Listening #177: Shindo Monbrison preamplifier

In January of 2014, some of us wondered if the sudden death of designer Ken Shindo would spell the end of the company he founded in 1977: It was hard to imagine Shindo Laboratory being led by anyone but its founder, a former Matsushita engineer who made it his life's work to study not only the designs of audio's golden age, but to learn the sound of every vacuum tube, every passive part, every circuit variation that he might reasonably press into service. Ken Shindo wasn't just a builder—he was one part engineer, one part curator, and one part master chef, and his work stood, so far as I know, as the sole commercial testament to the idea that the sound of music at the moment of its creation is so massively complex that various different—and ostensibly different-sounding—playback amplifiers can honor its myriad truths. Fans of the brand were thrilled to hear how each new Shindo Laboratory power amp or preamp would express those truths—like sonnets on the topic of beauty, how could there be just one?—and we were disappointed to think we had heard the last.

In the months following Shindo-san's passing, Shindo Laboratory was kept alive by his wife, Harumi, and his sons, Yoshinobu and Takashi. The burden of commerce was especially heavy for Takashi, who already had years of experience building the amps and preamps his father designed. In 2014, if anything, demand for those products increased, forcing Takashi to spend countless long days at his workbench, building Vosne-Romanee preamplifiers, Montille amplifiers, and all the other staples of the Shindo line (footnote 1).

During that time, something else happened: Various models began disappearing from the company's website. The Haut-Brion amplifier was the first to vanish from the line, followed by the Cortese amp, the D'Yquem monoblocks, and, in due course, the Masseto and Monbrison preamps. To the Shindo faithful, the reasons seemed clear, if discouraging: the company's signature steel enclosures—and other expensive, model-specific component parts—were ordered from their suppliers in batches of 20 or so pieces at a time: It was reasonable to assume that the discontinued models were those for which the in-house supply of parts had run dry.

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The truth wasn't quite so dire. Yes, after using the last Haut-Brion enclosure he had in stock, Takashi Shindo had no choice but to stop building the model—but it isn't gone forever. First, he had to find a replacement for the metalworker, a contemporary of the elder Shindo with a more than passing interest in retirement, who had made the casework for the earlier versions of the H-B and other Shindo models. Second, Takashi felt it was time to redesign the Haut-Brion: not just its casework, but its circuitry and parts selection, as well. (The new version—which, like the company's first Haut-Brion, will be a monoblock—is due out later this year.)

As it happens, Ken Shindo hadn't taught Takashi only how to build; he'd also taught him how to design. Even during those times when father and son weren't under the same roof, Ken would send Takashi products to update, instructing him to alter the circuit in a particular way and report back on what he heard. Thus did the elder Shindo pass on to the younger many things he'd learned over the years.

Fast forward to 2017, and the appearance on Shindo Laboratory's website of something entirely new: a reborn Monbrison preamplifier ($12,500), the company's first product designed not by Ken Shindo but by Takashi Shindo.

Interestingly and somewhat confusingly, the new Monbrison is intended not as a replacement for the old Monbrison—a line-plus-phono preamplifier with separate, switchable moving-magnet and moving-coil inputs—but for the above-mentioned Shindo Masseto, which was, during its lifetime, the third-least-expensive preamp in a six-model line. In a broad sense, the Masseto was a Monbrison with output transformers, intended to lower the preamp's output impedance from 5000 to 600 ohms. (It's my understanding that, although the new Monbrison is the new Masseto in all but name, that name was chosen because it has been in use at Shindo Laboratory for far longer.) The new model's price is $2500 more than the last Monbrison, and $1000 less than that of the last Masseto—the latter a point to which I'll return.

Grid, iron
As with the older Monbrison and Masseto alike, the line stage of the new Monbrison is based on a stereo pair of triode-pentode tubes—in this case, the Telefunken ECL 94S, used in the previous Monbrison. (The Masseto used the similar LCP 86 triode-pentode.) In Takashi Shindo's circuit, line-level input signals travel from the input-selector switch and a Tokyo Cosmos dual potentiometer to the signal grid of the ECL 94S's triode half.

