Japanese adventure, a.k.a. trip to Kondo Part 1

by Marek Dyba / April 2, 2017

Ever since I actually listened to a tube amplifier for the first time, which in our country at the time was not that simple, I loved this warm, lush sound. I simply knew that this fantastic three-dimensional soundstaging and imaging that I couldn’t even properly name back then, this unique sensation of being involved in music, experiencing it instead of just listening to it was IT for me. The more I listened to different amplifiers the more I realized that no solid-state could match the performance of tube based ones in this respect. So yes, I became a tube aficionado already at the beginning of my own personal audiophile’s adventure. It was love at first sight and as such it was powerful, everlasting and (at least at the beginning) unconditional. So even though since I was a kid we always had some (not particularly sophisticated but still) solid-state receivers at home I knew that one day I would become a proud owner of some wonderful amp with tubes on board. I had no idea at the time what kind of tubes these would be, simply because my experience was very limited.

It actually took me several years before I had a chance to listen to different types of valves in various amplifiers, preamplifiers, and DACs. Some of them were designed by famous and some by rather unknown engineers and sold under different brands. Each time, well, almost each time, I was touched and moved by this type of sound reproduction even after I finally realized that there were some downsides, too. For me there were always more upsides though, so my dream of a tube amplifier remained as firm as ever. These experiences gave me some basic knowledge of tube types and the only thing I knew for sure already back then was that the KT88 valve wasn’t going to be my favorite. All the rest was still a wonderful and highly anticipated “uncharted waters” to be explored.

I had to wait for my first own tube amplifier quite a long time. When I finally purchased one it was a class A, push-pull, 6N13C triode based, Amplifon WT30 II. Beautifully made, reasonably priced it gave me access to the world of tube sound and glow. I still remember a few hours drive in the middle of the winter to pick it up and the first several days and nights (as I barely slept) spent listening to each and every favorite album and then some more. Oh boy! I was one happy guy! At least for some time. As most of you probably already know the condition called “audiophilia” sooner or later makes one restless or anxious. We buy a new component and are so happy about it. Until we are not, because that little devil whispers into our ear that sure, that’s a good sound, but it could get better if only…

So of course I still tried to listen to any tube amp I could, while visiting friends, shows, distributors and so on. One day I finally had a chance to listen to the very first 300B SET. And just as this very first listening session with a tube amplifier few years earlier, also this experience turned out to be a profound one, even (audiophile) life changing for me. Right after this very first experience with this particular triode (in SE configuration) it became my personal white whale. This was not some super-duper high end, several thousand bucks unit, and yet it impressed the hell out of me. There was no turning back. I had to find a 300B SET that I could afford because listening to the music in my system wasn’t the same anymore. It was not a simple task back then but I finally came across one made by the Ukrainian company Abraxas. It was actually a PSE design with two 300B triodes per channel which made my life easier as it meant double the power and thus more options for loudspeakers. Again, I was happy especially considering fantastic price/performance ratio.

I’d enjoyed it for couple of years and in fact I even limited my efforts towards listening to as many tube amplifiers as possible because I didn’t feel the urge anymore. But of course it didn’t last forever. Being a music lover and audiophile means that one constantly looks for ways to improve performance of one’s system or rather to improve this fantastic musical experience that a good setup is capable to offer. It was still not so simple to get my hands on this type of amplifiers – not that many were offered on our market and if I wanted to listen to them in my system I usually had to leave a deposit of amp’s full value for distributor which sometimes was a problem. So to make my life easier I decided to became a reviewer…

OK, that’s a joke, although there is a “grain of truth” in it. I became a reviewer because I wanted to listen to a 300B amplifier – that’s a fact. I knew a well-known reviewer and while visiting his place I spotted a 300B SET. I asked him if I could borrow it for couple of days. He said: yes, but if you like it you are going to write a review for me and if it’s any good I will publish it. It is quite possible that he was joking but I took it very seriously. And so the very first review I ever wrote was the one of Triode TRV-A300SE amplifier followed by one comparing performance of Wavac MD-300B with Art Audio Diavolo (all three 300B SETs). Yes, you guessed it – the guy liked my first text and encouraged me to write more of them. That’s how it all started for me (as a reviewer). So I guess one could say that I became a reviewer to get an easier access to my favorite Single Ended amps.

After this second review I became a proud owner of Tom Willis’ Art Audio Symphony II, of course, a 300B SET, that later, the designer himself, upgraded for me with a higher quality output transformers (used for Diavolo model). And I’ve had it ever since using Western Electric tubes in it (although of the recent production not the crazy expensive NOS ones). Is it the best SET in the world? Of course not, but probably the best one I can afford in my second system. When I became a “full-time” reviewer my main system could not be based on 8W amp anymore. So today I use it when I feel like listening to the music for my own pleasure or on rare occasions when I review some high-efficiency loudspeakers or other SET amp that I can compare to Symphony II. It has also become some sort of reference for me, that reminds me what a “natural” or “organic” sound means (as a second, but a more accessible choice to live concerts, of course).

Over the years due to the job I could listen to numerous tube amplifiers, both reasonably priced and very expensive ones. This time, though, in my own room, in my system, gaining more and more experience. 300B remained my first love but I also got acquainted with other wonderful triodes. Over time, I familiarized myself with products coming from a lot of different brands. Each new experience confirms that for me SET amplifiers offer the best combination of qualities. They are not perfect, no audio product is, as they all offer only some approximation to live music that for me is the ultimate experience, but their advantages always outweigh downsides. The more devices by different brands I listened to, the more clear it became to me that when it comes to tube amplifiers, Single Ended Triode in particular, the best ones came from Japan. There was always something special about them. It was not just about make&finish, or particular attention paid even to the smallest details, nor just their performance. It was combination of all these factors that in most cases resulted in an added value, some sort of magic that assured a unique experience.

