Listening #55 Page 2

Equally impressive—and altogether unexpected—was the Montille's extraordinarily high value for the money. I've opened its chassis a number of times and marveled at the Montille's build quality, not to mention the provenance of its parts. More important, I've listened to it for hours on end, and been thoroughly enchanted by this little amp's performance every single time I've powered it up. To think that so unique and musically superior a design, hand-built to such a high level of quality, can sell for only $3995 is nothing short of wondrous.

Shindo Masseto preamplifier
So there I was, basking in the beauty of the Aurieges and Montille, when my newly established status quo was challenged—by more Shindo gear.

First came the Masseto preamplifier ($11,500), the latest Ken Shindo design to hit the marketplace. This is something of a midprice model for Shindo Laboratory (their most expensive preamp, the appropriately named Petrus, sells for $40,000), yet one that seems intended to satisfy its new owner for the remainder of his or her life. Like the version of the Aurieges I tried last month, the Masseto is a full-function preamplifier, with line and phono stages under one roof. The Masseto goes a step further, providing a switchable choice between moving-magnet and moving-coil phono inputs, the latter accomplished with an onboard pair of amorphous-core step-up transformers.

Actually, the Masseto goes more than one step further. It begins by coddling the input signal with a Tocos (aka Tokyo Cosmos) carbon-comp volume control, and ends by buffering the line-level signal with a pair of custom-wound output transformers. (The Masseto's output impedance is a low 600 ohms—which compares favorably with the 5k ohm output impedance of the Shindo Aurieges.) The Masseto's dual-mono power supply is based on a pair of Philips 6X4WA rectifier tubes, the phono stage uses one Philips 6189W and one Philips 12AT7 per channel, and its line stage uses a single LCP86 triode/pentode per channel. (The LCP86 is a rare, Telefunken-specific variant of the PCL86 dual tube used in the Aurieges.) The two Telefunken tubes are mounted, House of Usher style, behind a small window on the panel, and are illuminated by a pair of green LEDs: a welcome touch of whimsy in a hobby often drained of same.

The build quality is amazing: Gazing inside the Masseto, I found myself muttering awestruck profanities so often that I embarrassed myself. Everything is hand-wired, of course, with some portions of the circuitry laid out horizontally and others built up along vertical structures. Even the metal brackets that hold various small parts in place are lacquered green and polished. And, of course, vintage parts abound, including a healthy number of Sprague Vitamin Qs and a pair of old G.E. oil caps that appear to have been manufactured around the time Milton Berle made the transition from radio to TV.

Taking over from the Shindo Aurieges, the Masseto did nothing less than change the way my system played music. An example: Right after Dirk Powell's accordion solo in the version of "Red Haired Boy" on guitarist David Grier's Hootenanny (Dreadnought 9801), Grier plays an especially long, flowing string of eighth notes—itself not an unusual thing. But what did stand out was the manner in which the Masseto seemed to change the phrase: Before the Masseto, it was a nice string of notes; after, it was a string of notes that were clearly being played in an alternating (up/down) picking style, with a fair amount of force, and on an old steel-string guitar.

At times, the Masseto was almost too much. The opening chords of Karl Anton Rickenbacher and the Bamberg Symphony's recording of Karl Amadeus Hartmann's Sinfonia Tragica (CD, Koch Schwann 3-1295-2) made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. One morning, I forgot where I was for a fraction of a moment, and began to applaud at the end of the fiddle tune "Liberty," on Doc Watson's Live at Gerdes Folk City (CD, Sugar Hill SUG-CD-3934). Time after time, I found myself responding to my hi-fi the way I respond to real music. That's more or less the idea, isn't it?

The Masseto didn't just play music better than the Shindo Aurieges: It sounded better, too. The more expensive preamp had a distinctly wider frequency range, no doubt because of its lower output impedance. And while I didn't expect the stunningly low noise floor of the Aurieges to be bettered so soon, the Masseto did just that: It was even quieter, darker, and deeper between the notes—and, as with its less expensive brother, I simply could not get the Masseto's phono section to hum.

Speaking of the phono section, Ken Shindo added a special feature to my sample of the Masseto: a phono-only mono override. By turning the source selector knob to Aux during phono playback, I could combine the two channels for a mono blend, regardless of whether the MC or MM stage was selected. Pure, single-channel joy.

Shindo Laboratory Cortese power amplifier
After such a revelatory preamp, the chance to spend a few weeks with a more expensive Shindo amplifier might have seemed like an afterthought—but the Shindo Cortese ($9500) was more than just a coda to my Masseto experience. The least expensive of Shindo's single-ended amplifiers—and the only one that's built on a stereo chassis (footnote 4)—the Cortese is built around the Siemens F2a, an indirectly heated tetrode that some tube mavens regard as an industrial-strength 300B.

