when called on to reproduce what the recording dictates. Think of some of the singers you know who have big voices, say Linda Ronstadt or Bessie Smith, who could caress a lyric and a note with a whisper, but then belt out the next with tremendous power. Then you have those like Allyson Kraus who would be hard pressed to be heard in a concert hall at the top of her voice without a microphone. I can say that the Odyssey Lorelei is one of the most dynamic speakers I’ve experienced, a total surprise.
We’re not talking about how loud they can play when you turn the volume up. A lot of people confuse “dynamic” with “loud”. No, we mean the distance between the softest of soft and the loudest of loud during normal playback. These speakers do an excellent job of not compressing or suppressing musical peaks.
The low bass is one of the Lorelei’s greatest strengths and one of its weaknesses as well. They will go low – very low – able to leap tall bass players in a single bound and shrug “no big deal” when huge pipe organs are piped through them, much more so than a typical speaker of this price. The tradeoff is in the area of detail and texture down there. Not bad, but not great. The low end is just not as refined as the rest of the bandwidth.
The mids and highs were lovely with just the right amount of sparkle and depth to let the music speaker for itself. The slim cabinets let them disappear with only a few, close mic’d, studio recordings with things like guitars panned hard left or right sounding as if they emanated from a speaker at all.
Soundstage was well above average in size, depth and width with nice detail. At $2,700 normal price per pair, a remarkable accomplishment, especially in terms of dynamic response and low bass extension.
The preamp is named the Candela and it is the only component not originally designed in Germany (more on that later). It is actually designed in house by long-time friend Alejandro Gonzalez. The big news here is that it is a tube preamp. We have long said that the best sound bang-for-the-buck is a tube preamp to get the richness and dimensionality that tubes impart, mated to solid-state amps for better and less expensive power output. That’s exactly what we have here. The Candela uses two 12AU7 tubes in a zero feedback, low output and impedance design. High quality Alps potentiometer controls the volume. A remote control is available for $150, but it only controls volume; it doesn’t switch inputs for you, even though it has a lot of buttons it. It’s really made to control a CD player/system. Made of plastic, it is not one of the system’s high points, but I’d rather have it than not since I change volume levels a lot.
Except for the faceplate, the casing is pretty rudimentary as well; think something you’d pick up at Parts Express, pretty lightweight stuff. The faceplate, again in your choice of colors, does have a rather elegant touch; a window with the brand name “Odyssey” etched in it that glows blue via a backlight. Cool.
Three chrome knobs grace the front; a power on/off, a selector to choose among the 4 inputs (one can be an HT bypass if needed) and a larger volume knob – not detented. There is no balance control and no phono section. The Candela sells for $1,500 separately.
How does it sound? The one I got came with a couple of vintage RCA tubes that gave the pre a warm, vibrant yet snuggly feel with plenty of crispness and dynamic range to fire those dynamite speakers. The unit usually comes with JJ’s which Klaus says he likes a little better. Pretty quiet, too. No big hiss when turned all the way up with no music playing. Very good transparency with a little grain present if you listen real closely, but nothing that intrudes on the music. Simply put, much more expensive preamps, those costing more than this system’s entire price, can be better, but not by a very wide margin. As with the speakers, you get more than you pay for, and as with the whole system, this hits a pretty narrow sweet spot of high performance and low price. To get a little better, you pay a lot more. To get a lot better, mortgage your house.
In a system of over achievers, the twin Khartago 160 watt amplifiers are true giants. At a list price of only $1,800 per pair, you get enough power to drive most (but not all) speakers, but plenty to drive the Lorelei’s to uncompressed levels of 100db plus.
But lots of solid-state amps have 100+ wpc, though not usually at this price, but there’s power and then there’s power! The Khartago’s sound powerful, like they weigh 150 pounds each with gargantuan power supplies. No weight is listed in the specs, but I’m guessing maybe 20-25 pounds and peek inside reveals power supplies that are not oversized at all. ‘Tis a puzzlement.
More than what you get with the amps though, is what you don’t get. Running my Qsonix music server directly into the amps (no preamp) told me what you don’t get is typical solid-state dryness, sizzle or harshness that we’ve heard in even very expensive tubeless models, say Plinius. These sound more like something from a much more expensive Ayre.
While the Odyssey system was in house, I also had an integrated by DarTzeel; the CTH-8550 at a $23,000 price and 200 wpc. I’m not going to tell you that the Odyssey preamp/monoblocks sounded as good as the DarTzeel because they do not, but they sounded more alike than dissimilar. Power has a feeling (ask any dictator or audio print-magazine editor) as well as a statistic. The Khartago’s got it. Call it balls or what you want, but it’s present.
The level of transparency is startling as well. There’s a little grain, but it’s the grain of a fine mahogany, not whole wheat bread. It doesn’t mire or mask the music. When the music whispers seductively, so do the amps. When it roars, smashes and bangs, you hear it.
In simplest terms, solid-state can be rather fatiguing to which to listen for extended periods. Linda and I enjoyed many 4 hour plus sessions with no trace of fatigue and that alone is impressive for a whole system that sells for less that six grand, much less one that employs mainly transistors.
Oh, you may notice that there is a custom label on the rear of the power amps that has my name written in script. That wasn’t done because I’m the publisher of an important audio review publication, that is done for every purchaser. Anyone own an amp where the maker inscribed your name on the back? Anyone? No?
You would think that the cables included in a $5,500 system would be OEM, Best Buy quality (or lack of it). Not so! This may have been the biggest surprise! The German sourced Groneberg cables, again I mention that it is the same cable with which all the components are wired, is pretty darned good. According to the Groneberg website, they make four different grades of cables. The cables Klaus gives you are the Quattro Reference – the top of the line! There are four conductors in the blue sheathing and the IC’s use genuine WBT connectors. These are not cheap-ass cables and not surprisingly, sound a lot like the Odyssey components. Relaxed yet vivid, dynamic and clean. Definitely not a limiting factor in this system.
