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For me, apart from anything else, it was great to meet some sixty or so enthusiasts and enjoy the musical experience collectively.
In this edition, I am going to make an exception, because usually I try not to mention manufacturers, because I do not want to be accused of "plugging" brand names. However, because the sound at the show was, I believe exceptional, I think it is worth mentioning the equipment that produced it.
Firstly, I have an admission to make, having gone on about how good horn speakers sound (relative to other types of speakers), I have to concede that on this occasion the "star" of the show was a box reflex speaker, namely the ART IMPRESSION. That is not to say that horns were not successfully employed, because the first three pieces of music were played through the Loth-X horn loudspeaker and the Loth-X horns sounded delightful, and in particular Judy Collins singing "Amazing Grace" (WFCD001) was a highlight, sounding ethereal and engaging.
The amplifier used with the Loth-X Troubadour speakers was the Loth-X JI-300 employing 300B tubes, on this occasion the TJ300 Meshplate, rather than a Western Electric. The TJ300 Meshplate enjoy a good reputation, rightly so particularly because of the wonderful high note reproduction they achieve.
However, for the majority of the show, the amplification used was, arguably, the most famous in the world, namely the ONGAKU made by Hiroyasu Kondo San. It is always a blast playing music with this amplifier, and most people that hear it come away understanding its heritage and reputation. This was no exception. Also, it was nice to run the ART IMPRESSION and the KONDO ONGAKU using only vinyl. The DPS record player and IKEDA tonearm (with Kondo's IO-j cartridge) played the records with a great assurity and musicality.
And so it was by the end of the show that I was happy to concede that the right reflex box speaker, with the correct sensitivity and with correct tone and timbre, can produce a wonderfully satisfying musical experience. I firmly believe the most important issue, from a technical point of view, is the use of single-ended triodes to drive whatever speakers may be employed. I say this particularly as later in the month, I did hear the ART IMPRESSION using a transistor amplifier (and a good one at that) and the difference between the transistor and the single-ended triode was frightening! The single-ended triode sounded organic and delicate and real while the transistor amp sounded like well transistors ...!
Anyhow, a big thank you to Jimmy and Audio Land for hosting the show, and heres to the next one!
I am going to be visiting some "audio friends" in England and I will be looking out for any new ideas and products that I may come across along the way. One of the friends that I am going to meet is Kevin Scott who manufactures the LIVING VOICE range of speakers. Some of you will be familiar with the LIVING VOICE AVATAR and OBX and indeed Kevin's big horn called the AIRSCOUT. Yes, Kevin is a brave man and manufactures both box reflex and horn speakers to the best of his ability! Kevin is also the recently appointed KONDO distributor for the United Kingdom and I look forward to the pleasure of hearing his speakers driven by the best KONDO amplifiers. I will take some photographs and share my visit with you in a future edition.
In the meantime, the summer is nearly over, and the best listening months are just around the corner; when the humidity drops, and the air thins, the music plays a little more easily. In the meantime, stay well, enjoy the music, and do your best to keep Hi Fi neurosis at bay!
KONDO - A TRIBUTE
My musical listening experience in July left me a little confused! Before I explain, I should say that July was actually a rather good month, with a good deal of satisfying listening. The highlight for me was Audio Land's show on Saturday, 24 July 2004. Achieving good sound at a show is extremely difficult, because of the speed with which the set up has to be achieved and very often rooms really are not suitable for music anyway. However, on this occasion Jimmy hosted a memorable Saturday afternoon where the consensus was that the music sounded splendid.
I enjoyed the occasion immensely apart from anything else it was great to meet some sixty or so enthusiasts and enjoy the musical experience collectively. However, as I have said, the show left me confused. The reason was that for most of the time the music was played using box reflex speakers. [I try not to unnecessarily mention manufacturers because I do not want to "plug" brand names but on this occasion I will reveal they were ART IMPRESSIONS]. Having gone on about horns for two months how could these speakers produce such a fabulous result?! The answer is of course that a really well made box reflex speaker with correct sensitivity and tonal balance and integration, can work, and work well. Actually, part of the concert had the advantage of music played through horn speakers, and I thought the horn speakers sounded delightful as well. In particular, Judy Collins singing "Amazing Grace" (WFCD001) was a highlight. It sounded ethereal and engaging. Anyhow, after about a week of pondering after the show, I concluded that the answer is, as always, if the music is good and the equipment is fundamentally right, there are different roads to achieve a good result and good horns or box reflex (or electrostatics for that matter) can do the trick.
