Shindo Masseto Follow-Up, June 2013

Art Dudley returned to the Shindo Masseto in June 2013 (Vol.36 No.6):

I hesitate to say "Let's recap" to an audience whose members have been, on occasion, a bit overeager to stuff their audio electronics, contemporary and vintage alike, with the condensateurs du jour. Suffice it to say, the time has come for another look at Shindo Laboratory's Masseto preamplifier ($13,500, footnote 1) taking into account a few things that may affect all Shindo shoppers, past and prospective alike.

Of course, the notion of a Follow-Up carries with it a message of uncertainty—that things change, whether one wants them to or not. The point here is somewhat different: My satisfaction with the fully featured, line-plus-phono Shindo Masseto hasn't wavered throughout the six years I've owned it. During that time I've heard at least three other preamplifiers that impressed me to the same extent or more, including another, more expensive Shindo; all performed with distinction, all were pleasant to use, and all were, from my point of view as a reviewer, sincerely recommendable. Yet none tempted me away, if only because the Masseto is so satisfyingly musical and downright right. It always sounds rich, well-textured, forceful, and colorful, and it always plays with exceptionally good timing and musical flow.

As for why the Masseto performs so well, I'm only scarcely more certain today than I was six years ago. No doubt its character is shaped, in part, by its wealth of vintage components: big old Allen-Bradley resistors; RCA, Sprague, West-Cap, and General Electric capacitors (the last represented by the two especially large, ancient oil caps that purge the output signal of DC); and new-old-stock (NOS) tubes from Telefunken and Philips. Nor can one overlook the importance of Ken Shindo's many decades of experience designing television and audio circuits—the source, one assumes, of the designer's fondness for unusual tubes, including the very rare Telefunken LCP 86 dual-triode/pentodes used here for line-level amplification—and his sommelier-like familiarity with the distinct sonic flavors associated with all of the above.

The parts are unique, and so, too, is the circuit, which respects the notion of simplicity without sacrificing musical performance at its altar. But equally crucial is the Masseto's steel casework, all surfaces of which are painted metallic green, then fine-sanded and buffed. Central to the enclosure is a main floor, which is also shaped to form the front and rear panels, and which supports a number of partitions and subenclosures. One vertical partition runs all the way from front to back, separating the power supply from the rest of the preamp and supporting various parts (including a series pair of 6X4 rectifier tubes), while other, smaller partitions support tubes and circuitry for the left- and right-channel phono preamps. And then there's a separately formed box, or "stage," that sits a little less than an inch above the main floor—some of the line-stage wiring runs between the two—and that contains the Telefunken LCP 86 tubes and a pair of LEDs for illumination.

In 2013, the Masseto endures in the Shindo line as their third-least-expensive preamplifier (or, if you wish, their fourth most expensive). It has changed since its 2007 introduction, but by no greater degree than the difference between any two samples at any time in this model's history. The faceplate is now a bit fancier, with gold lines suggesting a proscenium arch over the tube window, à la its more expensive siblings. But apart from that, the basic line, phono, and power-supply circuits remain; all one can do is note the designer's predilection for very minor running changes in all of his products.

After years of steady use—involving, I dare confess, a lot more plain old dicking around than any such product would suffer at the hands of a non-reviewer—I have come to accept that the Masseto's sound is a function of all of the above and of countless other seemingly small details, the subtraction of any one of which will spoil its sound as whole. Consequently, while other products invite reviewer and consumer alike to tweak to their hearts' content, the Shindo Masseto asks both less and more than that.

Here, then, is what the past six years have taught me.

Every mechanical isolation device I used beneath the Shindo Masseto—from squishy feet to pointy feet, from flimsy platforms to massive platforms, and everything in between—diminished its performance. In that respect, I've found that the Masseto—and virtually every other Shindo preamp or amp I've tried—is subject to two rules: 1) It wants to sit on a flat, stable wooden structure, with all four feet making direct contact. 2) It wants to be on the same structure as the other electronics and, if possible, the turntable. My borrowed sample of the Box Furniture Company D3S rack has fulfilled those requirements in the best, most consistent ways, although the combined Masseto and Shindo Haut-Brion amp also sounded fine on the maple-ply–topped record cabinet I built last year.

