Listening #54 Page 2

And literally all of the Shindo electronics that I've heard so far have been extraordinarily good: rich, organic, human, and musical—the latter being a term I don't toss around lightly. Not all of them may impress you as being utterly magical—and the ones that do won't necessarily be the most expensive. In that sense, along with more than a few others, the Shindos really are works of art.

The first Shindo product I tried at home was the entry-level Aurieges preamplifier, which costs $3895. (A line-only version is available for $2995.) The Aurieges has inputs for three line-level source components, plus a fourth pair of inputs for a moving-magnet phono cartridge. The power supply is separate from the preamp itself, and each is built into a box measuring 10.625" (270mm) W by 3.125" (80mm) H by 10.75" (275mm) D.

The power supply incorporates a 6X4 rectifier tube—a new-old stock Philips in my sample—for the rail voltage, and a straightforward pi filter; additional smoothing comes courtesy of a vintage Aerovox oil cap. Heater voltages are converted to DC with a silicon rectifier bridge. The mains transformer is an impressive E-core type, and both it and the pi filter's 25 Henry choke are wrapped in copper. A 17" umbilical is hardwired to the power supply, and the power switch is a pushbutton type: green, of course.

The preamp box contains four NOS tubes. At first glance, the tube chosen for the phono section resembles the dual-triode type usually seen in a low-noise gain stage—but the Siemens ECF 80 is nothing of the sort: It's a dual tube, with a triode on one side and a pentode on the other. The Aurieges has two of these, mounted on one side of a short steel barrier, while the phono-equalization network is built onto terminal blocks on the other side. The incoming phono signal is applied to the pentode-side control grid of the ECF 80, while the triode-side plate is connected to the input selector switch and, in turn, to a 250k ohm Alps potentiometer.

The line amp uses two PCL 86s: another dual tube, this time with a triode on one side and a beam power tube (!) on the other. Its triode-side control grid is driven by the signal coming off the Alps volume pot, while the cathode of the PCL 86's beam-power side drives the output jacks, presumably in an effort to keep the output impedance manageably low. (Note, however, that the manufacturer's specified output impedance is 5k ohms: high enough that you'll have to be careful in choosing a complementary power amplifier. Whether for that reason or not, Ken Shindo recommends using between preamp and amp the shortest interconnect possible—1.5m at most—and making up the distance with longer-than-average speaker cables.)

Like all Shindo Laboratory products, the Aurieges is made entirely by hand, and with exquisite care. (I'm told that my sample was made by Takashi Shindo, one of Ken's sons.) The circuit is wired point to point, using the component leads themselves and various gauges of wire: Shindo utterly rejects the notion that any given thing will always work best in every application. The Aurieges is a star-ground design, with the central point adjacent to the phono-input grounds. In a Shindo-based system, the owner is advised to use interconnects in which the ground is connected to the shield at one end and floated at the other; the grounded end should be closest to the preamp for all applications.

From the first notes I played through the Aurieges, it seemed obvious that the greatest differences between it and the other preamps in the house—most notably the very good Lamm LL2 line preamp, with a Linn Linto for phono use—were more of a musical than a merely sonic nature. For example: I've spent a number of hours listening to Ys, the brilliant new album by Joanna Newsom (Drag City DC303CD). Through the Lamm, the angular melody and occasionally dense orchestration of "Emily" were rewarding, if a bit of a challenge to follow. Through the Shindo Aurieges, the vocal melody flowed from note to note in a way that the Lamm, and every other preamp I've tried since, missed entirely. With the Shindo in my system, it sounded more as if a human being was singing.

With the Shindo Aurieges in place, there was also more differentiation between Newsom's singing and the instruments accompanying her. I don't mean that there was a greater sonic differentiation, in the usual hi-fi sense; it wasn't that the sound had been cleaned up, allowing me to better hear the details of the recording (although the sound of the Shindo was very clean), and it wasn't that there was greater spatial delineation of voice and instruments (although the Shindo did stereo imaging very well). It was simply that the singing was more like singing in its sense of flow, and the playing was more like playing.