Both the horns and the box reflex speakers were driven by single-ended amplification and this to my mind, as I have mentioned before, is the key.
The ART speakers were driven by arguably the most famous amplifier in the world, the Audio Note Japan KONDO ONGAKU. It is always a blast playing music using this amplifier, and most people that hear music using the ONGAKU come a way understanding its heritage and reputation. This was no exception. Now I mention the ONGAKU, really to bring me onto the theme of this month's article and that is, to honour one man, and that man is Hiroyasu Kondo.
I feel justified in speaking of Kondo San ("San" meaning "Mr" in Japanese by the way) because it was Kondo San that brought me to finally enjoy music in the home, rather than "yearning for better", and to become more personally involved with home audio generally.
It came about this way; about 8 or 9 years ago now, I owned a big expensive American Hi Fi system. I bought it because the manufacturer, who was in Hong Kong at the time, is a charming man, extremely enthusiastic and of course, therefore, a tremendous salesman!
I was wined and dinned at the Mandarin Grill, and at the end of the evening I had committed myself to around HK$800,000 worth of "Hi Fi"! I will not mention the brand as I would not wish to denigrate any manufacturer (being much happier just to praise the good rather than damn the bad) but this stuff was, if not bad, certainly not good, despite its reputation to the contrary.
Anyhow, I installed the system and immediately felt "cheated". While it sounded O.K. in the showroom, with all that sound proofing etc. etc., in the real world (namely my home), it sounded distinctly "off". I suffered this for about 8 months, often complained to the manufacturer, who blamed the problem on the Hong Kong agent, room acoustics and so on.
At about this time whilst on a business trip to Australia I stumbled across Audio Note Japan. I had heard of Kondo, but never heard his equipment, but the minute I did I knew my musical listening future was about to change forever.
Having just spent HK$800,000 on the "American Hi Fi", it was a bit disconcerting to realise that I was going to have to start all over again �� but I did! I ordered an entire Kondo system; and music cascaded through my home!
It seems to me that in each walk of life from time to time someone "arrives" who deserves the epithet "genius" in front of their name, I believe Kondo is that man in the audio industry.
It is just incredible how one man designs and builds, by hand, (with really only help from two other people), everything from amplifiers to cables, cartridges, drive units for speakers and so on. The only thing that he does not make is a turntable, tonearm, or CD transport. Everything else he makes and when I say "he makes", I mean it, there is no "off the shelf" for him, each item is designed and built from scratch. It is a truly artisan business.
I find this remarkable, particularly in this day and age, where so much is reduced to mediocrity, and even the "best" seems so often severely compromised.
Kondo's "motivation" was the inspiration he fond in great European symphonies, and also (talk about incongruity!) Johnny Mathis! Apparently, Johnny Mathis once shook Kondo's hand and Kondo's admiration for him meant no hand washing for days thereafter. I heard this from Kondo San himself!
Like all genius, Kondo San is a somewhat eccentric, charming, but sometimes difficult man. Having come to know him well over the years, I forgive him his stubbornness because it leads him to striving to create the very best audio equipment achievable and that, it seems to me, is a noble goal.
In my first article, I invited you to write in and give me your thoughts. I would be interested to hear if any of you think you know of any other audio industry genius, particularly if he is currently little known, as yet undiscovered.
In the meantime, we are nearly through the summer, the best listening time is coming up, October, November and December, where the humidity drops, the air is thinner and the music flows a little more easily.
Stay well, enjoy the music and do your best to keep Hi Fi neurosis at bay!
Jimmy Lam of Audio Land hosted an enjoyable show on Saturday 24 July. More than sixty people attended, and the quality of sound reproduction, by any standard (i.e. even notoriously difficult show conditions!) was fabulous.
