Hiroyasu Kondo: Audio Notes Page 2

Shibazaki: Another difficult question, he says, but very interesting. Here's what he says, word by word: Push-pull technology has its own merits, of course, but only when correctly designed and aligned, as you might have guessed. You know, especially the odd-order harmonics left by push-pull, they are very...[waggles his hand and frowns]

Scull: Not so very easy to listen to?

Shibazaki: Yes, while second-order harmonics are, to human ears, sounding very natural. Push-pull, he says, can sound rather piercing that way. And, he says, in a well-designed single-ended amplifier, the second or the third harmonics are...mildly contained. [laughs] Yes, mildly contained.

Scull: Does single-ended get you closer to the music?

Shibazaki: Yes. For instance, he says he can feel the touch or breath of a performance, or of the players or conductor. He can actually feel the movement of sound, as he did a few days ago. He was playing a piano in a big hall just so he could feel the movement and hear the reverberation. So that's one thing. Then single-ended lets him...[a long translation] feel the musician's state of mind—

Scull: !

Shibazaki: Yes—which is reflected in the performance. So he can guess that a violinist might have had a fight with his wife the night before! [laughs] Or that the trumpeter has something going on. He says he can feel the emotional condition of the artist, or the weather even...[laughter] He believes that he is more sensitive than other people about this because he was involved with the development and engineering of microphone systems.

Scull: Was that while working at CBS/Sony?

Shibazaki: No, before that, while he was in college. He built his own microphones.

Scull: Were they tube types?

Shibazaki: Yes, they were condenser microphones using tubes.

Scull: What has he to say about the debate between solid-state and tubes? Can one achieve beautiful sound with solid-state?

Shibazaki: Ah yes...very recently he had a chance to hear the differences between a solid-state and a tube amplifier, both made by another builder of electronics who is very famous in Japan, a Kaneda-San. It was very interesting for Kondo-San, and what he heard as the difference in sound, as he describes it...well, it's very difficult to translate. It's as if the sound [of the solid-state amplifier] was suffocated, you know...

Scull: Lacking air?

Shibazaki: Yes, but also a clipping sound...

Scull: Hitting the top of its power band?

Shibazaki: Yes, but more a certain type of compression, having no stretch.

Scull: But there are some very powerful solid-state amps that are practically impossible to clip, so that can't be the only answer. Tubes clip, of course, just more gracefully.

Shibazaki: In a valve amplifier, yes, clipping exists, but he doesn't feel...[searches for words]

Scull: Does he mean it doesn't sound as bad?

Shibazaki: Yes, in general, tube amplifiers have a sound that he describes as deep and rich. And stretching. And his criticisms of Mr. Kaneda's amplifiers, especially the tube design, was that the sound was a little out of focus.

Scull: In today's audio systems, imaging is considered very important. That is to say, broadly speaking, the focus. But some—including your own Herb Reichert—feel that you should not be looking at music. Rather, you should hear and feel it more for its harmonics, tonal balance, and frequency response. The imaging doesn't matter. That's quite different from the push-pull crowd, who believe imaging is an important component of high-end audio reproduction. Where along that line is Kondo-San? What is the relative importance to him of imaging and sharp focus?

Shibazaki: It is well said of Japanese manufacturers that they all put great importance on frequency response and tonal balance, neglecting imaging. Kondo-San says they are wrong to do so, because they are thinking like electricians. They design and build based on theories. But he is proud of himself for being an acoustic engineer. That's why he does put importance on imaging or focus.

Scull: Audio Note Japan makes equipment that is very expensive. Please explain why this is so.

Shibazaki: It's very simple: the initial investment was huge. For example, in the case of the silver wires, when he started, nobody else was working with such a concept. So he had to make the dies by himself. He imported silver from Italy because he knew their silver was much used in musical instruments. And he was right, you know. It was very pure.