Similarly, I have yet to try a single aftermarket AC cable that allows the Masseto to sound as good as its skinny, stock, ground-floating cord. That's not to say such a thing is impossible, but if I were you, I'd either try new AC cords on some other part of my system—believe it or not, my Quad ESLs almost always respond positively to such things—or spend the money on something else.

Although I admit that I haven't tried it with the Masseto, tube rolling has proven to be a waste of time and money with other Shindo products. The old stock G.E. 12AY7s in my Corton-Charlemagne monoblocks sound considerably better there than the NOS RCAs I tried two years ago. Nothing beats the Philips 6AW8As and G.E. 6EJ7s in my Haut-Brion amplifier. And three years ago, when a borrowed pair of Lafon GM 70 monoblocks was supplied with a full brace of alternatives for all of its tubes, I nevertheless preferred the amps' stock tubes. The only exception I've found so far was with the power tubes in my Haut-Brion: The stock Sylvania 6L6GAY pentodes can be replaced with later-issue Sylvania 6L6GLs with equal musical success and just a slight change in character. (But don't bother trying the recent "Tung-Sol" 6L6Gs, which are simply too tall to fit inside the H-B.)

On a somewhat related note: Ken Shindo runs his tubes somewhat more conservatively than other designers, which results in longer tube life. So far, the only times I've been rewarded for refreshing the tubes in a Shindo product have been when replacing rectifier tubes. My Corton-Charlemagnes, which I bought in 2008, were demo units, so I wasn't too surprised to hear an audible improvement when I swapped into each amp a fresh pair of 6AU4s. And, after four years of steady use in my system, the sound of my Masseto was indeed given a shot in the arm—more impact, drama, and scale—when I replaced those 6X4s.

But here I add a caution: The Masseto's cover is held in place by a total of 22 small machine screws, mated to very precisely tapped openings in the steel structures beneath them (including the tops of the aforementioned partitions). I'm not saying you're clumsy or anything, but careless removal or overzealous retightening of just one screw can strip the threads and diminish the performance of the very carefully designed enclosure. I understand that this has already happened to a few less-than-cautious owners. If you harbor any doubts about your abilities in this regard, simply bring your Masseto back to your Shindo dealer if you suspect the need for retubing.

If I'm making it sound as though you're powerless to preserve or enhance the performance of a Shindo Masseto preamplifier, take heart: There's one thing you absolutely must do, and that's to ensure that you insert RCA plugs only straight into the Masseto's RCA jacks, and remove them the same way, with no wiggling motion whatsoever. Ken Shindo installs in his products only old-style Switchcraft RCA jacks, which he prefers for their sonic qualities, but the center contacts inside those very low-mass jacks are rather fragile—they don't hold up for long in the face of repeated lateral or diagonal force. Only very gentle straight-in and straight-out actions will do.

As someone who has to make and break connections far more often than does the average hobbyist, I've already suffered a few RCA-jack breakdowns on my Masseto and other Shindo gear. The need for a replacement is usually signaled when one channel sounds inexplicably lower in level than the other (meaning that the center contact is only barely intact, and is thus more resistive than normal), or when one channel cuts in and out (meaning the center contact is actually breaking). Lucky for me, the jacks are cheap and easy to replace, especially since neither the robust ground lugs nor their associated wiring needs to be touched. But it's a pain, and if it happens to you, let your dealer handle the repair.

The situation is nevertheless frustrating, and I admit to wondering, at times, what it avails the user to have very good-sounding jacks that, after even minimal abuse, sometimes don't sound good—or don't sound at all. The trouble is, there are no alternatives that I would find acceptable, especially since I loathe audio-jewelry jacks just as much as I loathe audio-jewelry plugs, audio-jewelry isolation devices, audio-jewelry phono cartridges, and audio-jewelry faceplates. The Switchcrafts, like the Shindos, will stay.

Today, six years almost to the day after first putting Masseto No.003 into my system, I'm convinced that my Shindo is sitting on the right sort of surface. I'm convinced that it's hooked up correctly. I'm convinced that it contains the right tubes. And I'm very convinced that it contains the right capacitors, right through to those G.E. output caps, loaded with the same rich Pyranol that has sustained generation after generation of shad in the Hudson River, just over an hour from my home. I couldn't be much happier.—Art Dudley

Footnote 1: Shindo Laboratory, Japan. Web: US distributor: Tone Imports. Web: