Hiroyasu Kondo: Audio Notes Page 3

Scull: Please, Shibazaki—you're doing a wonderful job of making his thoughts available to us all. Really.

Shibazaki: Thank you. So, one of his goals—his dream, in fact—is to recreate that Toscanini performance he heard in 1953 at Carnegie Hall.

Scull: It's wonderful to follow a dream. I don't want to be impolite, but that still doesn't answer the question: As you walk past that window, what tells you it's real? Is it dynamics, timbre, tonal color, harmonics, or something else?

Shibazaki: Well, he answers the question this way. He says it's not only Audio Note Japan, but all other audio manufacturers who have been unable to achieve the re-creation of full-energy bass. When you feel a lack of energy in the bass, that's how you know it's not real.

Scull: There are, of course, many systems with big, powerful bass. But they don't necessarily sound very real...

Shibazaki: Okay—my own personal comment on this. I myself am an amateur musician. And I can feel when I hear music live—it's a total energy, or pressure, that I feel with all of my skin...

Scull: And that's something that audio systems do not easily deliver? Does Audio Note Japan deliver it?

Shibazaki: He says, 95%. [laughs]

Scull: I noticed that Kondo mentioned horn speakers a moment ago. I understand from Herb that Audio Note makes horn speakers, but that they are very expensive, even in the Audio Note context. Most of their speakers available here are moving-coil, dynamic-driver types. Can a moving-coil speaker give a good sound, or are horns the only natural companion of single-ended? And if so, why doesn't he make a less expensive horn?

Shibazaki: You know, he says we have participated in many audio fairs around the world—including in Budapest in 1995—and so far we have had only two occasions to use horns for demonstration. But Kondo has felt that horn systems still have a minor problem, and that's with the midrange horn.

Scull: What would that problem be?

Shibazaki: He say it sounds like this...[cups hands before mouth]

Scull: Yes, I understand—nasal. "Horn smell," as another Japanese manufacturer amusingly put it recently.

Shibazaki: My expression for that is "plastic" sound. Especially when the horn itself is made from plastic! And another problem is the directionality—or directivity—of the high-frequency range. Because Kondo feels that, ideally, a speaker should deliver sound from a single diaphragm. From low to high frequencies, every part of the signal should come from that single driver.

Scull: Like the Lowther driver?

Herb Reichert: Yes. In fact, Kondo-San makes a single-driver speaker.

Shibazaki: Yes, when a single-cone speaker is matched with a good single-ended amplifier, it gives the best sound of any other combination.

Scull: Let me ask another difficult question...

Shibazaki: [laughs]

Scull: ...about the notion of accuracy and musicality in music reproduction. Most people associate accuracy with solid-state—lots of detail, very sharp sound. But some think this isn't much like music. There are also people who think musicality is everything, and damn the imaging! Most people speak about these two qualities as quite separate. Are they two things, or is it one thing? Can you have both? What does Kondo think about this?

Shibazaki: As long as a single designer, like Kondo-San, makes everything in the playback chain, then in that case, accuracy and musicality come together. The other mass-market manufacturers have many engineers and designers who have their own ideas about how things should be done, and that means there will always be arguments and controversies. In fact, that's why he will again challenge them all by building his own microphones sometime in the near future.

Scull: And controlling the entire chain, he might then achieve a sound that is both accurate and musical?

Shibazaki: Yes. Would you give a good English wording for that? Not duality, but...

Scull: Fusion?

Shibazaki: Yes, very good—a fusion of accuracy and musicality. [laughs]

Scull: Or fission...depends on who you're talking to. Tell me, is high-end audio in a healthy state in the world, or does Kondo-San feel Home Theater is harming it?

Shibazaki: He says they are in very keen competition. TVs and portable radios, for example, are always going down in price, whereas high-end audio, he says, is going steadily, healthily, slowly—upward!

Scull: So we shouldn't expect to see a Home Theater decoder anytime soon from Audio Note Japan! But can stereo and video coexist with each other in any way? Or are they two separate entities?

Shibazaki: Well, a purist would have to have one room with a Home Theater, and another room with their music system...never together! [laughs while Kondo explains something further] He says also that they will never come together in the future either, because listening through your ears actually increases your imaginary powers. That's not the case with Home Theater.

[Kondo, smiling, speaks at length to Shibazaki. His movements are spare, his voice low.]

[laughs] Yes, yes...he is speaking of his experience, you know. He is saying he has had more enjoyment listening to the sound of a porno movie than watching it! [laughs] He says he is very good at enjoying both Home Theater and high-end audio. In fact, he watches laserdiscs on his audio-visual system...

Scull: Kondo has a Home Theater system? I'm amazed...!

Shibazaki: Yes, at his lab. He says he switches his brain when he watches it to enjoy the visual elements. Because he doesn't expect much from its audio side.

Scull: Aha! When you're sitting in the dark, Kondo-San, listening to your audio system, tell me, inside your mind, are you "seeing" the music?

Shibazaki: Seeing, yes. Actually he sits in the dark with a lit candle, and he concentrates—with his eyes closed—on this light as he listens. Then the sound is visualized.

Scull: In Home Theater you are handed the visuals on a platter, and the audio may be less than ideal. In your darkened room, listening to a refined high-end system, you can "see" many things, but they're all in your mind. Does that enhance the experience in some way? Could it be that Home Theater is just...too easy?

[This engenders much conversation between Kondo and Shibazaki.]

Shibazaki: This is a rare case, but it demonstrates how he feels about it. He enjoys very much the film of Kurasawa called The Seven Samurai. There is a scene where the samurai are marching. But the image on the screen doesn't show any samurai, only their shadows. But what he sees in his mind are not the shadows, not the trees, but the samurai!

Scull: Very elegant...

Shibazaki: And even, he says, what each samurai is thinking!

Scull: Well, if the system is good enough that you can hear each samurai's thoughts, it must be an all–Audio Note system!

Shibazaki: Yes! [laughs]

Scull: When future generations of audiophiles think of Kondo—when they look back and invoke his name—what would he want them to understand about music and audio? What would he want his legacy to be?

Shibazaki: He say that, ten years from today, the name of Audio Note will prevail more worldwide. He's confident of coming up with new products like speakers, microphones, his own CDs, even tape heads, and so on. When he designs the whole range, beginning to end, then people will really appreciate the sound of Audio Note. He says we are still only halfway there.

Scull: Kondo-San, thank you for your time. And Shibazaki, your translations were wonderful.

Shibazaki: [laughs] It is actually the first time we have had such an in-depth interview. I never heard Kondo reveal so many of his private thoughts, especially concerning his philosophy.

Scull: Thank you. It has been a great honor to speak with you all today.

Postscript: Sadly, Kondo-san passed away in January 2006, while attending the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show.—Ed.