I’ve started to worry that I’m becoming one of those guys who plays favorites with a brand.
It’s not about the ad money, because Audio Note sure as heck doesn’t advertise. It’s not about the comfortable rooms, because the company in question doesn’t exactly lay out the barcalounger and beer keg for visitors. It’s not even because I always enjoy the chance to shoot the breeze and trade music tips with David Cope. It’s really just because Audio Note, in show after show over the last three years, has been consistently, dependably, listenable. Audio Note has slowly become one of those brands that come up every time I think it’s time to pack in the reviewing gig and retire to my nice, well-built, enjoyable stereo.
This time promised to be special. A short conversation on Facebook let me know that David was driving to the show. David is so cursed by the freight gods that my usual question is “what got banged up in shipping this time?” Since he was driving himself, he planned to carry the exhibit gear in his car. This meant that he was bringing pricier components than he’d usually trust to the tender mercies of Team Brown.
The pricier gear in question included the Jinro Shochu “fully balanced single ended” amplifier ($31,000), the loaded, Level 4, M6 preamp ($20,500), a CDT Three/II disc spinner ($11,775), a DAC 3.1/II ($9,900), a pair of E/SPe HE speakers (the cheapest component in the room at $9,600 per pair), some speaker stands that felt like they were filled with spent uranium, and, just to screw with expectations, an equipment rack.
Now… I have a pedantic nit to pick before we get started. Audio Note’s definition of “fully balanced” as applied to the Jinro Shochu is not a definition I recognize. Yes, it sports a transformer input, a transformer coupled interstage, and an output transformer. Andy Grove and Peter Qvortup have made an argument that those transformers make it “fully balanced.” I disagree. I’d make the argument that anything that’s only amplifying one phase of a signal referenced to ground is, by definition, a single ended amplifier.
Hey, I warned you that I was going to be pedantic.
I wanted to bring this up because this kind of pedantic nitpicking is exactly the kind of gobshite behavior that will distract people from noticing that the Jinro Shochu is one hell of an amp. That input transformer is going to murder your ground loops and line noise. That interstage transformer is going to give your driver stage serious oomph without coloration. All that iron is going to help lock down the current loops inside the amp. You’re going to wind up with a dead silent, Nimitz Class monstrosity that pumps out all of twenty, clean, tone-monster watts with all micro-detail and small timing perfection that draw people to SETs in the first place.
I say it’s a single ended amplifier, but I wouldn’t care if Audio Note wanted to call it a Triple Balanced Steam Powered Amplicator. They can call it whatever they want as long as they keep producing the things. Anyone who has an issue with their naming conventions is free to take it up with the Audio Note mothership. I officially do not care. The amp seems awesome.
How do I know it seems awesome?
Because I started listening to the system on Thursday night. David Cope was one of the industry folks kind enough to give Josh an introduction to listening to gear at shows. He hadn’t quite finished placing the speakers (they only look like they get dropped carelessly into the corners), but, when we asked him to demonstrate what “overpowering the room” sounded like, the system wouldn’t do it. It loaded the room too perfectly. The system overpowered our ears, to be sure. We happily drove the speakers into distortion and the amp into clipping, sure. But, even out there on the ragged edge, there was no real loss of control. The recovery from clipping was basically instantaneous, and the sheer volume involved in driving the amp to clipping in that 400 square foot space was not a volume you’re likely to want to hit without ear protection.
The amp is a total monster.
Still, I walked away feeling that the system was just a little too warm and fuzzy. That was a completely irrational feeling, of course. We’d listened to nothing familiar to me. I think it was the soundtrack to the movie Glory for crying out loud. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to it before. Warm and fuzzy? That was probably the Thursday night beer talking. I stopped back in a few times over the weekend, when David wasn’t playing the system loud enough to make the walls flap, and I didn’t hear anything warm and fuzzy.
But the real action came on Saturday evening, when Charles King brought his battery-powered Cellovox (a Stellavox with his own Cello electronics) tape deck to bear on the system with a first generation tape of the Chuck Israels Orchestra playing in Portland.
The first thing you need to understand is this: if you haven’t gone to hear the Chuck Israels Orchestra blow the back out of the bar, you’re missing out on one of the finest experiences Portland has to offer. The second thing you need to understand, though, is that the next best thing to hanging on to your drink so the horns don’t blow it into your lap is getting to hear that tape in the Audio Note room. The system may have fallen a wee bit short of the maximum SPL of the live band (thank God), and it may have lost a little bit of weight on the bottom of Chuck’s bass compared to sitting in the front row at (the late, lamented) Ivories, but it sounded, both in SPL and in weight, damn near as real as sitting at one of the middle-of-the-house tables. That is what a stereo is meant to do.
Forget specs. Forget pedantic nomenclature arguments. I’m playing favorites because I’ve started to count on Audio Note to provide a reality check at these shows.
To be honest, I’m enjoying every minute of it.