This is an article that first appeared in our new online PDF, downloadable magazine The Occasional this February in our Winter 2018 edition. We’ll be rolling out articles from it over the next several weeks in anticipation of our upcoming third issue – the Spring Edition – which is scheduled for publication this month. We hope you enjoy this new, exclusive content, and that you’ll check out the current Winter Edition of The Occasional and its 140 pages of fresh high fidelity reviews, audiophile gear highlights, lifestyle stories, and editorial opinion.
There’s a lot of things Japanese that I’m fascinated with.
Japanese, whiskies, Japanese art, Japanese films, Japanese culture in general – especially their cult-like devotion to vinyl records, and their practically religious reverence for American jazz music from the 1950s, and 1960s – both vices I share. Having developed a predilection for high-efficiency Japanese horn speaker systems over the years, I’ve come away with a constantly renewed respect for this particular path of recorded-music worship. I guess that’s why I’m fascinated most of all with sub-40 watt Japanese tube amplifiers, and preamplifiers – some in particular are the rare offerings of Kondo Audio Note, a company started by Hiroyasu Kondo in 1976 within Tokyo’s Saiwai Ward.
Few circuit designs get listeners as close to the recorded event as those based around valves in my opinion, and after low-power tube amps were relegated to the history pile of hifi in the early ‘70s (watts are cheap), it was a dedicated group of Japanese audiophiles, and engineers like Kondo who laboured to bring back traditional single-ended triode (SET) valve-amplifier designs which had enjoyed a vaunted run from the ’20s to the ‘60s (along with push-pull valve designs which after the adoption of negative feedback in circuits allowed PP amps to deliver more power) before being unceremoniously swept aside by most for the convenience of solid state circuit pathways.
Usually spoken about in hushed reverence by valve acolytes, Kondo circuit design execution is more art form than technical achievement in my mind. In Munich last year I encountered Kondo’s musical prowess firsthand through the KSL M-77 Ongaku-Pre in the Living Voice demo room, and the Kagura 211 power amplifiers paired with the G-1000 preamplifier, Ginga turntable, and IO-M cartridge in the Kondo demo room. I was so impressed there that I lingered far longer than my schedule allowed for to listen. The relatively new Kondo Overture II integrated amplifier (32 watts/channel, Class-A, push-pull circuit design) was on display near the Kaguras, but sadly, only in static form. It was as gorgeous as a plain metal box could be, and the solidity, and attention to the most minute details of construction were apparent, which at $30,000 USD (current exchange rate), can be more the exception, than the rule.
It was this experience in Munich that cemented my desire to hear a Kondo-based system in my home, and fast-forwarding to October, Lawrence Lin of Excel Stereo in Toronto contacted me about just such a review opportunity. An Overture II arrived within weeks, soon followed by the GE-1 Phono Amplifier, Operia SPc-2.5 speakers cables, KSL-VcII interconnects, ACc-Persimmon, and ACz-Avocado power cables. Having what amounted to a holistic Kondo system in my home, and seeing firsthand the meticulous workmanship of their point-to-point wiring, thick solid-copper chassis plates, and painstaking attention to detail right down to the screws used to affix the top, and bottom casework covers, left me deeply impressed with the level of commitment to design integrity the company imbues its products with.
But it was, ultimately, the Kondo gear’s fidelity to musical reproduction that had the greatest affect upon me. I started with adding only the Overture II to my current system, the inclusion of which instantly brought about a smoothness, along with a subtle ripening to tonality, and timbre that I had rarely experienced personally (I kept thinking about the difference between the first sip of a fine wine, and how much better the second sip is once your palette has adjusted). Next was the music between the lower-octaves, and their definition, and here I was reminded of the variance between approximation of piano or standup bass notes, and the actual, live playing of these instruments.
The amp features four EL34 pentode output valves, two 12AY7, and two 12BH7 valves for the line/input stage. Input valves are Electro-Harmonix, and output valves were branded Svetlana Electron Devices. All are from Russia. Through the Overture II instruments took on a more human presence to their playing – a forcefulness if you will – but not only that, a competence to the playing that I had not been able to recognize previously. Recorded jazz quartets, quintets, and solo performances took on each artists intent during listening sessions, imbuing every CD I played with a palpable emotional connection that left me spent after the first hours-long sit down with the amp.
I then substituted in the ACz-Avocado power cable over the plain-Jane stock cables I use initially with reviews, and was greeted with an even more transparent window onto personal renderings of songs. Peter Gabriel’s Passion – Music for The Last Temptation Of Christ, (CD Geffen GEFD 24206) is an album long used by audiophiles for critical listening. In the best systems it becomes a deep, layered soundstage where a visceral, living, breathing entity writhes with aural complexity. In lesser systems in tends to dry, crisp, and flat in it’s presentation. Passion’s opening cut “The Feeling Begins” features an intricate percussive interplay between Manny Elias’ surdo bass drum play, and Hossam Ramzy on tablas, and duff drums. Through the Overture II with the ACz power cord in place the tension created between Elias, and Ramzy can be felt as the tempo inexorably builds to a crescendo, and comes crashing down into silence.
It is this silence, or blackness, I’d like to touch on next.