The equipment list was :-
Loth-X Troubadour speaker
Loth-X JI-300 integrated amplifier
Loth-X speaker cable and interconnect
Audio Research CD3 Mark II CD player
Kondo M77 pre-amplifier
Kondo ONGAKU 211 integrated amplifier
Kondo KSL-SFz step up transformer
Kondo IO-j cartridge
Kondo speaker cable and interconnect
Now, back to the question of audio equipment and the issue of how to make Jolie Holland, and others, sound as good as possible in the home.
Last week I spoke of my dismay at the concept of "audio cinema", and the whole concept of audiophiles and their love for Hi Fi.
I would like to share some ideas which have helped me enjoy music in the home. I have discovered over the last few years that music played using SET amplification (and preferably records rather than CDs) allows for a much more satisfying listening experience. I discovered this after selling my last solid-state system some years ago and since then I have never really been able to enjoy music so much if played using a transistorised amplifier. It sounds cold and electronic to me.
Of course, I have heard SET equipment which simply does not do a very good job at reproducing music as well, and so was with everything in life, careful selection of the best of its kind is important.
I have had to find speakers with high sensitivity to be able to use SET amplification to good effect. Obviously, the low power SET amplifier requires a speaker with sensitivity. The problem of finding such a speaker has led to many hours (if not years) of trying and discarding unsuitable speakers. There are a few good high efficient reflex box speakers out there, but not many, and of course the very best are expensive. About 5 years ago, I first started experimenting with horns, and, ironically, the trick to a good horn speaker seems to be to make it sound not too "horny"! In other words, a "bad" horn can shout, but set up right it will not. Instead a good horn speaker has an uncanny capability of capturing the flow and the rhythm of the music ... and the very best horns can deliver pure music magic!
For my taste a really well set up horn speaker can deliver the music more realistically than a box reflex speaker, and, as a bonus, very often the cost is much lower than a better "box" speaker.
Recently I have been using a pair of Lowther based horns with a retail value of about HK$30,000. I can say, hand on heart, that I very much prefer them over speakers that would set me back many times that amount. So for those of you who enjoy listening to music with low power SET amplification (or those of you who would like to try) do not despair, go out and find a reputable retailer who has good horn speakers and the results can be wonderful. By the way, I do think that the use of horn speakers requires very careful component matching, more so than with an "ordinary" system. I think this is something to do with the extraordinary transparency and speed of a good horn speaker, which shows up every nuance and requires the electronics and cables to be "spot on" with regard to matching.
There are obviously many different types of horn speakers out there, many of them vintage, and do not be put off because they are not using "brand new technology". Some of these old horn speakers, to my ear at least, can be immensely satisfying.
At the moment I am using a 1965 Lowther PM2A drive unit and I find it wonderful. I have also previously used the Living Voice, Airscouts, and they were enormous fun. An interesting company specialising in horn speakers is Loth-X and they have a new enclosure called the Grandeur. I have not heard the Grandeur yet, and when I do will report, but I like the company, and those of you interested in researching horn speakers should check them out.
The article that I wrote last month examined the idea of categories of hobbyists. I suggested that audiophiles, who listen to Hi Fi are a breed of listener often has little interest in the music but is more interested in the equipment and sound effects that the equipment can produce. Some of you may wonder what category you fall into; are you a genuine music enthusiast or are you more of an audiophile who just loves "Hi Fi"?
Somebody asked me the other day how to determine which category a person falls into! A simple test I suggest is this; if you spend most of your time listening to spectacular drum recordings, and demonstrate your system to your friends by playing these recordings, you are probably an audiophile who enjoys Hi Fi. That is you enjoy the sound effects rather than the music. However, if your friends come round and you listen to either your or your friend's favourite music, you are probably a music lover.
The "trouble" with being a pure audiophile is that the hobby can be extremely frustrating! It entails a never-ending search for "perfect equipment" and because it is never ending, frustration can often be the result. For those of you on the audiophile never ending road I suggest it worthwhile you trying out a horn speakers with a good SET amplifier, it may be the start of some sort of audio relief! SET and horns are not typical audiophile products, but I do believe, done right, they can deliver music free of electronic haze and processed sounding highs and lows, and can make listening to music fun again.