Audio Note Jinro integrated amplifier
The last word is up for grabs: Wilson? Levinson? Linn? Maybe. But for me, whenever I'm in pissing-and-moaning mode, the choice is easy: Why hasn't the average consumer heard of the Audio Note Ongaku?
After all, the Ongaku was, for a while, the most expensive amplifier you could buy: £30,000 in 1988, the year of its release. Just as important, the Ongaku was goodin many ways, the best I've ever heard. Other audiofolk appear to have been similarly impressed. Once upon a time, Gordon Rankin and Don Garber, of Wavelength Audio and Fi, respectively, created a smaller but similarly wonderful-sounding amp dubbed the Baby Ongaku. There's even a guy in Canada who's built and sold a few (reportedly quite good) Ongaku copies.
The Audio Note Ongaku has long been the product to beat among people who prize the immediacy, palpability, and musicality of the finest single-ended triode (SET) amplifiers. And last year, the challenge of competing with Audio Note was taken up by yet another company: Audio Note. Close on the heels of their own redesign of the classic Ongaku integrated amplifier, which is now priced at $121,500, the English manufacturer introduced two amps that employ the same circuit, implemented with humbler parts. The least expensive of the two is the new Audio Note Jinro, which sells for $26,500.
The original Ongaku was created by the late Hiroyasu Kondo, founder of Audio Note Japan, and was sold by Audio Note UK as part of a business relationship so complexand, in the end, so controversialthat the full story defies a fair telling in less than a thousand words. Suffice it to say, that first version of the Audio Note Ongaku is a thing of the past. (Though there remains the Kondo Ongaku, built in Kanagawa, Japan, by the company founded by Hiroyasu Kondo.)
Still, a number of key elements remain today: enormous output transformers (wound with silver wire) that are intended to resist saturation and thus extend low-frequency response; a reasonably simple, tube-rectified power supply; star ground design, with a solid-copper chassis plate that doubles as a ground plane; silver wiring throughout; and, of course, one 211 (aka VT-4-C) directly heated triode tube per channel. One could add that the Jinro operates in pure class-A, but that goes without saying: In a single-ended output section, the only way to get the job done is for an output tube to conduct current at all times.
The Ongaku and Jinro of 2011 retain the original amp in their DNA, but credit for the new circuit goes to Audio Note's chief designer, Andy Grove. Distinctions abound: Whereas the first Ongaku integrated amplifier used four small-signal tubes, the Jinro and its dearer brethren use only two: After traveling through an Elna source-selector switch and stepped volume control with a nimbus of 44 individual resistors, the input signal for each channel is amplified first by half of a 5814 dual triode, then by half of a 5687 dual triode. As Grove explains, using two different tubes for voltage gain helps to balance the sound"so you don't get too much of an accumulation of character."
The Jinro's driver stage is also a departure from that of Kondo-san's early design. Whereas the first Ongaku used a cathode follower to drive the output tube, Andy Grove opted for a 1:1 bifilar-wound transformer, designed and built in-house. That, he says, eliminates the slowness of the old approach, and gives the input stage a far more linear load to drive.
From there, the Jinro design appears close to that of Kondo's original Ongaku, with a simple voltage-doubler power supplycomplete with an enormous, high-inductance filter chokeand an equally simple output section, built around the legendary 211 triode tube. The output transformers are also made in-house (a transformer that can handle a 20k ohm plate in a full-range single-ended amplifier is not exactly an off-the-shelf item), and the parts throughout the Jinro are in keeping with what Audio Note refers to as a Level Three product: Beyschlag resistors, copper wiring, and Audio Note's copper-foil-in-oil capacitors in the signal path, plus German-made Beyschlag Centralab capacitors in the power supply (although I did notice four fancy-schmancy Black Gate capacitors) and steel cores for all transformers and coils. By contrast, the Ongaku gets silver hookup wire throughout, tantalum resistors, and silver-foil-in-oil signal caps, as well as transformers made with nickel-alloy cores and hand-extruded Italian silver wireplus a lot more of those pricey Black Gate caps.