It's all a bit like the mineral water prevailing nowadays—each water has its own ingredients. So you might say he was attracted to the Italian silver by its ingredients, and technology-wise for its purity.

Scull: Does this mean that the best audio is only available to the very rich?

Shibazaki: [laughs] He reluctantly agrees, although he wishes to make his products less expensive so that they are available to more people. His current production system is with all components built by hand, and each step has its own, you know, particular habit. Audio Note of Japan has only two employees who can build amplifiers, in fact.

Scull: How many people altogether?

Shibazaki: Besides Kondo-San, there are five others.

Scull: What qualities does he look for in his people?

Shibazaki: What is required for a good amplifier builder is his personality, especially obedience! [He laughs, looking at the youthful Masaki Ashizawa, who had been listening and taking snapshots.] In other words, Audio Note Japan's goal is to become a manufacturer like that well-known British company, Morgan. They build cars by hand, so each worker has high pride in building those cars. That's Kondo-San's goal. He says in some ways, it's also like the famous Dusenberg. We sometimes compare what we do to a company like that from the past—an all-out effort where everything is done as well as it can possibly be done.

Scull: I think most Americans imagine Japan to be a country filled with horn speakers and single-ended amps, but clearly this is not so. When Audio Note went to single-ended designs, did he encounter much resistance at home? Or was Japan more open to new ideas?

Shibazaki: Not so open, because the Japanese market was more involved with high-power amplifiers. Some number of Japanese audiophiles rejected his ideas, or rather I should say, they rejected single-ended amplification in general. The total market is still quite small.

Scull: What gave him the strength to follow his convictions?

Shibazaki: Because Audio Note is supported more by audiophiles in other countries than at home. [laughs] We are very foreign!

Scull: Aha! The greatest support coming from where?

Shibazaki: France.

Scull: Of course....Why does he think that single-ended is more slow to be accepted in the United States than elsewhere?

Shibazaki: Actually, he says it's going just as fast as he expected. In fact, it should take time here.

Scull: Why is that? What is there about high-power push-pull that makes it more readily accepted, and what is it about low-power single-ended amplification that requires education, time, and sensitivity?

Shibazaki: Well, Mr. Kondo says it's mostly just the opportunity to experience it. That, and the shrinking stock of tubes in the world.

Scull: Yes, but what specifically is there about Americans that they like a big powerful sound, and what's different about the sensibilities of those who embrace single-ended?

Shibazaki: Yes, he says, it's true—most Americans are very fond of heavy and powerful sound. But Kondo-San also knows that here there are plenty of very sensitive listeners in America, who may have come to single-ended [as they came to] the Volkswagen Beetle. When it was first introduced, America didn't accept it at all!

Scull: No silver wiring...

Shibazaki: Right! [laughs] But Volkswagen targeted up-market—intelligent people like doctors and lawyers, for example, who have their own individual characters. But, he says, the majority of people are very dull in sensitivity, and they like that bam-bam, powerful sound.

Scull: When we play an Audio Note system in the home, are we trying to recreate the master tape or the original acoustic event? What should be, in Kondo's view, the goal of a high-end system?

Shibazaki: [After a longish back'n'forth between the two.] He says that's a hard question, but a good one. He feels the point is recreating the master tape, but also to recreate, as you say, the live event. Especially the sense of movement...

Scull: Mmmm...let me ask the question in another way. If you're walking on the street and pass a window opened on a room in which musicians are playing, what is it that instantly tells you—without seeing anything—that it's live?

Shibazaki: He says...that particular quality cannot even be played back or recreated.

Scull: By any system?

Shibazaki: [laughs] Yes, even with his Audio Note amplifiers. [a long exchange] What designers of audio equipment do is "deform" some part of the playback and exaggerate other parts of it, knowing some important elements may be sacrificed. So in deforming or exaggerating, it's not 100% of the original anymore. But wherein of this he has his own technology for dealing with it. [laughs] Very funny translation, sorry.

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