The Cortese uses the same tube-and-diode power supply as the Shindo Montille, yet here, the output of the full-wave rectifier goes to a single large choke instead of two very small ones. Again, the 6WA8 is the driver tube of choice, and again, the circuit is almost as much fun to look at as it is to audition.

Immediately after installing the Cortese in my system, I played the CD of Hillary Hahn's recording of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony (Sony Classical SK 60584). Although the Cortese sounded bigger than the Montille from the start—much bigger, in fact—I was perversely relieved to hear that it was also darker, grainier, less open, and a little less tuneful overall. Thank God: At least I didn't have to worry about finding a way to afford this one.

But within a few days of running it in, my hopes had been dashed: Musical lines took flight and sang. Melodies popped out of nowhere. There was no sound that didn't sound like music. And the Cortese was more open, too. What to do now?

The most immediately obvious difference between the Montille and the Cortese was that the latter made the music sound bigger—much bigger. Early on, I noticed that I enjoyed the Cortese more when I was sitting at my desk than when I was sitting close to the speakers, in the seat I usually use for listening. Then I realized that my system's sense of scale had changed altogether. I had to move my seat farther back from the speakers—literally—whenever I used the Cortese, in order to understand and enjoy it.

And despite my usual disdain for reviews that devote paragraph after turgid paragraph to dissecting a product's sound from octave to octave, I can't keep from singling out this amp's consistently stunning bass performance: quick, clear, and tuneful, with extraordinary depth and power. Forgive the cliché, but listening to the performance of César Franck's Organ Chorale 2 in B Minor (LP, Lyricon LRC 2-5) was like hearing it for the first time. And the orchestral bass drum in Itzhak Perlman's recording of Berg's Violin Concerto, Dem Andenken eines Engels, with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony (LP, Deutsche Grammophon 2531 110), had tremendous weight and believable resonance.

More important, however, was the Cortese's ability to communicate the meaning of the music, and the emotional subtleties contained within the performance. Perlman has never been one of my favorite violinists, and although I've enjoyed many of his live performances, I don't especially treasure any of the Ozawa recordings in my collection. But with the Shindo Masseto preamp and Cortese amplifier at the heart of my system, I heard things in that LP I'd never heard before—especially the sense that both men really liked this music, which is something often missing from the home listening experience. That feeling carried over to the Stravinsky Violin Concerto on the other side: The players' enthusiasm leaped from the groove with the very first chord—and it seemed that Ozawa was coaxing more instrumental color from his musicians than one might normally expect. It was completely and relentlessly enchanting.

And there's more...
Holy cripes, there's always more. There are Shindo silver interconnects, which I've heard, and Shindo silver speaker cables, which I haven't. (But I have tried the ones designed and made by Keith Aschenbrenner of Auditorium 23, Shindo's European distributor. Aschenbrenner's handmade copper cables—sheathed in green fabric, of course—cost $950 per 8' pair, and sounded wonderful with the amps that I tried.) Ken Shindo also rebuilds Garrard 301 turntables, reproduces Ortofon/EMT studio tonearms, refines Ortofon SPU phono cartridges, and offers a numbingly beautiful loudspeaker called the Latour, which is built around a field-coil-energized driver, if you can imagine such a thing.

For now, my experience is limited to the Shindo electronics—and, in case you haven't picked up on this by now, I think they're wonderful.

Howsoever short that description falls, I stress one thing above the others: More than from any other brand I can think of, the products from Shindo Laboratory remind the listener that music is an event in time—and that audio electronics not only distort the music's complex waveform in a steady-state way, but also the manner in which that waveform continually changes. In my view, the latter is more crucial than the former, because that's what music is all about. Music does not "live in the midrange"—or the bass, or the soundstage, or the dynamic peaks: Music lives in time. Ken Shindo's amps are better than any others I've heard so far at getting that right.

And while all of the Shindo products I've tried performed beautifully in their way, the one that impressed me the most was the Montille amplifier. At $3995, the Montille isn't just a good value—it's a brilliant value, standing alongside the Rega RB-300 tonearm and the Nordost Flatline speaker cable as one of the greatest bargains in audio. Judged for its superior musicality, engaging sound, superb build quality, and the undeniable cool factor of a handmade, limited-edition amp, the Shindo Montille may be the most recommendable amp on earth.

Footnote 4: Ken Shindo also makes a single-ended version of his Montrachet stereo amp, but it isn't available in the US.