Listening #177: Shindo Monbrison preamplifier Page 2

As with the Masseto, the power supply of the new Monbrison is built around a sturdy Denki mains transformer and a 6X4 rectifier tube—just one 6X4 instead of the Masseto's two—supplemented with solid-state, full-wave rectifiers for tube heaters. The new power supply appears to have more current-smoothing chokes than its predecessor, and Takashi revisits the earlier Shindo practice of using aluminum-can electrolytic capacitors alongside newer types.

All of the above is built into a steel enclosure somewhat bigger than the Masseto's—approximately 715 vs 560 cubic inches—but that breaks with its predecessor by being taller and less deep, thus resembling a more compact version of Shindo's Vosne-Romanee, Giscours, and Petrus preamps. (The new Monbrison measures 15.55" wide by 6.5" high by 9.45" deep.) The extra height makes possible a two-story construction style along the lines of those upmarket Shindo preamps, with all of the Monbrison's circuitry downstairs, and a partitioned upstairs reserved for its six tubes, its larger capacitors, and its mains transformer. As in Shindo's past, every surface of every portion of the case, save for its Plexiglas front panel, is painted metallic green and buffed to a rich finish. All screw holes are precisely tapped, and the various structures, top and bottom covers included, fit together perfectly: a blessing for any consumer, and especially any reviewer, who's struggled to refit panels to casework of obviously lesser quality, often on products that are far more expensive.

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Also in common with previous Shindo electronics is the build quality of the new Monbrison's circuitry. Takashi's building style is, if anything, neater and more precise than Ken's—who, by all appearances, would sometimes change a design while building it, leaving behind bits and bobs of component leads and dabs of solder. (I'm reminded of something I recently read about Sir Edward Elgar, and how he made changes to the orchestration of The Dream of Gerontius nearly up to the day of its first performance, to the great dismay of conductor, performers, and publisher alike.) The Monbrison's parts layout and wiring—the latter all done by hand, without circuit boards—are the cleanest I've ever seen. It isn't enough to say this is the most well-made preamplifier I've ever seen: its circuitry is downright beautiful, to the point where I enjoy looking at the Monbrison's interior almost as much as I enjoy listening to it.

Almost . . .
Some background: Harumi Shindo sent me Masseto preamp 003—only the second Shindo preamp I'd ever heard, the first being the entry-level Aurieges—in March 2007. That Masseto was intended as a review loaner, yet I was so impressed with its sound that I bought it, and ever since have kept it and used it as my personal reference. I can't help thinking that that's some sort of longevity record for an audio critic.

But break-in benefits virtually any piece of high-quality playback gear, especially one containing audio-signal transformers, and it means that my Masseto's 10-year head start gives it an advantage over almost any other new preamp—including a brand-new Shindo.

Consider, too, a minor distinction that also augured against an exhaustively fair comparison: When he built Masseto 003, Ken Shindo guessed that I might occasionally want to drive it with a true single-channel mono phono cartridge—ie, a cartridge in which a signal appears on just one pair of output pins, the other pair being dead open. So he applied to that Masseto the mono modification I described in this column in the November 2010 Stereophile, in which one of the preamp's four line-level inputs is dedicated to mono phono use, with the right-channel signal appearing in both the left and right channels. Takashi Shindo's Monbrison lacks that mod (for now), so I've been unable to enjoy it in that way: a bit of a shame, considering that genuinely good mono playback represents for me one of the pinnacles of listening at home.

With those caveats in mind: On my first day of listening, my impression was that the Monbrison had a noticeably more open and detailed sound than the Masseto—detail in the sense of notes moving in time, not subway trains moving through tunnels—and was the older preamp's equal in being able to let recorded instruments and ensembles sound very large, as needed. The Masseto remained unchallenged in its superior ability to suggest that meat, not electricity, created those notes.

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That was at around 4pm on the Monbrison's first day in my home, as I listened to a variety of records but returned more than once to Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom (LP, Virgin V2017), Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem performed by André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra (LP, EMI ASD 3154), and Sonny Rollins's original music for the 1966 film Alfie (LP, Impulse! A-9111), the last a gift from Ken Micallef. By the time I'd stopped listening and gone to bed, the Monbrison's sound had already begun to change. From my listening notes: "For the first half hour it was noticeably more extended in the treble—not really brighter, just more musical information up there, with very clear pitches—while not being as 'gooshy' as the Masseto. In the hours since it has gotten bigger sounding and emotionally more compelling, almost by the minute." For gooshy, feel free to substitute midrangey or thick or fudge-brownie–like.

From there, as Tom Petty once sang, everything changed, then changed again. During the Monbrison's first few days, as I listened to recordings with more-generous-than-average treble content, I noticed that I was hearing an exaggeration of note attacks—a "gleam" that was also superimposed on some notes' decays, as in the flat-picked guitar in "White Oak Swamp," from Norman Blake's The Fields of November (LP, Flying Fish 004). Although this seemed to affect LPs slightly more than line-level sources, it was also audible with the latter, so I determined to run in the Monbrison by playing CDs through it all day long for a number of days. By the end of my second week with the Monbrison that artifact had almost entirely disappeared, although the preamp's facility with musical detail and its ability to sound crisp when called for remained superior to the Masseto's. Despite its distinctly different circuit architecture, the new Monbrison was beginning to remind me of the Shindo Vosne-Romanee preamp, which I wrote about in my October 2010 column: compared to my listening experience of the Masseto and other preamps, elements of music heard through the Monbrison were like viewing paintings in a gallery that was darker than average but lit with stronger, clearer spotlights.