The Overture II is one of the quietest amps I’ve ever experienced, as I could have my ear next to the tweeters on my speakers and hear nothing. Not all great tube amplifiers are capable of this feat, and to me this is crucial because the silence between notes being played conveys a huge amount of spatial information which translates into an accuracy, and realism of placement to performers within the recorded space. It is the accuracy of this information which to me allows for the most lifelike playback from a component. The weight to the keystrokes of the 1860 concert grand piano from Maison Pleyel which Edna Stern plays on Hélene De Montgeroult (CD Orchid Classics ORC1000063) cannot, in my estimation, be overstated. Every felted-hammer strike of the strings conveys an assertion by Stern that she is making this piano hers on these recordings, not Montgeroult’s, and it is the bloom, and decay of the notes into the mute background that gives the determination of the size, and placement of the instrument within the recorded frame of reference at the Philharmone de Paris.
Mixing in the KSL-VcII interconnects during listening showcased the attack on leading notes in the 12 Etudes included on the disc. The startling momentum of Stern’s depictions made the Overture II a rival in speed to the solid state CH Precision L1 preamplifier/M1 power amplifier combination I reviewed in early 2017 ($32,975/$51,000 USD respectively), albeit with more refinement to the solidity, and texture of notes. The final addition of the Operia SPc-2.5 speakers cables during an extended session with One Flight Up by Dexter Gordon (CD Blue Note RVG Edition 724359650524) produced noticeable frequency extension in those most upper octaves, and those most low. The SPc seemed to extend the boundaries of the recorded space, subsequently infusing more bloom, saturation, and decay of notes into the silent ether of background. Art Taylor’s cymbal, and high hat work took on more desert-air shimmer, Gordon’s tenor sax became further imbued with tonal colour, and Donald Byrd’s brassy trumpet work took on swagger – in my mind I could clearly see every change in embouchure. The bass licks that Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen lays down throughout “Tanya,” and “Coppin’ the Haven” took on a playfulness, with a more definitive texture to his slaps, and fretwork.
Turning my focus next to the addition of the GE-1 phono amplifier, I ran the KSL-VcII interconnects from it to the Overture II, and ran a step-up transformer into the GE-1 (34dB gain, and similarly equipped with Electro-Harmonix tubes, here it is a trio of 12AY7 dual-triodes) from my current long-term review turntable, and moving-coil cartridge. The GE-1 is a moving-magnet phono stage, capable of switching between two separate cartridge inputs, with an adjustable input impedance selector, which I set to 50K Ohms. Like the Overture II it is constructed to the strictest standards, possesses a solidity, and heft to its casework, and the same attention to circuit detail throughout. Aesthetically, it is a very pleasing match to the Overture II, sonically it provides the same emotional connection to music that had me wearing a path into my living-room rugs between my sofa, and sound system as I swapped out CDs.
The first thing I noticed going from digital to analog playback was almost no change in the palpability of each recorded performance – a nod to system synergy in my opinion. The corporeal impact, and sound stage of playback continued to shift from recording to recording as it should, as well, the lifelike scale of performers, and instruments maintained appropriate dimensions, and weight.
With Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers Keystone 3 (LP Pure Audiophile PA-008 (2)) spinning on the turntable, I lowered the cart into the run-in groove, and was fully immersed in the venue of this 1982 performance recorded live at Keystone Korner in San Francisco. Half-speed mastered by legend Stan Ricker, and plated, and pressed at RTI, this translucent red 180-gram pressing is dead quiet, and I couldn’t help but make comparisons between the GE-1’s paucity of background noise, and that of the Overture II. Blakey’s almost spiritual – and absolutely effortless – crash, and ride cymbal work on the opening of “Waterfalls” left no doubt who was on drums, or who led this sextet. Known to continuously tighten his kit if it doesn’t sound right, I’ve heard few of his performances that seem to present such taut skins as through the GE-1 here. The power, and liquidity to Branford Marsalis alto sax work was only matched by the now obvious call-and-reply between his brother Wynton on trumpet in “A La Mode,” obvious because the Kondo phono stage revealed what had previously seemed merely energetic, was actually symbiotic.
Switching gears to new wave, I found my 2009 reissue of 1983’s Power, Corruption & Lies by New Order (LP Rhino Records R125308) had taken on an anxiousness to the propulsive opening track “Age of Consent.” Where before I merely felt compelled to bob my head to Stephen Morris’ incessant percussive intro, it now was tinged with apprehension, and lead singer Bernard Sumner seemed ill at ease vocalizing “I’m not the kind that needs to tell you/Just what you, want me to.” Regardless of what I played through this Japanese-amplified combination I was alternately left with tears running down my face, or spontaneously clapping, and jumping up-and-down on my sofa. Few manufacturers are capable of invoking so much emotional response from me through playback of recorded events, but Kondo Audio Note did this every time I allowed the electrons to flow from source to transducer through their exquisite circuit topology, and in fact, despite their price point, both components had me contemplating a call to my bank manager regarding a loan to acquire the review pair.
In the end, they are simply beyond my financial means, but should you have the ability to procure such bespoke arbitrators of electronic signal reproduction, and consider yourself among those who value tone, timbre, and natural flow to music above all else, I implore you to seek out the Overture II, and the GE-1.