From the plate of the triode side of the ECL 94S, the signal is coupled, through a new-old stock (NOS) 0.022µF Sprague Vitamin Q capacitor, to the signal grid of the tube's pentode half. The screen grid of that half of the tube is connected to its corresponding plate, indicating triode operation, and the signal appearing on its plate leads to an NOS Good-All oil capacitor, and then to the primary of a custom output transformer designed by Takashi Shindo and wound by an unnamed German transformer specialist who was coaxed from the brink of retirement to take on the assignment. Those transformers are encased in boxes of light-gauge steel about 1.25" wide by 1" high by 1.25" long, and separate secondary windings drive twin pairs of RCA output jacks—a Shindo first, I believe.

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Upstream of the new Monbrison's line stage is a phono section built around a stereo pair of EF86 pentode tubes and a single 12AU7 dual-triode. High-gain, low-noise pentodes such as the EF86 are found in the phono stages of such earlier, upmarket Shindo preamps as the Giscours, their use corresponding with a musically detailed and somewhat more accurate sound compared to that of the Masseto's warm-sounding, all-triode phono stage. According to Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports, Shindo's US distributor, Takashi's goal in designing the new Monbrison was to revisit some of Ken's earlier concepts, combined with newer ideas of his own and implemented with the company's customary combination of new and vintage parts, the latter including capacitors by Sprague and RCA.

Notably, the new Monbrison has only one stereo pair of phono inputs, and its phono stage lacks the built-in step-up transformers of earlier Shindos. (In the Masseto, a miniature toggle switch selected between two pairs of phono inputs, one of which offered MC-appropriate gain by means of a pair of Shindo-designed Lundahl transformers.) Halpern says that some Masseto owners express a preference for choosing their own, external phono transformers—that the price difference between the Masseto and the new Monbrison is equal to the price of an Auditorium 23 step-up transformer, also distributed by Tone Imports, is not entirely coincidental—and Takashi reportedly prefers not to put delicate phono-input signals in the hands of a toggle switch, howsoever high its quality.

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COMMENTS
Robin Landseadel's picture

I understand that with components like these—speciality items with known sonic signatures, euphonic distortions that aid the musical illusion—a review would focus more on the subjective than the objective. Still, the object is a lot smaller than the speakers John Atkinson has measured, the things that can be measured aren't as hard to measure as with DACs and suchlike, there will doubtless be some measurement of distortion that looks awful by modern standards. But $12,500 is real money and the potential consumer of such an object would want to have a clue as regards overload headroom, power at full output, measurable distortion and so on.

So why no measurements?

John Atkinson's picture
Robin Landseadel wrote:
why no measurements?

I don't routinely measure the components that are written about in our regular columns, but I take your point.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

grantray's picture

I totally get why buyers may need data-driven information to give them emotional comfort and confidence on larger purchases. However I've always been the kind to give final judgement on purchases like audio playback equipment, musical instruments, and performance vehicles, based on direct visceral experience of the thing being considered. For example, both KTM and Honda make incredible Enduro and ADV offerings. But, regardless of specs, which are phenomenal from both OEMs, the mechanical feedback from the two companies' offerings are strikingly different. For classical guitars, playability, tone, and emotional connection to the instrument are king to all else. I've learned the same happens when I listen to equipment from Harbeth or DeVore, Dan D'Agostino or Tim de Paravicini. In the end, whether auditioning or test driving, at least for me, measurements aren't even a part of the consideration.

Robin Landseadel's picture

That's nice. I'm not in the market for a $12,500 preamp, in case you were wondering.

Yes, I know expensive things can be nice, I'm a fan of Martin Guitars myself. Doesn't change a thing—Stereophile is unique among audio magazines in having excellent tech work along with the subjective reviews. And when something as expensive and weird as the Shindo Monbrison preamplifier gets a review in this publication, I look forward to finding out how such a component deviates from 'the norm.' By way of example—I know that anything John Curl produces will have awesome specs. Something tells me that the Shindo Monbrison preamplifier probably doesn't. You might not care, but that's what I find most interesting about Stereophile and the thing that makes it different than other audio publications.

David Mansell's picture

Telefunken never made any valves with the impossible numbers ECL94S and LCP86. The printing on the valves pictured is wrong : the "Made in Germany" on genuine Telefunken valves was on either side of the bottom of the lozenge. In the European valve numbering system a "9" in the first position indicates a 7-pin valve : you can't make a triode-pentode valve with only 7 pins. "LCP" is not a possible designation in the European system. Shindo are just overprinting who knows what valves.

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