By its fourth week, the Monbrison's sound had gathered itself together in a way that's difficult to describe: musicians sounded more competent, ensembles sounded more coherent, more single-minded. In all, recorded music sounded more human—and an unbidden image came to mind of a recording as a hand puppet (I pictured Bunny Rabbit, from the pre–socially relevant Captain Kangaroo), and the Monbrison as a device through which the humanness of the hand inside was far more apparent. (For a while, this effect remained greater via the Masseto.)

Today—two months and three weeks after its arrival—the Monbrison has caught up with the Masseto's meaty humanness, as well as its drive and momentum and forcefulness. Better still, it has demonstrated nuances of expression I've never heard from the Masseto: The new Monbrison doesn't just convey momentum—rare though that talent is in the larger context of consumer audio—but begins to hint at the emotional and intellectual energies of the players: something we take for granted when experiencing a live performance but never think to expect from domestic playback. Just moments ago, while listening to one of my favorite classical CDs, the recording of Biber's Mystery Sonatas for violin and continuo (2 CDs, Winter & Winter 910 029-2), I was startled to hear what can only be described as confidence bordering on swagger in the brilliant playing by violinist Marianne Rìnez, accompanied by Affetti Musicali. Last evening, as I listened to "Warm Canto," from Mal Waldron's The Quest (LP, New Jazz NJ-8269/Original Jazz Classics OJC-082), the nearly rapturous sense of drive behind Ron Carter's cello solo was now obvious. With both examples, reverting to the Masseto revealed that those qualities had been there all along: The Monbrison didn't invent them, but rather presented the music in such a way that those nuances were more apparent.

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I'm now confident in saying that, compared to its predecessor—and to other Shindo preamps I've lived with, including the Aurieges, the aforementioned Vosne-Romanee, and a one-box version of the Allegro—the Monbrison has a sound of its own. It's probably the clearest-, most open-sounding Shindo preamp I've heard, with an apparently vanishingly low noise floor with both phono and line sources. On the broad spectrum of dark vs bright playback devices, it's dead center, expressing bass fundamentals and treble notes and overtones with power and solidity. That said, I think listeners who equate high-fidelity sound with copious amounts of air in the treble range may hear the Monbrison's sound as rolled-off on top, but I disagree: with records I know inside and out, the new Shindo left no musical sounds unexpressed—and while I respect the preferences of listeners who prefer to hear airier trebles from their playback gear, I believe the Monbrison's approach is far more faithful to the music. Its colors are not as richly, thickly saturated as those of the Masseto or Allegro, being more along the lines of the Vosne-Romanee: It is realistically, generously colorful, and expresses sonic textures convincingly and without etch. Spatially, the Monbrison does the chunkiness of mono and the nuance/detail of stereo—the latter also without etch—equally well, and can sound scary-big when it has to.

As It Stands. . .
. . . the new Shindo Monbrison has given me greater listening pleasure than any other preamplifier I've had in my system, save for the considerably more expensive Shindo Vosne-Romanee—and although it's been a few years since I heard the latter, I suspect that the new model is, perhaps surprisingly, competitive with its upmarket brother. That the physically beautiful and unimpeachably well-made Monbrison is also a pleasure to have and to use, and that it sells for $1000 less than the model it replaces, are icing on the cake. The Shindo Masseto has been at the heart of my system for a decade, but now I wonder if the time has come for a change. Regardless of what decision I come to regarding the makeup of my system, I'm comforted to know that Shindo Laboratory not only endures, but continues to create gear that qualifies as art.



Footnote 1: Shindo Laboratory, 20-9, Hongo 2 Chome, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113-0033, Japan. Web: www.shindo-laboratory.co.jp. US distributor: Tone Imports. Web: www.toneimports.com.
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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

billyb's picture

Mr. Atkinson,

But why don't you routinely measure the components that are rated Class "A" by Stereophile?

Stephen Scharf's picture

Yeah, that's what I want to know, too. If you're going to measure something, why not something under review? I don't see the point of measuring gear that is not reviewed as there is virtually no context with which to appy the understanding of the measured performance relative to how the component under review performs. Its like doing measurements for the sake of measurements but without context...its virtually pointless. As such, these measurements provide no value to the customer in terms of insight as to WHY a component might sound the way it does and thereby make an informed purchasing decision. It must be for the same reason reviewers never compare equipment that is similarly priced, rather only gear that is significantly more expensive or less expensive than the component under review.

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.

Jerome W's picture

What a pleasure to see a new Shindo product, designed and built by the son of the deeply regretted Shindo San. From your article, it seems that the new Monbrison has its own flavor. But it seems also obvious that the commitment for ultimate musicality (which has always been the trademark of Shindo Labs) is still alive.
I owned a Giscours preamp for many years, and a first gen Monbrison. For some strange reasons I sold them and I regret that I did. The most stupid decisions I ever took in my hifi trip !
The only thing that annoys me is to see this tube rebadging thing still going on and the reference of tubes that never existed mentionned in a magazine as “ Stereophile ».
Imho, it would have been the good time for Takashi to erase these labels and start from a white page of paper.

dougathensga's picture

Could someone enlighten me how the two outs function. Are they both active? Can they be used simultaneously as in one pair going to a sub processor/amp etc..

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