As I mentioned before, I started with relatively inexpensive Triode amp, then Wavac and Air Tight and sure they offered different level of performance but each of them was unique in its own way. Each provided me with countless hours of wonderful musical travels to the end of the world and back. As I gained more and more experience I was ready to review higher and higher quality components. There was still one, probably the most famous, Japanese brand that eluded me though for years, the one from the very top of a tube world – Kondo. The name is a synonym of a top performing tube amplifier, especially Single Ended one. Their products are simply legendary and by many considered the best of the best, crème da la crème not only of the tube audio world, but audio world in general. Well, obviously it was a matter of me gaining enough experience to be able to assess and appreciate the performance of Audio Note Japan products. So in fact for a long time I rather avoided products of this brand not feeling quite ready to face the legend, despite the fact that Audio Note Japan had a distributor in Poland, even located in the city I live in, Warsaw. On one hand as SET aficionado I dreamed about having a chance to listen to their products in my room, to meet the legend in person, so to speak, but on the other I kept postponing the day because I wanted to gain as much experience listening to other products, as possible.

Every year I spent a lot of time in Szemis Audio Consultant’s (Polish distributor) room during Audio Show in Warsaw, listening to different systems including Kondo products and for me it was always one of the best sounding rooms in the Show. In 2013, I visited the High End Show in Munich when Mr Masaki Ashizawa and Kondo’s crew presented a complete Audio Note Japan system including prototypes of the new flagship monaural amplifiers, Kagura and Biyura loudspeakers. During each of three days I spent on the Show I visited this room numerous times. Despite all odds, loud and simply poor acoustic environment, I was simply stunned and enchanted with the performance of this setup. As all of you who often visit audio shows know very well, at some point after listening to less than optimal, and often too loud presentations of even very expensive systems, one simply gets tired and at some point stops enjoying it. Kondo’s room was the place where I kept returning to rest, relax and recharge my batteries so that I could keep on going. It was about the sound itself but also music played by Masaki-san – no samplers used in so many other rooms, but mostly 30, 40, 50 years old fantastic recordings of classical music played from vinyl records. There was something in this sound, this added value, the magic, that seemed to put a spell on me touching gently the most sensitive part of my music fan’s soul. After that experience I simply knew that it was time for me to try to get at least one of their product for a review. I couldn’t avoid the legend anymore. Life’s short and there was no more time to waste.

It so happened that I got my chance immediately. One of the magazines I worked (and still do) for, the HighFidelity.pl, every year in May releases two issues with reviews of products made in Japan. And so I called the Polish distributor to ask him if he could deliver any Kondo product for review and just a couple of days later I was enjoying my first close encounter with the state of the art Souga 2A3 SET (or rather PSE, to be exact) amplifier. It turned out to be one of the most profound experiences in my music lover/reviewer’s life. It simply redefined my idea of what level of performance and musical involvement was even possible to achieve using home audio system. If there was any way for me to afford this amplifier I would have never even given it back to the distributor despite not really having accompanying system of the same top-notch quality. The Souga itself was able to push all other components to their limits creating an absolutely astonishing performance that kept me in my chair for most of very short 7 days it spent it my room (you can find my review HERE). Today, almost 4 years later it is still THE dreamed amplifier for me. A year later, in 2014, in Munich I had a chance to meet Masaki-san personally for the first time during a dinner and we had a chance to talk a bit. In fact a dinner with Kondo guys became sort of yearly tradition ever since that gave me a chance to meet also their distributors from many countries. And trust me – that’s a bunch of really interesting people who all share the same love for music and Kondo sound.

Once the already mentioned flagship monaural 211 PSE amplifiers, Kagura, were ready (I mean production units), I got my second chance for a close encounter of the third kind. You can find my review HERE. It was yet another unforgettable experience with state-of-the-art devices delivering astonishingly natural, powerful, refined and incredibly immersive sound. Just between us – don’t tell Masaki-san – if I were to chose between these two I would still take Souga for my personal pleasure despite the fact, that Kagura offers even better performance, hands down. Well, actually if I were a rich man I’d probably buy both, Souga for me and Kagura for the reference system for reviewing. But we don’t live in a perfect world, or at least I don’t…

During these meetings in Munich I got to know Mr Masaki a bit, learned more about the company, its history and its operations. All that combined with the wonderful experiences with Kondo products, made me even more curious about the fact that such a small company was able to design and build not only perfectly made and great sounding components but simply ones of the best there are. At some point I was asked THE question: would you like to go to Kondo factory for a tour and see with your own eyes how our products are made? As you can easily image there was no way I could deny such an unexpected but so very welcomed offer. I’d never even been to Japan before and now not only would I go there but also visit Audio Note Japan headquarters and to see with my own eyes how the legendary amplifiers, preamplifiers, phonostages, cartridges, turntables, cables and so on, are made! There was no way I could have said no to the idea, I rather jumped right at it with full scale enthusiasm. It didn’t happen right away because organizing it, coordinating schedules and so on took time but finally Masaki-san was kind enough to invite me to Japan for a factory tour. I also had a chance to conduct a wonderful, long interview with Kondo-san’s successor who’s been doing such a fantastic job not only carrying on the legacy of the legendary Japanese brand but also adding his own, profound contribution to it. Not only had I chance to visit the factory but also spend a lot of time with Masaki-san and his wonderful wife, which revealed other, more private side of the man behind the brand. Let me share this unique experience with you in a few articles that will follow this introduction here. You will find most of them here on HiFiKnights.com. The Factory Tour has already been published on HighFidelity.pl and you can find it HERE. To be continued…