Listening #94

If you've followed their story here and elsewhere, you probably know that Tokyo's Shindo Laboratory (footnote 1) has a reputation for defying the two most monolithic of all high-end audio commandments.

First, designer and builder Ken Shindo isn't willing to tailor his amps, preamps, loudspeakers, and other playback gear to produce only those sounds that might be heard from a single, mythically perfect concert-hall seat, or to highlight spatial effects for the entertainment of those who know much about sound but little or nothing about music. (Some day, listeners who respond to the sound of Shindo gear may help reclaim the art of critical listening from the ninnies who think it has something to do with "locating images in space.")

Second, and more subversive, there isn't much of a cheaper-equals-lesser dictum in Shindo's product line. Ken Shindo, who's also a noted collector of new-old-stock vacuum tubes and other vintage parts, works to exploit the musical strengths of the many different tubes of which he has chapter-and-verse knowledge; he doesn't appear to regard any one amp in his line as "better" than another, preferring instead to think of each design as being suited to a different set of parts, a different sort of playback system, and a different mood. (In Shindo's current amplifier line there are, for example, two 10Wpc models, two 20Wpc models, two models that use EL34 output tubes, and two that use 300B output tubes; of the ones I've heard, each has different voice, yet all of them sing.) Far more than anyone else with whom I'm familiar, Shindo approaches audio design as an art; if for no other reason, there could never be a best Shindo amplifier, any more than there could be a best recording of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, a best Bordeaux, a best guitar solo, or a best woman (footnote 2).

Yet for all that, Shindo's preamplifier line is less in keeping with the company's blessed defiance of that Second Commandment: Whereas Shindo's line of power amplifiers flatters the proletarian image I like to keep of myself—their least expensive power amp, the Montille ($3995 when reviewed in 2007), is still among my favorites—I think that, as their prices rise, the different Shindo preamps sound more and more beautiful.

Recent experience with some of the dearer Shindo preamp models has provided a more focused explanation: It may be that I'm just more responsive to the sonic flavors conferred by certain vintage parts, the use of which is a Shindo hallmark. Think of it this way: The amplifier shopper who enjoys the distinctively warm yet muscular sound of a push-pull amp built around the EL84 tube—a power pentode that's relatively plentiful and cheap, and that doesn't require an exotic power supply or output transformer—is in luck. The preamp shopper who falls in love with the organic textures and deep, black internote silences that come from designing a product around a rare, hand-wound, 70-year-old output transformer, is not.

Pretty and sweet
The Shindo Vosne-Romanee preamplifier speaks to the world through a pair of such transformers (footnote 3) which surely take some of the blame for its motorbike-like price: $17,900. Other such factors are the Vosne-Romanee's custom-wound Lundahl moving-coil step-up transformers; its Telefunken EF800, Siemens C3m, General Electric 6072, and Philips 6189 and 6X4 vacuum tubes; its many vintage capacitors (Sprague Black Cats, Sprague Vitamin Qs, a pair of extremely large Sprague oil capacitors); and, of course, its gorgeous metalwork and fully hard-wired circuitry.

At 15.6" (400mm) wide by 6.4" (165mm) high by 10.5" (270mm) deep and weighing 23.1 lbs (10.5kg), the V-R is wider, taller, and significantly heavier than my own Shindo Masseto preamp ($12,000), if similarly styled. Its steel chassis—which, according to Shindo, sounds better than an aluminum chassis, with or without the industry-standard stupid-thick faceplate—is no simple box, but rather has a number of integral partitions for shielding and structural integrity. The steel top is fastened to the outer box and to each of those partitions, requiring a total of 26 machine bolts for one chassis surface—and all of the bolt openings are tapped with the appropriate threads. Unlike the products from some of perfectionist audio's best-known makers of tube amps, Shindo's enclosures can actually be put back together the same way they came apart.

There are also different levels of steel platforms, for various different parts. Most of those surfaces are ventilated, and all of them—every partition, every platform, even the straps that hold the Lundahl transformers in place—are beautifully finished on all sides in Shindo's trademark metallic-green paint. The rear panel contains several pairs of Switchcraft low-mass RCA input jacks—Shindo's favorite—and a pair of XLR output jacks. A 0.2"-thick acrylic panel, silkscreened from the back, adorns the front. (The front panels of Shindo's preamplifiers used to be made of glass, but frequent breakage during shipping has discouraged that practice.)

Inside, the Vosne-Romanee's power supply is build around a larger-than-average Denki mains transformer, custom-made for Shindo. As in the Masseto preamp, the power supply's main rail is rectified by a series pair of 6X4 full-wave rectifiers, but the V-R has much greater storage capacitance than that model, and double the number of silencing chokes (a Raymond Chandlerism if ever there was one).



Footnote 1: Shindo Laboratory. Web: www.shindo-laboratory.co.jp. US distributor: Tone Imports. Tel: (646) 425-7800. Web: www.toneimports.com.

Footnote 2: Note to my wife: I do not mean that.

Footnote 3: These transformers' metal enclosures, significantly larger than the ones that contain MC step-up transformers but not quite as large as those of amplifier output transformers, are painted light gray, presumably by Shindo Laboratory, and presumably to disguise their make and model from the prying eyes of circuit plagiarizers, who plague Shindo still.

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