I was in the city of neon sulphate wonderment and I was pissed off. I was at a major punk rock festival in Shinjuku, contentedly ticking off my J-punk bucket list but Peter Vo, the Australian Kondo Audio Note distributor, was driving me crazy. Like I had time to spare doing a factory tour of Audio Note when the likes of Sato Sally Yoko, the bass player of the Tokyo Cramps, was asking me to stay.
It also meant cheating on my main man Robert Koch (of Robert Koda LLC) who always gets my days off on a trip to Japan. My mood didn’t improve when I found out the Audio Note factory is now based out of Kawasaki city. That’s a good hour or two by suburban train from central Tokyo. Train travel around Japan is an essential and mind-bending trip in itself. But, Kawasaki is almost at the southern port city of Yokohama. Nothing much grows in Yokohama except a few good Chinese ex-pat restaurants and the Jett Sett, a great Joan Jett-styled group led by the impossibly sexy, Gibson SG-toting Mah Ogawa.
The music was “Like a Virgin” by Madonna. Unbelievably sharp and tight “kick” knocked out me immediately.
C’mon, you know I ended up going. I told myself I would spend no more than half an hour at closing time at the Audio Note factory. I would promise Masaki Ashizawa, the post-Kondo president and chief designer, to do it properly another time. I would pay my respects to the fabled Ongaku integrated amplifier I will never be able to afford and get back to the rock – and Sally – in Tokyo as soon as possible. I ended up staying four-and-a-half hours after closing, comparing and contrasting every Audio Note power amplifier in the present-day line-up. I just plain forgot about time. Although, I will never forget about “Hurricane” Sally…
Mr. Kondo and Mr. Ashizawa
I met Hiroyasu Kondo, the founder of Audio Note, once in the late ‘90s. It was a drunken shambles of an evening only the Japanese know how to properly conduct. As an audio innovator and visionary, the literally silvery and wiry Mr. Kondo had few peers. The products this self-styled “Audio Silversmith” designed – involving ubiquitous use of silver trannies, caps, and wire – are still name-checked by rival manufacturers seeking to cash in on the Kondo zeitgeist of natural, unforced musicality. As much as he championed Toscanini, I have it on good authority from a former employee that Kondo really got his creative juices flowing by listening to porno soundtracks.
His successor Masaki Ashizawa is a rather different personality. Whilst respectful of the design tradition he has inherited, Masaki is a no less talented and insightful designer in his own right. Masaki began his hi-fi career building the Ongaku and has helmed the Audio Note company since Kondo passed away in 2006. It is arguable that the Audio Note legacy is now as much his as it is Kondo’s. A clearly humble man, he presents as a gentle and reflective soul but certainly more grounded and business-minded than his flamboyant forbear.
The factory itself and its underlying engineering approach
The Audio Note factory is relatively spacious compared to other Japanese audio facilities I’ve visited. Back in the day, Junji Kimura of 47 Labs, for instance, basically used his cutting lathe as his headboard. Most importantly perhaps, the Audio Note listening room is one of the very best I have experienced anywhere in the world.
On the evening of my visit, the system comprised a front end of the now sadly extinct Audio Note Ginga turntable, with its heavily tweaked SME V-12 tonearm – silver wired of course – and an IO-M cartridge. This fed a gleaming G-1000 preamplifier and GE-10 phono stage. Only vinyl, and only jazz and classical LPs were played. “No rock tonight,” said Ashizawa, shaking his head in a very un-J way. The sound from this source was noticeably stable, muscular, and had superior drive and forward momentum. Grounded, if you will.
The sound of the amps
Over the course of the evening I got to hear, and go back and hear, whichever model I wanted in the current Audio Note range. This included the Souga with its quartet of parallel 2A3s, the 300B-based Gakuoh II and the Big Kahuna flagship 211-fueled Kagura monoblocs – as well as the startlingly good new EL34-based Melius stereo power amplifier. There is nothing quite as sweet as a great EL34 amplifier and the Melius is definitely many leagues ahead of the earlier Overture integrated which also uses the same pentodes. As a supreme musical communicator, it gave up little in comparison to its higher-priced siblings.
The Audio Note house sound – no matter what the particular output tube deployed – is big, bold and beautiful. It is tonally rich and teeming with energy, life and colour. It never sounds overly rose-tinted or soft and saggy at the frequency extremes. This speaks to Audio Note designs having significantly extended bandwidth compared to competing DHT SET amplifiers. Whilst each amplifier did ample justice to the qualities of the particular output tubes used, the common, wholly immersive Audio Note DNA was felt throughout. The sound is dynamic and has incredible scale and separation. The midrange is breathtakingly transparent and detailed. The bass is powerful and extended with great timing and pitch definition. I was addicted. I couldn’t wait to get home and email Masaki to find out what’s in his stash.
Masaki Ashizawa Q&A
Peter Katsoolis: How did you become interested in music and playback as a young person? What are your musical influences?
Masaki Ashizawa: “I was born to be a kid with high curiosity to sound. Couldn’t remember it well, but I was always attracted by the beautiful sound emitted from musical instruments. I tried to play some musical instruments to know what sound does it have. I started to learn playing an organ when I was in kindergarten. I still enjoy playing music with my band. Now, listening to music is my work and playing music is one of my hobbies.”
PK: What instrument do you play in your band?
MA: “I play drums and mainly pop music.”
PK: How did you become interested in hi-fi design? What products from the past inspired you?
MA: “My interest in hi-fi design started after I met Mr. Kondo. On the other hand, I had interest to know how it works for anything. My father worked as a power electric engineer and he was a DIYer. He had a lot of tools from soldering iron to electric saw. Sometimes I helped him when I was young and learned the basic of making things. My first question appeared when I listened the music by YMO (Yellow Magic Orchestra) on an LP record. Why are there sounds in the left, right and centre – even though there is grooves traced by one needle only? Then I knew… it was stereo.
“I studied electronics at school and also I enjoyed playing music. When I was a student of a technical school, I met Mr. Kondo. He invited me to his factory and I had an opportunity to listen his five-way horn speaker system. It was a system by YL Acoustic which is legendary horn speaker manufacturer in Japan. The music was “Like a Virgin” by Madonna. Unbelievably sharp and tight “kick” knocked out me immediately. Another music was Saint-Saens Symphony No.3. Low tones of the organ at latter part of 1st movement is so natural and makes peaceful atmosphere. This was my first hi-fi experience.”
PK: Could you tell me a bit more about these YL horns you mentioned?
MA: “The YL Acoustic Laboratory is a Japanese horn speaker manufacturer from around 1950 to 1980. This company was a solid old brand in Japan. They were making mainly compression drivers and horns for five-way speaker systems. Those drivers used a huge size of Alnico magnet and light weight (aluminium alloy "super duralumin") diaphragm (at that period). The sound was dynamic and silent as a horn system. It was also smooth because founder Mr. Yoshimura was a classical music lover. After Mr. Yoshimura passed away, Audio Note Mr. Kondo took over the YL in 1981. We were continually making some of the drivers and did after-support until around 2000. Our Kondo logo uses a horn emblem which came from YL Laboratories. We used to have three to four major horn manufacturers in Japan (unfortunately not now). YL is the mother company of them all.”
PK: How did you come to work for Kondo? What did you learn from him?
MA: “I worked for a mass production hi-fi manufacturer for a few years just after I graduated from technical college. However, eventually I asked to Mr. Kondo for work at Audio Note because I could not forget the experience of the first visit of Audio Note listening room. Of course I learned audio circuit and materials from him. Also I learned enjoyment of classical music especially Toscanini. However, I think the most important thing that I learned from him is passion for the music. Keeping the mind high for perfection is very important for a designer. Otherwise extraordinary products will never appear. Mr. Kondo opened up my eyes and showed me a good designer can be limitless in thinking, products design … or anything.”
PK: How does it feel to now be the chief designer for Audio Note? What do you want to do differently than what Kondo would have done?
MA: “I am a chief designer. And now I am taking care the business and company as well. Mr. Kondo was designing the products with full effort almost to the sound. Now, top priority for designing is still sound performance, of course. Moreover, we are taking efforts to improve product safety, stability and features. We developed an assemble method using unique module style of circuit boards. This achieved both the sound quality and building stability in high level. I have a right-hand person as a designer. Therefore, I can spend more time to think what product should we make or which direction we should go.”
PK: How do you balance the strong heritage and particular viewpoint of Kondo with new innovation and your own views as to how a product should sound and be designed?
MA: “To be innovative! Mr. Kondo was always looking for new material or circuit design and applied them to new products for improvements. Finally the products are changing and changing. This is our true heritage. I keep this mind and producing better products.”
PK: Of all the great products in the Audio Note line, what is your personal favourite and why?
MA: “It’s not easy to pick one product. Ongaku is my favorite. The sound is direct and dynamic. As you know, our Ongaku is the amplifier that bring our brand up to the top level in the hi-fi market. The 211 power amplifier is my first amplifier to build. I studied the tube circuit, the way of wiring, designing the chassis etc. by making the amplifier based on the Ongaku for myself. I love the tube 211. It is the most linear tube in triode. The appearance is good for me. Bright filament gives warm and grand feeling to me.”
PK: What system do you use yourself at home?
MA: “Now, my system is almost prototype of our products. Ginga + IO, KSL-M77, Kegon-M (300B PSE Mono block), two-way speaker that I made… I use a music server for a test.”
PK: What qualities do you value or listen for in sonic reproduction?
MA: “Finally I listen the vocal carefully. I want it to be natural as much as possible. Also, I think uncoloured, rich mid-low range gives a grace in to the total sound.”
PK: Do you feel hi-fi culture has changed in your lifetime? For the better or for worse? Has it become too expensive for the majority of people?
MA: “Yes, I think hi-fi culture has changed very much. I think the ‘70s to ‘80s was golden time for the music and hi-fi. There were many good music which people spent huge cost and time for recording. A lot of people owned a hi-fi system for amusement. It represented good taste as well as an identity of status. After digital technologies existed, the process of making the music and recording are big changed. It changed to get more efficiency. Now, all people have wearable music player. It became more easy to listen to any kind of music in anytime, anywhere. However, the listening style get more casual and don’t expect quality. Some of the high-end audio products nowadays are too expensive. Many are over-priced by simply adding luxurious elements instead of research and developing good sound. Our products are also expensive. However, they have a lot of things that we spent time and effort to get soul of music.”
PK: What is your hope for the future of the company?
MA: “One of my hopes is having a speaker as a product. It may be using horns. I still have interest in recording.”
PK: What were the design goals for the new Melius amplifier and new M7 heritage preamplifier? How do they differ in their design brief to older Audio Note designs?
MA: “The concepts for Melius and M7 Heritage are very different. Melius is our entry level of power amplifier which is designed based on Overture. It uses pentode push-pull for having reasonable output power and driving capability for modern speakers. We made an effort to get Kondo taste from EL34s. M7 Heritage is the preamplifier that have built-in phono. We had a famous preamplifier “M-7.” Keeping the lively tonal character was the top priority for designing. Moreover, the line output stage is improved for matching to modern equipment. Our latest methods for manufacturing contributed to safety and stability.”
Much of the world is sadly still in lockdown. Travel I formerly took for granted and glib bucket-list ticks are seemingly a thing of the past for some time to come. During this Pandemic, at least, it is very much up to accomplished hi-fi like Kondo Audio Note to do the real transporting.
The current range of Kondo Audio Note products is proof positive that Masaki Ashizawa has emerged from the shadow and reflected glory of his mentor, Hiroyasu Kondo, and has become a forward-looking designer in his own right. I for one am hoping he can get some horns back into that range real soon. I’m also hoping that with innovative new products like the more affordable Melius power amplifier the sound of Kondo Audio Note will reach a far broader audience than just the audio-jewellery set and the precious few. These latest, more affordable products aren’t just consolation prizes.