Would I put them in a more expensive system? It depends on several factors, but in general, yes.
I should note that power cables are not part of the deal. All amps come with standard IEC cables.
SO HOW DO THEY DO IT?
There are reasons you get so much quality for the money with Odyssey products. One of the main factors is that they do not have to do a lot of expensive research and development because most of the designs come from a German company for which Mr. Bunge was the US distributor for years called Symphonic Line. There’s no subterfuge here, it's something Klaus highlights. He puts it like this, “17 years of audiophile commitment. Odysseyaudio.com is essentially an extension of German Acoustics, which started distributing high-end audio products from Germany in 1988. A year later, German Acoustics imported the first Symphonic Line amplifiers. Over the years, German Acoustics succeeded in establishing Symphonic Line as a true reference line of audio products, and won over a highly dedicated and loyal base of Symphonic Line owners'.
At the end of the '90's, plans were made to manufacture a more cost effective amplifier and preamplifier line here in the US. Due to the long relationship with German Acoustics, Symphonic Line designed the circuitries for the newly planned products.
Since the old German Acoustics was known for audio imports only, Odysseyaudio.com started as a manufacturing company as well as the importer for Symphonic Line. Thus, the Stratos amplifiers and the Tempest preamplifier were planned, designed, and manufactured here in Indianapolis, Indiana. Over the past year, we also started to offer the Khartago amplifier, Etesian pre amplifier, and our complete loudspeaker line. Right now, we are working on a line of digital amplifiers with the goal of infusing some of the emotional qualities of the Stratos and Khartago amps into a digital design and creating a radical departure from overly analytical digital designs of our time.
All of the different models of our amps are based on the same singular design. This is a design from Symphonic Line, of course, which by itself dates back to 1986. Thus, it has been tweaked, and tuned, and matured for over 2 decades. For the first several years we kept the design as-is, and especially within the past 3 years, and noticeably within the past 4 months, we have improved the circuitry BIG TIME. I have tinkered with it pretty much relentlessly, and have to say in absolute terms that the changes have been an incredible improvement across the board when you compare the amps now and with different models over the years side-by-side. These changes have been my own, based on my decisions, biases, and overall taste as to how the amps should be voiced. I am not a technician, but I do believe that I have very good ears. Even though Odyssey's structure is multi-national and multi-cultural, spanning three continents, we pride ourselves to have the ethics and are in-fact close to a smaller family business. The single most important factor for us is a total and complete customer satisfaction for everything that we do, and offer, before and after the sale.”
Symphonic Line still makes a full line of very sophisticated and rather expensive high-end gear in Europe. Their current preamp goes for around $8,000 (7,100 EUR). Better build quality and more expensive cases, yes, but according to Klaus, the sound quality is pretty close.
Also as mentioned earlier, that casework makes a huge difference in cost. Enclosures can easily reach or exceed 50% of a components’ price, as we’ve pointed out many times before.
What’s interesting is that this system is NOT the cheapest Odyssey has to offer. There is, for instance, a solid-state integrated amp call the Cyclops that has the same 160 wpc as the Khartago’s. It sells for $995.
Oh yeah, how about the warranty? Check this out:
The standard 20-year warranty is transferrable to a second user only, so please keep an extra copy of the warranty registration in a safe place.
Here’s something else Klaus mentioned in an email, “Also, any trade in of our units will be credited the exact price that the customer paid in the first place. A month, a year or two, doesn't matter... “
QUALITY CAN SOUND LIKE CRAP
If you have been reading Stereomojo for any length of time, you know we constantly preach that system matching is one of the most important factors in achieving good sound. We have heard and seen many very expensive systems that sound like crap because the amps were too weak, watt wise, current wise or impdedance wise, to drive the speakers. This is epidemic. Preamps are not impedance matched correctly to amps, disk players to preamps, cables to amps and on and on. We are not talking about synergy, that’s something entirely different. We’re talking straight physics. If nothing else, the Odyssey products and this system in particular eliminate most of that problem. That single factor cannot be minimized. We say “most” because there is no source included in this system. You still need some sort of disk spinner to play music and that can be screwed up if you are not careful. I’m sure Klaus will help you out with proper matching if you buy his products even though he doesn’t sell disk players.
We at Stereomojo never use the phrase, “Highly Recommended”. Why? Because everyone else does and it is too vague and not specific. Our readers deserve more. In this instance, it’s very hard to avoid. (But we’re still not sayin’ it!) You know that we specialize in finding those products that represent the highest in value and bang-for-your-buck. Simply put, we cannot think of any company that achieves better than Odyssey.
You’d have a hard time configuring a system like this at any retail store (Fry’s, Best Buy) with a tube preamp, floorstanding speakers with real bass, a pair of 160 watt mono amps AND quality cabling at anywhere near this price. Heck, try it even on the Internet. Then throw in “Made in the USA” and forgettaboutit.
This system is the real deal, not just entry level high-end. Better than NAD, ADCOM, Rega and the like for the bucks. You won’t get to this price point buying gray Chinese goods on EBay. And you darn sure won’t get the peace of mind and customer service you get at Odyssey. And a 20-year warranty.
You also get the assurance that your system is perfectly matched. It also has a high degree of synergy – something intangible that is not on any options list. But from colors to cabinet finishes, tubes to upgraded circuits, you do have lots of options. You can load them up and still have shekels left.
This my be the easiest awarding of our Stereomojo Maximum Mojo Award ever. Congratulations to Klaus and Alex for their exemplary products.
In addition, the Odyssey system garnered our
BEST VALUE AWARD for 2011
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