09 February, 2012

Review: Kondo Ongaku + KSL-M7 System Part I

Review: My Kondo System Part I
Ongaku + KSL-M7 System Part I Introduction

Links to My Kondo System, Part II (all about M7); Part III (the most important one, detailing set up and listening experience); Part IV (largely phono related, skip if you are digital only)
Part V (on old Audio Note M7 and use of Kondo with small bookshelves).

How these (projected series of) articles belatedly come about
Friends often ask me how does my Kondo compare with my other stuff, SET or not. I have always refrained from answering, for the simple reasons: (1) my innate penchance for playing with cheaper things necessarily means I have spent far more time setting up my other (far cheaper) SET amps than Kondo; (2) while the Kondo sound is immediately distinctive for its uncanny presence, its strong projection of the upper midrange demands more time and effort in system matching and, like the best things that I have, I'd want to gain more experience before writing them up; (3) I first acquired the Ongaku and waited for a long time to "complete the system" by getting the M7 set. Since I got my M7 set I have used them extensively with other SET amps, but not so much with the Ongaku itself.

Paradoxically, it was my recent experience with Western Electric that prompts my re-evaluation of Kondo. As reported in an article below, the WE 133A amp immediately seized the attention of all of us. Trust me, the WE sound is unique in the realm of Push-Pull topology, where nothing remotely compares in subtlety and humanness. The event forced the question, if one is in possession of WE, is there room for SET? This led me to re-tune my Kondo system, and I believe I have gotten closer than before to doing Kondo justice, if not answering the difficult question with a resounding yes or no. Lest you misunderstand, the question is not really on which is better, but on which has more strength of what, and ultimately how one makes you appreciate the achievement of the other.

My experience up to now is far from complete, I am sure. But I do know, at least to these ears, most of the Kondo setups I have heard previously tended to be a little unbalanced (usually a little over-bright), perhaps due to misplaced effort at maximizing what needs not be. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. I also know, it shall be an ongoing experience...now, does that answer the previous question?

Kondo san and his Philosophy
Kondo san is one of the seminal figures in the SET revival, but not at all the lone figure showing the shining path, as he is sometimes made out to be (especially by his dealers). But he was the first and only one for a long time who has gone to such extremes.

Kondo san's bio and philosophy make interesting reads. In my opinion, for those interested in Kondo these are mandatory reading material:

Kondo san's Thoughts on Hifi
(from Kondo's Japan dealer Sibatech)
Kondo san's 1992 Sound Practices article on the Ongaku

Interview: Stereophile 1996
Interview: TNT 2001
Litmus Test Now, many of Kondo san's beliefs were/are not unique, and indeed shared by SET designers/enthusiasts. But if you fail to understand, let alone identify with, the talk, then I am afraid Kondo, or SET, may not be for you. If you think all that is empty talk, then look elsewhere.
If, by reading the above links, you interest has not waned, or has been piqued, then there are more worthwhile links. Some are in Chinese but the pics are more than worthwhile for your time (臺灣的音響共和國是個有水準的網頁, 下面一些文章有全面的介紹及寶貴的技術上的資料):

Factory Tour TNT 2001
Kondo華麗銀之聲(一)Factory Tour 1
Kondo華麗銀之聲(二)Factory Tour 2

Audio Note, Kondo, and Audio Note UK
A brief note, though I presume you know the story. Many moons ago, Kondo san in Japan used to collaborate with Peter Qvortrup in the UK. The latter established Audio Note UK, and together they presented and shook the world with Kondo san's designs, primarily the Ongaku and the M7 preamp, which bore the Audio Note name. Later, they had a bitter fallout and, after lawsuits, Kondo san lost use of the name Audio Note, and began using the name Kono/KSL. The rest is history.

I have no intention here of pitching in the conflict. I think Peter Qvortrup, from his first efforts at Audio Innovations to now, had made fine contributions to the tube/SET world. Audio Note UK had made much contribution to the SET world by making kits like the Kit One. But I think it is unfortunate that their current products bear similar Japanese naming schemes to estranged Kondo, even if they are designed by Brit Any Groves.

The important thing is, in terms of current flagship level products, judged sonically alone, I much prefer Kondo Japan to Audio Note UK. Despite the naming game, they sound radically different. Mind you, I don't dislike AN UK products. Contrarily, I like them for their own attributes, but they do not sound like Kondo. When it comes to SET, I shall follow as closely as possible to the Japanese masters. This, is my belief.
R pic: Inside the front compartment of my Ongaku; 2x 5687 in the middle, flanked by 2x 6072) click to enlarge)
The Ongaku is the most famous SET amp ever, if you forget about the legendary WE 91A that is. Here, I must tell you that, although it is said Ongaku means “music“ in Japanese, the ideogram 音樂 is what the Japanese calls hanji = Chinese Characters. Yes, it is a fact music, or other art forms for that matter, in Japan derives from the Chinese counterpart. The same applies to almost all the other model names.

Although first marketed under Audio Note, the Ongaku, or at least the Kondo version, has remained much of itself, an evergreen and a legend at the same time. No other AN or Kondo amplifier has such a claim. I first learned about the Ongaku from an ancient UK HiFi World article, one that is not on the net.

Surprisingly, for such a famous amplifier of longevity, there are not many reviews available on the internet! Here, I refer to those products associated with Kondo san, either the previous version marketed as Audio Note, or those now as Kondo. Not the AN-UK product. Here is a review of the near-original Ongaku (when it was Audio Note):

Ongaku Review 2002 Positive Feedback

The reviewer, Steve Rochlin, noted that he did not like the feedback added (by Peter Qvortrup?) to beef up the sound, but, some years later, the same reviewer waxes lyrics on the current Ongaku AN-UK, which is radically different in using interstage transformers among other things!!! Is the current AN-UK Ongaku an improvement on the Kondo original? Maybe you can answer that...I shall stick with Kondo. I believe, but am not sure, the current Kondo Ongaku is much closer to Kondo san's original design and employs no negative feedback (and certainly no interstage transformer, which, aside from WE, is most difficult to get right in my experience). If you know otherwise, let me know!

There is a nice Chinese review on the current version of the Kondo Ongaku. even if you don't read Chinese you should browse through it:比真實更豐富-全茂試聽Kondo Ongaku後級- U-Audio (編者按:文内有一錯誤"...如果你要把Ongaku當作純後級時,訊號可以從direct檔輸入,就會跳過音量控制器..." 是不對的;direct 只會跳過音源選擇器,Selector 而令其他輸入不能用; 音量控制器還是要調的)The Case Against The Ongaku is so famous that it has been targeted as the epitome of SET follies by the technology's detractors. One that I find particularly interesting is penned by TAS' Robert Greene, a reviewer I generally admire but do not always agree with:

REG against the Ongaku

Paradoxically, I agree with REG that, in many hifi parameters and as compared to my other SET gears, the Ongaku is not at all the epitome of neutrality. But then, for me, the Ongaku's unique strengths bring it closer to neutrality, or absolute sound, than almost anything else.

...to be continued in Part II

No comments:

Post a Comment