With record after record, the Aurieges was like a Wilhelm Furtwängler among conductors: It cared less for what the recording engineers had in mind than for the ideal of making music—and in doing so came closer to re-creating great art than anything else. (I know: sacrilege!) Also like Furtwängler, it drew the best, most human qualities from the players: The Aurieges was especially wonderful at communicating subtle forces such as the feel of fingers on the strings of a harp, or the moment of contact between a bow and the strings of a violin.

There were sonic distinctions among the Shindo Aurieges and the other preamps in-house as well—musically important sonic distinctions, as opposed to the cufflinks-on-the-music-stand sort. Listening to a new LP reissue of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic's famous recording of Shostakovich's Symphony 5 (Columbia/Cisco Music MS-6115), the brass sounded righter and more convincing through the Aurieges. They had the sheen and sheer blat they needed to sound real, but those qualities weren't overcooked or overdone. The natural glow of the instruments melded with the sound of the hall to create an utterly stunning tone—no other word for it.

The Aurieges wasn't just a happy-lens. It didn't make the strings on Frank Sinatra's September of My Years (LP, Reprise 73799) sound right, because those strings weren't recorded right—although the Shindo preamp caressed the melodies and got the timing right and let the string bass keep its beautiful bounce. And the Shindo didn't make the voices and instruments on Roxy Music's For Your Pleasure (LP, Warner Bros. BS 2696) sound at all the way they do in life (except, perhaps, the electric bass in "The Strand" and the lead vocal in "Grey Lagoons"), because that wasn't the sort of recording the group was trying to make. But the electronically treated guitar and saxophone sounded wonderful and engaging through the Aurieges, and the Shindo preamp was sufficiently free of timing distortions that "Editions of You" flat-out rocked. (The Shindo was also temporally clear enough to show how the band slows down a tiny bit—unintentionally, I assume—during the instrumental break in the middle of "The Strand.")

Some miscellany: The Aurieges didn't require much warmup to sound its best—20 minutes seemed to do it—but it sounded a bit grainy and deliberate when cold. Counterintuitively, the Aurieges sounded better with its two boxes stacked, preamp atop power supply, than when they were side by side. Putting three Ayre Myrtle Blocks under the stacked boxes made everything sound worse: Center fill was diminished, and the music took on a slight mechanical quality. Weird.

The Aurieges had the lowest noise floor—the least amount of hiss and hum—I've heard from any tubed preamplifier, ever. And, try as I might, I simply could not coax any amount of hum out of the Shindo preamp's phono section: Regardless of how the various ground leads were connected (or not), it sounded the same.

About five years ago, New Yorker Jonathan Halpern discovered the products of Shindo Laboratory through an acquaintance in France, where Shindo gear is especially well loved. One thing led to another, and, in 2003, Halpern set up a company called Tone Imports (footnote 2) to distribute the green goodies here in the US. After that, Ken Shindo came to New York for a business visit, and while he doesn't speak a word of English and Halpern doesn't speak a word of Japanese, they managed to understand one another well enough.

"With Shindo, every order is a custom order," Halpern says, "and a product can change over the course of time. If a customer wants something special, that's not a bad thing: Ken listens, and he builds it that way if he can. But if I ask for something that Ken thinks is a bad idea—like an extra switch I asked for on a phono preamp—he won't do it. He won't compromise the sound at all.

"If I called him tomorrow with a guaranteed order for a hundred 6550 amps—all exactly the same—I know he'd hang up on me," Halpern says with a slightly exasperated laugh. "What can I say? He's an artist."

In early March, after I'd lived with my Aurieges preamp sample for a short while, Shindo's wife, Harumi, sent me their current entry-level amplifier, the 15Wpc push-pull Montille ($3895), and I'm running it in as I write this. Next month, I'll report on that and one or two other Shindo pieces, along with Shindo's proprietary silver interconnects. In the meantime, I'm happily enchanted with Shindo Laboratory's level of music making—and astounded by their equally high level of value.

Footnote 2: Tone Imports. Tel: (646) 425-7800. Web: