Factory: Audio Note - Japan
Tour Guide: Hiroshi Iwata
Audio Note is elusive. If you are an avid reader of cellulose hifi magazines, you may have read appraisals from those top-class reviewers. Perhaps their product's unbelievable price tags are one of the mystifying factors: a tubed power amplifier with a 80,000 USD price tag!
Audio Note is confusing, also. There are Audio Notes in England and in Japan; the two used to be a single company but recently separated into independent enterprises for some reason. The product line and the name are, therefore, very close to each other.
Audio Note Japan's (ANJ hereinafter) existence is not familiar even for audiophiles living here in Tokyo, Japan. I knew the name and the high reputation of their tube amplifiers from those high-end audio magazines.
Since ANJ rarely places advertising in our domestic cellulose mags, therefore, the only clue we have is the ANJ website (which is written in English language only).
Anyhow, so as to figure out where the company's headquarters are, I paid a visit to their website and found that Audio Note is only a ten-minute ride away from my office! After exchanging a few e-mails, Kondo-San ("San" is a post fix close to "Mr"; a popular way of calling somebody in a polite but not bookish fashion) agreed to share with us a few hours on some Saturday afternoon. Now, here's the factory tour report on Audio Note - enjoy it.
As you can see from the picture, Audio Note Japan's factory (on the second floor of the building) is nowhere close to being a flashy high-tech premises. On the contrary, it's a humble, small "atelier" located at inconspicuous neighborhood in the outskirts of Tokyo. Walking down to the factory, I see no gate or shining company name plaque; only a hand-written designation in Japanese on a red-painted tin mailbox indicates that it really is the Audio Note factory.
Knocking on the door, young ANJ staffers and Kondo-San welcomed me. They were wearing blue working jackets that are quite popular among Japan's many and varied manufacturing facilities. Kondo-San took me to the show room-cum-audition room situated at the far left of the floor.
The racks on the left-hand side wall contain a range of preamplifiers, tape recorders, analog disc players, CD players and ANJ's new DAC, and so on. At the center of the room are YL horn drivers and ANJ 46cm woofers. Aside from being ANJ's boss, Kondo-San also runs Yoshimura Sound Labs (YL), Japan's foremost horn-driver manufacturer.
After the founding engineer's sudden death, the YL was on the verge of going out of business. As a YL user, Kondo-San understood the importance of YL legacy and raised his hands to rescue the labs in 1981. Since then, Kondo-San produces and repairs YL horns and driver units. The gold-colored HF driver horns atop the wooden midrange horns are actually sterling silver horns machined from a silver billet!
Finally, the world-famous Kondo tube amplifiers are situated right in front of me. The X-60 monaural amplifiers use 300Bs in parallel push-pull configuration; these monsters are intended to drive ANJ's 38cm and 46cm woofers, churning out much more power than single-ended Audio Notes.
Before exploring Kondo-San's sound world, let's get a quick look at the factory. Right next to the showroom is Kondo-San's room where a range of printers flank a Macintosh G4 Cube. This is the place he edits ANJ News bulletins and exchanges e-mails.
The next room on the right is the machining room - ANJ product's are prototyped in this room. Right in the middle of the factory is the designing division (on the left bank) and the transformer-winding section (right). The last room at the far-right end is the main manufacturing room consisting of speaker voice coil winding section, capacitor and resistor manufacturing division, cartridge development section, and speaker assembly division.
Design section on the left and transformer production
division on the right. No joke!
Everything is crammed into a narrow single floor: an epitome of Japanese culture. No fancy stuff or classy decorations at all. It's pretty difficult to understand that one of the world's finest and most expensive tube amplifiers are created here. This isn't because Kondo-San is a stingy person, but he doesn't care about anything that's not useful for good sound.
So I asked Kondo-San about the gap between his product's steep prices and his humble factory. The answer was simple: he invests a huge amount of money into raw materials. The silver strings now used for ANJ's interconnects and speaker wires were in stock for nearly 20 years to get "age-anneal" effect. Can you guess how much it cost? I can't and really don't want to know.
Oda-San making ANJ's proprietary
Another reason that pushes an ANJ product's price tag up is the
firm's truly unique way of building amplifiers. Except for chassis and other
non-crucial components, ANJ makes anything that's important for sound. As he was
the first person to use silver wire for winding output transformers about 25
years ago, there were no dies for extruding silver wires. So, Kondo-San
hand-made his dies.
When he was not satisfied with the existing film capacitors, he made proprietary capacitors utilizing thin sterling-silver foils. Same thing applies for ANJ resistors. Kondo-San did actually close the entire factory for three weeks to finalize his latest creation: the tiny capacitor he's holding in his hand.
A brand-new capacitor that costed almost three working weeks
After sorting out the reasons for the gap between the ANJ factory and the product prices, I still had one very important question: how come Kondo-san figured out that silver wires sound better than copper lines?
The first Kondo amps did not sell very well. In the 1970s, he was a kind of celebrity among Japanese audiophiles through his articles regarding tubed amplifiers and monstrous four-way horn speaker systems. With unexpectedly low sales figures, Kondo-San was desperately looking for ways to boost sales. He already quit a stable job at CBS Sony's recording engineering division. And suddenly he hits upon a novel idea: "why not building a transformer with a silver wire?". It was just a hunch, because nobody has ever made such kind of transformer (as best he knew at that time). So he went down to a jewelry store and bought some sterling silver line that's usually used for decorating accessories. At first Kondo-San wound the transformer's primary section with the silver wire. The result was excellent. So he bought some more silver wire and made all-silver wire transformer. The new Kondo amplifier offered a truly unique sound, and started to be known as one of the world's finest pieces of sound equipment.
Now I understand some of the reasons why high-end audio aficionados love his creations. So I asked Kondo-San to let me audition his reference system.
About a couple of decades ago, I used a Lux SQ-38D, 12 watts-per-channel 6RA-8 tube integrated amplifier with Altec and Mitsubishi full-range speakers. I still clearly remember that the Lux did sound not bad, yet not quite good either. I had several occasions to listed to various tubed amplifiers ranging from push-pull to single-ended designs combined with a bunch of speakers. None were impressive, for some reasons. Therefore, I was a little bit biased for the full Audio Note system's reproduction capabilities.
How did it sound, actually? Simply amazing. The first analog disc Kondo-San played was his reference: Toscanini/NBC SO playing Tchaikovsky's symphony number six. It's a transcription of an old shellac recording which usually sounds very poor: very narrow frequency range as bad as AM radio broadcasting. Contrary to my expectations, I could hear the reverberations of Carnegie hall, the realistic surge of the horn section's tutti, and even the contrabasses were palpable. For your information, here's the Kondo system lineup: moving coil cartridge/IO-J; step-up transformer/SFZ; turntable/Thorens TD320-3; tonearm/SME3012; power amplifier/X-60 (300B parallel push-pull); speakers/Rughy 4; speaker cable/KSL-SPZ.
Still being skeptical, I asked Ashizawa-San (acoustic development manager) to play some of my reference CDs (The analog playback units were substituted by Luxman CD transport with M7-2K DAC and KSL-LP1 interconnects). I've brought a variety of favorite CDs with me, and I chose Jazz-oriented ones to make contrasts with Kondo-san's selection. My first choice was Spencer Brewer's "Redweed Nocturne" from "Narada Smooth Jazz". I believe this song is one of the finest driving music, but its sound quality, especially the blast of top cymbal, is poor - distorted perhaps because of over-levelling. Unexpectedly, the all-Kondo system played the cymbal poor as it should be. Nothing added, nothing subtracted - good. Next tune was Steely Dan's "What a Shame About Me" from the "Two Against Nature". Walter Becker's lead electric guitar was very persuasive, palpable and the sound image popped out from the speakers.
The Ruthy 4 is a simple two-way speaker comprising of a 1-inch dome tweeter with a silver diaphragm (!) and a 20cm full-range midbass unit. Both units are essentially hand-made like other ANJ products: hand-woven coils, hand-fitted edge, and ALNICO magnets are built by Kondo-San and 3 guys at the factory. Ruthy 4's crossover topology is bare minimum: an ANJ's proprietary silver-foiled capacitor is used for high-passing the tweeter. I do extensive tests of crossover topology (both passive and active) these days and know the difficulty of first-order passive crossovers: it is prone to tweeter overstroke and distorted sound above a certain loudness. Also the phase-angle differences between the units usually result in coloration. I could not sense distortion from the tweeter, however, the trumpet, I'm quite used to its sound, became slightly larger than its sound image (Herb Alpert on "Flirtation" from his "Second Wind" album). Also the Ruthy 4 is not the best speaker in regards of reproducing "air" - I guess the silver tweeter rolls off rather sharply beyond 15kHz (my Focal TC90tdx does it very well).
Overall, Kondo-San's reference system did sound beautiful. So beautiful that I didn't care for the mechanical stuffs and simply enjoyed the music played. This is a very rare situation; only those wizards like Kondo-San can realize this level of musical pleasure. I just can't imagine a person like him: can you imagine a guy with Enzo Ferrari's ability to build finest machineries and can drive like Ayrton Senna, with race-managing skills of Michael Schumacher?
Even a wiz like Kondo-San is not perfect. He's 100% dedicated to reproducing his ideal sound, and it makes him indifferent to other things. Such as product designation. The X-60 amplifier is the commemoration of his 60th birthday; the Fuji, another amplifier is named after Kondo-San's friend's doggy; Ruthy (seems like a misspelling of Lucy) is the name of another friend's cat. Inconsistent with the existing names like Kegon, Ongaku and so on.
He is nonchalant with the brochure, too. The Ongaku integrated amplifier comes with no owner's manual and the like; a written certificate (a piece of paper, actually) from ANJ is the only thing you'll find in the super-expensive amplifier's box.
There are several Audio Note logotypes: the "AN" logo maybe you've seen before belongs to ANUK over the U.S. and EU markets except for Austria (ANJ is the right holder in this country). There's a spelled-out version of "Audio Note" logo; also there are YL horn motif plus Audio Note logo and YL Horn motif fitted with Kondo logo.
I have asked Kondo-San to straighten up these minute things, so his literature may become a little bit easier to figure out. Let's wait and see, for the ANJ catalog is due out this summer.
If you think this report on ANJ is biased, you may be right. Whether I erred or not is not important at all; whether you've auditioned a Kondo system or not makes a crucial difference in your life. If not, contact the ANJ dealership in your country and ask them for audition. The best way to experience the Kondo sound is by flying down to Tokyo, visiting the Audio Note factory and seeing Kondo-San. Be sure to send an e-mail to Kondo-San and book your own factory tour.
© Copyright 2001 Hiroshi Iwata - http://www.tnt-audio.com
HTML: Michael McDonald
How to print this article